On a cool and pleasant August evening in Center City, on the ground floor of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, Rittenhouse Tavern promises to make for an impressive night out: After perusing the art gallery, it’s time to feast on a meal from former Le Bec-Fin chef Nicholas Elmi. The outdoor seating is sparse and lovely, the herb garden and hanging plants valiantly compensating for the fact that the eponymous park itself is not visible.
The staff is immediately attentive and helpful, making sure our water is filled, our bread basket runneth over. And our server is happy to help my companion choose dishes that are compatible with her non-meat-eating lifestyle. (Make a note of that. We’ll get back to it.)
First up, delicious and simple, are prosciutto-wrapped figs with gorgonzola and honey. Glazed and crispy on the outside, the figs’ sweetness is balanced by the salty crunch of the prosciutto wrap. Equally tasty and equally lovely to the eye are the roasted baby beets with goat cheese, pistachio and iceplant. The dish is striking, served in a deep white bowl that contrasts with the reds, pinks and yellows of the beets that swirl with the goat cheese. The beets are tender, fresh and flavorful without being overpowered by the cheese, which is mild and savory.
Moving on to the more adventurous deviled eggs with pork scrapple: I want to like them. I have fond childhood memories of scrapple that center around a crispy, smoky outside and a warm, hash-like inside, and while I don’t expect that kind of comfort food at a sophisticated restaurant, I do expect a taste that’s related. It’s just not there. But I am a proud Pennsylvanian, and I keep eating even though the first bite has an odd piece of gristle I have to swallow without chewing. More satisfying is the equally ambitious citrus-scented orecchiette pasta with lemongrass-braised snails, green almond and sea bean. The pasta is cooked al dente, and the sauce that pops with small bites of fresh citrus is the saving grace, offsetting the saltiness of the snails, which might also be fairly described as al dente.
The truffle-crusted veal loin comes highly recommended by our server. Granted, it’s the most expensive dish on the menu at $31, but its companions—fava beans, hearts of palm, strawberry and sweetbread—seem like a fresh, enticing mix. The sweetbread is crispy, lemony perfection on the outside, and tender, succulent and bursting with flavor on the inside. The tender veal relies on the squid-ink-and-truffle-infused chicken mousse for flavor. Speaking of squid, though neither the menu nor the server mentioned it, two curled tentacles sit hidden amongst the veggies, almost a garnish, so I wonder for a moment if they’ve crawled their way onto my plate accidentally. Similarly surprising: a smattering of peppercorns, which go unnoticed in a quiet corner of the dish until my eyes begin watering.
The next dish is a doozy: five large day-boat sea scallops, perfectly seared on top with a golden-brown crisp sitting in a heavy-handed amaranth truffle butter sauce with fresh and tender chanterelles and turnips that stand on their own. They are gorgeous, rich and delicious. And their inclusion in our meal comes as a result of my companion’s request for an entrée fit for a pescatarian. Which is why, the next day, when I call to double-check the ingredients, I’m startled to learn that they the scallops were topped with a vanilla foie gras froth.
Foie gras, made from duck or goose liver, is considered unpleasant by many who’ve chosen not to eat meat for philosophical reasons. It’s the kryptonite of vegetarians—and it wasn’t detailed on the menu. So I have to ask the chef why an avowed-meat-free patron ended up having it recommended to her. Chef Elmi immediately apologized, taking full responsibility: While he doesn’t list every tiny ingredient on the menu, he does train the front-house staff to be well-versed in dealing with customer allergies and other food preferences, and he shouldn’t have allowed there to be any communication gap regarding such a delicate ingredient. “This was definitely an oversight,” Elmi says. “A mistake that won’t happen again.
Fortunately, my friend says it didn’t completely overshadow her experience (though it was certainly a reminder to always be diligent when ordering food). So she won’t have to forswear Rittenhouse’s perfect, summer-in-the-country-inspired desserts. The cherry-graham-cracker tarte with crisp and bright lemon confit and creamy pistachio ice cream satisfies with a healthy crunch of real nuts. And the complimentary squares of chili-and-sea-salted fudge that accompany our check almost make up for the secret foie gras-frothed scallops.
There are obviously some growing pains here. But what Rittenhouse Tavern gets right every time is fresh produce that’s not messed with—and executing perfectly simple, tasty dishes.
251 S. 18th St. 215.732.2412. rittenhousetavern.com
Cuisine: Fresh and seasonal
Hours: Lunch, Tues.-Fri. 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Tues. - Thurs. 5p.m. - 10p.m., Fri. - Sat. 5p.m. - 11p.m., Sun. 5p.m. - 9p.m. Brunch, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Price Range: $5-$31.
Atmosphere: Take advantage of the outdoor patio garden.
Food: Fresh and seasonal; stick to the basics.
Service: Pleasant and attentive.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014