Next time you’re at a BYOB, look around the dining room at the bottles of wine and beer perched atop the tables—it’s one of the most reliable indicators of how guests perceive the restaurant. Is it all liter-sized towers of cheap, bulk-produced bottles with kangaroos leaping across them, their technicolored tails visible across the room? Is it sixes of Bud Lite? Or does it seem as if guests have given some thought to what they’ll be drinking with dinner?
Great food is always better with a nice bottle of wine or beer sipped alongside it, and the most highly respected BYOBs tend to see the best bottles.
I bring this up because, on a recent visit to Will, I noticed some solid selections. And while not everyone had brought along something expensive—that’s never, ever an indicator of quality— a high proportion of the guests had opened up something interesting.
Smart move, because Will, the much-anticipated East Passyunk BYOB by the extraordinarily talented Chef Christopher Kearse, is as deserving of thoughtful drinking as any restaurant in town. To quote a restaurant-business friend of mine, “That Chris can cook!”
This is evident from the (seemingly) simplest to the more overtly complex dishes. Roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom sees its inherently earthy character distilled and highlighted through careful searing and additions of orange zest, garlic, thyme and shallots, as well as less expected hits of a spice blend of rose hips, sesame and sumac. As if that weren’t enough, he accompanies the mushroom with smoked ricotta (from neighbor Mancuso & Son), a Madeira puree, greens and black radish. The net result of all the love lavished on this mushroom is both heartfelt comfort and an underlying sense of discovery. It’s a fungal showstopper.
Other dishes, like the Barnegat Light scallops, are more overtly luxurious, but they never stray too far from their focus on—and respect for—the ingredients themselves, regardless of the classicism or adventurousness of the cooking techniques brought to bear on them. Those scallops wobble perfectly beneath their caramel-toned crown. Drag them through the “almond-milk” sauce and they’re taken to a different planet entirely—mouth-coating and delicate all at once. Fork them with a cloud of uni creme—like some kind of ocean-borne foie gras—and they turn into the mollusk equivalent of Ecstasy.
The pork belly appetizer could be the swine version of the drug. Like some kind of savory, thick-bacon candy bar, the belly was joined by a winter bean cassoulet that was actually a brilliant play on the classic stew. (Kearse’s ingenious, ringingly clear version involves a 12-hour sous vide braise of the beans.) “One thing I drill into my staff is, all [of this] comes from traditions and classics,” Kearse says.
That’s what is so remarkable about the food coming out of his kitchen: the range of styles in which it succeeds, and the deep, abiding respect for the flavors that inspired them. Poulard, for example, could easily fit on the menus of any of our city’s more overtly haute restaurants. Served as a sort of tutorial in the full range of pleasures that the bird can provide, the plate includes an insanely tender sous vide breast, legs a la presse, tenderloin mousse and an elegant liver pate. Joined by a Riesling- and creme fraiche-accented jus, this is to standard-issue poultry as Jon Gruden would likely be to Andy Reid.
White miso cavatelli—toothy, dense and delicious—was paired with silky butternut squash that found its flavor opposite in the perfectly calibrated black garlic painted across the plate and lying in wait beneath the pasta.
All of this ambition is realized in a space that harkens back to the classic style of the Philly BYOB—utterly devoid of pretension and as casual as it is unselfconsciously sophisticated. Service is confident and well-choreographed, and the pacing of the meal is just right, from bread service to dessert. The Brooklyn blackout cake should be on everyone’s list this winter, as should the ginger- carrot cake, a transportingly spiced serving made even more exotic with laurel ice cream.
Not too long ago, there were grumblings around town that our BYOB culture had lost some of its verve. There’s a new crop of them, however, that stand as a delicious refutation of those concerns, and Will—new as it is—has already joined the top echelon in the city.
I’ll raise a glass of good wine or beer to that any day.
1911 E. Passyunk Ave. 215.271.7683. willbyob.com
Cuisine type: Inspired by France, but never beholden to it.
Hours: Tues.-Thurs. and Sun., 5:30-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11pm.
Price range: $8-$27, with special prix-fixe and tasting menus on specific days.
Atmosphere: Casual and elegant.
Food: From deceptively simple to overtly complex, the flavors and presentations here are remarkable.
Service: Confident and very well-informed.