“Steak frites, please. Medium rare.” The words tumbled out of my mouth with all the weight of a commandment, an incantation that would invoke the start of one of the most wonderful and highly anticipated meals of my life as a food writer so far. Was it really that good? Absolutely! Should you go there for dinner? Yes! Go right now. Take me with you.
Stephen Starr opened Parc on Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia nearly a year ago, on July 14, 2008 – Bastille Day. Offering seating for close to 300 patrons, with additional space for 75 more at the sidewalk tables, Parc instantly evokes memories of its mainstay Parisian counterparts, the brasseries that remain crowded and brightly lit, stoves hot and ready to serve, well into the depths of the post-midnight hours. Having fondly missed Paris almost every day since returning from our vacation five years ago, Parc has been cemented to the top of my to-do list for a very long time.
And a long time it has certainly been. I have made seven unsuccessful attempts to have dinner at Parc – that’s how many times we’ve found ourselves in Philadelphia and somehow managed to eat somewhere else, either due to convenience of location or at the behest of the people we were visiting. Our busy schedules keep us from driving down to the city “just because”, so whenever we’re in town, we’re in town for a reason.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I saw a spontaneous window of opportunity open up on Saturday, with just myself and my wife, plus the addition of the inimitable Amy Shields from the profoundly fabulous superband Mojo and the Helper Monkeys. We were hungry, we were downtown, and we had nowhere else to be – so I seized the day like an obscure 80s movie reference.. “Parc! Parc! Parc!” I shouted as we navigated the narrow streets of the City of Brotherly Love. I think I may even have made up a song about Parc along the way. I was quivering with excitement, or maybe low blood sugar – either way, we were going, at long last, to have dinner at Parc!
We arrived early enough to have the fortune of being seated immediately. As we were led through the massive space, I was impressed at how authentic Parc felt – the layout, tiled floors, dark woods, and zinc bar were all reminiscent of classic bistros in Paris. We placed our drink orders, and, as I have practiced over and over in my head since first previewing the menu online, I ordered the steak frites. Listed on the menu as “seared hangar steak, maitre d’ butter”, the description is deceptively plain for a dish that, to be honest, requires a certain elevated measure of talent to pull off correctly. I’ve seen other restaurants offer steak frites, but compromise on the true interpretation by offering ribeye, or strip steak, or some other cut of beef that is more forgiving than hangar. If you’ve ever worked with it, you know that hangar steak is a naturally tough piece of meat, and if prepared inartfully, can turn a dining experience into an event only slightly better than chewing on a wallet.
While we were waiting for our food to arrive, our server brought a basket filled with an assortment of bread – French baguettes, hearty wheat slices, and raisin bread, all accompanied by a crock of softened butter. The bread, baked on the premises, presents a nice array of varied textures and flavors – the crusty, chewy baguette, the thick, grainy slabs of dark bread, and the sweetness of raisins tucked into a loaf that just yearns to see you return for breakfast.
The moment of truth arrived as my steak frites platter was placed in front of me. True to form, it was unmistakably hangar steak – no other cut of beef has that same muscular, fibrous quality, a look that makes you wonder if you should eat the steak or wear it as a vest. Brushed liberally with melted butter, parsley, a touch of garlic, and salt, the steak needed nothing else to become transformed into classic steak frites. I wielded my steak knife, held my fork firm, and was reassured to feel the knife glide effortlessly through the meat. Placing the first bite into my mouth, an act that I had looked forward to for close to a year, yielded an astounding burst of gamey flavor and a tenderness that approached filet mignon in its delicacy, but with the characteristic chew that can only come from true hangar steak. I’ve had steak frites in Paris; this was no mere replication of that dish, no homage – this was truly a genuine steak frites in every sense. The fries, slender, golden, dusted with sea salt, were served with an aioli for dipping. The plate oozed with decadence, each bite as rewarding, flavorful, and satisfying as the first. And, just like that, it was gone.
Other dishes proved just as skillfully executed and true to form. A Trout Amandine presented perfectly cooked, delicate white flesh, adorned with slivers of almond toasted in butter and a splash of lemon. Unapologetically French, there is little on the menu at Parc that would classify as light fare – even a Salade Lyonnaise comes draped with a poached egg. But the poached egg is not alone, as it’s paired with lardons, that wonderful gift of salty, smokey pork fat. It’s bacon taken to the next level and beyond.
As is typical with any outstanding restaurant experience, I’ve already assembled a mental hit list of menu items that I need to try on my next visit. As the last dish that I enjoyed before leaving Paris, it is imperative that I sample the escargot, if only to have an opportunity to relive that memory again. A charcuterie platter was a generous pile of cured meats, accompanied by pate and chicken liver mousse, presented on a wooden cutting board. The onion soup gratinee, along with a glass of wine, would make for a wonderful midday lunch. And was that steak tartare that I spied on an adjoining table?