Parc, Finally

“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?

June 23, 2009   Comments

Memories of Django: The Story So Far

Is it possible for a restaurant to break your heart?

Seven years ago, or thereabouts, a tiny storefront tucked away off of Philadelphia’s eclectic South Street was transformed into Django, a BYOB that would go on to revolutionize small bistro dining in a city notorious for its ridiculous markups on wine.

Owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy, Django enchanted diners with its homey atmosphere, superb service, and Sikora’s outstanding and innovative cuisine.  Django reaped the rewards, garnering Best New Restaurant and Best Chef in Philadelphia Magazine that year, along with a mention in Gourmet magazine, which contributed to regional and national recognition of the restaurant.  The best thing about this was that none of these accolades were hype – it was all very much deserved, corroborated by Sikora’s ability to turn out excellent fare and Olexy’s masterful command of cheese selection and front-of-the-house management.  Whenever you see a cheese plate in Philadelphia today, it’s because of her influence.

As word spread and the restaurant became more and more successful, weekend reservations became harder and harder to secure, and Django instituted a 30 calendar day rule for reservations, prompting many to hover over their redial buttons at 10am each morning, waiting for the magical window to open.  Even when we were successful at getting through to a live person, by the time we had reached the reservations desk the only available openings were frequently either 5:30pm or 10:30pm, which we gladly accepted.  Despite having countless other amazing restaurants in the city to choose from, whenever we had to schedule a special occasion dinner, or had out-of-towners coming to visit, there was never a question where we would go.  Over the next few years, we racked up a nice collection of anniversary and birthday dinners at Django, and made it a point to stagger reservations across each of the four seasons, just to see what changes would come to the menu.

Then one day, Sikora and Olexy sold Django and left Philadelphia.  On the heels of the birth of their first child, they had decided to give up the daily hustle of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, cashed in their chips, and rode off into the sunset.  It was a classic Michael Jordan move, retiring at the top of your game.  Our hearts crumbled, with our remorse only magnified by a visit to the restaurant after the deal was done, when we discovered that Django the Great had, with the departure of the original owners, become Django the Very Good.  Sikora and Olexy were the heart and soul of Django, and when they left, much of that heart and soul went with them, and the establishment felt more like a business than the personal experience that it once was.  It was still a very good bistro, but there hung a very palpable void in the absence of Sikora in the kitchen and Olexy in the front of the house.  Lacking the personal touch that was the hallmark of the “old” Django, the restaurant soon faded into the rushing waters of the BYOB scene that it had originally pioneered.  Today, I’m sure that it’s still a good bistro, but in a town now filled with BYOB bistros, it no longer stands above the fray.

After their departure, months passed, and there were rumors here and there, of Sikora and Olexy relocating to New Jersey, or perhaps clear across the state to Pittsburgh.  Their absence from the Philadelphia BYOB scene was quickly filled by more and more new and upcoming bistros offering homey atmospheres served by small kitchen staff, profiting on the template that Django had originated.  Still, after having tried a few, we were still not swayed from our opinion that Django did it first, and Django did it best.  We had all but written off seeing the duo back on the food scene when, to my surprise, I heard that Sovana, a small bistro in the heart of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, mere minutes from Philadelphia, had acquired a new chef named Bryan Sikora.

So, on the occasion of my wife’s birthday two years ago, or thereabouts, we trekked through the lush valleys of the Mushroom Capital of the World, along small winding country roads and shot straight past Sovana, which is located in a small shopping center, facing inward.  Turning the car around, we managed to find it fairly quickly and arrived shortly after the 4:30 start time for the dinner service.  Sovana does not require reservations, and the outgoing voice message states that they would always honor walk-ins, although it would be possible to make a reservations request.

My first viewing of the menu felt like a culinary homecoming.  I saw menu items that I thought I would never see again after the end of the Sikora/Olexy era at Django.  Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Wild Boar Ragu, the best dishes that ever graced the menus of Django were now at Sovana, and largely retained the same qualities that made them such standout successes at Django.  The space, with a high-ceilinged industrial vibe, took some getting used to, but the meals that we had enjoyed with such enthusiasm were still there.  To be sure, there was definitely a different feel to Sovana than Django, as Bryan Sikora was now an employee, not an owner, Aimee Olexy was nowhere to be seen in this new endeavor, and the staff went about their duties with businesslike efficiency.  The no-reservations policy did yield some visits when we were relegated to waiting at the bar for over an hour, but overall our experience at Sovana was good, though not as good as Django.

We managed to have three meals at Sovana before the wheels of change turned again.  A subsequent call to the restaurant some months later yielded a hostess, obviously new to the position, who was unfamiliar with Sikora’s name.  She checked, and there was no “Bryan Sikora” working at Sovana, not anymore.  And the void came rushing back, although, seeing that Sovana never came close to achieving the approachability of the original Django, it hurt far less this time around.

This time, though, it was not too long after Sikora’s departure from Sovana that there were some news items regarding the next chapter of their endeavors – a small gourmet shop in downtown Kennett Square, right on Main Street, in a location that formerly housed a shoe store.  Delays and the usual hassles of opening a business meant staring at an “under construction” version of the shop’s website for weeks past the anticipated opening date.  But waiting for the shop to open was better than not having any news at all.

In 2007, on a blustery winter day when the warm rays of summer are a mere memory, and the thaws of spring not even a thought on the horizon, Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy debuted their new gourmet shop named after their daughter, Talulah’s Table.  Like Deadheads following the band, we just had to go and check it out, especially since the shop is only a pretty 30 minute drive through the countryside from where we live.

One of the things that’s particularly appealing about Kennett Square, and about small town centers in general, is the fact that the main drag is not a collection of franchises like Burger King and Starbucks.  Main Street in Kennett Square consists of a variety of small, independently owned shops and eateries, and makes for a nice strolling afternoon, provided it’s not 20 degrees out.  Which, on this particular afternoon, it was, and we had to hop over mounds of ice and snow to get to the front door from the car.

Talulah’s Table falls in line with the general Kennett Square aesthetic, and the first thing that you notice when you walk into the shop is that comfortable, homey feeling about the place, with a preponderance of wood floors and shelves and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee.  This effect lasts for all of about five seconds, before you dive headlong into exploring all that Sikora and Olexy have to offer in their latest spot.  In general, the merchandise is displayed on wooden shelves lining both sides of the room, with the coffee/pastry bar and register taking up the front of the rectangular space, with small coolers offering cold drinks and grab-and-go sandwiches next to it.  There are sections of the store dedicated to jarred items, chocolate, dried pasta, various oils – the typical items that you would expect to find in a gourmet shop.  It’s a place where you could stop by every so often to stock up on high end items, or find yourself there every morning grabbing a coffee and danish before heading off to work, or even every evening, picking up the components for dinner.

Things get more interesting as you head towards the back of the store.  On one side of the room are display shelves stocked with various breads and rolls, and next to that is a tap for olive oil – yes, you can bottle your own here.  A freezer case holds frozen house-made pasta and pasta sauces, and then as your eye follows the room in a counterclockwise fashion, you come upon the cheese display and your budget just flies out of the window.  I am so completely not kidding.

The display case at the back of the store, where Aimee Olexy’s hand-selected cheeses share space with her husband’s prepared food options, is the kind of display case that you would put on your desert island list, if your desert island had electricity, trees made from bread and crackers, and was surrounded by an ocean of red wine.  If she’s available, Olexy is more than happy to answer your questions about the cheeses, and will solicit your unique likes and dislikes in order to tailor her recommendations to your taste.  One of the best things we we ever did was to take the day off from work, drop by the shop, give Olexy a budget limit and just have her create a picnic basket of charcuterie and cheese.  That, and a baguette, made for one of the best lunches in the picnic area outside of Longwood Gardens.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned is the large oak table that resides in the center of the store.  When Talulah’s Table first opened, it had been announced that the table would be made available for private dinner functions, after the shop had gotten established and found its groove, and that was all that was said about that.  It would serve as an opportunity for Sikora to continue the tradition of a dinner service, but without the pressure of serving hundreds of courses each night.

Little did we know that, within a few short months, a seat at that table would be the hardest reservation to get in the United States.

Next Week: Part Two, Chasing Talulah’s Table

June 27, 2008   Comments