Philadelphia's dining scene continues to bear winning fruit

Avance is in a space that once held a standard-bearer for haute cuisine, Le Bec-Fin. Avance is contemporary in every way, from the living green wall over the front door to the unadorned black walnut tables. (Steve Legato)

The stars continue to align for Philadelphia’s flourishing dining scene.

Nicholas Elmi, chef-owner of the hot new BYOB Laurel, has won the latest season of “Top Chef.” He’s the second Philly chef to claim the title of the Bravo reality competition. Kevin Sbraga, who won in 2010, now operates two restaurants, including the recently opened Fat Ham, a small-plates, Southern-style concept.

Meanwhile, “Iron Chef’ Jose Garces has added to his growing empire a Cuban-style diner called Rosa Blanca and is preparing to debut Volver, a high-end restaurant-bar in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

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Two chefs with strong New York credentials have launched buzzworthy spots: Peter Serpico, a former chef at Momofuku Ko, is presiding over the open kitchen of his eponymous pan-Asian restaurant on South Street. In December, Justin Bogle, who earned two Michelin stars at New York’s Gilt, unveiled Avance, a “progressive” American in a storied location: the Rittenhouse Row building that long housed Le Bec-Fin, for years the local standard-bearer for haute cuisine.

A third former New Yorker, Eli Kulp, the chef of Old City’s Fork, has extended his partnership with co-owner Ellen Yin to include High Street on Market, a casual cousin next door showcasing his signature pastas. Together they’ll soon be running the culinary show at a.kitchen and a.bar at AKA Rittenhouse Square, an upscale long-term-stay hotel.

The presence of these chefs in kitchens around the city — and most do cook on a regular basis — signals the local scene’s continuing evolution into a less formal style of fine dining. “There have definitely been changes in demographics, and what people want, and what they’re willing to try,” Sbraga says.

The South Jersey native used his “Top Chef” win to create his eponymous restaurant in a splashy high-rise condominium building on the Avenue of the Arts. Sbraga the restaurant offers a four-course modern American tasting menu for $49 whose signature dish is an Asian-spiced, feathery light foie gras soup, contrasting with the industrial-chic styling, lower prices and more rustic menu at his follow-up in University City. “Philadelphians want to eat good food without a fuss,” he says. “It’s a growing trend across the United States.”

Elmi has followed up his “Top Chef” experience by thinking very small — his storefront restaurant has only 22 seats. The location on the budding restaurant row on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia made perfect sense after Elmi’s previous stops at the now-defunct, more corporate Rittenhouse Tavern and as the final chef under Le Bec-Fin’s legendary Georges Perrier.

The dinner-only Laurel, which has won accolades for dishes, such as its raw albacore tuna with horseradish, shallot and Asian pear and its delicate ricotta gnocchi with pancetta, sourdough bread crumbs and garlic, is completely booked through late spring.

“We wanted to do a very food-focused restaurant, and wanted to make sure we could give everybody personal attention,” Elmi says. “I can spread my wings now. People come in, and they just want me to cook.”

The stakes are equally high in a different way for Bogle, a Philly native who made his name in New York before returning to take the keys to 1523 Walnut St., which housed Le Bec-Fin for 30 years.

Having first encountered the intimidating French restaurant as a teenager, when he would come downtown to skateboard, Bogle knew better than to try to compete with Perrier’s legacy. He agreed to take over the space only if he could remake everything, from the formal dining room with its crystal chandeliers and white tablecloths to the food.

“Le Bec-Fin was Georges Perrier — I wanted nothing to do with it,” Bogle says. “One of the biggest obstacles is overcoming preconceived ideas of what’s behind the door.”

Avance is contemporary in every way, from the living green wall over the front door to the unadorned black walnut tables in the main dining room to the seasonally driven menu, which includes such items as a Berkshire pork neck that’s been brined for 48 hours and is paired with Carolina Gold grits and sea beans, and a lamb burger on house brioche served only in the bar. “The food is specific to who I am as a chef,” Bogle says. “We use modern techniques, but we let the products speak for themselves. We’re not here to fog out the tables with liquid nitrogen.”

Also a former New Yorker, Serpico came to Philly amid high expectations, but he plays off the pressure.

His entree to the scene has come via a partnership with nationally known restaurateur Stephen Starr, who also owns Washington’s Le Diplomate. Despite cooking in plain sight in his open kitchen, Serpico prefers the attention to be focused on what’s on the plate. His creations include ravioli made from dried Cope’s corn, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, and raw diver scallops in a spicy buttermilk-poppy seed-green yuzu kosho preparation.

“I understand my name is on the building, but I don’t want it to be about me,” Serpico says. “I don’t wear a chef coat, and I don’t have my name on my jacket — I don’t want that attention. I rarely go out and talk to tables. I just like cooking. It’s not me trying to be rude — I feel like I can speak to people better through food.”

For Garces, an established star via his run on “Iron Chef” whose group owns and operates 15 restaurants nationwide, his latest project will allow him to do both; he will be on the line at Volver on a regular basis for the first time in many years, leading the proceedings in a theater-style open kitchen.

Volver, which will have just 34 seats in the dining room, will offer globally inspired tasting menus nightly that are sold by the ticket in tables of two, four or six. There will also be a lounge specializing in champagne and caviar.

“It’s a stage I’ve wanted to have for a long time,” Garces says. “We’re calling it cooking theater, like a performance. The kitchen is the stage, and our audience is right in front of us.”

The idea of appearing on this new culinary platform dates from Garces’s first restaurant, Old City’s Amada, which had a small chef’s counter. “It’s just come full circle, and to be able to do it in this setting in the Kimmel Center, and to have the resources to do whatever I wanted, is really satisfying,” he says.

DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and a founder of TheCityTraveler.com.