Of all of Philadelphia’s multi-concept restaurateurs, Jose Garces might be the most original. Whether at Spanish-inspired Amada, Basque-inflected Tinto or boozy burger joint Village Whiskey, you never feel like you’re taking a ride on the New York-to-Philly three-year-trend-lag time machine. Garces’s food is modern without striving to be fashionable.
Garces Trading Company is his most ambitious concept yet, combining fancy-casual dining with a tastefully curated market (flowers, cheese, meats, vinegars), a DIY ethos (house-made bread and charcuterie, custom-roasted coffee), and Pennsylvania’s first in-restaurant wine store (whose presence is a bonus for BYO-ers, but has angered local restaurateurs, who say the PLCB is giving Garces an unfair leg up on the competition). The food meanders through Italy, France and Spain, and the wine store also emphasizes bottlings from those countries as well as Germany, many of them sold at this outlet exclusively.
On the plate, the Iron Chef has an artful way with color and composition. A rosy slab of house-made pâté, studded with green pistachios and set alongside a pot of -turmeric-yellow mustard, becomes a small still life on a rectangle of black slate. A hunk of grilled swordfish, set off by a red swoosh of romesco sauce and a green line of grilled scallions, is a study in contrast and geometry.
Both dishes were among the highlights of several recent meals at Garces. The pâté’s faint heat and gamey flavor were offset by the sweetness of star anise, while the swordfish — juicy, perfectly seasoned, with a blush of pink at the center—rose to the level of memorable. So did a fantastic fusilli carbonara, which melded rich pasta, pecorino and a fried egg into a creamy, peppery swirl that still offered brightness (peas) and crunch (crispy guanciale). An antipasto of slivered baby artichokes had preserved lemon and flakes of date, which served as a bracing acidic complement to the fattier flavors. Both the pasta sauce and the artichoke dressing demanded to be sopped up with bread, and I obliged. Classic deep-dish pizza — a nod to Garces’s Chicago roots — had a refreshingly thin crust that ceded the spotlight to generous toppings of roasted tomatoes and gooey mozzarella.
Still, there were missteps. Garces has a weakness for olive oil, which drowns too many of his dressings. A promising sandwich of bresaola, coppa, taleggio and preserved lemon was dominated by the lemon and by the throat-parchingly thick focaccia on which it was served (a mistake, our server informed us; normally it comes on a baguette). Garces trains his staff so diligently that sometimes you wish they’d mellow out a little, as I did after sitting through a long-winded spiel detailing what is essentially a self-explanatory menu. (“This is our pizza,” the waiter said, pointing at a section headed “Pizza.”) The service can have a didactic quality that smacks of up-selling (“We suggest you get some charcuterie or cheese to start”), though to be fair, the same waiter steered me away from the entrée portion of a pasta, which would have been too much food.
Although Garces Trading Company isn’t a small-plates concept the way the chef’s first restaurants were, he doesn’t seem to have entirely shaken off the tyranny of tapas. The pacing of courses during my meals was virtually nonexistent; even after I asked for some staggering of the dishes, and a waiter nodded reassuringly and said “Of course,” plates were soon arriving one on top of the other.
This isn’t a restaurant to build an evening around. Arguably, it’s not even a real restaurant. With the ring of commercial activity around the main seating area, you almost feel as if you’re eating in a glorified — though glamorous — food court, rather than in the transporting cocoon of a pure dining experience. But at Garces’s first BYO, you are spared the sticker shock of Amada and Tinto. If I lived in the neighborhood, I’d be here all the time.