251 South 18th Street
Cuisine: Refined American.
Entrées: $15 to $29.
Nicholas Elmi is no stranger to the haunts of the landed gentry. Before becoming executive chef at the original Le Bec Fin (where he spent the past three years), he apprenticed in restaurants ranging from Lutèce and Daniel in Manhattan to Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris. But for the first 12 years he lived in Philadelphia, he had something in common with a lot of local gourmands: He’d never set foot inside the Art Alliance.
The Italian Renaissance mansion that is the erstwhile home of Gardenia, Le Jardin and Opus 251 has a way of making anyone not wearing a tailored jacket think twice about darkening its door. But with Rittenhouse Tavern, Elmi hopes to unbutton its reputation. The richly plumed birds in Richard Blossom Farley’s dining room mural now preside over bare tables of reclaimed wood upon which land deep-fried frog’s legs with banana pepper necklaces dangling from their slender femurs.
Those grenouilles jambes are also stuffed with cream cheese, by the way—straight-up jalapeño-popper style—but don’t untuck your shirt just yet. Elmi may tease you with Americana—fried chicken Sundays; deviled eggs with morsels of fried scrapple (cute as buttons, and about as big)—but only at the menu’s edges. In the main, his cooking here has enough refinement and restraint to fill an hour of Downton Abbey.
At an early dinner, it also felt staid (halibut in an excessively subtle broth; a mushroom soup far too timidly flavored with cacao nibs and walnut milk) and offered portions tuned to a Junior Leaguer bent on squeezing into last year’s St. John pencil skirt. But summer found Elmi breathing real personality into his creations. Plancha-seared octopus arms sprawled across a black smear of blood sausage, fermented garlic and squid ink—a brilliantly funky foil for the half-moons of apricot glistening above it. In a cool, minty potage of pureed romaine, spinach, cucumber, peas and dill, he had hidden a globe of horseradish ice cream between citrus-poached shrimps. It didn’t burn so much as sparkle.
The best pleasures weren’t even hinted at by the menu’s descriptions. A tingly top note of pink peppercorns on cold-pressed foie and plums, the water-crisp crunch of ice plant rounding out springtime scallops and peas, whiffs of burnt cinnamon haunting the fresh and pickled berries (and crispy thyme streusel) in a phenomenal blueberry/red wine dessert soup—such exquisite flourishes sometimes upstaged the main acts.
Better (and more damning) complaints, though, would be cocktails that lag badly behind Elmi’s creative lead, and wine markups brazen enough to make even blue blood boil. Still, if he can fix those, Elmi has a fair shot at making the Art Alliance a building people will think twice about walking past.