Of all the potential uses for white chocolate, only three are compelling enough to be inarguable: As a nickname for Jason Williams, the sickest behind-the-back passer ever to wear an NBA uniform. As a heart-shaped, foil-wrapped symbol of tween-age puppy love. And as the base agent of a medicinal suppository—though technically that’s just the cocoa butter part, whose melting point just below body temperature accounts for white chocolate’s velvety quick-thaw act in the mouth. Maybe you can make a case for it as a minor component of a vast petit-four spread. But really, that’s it.
[sidebar]The guys at Mica, though, play by different rules. In its first two months, under the direction of Blackfish’s Chip Roman and ex-Lacroix chef Jason Cichonski, this tiny kitchen in Chestnut Hill injected white chocolate into coconut-milk panna cottas, paired it with rhubarb and black pepper streusel, scattered it (in powdered form) on celery crème brûlée in one course, then on scallops and hearts of palm in another. It was rarely much more than a garnish’s worth, but that just made it harder to ignore. You could eat 200 dinners in a row without so much as a whiff of the stuff, but four finely wrought courses here (not to mention the seven-course tasting option) would have you and your date playing a white-chocolate variant of that Kevin Bacon guessing game. It starred with rhubarb in dessert, and rhubarb played a supporting role in that foie gras terrine …
And while things never went quite that far at Mica (which takes its name from the crystals that sparkle in the neighborhood’s great blocks of Wissahickon schist), there’s something to be said for a style of cooking that can give flight to such fantasies. That scallop dish, touched with tart gooseberries and horseradish, benefited from a bone-dry powder that gushed into sweet liquid upon contact with the tongue. The all-in celery of the crème brûlée—from stem to seeds—begged for some sort of mellowing counterpoint, and got it.
It takes a sure hand to make small details stand out so vividly, and Cichonski (who signed on as Roman’s opening chef with the intention of departing for a forthcoming restaurant in Center City, at which point Roman plans to start splitting time between Blackfish and Mica) did it over and over again. There were Spanish-style baby octopus arms seasoned with grated bacon on a plate dotted with apricot sauce. Smoked salmon was paired with whipped sunchoke and mustard-seed crackers. Duck breast came with a crispy brick of wild rice that, alone, neatly split the difference between space-age gastronomy and prairie-style wholesomeness.
Still, subtlety and restraint do live in this understated dining room, where asparagus-green wainscoting rises most of the way up cream-colored walls, and servers keep the water glasses wet but otherwise mainly speak only when spoken to. The cooking is of a piece with that ethos: clean, healthful and, despite the occasional chem-lab flourish, more about refinement than swagger.
Most of the time, it works. I loved the chilled pea soup, whipped into a froth that climbed a mound of sashimi-grade amberjack. When you get halibut this lovely, a buttery foam is all it requires, sure. But occasionally I yearned for something a little gutsier than, well, white chocolate. Not to harp on it, but four encounters with an ingredient as meek as that insipid confection represents three squandered chances to sing a more full-throated song.
Mica came closer to that in one of the weekly themed menus Roman has instituted on Wednesdays. Cichonski dished up house-cured lamb belly with crispy fingerling potatoes and powdered sesame oil—which, like the white chocolate, turned to liquid on the tongue, but here was actually worthy of the gimmick. This was followed by lamb-and-olive ravioli atop a slick of mashed banana. It wasn’t exactly a juxtaposition I’d have dreamed up, and it never quite overcame its oddness, but you’ve got to respect a real cleat-twisting swing for the center-field stands. And besides, it would’ve taken an emulsion of vinegar and Quikrete to ruin ravioli as good as these.
If there’s more where that came from, Roman’s Philly debut has huge promise. True, there are wild cards at play (Cichonski’s impending departure and Roman’s ability to bounce between his Conshohocken and Chestnut Hill addresses both loom large), but show me a restaurant whose first year wasn’t a tap dance through a minefield of potential disasters and I’ll show you a restaurant that never took any chances, never swung for the fences, and never even dreamed of playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with a lump of white chocolate, some rhubarb and a crème brûlée.