Sea urchin, bone marrow, lamb’s tongue: Ansill is a delicious education in adventurous eating.
You see them standing on the sidewalk outside Ansill, squinting at the posted menu and shaking their heads, and you know what they’re saying.
What kind of menu is this? No salmon fillet, no New York strip? No roasted chicken, no crabmeat, no shrimp? Who wants to eat eggs for dinner? And what the hell is quark?
They have come to the Queen Village corner where Judy’s Cafe dished up bohemian comfort food for three decades, only to find that meatloaf stuffed with spinach and provolone doesn’t live here anymore. When owner David Ansill and chef Kibett Mengech drew up their adventurous small-plates menu, they left off most of the foodstuffs beloved by picky eaters, preferring instead to noodle around with bottarga (dried tuna roe), sea urchin, duck eggs, lamb’s tongue, bone marrow, speck (similar to prosciutto) and quark (soft cow’s-milk cheese that tastes like a yogurt/sour cream hybrid). Familiar things are presented in unfamiliar ways, such as the veal osso buco, served sandwich-style on brioche, with pickled garlic and preserved lemon substituting for conventional gremolata. The restaurant opened without a steak, but Ansill caved to demand and added a grilled hanger cut with roasted shallot/red wine sauce. I’d urge you to skip it and try something more intriguing, except it’s awfully good.
It’s gratifying to see restaurant excitement return to the South Street neighborhood, in recent years better known as the home of Zipperhead and Condom Nation. In this case, it’s not developers driving the trend, but individual businesses such as Gayle, Southwark, Django, the refurbished Famous 4th Street Deli, and the new, upscale-vegetarian Horizons. Ansill is the edgiest entrant in this classy field, and my favorite among them.
Timid palates might be taking a pass on Ansill, but epicures and off-duty chefs are streaming in, making for a truly convivial eat-at-the-bar crowd. The carved-wood bar with a graceful Art Nouveau motif is a focal point in the sleek dining room, brightened by tall windows and a view of Bainbridge Street. Simple wooden tables and chairs are the only furnishings that remain from the previous regime.
This is a homecoming for Ansill, 47, who worked as a prep cook at Judy’s 20 years ago and now owns Pif, a French bistro in the Italian Market. Mengech, a 32-year-old native of Kenya, came to Philadelphia to study art history at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with Ansill at Lucy’s Hat Shop and later at the Continental, and learned the nuances of upscale cuisine at Striped Bass, Le Bec-Fin and the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia.
Ansill’s menu changes often, but never lacks for choices. I counted more than 40 dishes priced from $4 to $16, all good, some truly memorable. Braised boar belly was one of the special ones, an elongated piece of scrumptious fat with a pinch of tasty meat clinging to it, draped over mustard spaetzle. Pork belly, a similar but less costly product, is now substituting for the boar, and quark, which has a rather neutral flavor, has replaced mustard in the spaetzle. Velvety duck prosciutto, cured in-house, is served with shelled pistachios or Marcona almonds. I almost didn’t order the roasted red and yellow peppers with pine nuts and crumbled goat cheese, figuring it was too mainstream, but the dish is a prime example of how appealing the simplest things can be.
Bite-size baby octopus, poached in a wine-water-vinegar bath for tenderizing, is grilled until the outside is caramelized and almost crunchy. Shirred eggs, baked with cream just long enough to firm the whites and keep the yolks runny, are elevated to something ambrosial with a nugget of foie gras and a few drops of truffle oil. Lamb’s tongue, chilled and sliced into neat rounds, is as pale as pork, yet tastes subtly of lamb.
The small-plate format can be confounding, particularly with this many possibilities. I usually start with a round of cold dishes, then move on to hot foods. Prices make it easy to order three small plates, or one larger one and two small ones. The friendly staff knows the menu and the wines, but sometimes neglects to exchange dirty dinner plates for clean ones between courses, a critical point if a table is tasting and sharing many things. The wine list is full of delightful, offbeat choices, with plenty of opportunities to try a glass of something before committing to a bottle.
Desserts are the province of Catherine Gilbert-Ansill, David’s wife. Chocolate pain de genes pairs a cocoa-almond cake with a pleasantly discordant vanilla-lime sauce; a round of vanilla cheesecake gets a provocative pinch of saffron as its crowning touch. I’ve saved the best for last: A grill-marked panino that oozes chocolate-hazelnut filling is the best dessert I’ve had all year.
Ansill recently began serving Saturday and Sunday brunch, with a more conservative menu than the one offered at dinner. There’s no quark on the Belgian waffle—at least, not yet.