Eric Ripert — yes, the silver-haired, French-accented chef who’s the talent behind New York’s famed Le Bernardin — is standing in Sonny D’Angelo’s butcher shop, a generous sample of whisper-thin, blush-colored wild boar prosciutto spread across a butcher block in front of him. As he tastes the supple, subtle meat, Ripert slowly closes his eyes and nods his head twice, first slowly, then sharply. His eyes pop open, and he reaches for another sliver of the Italian Market-made prosciutto, almost bouncing in his black Nikes. “We have to have this in the restaurant,” he says. “We have to have this in the restaurant. This is Philadelphia.”
What is Philadelphia? Or, more importantly, what is a Philadelphia restaurant? That’s what Eric Ripert needed to find out before opening 10 Arts in the Ritz-Carlton last month. A Frenchman turned New Yorker, he’d never spent any time in Philadelphia. So on August afternoons last summer — months before he’d be followed and photographed making the same tour through the Reading Terminal Market for PR purposes — he took long walks from the Ritz, down Restaurant Row, through the Italian Market and to most of Stephen Starr’s restaurants. It was a crash course in Philadelphia flavors — a pretzel at Fischer’s, ice cream from Bassetts, his first cheesesteak at Jim’s (with provolone and onions; “Tastes like bolognese,” Ripert said, patting his stomach), salsa at El Vez, hummus at Bitar’s, and course after course at restaurants like Amada and Le Bec-Fin. It was also a crash course in Philadelphia culture, as Ripert questioned waitstaff on everything from the PLCB to the Phillies.
Ripert’s interest is an unexpected gesture from a big-name chef who could easily woo Philadelphians simply by attaching his name to this restaurant (and certainly without claiming a condo in the new Ritz-Carlton residences). Which may be why as he walked, always looking upward, to absorb the architecture, he was stopped every few blocks. “Chef,” Caribou Café owner Olivier de Saint Martin said, spotting Ripert on Walnut Street, “we’re glad you are here.”
Five trips to Philadelphia gave him insight into the city’s sometimes quirky appetites, Ripert says. They led to experiments with ingredients likely never before seen in the Le Bernardin kitchens — for instance, Tastykake vanilla cupcakes that pastry chef Michael Laiskonis spun into an elaborate pineapple and coconut dessert. And the visits convinced Ripert he had to put trout (in a hazelnut-brown butter sauce) and rabbit (with Dijon) on the dinner menu. “I love trout and rabbit. I’m French. But I couldn’t sell those in New York.”
“This restaurant is about this place,” Ripert repeats in January, standing beside his chef de cuisine, Philadelphia-born Jennifer Carroll, in the gutted Ritz-Carlton rotunda. There are few more dramatic and essentially Philadelphian spaces than the former bank building, and that fits Ripert’s approach: “First I look at the ambience, then at the details.” But when 10 Arts — “The name needs a sense of place,” Ripert says — finally opened last month, the menu had, most strongly, a sense of déjà vu. The chicken soup with playful alphabet-shaped pasta, the green-peppercorn-sauced filet — in fact, much of the menu — are borrowed from Westend Bistro, Ripert’s recently opened spot in the Ritz-Carlton in the West End of Washington, D.C. But Sonny D’Angelo is here, too, his wild boar prosciutto lush against the backdrop of a garlic-rubbed baguette. You won’t find that in New York or D.C.