In the beginning (13 years ago), there was the Continental. Stephen Starr had left a 15-year career in the music industry to open his first restaurant, applying his entertainment acumen to the business of dining out to create a fun, flashy culinary hot spot. And he saw that it was good. So good, in fact, that the flurry of theatrical eateries he opened in the nine years to follow, from Buddakan to Barclay Prime, fueled the transformation of the city’s restaurant scene. But Starr’s ambitions went beyond Philadelphia, and over the past few years he’s turned his attention to other markets, exporting Buddakan and Morimoto to New York City and opening a second Continental, a third Buddakan, Teplitzky’s and Chelsea Prime in Atlantic City. In fact, until last summer, it appeared that 2004’s Barclay Prime marked the last bit of Starr’s expansion in his 10-restaurant Center City empire. But then, on Bastille Day, came a new place, Parc, and Stephen Starr’s ballyhooed return.
Parc is breathtaking, a sprawling bistro on the picturesque corner of 18th and Locust, right on Rittenhouse Square. A 90-seat sidewalk cafe, with rattan chairs and Parisian awnings framed by the restaurant’s panoramic windows, looks like a watercolor come alive. The interior weaves distressed finishes together with vintage finds from French flea markets, and it all looks like the set of a big-budget Hollywood film. It should — Starr dispatched his designer to Paris four times, and together, the pair left no detail untended: Tiles whose worn patina is so real you’d swear they saw action in World War II? Check. Wooden doors salvaged from actual French bistros? Check. Slender newspaper holders affixed to the walls, just like the ones in director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie? Check.
Such obsession with verisimilitude pays off: Parc truly transports its clientele from Philly to France. Diners enjoy dry French rosé and nibble slices of fresh-baked baguette under the sepia shadows cast by the well-designed lighting scheme. Candles flicker, Édith Piaf croons, and the cacophony of a hundred conversations reverberates as you melt into the scene. The crowd — a mélange of students in track suits, groups of Rittenhouse matriarchs, dressed-up couples and families with strollers — seems totally relaxed in spite of the fact that when the place is busy, the noise level crescendos to a conversation-ending din. But c’est la vie: Once the trout amandine arrives, talking gives way to eating anyway.
The delicate fish, studded with toasted almonds, is but one highlight on a menu stacked with French bistro classics at actual bistro prices (steak frites: $24). The short roster of classics may elicit yawns from the fooderati, but will produce sighs of contentment from everyone else. Here, it’s not food for thought (there’s nary an item that could be described as creative, trendy or experimental) — it’s just food. Familiar, homey, moderately priced food made from old-world recipes—the type that doesn’t demand to be the topic of the dinner table or dissected in a 500-word blog post.
To wit: The French onion soup is simple and superb, a crock of slow-simmered chicken stock (fortified with white wine) and caramelized onions topped with rounds of bread and a lid of gooey gruyère and provolone. And the chicken liver mousse, rich and earthy, with a silky, airy texture, could convert even the most liver-phobic diner; the livers are soaked in milk and pureed with softened butter and poached foie gras before being forced through a fine-mesh screen for ultimate smoothness.
Given that it all comes from chef Dominique Filoni — a St. Tropez native best known around here as the onetime chef of Savona in Gulph Mills, and known nationally as a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2004 — the few dishes that disappoint come as more of a surprise than the successes. Filoni’s brandade appetizer, a creamy salt-cod-and-potato dip served with an herb-sprinkled baguette, is a one-note dish, dominated by overwhelming richness. A plate of tuna carpaccio arrived so cold that the fish’s essence was muted; without the accompanying fennel salad and mustard aioli, it would have been flavorless. A lamb chop special was a flop, under-seasoned and carelessly cooked, too rare in some spots and too well-done in others, and the tarte tatin to finish was hardly the pièce de résistance one expects from a French restaurant with an in-house pastry chef.
But in general, there’s more magic than mishap on the menu. Beef bourguignon combines succulent cubes of short ribs and buttery house-made noodles with a red wine and veal stock reduction so good that it begs to be soaked up with hunks of baguette. The chicken, marinated for hours in lemon, herbs and butter before roasting, could have a crispier skin, but the meat is juicy, and its bed of pureed potatoes is luscious. Moules frites, a pile of Prince Edward Island mussels in a bath of wine-shallot sauce, are briny and sweet. The accompanying frites are fried twice, and served with a house-made mayonnaise. It’s high-quality and low-concept, and exactly the (generally) well-executed bistro fare the city has been craving.
Moreover, the huge, happy crowds that converge nightly at Parc make it clear that Philly has missed the energy a new Stephen Starr place brings. In spite of murmurs to the contrary during Starr’s local hiatus, Parc proves that he remains a relevant visionary whose restaurants will continue to shape the city. His disciples are already anxiously awaiting his upcoming redo of the Broad Street Diner as well as Butcher & Singer, the supper club planned for the old Striped Bass space. And if his new bistro is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to. A new era of Stephen Starrdom has begun.