Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Avance

Is Avance the fine dining we’ve been waiting for, or something … else?


Foie gras mousse. Photography by Courtney Apple.

Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. And Avance is what happens the third time around.

Ninety minutes, 120 bucks and one bite into dinner for four at 1523 Walnut Street, the successor to Le Bec-Fin and all its reboots was careening. We’d already been told our table wasn’t ready (as the minute hand smacked solidly against our reservation hour) and been sent to pay tribute at the downstairs bar. Two sips into cocktails there, and a hostess appeared to reclaim our glasses and ferry us past a bevy of empty tables in the soaring slate-gray dining room, bringing us to one of several more vacancies on the mezzanine. A self-congratulatory announcement prefaced the replacement of white napkins with black ones (for the benefit of the ladies’ pants, of course), yet when the silver tongs appeared later to replenish the linens a second time, it was back to white again.

And then, 20 minutes after we’d ordered an audaciously marked-up white to accompany appetizers, our server airily chirped, “The sommelier’s upstairs. I assume she’s having trouble finding it.”

That search would last 10 minutes more — our glasses bone-dry, no offer of a compensatory splash to tide us over. Then again, the appetizers took longer still. And when I got up and found my own way to the restroom (whose harsh overhead lighting could turn Kate Moss into Bela Lugosi), my napkin was seized again and not replaced at all.

Our lone bite up to that point had been an iridescent flash of creativity: a pickled mussel on a tiny porcelain pedestal, jeweled with micro-beads of blood orange and fennel, cupped by a squid-ink cracker simulacrum of its own shell. Briefly, it shattered the stilted protocol masquerading as service at this successor to the house Georges Perrier built. Avance has stranded itself somewhere between the bygone crystal chandeliers and the galaxy of Edison bulbs with which Chris Scarduzio and chef Justin Bogle are trying to telegraph the next New Era of Fine Dining in Philadelphia.

Only at Avance, it feels a lot like the old one. Yes, the silver cloches have made way for the odd sneaker-shod hipster. And the Louis XVI decor has definitively been exorcised. But this hallowed address remains bloated with a hovering army of hosts and servers and under-servers, all awkwardly playing out an antiquated ballet of service in this self-consciously contemporary setting.

The rest of the food, when it finally came, offered technical prowess and intermittent glimpses of that opening morsel’s originality. Foie gras mousse chilled on an “anti-griddle” was like next-level soft-serve, with pickled grape slices foiling the richness, powdered cardamom yogurt pumping it back up, and crumbled black walnuts doing their normal crunchy thing. Dry-aged duck breast had the exemplary company of fermented Fuyu persimmon, and a frozen disk of apple and fennel juices arrived topping fatty Arctic char tartare.

But from blue-balled start to the tepid-espresso end, our servers spared no interruption — now regaling us with breathless paeans to the kitchen’s local sourcing as though Avance invented it, now dialing up the dissonance with announcements like, “We have our own bread program. This pain au lait is made with 100 percent white flour, and has a very fine crumb.” At a certain point, you have to wonder what script these service robots are working from. And what hack wrote it.

Irritating service improved into mere stiffness on my second visit. But that night’s chef’s tasting, eight courses drawn entirely from a seasonal à la carte menu and paired with wines hailing mostly from the lower end of the glass list, made me wonder what Avance really aspired to besides the sweet swipe of my credit card.

What’s more, some dishes simply fell flat. Carrots and caramelized squid? Make that rubbery squid, beached on a slurry of amaranth. Swordfish crowned with crispy chicken-skin threads? Hauled in way too far from sea and dumped into a strange, salty bath of yeasted chicken consommé that tasted about as delicious as it sounds.

Still, slantwise spins on surf and turf are Bogle’s most intriguing efforts, and sometimes — sometimes — they’re delicious. An amuse the second night brought exquisitely foamy egg, served in its shell over hackleback caviar and “bacon tapioca,” zinged with crème fraîche and lemon zest. Chawan-mushi with cauliflower three ways — melded into the traditional Japanese egg custard, pickled, and dehydrated — sent my companion on a childhood beach reverie with its trout roe buried in Meyer lemon froth.

But at no point did the Michelin-starred chef’s technically accomplished pastiche coalesce into a coherent voice. At least not one strong enough to pierce the pretentious blend of trend-chasing chic and stuffily intrusive service.

In the broadest terms, Avance proceeds from the curious notion that Philadelphia is incomplete without a Serious Restaurant that could pass muster with the international foodie elite of New York or San Francisco. “Philadelphia is ready for this,” Bogle told me. “People here are ready to get it.”

But the truth is that the much-anticipated New Era of Fine Dining is already here. It’s happening at Serpico and Vedge and Vernick and Laurel. And by comparison, Avance felt like a place conceived to strip-mine the rich and privileged. Which may be the Lord’s work — and Marx’s too — but it will have to go on without me.

One-and-a-half stars – Fair to Good

Avance [Foobooz]

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • Tom

    I agree that phrases like “Philadelphians are ready to get it” seem a bit arrogant even though the intent is understood. Over describing ingredients also seems to work against the intent of conveying said information. This review on the other hand reads like the writer did not understand the food, or is unfamiliar with certain flavors, combinations and textures. This is a classic case of a possibly myopic personal preference we see too often exhibited by writers and gets in the way of objectivity.
    Oddly this place is no more expensive than Vetri and unless the reviewer is actually paying for the meals out of pocket, the price complaints are unfair and silly.

  • Cathie Krushauskas Walker

    I feel so stupid after reading that review. Guess my palate and intelligence are better served at Applebee’s.

  • Alimentarian

    Ate there last night, and this review is actually right on the money (in both senses). The service is horribly pretentious, particularly given the fact that the cuisine, while perfectly fine, is no more creative or better executed than what several of our BYOs (among others) have been doing for years. Who needs this? One-third of the dining room being empty at 9:00 on a Friday night doesn’t lie.

    • Alimentarian

      I forgot to add that I do give Avance props on its bread program, though. It’s almost as good as Fork’s.

    • Dan Gray

      So you thought the Service was pretentious but you Don’t think that the Review Was Pretentious??? I don’t think I have read a More SNOBBISH review…Ever. Now he may be correct in his opinion of the restaurant, but state that in ENGLISH and not this Flowery Pretentious snob speak.

  • Bill

    “The kitchen’s local sourcing” this coming from a chef who posted a trailer before opening of him and his team driving past some of the states best farmland and produce to drive to the chef’s garden in OHIO, fed ex packages of veggies from Ohio does not in any way reflect local sourcing

    • WORD !

      Your beef with the definition of “local sourcing” is at the very least silly and certainly intellectually disingenuous. It also reflects that the local movement, while admirable is a bunch of crap that has little to do with making good food. Good cooking is about getting excellent ingredients intact and fresh to your restaurant. Some of it is local, a lot of it is not. There is no local parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, mustard, rarely flour and multiple other ingredients. Even if one were to focus on produce and proteins the concept is still silly. Case/Point: Blue Moon Acres in Bucks grows specialty greens for a lot of the top restaurants in Philadelphia. It is local. Brilliant. The same exact product is flown overnight and delivered to PerSe/The French Laundry. Not local at all. Who gives a crap…..certainly not Thomas Keller. A fine Amish fellow who sells killer chickens in Philly. Local…..awesome. Same chicken served for $80 at Nomad in NYC…not at all local…..who cares. People just buy good food. “Buying Local” is one of the biggest forms of pretense because at least 50% of any restaurant’s ingredients are not. Again …your complaint, like everything in life depends on how you look at it. I would appreciate a chef who drives several hundred miles to the farm that actually grows his product than one who gets “local” product delivered in unrefrigerated vehicles.

  • sneakerSHOD

    Philly mag just doesn’t seem to have its mind made up, or perhaps the magazines editor needs to consider a career change. Reading this latest issue, front to back, one can find both this ridiculous review, as well as praise in other articles just a few pages down. If you want to be taken seriously, stop printing disjointed trash.

  • PickedBeets

    Can someone rewrite this in English? — as pretentious as the restaurant it seems.

  • H.I. Grumblethorpe

    I am not here to defend or bash Avance, as I have not eaten there myself. I am here merely to comment on Mr. Popp’s style of writing.

    Trey Popp will never be considered a serious food critic after continuously writing in this style. He should go back to the free “alternative” papers from which he came because those formats tolerate snark much better and they also play to audience he is much more suited for. His MO lately appears to be: review a restaurant shortly after LaBan and make some weak sauce argument against one of Craig’s highlighted pluses or minuses.

  • Brian R.

    Could not agree more with Trey Popp’s review. I had dinner at Avance over 2 months ago with 3 other people. We were ushered downstairs to the bar for the now too familiar “please enjoy a drink at our bar while your table sits empty” game. Half way through the drink, we were taken up to our empty table in an empty upper dining room. We then proceeded to wait 2 hours for our food. There were multiple apologies from the waitstaff for the delay but with no seeming effort to either expedite service or placate our increasing impatience. Ultimately the food that was presented was beautiful with some high notes. Unfortunately, it was the service that left me feeling confused and disappointed despite the $500+ bill. I hope Avance figures it out because the food could be excellent but I do not plan on returning to find out.

    • REALLY ???

      Sorry but that is a blatantly false and ridiculous review.
      You need to be ashamed of yourself passing off obviously fake reports of your meal assuming you had one there at all.
      You really expect people to believe you sat in a restaurant for 2 hrs twiddling your thumbs with absolutely no food, no response from the service staff, stayed there listening to apologies for 2 hrs while everyone else around you was being served “till the food was ultimately presented”.
      Using pejoratives like idiot to describe people makes it too personal and misses the point of the conversation, but for you sir, if your post is not entirely idiotic, your motivation for assuming anyone is dumb enough to believe that story is idiotic.
      It is implausible.
      Your order was put into a computer and a ticket was printed.
      I am sure Bogle who was probably expediting was not staring at your ticket for 2 hrs.
      People like you who post these anonymous false hater comments are pathetic.
      Grow up.

    • DerekT

      Could not agree more myself, this review is spot on!

  • Tony Zamboni

    Extremely we’ll written actually. Maybe his best work yet. Avance’s whole concept seemed dated from the beginning. Food is not all science and plating technique. To pull off the concept well enough everything has to be perfect, especially the service. It’s nearly an impossible task and there are only a few in the world doing something special and actually pulling it off. This is modern pretentious and stale.

    • Connie Cannoli

      Pretty sure most people are not seeking their modern cooking advice from Tony Zamboni. Perhaps you should go eat your momma’s meatballs and leave the serious food conversation to us. Only sheep still use the word concept to describe a restaurant.

      • Tony Zamboni

        I can guarantee that my pedigree and experience in restaurants exceeds everything in your imagination plus.
        It’s clearly utilizing the “concept” of molecular gastronomy and modern cookery. Quite an apropos description if you understand the term.

        My point was that people are moving towards a casual yet refined dining culture and that you have to be an absolute genius and have a weathered staff of keen personnel which they clearly do not to pull it off. Case in point: “We have our own bread program. This pain au lait is made with 100 percent white flour, and has a very fine crumb.”

        Not only would you never site “100 percent white flour” because the worst and most mundane bread is “100 percent white flour” but you would be better educated not to. This doesn’t happen at Alinea or Mugaritz.

        Don’t get your cannoli cunt in a bunch Connie. I will be the first to tell you that the new Garces thing won’t last long in this town either. Know your clientele. Know something, even when you’re wrong.

        • Joey BaggaDonuts

          The fact that you still use the term “molecular gastronomy” shows how much of a clueless tool you are.If you understood that ALL FOOD is molecular gastronomy then you may have a worthy opinion.
          Furthermore you also know *NOTHING* about commercial baking because most white flour breads are not made with 100% white flour and contain multiple modified starches, fillers and maltodextrins, some which may or may not be good for you.

          Do your research before mouthing off instead of following Trey Popp like sheep.

          • DerekT

            You are a dumb bag of Donuts

        • Joey BaggaDonuts

          Plus its “Cite” not “Site”.
          Siting flour is bringing the bag of flour to the table.
          Learn English before trying to make a point.

  • Dan

    Wow. I haven’t eaten here, but it is very clear by the extreme defensiveness (and nastiness) of many of the commentators here that there are about 6 posts planted directly from the restaurant. Obviously Mr. Bogle and/or his staff are not very confident that their food and experience can speak for itself.

    What I have always admired about Starr and Garces (and I am by no means a huge fan of either) is that they don’t plant defensive reviews. They are confident in their product and they believe that they can make it work even if the place needs tweaking.

    There is certainly some constructive criticism here to be gleaned from this adverse review, but sadly it sounds like Mr. Bogle and his staff aren’t keen to listen. I fear that the restaurant is already on countdown watch.

    • Please !

      You have no factual basis to determine if anything was planted by the restaurant. Your post follows the same absurdity and hypocrisy exhibited (with no facts) exhibited by commenters pro or con on these blogs.
      Starr and Garces restaurants totally control PR like a mother.
      You have no idea what you are talking about and trying yo appear unbiased is not working for you Dan.

      • Marv0

        Of course, you likewise have no proof that they weren’t planted. Something about the way they are phrased and the way in which I would have to believe that people really care so much about a restaurant that so few have actually been to so far seem like evidence that the OP might be on point.

  • Earl J

    Not respecting your time as well as ushering you to the bar when tables are available is a turn off that guareentees I will never be back. Popp references Serpico although they also proved to waste my parties time.

  • Dan Gray

    Now I can’t comment on the food at said restaurant, but I can comment on the Overly Pretentious written review of the restaurant, Philadelphians would like a simple review without all the colorful fancy words this author decided to use. How about, a simple review saying what the décor was like and weather or not the reviewer liked it and then tell us that the food was, Poor, Fair Or Good and why, Additionally comparing that restaurant to its Predecessor is just plain unfair as they didn’t claim to be the new Le bec fin. they are just using a convenient existing space to put THEIR restaurant in. Just because you use Ridiculously over the top fancy language to talk about the restaurant doesn’t mean you are brighter or better than the rest of the “poor folk” here in the real world.

  • Brubaby

    Plain and simply put, we just dined there and we will return. The food was great as was the service and ambience. Slamming a new upscale restaurant just as it opens is bad form. How do you expect new chefs with new ideas to succeed in Philadelphia with scathing reviews like this one. Give me and Chef Bogle a break! Let the dining public decide for themselves before you (knowingly) help destroy what in my opinion is French Laundry in Philadelphia.

    • summit301

      “French Laundry in Philadelphia.”

      I think that might be the problem and eventually its downfall, because its located in Philadelphia. No other reason then that!

  • mooseaka

    Took my wife there for a birthday dinner last week. Somehow we both enjoyed the meal a lot and at the same time, I agree with most of what Popp wrote in his review. Kind of hard to explain.

    First – the room. It’s just weird. I know – theoretically a great meal should transcend the decor and ambiance and taste great blindfolded, but I couldn’t get over the tacky styling. The lighting is either harsh, casting deep shadows on faces, or dim yellow – neither of which are appealing. The gray walls, “modern art” and occasional hanging plants are like being transported to a 90’s lounge. I know, I know, I’m overdoing it, but compared to the absolute Eden of sitting between the painted walls of Fork with the tree and the Christmas lights, well, there is no comparison.

    The service was also weird. I can certainly see why it comes off pretentious. They announce everything that is served (from the water, to the bread, to the color of the napkins) with this “aren’t we the shit?” tone that gets annoying after a while. Kind of makes you feel like you never ate fine dining before. Far from warm and welcoming.

    We were fortunate that they sat us right away (in a 1/4 full dining room, however) so we didn’t get the whisked down to the bar.

    The food was pretty damn good, and the wine selections great as well. We did the five course meal and everything was excellent. Some dishes felt cute or clever for the sake of being cute and clever, but nothing was bad or even disappointing. There were some classic fine dining snafus, such as putting a teaspoon worth of creamed spinach smeared across the plate for the steak entree was just annoying. Like – come on – this stuff costs $10 a gallon to make and it’s delicious – don’t tease us by making us lick the plate.

    Overall, a good experience that I wish I could have eaten in an environment as laid back as Vernick, or as etherial as Fork. Instead if felt like it was where Harrison Ford would have taken Melanie Griffith out to dinner in Working Girl.

  • rachel

    “Oooh I have a really great way of proving I know who Karl Marx is! I’m going to write a pretentious and scathing review of the next restaurant that dares charge me more than $25.” Was this the line of thought in Popp’s head while writing this review?

    Sorry that you experienced a few blips in your service and decided to craft a horrific, pompous review about Avance, its food, and servers about it. Anyone who knows anything about Philadelphia Mag knows your reviews & plugs are all skewed by which places advertise and which do not. This review is completely useless.

  • LoLMinions

    Umm, I think someone bought the mega package at Reputation Defender. The people defending Avance here in the comments are a little (or a lot) too zealous for people replying to a mostly meaningless review of a new and probably-over-hyped restaurant.

  • Arron

    The food makes interesting artwork to perHaps hand on walls, maybe even the dingy grey ones? I’m serious it’s really visually creative. However…. To serve it as food….. I don’t know about that, not for me I won’t be going back. Perhaps the should have scaled back on the hype of this place. All talk……let’s face it this guys a sous chef just like the director of operations

    • Joe Rolling

      Trey Popp is a hack!

      Bogle is awesome. I have fortunate to have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the US and Paris (Per Se, JG, EMP, Le Bern, Daniel and Robuchon, Guy Savoy Pierre Gagnaire) and I will tell you what this restaurant is on pair with these guys in every sense. In order to appreciate fine cuisine maybe you should travel around a bit.

      Bogle and his crew are way a head of the curve. Don’t chase this guy back to NYC because you don’t understand flavor, textures, and presentation.

      I think the cheese wiz has ruined your palate Trey.

  • Joan

    Ate there twice it was amazing with fabulous service and the food was perfect in presentation and taste. Everyone around us was also happy

  • MS

    Fellow readers please bear with me … I read this review the the Craig Laban review. No I wouldn’t like the food and wouldn’t eat here. The photo’s look great and I can guess preparing the food took skill and time. However at the end of the day it’s just food and very expensive food at that.

    Pretentious does seem the operative word and announcing every single dish and the beard service does sound weird.

    If someone likes this style/type of food and decides to spend what seems like a crazy amount of money for dinner then I think they should have something that is pretty damn close to flawless,

    Just saying …