Editor’s Note: Beginning this month, Trey Popp’s reviews for Philadelphia magazine will be running first on Foobooz–weeks ahead of their appearing in print. And what better way to kick off this new arrangement than with the first four-star ranking that Trey has ever given–of his near-perfect experience at Jose Garces’s remarkable new restaurant, Volver.
Halfway through dinner at Volvér—after the scallop that was seared while still living, after the duck-liver mousse in a trick egg white conjured out of goat milk and orange-blossom water, after the puffed pork rinds with smoked-buttermilk dulce de leche and the bacalao takoyaki’s crepe-edged crackle—a savory course arrived in a pair of cupped hands.
They were printed on both sides of Bernardaud porcelain, knuckled backsides on the bottom, open palms on the top, their finely rippled texture rising from the smooth china like fingerprint whorls. Inside, a tiny biscuit and a spring-roll-like cylinder of celery-root slaw nestled against a medallion of deep-fried squab the color of oxblood, surrounded by gravy. The eighth course in our marathon “Performance” dinner memorialized the eighth year of Jose Garces’s life. That’s when Jorge Garces started taking his Chicago-born boys down to Belmont Harbor, with a soccer ball or a football and, always, the same picnic:
Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“So for Volvér’s kitchen,” our server concluded, “Chef Garces got the exact same pressure-fryer that KFC uses to fry its chicken.”
The tender squab was a little salty, a little junky, and left its inspiration in the dust. But by now, that last part had become a given.
I still couldn’t get over the aromatic sorcery of the preceding “live scallop.” Speckled with sturgeon caviar, the astonishingly sweet bivalve shared a bowl with grass-green favas, a crispy razor-clam croquette, and a slippery crescent of seaweed ravioli stuffed with pig trotters in an ivory ham broth that suddenly revised the meaning of the guanciale ribbon at the dinner’s beginning. What I’d taken as a simple pleasure now seemed like a sophisticated tease—as though Garces was reaching out through the meal’s progression to say, “You think that wine-cured pig jowl was luscious? Just wait until I outdo it with a bowl of soup.”
And he has to. As Philadelphia’s first restaurateur to sell tickets rather than take reservations, and with his nonrefundable performance dinners priced at $225 before drinks (inclusive of tax and tip), Garces has set expectations high enough to rattle Icarus. There’s no arguing that the $600 my wife and I spent (including an inspired beverage pairing) could have bought a fantastic meal elsewhere, with enough money left over to feed 10 foster children for a month. But you make your choices. You calculate worth. You take a chance
A laminated thyme pastry pushed our dinner to 15 courses, all told—15 courses that expressed flavors as traditional as charred squid; as mind-boggling as the black-trumpet-mushroom rice flake “cereal” with shaved truffles, bacon, a quail egg, thyme marshmallows and white-asparagus milk; and as simple as buttered field peas at peak season from Garces’s Bucks County farm. At least five ranked among the best restaurant dishes I’ve ever eaten. And all together, they melded with our server’s concise backstories to form a meal that encompassed biography, philosophy, and something akin to meditation.
Sardines with bottarga mayo and honeyed chorizo powder, served with a literally razor-thin eggplant chip, had the freshness and immediacy of the moment of discovery. Richly marbled wagyu beef, aged 85 days and cooked directly on oak embers, was heady with the cryptic funk of flesh pushed to the edge of decay. Dragging it through a blood-red smear of sonically emulsified beets—all earthy iron and sweetness—riveted me like a wolf at a kill.
The ticketing model permits otherwise impossible gambits. Iron Chef once challenged Garces to cook a surprise catch from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and now Volvér has a wild-card box flown in from Tsukiji every day. For us: raw madai snapper, accented with horseradish cream, green apple snow and “fennel tears.” Even better was the sous-vide lubina from Spain’s Veta La Palma aquaculture farm—a fish so inspiringly sustainable that it has its own TED Talk. Served in an almost oil-dense fumet vivid with saffron and orange, this meaty beauty came on a pedestal of bomba rice whose pearled grains revived and enriched my hour-old memory of the exquisitely polished sake Gordana Kostovski had chosen for the snapper.
And that’s what an elegantly served meal feels like in Volvér’s stylish, utterly relaxing setting. A fine detail in one course unexpectedly amplifies a grace note from another, connecting dots you wouldn’t have imagined sharing the same page: an ethereal carrot sorbet and the root crisps from an austere salad; elderflower panna cotta and a mock deviled egg. Garces’s absence the night of my flawless dinner? That’s just a testament to the team he’s assembled around chef de cuisine Natalie Maronski. The sole drawback was that there was too much.
Yet an excess of bounty is not a sin. When a cup like this runneth over, who would complain when there’s still a play to be made on the drips?
4 out of 4 Stars – Extraordinary