Restaurant Review: Volvér

At Volvér, Jose Garces lays his life out on the plate.


Photos by Jason Varney

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

Volvér [Foobooz]

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  • James

    Wow. I wasn’t excited but now can’t wait.

  • Thephillywineguy

    No mention of wine prices?? You feeling ok trey??

    • asdf

      u mad?

  • WPD

    But you’re apparently basing your review on *one* visit. That is atypical, yes?

    • Steve

      No,Trey Popp usually only makes one visit per review

      • Jason Sheehan

        No, Steve. Trey makes multiple visits for reviews. And this one was no different.

        • Steve

          Really? When he reviewed two separate restaurants that I’ve worked at he only made one visit each time.

          • Trey

            I make a minimum of two visits to every restaurant for which I write a graded (i.e. starred) review. When a restaurant has multiple settings/menus — i.e. breakfast as well as dinner, or distinct bar and dining room menus — I try to experience both. Occasionally that can mean a third visit, or (very rarely) a fourth. For my non-graded “Revisit” online columns, which consider restaurants of longer standing, I typically write about a single meal. Perhaps Steve is referring to a Revisit column. Or perhaps he doesn’t know what I look like, or doesn’t work every day. It is also possible that Steve is referring to restaurants I reviewed while at City Paper, which only had the resources to enable a single visit. But I have never filed a graded review for Philly Mag that was based on fewer than two visits.

          • DD

            Going tomorrow night. Will let you know.

          • What did you think?

  • JMd

    WPD: do you really think that the experience is going to be anything lass than exceptional? Cooking an service by the staff at this level is driven by the utmost attention to detail and desire for perfection in every aspect. Please, it’s not like one day you go in and you get an overcooked piece of meat, or a poor quality filet of fish. There is no room for error and the staff that works there every day is under an enormous amount of pressure to be perfect. Don’t be a hater- Garces is just showcasing that he can roll with the big boys, and most likely will be able to do it better and more consitently.

    • WPD

      I’m just asking if most of Mr Popp’s reviews are based on at least one return visit, admittedly hard to do here since the menu doesn’t change much. I would have at least liked a report on a visit to the bar area. No one is being a hater, I’m just wondering if Mr Popp is more interested in being first than in being informative. Beyond that, your post is absurd: so, they’re driven and under pressure to be perfect, therefore they will be perfect; you expect them to be great, therefore they will be great?! Well, why have reviews at all, then?! I actually do have high hopes for this place, and plan on going soon if there is a convenient opening.

  • Mr. Dean

    No mention of the extraordinarily high price tag either… I worked for Jose for a while and can tell you his restaurants wine markups are consistently around 300%, yet no mention of that. What are your credentials Mr. Popp? There’s no consistent basis for your reviews and it certainly doesn’t seem like you understand how this industry works at all. Long live the Tim kweeders and Steve wildys of the world that make it possible for great wine to be found at great restaurants!

  • Del

    Trey Popp’s reviews never disappoint to disappoint me. Still hoping he one day writes with some integrity. One week he blows up a restaurant about wine mark ups and is wrong, the next he shells out $600 for KFC.

  • PM

    If 5 of your top 10 restaurant dishes were in this meal, what are the other five Mr Popp? Do you really think this restaurant is globally significant? What is it’s message?