People go to bars for all kinds of reasons. To hang out with neighbors over three-dollar lagers. To knock back Beam-and-Pabst specials while stomping their feet to liquor-drinking music. To find out what happens when an eccentric teetotaler mixes a vast booze library with grapes juiced to order. To be quiet and get drunk.
In other words, to escape. And if Philadelphia is what you want to get away from, you need travel no further than to the bar at Volver.
Like the ticketed-entry dining room it abuts in the Kimmel Center, Jose Garces’ champagne-and-caviar lounge is in Philadelphia but not quite of it. Look one way and your eyes fall on a marbled white bar lit by the glow of four sleek halos that could have been commissioned by Starfleet. Look another—at an ultra-saturated blue textile mural crafted by local artist Conrad Booker out of 4,000 buttons and 200 yards of deeply dyed burlap—and you feel like you’ve warp-tunneled your way into Pedro Almodóvar’s Madrid. Meanwhile a soft-footed fleet of servers patrols the ebony-stained floorboards wearing black quasi-judo jackets trimmed with Jupiter orange, like a squad of acrobatic assassins waiting for Roger Moore to request a shaken martini.
It is a very, very cool place to sit down for an hour.
The bar menu at Bar Volver issues from the same parallel universe. Hackleback sturgeon eggs are the entry-level caviar at $65 a serving. Farm-raised Ossetra commands $190. Wine ranges from the democratic gesture of a $10 glass of pinot grigio to an all-sparkling bottle inventory that could have been lifted from Richard Branson’s yacht. With its strong suit in grower champagne priced between three and four times retail, Gordana Kostovski’s list is impressive in more way than one. Its ideal customer is one who either doesn’t know that the 1996 Dom Perignon Oenotheque is marked up $575, or doesn’t care.
Of course it’s no surprise that Bar Volver is fishing for whales, not minnows. But there’s also some delicious grazing for folks in between. In two words: cocktails and tartines.
At $12 apiece (which is the going rate at most fancy places about town), Volver’s half-twists on classic cocktails are a good place to begin. My favorite was a viscous Old Fashioned accented with marcona-almond bitters. And when I found Volver’s specialty Manhattan a little sweet for my taste, out came a perfectly made perfect Manhattan to take its place. (“Please let us replace it,” our exceedingly gracious, unaffected, and ease-enhancing server said. “We want to make sure you like everything.”)
The snacking menu features three tartines, little open-faced sandwiches. I tried two. The $6 “Ham & Cheese” (actually spalaccia and tomme de savoie) was a little overwhelmed by its pesto-like basil aioli. But the $9 shaved Wagyu rib eye tartine has got to be the best thing I’ve ever had on bread—which, in a town graced by Greg Vernick’s toasts, is really saying something. Black-truffle provoleta cheese made it rich, a sherry-vinegar-spiked charred green-onion escabeche energized it with acid, and a sprinkle of insanely aromatic black pepper took it over the top.
Volver’s tartares are dearer, but delicious. Tuna from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market was lively with yuzu, chile oil, and crispy fried garlic. Better still—if you like a strong dash of citrus with your ocean flavors—was the mélange of Kusshi oysters and minced razor clams: sweet with preserved Meyer lemon, tart with green apple, smoky with Marcona almonds, and just a little spicy with horseradish. Both came in nested metal bowls that lent an extra chill to the seafood and a touch of drama to its unveiling.
Which, in the end, is the best reason to go to Bar Volver: for the small charge of drama that attends any worthwhile escape. Even if the actual champagne and caviar just reminded me that I was venturing far from my native environment, it was a serene pleasure to breathe that rarified air for a spell.