For food-obsessed Philadelphians, the first half of August unfolded like a rigged game of Two Truths and a Lie. In case you were down the Shore, let’s play. Pick the fib: The Ritz-Carlton turned over 10 Arts to a barbecue pit-master for a night; chef-cum-doughnut mogul Michael Solomonov came out in the New York Times as a self-described “crackhead” during Zahav’s early days; and Georges Perrier did a three-night gig at a restaurant that serves deep-fried pickles and a “Cool Ranch Dorito Omelette.”
Now, you already know the game’s fixed. All three are the God’s honest. But still, Georges Perrier—Georges “I declare war on Steve Starr” Perrier—moonlighting in a kitchen that crumbles junk food into the eggs? Well, that casts Le Bec-Fin’s legacy in an unexpected light.
The highbrow/no-brow tug-of-war has been playing out in Philly since at least the 2004 debut of Barclay Prime’s $100 cheesesteak, but Crow & the Pitcher (which marks chef Alex Capasso’s return to Philadelphia after seven years operating Blackbird in Collingswood) is our first restaurant to carry the yupster embrace of cognitive dissonance to what you might call a post-ironic stage.
Want to scarf down salt-and-sautèrnes-cured foie gras—the most luscious version in town—with a side of barbecue potato chips? Go ahead; nobody will even wink, and the foie doesn’t come with enough bread anyway.
Want to leave the veal sweetbreads bordelaise to your husband, and just tuck into bacony deviled eggs and a kale-juice cocktail? Why not! You’re in a place where a hipster lumberjack bartender mixes artisanal G&T’s for guys prepped out like Cape Cod clotheshorses, and every so often a Patton Oswalt look-alike (circa Buffy the Vampire Slayer) wheels the actual old cheese cart from the actual old Lec Bec-Fin through the stripped-brick dining room.
But seriously, a Wisconsin-heavy course from that gleaming, lovingly restored vehicle (maneuvered by David O’Neill with the boyish enthusiasm and mastery of a Pinewood Derby whiz), is, alone, justification for a visit. It’s just a matter of coming to terms with the restaurant’s split identity along the way.
My first impression was of a French bistro unwilling to let go of whatever might draw a happy-hour crowd. The latter element left me cold. Curried almonds had no crunch. Capasso’s burger was moist one night, dry another, and bland on both—perplexing, seeing as he folds melted bone marrow into the sirloin/short-rib blend. Tender fried artichokes were clad in heavy breading that suggested exemplary chicken-less nuggets—but chicken-less nuggets all the same.
The bistro pistons fired at a higher rate. The chicken presse and lardo-enriched, olive-spiked lamb terrine accompanying that satiny foie were peerless. Charred asparagus and shaved summer truffles popped against the richness of a poached egg oozing into lightly toasted brioche. A meaty block of tilefish got a fennel-perfumed Provençale treatment plus the mellow twang of hearts of palm. There were a couple iffy calls on the sourcing front (bedraggled morels, suspect grape tomatoes), but I dug Capasso’s Francophile mode.
That’s no wonder, given Perrier’s constant presence here—and not just for three days in August. Capasso says his old boss isn’t a partner, but the iconic chef is no mere “regular.” He gave Capasso shopping bags crammed with “about 1,000 of his recipes” before the opening; he pops into the kitchen to clean chickens or pick peas; and during the summer, Crow & the Pitcher served as Perrier’s almost-nightly commissary and de facto “living room.”
And hey, if Perrier can make peace with a menu that offers Dorito omelets, anybody can.
“It’s really an honor to have his approval the way that I do. It’s a privilege to have as much input from him as we do,” Capasso says. “If I’m doing something wrong, or my cook is doing something wrong, he’ll correct us. And I find myself saying, ‘Yes, Chef.’”
That is indeed a blessing. One night I was unlocking my bike from a meter next to Perrier’s sidewalk table. Neither of us knows the other, but he said something, I laughed, and soon I was declining a glass of burgundy but accepting remedial instructions on ratatouille. As I walked away, he was issuing instructions to be conveyed to Capasso about his duck-fatted chicken-leg confit.
I’d skipped the chicken entrée, but now there was no question I had to try it. So I came back one more time. Crisp-edged fingerling potato coins. Mushrooms caramelized to the cusp of carbonization. Moist breast, soulful jus. And I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best chicken confit in this whole city. Or any other.
Two stars – Good
Crow & the Pitcher [Foobooz]