Chef Jose Andres is kind of a big deal.
Actually, Jose Andres is kind of a huge deal. The Spanish-born chef behind such concepts as minibar and Jaleo in D.C., China Poblano in Vegas and Tres in L.A., he trained with Ferran Adria at El Bulli, has won just about every award there is to win, and is (more or less) the guy who formalized the small plates concept in the United States. He is one of the best-known chefs in the world, a serious rock star, and guess where he was yesterday?
In a basement at the University of Pennsylvania, talking about vegetables.
Actually, he was talking about vegetables, his daughters, quoting Brillat-Savarin and, most important, introducing his brand-new Philly restaurant, Beefsteak–a vegetable-focused fast-casual concept open now in the Houston Market in the lower level of Houston Hall.
And yes, I get it. Another super green fast-casual concept pushing kale and kimchi on the masses? Don’t we already have enough of those?
But Beefsteak has two things going for it that make it different. First, it has Jose Andres (the U Penn location is his first for the concept outside of his home base of Washington D.C.). Second, it is awesome.
The menu (based on the model already hammered out and humming in D.C.) was developed by Andrés to offer healthy choices. “Fast good,” he called it, not just fast casual. His exec chef, Pat Peterson (a man who is seriously into vegetables), handles the day-to-day stuff, and worries over the seasonal changes and sourcing (not all of it is local, but all of it is the best he can get his hands on, even if that means looking outside the Philadelphia region). It serves vegetable bowls, with a borderline-overwhelming number of customization options, allowing diners to combine flash-prepared vegetables, grains, house-made sauces, a dozen-some toppings, plus some proteins (chicken sausage, salmon from Samuels & Son Seafood) for those who just can’t face down another bowl full of spinach and chickpeas without some sausage to chase it with.
Service is simple(ish): You approach the counter and either choose from one of a few composed bowls already available on the menu (like the Kimchi-wa, made with rice, corn, carrot, cabbage, edamame, bok choy, roasted garlic yogurt sauce, and topped with scallions, toasted sesame seeds, corn nuts, kimchi and soy ginger dressing), or choose to go forward choose-your-own-adventure style, just picking and choosing stuff as you walk the length of the L-shaped counter.
That’s the way I did it during yesterday’s debut. And because I’m kind of a dick, I tried to make it as difficult as possible on the crew, ordering things that should not have EVER gone together in a million years. Like using spinach and kale as a base, plus rice, too. Adding boiled potatoes and edamame, yogurt-garlic sauce, fried onions, vinegar-y chickpeas and soy dressing. Also smoked salmon. And corn nuts. And you know what?
It was delicious. The greens had been flash-boiled by some kind of multi-legged kitchen robot. The smoked salmon was sliced thin. The potatoes and edamame were fresh and the garlic sauce was nicely balanced. Basically every individual element involved in the construction of my Frankenstein bowl was better than I expected and, as a result, played nicely with every other competing ingredient. Granted, I kinda hated the apple-beet juice I chose to round out my healthy lunch, but that might’ve been because there was no whiskey in it. Or because juicing is bullshit. But whatever. Beefsteak won me back over by serving one of the very VERY few good gazpachos I’ve ever had (and made it even better by offering it to-go by the bottle), and then a burger-less burger made with a fat slice of tomato (the restaurant’s namesake) topped with pickled red onions and herbed mayo, olive oil and sea salt, all on a good brioche bun from Philly Bread.
Prices were reasonable. Vegetable Bowls run from $7.49-$8.49, that Beefsteak burger will run you $4.99. Interested in a tall glass of beet juice? That’ll cost you between $1.99 and $3.50.
And while yes, this is a location designed primarily for students, the public is welcome, too. And you know what? You should give the place a try. It really is a remarkable experiment in “fast-good” eating, being brought to town by one of the best chefs in the business.