The Revisit: Bar Ferdinand

In Hollywood, where the slightest hint of risk can make a studio boss yank the latest Terry Gilliam project out of production to green-light another reboot of Tomb Raider, there’s one sort of gamble that can seem irresistible. Take a film or TV property whose fortunes are flagging, attach one of yesterday’s stars, and hope for a double-comeback.

A similar bet is now playing out in the Philadelphia restaurant scene. Last summer, Owen Kamihira made a bid to rejuvenate Bar Ferdinand—which put Liberties Walk on the culinary map back in 2006, but has coasted through the last few years on cruise control—by handing over the kitchen to David Ansill.

You remember Ansill, right? No star burned brighter in pre-recession Philadelphia. The chef gained fame at Pif, and then notoriety at the frequently brilliant Ansill Food + Wine, where he became Philly’s ambassador of offal right when the city was waking up to the bottom half of the hog. But then he went supernova, lost his restaurants, turned up at Ladder 15 (of all places), and eventually fell to earth in Jamaica.

Foobooz broke that news by quoting Ansill on one of his motivations: “I like to smoke pot. Lots of pot. And I need to go somewhere that I can do that.” He had identified a suitable venue, the story continued, via a “friend whose name is apparently ‘26.’”

For a while, all was quiet. There were no David Ansill stories, no David Ansill whispers. Until last June, that is, when Kamihira extricated him from some kind of mess down in Jamaica and brought him back home.

Ansill, in other words, is the Robert Downey Jr. of Philadelphia chefdom. But the question is whether Bar Ferdinand is going to be his Iron Man—or his Ally McBeal.

On a quiet night in December, it was looking more like McBeal. Back when tapas were almost as novel an idea in this town as marquee real-estate development in Northern Liberties, Ferdinand’s tiled interior could practically quiver with the buzz of the crowd. Six years later the tabletop candles barely flickered amid the comfortable hush.

Behind a bar lined with vacant stools, Ansill bent his head over toothpicks of fried manchego and chilled cubes of compressed apple foam, stabbing his chest with that lampoon-of-a-bike-messenger goatee. (Celebrity spotting in restaurants isn’t my thing, but I’d pay for a paparazzi shot of Alexi Lalas ordering dinner from his three-quarter-sized Bizarro.)

That was fine by me. I’ve missed David Ansill. Who could complain about getting his more-or-less undivided attention? It’s a rarity in the era of empire-building, Iron Chef-competing celebrity chefs.

But Ansill always seemed to bristle at the idea of celebrity chefdom—or at least that’s how he came across to me when foodies were fawning over him back in the day. And that attitude comes through in his menu here, which bears scant resemblance his avant garde meat work at Ansill. He’s bending himself to Bar Ferdinand, not the other way around.

If you’re making your way to the increasingly sedate Liberties Walk in pursuit of the Ansill of old—whether that means the lamb’s tongue from his eponymous flagship or the Korean pork belly tacos from Ladder 15—you may be disappointed. But if you come to rekindle pleasant memories of Bar Ferdinand, there’s a lot to like—starting with those miniature skewers of fried manchego and chilled apple foam.

What a lovely interplay of contrasts: the temperature; the salty, solid manchego against the tart, airy apple; and that combination in turn against a sweet slick of quince.

The smallest bites stood out best in our meal, at least in terms of imagination and refinement. Into a brown eggshell lopped off at the narrow end, Ansill packed a subtly flavored corn flan as puffy as cream whipped to soft peaks, and slipped a cool slug of sea urchin into the top. The restrained corn flavor married well with the urchin’s intense richness. It reminded me of a custard served the same exact way at the French Laundry many years ago—only Thomas Keller provided a precious sliver spoon sized to fit the egg’s narrow aperture. Bar Ferdinand’s forks afforded a less elegant, and alas more wasteful, approach.

Yet the whimsy of apple foam and the delicacy of that chiseled eggshell were outliers. Most of our dishes were middle-of-the-road Spanish fare, though usually with just enough of an accent to seem fresh. Patatas bravas with a rather earthy romesco and plain-Jane aioli came also with blistered shishito peppers. That’s more keeping up with the zeitgeist than running out ahead of it, but welcome either way. There was a mushroom and goat cheese flatbread—the same one you’ve had three dozen times before, but at least Ansill didn’t totally vandalize his with synthetic truffle oil.

Ferdinand is still a fine place to drink—well balanced cocktails; a Spanish wine list unafraid of detouring from Rioja to less-trammeled regions like Extremadura and Bierzo—and Ansill is supplying respectable bar snacks. I liked the almond-crusted eggplant frites, drizzled with chili-spiced honey. A crab croquette smeared with lobster roe aioli was also good, mild drinking food, and it was thoughtful to pair it with a cool lump crab salad. And don’t worry, Ansill fans: there’s pork belly, and it was the fattiest specimen I’ve had all year—too fatty, if not for the crisp sherry vinaigrette cutting through it and a sweet bed of butternut squash.

I didn’t order the paella Valenciana—one of three “family style” dishes on offer—and I suspect I may have chosen wisely; a chorizo-and-mussel fideos (essentially, paella technique applied to broken vermicelli noodles) was all wrong. A successful fideos effort finds the noodles al dente underneath and a little crispy on top. This one came out soupy on the bottom, and not so much crispy as dried-out at the edges.

But that was one belly flop out of a dozen or so splash-free dives, and it quickly forgotten when a fantastically succulent rabbit leg—sheathed with the sweetest and crispiest skin—stole our attention with its deep and soothing saffron-sherry glaze.

There were good desserts: churros with a teacup of dense liquid chocolate; cider-soaked bread fried up like state-fair food; olive oil wafer cakes punctuating a little symphony of almonds—Marcona brittle and a subtly flavored ice cream.

So what to make of Ansill’s return? Is it Robert Downey Jr. triumphant as Iron Man, or jazzing Ally McBeal’s love life (and ratings) for a season before getting written out of the plot as too unreliable to bank on?

Neither one, perhaps. As far as dinner goes, nothing very dramatic has befallen Bar Ferdinand. But Ansill’s sure hand has the potential to buoy this restaurant.

I hope it does. Bart Blatstein’s corner of Northern Liberties has become a monoculture of gastronomical mediocrity. (And something tells me that PYT opening a cocktail-bar themed after 1970s softcore erotica isn’t likely to change that dynamic.) But Ansill could at Bar Ferdinand. With understated sophistication, and without pumping up prices, he’s providing a good model for how a restaurant here can grow up.

Bar Ferdinand [Official]

All David Ansill coverage [Foobooz]