The Revisit: Fond

Lee Styer is cooking with the same confidence that marked Fond’s 2009 debut, but his sense of adventure permeates even more of the menu.

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Every cook loves getting a bigger kitchen, and Lee Styer is no exception. Two-and-a-half years after moving Fond half a block from its original niche on Passyunk Avenue, he still remembers the liberation he felt.

The new liquor license was just the beginning. All of a sudden he had a walk-in fridge. Enough dry-storage capacity so that he could buy a whole case of onions at a time (rather than just five pounds). The days of sharing a single oven with his pastry chef (and wife) Jessie Prawlucki were definitively behind him.

Sure, there had been upsides to the restricted space of that first kitchen. “It made us very organized — we didn’t put stuff on the menu that we couldn’t execute.” But it was a far cry from the sprawling facilities at Lacroix, where he’d previously been. “Jessie would be baking bread and decorating a cake,” he recalls, “and two feet away, I’d be butchering a salmon. It wasn’t ideal.”

But the specs on his kitchen upgrade only tell half the story of Fond’s transformation. Styer’s recollection of a certain 80-year-old customer contains the better half.

This was a while ago now, but one of the most memorable nights of Fond’s second act — which remains under the direction of Styer, Prawlucki, and maître d’ Tory Keomanivong — was a surprise birthday party for a very old neighbor. Though perhaps “neighbor” isn’t quite the right word. Because as he sat down amidst the balloons, the honored guest realized precisely where his family had brought him: to the house where he had been born. The front had been a butcher shop, and his childhood had begun upstairs. As his eyes glazed over above the silver-oak chef’s table in Fond’s back room, he reminisced about the chickens that once had the run of that part of the house.

Sometimes you can go home again.

The thing about Fond is that it can arouse a similar sort of feeling the first time you walk through the door. The bar, a thick plank of live-edge maple backed by seashell-white mantles salvaged from the Divine Lorraine Hotel, glistens amid buttercream walls that suffuse the dining room with the warmth of a candle flame. It’s an unassuming space, and simply adorned, but at night it seems to twinkle.

That surely goes double for anyone who orders a second cocktail here. Fond is making up for lost time in the liquor department. From my peppery rye-and-gin Old Fashioned variation to a tequila-forward fruit concoction in an oversized martini glass, this bar pours some of the booziest drinks around. Which is its own brand of homey comfort — a placid haunt for drinkers in a town where dabblers have seized the upper hand.

Better yet, Fond remains a destination for BYOers, too. From Tuesday through Thursday there’s no charge for drinking out of your own cellar. And the waitstaff handles your good stuff with care. I was sure I’d regret forgetting my two-pronged puller for the fragile 25-year-old cork in my bottle, but Keomanivong’s finesse with a traditional screw got it out without leaving so much as a crumb in the neck — even though it crumbled to pieces as he set it on our table.

Styer is cooking with the same confidence and French underpinnings that marked Fond’s 2009 debut, but his sense of adventure permeates more of the menu than I recall from back then. A couple of dishes had the exotic whiff of Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes. Skewered duck hearts were accented with tahini yogurt, and sesame came through even more forcefully in an inspired scallop appetizer: its oil and seeds lending a savory bass note to a vanilla-tinged sunchoke puree that popped with quick-pickled raisins and the cool crunch of diced celery.

Tuna crudo got a lively lashing of red curry paste only partially muted by coconut cream. A lump crab risotto heady with truffles and hazelnuts called out for a contrasting note—especially in comparison to the Meyer lemon risotto that lifted a skate wing entrée to another level. The second risotto lacked nothing for richness—Styer finishes it mascarpone cheese—but its citric tang kept drawing my fork like a magnet. Alongside a braised rabbit whose Moroccan palette of preserved lemons, cinnamon and cumin formed a soothing backdrop for English peas and mint (and elongated orrechiette with just the right chew), it gave me what has reliably become my favorite sensation of the year: the feeling that spring is finally on the way.

Prawlucki’s best dessert extended it, via chunks of pistachio dacquoise caught up in a parfait of Meyer lemon curd and honey frozen yogurt.

Of course spring hasn’t sprung wide enough to spill over every dish. Thus the persistence of wintery creations like short rib with crispy caramelized-onion spaetzle doused in a powerfully concentrated Bordelaise sauce—a comfort plate nobody could complain about.

And I doubt any season moves Styer to remove his cured pork belly from the menu. That tender brick of meat — lean as bellies go — is capped with skin fried up so crispy it leaves pork rinds behind. Which, as it happens, is a legacy of Fond’s original limitations. Back before Prawlucki opened Belle Cakery, when she and Styer only had one oven between them, Styer got the idea of curing-cum-slow-cooking bellies overnight by the heat of the pilot light. A contender for Philly’s best pork belly was born.

Maybe chefs forced to forge menus in cramped kitchens develop an advantage over everyone else. After all, Fond may be a better restaurant in its second home, but let’s not forget who took over its first one.

Fond [f8b8z]