First Look: The New Season At Volver

We’ve said a lot of things about Volver over the past two years. From excitement over its potential, to bewilderment over its policies and pricing, to amazement at our first experience with a full-on performance dinner, to more bewilderment as the menu resolutely refused to change over the course of many, many months even as the concept got tweaked to make it more approachable in the second “season”.

Along the way, Volver picked up the only 4-star review that Trey has ever handed out at Philly mag, warranted a special, extra digression online after the review went up, discussing the booze, the price, the stars and the fish with its own TED Talk, and then frightened us all deeply when it announced a summer vacation–a two month long summer vacation which, not for nothing, seemed extraordinary and odd. I mean, what restaurant just gets to close down for two months in the middle of summer? What is this, France?

The team promised that they’d be re-opening on September 2nd (with Bar Volver debuting early–this Wednesday, as a matter of fact), reinvigorated and with brand new menus. We were skeptical, but hopeful. Volver has had a weird, bumpy run. We have been both fervent supporters and aporetic assholes, loudly voicing our worries and complaints in public. But the place still served me (and several of my colleagues) some of the best plates we’ve had in years, and considering the professional mouths I associate with, that’s no small thing. So when they invited us down to the kitchen late last week to show us what they’ve been working on during their summer vacation, we wasted no time.

First things first: Yes, Volver will be re-opening as promised. Bar Volver first, then the main dining room on September 2nd.

Second things second: The crew hasn’t exactly been wasting their summer vacation. While almost no other restaurant group in town could do what Garces did with Volver (go dark for two months, spend the time traveling and testing and experimenting with two new menus and myriad permutations), his is a group with both the talent and resources to do it without disaster following. They have a private website where they share ideas and post tasting notes; where variant versions of dozens of different dishes are debated by chefs not always on the same continent, all in preparation for days (like last Thursday) when they all come together in the same kitchen to put their work on the plate.

On the afternoon we visited, they were working on four new dishes for the Volver menu. Beautiful things, with rich backstories, with ingredients and process that had been discussed and argued over for weeks beforehand.

Morcilla, done like a chicharone. Or, like those fried noodles you get from Chinese takeout places. The steps (as explained by Garces’s new culinary director, Justin Bogle) are precise and numerous–making, squashing, sealing, dehydrating, slicing, frying just right. And then revuelta, kinda. Scrambled eggs, done as a smooth custard (almost), served in their shells with fried bits of Iberico ham on top, an heirloom tomato puree in the bottom like a surprise.

Like everything at Volver, there are stories behind them. (The revuelta, for example, came from Garces traveling with some of his chefs through Spain, eating and drinking and eating until they were all exhausted, until one morning Garces shut off his phone, snuck off and went to have a quiet breakfast by himself–simple revueltas and nothing more). Like everything at Volver right now, they are a work in progress–which is good, because the tomato puree tasted a little too much like ketchup to me (and not in a good way–too sweet and cloying), and the textural match between it and the egg was unpleasant. But the morcilla was delicious. Loved it. Want it every day.

On the right, salmon in a cannoli. Because why not? Visually, a stunningly beautiful plate. Tough to put together a la minute. Tastes a little off–a little hot dog-ish. But so easy to eat and the contrast in textures is brilliant.

A work in progress.

On the left, a work even more in progress. One version of a plate featuring venison, huckleberries, dill, blackberries, a solidified juniper foam, a not-so-solidified foam of…something else. A lot of moving parts. A lot of elements–not all of them vital, not all of them useful. But Garces and his team are working on something. On something for the shoulder season–hot, late summer. Something inspired by the deer that bed down around Garces’s Luna Farm and the way they trample the grasses to make a place to sleep, the things they eat. Their poop. “That’s the huckleberries,” Garces said, laughing.

But the venison dish wasn’t finished. Was less finished, even, than all the others. The other chefs in the kitchen had presentations, of which chef de cuisine Natalie Maronski‘s was the most beautiful. And they even let us play, too.

And the funny thing? The best version–one put together by Bogle, which turned into a quenelle with juniper ice off the anti-griddle, tiny, precise breadcrumbs stuck on with tweezers, and pickled slices of blueberry–isn’t even pictured here. Because we ate it too fast. Because it wasn’t pretty, but it was delicious and no one could wait and Bogle had only made one plate, on a whim, while we were all off looking at something else.

Some of these dishes will make the final menu. Some of them won’t. Testing is continuing, and refinements will happen right up through opening day (or opening minute, more likely), but what’s fascinating to me is the process. That the crew from Volver, the big brains from the Garces family of restaurants, have the ability to do this testing and tinkering and experimenting, and then actually, you know, do it. The rigorous criticism, the multiple designs of plates as they get passed around from chef to chef (hand to hand, mind to mind), makes for a situation where everyone’s strengths are utilized and everyone’s weaknesses are masked. The plates are better as a result, and even if this season at Volver won’t be all about Jose Garces (every single plate on the tasting menu will be changing, we were told), it’ll be about his team and the way Volver has grown.

I’m excited again. And I can’t wait to see how the menu finally shakes out.

All Volver coverage [f8b8z]

All photos by Yoni Nimrod