First Look: Jansen
There’s nothing new about scallops, lemons, capers, and parsley. It’s a plate full of beige, ecru, and green as tame as Pottery Barn. Fortunately, David Jansen’s scallops are just as pleasant as the catalog-worthy interior at your Aunt Susan’s house. Seared golden and seasoned beautifully, they sink slowly into a puree of cauliflower punctuated with jewels of preserved lemon and parsley leaves.
It’s a plate as restrained and classic as the atmosphere his new namesake restaurant, Jansen, housed in the historic Cresheim Cottage on Germantown Avenue just between Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. Most recently, the space held the bright, earth-toned Cafe Avienda. Now, its white linen, black chairs, modern drum-style lights and contemporary wallpaper contribute to a space that feels at once modern and classic. In its clean lines and cool palette, Martha Stewart could have had something to do with the makeover.
Jansen himself is something of a classic, too. While today a respectable tenure in a restaurant kitchen requires scarcely more than a year (and, just as often, less), Jansen spent a decade as the chef de cuisine at the Four Seasons. Then, in 2010, he left; bowed out of the industry entirely following the death of his father, opting instead to spend the last few years with his family. Six years later, he’s back in the game.
But six years can mean a lot of shifting in the restaurant industry. The Fountain is gone, replaced by upscale-comfort food hybrid, Urban Farmer. Jansen is now cooking for diners who have grown accustomed to meals made with an ethos of modernist cuisine; a city full of restaurants where dishes are tweezered together in order to make a cohesive whole.
It’s very clear that Jansen is not aiming at the same, vague “new American” menu riddled with fluid gels, puffed crackers, and compressed vegetables that seem to characterize the plates done by many in this more recent crop of upstarts. Instead, you’ll find his menu is filled with the French flavors and preparations typical of a certain era of restaurant rigor.
Beef tartare arrives with a quail egg, still in the shell, balanced on top alongside a tuft of arugula, and a perfectly crisp and cheesy potato croquette. Chinoiserie halibut on a raft of forbidden rice with deeply caramelized Shanghai bok choi, a crispy little purse-shaped dumpling, and a lemongrass ginger broth. A crab cake, served with a mushroom galette and asparagus, then sauce Américaine–that oft forgotten tomato-brandy sauce of French culinary tradition. There’s a salad Lyonnaise, but not a deconstructed salad Lyonnaise, or some twisted version that swaps in some new protein, vegetable, or technique. Everything’s still there—frisée, bacon lardons, poached egg, sherry vinaigrette—just as it would have been a decade ago.
While some diners will find this return to tradition deeply soothing and exceptionally comforting, it’s also true that some elements come across as dated. Like a spray of woody thyme stuck vertically into the puck of potato croquette, or the squiggle (there’s no other word for it) of balsamic on the plate for the beef tartare, or the cocktail menu in general. In the same way we have (or will) come to cringe at the under-seasoned powders and gels that currently pass as food all too often at otherwise excellent new American restaurants, these details recall another moment in dining. Being faced with them at dinner feels like when you’re in middle school and your dad tells a dad joke in front of your friends. At home, it’s funny, but at school, next to the cool kids, it feels a little embarrassing.
But even though the bias-cut eggroll, stood on it’s ends on the duet of pork dish looks like something from the early-aughts, you can’t argue with the fact that it’s a smart dish. A fan of pork loin in a pool of caramel-colored umami-rich jus, cubes of fatty pork belly, and crackling spatzle. Because what else is in an eggroll besides stir fried cabbage, a little pork, and a few threads of carrot? Sauerkraut, so natural with pork, is a natural in spring-roll format, the tang of the vegetable particularly well suited to its fried exterior.
Desserts, by pastry chef Eboni Peartree, hit the mark where so many torn shreds of dry, modernist cake fail. The chocolate caramel peanut bar, as it’s named on the menu, is a buffet of three desserts in one: a chocolate peanut butter s’more, a little wedge of cake, and a peanut butter pretzel pop. Her lemon poppy seed sponge cake, coated in torched meringue and served with a grilled lemongrass ice cream and a crown of spun sugar is pretty, and besides that, delicious.
Jansen isn’t going to kick off the latest Instagram sensation, but it has the potential to do something else. It has the potential to remind us of something, whether of Philadelphia dining’s French roots, of the pleasure of a three course meal, or the fact that a beautifully cooked piece of meat and a well made sauce will slap the pants off of the best fluid gel, any day of the week. Certain things will always be classic.