[NOTE: This is the first in what will be an on-going series of restaurant reviews on The Food, Drink & Travel Report. Over the course of the next several months, I'll be reviewing restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Spain, France, Norway, and beyond, but wanted to start in my hometown--Philadelphia.]
I had heard about the Fountain’s marinated king crab dish before, yet no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how it would work. The combination, at least in theory, seemed to break so many of the rules that buttress fine dining. King crab with burrata (seafood and cheese?!), bourbon walnuts, pea shoots, and pickled celery? It just seemed like it would be too much, a gathering of flavors and textures too broad for any one of them to really shine. And what in the world could you drink with it?
I had nothing to worry about.
The kitchen at the Fountain, whose dinners are now orchestrated by Chef de Restaurant William diStefano, is operating at such a stunningly high level, with such a deep and abiding respect for its historical role in the city’s fine-dining firmament, yet electrified by a bracingly forward-thinking ethos, that everything I’ve tasted recently, from the most seemingly straightforward to the more outré, has succeeded magnificently. The Fountain is a gorgeous embodiment of what makes fine dining not just so pleasurable, but so important, so vital. Especially now.
Like so much else here since the 2009 arrival of Executive Chef Rafael Gonzalez, that crab dish balanced vivid flavors and a remarkable concentration of character with a lighter touch than you might expect from a more formal style of dining. Heavy-handed saucing, plodding preparations, and all the other fine-dining stereotypes are wholly--and blissfully--absent here, replaced by excitement, wit, and an arsenal of influences as broad as you’d hope for in our globalized culinary world. This ethos is contemporary, yes, yet firmly rooted in what might be called an Escoffier-worthy attention to, and respect for, every last detail. It’s fine dining for the 21st century.
So again: That king crab--inspired by the rooftop garden whose bounty finds its way into so much here, including the excellent Swann Lounge cocktails--is dressed in a suspension crafted from the brining liquid used to transform paper-thin slices of celery. Bourbon walnuts are ingeniously framed by the addition of bitters. Softness, both in texture and character, is provided by a pea chibouste that dreamily embodies the startling freshness of spring, even though it was early winter when I tasted it. Burrata takes it over the top, off into some stratosphere of savoriness that I found myself craving even days later.
Course after course elicited the same reaction, a combination of one part comfort and two parts exhilaration, all of it contextualized in what remains one of the most civilized dining rooms in the region, the view of the eponymous fountain and the parkway beyond like some kind of postcard, the service as well-choreographed as anything the Pennsylvania Ballet produces across town.
A warm medallion of charred ahi tuna seemed, on the menu at least, as if it would play in the sandbox of familiarity. Paired with a sesame avocado salad, a wasabi soy dressing, and a garlic masago remoulade, the flavor combination--on paper, at least--is familiar to anyone who’s eaten at a decent restaurant in the past 10 years. But again, nothing is quite as it seems here. Or, rather, things may be what they seem, but deliver so much more than they typically do outside the confines of all but the best restaurants. Ingeniously interwoven cooking techniques and impeccable ingredients are the lynchpins here. The masago is a wild Icelandic variety, as opposed to the industrial fish-pellets most of us are subjected to elsewhere; the avocado dressing is snapped to life with pickled ginger and scallions; accompanying arugula, China Rose radish, purple-cabbage greens and more are cloaked in a thrilling blue agave - lemon dressing. That tuna is lent a darker note than usual from its blow-torch charring; this is echoed by the masago as well as the roasted garlic in the remoulade. Familiar ingredients are never ends in and of themselves here; rather, they are a means to a greater understanding of what they can do, and as such deliver a deeper sense of pleasure than you’d expect.
Clever, occasionally whimsical touches abound, and expectations are often charmingly confounded as a result. Sauteed New Jersey day-boat scallop arrives in a pool of what looks like a standard tomato coulis. Needless to say, it’s not. The tomatoes have been smoked with oak chips, then roasted with garlic, pureed then kissed with good Sherry vinegar, and otherwise utterly transformed into something far deeper than any tomato--much less one in the middle of winter--ever achieves. Paella is deconstructed and reassembled into something still familiar yet altogether more exciting, the bomba rice burstingly snappy between the teeth, the tiger shrimp, wild rock bass, and lobster perfectly cooked, the paella stock single-handedly embodying all that’s so beloved about Spanish cuisine right now, from the classic flavors of Iberia to its top chefs’ willingness to sidestep expectation on the road toward greater joy at the table.
The Fountain, of course, has always been known for its classical cuisine, and it still executes this at a stunningly high level. Its velvet-textured, roasted Cervena venison loin, for example, is framed by a housemade demi-glace and cabernet sauvignon reduction as intense and as soul-affirming as any I’ve had in the past year or more; and the chestnut bread pudding channels the flavors of the season as well as anything Bing Crosby ever recorded. But this is a kitchen that isn’t content to leave it at that, and their range of influences and inspirations is mind-boggling. Grouper medallion arrives in a delicate little tagine and is kissed with the cardamom, cumin, and rose petal perfume of the Tangier blend from standout New York spice merchant La Boîte a Epice. Spiced farina echoes those flavors with its own hints of cinnamon stick and saffron. Close your eyes and take a forkful of deliriously tender grouper, a sweetly bloomed raisin, and a bit of candied kumquat, and you’re no longer in Philadelphia, but somewhere in North Africa.
Not all the highlights, however, are that exotic. Indeed, one of the most wittily accomplished preparations I’ve tasted in recent memory is the celeriac and duck leg confit “scrapple” that, though ostensibly an accompaniment to the silky roasted duck breast and seared foie gras, actually turned out to be an unexpected centerpiece--sweet from Granny Smith apple, savory from mushrooms, shallots, and thyme, the entirety as revelatory as that initial bite of cheese steak is for first-time visitors to the city. High-low combinations rarely work this perfectly.
With such a range of flavors and influences, all of this could prove to be a minefield for a sommelier. Crab, pickled celery, and burrata? It’s enough to make any wine-professional throw up their hands in frustration and their tastevin on the floor in surrender. Fortunately, Sommelier Scott Turnbull possesses not only a deep understanding of flavor and texture, but a sneakily clever sense of creativity that often leads to surprises where you’d least expect them. His Dr. H Riesling goes toe-to-toe with that crab dish, and works on all its many levels. A 2004 Tempranillo Crianza from Valeriano, after that first sip, seems to have been custom-made for the aromatic mystery of the grouper.
Even the range of desserts was no problem for him. (And what desserts they were, from a gingerbread financier with egg nog ice cream and bruleed banana to a Meyer lemon basil tart that, despite the season and the monsoon blowing outside the night I tasted it, transporting my table directly to springtime.) When the dessert-wine cart is rolled over to the table, it’s the grown-up equivalent of that first glimpse of the amusement park as a kid: The possibilities, the pleasures, seem limitless. My favorite dessert match of Turnbull’s was the Dios Baco Pedro Ximenez with Pastry Chef Eddie Hales’s crispy almond chocolate strudel with a spicy chocolate gelato and orange-scented custard. Pure magic.
Dining like this is about reminding yourself how good it feels, and how necessary it is, to treat yourself well once in a while. A meal here, as it does at truly great restaurants all over the world, unfolds like a novel, from the amuse bouche to the cheese cart to the little bag of sweets given to you as a parting treat. It’s a reminder of the pure, unmitigated joys--both sensual and intellectual--that fine dining, at its best, can confer. The Fountain is getting it absolutely right, and with a sense of joy underpinning it all. That’s fine dining for our times. That’s what we all deserve to treat ourselves to far more often than we typically do.