April 6-12, 2006
Eats : FoodLuxe Comfort
Ansill mixes the laid-back feel of Judy's with European style and cuisine.
: Michael T. Regan
Taking over the Queen Village space where Judy's Cafe entertained crowds for decades, David and Catherine Ansill, owners of Bella Vista's BYO Pif, have fashioned the ultimate wine and snack bar for discerning consumers. Admittedly, game meats and caviar sound hoity-toity in a room that used to be famous for meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Yet even with a full redesign and completely different concept, Ansill has somehow preserved the laid-back, hippie-era spirit of its predecessor. You can plop down at the bar or a table, sip a glass or three of delicious wine, order a few intriguing nibbles and unwindthe only catch being that at this point you probably need to be lucky enough to get there before the masses.
As with tapas, the plates are small, the dishes are shared (if you need an extra portion they will tack on another toast or langoustine for a small sum) and the food comes out as it's ready. Our waitress even offered to shuffle our selections in the computer, iPod-style, so they would not overwhelm our table all at once. By the fifth or sixth round we'd actually forgotten what we'd ordered and figured we were through. Imagine our delight, then, when the pork belly, plump and unctuous, arrived with its tasty little bed of yellow-tinged mustard spaetzel twists.
On its own, the food is absolutely compelling. It's exotic at times, but never boastful. Duck eggs, for instance, are not a gratuitous, chichi garnish to a dish with six other ingredients. They are served in a bowl, scrambled to a luxuriant softness, folded with flakes of smoked trout and a swirl of créme fraîche. Also in the ovo category are feathery light shirred eggs, baked with truffles and capped with a triangle of the guilty-pleasure-to-end-all-guilty-pleasures, foie gras. These are dishes that stun and surprise but they're not drama queens. You savor them, and continue your conversation.
Ansill is obviously a student of French cuisine and many selections that seem unusual in Philly would actually qualify as rustic, quotidian eats in Europe: French-inspired roasted bone marrow disks, helpfully pre-scooped and served on crostini. There's a Tuscan coupling of roasted porcini mushrooms with melting Taleggio cheese. Some are even taken straight out of the tapas tradition, like buttery, tender, grilled baby Spanish octopus with a tangy bite of sherry vinegar, or boquerones, pickled anchovies that are rightly paired with roasted pepper on rounds of toast.
Adventuresome diners are rewarded here but you don't have to be a pedigreed foodie to enjoy the langoustine, grilled and served on the half shell and drizzled judiciously with truffle vinaigrette, their sweet and creamy meat offset by the earthy oil, or the tender, raw venison meat chopped up and presented as tartare with toast points, mustard and a quail egg on top.
Only rarely are the flavors a couple of shakes short of delectablenessthe bone marrow toasts and wild mushroom crostini could use more salt. I wasn't wild about the sea bass in a light nage (poaching broth). Though elegant, it is too subtle and too meal-like to work in this context.
These are the only complaints I can muster, though. On the dessert front there's a variety of cheeses from around the world, like Spanish manchego and Keen's cheddar, which come as one-off dishes with homemade crackers and accompaniments like jam and quince paste. There's a small menu of sweeter selections, too, such as pastry chef Catherine Ansill's vol au vent, an airy puff pastry window with apricot and praline. The panino of the day was a homemade glossy brioche spread with Nutella, mascarpone and raspberry jam and toasted. It's the kind of thing that would be easy enough to replicate, if you weren't already planning your next visit to Ansill.
627 S. Third St. 215-627-2485 www.ansillfoodandwine.com
Sun.-Thu., 5:30-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.-midnight Small plates, $4-$17 No wheelchair access. No smoking. All major credit cards accepted. No reservations. BYO optional ($15 corkage fee).