There was a time, not so long ago, that you couldn’t swing a leg of jamon Iberico in this town without hitting a restaurant serving pork belly. Furnished with lentils or polenta, glazed with molasses or apple cider, these crisped, melting mille-feuilles of meat and skin and fat were inescapable, and though I could think of way worse things to escape from, the cut was overexposed and eventually abandoned en masse by chefs and diners eager for the next “it” protein.
But in 2005, at the height of the pork-belly craze, there was no better place to sate a craving than at David Ansill’s eponymous small-plate atelier.
I remember his pork belly, jauntily cocked over quark spaetzle like a fedora; I remember its crunchy skin like a pane of caramel, and how its virtuous greasiness coated my lips like Burt’s Bees. David Ansill took my pork-belly virginity one night in Queen Village — along with my uni virginity, marrow virginity and wild-boar-prosciutto virginity. None of those items seems terribly uncommon today, an era in which social-media-savvy chefs share Instagrams of a pig on Tuesday that winds up on your table as headcheese come Friday. But back then, these things felt mysterious and sexy and novel. For a brief, bright time, nobody was better at capturing that sprit than David Ansill.
Then a whole lot of sad, ugly shit happened. We lost part of Ansill when he took a job cooking at a glorified sports bar. We lost the rest of him when he suddenly decamped to the Caribbean, a self-imposed exile running a beach shack for a duplicitous Jamaican hotelier. But really, if we’re all being honest, Ansill was gone long before that, from the moment he closed the doors at Third and Bainbridge. Maybe I’m overstating the case, but I know what the restaurant meant to me; I can only imagine what it meant to him.
So it feels really, really good that he’s back, and almost poetic for a server to present me with a soft cushion of pork belly in crimson tomato-saffron conserva, the penultimate course in an eight-plate tasting at Bar Ferdinand, the restaurant in which David Ansill is staging his comeback.
The relationship is mutually advantageous for owner Owen Kamihira, who knows Ansill from their days at Copa on South Street. I can’t remember the last time I ate at this moodily lit tapas bar, which opened in 2006 and has settled down to a contented simmer since the departure of opening chef Blake Joffe. But here I am, sipping a mellow solera-aged Manzanilla sherry in a dark corner the carnival lights of El Camino Real can’t penetrate; reminded, as the Piazza looms across the street, that in the hierarchy of Northern Liberties businesses, Bar Ferdinand is kind of an old head.
“Blake set the bar high, but then there were five chefs in six years,” Ansill says. “I want to make [Bar Ferdinand] what Owen wants it to be, what it used to be — a chef-driven restaurant. He thinks I can do it.”
He won’t get any disagreement from me. Despite a dud of an opener for the tomato-themed tasting — here’s looking at you, oil-poached cherry tomato over too much black-olive purée and too little salsa verde — the rest of the clean-cut courses rang with the commanding clarity Ansill was known for at his namesake spot. “It’s been three years since I really cooked like this,” he notes — but it doesn’t seem like he’s missed a beat.
To wit: juicy heirloom-tomato gazpacho, stylish in glass cups, with icebergs of salsa-verde-marinated crabmeat sinking to the bottom of the soup like emeralds. More heirlooms, in a salad anointed with tomato oil and garnished with fried parsley and fresh mint. Crunchy pan con tomate, grilled bread rubbed with fruit and topped with crispy Serrano ham. Thick-cut wheels of green tomato breaded, fried and dabbed with smoky, spicy chorizo vinaigrette. The bites followed in succession, each better than the last. Getting reacquainted has never been so delicious.
While Ansill is slowly turning over the entire menu at Bar Ferdinand — he estimates it’ll be live the end of September — his ingredient-centric tastings go down every Thursday. Some of the dishes may have been perilously simple (though no less flavorful or well-executed), and most could stand to be a bit more substantial. Even with an exquisite grilled rouget in tomato-and-shrimp broth plus the pork belly’s protein quotient, I left hungry enough to scarf two slices of leftover pizza when I got home. Still, the menu is an undeniable steal at $40.
Throw in $20 more for a quartet of wine pairings courtesy of bar manager Ben Robling; he’s pimping a wondrous collection of Spanish jewels and he’s not afraid to use ’em, from the Ameztoi family’s fresh, spritzy Txakolina to a bewitching, copper-colored Bodegas Olivares dessert wine made from ancient vines that thrive in the sandy soils of Jumilla — a sick pairing for dense chocolate truffles rolled in salty, smoky Marcona almonds.
Robling’s choices enhanced Ansill’s cooking at every turn; I just wished they could have been paced better. The first wine, that Manzanilla, didn’t arrive until halfway through the second course, and its cousins followed at clumsy intervals. This was par for the course here, where 10 minutes ticked by before anyone came to the table after our arrival, and the staff seemed as averse as vampires to changing our used silver. It’s been a while since anyone at Bar Ferdinand has served a tasting menu.
With Ansill on board, that should change. “I’m surprised people still remember me,” he concedes, sounding shy. Oh, they do. Your pork belly, too.
1030 N. Second St., 215-923-1313, barferdinand.com. Dinner served Sun., 3 p.m.-mid., Mon.-Thu., 4:30 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat., 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun.,11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Thursday tasting, $40; tapas $6-$18.