When the crystal chandeliers dimmed for Nicholas Elmi, he didn’t have to travel very far. Three blocks plus change separate Le Bec-Fin, where Elmi was chef for three years, and his new kitchen, the comparatively casual Rittenhouse Tavern, tucked in the back of the majestic Philadelphia Art Alliance.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” says 31-year-old Elmi. “I feel like doing something a little more fun right now. I don’t want to spend 365 days a year in fine dining anymore.”
Elmi will bristle like a toothbrush if you say he’s trading down. But even he has to admit Rittenhouse Tavern’s nuts and bolts, from the instant-mashed-potatoes name to the looming shadow of corporate ownership — it’s the first freestanding operation for mega-caterer Restaurant Associates — do him no favors. After Le Bec, I’d think a cook of his talent and pedigree would be making moves on his own place, somewhere small and offbeat and chef-driven, not trading one babysitter for another.
The octopus legs, writhing through a scene of black-pudding puree, tiny violet potatoes and fresh and pickled apricots, sure made me look dumb.
This first stunning presentation (inspired by the octopus chandeliers in the current “Shiny Monsters” exhibit, housed in an Art Alliance gallery) made it clear Rittenhouse Tavern is chef-driven. Or chefs-driven, if you count the influence of Restaurant Associates VP of food and beverage Ed Brown, who sired the recipes for the crab cakes and a fair mushroom soup accessorized, via Elmi, with crushed cocoa nibs and a cappuccino-like froth of black-walnut milk.
Elmi has put power and creativity behind this menu, and his corporate overlords don’t seem concerned with micromanaging his use of black garlic, ice plant, foie or frog’s legs. This is a very good thing.
The last one turned up in a new-school take on jalapeño poppers, the legs piped full of lemony cream-cheese mousse, breaded and fried crisp. They looked like dollhouse drumsticks, served upright on green dots of zippy arugula-and-watercress puree, their handles encircled by bracelets of pickled finger pepper, the source of the fruity, refreshing heat. Give me these, some tequila and a shot of the housemade kaffir soda, and I’ll be a happy guy for a few hours at Rittenhouse Tavern’s snug little bar. Or better yet, in the leafy garden with its herbal perfume and sun-warmed bricks.
Inside, the Tavern spreads its 70 seats across the back of the Art Alliance. Geese in tones of jade and hazy gold hover above the tables in a mural that wraps the main dining room like morning mist. Richard Blossom Farley, who painted them in the 1920s, would no doubt be pleased they’ve been preserved by designer Elisabeth Knapp (Zahav). In the lounge, a Carrera marble fireplace yawns, wealthy and bored. Thick moldings frame every doorway and window. Casual might be Rittenhouse Tavern’s operative adjective, but the atmosphere is as old money as high tea on the Titanic.
Salvaged-wood surfaces, distressed-leather accents and a staff in jeans help to leaven the mood, but the challenge falls mostly to Elmi, who responds with the city’s most lucid fluke crudo. The kombu-cured fish curled down a plate, infant fronds of dill, chive and pearls of sweet lemon puree as green and yellow as a Packers jersey against the fluke. Each bite burst with citrus that vanished with a crunch of shaved radish and tingle of crushed pink pepper.
Even at $16, the fluke (an inexpensive fish) is a dish worth overpaying for, but it’s not the only overpriced item on the menu. While nothing crosses the $30 threshold and entrées are generally reasonable, most of the bar snacks and starters could all drop a dollar or two. Or five, if we’re talking about the Thai mussels, whose holy basil must be blessed by Buddha to command an outlandish $18.
Halibut, quickly cured and perfectly cooked, supported a tangle of briny sea bean tips and ivory wriggles of thin-sliced poached squid. I loved the unexpected treatment of calamari here, a chewy accent against the snappy beans and rich fish. Those three elements create a perfect storm of texture, but unfortunately, this is not a perfect dish; the thin lobster/uni broth in which the halibut resides lacked power, and while I appreciated the crunch from fried grains of wild rice, the molar I almost cracked did not.
Blushing Campari-and-rhubarb broth was another slight misfire, a twinge too bitter for tall seared scallops wearing pea-leaf ’fros. But the mollusks shone, looking smart in their seasonal attire of shaved white asparagus, rhubarb, peas and tarragon-pea puree. Without the Campari, this would be the dish of spring 2012. A pity we’ll never get to taste a correction, as Elmi has already switched the scallop prep to include Hakurei turnips, farro and yuzu. (The halibut has also recently been replaced with a turbo dish.)
Rhubarb is still around, though, treated three ways in one of the stunning desserts, a bowl of nutty, crumby brown-butter cake and crème-fraiche sorbet. There were points of poached rhubarb, lavender-perfumed gelee, even rhubarb soup. A waiter streamed the sweet-and-sour liquid over the dessert, its clear, quartz-pink color echoed in the lavender blossoms orbiting the inside of the bowl. It was the best dessert I’ve had in recent memory.
But it wasn’t the only one. Inky blueberry soup toed the line between sweet and savory with red wine, port, thyme streusel and cool, unusual lemon-and-sage ice cream. Elmi served this vivacious soup during his tasting audition for Rittenhouse Tavern. No wonder he got the job.
RITTENHOUSE TAVERN | 251 S. 18th St., 215-732-2412, rittenhousetavern.com. Lunch served Tue.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; brunch Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner served Tue.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m. Bar snacks $6-$11; appetizers $11-$16; entrées, $15-$29; desserts, $9.