10 Arts

The new bistro brightens the Ritz-Carlton lobby, even if the menu seems a bit tentative.

Posted: August 31, 2008

Dressing down can be a tricky affair, especially for famous French chefs and fancy hotels. When it doesn't go smoothly, it can be as awkward as watching a rich uncle step out in tube socks and loafers.

So I was intrigued to visit 10 Arts and discover what brand of casual chic would emerge from the collaboration between Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton, the marble-columned temple of classic stuffy, and the modern French perfection of super chef Eric Ripert from New York's Le Bernardin.

The Ritz, reliably upscale but lacking culinary personality, could use some star-power pizzazz. And it has brought a color-splashed face-lift to the monochrome of its domed lobby for the occasion, with prism glass arches, rose-colored windows, and cushy pink and purple furniture.

I was especially primed for Ripert's Philly debut after a stunning lunch at posh Le Bernardin this summer that was among the most elegant contemporary seafood meals I've tasted: warm crab wrapped in papery shavings of cauliflower that looked like tiny trees; geoduck clam seviche scattered with the sweet crunch of freeze-dried corn. There were genuine impressionist paintings on the wall, world-class wines in the glass, and enough servers to dab every errant drip of coffee.

Don't expect such refinements on Broad Street. Ripert has no desire to re-create the gourmet acrobatics of Le Bernardin.

"This is 'Ripert in jeans,'" the chef says. "We want to be a casual neighborhood restaurant."

It's an admirable notion in this era of anti-fuss dining - but a bit of an odd fit for one of the city's grandest spaces.

There are certainly some wonderful bistro flavors to be had, including two impressive burgers - a dry-aged prime sirloin cheeseburger that's already a contender for the city's best, and an aioli-dabbed "fish burger" of minced striped bass that tastes like bouillabaisse on a bun. There's a most delicate paillard of schnitzel-like rabbit layered between poufs of salad. There are simple-yet-expertly-cooked fish, like trout glazed in a froth of hazelnut brown butter. And there are indulgent Franco comforts like creamy mac and cheese flecked with Parisian ham, and tiny puff-pastry turnovers filled with pâté.

But unless you live in the "neighborhood" of million-dollar-plus condos now going up behind the Ritz, I can't see popping in weekly for a $24 plate of half a roasted chicken. And it was an unremarkable chicken at that, except for the remarkable absence of house-made country sausage (MIA!), and bread stuffing cubes so stale, I got crouton elbow from sawing through them.

That bird was an exceptional goof, it turns out, from a kitchen run admirably by chef de cuisine Jennifer Carroll, a five-year Le Bernardin vet who hails from Northeast Philly. But it reflects a homely corner of this menu - chicken soup with alphabet noodles, oddly minced fried calamari, tagliatelle bolognese - that seems out of place at the Ritz.

This is a business-lunch haunt by day, a special-occasion destination at night. Wealthy travelers in crisp summer linens sip bellinis and hibiscus-scented cocktails at the bar, where buttery, house-baked soft-pretzel bites perfume the air. Preppy families in the dining room pose in matching polka dots - flash! - behind matching plates of filet mignon. This isn't the chicken-soup crowd.

The Ritz was wise to move its restaurant from the out-of-the-way, old side Grill to the more open public space - even if it's still not quite perfect. An imposing glass cabinet, for example, now obscures the exquisite crystal oculus at the lobby's center with what looks like a missile silo filled with wine. But the monumentally domed lobby makes a better lounge than dining room. So go for seating in the carpeted area tucked to the left, just behind the pillars - and preferably at night, when the pink-tinted windows cast less of a sickly sepia glow.

I get the sense 10 Arts has started its menu cautiously in part to keep things simple for a new crew. It's a good idea given the still unpolished servers, who mauled the names of ingredients and the (stiflingly marked-up) wines, wore too much perfume, and set our meals to a glacial pace. They were, however, genuinely friendly.

But there's no questioning this kitchen's skill and commitment to quality ingredients, many of them sourced locally, from the creamy chowder of sweet Cope's corn to the platter of exceptional wild boar prosciutto made by Sonny D'Angelo in the Italian Market.

There is nothing wrong with a top-grade product cooked simply to perfection - a prime filet mignon in classic green peppercorn sauce, a thick filet of wild striped bass cooked "Grand-Mere" style in a Dutch oven with baby vegetables, or a meltingly tender salmon over buttery cabbage and bearnaise-scented red-wine sauce, a variation of a classic Le Bernardin monkfish dish.

Le Bernardin devotees will recognize other tastes of the restaurant's signature classics - the addictive salmon rillettes salad made from both smoked and wine-poached fish; the freshest oysters on the half-shell; a pristine round of olive-oil-slicked tuna carpaccio, which Ripert says was invented at Le Bernardin.

But it all feels so restrained. And there are flashes of fresh inspiration - like the seviche special of fluke draped over sweet watermelon and tiny charred tomatoes with a frozen "snow" of shaved goat cheese granita, or the tender square of braised pork belly over summer bean succotash - that give an intriguing glimpse of Jennifer Carroll's real creative talent. Indulging that further, freeing this kitchen to express a more ambitious personality, could allow 10 Arts to step up to the next level.

The desserts, conceived in part by Le Bernardin pastry whiz Michael Laiskonis, are already there – from the sugary little beignets with a shot of star anise-infused chocolate milk, to the cubes of creamy cheesecake with wild strawberry sorbet, and a moist clafouti pudding bursting with hot blueberries.

Overseen by pastry chef Monica Glass, another Le Bernardin-trained local (originally from West Chester), the "ChocolatePeanut" even comes with a witty Philly twist: the dark chocolate tartlets filled with liquid caramel, ganache and salty nuts are topped with an ice cream churned from TastyKake peanut butter Kandy Kakes. It's not so much dressed-down luxury as the casual elevated to luxurious heights. In the Ritz's bold new dining room, it tastes like a perfect fit.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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