Village Whiskey

At Village Whiskey, where bourbon is a natural focal point, 150 or more bottles of spirits cover the wall.
At Village Whiskey, where bourbon is a natural focal point, 150 or more bottles of spirits cover the wall. (Tony Fitts)

Jose Garces' latest tempts with fine spirits and a burger that is Philadelphia's best. Good luck getting in.

Posted: December 06, 2009

Bourbon and burgers have long been two of my favorite food groups. But when I behold them side-by-side in their highest forms, posed on the zinc bar-top at Village Whiskey, it's clear this duo is the ultimate height of low-down American decadence.

With 150-plus bottles of bourbon, Scotch, and rye majestically arrayed before the mottled bar mirror to choose from, this is surely one of the city's deepest wells of dark-spirit luxury.

Add to this mix a splash of super-chef Jose Garces, and rest assured that the burger itself has also been given its gastronomic due. Ground in-house daily from grass-fed, naturally raised Maine beef, with different grind sizes for the various cuts in the blend, and an ingenious shaping technique that results in patties with a perfect end-grain (as opposed to one big bouncy smush), this is now my single favorite Philly burger.

One can top it with shaved white Alba truffles or creamy pads of seared foie gras, or a cool salad of sweet lump crab tossed with horseradish crème fraîche. But such gilding, aside from some cave-aged Vermont cheddar or smoky Oregon bleu, is hardly necessary. The liver, in fact, actually gets in the way of the primal satisfaction this $9 wonder already gives. With its ideal seasoning, meaty tenderness, and butter-crisped bun, its flavor lingers on my taste buds with the all-day mineral shine of a far more expensive cut of beef. The sweet amber sting of whiskey only intensifies the hum.

It's no wonder I saw so many other diners perched on the tall leather banquettes in this corner tap room in the same slow-motion tableau: two hands carefully gripping the house-baked sesame-seed bun, jaws moving with deliberate savor, eyes dreamily gazing off to some happy place, while a swelling puddle of juice collects on the plate below. It is that mesmerizingly delicious.

Unfortunately, such indulgence has its price: Good luck getting in, let alone a table for more than two. And God help the hungry soul who desires a seat at an hour commonly associated with eating.

"It'll be about one hour and fifteen minutes for a table," said the glib little host in sweater and wood-plug earrings from behind his clipboard at the entrance. This wasn't prime time - for which I've heard of three-hour waits. This was 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night.

If the backup was purely the result of a successful concept, Garces could be forgiven. Even the draw of his growing celebrity, bound to swell since he was recently catapulted into the Food Network's pantheon of Iron Chefs, is understandable.

But Village Whiskey was doomed to maddening bottlenecks the second Garces signed the lease on a 32-seat nook next to his Tinto, with no reservations taken (and with a chunk of its seats wedged along a ledge in back where most restaurants would hang coats or storage.)

These aren't insurmountable obstacles - I managed several meals through a combination of off-hour visits, small parties, and sheer determination. And once rewarded with a seat on the tufted russet banquettes, a snifter of Kentucky's finest in my hand and Dinah Washington crooning the blues in my ear, I enjoyed one of my definitive Philly meals: a platter of briny Cape May Salts (both raw and herb-roasted), a hot crock of cheese puffs gratinéed in Gruyère, a mason jar of house-pickled baby beets, that dream burger, and a killer malted chocolate-peanut butter sundae.

But for all its many virtues, Village Whiskey can often be less than the sum of its parts. Its space limitations present hassles that will try even the most devoted Garces fans. And the buildup only casts a brighter light on some nagging flaws.

On this small menu, which has some obvious highlights, there are more slips than previously seen from a Garces kitchen - especially in the main-course options beyond the standard burger. The BBQ pulled pork sandwich is thoroughly ho-hum, slathered in too much sauce, and lacking a hint of pit smoke (because it's roasted). The homemade veggie burger lacks a toothy oomph, with all the texture of bean dip.

The lobster roll is technically fine, with the butter-poached meat from an entire one-pound lobster in Old Bay aioli on a homemade hot dog bun. But with the unnecessary distractions of smoked bacon and (unripe) tomato, it's just the latest overdressed $28 version of a sandwich that's inevitably better in its simpler form.

I had issues with the popcorn shrimp (too heavily breaded) and the sauce for those crispy melt-away tater tots (Vidalia crème fraîche is too sweet). But few letdowns irked quite like the duck-fat fries, which rarely had a crisp and lacked much flavor payoff. I'd order them simply as a vehicle for dipping the faux-trashy cheese sauce made with Sly Fox beer, aged cheddar, and genuine Whiz. But when layered beneath that cheese and an extra heap of braised short ribs, they were just a soggy pile o' food uncharacteristic of the usually elegant tapas king.

These nits are so glaring because Village Whiskey's kitchen is capable of such highs. The Cobb, for example, is true a gem of saladry, with amazingly tender blackened dark meat, a perfect avocado, and hard-boiled egg over lemony romaine. The raw bar is small but ideal, with expertly shucked oysters (both West and East Coast) and briny top neck clams that make for a bracing sea-cleanse. The roasted oysters, puffed in garlicky tarragon butter and lightly warmed beneath a lacework of Parmesan, are as good as any I've had. The Kentucky-fried quail (KFQ), with its buttery corn succotash, is a delightful game-bird riff on the Colonel's zesty crust.

Meanwhile, the menu's ode to pickles, with mason jars of truffled artichokes, peeled cherry tomatoes, or anchovy-laced cippolinis, is a novel way to whet a steady thirst - or a throwback to salty saloon-era nibbles.

The black-and-white tiled decor, with turning fans and pendant lights dangling from the pressed-tin ceiling, certainly evokes a speakeasy mood. And ultimately, its greatest assets beyond the bun flow from its awesome parade of bottles - aggressively priced, but special nonetheless.

Bourbon is its natural focal point, with classics from Pappy Van Winkle, Four Roses (go single-barrel), George T. Stagg, and special-edition Woodford Reserve (Four Grain is my fave). But Scotch lovers should be equally pleased with drams of Bruichladdich, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Springbank, and Japan's Yamazaki.

There is also some impressive cocktail wizardry, from outstanding classics (a spot-on Sazerac) to contemporary flights of fancy such as the unnamed off-menu experiment (tequila, mezcal, and "chocolate mole bitters") that I dubbed "Day of the Dead." Its bittersweet cocoa notes swirled into agave smoke, nuts, and a lingering chile heat, and it could have been dessert had the spice not left my lips numb.

Then again, at Village Whiskey, a little pain, it seems, is usually required before its pleasures.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the new Marigold Kitchen. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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