Tuesday, March 29, 2011

James on 8th - A Sleek Oasis in Bella Vista

I walked into James a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night at 9pm, expecting a packed lounge and limited seats for their Tuesday night "Hours of Happiness" (8 -10pm), when draught beers are sold at half-price and two wines (a white & a red) are offered at $6. Unexpectedly, only four patrons sat at the long, inviting bar, leaving me freedom of choice in selecting any cozy leather-backed chair I wanted. I did eye the glowing fireplace as it beckoned me closer to a love-seat, but I kept that invitation in my back pocket for a future visit. I read the cocktail menu with a keen eye, seeing a mixture of signature cocktails made with house-infused spirits, top-rated draft beers and carefully selected wines by the glass. Hops were on my mind, so I immediately ordered a Central Waters Imperial Stout, a smooth and creamy brew with coffee undertones. One of the reasons I came to James on this night was the previous evening's Twitter announcement of FREE oysters, which Ali the bartender brought to me minutes after my arrival. Two pristine, perfectly-shucked mollusks were presented atop a mound of ice, their juices still intact. Topped with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of tabasco (provided elegantly in a tiny cup), the oysters were a refreshing opening to the evening. Slices of house-made olive and Italian bread smeared with a gorgeously sweet-and-salty butter also whet the appetite.

While I sipped my beer, I eyed the comforting and cool space surrounding me. Being inside James' restaurant is like lounging around your rich uncle's living room. It's a sexy, sleek, intimate oasis only blocks from gritty Washington Avenue, on the same stretch of road as Bibou, one of the most highly rated dining rooms in the city. Recently, James was strangely excluded from Philly Magazine's Top 50 Restaurants Issue, which puzzled me then and now, after being ranked in the top ten the previous two years. The space hadn't changed, it was as inviting as ever with its modern design and flickering bar-top candles, and the menu remained stocked with carefully-sourced, seasonal meats, fish and produce prepared expertly by chef Jim Burke. I ignored the publication's oversight, salivating at the lounge menu, and settled on the truffled potato gnocchi gratinata ($14) and the seared hanger steak with smoked potatoes ($18). While indulging in a Williamsburg AleWerks Washington Porter, a black beauty with hints of caramel and chocolate, the baked gnocchi arrived with a beautiful truffle aroma. This dish is the adult's version of mac-and-cheese, with pillowy puffs of potato nestled in cheesy goodness and a bread-sopping sauce. For the price, this was an outstanding course that delivered layers of smoky flavor. It certainly warmed up the taste buds and my spirit. Following my pasta love-affair was a beautifully-presented seared hanger steak atop a luscious mound of silkily whipped smoked potatoes and sauteed greens. The meat was prepared to medium-rare as requested, sliced on the bias, and meltingly tender. The simple-in-name only 'red wine sauce' brought all the players together with its richness and complexity. I devoured this dish. It was, as Ali stated, a great 'bang for the buck.' Other places could easily price this meal in the mid-twenties. My two courses were outstanding - they demonstrated the kitchen's strength in cooking techniques and delivery of flavor.

Truffled potato gnocchi gratinata. A serious mac-and-cheese. Pure indulgence.
Seared hanger steak with smoked potatoes in a red wine sauce.

After wiping the plates clean, I retreated into another porter for dessert, and reminisced about my first visit to James when it opened over four years ago. I vividly recall the beautiful space, the professional service and modern approach to the cuisine. The only remnant from that initial menu is the unforgettable hand-cut pappardelle in duck ragu with chocolate shavings and orange zest. That dish transported me to an imaginary Italy then, and even in thought today, it takes me back. I know what I'll be ordering next time. It will probably be on a Tuesday, and I'll be sitting by the fire. I applaud Jim and Kristina Burke for creating a place that acts as an elegant escape for many, many hours of happiness.

Note: After five years at the South Philly location, James’ owners have recently announced their decision to move to a yet-to-be-determined location with the expiration of their lease at the end of June. While the restaurant is a ‘go-to’ destination for foodies in search of finer dining, the current address really doesn’t provide the optimum amount of foot-traffic. A new space in a more central city location will certainly provide James the added exposure required to sustain this higher-end form of dining. I wish Jim and Kristina luck in the next phase of their business.

The owners are also big fans of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Their beers are largely featured at the bar, and the brewery has collaborated with James on a special brew called Saison du James that will be featured in a special dinner on April 27th. See the following link for details:

City Paper: Stillwatern ArtisannAlesnDinner at James

You can find James on the web here:

Beer knowledge can be found here:

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