Friday, September 14, 2012

An Affection for Fond

East Passyunk Avenue in the South Philly section of Philadelphia is now a heavily-weighted anchor to the city’s dining scene, boasting a bastion of bars and restaurants that fortifies the neighborhood’s culinary might. This walkable stretch from Broad Street East to Dickinson, once an Italian-American shopping mecca, has undergone a rebirth where food has become the serious commodity. Part of this burgeoning base is Fond, another gem in Philly’s BYOB jewel-box that radiates with an endearing backstory, a refined setting, sparkling menu, polished service - and an upcoming second act that is sure to shine.

Fond is a contemporary New American 36-seater fundamentally rooted in the tenets of classical French cooking. Owned and operated by three highly-pedigreed friends (two of which happen to now be married), it’s a partnership that reflects the portrait of Philly’s restaurant growth: cronies conceive a startup during long and late shifts, build it themselves, start small and use that sweat equity to expand. Chef Lee Styer first met his wife and dessert queen Jessie Prawlucki at the Culinary Institute of America, then remained close as they spent time in Philadelphia kitchens: Lee initially at Tangerine, then Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel and Le-Bec Fin, where Jessie specialized in pastry. Tory Keomanivong, the affable Front-of-House floor leader and third partner, carries a passport bearing stamps for haute-service in hotelier hospitality, with stops at Founders in the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue, and Lacroix, where he encountered Lee.

Jessie, Lee & Tory representing Fond at Taste of the Nation
Fond opened in 2009, having recently celebrated its third anniversary on August 29th. Its name was derived during a brainstorming session when Fond was suggested for its relevance to Foundation, signifying the basis of their friendship on which the restaurant would be built; the deeply-embedded French nature of their cuisine and practices; and the core groundwork that would provide footing for future projects. The restaurant is understatedly elegant and sophisticated, its walls painted an avocado hue and lined with glossy food-centric photos taken by and starring the proprietors. The setting, service and menu display a decidedly rich element reminiscent of George Perrier, but are without the white glove pretension or exorbitant pricing. Even a private outdoor patio table behind the kitchen providing a unique dining experience for two or more is unfussy yet incomparable. 

Entering Fond is like opening the door to a bustling bistro on the edge of a Parisian sidewalk, where Keomanivong greets customers with the ease of a restaurant veteran and a reassuring smile. Once seated, wines are opened with the utmost professionalism, Keomanivong decanting prized bottles with the care of a Captain, poised like an actor in tableside theater. When evening specials like foie gras torchon, smoked gazpacho and braised lamb shoulder atop garlic scape risotto are announced, the table gets quiet as guests ponder them and a menu that expresses seasonal sensibility and a global influence. For those who desire a sampling rather than battle indecision, a five and seven-course tasting is available.

Styer is a magician in the kitchen - young in age but mature in his ability to deftly craft and devise dishes that may leave one dumbfounded at their depth and approachability. After ordering, the parade of plates begins, first an amuse-bouche like a foamy wild mushroom velouté served in a tall shot glass that is meant to be savored by the sip. A soldier in black offers slices of olive and sourdough bread that are baked by Prawlucki at her own prized patisserie Belle Cakery located up the block. Yellowfin tuna tartare glistens in a beautiful bowl of white, floating in a coconut-based broth where avocado and red curry swim, topped with micro cilantro. It’s a refreshing summery starter with a decidedly Asian bent, but honed with a sharp French focus. Foie gras, a gastronomic symbol of France, reveals itself in various palate-pleasing preparations. In the torchon, the liver has been rolled in cloth, poached, re-rolled, chilled and sliced beautifully, expertly made and tasting like creamy butter, its richness cut by pickled watermelon, and its beauty highlighted by the placement of finely minced chives on one side of its surface. When seared, the foie is not dense but almost indulgently fluffy, the plate made more sweet (and dessert-like) with the addition of lemon ricotta, where almonds add a textural crunch and rhubarb provides a balancing tartness and acidity. In a whimsical ethereal soup served in a demitasse, the foie is pureed with brandy and cream, its decadent froth whispering the name of Thomas Keller.

Rustic versions of countryside cooking are other testaments to Styer’s craftsmanship. A recent wild boar rillette brought enhanced flavor to pork in a version that was breaded and lightly fried, delivering crunch and a contrast to the soft interior of the shredded dark meat. Served aside a frisée salad and housemade aioli, it represented elevated simplicity. Likewise, a special venison pâté shrouded in fat spread cool on warm sourdough croutons with house-made mustard - only slightly adorned but artistic in its minimalism. I even still recall a luscious, airy chicken liver mousse, served alongside an array of house-pickled vegetables, sliced apple and assorted toasts that paired perfectly with a nutty 1995 Dom Pérignon. 

Entrees, priced in the mid-to-upper $20s, warrant the cost and speak to the quality of the product as well as the ambitious and inventive undertaking. In the colder months, Styer’s pork belly is an unforgettable rendition that is brined, poached then pan-seared to create an ultra crispy skin that is the ultimate contrast to the juicy, moist, fat-ingrained meat. Served atop Okinawan sweet potatoes in a Dijon jus, it’s one of the city’s most impressive and flavorful versions of the popular cut. When available, the skate wing is delectable, caramelized to a golden color and served over a lemon edamame risotto in a soy brown butter sauce. It just returned to the menu in an updated version with royal trumpet mushrooms and a garlic pesto. Styer’s deconstructed paella is an homage to Spain, with grilled, sublimely tender octopus, creamy Spanish rice, chorizo and mussels, spiked with saffron and spice, peppers and tomato. A recent duck special brought a sliced and fanned medium-rare bird, the skin seared to a toothsome bite, set atop a duck liver tamale with roasted mushrooms and a spiced duck jus. A foie-stuffed pork tenderloin delivered the same richness, countered by a sweet corn risotto that spoke of Summer. Styer clearly abides by a nose-to-tail philosophy, where the vision of a dish incorporates the whole use of an animal in creative fashion. 
Pork Belly (photo: courtesy of Fond)

Fond’s food would not be so impactful without the proper spacing and timing of its staff. Flawless service is undeniably warm, friendly and efficient. Keomanivong makes most moves look easy, smoothly serving one table to the next. His ever-present sidekick and South Philly native Steve Schavio, another Lacroix import, is cut from the same mold - practically telepathic and providing harmony in a room that can often-times get quite loud. Wine glasses are replenished and replaced without asking, sometimes without notice by the diner. Dishes are eloquently explained and delivered, and never rushed. It’s as if friends are spoiling you at a dinner party.

Desserts by Prawlucki are a final act that demand lingering. Like the cuisine, they have a French flair, an approachable complexity and a modern comfort. While decadent, they are not entirely overfilling, a nod to her soft and skillful touch. A brown butter cheesecake atop a shortbread cookie is paired with slow-roasted strawberries and a thinly-rolled, crunchy cannoli with meyer lemon filling. A flourless chocolate cake topped with a layer of pistachio and chocolate mousse is cradled by vanilla bean mascarpone and pistachio brittle, then sprinkled with pistachio dust. Deliciously light bread pudding using leftover chocolate croissants (a hit on Sundays at Belle) sits invitingly atop macerated cherries and homemade vanilla ice cream, with added crunch from a simply placed pile of honeyed almonds. Each ingredient has a purpose - like paint on an artist’s canvas. Sorbet samplers highlight the fruits of the season, often with spice undertones that are surprisingly effective. It’s a sweet closing performance demanding applause.

After three years at their current location, the owners have embarked on a wise move less than 300 feet away to an inviting corner space at 1537 S. 11th Street. Set to open in October or November, the transition allows the triumvirate to offer liquor to its customers for the first time. While it seats about the same, roughly 36 to 40, the bar can accommodate six and there will be a chef’s table adjacent to the kitchen. Styer is naturally excited about a larger workspace and a walk-in (a luxury not possessed now), but is also thrilled and eager to be able to pair wines with his food. It’s an amazing opportunity for a team that is so customer-focused. In this regard, they will still allow BYOB at no charge during the week, with a corkage fee applied on weekends if diners choose to tote along bottles. The current space at 1617 E. Passyunk will remain under their ownership, with a concept that has yet to be revealed. It’s another transforming step in a year that has seen Lee and Jessie get married, Tory engaged, the three-year anniversary of its opening, and a 3 Bell rating awarded by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig Laban. It’s no surprise that Fond continues to garner such loving affection. It’s one of the city’s top-tier dining destinations where high-quality food and service are perfectly aligned. The latest incarnation is sure to be another treasured cornerstone - one which I will cherish with fondness.

New location (photo: courtesy of
*Portions of this entry were used as part of a Guest Blog series for Zagat Philadelphia:

*For menu updates and news, look for Fond on Twitter at

Friday, May 11, 2012

Kick Up your Cocktails with Spodee

Steven Grasse is a maverick. A Marketing Mad Man of the Modern Age. He's an entrepreneur, artist, ad guy, author and all-around cool dude who happens to operate a successful business in Philly, for which residents should be thankful. His shop and gallery space Art in the Age of Mechanical Production in Olde City promotes local culture and sustainable products, which include his well-known line of spirits ROOT, SNAP & RHUBY marketed under his PR Agency Quaker City Mercantile. It seems whatever he touches turns a golden hue, which doesn't just happen by some stroke of luck. I'd call it strokes of genius really. Foresight. Creative edge. He purchased the intellectual property rights to the estate of WWII-era tattoo artist Norman Collins for a mere $20,000 and turned it into a multi-million dollar operation under the name "Sailor Jerry." A clothing line and a series of products were developed around the style and tattoo imagery of the man, including a successfully distributed rum. The power of the label pushed Grasse to brand Hendrick's Gin, the premium spirit that is poured from a now iconically-shaped and designed bottle that feels more late 1800s than today. Take a look at a bottle of ROOT and you'll notice the classic curves and appeal. William Grant & Sons, the Scottish distiller that produced the rum for Grasse as well as Hendrick's floral gin, bought the Sailor Jerry brand in 2008, retained Grasse as its ad agent, and made him a treasure chest of bullion, all of which brings us to today.

This past Wednesday I was invited to the Preview Party for Spodee Wine, whose tagline is "Wine with a Kick" and whose bottle reveals a mule with its hind legs high in the air. Imagery tells a story. This says it all. It's part of that unconventional approach for which Grasse is known. Spodee is cursively written on old-time milk bottles and contained in wooden crates one would expect to be delivered on a doorstep in the '50s. Mix modern marketing with old-fashioned concepts. It's another indication of Grasse's "grass-roots" campaign layered with color and Rock-N-Roll undertones. So what is Spodee exactly? It's a 36-proof spirit whose name is from a Depression-era "hooch" that was mixed with fortified wine, herbs, spices and moonshine and poured into containers that were readily available at the time. Hence, the re-invented milk bottle. Hooch is a derivation of "Hoochino," which was an Alaskan tribe that made a distilled liquor of the same name in the late 1800s that became a favorite of gold rush miners. So you see, there's that mix of history again. And GOLD. I am sensing foreshadow here. Of Success.

The launch party, held at the Philadelphia Sculpture Gym in Fishtown, mixed Southern style with farmhouse charm and Prohibition-era cocktail ingenuity. A bluegrass band called Sour Mash (a befitting name for cheap whiskey) played tunes one would expect on a porch in the middle of Appalachia, transporting one to a setting and time when moonshine shone brightly (and still does!). Mark Coates, the talented chef behind the now-closed Italian Market Bebe's, brought along his roaming BBQ vehicle The Smoke Truck, which infused each offering with Spodee, including braised pork cheeks, applewood smoked chicken drumsticks, and killer mole-rubbed angus short rib sliders sporting Spodee BBQ sauce. Rival Bros. Coffee conjured up a Spodee Con Leche, featuring its namesake coffee brew served cold with sweetened condensed milk and Spodee. My Jello Americans playfully blended gelatin with alcohol in jello shots along with dark chocolates encasing liquid Spodee centers. Little Baby's Ice Cream concocted a Red Velvet Spodee Chocolate Swirl that cooled things off. It was clear that Spodee could enhance both food and sweets.

At the center of it all, though, was the bar, where Spodee really sparkles. On its own, Spodee on the rocks is syrupy and sweet, with chocolate undertones, slightly reminiscent of port wine, Kahlua and a hint of Frangelico. It can be drunk post-meal as a dessert-ending digestif, but its real draw is as a centerpiece in cocktails. Its versatility was expressed through fun recipes like the Southern Storm, an homage to the Dark 'N' Stormy, which blended Spodee with Sailor Jerry rum, ginger beer and lime juice. The Spodee & Sody, offered to guests as they entered the vast space, showed off equal parts of the hooch and cola, similar to a Rum and Coke but sweeter. The idea is that the product, marketed as a spirit from White Mule Farms, shines when it plays with others in the glass. Pour a bourbon over ice, then add some Spodee, a dash of bitters perhaps. Stir. It's that easy. Make up your own recipes or follow those provided on the neck of the bottle. Be adventurous. It's a message Steven Grasse has been following and passing along his whole career. After all, one doesn't arrive at this spot in life without kickin' things around a bit.  

Spodee is now available in PA and NJ, at liquor stores and restaurants. It's worth seeking out. Take a Walk on the Wild Side.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

PhillyCooks 2012: Cooking for Charity and Competition

The annual Philly Cooks Chef Competition was held at the 33rd Street Armory in West Philadelphia last night, kicking off a season of large-scale food events held for charity (look ahead to Brewer’s Plate and Taste of the Nation). Hosted by Philadelphia Magazine and Foobooz, the site founded by Art Etchells that was purchased by the mag, Philly Cooks gathers local chefs and restaurants to spar in a friendly cook-off for Dish of the Year, Best Appetizer, Entree, and Dessert. A portion of the proceeds benefits the Ronald McDonald House, which provides a home away from home for families of children with life-threatening illnesses receiving care at local Philadelphia hospitals. Sponsors included Mercedes-Benz and RBC Wealth Management, which setup luxe lounges in the immense space where a central bar served wine from Southern Wine & Spirits (Clos du Bois Chardonnay, Estancia Pinot Noir, Robert Mondavi Meritage, and Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon) and Stella Artois lager. Weather personalities Adam Joseph and Melissa Magee from local ABC affiliate WPVI filmed various segments and posed for pictures with attendees. Representatives from Drexel University’s Hospitality, Culinary & Food Science Program were on-hand to assist participating restaurants, while those from Acqua Panna and San Pellegrino served still and sparkling water. Gloss PR handled public relations and event planning while 95.7 FM entertained party-goers with tunes. The seemingly sleepless and ever-friendly HughE Dillon of PhillyChitChat snapped photos.

While charity was a central purpose to the event, food ruled the minds and mouths of ticket buyers, who debated their personal favorites in each category. By 7 PM, the space hummed with chatter and music, while judges evaluated over thirty entries to determine winners. Judges included Art Etchells, KYW News Reporter Hadas Kuznits, City Paper’s Food Editor Drew Lazor, and COOK’s Director of Development Jackie Baik. At 8:30PM, Philly Mag’s Publisher Marian Conicella announced the winners. The final tally:

Best Appetizer: Jason Cichonski of Ela
Whipped Robiola Bosina with shortbread, preserved kumquat, and smoked wild mushrooms

Best Entree: John Strain of Valanni
Pan-seared magret duck breast w/cocoa coffee glaze, over mashed sweet potato

Best Dessert: Stefanie Kitchener of Ciao Bella Cakes
Lemon butter cake filled with ginger-infused bittersweet chocolate, rum syrup, and Hawaiian red salt

Dish of the Year: Chris Calhoun of The Hunt Room at the Desmond Hotel
Poached Pacific halibut filet with saffron aioli, served atop tomato-orange braised Lacinato kale, with pommes allumettes

Here were my personal winners of the evening:

Foie gras and butternut squash mousse on crostini - Stateside

Tuna tartare with pickled fennel and truffle vinaigrette - Dettera Restaurant & Wine Bar

Montchevre goat cheese, flaky onion seed bread, and pineapple raisin chutney - Tashan

Whipped Robiola Bosina with shortbread, preserved kumquat, and smoked wild mushrooms - Ela

Corned Beef Special - Schlesinger’s Deli

Short Rib Ragu with shaved locatelli - Mercato

Crispy Lola duck with quail egg, apple butter, fresh horseradish - Paramour

Pan-seared scallop, apple gastrique, fennel puree - Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar

Captain Crunch ice cream - Sampan

Espresso & Coffee - Afficionado Roasters