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 http://blog.philadelphiarealestate.com)
*Portions of this entry were used as part of a Guest Blog series for Zagat Philadelphia: http://blog.zagat.com/2012/09/guest-blog-why-i-have-affection-for-fond.html

*For menu updates and news, look for Fond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FondPhilly