Some say you should wait out the first weeks (even months) of a new restaurant’s early days. It gives the place time to work out the kinks and settle into its groove. Most serious restaurant-goers adhere to this rule, but it tends to be taken even more seriously by food writers and critics. There’s a kind of unspoken code that it’s just dirty to evaluate a restaurant in the first days of its life.
I have always believed this thinking is flawed—restaurants don’t typically pass out plates for free while they’re “practicing.” And etiquette aside, I can’t help myself. I’m impatient, hungry, and curious. From the time I hear that the doors have swung open, the countdown begins. I need to eat there first.
If you’ve read my previous pieces on Table Matters, you know how excited I was about Will, the most recent addition to the city’s new Restaurant Row, East Passyunk Avenue. Even though I had not eaten Chris Kearse’s food before, I had certain expectations, and not just because of his high-gloss resume.
Months before the restaurant opened, I was having lunch with a longtime food writer and editor. Experienced food writers have eaten it all—we’re hard to impress and we rarely experience the excitement so common to culinary newbies. We’re a jaded bunch, but we miss that jolt and spend countless calories and dollars in pursuit of feeling the thrill of something new an inventive. And when my editor friend spoke of a specific foie gras dish Kearse had served him at Pumpkin, where he was then cooking, he had that gleam of discovery in his eyes.
So I knew that Will would be something special before I had even one taste of the menu. I’m happy to report that my restraint was such that I didn’t eat at Kearse’s new restaurant until its third night of dinner service—that’s longer than I sometimes hold out.
It may not have been “fair.” Even now the chef might say they are working out the kinks. But my first meal there was one of those rare cases of high expectations being met.
The servers seemed a little nervous, but the couple seated at the table next to us were pretty blissed out halfway through their meal.
“Get the corn velouté with lobster,” the woman said, an urgent look in her eyes.
So I did—and it was the distilled essence of summer corn on the cob: salty, buttery, and sweet. The warm spices of vadouvan and big lumps of lobster enhanced the dish without overcomplicating it.
This ability to use molecular-gastromy techniques without losing the clean and recognizable flavors of the ingredients is one of Kearse’s best talents. There are gels and meat glue and Lilliputian flower petals a plenty—vestiges no doubt of his time spent working at Chicago’s Alinea. And frankly I usually find these techniques thoroughly off-putting. But Kearse has the skill to make it work, and he may be one of the only chefs in Philadelphia that can pull this type of thing off without triggering an eye roll from me.
The chicken dish (excuse me, “milk fed poulard”) combined leg and breast meat cooked in different ways—one piece cooked sous vide, another pressed together with meat glue—amid goat-milk gnudi and vegetables. Weird, yes. Delicious? That too. I will forgive a chef a forest of microgreens if the food tastes good.
I was back within a week to try the new dishes that had already been added, some seasonal updates, others that probably reflect an excess of ideas. There was a beet-cured salmon, velvet-like in texture, that was the perfect bit of saline and sweet. I snapped up the Parisian gnocchi (fabricated from a flour-butter-water dough and not potatoes or cheese) mainly for the pleasure of eating the tiny, creamy, appropriately named “fairytale” eggplant that was the real star of the dish. Shaved slices of radish fell over the plate, lending a peppery snap to the proceedings. This touch struck me as even more progressive than the meat glue.
The soup had changed—the corn was replaced with earthy, autumn-leaning sweet potatoes. While I maybe preferred the original version, this one paired spectacularly with the bottle of Unibroue Ephemere I hastily grabbed from the Bottle Shop down the street. (This second visit was so impulsive that we did not even have the patience to walk to the wine store.)
The dish I can’t stop thinking about is the dessert I ate that night: It was a banana pot de crème with a coating of crunchy walnut crumbs, a salted caramel gel and dots of cardamom cream. It was a level of sophistication you rarely see in restaurants without a pastry chef.
I am hoping to go back at least a few more times before everyone knows how good it is and spontaneous walk-in dinners are no longer an option.
Will BYOB, 1911 East Passyunk Ave, (215) 271-7683