August 26, 2014
Jose Garces, born in Chicago to Ecuadorian parents, is well known in Philadelphia, where he owns seven restaurants (plus three in nearby Atlantic City and seven more scattered around.) But we had never heard of him until I was intrigued by a blogpost on his brand new, upscale restaurant, Volvér. Linda and I were about to make a short trip to Philadelphia to see the relocated Barnes Foundation and so I reserved at Volvér for the evening of August 8, 2014.
Well, I did more than reserve, Volvér uses the new ticket system, pioneered by Alinea in Chicago, and recently adopted by other upscale restaurants around the country. One buys a ticket in advance for the meal, much like buying a ticket for a concert, play or ball game. That’s it; if you don’t go, too bad; no refunds. Volvér is located in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which has been the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2001, among its eight resident companies. The center was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from the Rittenhouse Hotel, where we were staying.
We were seated by the glass wall looking out onto Spruce Street with interesting foot traffic on its sidewalks. On the other side was the open kitchen, where we could watch the action during our meal.
This was the view from my seat. In the middle is chef de cuisine, Natalie Maronski, who has worked for Garces in several of his restaurants. On the right you can see the little lettuce garden, still growing, which furnished the “Garden” course below. To the right of that was the station of the dessert chef, who was not there yet.
Having already had a glass of sparkling Vouvray at the Rittenhouse Hotel, we went directly to a bottle of 2011 Bodegas Fillaboa, Rias Baixas Albariño from Galicia. It met the good recommendation that the sommelier had given it. We also ordered a bottle of 2010 Domaine Serene “Yamhill Cuvée” Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. We know this wine and were not disappointed. Both wines enhanced our meal.
As is fashionable nowadays, five snacks were put in front of us to start the meal:
These seemed to be iberico and guanciale. Very good.
SIBERIAN STURGEON CAVIAR
BRIOCHE MIGAS, WHIPPED CRÉME FRAÎCHE, CHIVE
The Missouri hackleback caviar was good, its saltiness nicely cut by the garnishes.
SMOKED BUTTERMILK CAJETA
It was not clear to me what the origin of this was. Our captain referred to chef’s time in Andalusia, which would make it chicharróns made from braised Mexican pork, rather than the traditional pork rinds. The sauce was smoked buttermilk reduced and caramelized in the Mexican fashion. Anyway, that is a complex description of what was a straightforward and very good finger food.
EEL GLAZE, TOGARASHI, YUZU KEWPIE MAYO, BONITO
Takoyaki balls are a traditional Japanese snack made with chopped octopus. Here a half sphere was made with dried codfish and served with a complex garnish and a dark sauce underneath. The basic flavor was good, but the garnish was too complex and insubstantial to contribute.
We were then served a delicious, warm, fresh, flaky, thyme-flavored bun with a pad of peppered butter. I assumed at first that it should be treated as the bread course, but it was so good I just ate it all right away.
TSUKIJI MARKET FISH
HORSERADISH CREAM, PICKLED MUSTARD SEEDS, FENNEL, GREEN APPLE SNOW
When this was presented, our captain referred to chef’s being named an Iron Chef, assuming we were aware of that, which we were not. Anyway, the competition took him to the great Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, where he became aware of top quality fish for sashimi. He now has some flown in from Tokyo. Here there were two pieces of two different fish, which were very good, but I didn’t take notes on what they were. The chef obviously didn’t absorb the Tsukiji austere aesthetic of sashimi as these were heavily garnished.
This dish was preceded by a story of chef’s finding a glass creamer in the shape of a pint of milk at the store of the Museum of Modern Art and wanting to present a dish with it. The brunch-type ingredients were presented in a glass bowl and the delicious white asparagus milk poured over them from the small glass cream pitcher.
FROM THE GARDEN
LIVE LETTUCE FROM LUNA FARM, CARROTS, PISTACHIO PURÉE, CURRIED RAISINS, CAULIFLOWER, GOAT CHEESE DIRT, MEYER LEMON PURÉE, DUCK SKIN CRUMBLE, ALMOND MILK CRISPS
Chef has a vegetable garden outside Philadelphia in Bucks County. He brings in a flat of growing lettuce plants from which these leaves were clipped just before serving.
BOTTARGA MAYO, EGGPLANT PURÉE, SMOKED PEPPER PURÉE, GARLIC CHILE OIL, CHORIZO POWDER
Once again we heard about chef’s time in Andalusia, although the ferry to Marrakesh part of it didn’t seem convincing. Anyway, the grilled sardine was excellent: fresh and cooked perfectly with a crispy skin.
LIVE SEA SCALLOPS
HAM BROTH, RAZOR CLAM CROQUETTE, FAVAS IN SALSA VERDE, CAVIAR
We were told that the big sea scallops were quickly grilled when still alive. They were very good, with no metallic off flavor. The combination of seafood and pork is usually a winner, as it was here with the ham broth. The very hot clam croquette was superfluous, but quite good.
FRIED SQUAB, BISCUIT, CELERY ROOT SLAW, GRAVY, CORN, HOT SAUCE
This dish, served on a stunning plate, was based on chef’s memories of KFC on picnics with his father. The red dabs at the bottom were so fiery they were best ignored after testing a small bit. Overall, it was a successful dish with the pigeon being enhanced by its sauces, crust and chicken mousse topping. .
MONTEREY BAY SQUID
GREEN CURRY-COCONUT TAPIOCA, HEARTS OF PALM, DATE PURÉE, COCONUT BUBBLES, KALE JUICE, PINEAPPLE MINT
This dish was introduced by chef’s appreciation for squid on his trip to Singapore. There was certainly a tropical theme. Its success came from the crab stuffing of the squid, which we were told was a recent innovation, thus not in the list of ingredients.
VETA LA PALMA
SEASONAL FISH, SHRIMP, BOMBA RICE, FUMET, NASTURTIUM, ESPELETTE
This is named after an enormous fish farm in Andalusia where rice is also a big crop. The seafood broth was particularly good.
BEEF ON EMBERS
WAGYU COOKED ON EMBERS, BEET ROOT CREMA, PROVOLETA, SALSA CRIOLLA, CHARRED PEPPER PURÉE, NURY POTATOES
The beef had a nice Wagyu flavor, but no Wagyu tenderness. The dramatic swash of beet cream went very well with it.
MILK CHOCOLATE-HAZELNUT SPONGE CAKE,
CANDIED BABY CARROTS, COCONUT-LEMONGRASS GEL,
CARROT SHERBET, COCONUT-LABNE MOUSSE
Our table was cleared and a big cutting board laid on it. We could see the dessert chef being enveloped in a cloud from her liquid nitrogen canister as she prepared the frozen coconut/yoghurt concoction. The components were splayed on the board. This was fun and tasty finger food.
We enjoyed our evening Volvér. The cuisine was interesting and good. The size of the plates after the snacks was right, enough for three or four bites. We would have enjoyed it even more if chef had put himself in the background. Most of the dishes would have been even better with less of the elaborate garnishes which put chef’s signature on the creation. The pea dish was the simplest and one of the best. The stories of chef’s life and discoveries preceding most dishes lowered the tone for us. I suppose that in Philadelphia, where Garces is a celebrity, they have a place, but they make this ambitious restaurant sound provincial and condescending toward its clientèle, which was quite young the evening we were there. Our captain, John, was very earnest; the service was good, the pace right and the noise level low. We will be interested to see how Volvér evolves, although we seldom get to Philadelphia.