The Art Alliance on Rittenhouse Square has always been one of the more civilized restaurant spaces in the city. The walk up the steps from the sidewalk to the cinematic entryway, the airy-yet-intimate space itself—to me, it’s always felt both supremely urbane and comfortingly familiar. And now, with Rittenhouse Tavern really hitting its stride, it feels like the great place it always promised to be.
I say now because it wasn’t always so. Several months ago, not long after the restaurant opened, I left a summertime meal feeling inexplicably cool toward the experience. The flavors were pleasant, and some of them remarkable, but so much of it just felt too precious: dots of sauce where more generous swaths would have been better, the visual pop of the various platings seemingly having been paid more attention to than the excitement of flavors that should have been their real focus.
That has all changed, and Rittenhouse Tavern is now a restaurant that has found its way to a real sense of purpose. It is easily one of the more exciting meals you can have in town. Even its name, with its unavoidable references to the great Gramercy Tavern in New York, finally feels right: Its careful, well-considered riffs on American food raise everything from the familiar to the more adventurous to levels they rarely see.
Pancetta-wrapped dates, which we ordered to snack on while reading through the menu, were shockingly good, a result of their having been fried to the point that the ham took on a smoky, almost charred character that framed the sweetness of the dates. A drag through the gorgonzola vinaigrette, its salty-funky tones adding a dimension we hadn’t realized was missing in the first place, and these were among the best pre-dinner bites (or bar snacks) I’ve had this year.
Chef Nicolas Elmi, who made his name at Le Bec-Fin while it was still under the ownership of Georges Perrier, uses his deep well of textbook-perfect technique to raise the stakes on much of what comes out of the kitchen here. Crispy striped bass, its skin nearly shattering under the pressure of a fork’s tine, was a study in contrasting textures. Beneath that addictive carapace was flesh of notable moistness and delicacy, and its accompaniments highlighted the fish even further without obscuring it: Braised black barley, a puree and a brunoise of red cabbage, and a marvelous hibiscus-zinfandel sauce. It’s the kind of dish that becomes a benchmark against which guests may justifiably compare other fish for some time to come.
The burger here—perhaps a nod to the “tavern” moniker—does Elmi justice. His blend, a 75 percent dry-aged wonder from beef superstar Pat LaFrieda, boasts a texture more silken than most meat ever achieves, the contrasting sensations of watercress and sharp provolone creating real tension on the palate. It’s a chin-dripping sandwich, and, with the addition of their ingenious mayo-fish sauce-cornichon spread, it’s a real contender in the city’s ever-intensifying burger wars.
A starter of Spanish octopus, smoked and braised and then expertly seared, is amped up with a familiar hit of smoked paprika, but the traditionalism is confounded by its accompanying sauce of black pudding, fermented black garlic, and squid ink: It’s a midnight-toned wonder, good enough to justify licking from the plate.
Celery root soup was a velvety, impeccably balanced bowl whose white colors belied flavors both vivid and exciting. The earthier notes of the celery root and parsnip were countered by a decadent walnut milk mousse and an ingeniously prepared prune that had been flattened, frozen and applied to the side of the bowl. The result was essentially a condiment that you could use with as heavy or light a hand as you desired.
Desserts are just as thoughtful, from an autumn-spice anointed brown butter cake with creme fraiche sorbet to a white chocolate bread pudding that, despite its ability to fill you up rather quickly, is impossible to stop eating.
Rittenhouse Tavern is settling into its role beautifully, and has made itself into one of the more exciting dining destinations in town. Under the expert guidance of a seriously talented chef, it is providing something that all of us can appreciate: delicious food in an elegant, relaxed and unpretentious setting.
251 S. 18th Street, Philadelphia
215-732-2412 | rittenhousetavern.com