Fresh greens; delicate shavings of cauliflower that looked, a first glance, like slivers of Asiago cheese; thumbnail-sized tomatoes; and blueberries: This was most definitely not the sort of restaurant food I grew up on in the Philadelphia area. In all honesty, it wasn’t even typical of these parts until fairly recently.
But that’s what makes the communities outside of Center City so exciting these days: They are, more and more, hotbeds of the kind of chef-driven, ambitious dining that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And Heirloom, an already accomplished newcomer in Chestnut Hill, is a more than worthy addition to this trend.
Helmed by chef Al Paris—a highly respected personality in the local dining scene—Heirloom takes its name seriously. The space itself has the sort of artisanal feel that immediately speaks of a particular kind of American design aesthetic: wooden tables unafraid to show their grain; burnt-umber walls that embody the unique warmth of the fireplace, or of the hearth; a gorgeous chandelier crowned with an intricate spray of twigs. Ten seconds after stepping into the place, you forget you’re in a thoroughly modern shopping center in Chestnut Hill.
Chef Paris’s cooking reflects all of this, and respectfully so. His food finds its inspiration in the myriad foodways of this country, but, at its best, is not beholden to them. That salad is a fine example. So, too, is a recent special mushroom bisque, which benefited from an appealing tension between the velvety texture of the cremini, oyster and porcini mushroom purée and the hearty, earthy flavors that defined it.
In all honestly, that soup would have been perfectly fine on its own. But that additions of a bit of blackened salmon, resting on a palm-sized sweet-potato latke, took it over the top: Drag a spoonful of that little island through the soup, picking up shimmers of basil oil along the way, and you have a remarkable reimagining of an American classic, and a dish that bridges the flavors of the summer and fall with real grace.
If that soup was rooted in the Northeast or the Mid-Atlantic, then the shrimp and scallop purloo was most definitely a Southern thing. You don’t see many purloos around this part of the country, but perhaps we should; the deeply satisfying cooking of South Carolina and its Low Country is one of the most inexplicably underrepresented American culinary traditions I can think of. If you’ve never had the chance to dip your toes into those waters, then this is a solid dish with which to start. Buttery sweet scallops, beautifully cooked shrimp, the mineral seam of oysters countering the lingering heat of the tasso ham tucked throughout the faro—in a word: gorgeous.
Berkshire pork tenderloin played in more familiar fields, but, of course, with a twist. The maple-pecan crust was familiar, but, in the context of the gingersnap gravy, all sweet and aromatic, the meat became new again. If only the pork had been cooked a bit less, it would have been nearly perfect. Same with the slab of Benton’s bacon draped over the accompanying wilted kale. And as for the delicately spicy spoon bread alongside it all, my only complaint is that they didn’t send me home with a full bag of it. Carbs be damned: This one is worth the calories.
Walnut-and-pecan-crusted tuxedo cake also would have been better had it been just a bit less sweet—the intended tension between the white chocolate Bavarian cream and the flourless dark chocolate wasn’t quite as striking as I’d hoped with the pure sweetness dominating so substantially. But the homemade apple-pie doughnut was a dish that makes you sit up a bit straighter and wonder aloud why no other chef is doing a dessert precisely like it. Its balance between light and dense, between the thrilling unhealthiness of deep-fried dough and the fresh sweetness of cinnamon cherries, was little short of mesmerizing. I actually argued with my wife over who got to finish that one.
Heirloom, then, isn’t just a remarkable restaurant in its own right, but also an important next step in the continuing evolution of the dining scene along the city’s outermost edge. It’s as exciting, rewarding and successful a restaurant as I’ve visited in Chestnut Hill in some time. What a lovely addition to the neighborhood, and to the whole region.
Heirloom Fine American Cookery
8705 Germantown Ave. (Chestnut Hill)
Photograph by Rob Hall