"I haven't picked up a vegetable peeler since I've been here - and it feels so good."
Several thoughts strike me when Justin Petruce tells me this. Number one: It must be liberating to finally be the boss, as the 33-year-old and his co-chef brother, Jonathan, 32, are in their debut at Petruce et al., the buzzy Center City restaurant where they've partnered with one of Philly's top wine geeks, Tim Kweeder.
Number two: The already endangered technical discipline of classic French cuisine, with its knife-work obsession over perfectly "turned" little veggie ovals, has officially been tossed onto the pyre of the Petruce brothers' roaring wood-fired hearth.
Number three: Do they even still wash those carrots?
In fact they do, Justin assures me, gently rinsing the organic soil that still clings from the local farms that supply the restaurant. But it's all elemental once the Petruces tap their inner cave-man culinarians, stoking the seven-foot-wide oval hearth and grill with cherry and oak fires to roast everything from whole, dry-aged quail to crusty, house-made sourdough bread - and also those baby carrots, which are crisped dark and sweet directly over the embers.
That primal breath of fire is at the root of the deep flavors that make the Petruce brothers' food so irresistible. But the rusticity ends there.
What emerges from the kitchen in steel casseroles and on taupe-glazed pottery plates are very modern interpretations of multi-culti American cuisine. The carrots come three ways (roasted, pickled, shaved into raw ribbons) and dusted with Japanese seaweed-sesame spice over a Piedmont-style bagna càuda dip of anchovies, lemon, and garlic. Sweet chunks of coriander-roasted crimson beets are paired with a tahini-beet puree and snappy shavings of golden beets spiced with harissa and fermented into sour, crunchy kimchi. The delicately tender quail, mid-rare but its skin glazed dark with honeyed soy, comes over a deeply earthy mushroom broth punctuated by snappy green spring favas, crunchy puffs of wild rice, and tart pink cherry bursts.
At which point I'm struck by yet another thought with larger implications: that Petruce et al. is the latest gem in the most impressive year for new Philadelphia restaurants I've witnessed. I awarded nine restaurants a three-bell "excellent" rating in 2013, about the average. Petruce is the ninth three-beller this year - and it's only June.
This may also be the most encouraging because it speaks so clearly of a new generation of rising Philly talents. Most people have never heard of the brothers Petruce, though both have cooked in well-known kitchens. Justin worked at Meme, Fish, and Twenty21 locally, as well as Moto in Chicago. Jonathan did time on the line at M Restaurant, Rae, and Meme, the David Katz bistro where the brothers met their partner, Tim Kweeder.
Kweeder (a.k.a. the "et al.") is a former longtime Moore Bros. associate who emerged in the past couple of years at a.kitchen as one of a few local advocates trying to make wine cool again in this solidly beer town. His Petruce list isn't yet nearly as deep as the 400-label cellar he built for a.kitchen, but the wine nerd aesthetic is the same - "low intervention" wines from largely unfamiliar smaller producers that emphasize terroir and earthiness. A version of the ancient Pineau d'Aunis grape from the Loire? Check. A refreshingly dry version of frothy purple (usually sweet) lambrusco from Baldini? Check.
Embrace Kweeder's cut of unusual grapes - aligoté, aleatico, romorantin, and myriad gamays. Try the funky dry Euro ciders (Cyril Zangs, Isastegi.) And indulge intricate but masterful cocktails from bar brain George Costa (I loved the refreshing pineapple-rum Pilar, as well as the "Man Man-hattan," an ode to the local band, touched with Laphroaig smoke.)
The elements of a complete restaurant here are already in place, most reminiscent in style of Vernick Food & Drink, from the wood-oven cookery to the bi-level layout and sophisticated-casual vibe. And in current fashion, there's something for everyone, with a variety of plate sizes meant for sharing, and flavors that range from daring to homey.
On the edgier side is a beef tartare, glossed with grill-rendered dry-aged tallow and a mushroom-infused aioli that is like eating umami squared. Chicken livers, cast-iron roasted in the oven, are transformed into a silky Madeira-kissed pudding glazed with tangy rhubarb. Sublimely tender lamb ribs are smoked for hours over fruitwoods and mopped with a sambal-spiced brew of vinegar and sugar. Rabbits are turned into fennel-scented rounds of pink terrine, with char-roasted green garbanzo beans and creamy dollops of cloumage cheese.
Cracked rice is cooked into congee porridge topped with hot sauce and grilled octopus - although its chewiness was one of the kitchen's few cooking flaws. Too much sticky tapioca binding the brick of pulled pork shoulder, and a huge grilled porgy that was borderline salty with its piquant olive garnish, were the other missteps.
Those were easily compensated for, though, by the Petruces' many successes. There were inspired vegetable dishes, such as wood-roasted sweet potatoes with the Mexican accent of silky avocado puree, tangy tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, and crunchy crushed corn nuts. There were beautiful fish in striking seasonal poses, such as the arctic char over garlicky almond puree with crisp, frilly shavings of fried baby artichokes; or the black bass with vivid green ramp hollandaise and sweet-tart pickled strawberries.
But Petruce may well become best known for interpretations of some true basics - such as lasagna, roast chicken, and steak that are instantly among the city's best. The hearty eight-layer lasagna, its fresh pasta ribboned with nutmeg-scented béchamel, is oven-finished to a crunch in cast iron. The simply roasted chicken brings parchment-crisp skin and juicy flesh, with creamy grits ringed by an electric-yellow sauce of slow-cooked yolk thinned by white soy and lemon.
The huge 20-ounce Niman Ranch strip is meat and potatoes deluxe, a richly flavored slab of 28-day dry-aged beef striped with dusky oregano Argentine chimichurri, and a side dish of sturdy Bibb lettuce leaves glazed in Caesar dressing, beside thick steak-fry "chips" cleverly tanged from a pre-fryer simmer in vinegared broth. As a centerpiece for sharing, it's well worth the $55.
I worried about the desserts, which on paper sound like typical cheffy sweets - with deconstructed components and the usual savory accents (black pepper soft-serve?). They worked far better than expected. Roasted pineapple was a natural with chocolate-infused coconut milk ganache. A creamy mousse tanged with pink rhubarb, but dusted with exotic fennel and pepper, found perfect preppy harmony with rich green pistachio cake. Whatever black pepper sparkle was in soft-serve ice cream, though, was muted just enough by the sweet ruby drizzles of fresh strawberry compote and buttery crumbles of shortbread cookies on top.
Which triggered my parting thought: in an already golden year of newcomers, Petruce et al. is one of the best.
Chef-owners Jonathan Petruce, center, and Justin Petruce, right, discuss Petruce et al. at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. (Also pictured: partner Tim Kweeder.)