Jim Barnes remembers David Fogleman the kid, as just a twentysomething pup, cooking with wide-eyed ambition at the Inn Keeper's Kitchen attached to his Dilworthtown Inn.
"He was constantly using all these expensive ingredients, experimenting with new food items and flavors from [magazines like] Art Culinaire," says Barnes, whose clientele at the classic inn might be described as anything but "experimental."
"I told him, 'You're killing me [on food cost],' " Barnes said. " 'If you'd like to go put someone else out of business, please, call me back when you figure it out.' "
Barnes retells the story with some glee now, several years later, only because Fogleman eventually did call him back. And the 30-year-old is now Barnes' chef once again, turning out satisfying comfort-food updates at Blue Pear Bistro, the affordable new annex opened next to the Dilworthtown in a historic general store.
Fogleman's full-circle journey was anything but usual. His young culinary exuberance did, in fact, begin to flourish, as Fogleman made a splash of rising-star note at the now-closed Palette in Northern Liberties. But that rise was abruptly cut short beneath a fateful bag of veal bones, whose heft herniated two spinal disks and sent the young cook under the surgeon's blade not once, but twice.
He was out of cooking four-and-a-half years. He sold Hyundai cars, among other things. And it was actually a sales call for a wine distributor that initially brought Fogleman back to the Dilworthtown Inn in November 2006. Then the conversations began. . . .
Is the back really healed? It remains to be seen. After a couple of satisfying meals in the Blue Pear's clubby upstairs dining room, devouring everything from wild-mushroom crepes to fork-tender short ribs with creamy grits, I sure hope so.
I know Barnes holds his breath every time Fogleman winces, because one thing now is abundantly clear: David Fogleman can still cook. And a few years of maturity have even allowed him to execute an affordable bistro menu (with virtually all items under $20) without sacrificing a commitment to diligent technique, quality ingredients, or the uncanny ability to create dishes that surprise.
Who would ever have thought "chicken nuggets" would be a best-seller to a Dilworthtown crowd - even at their casual neighborhood place? But there they are, in the noisy downstairs bar and the bronze-papered upstairs rooms, sprouting on skewers from virtually every table like crispy flowers in a pot. Of course, these are nothing like Junior's favorite snack. They are slow-poached with a cutting-edge French technique, chickened-up with an outer layer of poultry mousse, crisped, and served with a truffled honey mustard vinaigrette.
They were embarrassingly good.
Fans of Fogleman's Palette days will remember his signature tomato soup. He reprises it here, braced with an exotic tinge of cumin and served with a buttery grilled cheese that sandwiches sweet tomato confit between sharp cheddar and Parmiggiano-Reggiano.
Much of what you'll find on the small but appealing menu is simply good contemporary bistro cooking fortified by seasonal flavors.
Perfectly grilled lamb sirloin comes over a hearty fall succotash of white beans, glazed celery root, and rutabaga that gets a vibrant green freshness from a pureed sauce of basil, broccoli and fennel. A quick saute of individual Brussels sprout leaves, studded with sweet raisins and snappy pistachios in Madeira sauce, adds a side of intrigue to the predictable salmon entree.
A solid steak frites is upgraded with freshly cooked fries that are totally addictive. Those fries also bolster the excellent mussels, which are simple but perfectly done, with a fortified saffron cream and aioli-smeared toast. Good old salade Lyonnaise is given an extreme makeover with a slab of house-braised pork belly, a five-bean medley, and a "soft-fried" egg, which gets soft-boiled then deep-fried into a giant, oozy-centered teardrop in a technique learned during an internship at Blue Hill in New York.
Fogleman isn't immune yet to overdoing it with trendy flourishes. A homemade marshmallow was about the last thing the overly sweet pumpkin bisque needed to succeed. Another night's soup special, celery root puree topped with almonds and a cider reduction, was too one-dimensional for such a large bowl.
That celery puree was more effective as a sauce for the homemade egg noodles that upstaged a somewhat bland appetizer of snails.
Any food complaints are small compared with the service issues Blue Pear faces. Set into a former general store (circa 1754) that Barnes spent $1.4 million to renovate, the bistro was always meant to be a more casual destination with a neighborhood feel. But its young staff has none of the polish of the Dilworthtown's veterans next door. Advice on the small wine-by-the-glass list was spotty ("I'm not very good at that," our first waitress said, blushing.) Plates occasionally were dropped awkwardly before the wrong diner and left to teeter atop errant silverware.
Of course, once you start eating a dish like the seared Tasmanian trout with silky pureed parsnips and buttery baby carrots, or a special red snapper with lentils in chorizo broth, the Blue Pear's sweet but naive service can easily be forgiven.
What remains difficult to fathom is how such a creative kitchen can skid to a mediocre finish of dull desserts like cheesecake, poached fruit and a brownie. Come to think of it, dessert was never the Dilworthtown's best course, either.
But in a story about savory comebacks, and the promise of young ambitions made good, I can't help but pull for the sweetest ending.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Cochon in Queen Village. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.