A slow-stewed legal mess finally hit the Common Pleas Court fan last week as a coalition of disgruntled restaurateurs, a neighborhood association, and a state representative filed a lawsuit in their quest to wrench a Pennsylvania-owned wine boutique out from the heart of Jose Garces' new BYOB.
As an industry observer, I feel their competitive pain.
The red-hot Iron Chef is the last restaurateur who needs a state-boosted advantage over his competitors, which is how the plaintiffs (with their costly liquor licenses, liability insurance, and triple markups) view the wine store inside the Garces Trading Co.
They clearly see the state as an easy villain here, since the complaint targets only the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board - not the muy popular JG or his GTC.
As a consumer, though, I have to wince.
Pennsylvania's wine lovers have been so beaten down by the state monopoly and its overpriced ripple effects in restaurants that every breath of BYO relief is welcome - especially when a kitchen cooks as well as the Garces Trading Co.
So what's not to like about being able to walk into the wine store here, where an actually enthusiastic salesperson can help you choose a fantastic bottle of Spanish garnacha at retail cost to accompany the phenomenal rabbit and gambas paella being prepared just beyond those glass store walls? Or how about sipping a prechilled Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label for $46.99 (instead of $90-plus on most restaurant lists) while you wait for a no-reservations table - sometimes longer than 30 minutes - and cruise GTC's market lane of Serrano hams, oozy La Serena cheese, and shiny metal canisters of bulk dispensers of vinegar and truffle oil?
With the dark clouds threatening it's enough to make one hustle down to the old Western Union building at 11th and Locust Streets before this experiment in affordable drinking possibly ends. Even if it doesn't, what diners will discover is that the PLCB partnership isn't even the most exciting thing going on here. What I'm most intrigued by is how the Garces Trading Co. is testing the boundaries of fine dining by pushing it toward an ever more casual setting. Just how far from old formalities can Garces go and still deliver high-end food, where the sublime fusilli carbonara with house-cured guanciale and plats du jour crocks of bouillabaisse aren't just camera-ready gorgeous but also available for takeout?
From first glance at the boisterous, white subway-tiled room - ringed by glass market cases holding meats and cheeses on one side, a coffee bar at the back, and the wine store on the right - the dining area in the center resembles a food court, with the crowd ranging from salad-munching locals in post-workout sweats to well-scrubbed young couples on a deep-dish pizza date. But once you're seated, this is very much a full-service Garces experience, from the fine stemware and precious presentations (it takes time to pose each hand-shaved chip of breakfast radish in those little poufs of goat's milk butter) to the well-trained table service and, of course, the food.
The entire enterprise is uniquely ambitious in its multipronged scope – and some aspects, such as the market, house-cured charcuterie, and pastry cafe, have equals around town. But the restaurant is where GTC excels, with a wide menu of updated Euro classics overseen by executive chef Adam DeLosso that certainly places it among our top BYOB kitchens, not to mention take-out markets. If only Di Bruno Bros. could cook like this.
A warm, truffled potato-leek puree of vichyssoise gets poured tableside over sea-sweet scallops and duck-fat-poached fingerling potatoes. Wide ribbons of fresh pappardelle tangle with a soulful lamb ragu that, as the noodles twirl, soaks up the creaminess of an earthy sunchoke puree on the bottom of the bowl. Lemony baby artichokes play tart against chewy nuggets of sweet walnut-date cake. Sensationally smooth balls of "gnudi" ricotta dumplings roll amidst with asparagus tips over morel cream. Crispy-bottomed little appetizer pizzas snap beneath cool green toppings like fava beans, asparagus, and arugula (for the "verde," a perfect storm of fresh spring produce and duck-fat-dough decadence), the prosciutto pie topped with silky folds of ham. Even the more indulgent toppings, such as the crème fraîche, bacon, and caramelized onion "tarte flambee" topped with chervil, somehow feel light.
Light is the last word to describe the deep-dish pizzas inspired by Garces' native Chicago. And while these inch-high cornmeal-crusted casseroles filled with molten Gruyere-mozz, confit tomatoes, and house-made sausage will confound an East Coaster like my 11-year-old ("don't people in Chicago know what pizza is?!"), my own Midwestern roots helped me happily relate to this slice of heavyweight nostalgia.
On a leaner Mediterranean note, plancha-seared fillets of beautiful branzino fanned over an orange smear of pepper romesco, alongside scallions and potatoes. It's a Catalan canvas that works well for the straightforward "grill" portion of the menu, which satisfied with quality ingredients, whether the fantastic lamb chops, moist Duroc pork chop, or savory Maine strip steak.
The smallish portions, however delicious, can seem skimpy for $24 to $28. And as at all of Garces' restaurants, it's easy here to blow the budget. The hearty plats du jour for sharing are both a better value and among the highlights - especially Friday's chorizo-studded rabbit paella, which is among my favorite things to eat in the city, period.
A handful of dishes could use refinement. The house-cured charcuterie is a tricky work in progress. There are solid winners, such as the flavorfully herby head cheese terrine and the pistachio-studded, bacon-wrapped pate. Others are close but technically not-quite - the rich pork rillettes (whose shredded meat was too chewy) or the fennel salami, which had a fantastic anise savor but also a gray ring toward the exterior that bespoke a flaw in aging (a possible lack of humidity).
This kitchen also needs to learn to restrain itself from piling on luxury. A truly great clam pasta doesn't need the added distraction of lump crab and so much butter. And GTC has also discovered a limit that I never previously knew existed - too much duck confit - with so much meat overwhelming the Lyonnaise that the scant frisée looked more like a brambly green garnish than an actual salad.
There have already been significant improvements in the pastries since the opening weeks, when I bit into a runny éclair and weirdly dry babas au rhum. Pastry chef Jessica Mogardo's confections are now a picture of sweet patisserie polish - from the shiny chocolate mirror that glints atop the dome-shaped bombe (filled with a three-toned mousse) and the classic Opera (its myriad layers all coffee cream and almond dacquoise) to a strawberry tart as pretty as a sugar-flocked Christmas ornament and a "choux crème" puff-pastry fantasy piped full of caramel-honey diplomat cream crunchy with bits of pecan nougat.
It's enough that all those restaurateurs might have real cause for concern about some competition around Washington Square West regardless of whether the wine store remains. The Garces Trading Co. already has the feel and flavor of a formidable neighborhood institution.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan dines at the Jersey Shore, Part 1. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.