Mica

Chip Roman's Chestnut Hill venture adds to this star chef's luster.

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Octopus with charred tomatoes, tomatillo-avocado salsa, and cucumber at Mica. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)

Few have been as blessed by the BYOB boom as Chip Roman, whose Blackfish in Conshohocken has been a perennial three-beller since opening five years ago, and is easily one of the best restaurants on or near the Main Line.

But considering Roman's talent and ambition - he's opened and closed two restaurants at the Shore, runs a busy catering company, has three kids he aspires to spend time with, and maintains a six-mornings-a-week fishing habit - he has yet to become the star chef in Philadelphia that he should be. Center City-zens can be so provincial that way - unlikely to find downtown Conshy on a map, let alone drive there just for dinner.

Mica is Roman's bid to bring his culinary mojo closer to the city folk. Yes, it resides atop sleepy Chestnut Hill, which has historically had the same snooze effect for destination diners. But Roman's first Philly venture is well worth the uphill jaunt - and the expense. This pricey menu, focused on a multicourse tasting experience, could potentially become one of the region's best.

My meals here were memorable even from the first nibbles of the amuse-bouches - a brandade mash of salt-cured halibut with pickled sunchoke one night; a salmon tartare richly glossed with tan foie gras vinaigrette the next. There would be revelations on the possibilities of pea and fish, a bold new use for bananas, and one of my favorite uses yet for Jim Beam: to cure Mica's charcuterie.

I only say "potential" because so much is still evolving here, even a few months after Roman opened in the former Cuba! space, refitting it with a decor that is at once minimal, naturalist, and chic, with sage-colored walls punctuated by walnut-topped tables. Roman is currently using only a fraction of the space as he waits for furniture to open a large back patio (plus an upstairs space that could eventually double the seating). Thankfully, more soundproofing is on the way to help the existing padded walls absorb the formidable din.

Mica is also awaiting the green light to open its cellar - a 60-label wine list that will give this longtime Ace of BYO-ville the extra revenue buffer to provide more of the luxuries of fine dining. It's not just padding on the chairs (boisterous Blackfish has none), but the cushion of time - with an extra hour allotted at Mica over Blackfish, where the coveted tables turn at a brisk 90-minute clip.

"I want to slow everything down for the kind of tasting menus I want to do," says Roman. "But first I need to earn peoples' trust."

Whether diners go for the special 10-course chef's-table splurge at $120 a person remains to be seen. But the smaller meals I ate here, drawn from both the weekday a la carte offerings and weekend tasting menus (with three to seven courses from $50 to $90), were enough to earn my trust. This was some of the most polished cooking I've eaten all year, with satisfying compositions that were clever, intricate, and modern without being overwrought.

A chilled pea soup was memorable, its sweet garden essence tweaked more vivid by a kiss of honey, basil, and mint. Poured tableside from a carafe onto wine-cured hiramasa, puffed dehydrated couscous, and little dabs of yuzu gel, every swipe of the spoon brought a different surprise - the crunch of couscous against the flesh of cubed fish, the swelling citrus tang adding even more brightness.

I did a double take when the "potatoes" arrived. The dish looked like a rainbow still-life of melon balls dusted with crumbles of white cheese. It was, instead, an array of carved purple, sweet, and white spring potatoes, vacuum-cooked with champagne vinegar and herbs to a perfect toothy snap, sprinkled with white truffle powder that melted back to luxury in a hot breath. A dab of cumin-scented aioli and charred-grilled ramps, foraged from the nearby Wissahickon, added layers of fleeting spring earthiness. The ramps are now gone, and so, too, are those potatoes.

One other recent departure that should be interesting is the shift of Mica's opening chef Jason Cichonski to Roman's third restaurant, a more casual project for this fall in the former Ansill, where Cichonski will also be a partner. If opening Mica was a test run of the collaborative chemistry between Roman, 32, and Cichonski, the talented 26-year-old former chef from Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, they have the potential to become a formidable duo.

Cichonski is one of our most exciting young chefs, and the combo of his boundary-pushing creativity with Roman's slightly more classic sensibilities produced fireworks on the plate. Among the most unexpected was a silky puree of banana piqued with roasted garlic and sherry vinegar that, along with spicy black olive puree, added an exotic spark to seared skate one night, then a medium-rare steak of Jersey Shore tuna the next. There were others: the subtly smoky dashi broth in the white polenta for Roman's beautifully stuffed chicken, combined with charred onion jam and soy for a umami bomb of savory power. Or how about the anise accent of licorice root aioli and sour apricot puree that made those heat-charred tangles of tender octopus dance? So unlikely, but simply stunning.

Roman is a self-proclaimed "control freak" who says 80 percent of these dishes have been his, though both cooks acknowledged significant collaboration. We'll see Roman's vision even more completely as he takes the baton here full time, making his the main kitchen focus. There should be little letup as the menu evolves - but ideally it will retain some of the daring youthful edge I liked so much in my early meals.

There were delicate ravioli stuffed with tender braised meats - veal shoulder with Madeira one night; barbecue short rib another - that practically hovered atop clouds of porcini foam, both airy and intense. Gossamer slices of house-cured "lomo" pork loin, whose paprika-rubbed exterior was misted with Jim Beam for the final two weeks of hang-time, folded like amber handkerchiefs over the triple-tang of grapefruit segments, pickled fennel, and smoked balsamic vinegar. The latest octopus, with tomatillo-avocado salsa, charred tomatoes, and "noodles" of compressed cucumber topped with micro-planed bacon, was every bit as striking as the first.

Technically, this kitchen was nearly flawless over two meals with one big exception: a gorgeous brick of halibut that was ruined twice - terribly overcooked during dinner one, and cruelly oversalted for dinner two. I also wished for a dessert that put those Coke-macerated strawberries on a pedestal, rather than bury them beneath a pouf of yogurt foam.

But Mica more than made up for it with a decadent cylinder of bittersweet chocolate ganache that oozed a tart core of passion fruit puree like a yolk when you cracked it open. A white chocolate panna cotta topped with rhubarb poached in cardamom verjus captured the sweet-tart elegance of spring.

It was a fantastic start for a place still adding some major finishing touches. I can't wait to check back by year's end to see if it held steady, or better yet, if Chip Roman's culinary jewel on the Hill has even improved.

 


Contact Craig LaBan at claban@phillynews.com or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.

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