Updated: Friday, February 2, 2018, 9:09 AM
The elegant cocktail in my hand, a rye-spiced Deshler tinged with the sweet, quinine kiss of Quinquina and Curaçao, was inspired by a recipe created a century ago. And in the amber glow of Royal Boucherie — where glorious raw bar towers, Chartreuse snails, and splendid terrines are served beneath a pressed-tin ceiling to diners in church pew booths and a carved cherry wood bar — this pre-Prohibition relic drink felt like it belonged.
If I’d stumbled not knowing better into this rambling Old City space, with its flickering front lanterns and French-door facade, I’d be tempted to think it was a well-preserved tavern of yore. But I’d be wrong. This evocative air of yesteryear took loads of vision and rehab cash to peel back the layers of trashy martini bar history — so many smoke machines and disco balls — that characterized Glam, a previous tenant whose door handle was shaped like a leg and whose emcees apparently ran sexy banana-eating contests.
Such low-tide nightclubs have been a canker on the higher aspirations of Old City’s more serious restaurant impulses. And the neighborhood, once a focal point for destination Philly dining with stars like Buddakan, Fork, and Amada, was at risk of sliding into seedy nightlife irrelevance. So I could hardly blame the owners of neighboring Khyber Pass, Steven Simons, Dave Frank, and Suzanne O’Brien, for buying the nuisance bar next door in hopes of steadying their end of the Second Street strip.
What they’ve achieved with this excellent new restaurant, however, feels like one more sign of a changing mood, buoyed also the new Museum of the American Revolution. And the experience is a complete one: the antique allure conjured up by O’Brien and designer Marguerite Rodgers; the stellar cocktails from Dom Carullo (who roams from classics to his own frothy politi-cocktail, A Very Stable Genius); the polished young servers who strike an appealing balance between informal charm and well-informed, professional grace.
But the real key to Royal Boucherie’s success is the owners’ decision to partner with one of the city’s most brilliant kitchen stars in Nicholas Elmi. This is the second fascinating alliance for the gastropub specialists who also own Triangle Tavern, Royal Tavern, Cantina Los Caballitos, and Royal Izakaya, where chef Jesse Ito, backed by his renowned chef-father, Matt, has blossomed into a stellar sushi talent.
Elmi, of course, is already a proven draw, a Top Chef champ with four bells for the modern French tasting menus at Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue, and another three for his innovative In The Valley (ITV) wine bar next door. There’s a slightly more classic take on his French roots at Royal Boucherie, where his time at Brasserie Perrier and Le Bec-Fin surface across the menu, executed deftly by chef de cuisine Steve Forte.
The silvery pot of champagne-braised wild snails in Chartreuse-hazelnut butter is straight out of the Perrier playbook, but updated with an herb butter so vivid, it’s Eagles green. The extra-toasty hunk of roasted baguette on the side was baked by South Philly’s Machine Shop Boulangerie, whose co-owners, Katie Lynch and Emily Riddel, are both Perrier alums, too. The salmon pavé, a mille-feuille stack of sheer smoked salmon layered with salmon mousse, is another beautiful vestige from Le Bec.
A perfect link of Toulouse sausage bending over the tangy funk of house-fermented cabbage is also a legacy of Elmi’s classic Gallic training, as are the house terrines. The Madeira-splashed pork terrine studded with nuggets of sweetbread beside roasted apple puree was understated charcuterie perfection. A special terrine was showier but just remarkable, with braised pheasant layered into a marbled slice between foie gras and truffles beside a glistening scoop of sweet mead gelée. Put them all together on a platter alongside some silky smokehouse slices of rare country ham from Tennessee’s Ed Rice, and I could stay for a while. A luscious but zippy steak tartare paired with Lancaster cheddar crisps for scooping, as well as those nutmeg-scented duck meatballs glazed in a creamy Swedish gravy, were further proof it’s a good idea.
With well-made cocktails to explore (the Gibson, a honeyed Gold Rush, and smokey Oaxacan Penicillin were favorites) and an excellent collection of esoteric Euro wines assembled by general manager Nancy Benussi, there are multiple good choices for drink pairings with every dish, with dry whites from Macedonia and Majorca, earthy mid-weight reds from the Loire, Beaujolais, and Burgenland, even a handful of sparkling curiosities from Sussex, England.
I loved the creamy citrus notes of a Corsican vermentino-chardonnay blend (Domaine de Terra Vecchia Ile de Beauté) with the delicately baked Cape May oysters dusted in buttery crumbs. Something crisper, or even one of the intriguing bubblies (the Austrian grüner or Contratto from Piedmont), would be ideal for the gorgeous salad of razor clams. Their blade-shaped shells served as slender spoons for mounds of tender diced clam with juicy bits of apple in a tarragon vinaigrette dusted with horseradish snow.
A hefty sagrantino-sangiovese Montefalco blend from Umbria was the right move for the lamb crepinette. But that Franken-lamb was my biggest letdown on the menu — a chop wrapped in braised meat then a layer of overcooked sausage for a giant meat mallet that was more of a chef’s caul fat parlor trick than a meaningful tribute to lamb.
The fact that there were only three desserts was another small disappointment in itself, a concession to the lack of pastry chef. But that was softened by the simple delight of the Pennsylvania “sugar pie” with huckleberry puree and the creamy frozen nougat with brandied cherries and pistachios that Elmi’s crew pulled off fine.
There were too many successes to dwell on a few shortcomings. I can’t imagine a breast of duck more perfectly cooked than this one, lusciously pink and lightly gamy flavor, its softness edged by a crisply rendered skin that played against fermented quince, micro-turnips, and soft coins of sweet potato. Tiny poussin is roasted over cauliflower and pickled apples. Pork cheeks are braised until the meat just barely holds together, then practically melts off the fork-fresh chestnuts roasted in Armagnac.
The scallops are both delicate and stunningly rich, dabbed with the earthy poufs of frothed porcini and vermouth, trumpet mushrooms, squash puree, and the salty-sweet crumbles of pumpkin seed granola. There’s only one pasta, a seemingly simple farfalle with lobster. But I can’t stop thinking about how every element vibrates with flavor. The handmade bow ties had the perfect al dente snap, but also exuded the oceanic glow of having been boiled in lobster stock. Scattered with nuggets of moist lobster meat and glossed in a truffle butter filled with fines herbs and lemon, each bite was solid gold seafood pasta luxury.
With such refined delicacies to occupy the gourmands, is it wrong I feel just as obsessed about Boucherie’s burger? It’s another double-pattied entry into the Big Mac upgrade rally that’s been happily rising across the region, from a.kitchen to Butcher Bar, Rooster Soup Co. and Stove & Tap in the burbs. Royal B. has an ace in Steve Forte, who has revised the juicy beauty I kvelled over when he was at Meritage, and amped it with Breakaway Farms Lancaster beef, a delicate blade of bacon, truffled black garlic mayo, and a pain au lait bun from Machine Shop that, with its ability to remain soft without falling a apart, is the ideal frame for this fistful of juicy pleasure.
Also, those pork fat fries.
Yes, the place might look like a vintage saloon with classic cocktails, traditional French pleasures, and a rambling upstairs that brings to mind a Victorian bordello. But Royal Boucherie is very much a beautiful creation of our own era, wrapped in an air of history, but with an eye on making Old City great again.