IT'S ALWAYS RISKY to start off with a ridiculously theoretical concept from France, especially one named something as ridiculous as Le Fooding. But if we're going to talk about what's happening with the dining scene on 18th Street near Rittenhouse, we should bring a little French theory into our lives.
Le Fooding - a combination of the English words "food" and "feeling" - is an anarchic, hard-to-describe movement that began more than a decade ago in Paris, created by two prominent critics who wanted to shake up the scene and challenge the authority, the tyranny of stuffy, traditional French dining. The English wording was meant to provoke the establishment.
What is Le Fooding? Vaguely, it's all about high-quality-but-casual eating and drinking that falls outside of all established genres. Comfortable spaces where all rules are tossed out the window, along with themes, formality, preciousness and, above all, tradition, and where the vibe will be just as important as the food. For such a fuzzy notion, Le Fooding's influence on the French dining scene has been profound, and the group's eponymous restaurant guide is now nearly as influential as the classic Michelin guide. According to Le Fooding's manifesto: "We create, we innovate, and most of all we have fun."
So, OK, what the hell does Le Fooding have to do with Philadelphia? Stay with me here. Consider the word "fun" in the manifesto. How many of the big "think food" manifestos and movements that we've seen over the past few decades had time for "fun"?
Think, for instance, of the most recent culinary movement to overtake our fair city: Is anyone else already tired of this farm-to-table restaurant shtick? It's not necessarily the principles behind it - locally grown, sustainable, organic - all of which are certainly noble and commendable. Maybe I'm just reacting in the same way I did when other culinary movements - molecular gastronomy, nose-to-tail eating or even classic, snooty French dining - became didactic and predictable. Or maybe it's just that all of the above share the same basic traits: namely a lack of humor and too many rules.
Look, if I'm going to drop $300 on dinner for three - as I did the other night at Talula's Garden - do you think I might also be able to have some fun? Apparently the utterly humorless hostess, bartender and server didn't think so. Perhaps it was our fault for showing up early for our reservation? We'll never know.
I had a nice enough meal at the new Aimee Olexy-Stephen Starr joint project on Washington Square. About what I expected. Thumb's up on some dishes: The eggplant-marscapone agnolotti, the braised rabbit pasta and the cheese plate were excellent. Thumb's down on others: Neither the lobster-tail-and-pork-belly combo nor the mushroom-pate-en-croute-with-quail's-egg-on-top-of-chicken-wing ensembles added up to very much. But basically, I reached the same conclusion that a number of others have: fussy, fussy, fussy.
At least I know where my precious food came from, because at the bottom of the menu, it read: "Our thanks to our great producers, gardeners, and farmers: Three Springs Orchard, Culton Organics, Lancaster Farm Fresh, A. Buzby, Willow Hill, Linden Dale, Birchrun Hills Farm, Pete's Produce, HG Haskell, and The Challenge Program." Really? Look, restaurateurs, there is honestly no need to show your work. We get it, you're pure of heart. Or perhaps we are, since we're the ones paying for the food.
"There are enough ideas in life without having them all on your plate," wrote Adam Gopnik last year in his New Yorker profile on Le Fooding.
I've been thinking about Le Fooding lately, in particular when I walk down 18th from Sansom toward Rittenhouse, hopping from the great new gastropub The Dandelion, also Starr's, to the well-established but still satisfying wine bar Tria, or popping in for excellent cocktails at Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., or perhaps walking up Sansom a couple of blocks to eat at the bar at always-fun Village Whiskey.
Then, last week, I dined several times at a new restaurant called a.kitchen in the AKA Hotel - ironically, where Bryan Sikora, Olexy's ex-husband and former partner in Django and Talula's Table, now cooks.
I'm just going to go out on a limb: a.kitchen signals a new direction in highbrow-casual dining in the city, a new challenge to the established conventions of our dining scene. In fact, there is no place closer to the vibe of Le Fooding. And silly Franglais names aside, that's a good thing.
What I liked best about a.kitchen is that it's hard to pin down exactly what it's trying to be. "There's no particular theme here," said David Fields, a.kitchen's creator and manager. "This is not a French bistro. This is not an Italian trattoria. This is not farm-to-table. . . . We're not being fussy, but we're not pandering, either."
Pandering would be across the street at the new Serafina, the New York-based pizza and pasta chain that opened this summer to big buzz and big crowds. The less said about Serafina, the better, but I would sum it up thusly: It's for people who want to eat Olive Garden food but at triple the price.
So what is a.kitchen about? Well, from one angle, it's perhaps the best wine bar in the city, with an adventurous list that ranges from the accessible - such as Spanish Monastrell or Puglian Negroamaro - to the sorts of bottles - Chinon from the Loire or Godello from Galicia - that wine nerds love. And it offers cheaper three-ounce pours so you can try more of that great list by the glass. From another angle, Sikora's menu is full of interesting but intensely satisfying dishes, like blue crab on farro salad, or tagliatelle with veal ragu or beautiful mushroom-and-taleggio crepes, or a perfect octopus served on a caramelized watermelon.
Finally, a.kitchen's ambitions seem rightsized. It's not trying to change your mind or your way of life. It's just trying to serve you a glass of wine and a few good plates of food. Perhaps good is the new great? If so, Vive Le Fooding!
Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.