The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of them, at least. It is just a week or so into the redo and menu overhaul at Twenty Manning, a block off Rittenhouse Square, which has appended, in an effort to communicate a new era of open-armed neighborhood-ness, the suffix Grill to its name.
So you will see at a glance tufted, sunflower (actually, more mango) banquettes, and walls in the bone-white colors of a Smallbone kitchen. And a menu that hews closely - but by no means exclusively - to the bill of fare on the new banner hung outside, "Fish, Fowl, Beef, Pork."
But one morning last week, Kiong Banh was retracing his steps; walking the same walk, through the same markets that he has for the 10 years he has been head chef at Twenty Manning (longer if you count his time in the kitchen with Phillipe Chin, the bad-boy French-Asian chef who lit up the city with Chanterelles and Chin Chin earlier in the '90s.)
At the Food Distribution Center the day before, Banh had picked up the spinach that he would pair with the pan-seared scallops. This morning, he double-parked his SUV at Ninth and Washington, loading up on lettuces and radishes, cases of blackberries, cauliflower, chiles under the awning at Giordano Fruit & Produce, the corner purveyor. Then it was up the street to DiBruno Bros. for a veined wedge of Birchrun Blue, a Chester County blue destined for the evening's cheese plate.
Kiong Banh is 54 now, a gentle soul, his Vietnamese accent still very much intact, as steady as they go. When his partner, Twenty Manning founder Audrey Claire Taichman (yes, she also owns the eponymous Audrey Claire, the bistro at 20th and Spruce) says, "the diva days of chefs are on the way out," it's not Kiong Banh she has in mind so much as the preeners and showboats found at trendy or presumptively trendy eateries.
The new menu here will be missing some Kiong Banh signature touches - the seared nori-wrapped tuna with pineapple butter rice, the moulard duck with Asian kabocha pumpkin hash, and such, though one will not be tampered with: The charbroiled beef sirloin noodles with lemongrass, shredded romaine, pickled cucumber, fresh basil and mint in a garlic-lime vinaigrette ain't going nowhere. Regulars would not stand for its excision; it's staying put.
Kiong Banh is a bit weary this particular morning. For five weeks, he has been downshifting the menu, streamlining it to be, in Taichman's words, more "simple, straightforward, accessible, neighborhood." This translates to - more fries and burgers (a rather good one from partly pastured beef from Pineland Farms in Maine, layered with Kentucky bacon and Vermont cheddar on a bun from Georges Perrier's restaurant bakery in Wayne), heaping pots of brothy mussels, grilled bread, and frites, steak frites (you want frites with that?), Jersey beet and goat cheese salad, roast organic chicken, Berkshire pork chops, and for specials, mac 'n' cheese, fish and chips (also known as frites), spaghetti Bolognese and, you get the idea.
If this sounds a bit like the universal gastropub menu extant at the edges of Center City and finding its way into reviving stretches of Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, Fishtown, well, nobody's going to argue. In a tight economy, surrounded by a clientele looking for a homey supper at slightly downsized prices (salads for $7, daily plates between $12 and $19, entrées around $17 to $18), Taichman says, "Give 'em what they want."
If Kiong Banh is bothered by the more prosaic cast of the menu, he does not show it - or mention it. He has another stop before heading back to Twenty Manning - a Vietnamese eatery near the corner of Columbus and Washington called Pho Saigon. He knows some of the family.
He is animated here, talking about the herb garden he tends with his wife, Tinh Chien, at their home in Olney, growing basil, mint, tri-color sage, oregano for the restaurant.
He notes the secret of the depth of flavor in the beef-noodle pho broth here; it's grilling (not roasting) the beef bones for the stock. He pantomimes how to choose the best live bird at a fresh-kill poultry shop, air-patting the feathers, air-groping the body. He deconstructs the ginger sauce that's on the table.
Twenty Manning has changed. But for Kiong Banh, some things, at least, remain the same.
Twenty Manning Grill
261 S. 20th St. (at Manning)
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols