The long overcoat fluttered like a cashmere flag in a nor'easter as the man crossed blustery Fayette Street on his way to dinner at Blackfish. But the enormous silvery metal valise in his hand dangled unswayed in the heavy wind.
Bottles of good wine apparently make great ballast - especially when braving your path to the area's most exciting new BYOB. And Mr. See-My-Cellar made certain the entire restaurant witnessed just how good the evening's drink would be as he and his three pals carefully posed more than a dozen cult wines at the center of their table, dandily tucked white linen napkins into their collars, and waited for the meal to proceed.
They've become a caricature on the local dining scene - BYO Show-offs. But their grand arrival turned out, at least in this case, to be a pretty good harbinger of the food to come. You can dust off the best bottles in your cellar, too, because Blackfish is anything but the next run-of-the-mill BYOB.
Set into the glass storefront space formerly occupied by Maya Bella in downtown Conshohocken, the two rooms have been brightened considerably with white walls, contemporary pine-cone paper lights, and a frosted-glass porthole in the kitchen door that lends a vaguely nautical air. The space is simple, but filled with appealing details, like the well-used cookbooks conspicuously stacked on shelves near the front, or the shiny napkin rings fashioned from bent forks and spoons.
But it is the solo debut of caterer-turned-restaurateur Chip Roman, 27, that is most impressive. The Drexel-trained chef worked at Vetri and Le Bec-Fin for several years before starting his own catering company (Charles Roman), and each has left an imprint on Blackfish's menu. But those influences are simply a starting point for Roman, who embellishes bistro inspirations with pristine techniques, great ingredients, and personal flourishes that are often surprising.
Al-dente risotto is studded with soft nuggets of subtly sweet chestnuts poached in olive oil, then brightened with a tart cloud of froth made from pureed currants and red wine. The classic luxury of seared foie gras, its crisp surface giving way to melting richness, is electrified by an exotic streak of spicy cinnamon oil and diced eggplant turned sweet and sour with vinegar and fir-tree honey.
Roman is also the first local chef I've known to list spruce bark as an ingredient. On a post-holiday whim, he acquired several leftover Christmas trees and shaved them down with vegetable peelers. After drying the wood, he used it to infuse the butter sauce for his arctic char with a light piney flavor. A bit too subtle, perhaps, for the effort. But I was nonetheless disappointed to learn it was being removed from the menu because, he said, "I can't find Christmas trees anymore."
Now that's seasonal cooking.
Then again, this is a chef who often drives to Cape May to fish for much of the blackfish (a.k.a. tautog) and black bass that serve as the restaurant's signature dish. The meaty fish comes seared to a crisped-skin snap, served over a silky pumpkin puree and spiced quince and celery root ringed by emulsified apple cider. And it was one of several spectacular seafood inspirations.
I also loved the gorgeous sea scallops that came alongside huge trumpet mushrooms in a green-black swirl of basil oil and balsamic. Roman's take on bouillabaisse, filled with perfectly seared shellfish and fish, brimmed with the sunny saffron-and-anise flavor of the Mediterranean. Crisped Cape May skate wings played against a light Meyer lemon froth and surprisingly soulful romaine leaves braised with nibs of bacon. It was a remarkably light - but satisfying - twist on smothered greens.
To begin the meal, there was a textbook house-smoked salmon topped with a very unconventional deep-fried egg, a panko-crusted orb that oozed yolk when the center was cracked. A pristinely delicate hamachi tartare, meanwhile, was illuminated by the texture of jicama and bittersweetness of candied kumquats minced into the fish.
Roman's touch with meat is equally deft and original, with clever twists, like a pomegranate gastrique and a persimmon-endive hash for the amazingly tender duck, elevating something familiar. Or the spark of cherries to a beautiful lamb loin fanned over bacony brussels-sprout leaves.
At lunch, the chef succeeds with more straightforward bistro flavors - like a classic but very deeply flavored French onion soup, a simple seared salmon with lentils, and a soulful chicken pot pie crowned with a golden puff-pastry dome. The most straightforward of dinner entrees, though, the hanger steak, was one of my few disappointments. Determined carnivores should opt instead for the surf and turf, a meltingly tender short rib with seared sea-sweet scallops.
Roman's experience in catering, with its elastic staffing demands, has given him the contacts to assemble an able staff, both in the kitchen with chef de cuisine Jeff Powers (another Le Bec alum), and in the dining room, where the servers are a notch more mature and polished than the BYO norm.
Blackfish also puts more effort into its sweets than most of the chef-made desserts I've tasted lately. The rich creme brulee hums with espresso. The baked fruit desserts need fine-tuning. But the uncooked fresh berries are swaddled in frothy marsala sabayon, whipped to order, and drizzled warm from a copper pot tableside by Roman himself.
The fresh beignets are also divine. So good, in fact, that my wife was alarmed to see a couple in the romantic front-window seat put their doughnuts aside on a neighboring empty table. The explanation became obvious, though, when the fellow suddenly went to one knee and produced a little Tiffany-blue box.
Whether she actually said "yes" was awkwardly unclear. But when a server came by to remove the beignets, they both snapped from their reverie with a decisive "Wait!"
"We're not done with those," he said, "not yet."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor.