There is a symmetry as bittersweet as homemade hoisin to the notion that Jose Garces' Chifa is building its Chino-Latino head of steam at the same moment Susanna Foo has announced plans to turn off the lights for good at her seminal atelier of French-Chinese cuisine.
On the surface, it's simply a case of one era's fusion visionary ceding the spotlight as the star of the next act takes the stage. Foo's Frenchified dumplings and tea-smoked duck are taking their final bow this summer on Restaurant Row, while Garces' Latin spin on noodle bowls, pork-belly buns, and ceviches splashed with "tiger's milk" is only just starting to bask in the glow.
Foo's retreat to her suburban outpost in Radnor certainly puts an exclamation point on the continuing shift of Philly's Gourmet Ground Zero from Walnut Street to various new poles of dining power, now well-dispersed throughout the city. Not coincidentally, though, there's usually a Garces restaurant to lend the hottest of those strips magnetic pull, from Old City (Amada) to University City (Distrito) to Sansom Street (Tinto) and the 700 block of Chestnut Street, where Chifa opened in February.
On a level of purely culinary note, however, Chifa's arrival marks a full-circle bookend to the evolution of fusion cuisine itself - a story begun two decades ago by Foo, who combined her native Chinese flavors with continental techniques and contemporary presentations with such elegance and lasting influence that we now take it for granted. Unfortunately, lesser chefs have given fusion a bad name through random combinations and pedestrian imitation.
Enter Garces, whose earlier restaurants were among the best examples of the next step in the evolution: American chefs began updating foreign flavors from within the boundaries of those authentic traditions (be they Andalusian tapas or Mexican moles) rather than simply sprinkling exotic ingredients onto Western templates.
Chifa's liberally interpreted bicultural menu risks falling victim to the "anything-goes" cliches of fusion folly, even though it is thoroughly updated with sophisticated, cutting-edge techniques, smaller plates, and a stylishly moody ambience.
Overall, I find the rambling bilevel space full of odd nooks, and the ambitiously wide-ranging menu a notch less compelling than Garces' other more-well-defined tapas emporiums. Even if it is inspired by an actual tradition (known as "chifa") that developed organically over more than a century by Chinese laborers in Peru, one gets the sense that is merely a pretext for this chef and his talented crew to show us their creative chops - and it can feel disjointed and vaguely indulgent.
And yet, if there's a chef in town I'm happy to indulge, it is Garces. And there are simply so many stunning flavors here, starting with the addictive yucca-flour cheese buns (pan de bono) in the complimentary bread basket, it's nearly impossible not to leave impressed.
Chinatown rice noodles come glazed in lobster cream spiced with rocoto peppers, twirled with peas and bacon beneath a succulent fan of butter-poached lobster tail. Fluffy white steamed "bao" bun sandwiches come wrapped around slices of downy-soft pork belly slicked with the plummy soy molasses of homemade hoisin. Crispy-edged empanadas filled with sweet crab and pureed corn pose over a fireburst mirror of Thai-style sweet chile sauce.
Even the fun cocktail list here stirs up thematic twists on familiar drinks, from meringue-topped Pisco sours to five-spice-infused Manhattans and caipirinhas jazzed with ginger and tangerine.
Garces' kitchen, meanwhile, led by chef-de-cuisine Chad Williams, cooks with the same picture-ready small-plate elegance that has characterized their other successes. I tasted only a handful of slightly off plates - a green-curried butterfish ceviche that lacked acidic snap; coins of scallion pancakes that were too unyieldingly crispy; a congee rice porridge for the tender veal cheeks that wasn't cooked down soft enough.
So many other dishes, though, were flawless. The Ecuadorian ceviche is inspired by the one Garces' own grandma used to make, with tender shrimp cured in a spicy tomato-orange brew. But I doubt Abuela garnished hers with yellow tomato "gelee." It's a nod to molecular gastronomy that finds its way into many other dishes, from the parmesan espuma that foams over conchita shells of chopped diver scallops and truffled parsnips, to the emulsified Pisco lime froth that hovers like a brandied cloud atop a shooter of oysters and conch in "leche de tigre," the gingery brew of fish marinated in lime ("tiger's milk") that lends a funky undertow to many of the ceviches.
I expected the ceviches to be the highlight, given the South American theme and Garces' past mastery of the idiom. And there were numerous winners, including the Peruvian-style corvina tangled with ribbons of sweet potato and giant kernels of Peruvian corn, or the sheer kobe capraccio of raw short rib whose marbleized meat was warmed with garlic oil and gingery XO sauce.
The most engaging dishes, though, were the beneficiaries of various ultra-slow-cooked methods - like the braised oxtail served over delicate arepa cakes, and panca chile hollandaise beneath quail eggs and a bacon chip for a sophisticated desayuno twist on steak and eggs; or the sublimely tender short rib, poached sous-vide, then grilled, before it was sliced over rice noodles and maitake mushrooms in a deep-mahogany broth steeped from beef shins and star anise.
Even the chicken "wings" are an elaborate production here, brined half a day, then simmered confit-style in gingered duck fat before they're deboned, wrapped like dumplings around pickled vegetables, crisped in the fryer, and then painted with an aromatic, sesame-speckled soy. (A similarly fabulous treatment for deboned pork ribs gives "riblets" an upscale new lease on life.)
As addictive as those wings are, the "Chifa chicken" is truly Garces' pièce de poultry résistance. The organic bird gets the full Peking-duck monty - brined in star anise and orange juice, flash-blanched, then hung for a day beneath a black vinegar lacquer before it's roasted to order. Served in an iron casserole of soy consomme with bok choy and almonds, it is one of the tenderest, most lovable chickens I've ever eaten.
With food like this, my focus rarely left the table. And that was probably a good thing, considering I had two of the worst seats in the house, an uncomfortably large booth in Nowheresville beside the bathroom hallway, and a forgettable nook beside the bar hung with vintage bird cages and harsh lighting that glared like an interrogation lamp. Clearly, the moody ambience in this space is best captured from the breezy banquettes along the front room wall lined with candlelighted louvered shutters, or the circular booths in back wrapped in striking images of Machu Picchu and the semi-privacy of a beaded metal curtain.
Then again, nothing soothes the ill-seated diner quite like a well-wrought dessert. And pastry chef Ann Giles delivers some real jewels, including what is essentially a deconstructed hazelnut mochachino that layers icy espresso granità and chocolate ganache beneath a free-form Chihuly-like hazelnut tuile that cradles sweet-cream ice cream. Add the tropical passion fruit parfait with basil seeds and young coconut noodles, or the exotic green-tea confection of matcha-mascarpone layer cake, or the pure comfort of homemade root-beer float rising tableside in a sarsaparilla-scented eruption of frothing rice-pudding ice cream, and Chifa has every far-flung indulgence covered.
With so many disparate flavors in one place, Garces' fusion vision for Chifa doesn't yet have the elegant clarity of Foo's before him (not to mention his other restaurants). But through the sheer force of Garces' gastronomic horsepower and genius, dinner here is an undeniably exciting adventure.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Sauté in Queen Village.
Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.