On the off chance you've been wondering about all this fuss over pork belly - the suddenly u-pig-uitous staple in Philly kitchens that has been slow-braised, red-cooked, deconstructed into nuevo "al pastor," tossed in salad dressing, folded into bao buns, tucked into raviolis, tea-smoked, or dry-cured into fancy burger bacon - may I recommend putting Fond on your speed dial.
Chef Lee Styer there transforms chunks of the fat-streaked flesh into such a sensation, I'm not sure I've ever had a more bodacious belly. By the time he's done with a salt-and-sugar cure, followed by an ultraslow poach, then a patient but ruthless rendering of the skin, diners are left with cubes of stunningly tender flesh, a three-toned stack of juiciness layered like a piggy parfait beneath a cracker of macro-crunch. Paired with the sweet comfort of purple Okinawan potatoes, and splashed with a Dijon jus, the textural fireworks and savory depth of this dish alone is enough to launch an army of wine-toting food adventurers down to East Passyunk Avenue.
What they'll find when they get to this cozy, custard-colored bistro is the latest of this city's seemingly bottomless well of striking BYOBs. This one is run by a surprisingly youthful team in the kitchen with Styer, 25, and his girlfriend-partner-pastry chef, Jessie Prawlucki, 24, both alums of Le Bec-Fin and the Culinary Institute of America.
By comparison, their partner, Tory Keomanivong, 37, is a relative old-timer, a veteran of both Founders at the Park Hyatt at the Bellevue and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse (where he met Styer.) With his easy broad-cheeked smile, he lends the dining room a genuinely warm gloss of hotel-style fine-dining service, with a team of minions delivering the plates in synchronicity (cue the pedigreed descriptions of every dish) and such catlike reflexes in replenishing wine glasses you'd think he was actually selling the bottles. But don't mistake Keomanivong's well-honed efficiency for a subtle rush.
"This is your table," he said with a half-bow at our indecision before the dessert course. "Please, take your time."
It rang with a sincerity that warmed the hearts of my guests, eager to open yet another special bottle of vino. And it also spoke to the determination of this tiny upstart bistro to act the part of a serious dining destination, from the little amuse-bouche shot glasses filled with frothy soup purees (truffled mushroom cream one night; orange-scented asparagus another) to the little star-anise meringue kisses that bid us adieu.
The ambition sometimes exceeded the kitchen's reach. Between the two of them, Styer and Prawlucki do pretty much all the cooking for the 34-seat dining room (plus some extra help at service.) And though their small New American menu is fairly solid from top to bottom, rooted in polished French technique and modern twists on good ingredients, their youth is evident in some unevenness.
That pork belly is easily the menu's highlight. And there are others, too, like the tuna crudo or the scallops in celery sauce, which I'll get to shortly. But, in general, there is a distinct drop-off between these high points and the rest of the menu, from stellar to merely good.
The crispy sweetbreads came with a memorable cinnamon gastrique, a sweet and sour glaze penetrated with the exotic perfume - but the sweetbreads themselves could have been more tender. The butternut squash ravioli in sage brown butter was a surprisingly unsurprising riff on the classic - except that the squash filling, presumably the featured flavor, was too thin and squishy to stand up to the toothy pasta dough (and a distracting squirt of lemon).
I loved the steak with classic Bordelaise, but the promising farro garnish was tossed in goat cheese that was a little too grainy when it should have been creamy. The chicken, meanwhile, partially roasted on the carcass (Le Bec-Fin-style) before it's removed and finished for service, was also inconsistent - a shade overdone the first night, but splendidly moist and crisp the second.
Like the issues with that chicken dish, most of these are modest fumbles that can easily be fixed with a tweak to execution - with a smooth night producing dishes that deliver honest satisfaction. But they do point to the inevitable foibles of an inexperienced kitchen, not to mention the suddenness with which this project came together this summer, with neighboring restaurateurs Lynn Rinaldi and Corey Baver (Paradiso, Izumi) playing eager matchmakers between the young talent and vacant space.
To be sure, the arrival of Fond (culinary French for "stock" or "base") has been a boon to East Passyunk Avenue, lending this ever-rising strip a little more diversity and some uptown style. That such a youthful team would have the opportunity to make their mark here, and at a modest investment of less than $50,000 to transform the former Albertino and Clementine space into such a simple but pleasant room, is further testament to the mutually beneficial role our BYO movement has had in cultivating both emerging talent and neighborhoods.
And the talent here is certainly emerging. One need only taste the tuna crudo to see what Styer is capable of, as he lends the dish a Mediterranean spin that is multifaceted and original. A dusting of lemony sumac adds a pleasant textural grip to the smooth raw fish. Fronds of dill bring an unexpected anise warmth. And the garnish of homemade Greek yogurt swirled with pomegranate juice brings both richness and ripe pucker that somehow connects with the fruity sweetness of the deep-purple fish. By contrast, his seared scallop dish is an exercise in restraint, with a creamy puree of celery root, crunchy sliced celery, and vinegar-plumped golden raisins adding subtle sparks to frame the soft-spoken flavor of the pristine scallops.
Prawlucki has her own inconsistencies to recalibrate. The sourdough and garlic rosemary breads she bakes are wonderful, but the passion-fruit crepes could be dialed back a notch in sourness. The flavor of the poached Asian pear soup, meanwhile, should be amped up to match the intensity of its mulled perfume. All those nits, however, were forgotten with a silky scoop of her goat-cheese cheesecake, a spoonful of frozen mousse braced with a jigger of Irish whiskey, and, most of all, that decadent malted chocolate ice cream topped with crumbled peanut brittle.
My guests threatened to gang up and overpower me if I didn't relinquish the dish. But at the end of my stellar meal - from crudo to belly to brittle - I was happy to share. For now. With more dishes like those, and a little more time for these young chefs to realize their vision, the fuss over Fond will only grow.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Village Whiskey. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.