"Chicken wings are good food" is not the kind of proclamation one expects from the former chef of Le Bec-Fin.
Then again, Daniel Stern seems to revel in turning expectation on its ear at Gayle, his new Queen Village restaurant in the terra-cotta-tiled-bistro bones of the old Azafran on Third Street.
Potato soup becomes a sauce, and clams casino becomes a soup. Stews and casseroles are deconstructed, then put back together again (more or less). You'll encounter basmati rice churned into ice cream for your entree. Bitter Belgian endive is transformed into dessert.
But the most amazing thing about these dishes is not simply that they are strange - shock value is an easy trick for any chef. (In that regard, Gayle may be on the only block in America with two restaurants, Ansill being the other, that prominently feature tongue.)
The catch is that the food works. At least, most of it. Even a seemingly random creation like the "#9 Combination," which poses tall plugs of silky braised lamb shoulder opposite slices of raw tuna sashimi glazed in yogurt tzatziki, suddenly harmonizes around a third element - a silky dollop of avocado-cucumber puree that ballasts the plate between them. In a few bites, it evolves from dubious to memorable.
Of course, none of this modernistic culinary juggling is obvious from the sparsely worded menu, which teases with cryptically simple descriptions like "chicken, purple and green," or "veal stew."
But you can bet that Stern, a Cherry Hill native and self-taught cook who worked in Manhattan landmarks like Jean-Georges and Daniel before coming home to run the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin, will turn them into unexpected delights.
One called "Beef Tenderloin, Shepherd's Pie" is unlike any pub casserole I've seen. There's potatoes and meat, all right, but the spuds are wrapped inside a crisp parcel of bacon filled with Gruyere and shredded short rib. The three morsels of tenderloin that line the plate, meanwhile, exude a double-layered gusto - first from their two-hour hickory smoking, then from the rendering bacon fat of the "pie" that's also used to sear the meat.
And Wing Bowl will never be the same once they get ahold of these exotic "winter wings." After a marinade in creme fraiche and shallots, they're crisped beneath a glaze of butternut squash with Moroccan spice. In a few months, watermelons will be the "summer wing" theme.
Despite the kitchen's haute ambitions, Gayle is a comfortable 35-seat room that feels like a neighborhood bistro, with framed snapshots of Stern-and-friends hanging about, with sage green walls, a mellow jazz soundtrack, and a back patio that should make for pleasant warm-weather dining. Both the $20 to $25 entrees on weekday a la carte nights and the $45 to $62 weekend tasting menus are reasonable considering the level of cooking.
The one-page wine list has an intriguing selection that should grow, but focuses for now on the versatile pinots of the Northwest and some eclectic whites, with a good range in prices and many by the glass. And the restaurant's service staff is superb, gracefully attentive but not hovering, and at ease answering the inevitable menu questions.
Gayle's contemporary fare will not appeal to everyone, especially those who don't like chefs playing mind games with food. I do appreciate a good experiment, but some of these precious dishes still needed tweaking.
The crab dumplings wrapped in dough made of pureed scallops were a shade fishy. I loved the bacony clam chowder, but the floating packages of fried cabbage stuffed with clams casino were not delicate enough.
Stern can also get so carried away with his explorations that the dish loses its way. The seared tuna entree should have been renamed "Things You Can Do With Basmati," for its feverish riff on the rice. He transforms the grain into crackers, edible paper, pilaf, and a curried ice cream that recalls an Indian pudding. The addition of octopus ceviche, not to mention a beautiful piece of tuna, became inconsequential.
For the most part, though, Stern's vision was clear. A touch of lavender added extra elegance to a luscious lobster salad cradled in the comfort of a house-baked potato roll. Deep-fried risotto balls came with a frothy sabayon dip tinted by soy and truffles. Beautifully house-smoked salmon was twirled like a turban over a comforting puree of potatoes and apples. The creaminess of seared foie gras played against the tart crunch of water chestnuts cooked in red-wine syrup. Textures are also key to the skate, which is accented with the gentle pop of lotus seeds and peanuts and bursts of chile-spiced orange segments.
The red cabbage pesto was more faded pink than purple in the "Chicken, Purple and Green," but the succulent bird was poultry paradise. The veal stew, meanwhile, was a fascinating assembly of separately cooked parts - slow-stewed shank; crispy veal mini-spring roll; deep-fried trotters; tender morsels of poached tongue - that were satisfyingly reunited in a rich dark gravy over fingerling potatoes and onions.
Gayle's desserts sustain its topsy-turvy tune, with thyme ice cream atop classic apple pie and an ever-changing item called "Breakfast" that plays lovely games with French toast (soaked in white chocolate custard) and amazing banana sticky buns with a mocha pot de creme that tastes like wonderfully undersweetened cafe con leche.
The unorthodox chef even steeps the famous Belgian salad green with beer and cream and candied orange zest for a custard of stunning complexity. It may be Stern's greatest trick of all, bringing unexpected sweetness right down to the bitter endive.