This has been the spring of happy returns to Philadelphia restaurants. The past two weeks, I've reviewed the comebacks of a New York pizza padrone (Lombardi's Mike Giammarino at Gennaro's Tomato Pie) and a culinary star (Striped Bass' Christopher Lee at Sophia's.) But few encores please me as much as David Ansill's repatriation from the Caribbean.
"Wow, he looks like Capt. Jack Sparrow!" said my guest as Ansill limped through the dining room at Bar Ferdinand to greet an old acquaintance. The hitch in his back, he said, had to do with "peeling a mango" on his most recent Jamaican jaunt. Getting old is no fun.
Once Philly's BYO pioneer and offal apostle at Pif and Ansill, the 54-year-old had hoped for a sunset career cooking along Negril's sandy white beach when he left town last year for Jamaica. But his stay in paradise went up in smoke after only six months for a variety of reasons. Among them was the detail that his resort was given flak by the Jamaican tourist board for an interview Ansill did with a Philadelphia blogger that made him sound like the Cheech Marin of chefs.
"She held that against me," he says, referencing his former Negril employer.
Jamaica's loss, though, is Philadelphia's rightful reclaim. Developer Bart Blatstein's end of Northern Liberties (in which he recently sold a controlling interest) could certainly use the help, as most of the grown-up food operations that initially settled there - Swift Half, Sonata, Last Drop, A Full Plate - have left the landlord's domain to twentysomething bars, dog boutiques, and fitness studios.
And Bar Ferdinand, in particular, one of the survivors still doing serious food, should benefit tremendously. Despite its handsomely tiled, evocative decor and solid Spanish fare, owner Owen Kamihira's tapas bar has never quite made a distinctive culinary mark. A half-dozen chefs in nearly seven years will have that effect.
A genuine draw like Ansill could reboot this kitchen if he sticks around, building a team with talented, young cooks like sous-chef Aila Devowe, who, with her boss out of town for my first visit, made several memorable dishes. Heat-charred ramps tuned in the season's bounty over a puddle of earthy mushroom cream. A broad pan of paella Valenciana big enough to feed four was one of the best I've had in Philly in recent years. Each grain of Calasparra rice was infused with chorizo and seafood stock, every garnish, from the shellfish to the tender chicken leg, cooked to perfection.
The tortilla Española was a Spanish classic done right, although the wedge of layered potato, egg and onion was stacked higher than I'd seen. ("Owen likes his tortillas tall," Ansill says.)
The chef's trademark love of rustic cuts and wry wit was also evident with the sherry-braised rabbit leg served, with a wink, over clove-spiced carrot puree.
Add genuinely engaged service from servers like Stephanie Michell, who not only offered sound advice on sherry (she insists on freshly opened Manzanilla), but also knew how to pour Basque cider (from high above the glass) and also expertly guided the mix of plates we ordered, and it appears that Bar Ferdinand is serious about taking the next step.
Bar Ferdinand's cellar is well-rounded and quality-driven, from several good choices by the glass (including fine after-dinner sweets) and bottle, to craft beers, sangria, and cocktails that make the most of sherry as an intriguing mixer (I love Las Ramblas' Amontillado Manhattan twist.)
A wood-fired oven has been installed to roast shrimp in garlic oil and bake flat "coca" breads like the one topped with shrimp and guindilla chiles. A house charcuterie program has produced cured chorizo, served with pickled cauliflower.
A link of fresh chorizo was a bit less impressive, partly because the brandy flame on the terra cotta dish beneath it had extinguished when it got to our table. But it was the least of a few disappointments that made clear this kitchen is still in transition.
A couple of BF standbys may be ready to retire - like the bacon-date empanadas with strange puff-pastrylike crusts and pasty fillings, or the fried Manchego cubes topped with frozen apple foam, a showy bauble of technique on a toothpick whose elements were neither hot enough nor cold enough for full effect.
Some of Ansill's dishes, though, could use more finesse to temper overbearing seasonings on already challenging flavors. His braised lamb tongue is the single gamiest thing I've eaten all year - in a good way - but was wickedly oversalted. The squid stewed in squid-ink-blackened tomato sauce was overwhelmed by spice. The fried snails were doughy. A seared duck breast was chewy.
For each stumble, though, there was a tasteful reply. The fennel-crusted tuna, essentially Spanish-inspired sashimi draped over haricot verts, caper berries, kalamata olive vinaigrette, boquerone anchovies, saffron-tomato conserva, and shaved bottarga ("a little smoked tuna dust!" says Ansill), pushed piquance to the edge of boldness without sliding over. His citrusy, sous-vide-cooked octopus was meltingly tender. A simple crab "croqueta," almost fluffy with sweet meat beside a crunchy nest of shaved fennel and citrus, showed classic elegance.
A crock of crispy noodle fideos tossed with sherry cream and wild mushrooms brought focused, earthy vegetarian flavors. But Ansill's talent for alt-meats is also on joyful display. Aside from the shoestring shreds of fried pig ears with purple mustard, there were juicy squares of pork belly with a bacon-sherry reduction, and pork cheeks, brined overnight, then sublimely braised in tomato brava sauce sparked with ginger.
For dessert, Pif fans will be pleased to taste again his wife's almond Financier with almond ice cream. The passion fruit parfait is a refreshing nod to his Jamaican phase. But if there was doubt that Ansill would embrace the flavors of Spain, a bite of his churros proves otherwise. Crispy on the outside and pudding at the center, these deeply grooved, sugar-dusted sticks dunk into a demitasse of hot chocolate with an added pleasure. It's the satisfaction that one of Philadelphia's favorite-son chefs is home again.
1030 N. Second St.,
David Ansill has returned to Philadelphia from his Jamaican jag, and shifted his rogue-ish culinary gaze from French to Spanish flavors at what may be the last grown-up restaurant left in Bart Blatstein's slice of Northern Liberties. Handsome Bar Ferdinand now finally has a chance at a chef-driven identity to go with excellent service and ambience. The menu has highlights, but still shows the inconsistency of flux between the old standbys and the handcrafted, edgy approach that Ansill brings.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Pan con tomate; olives and almonds; house-cured charcuterie; tortilla Española; ramps with mushroom cream; crispy pig ears; Manchego frito with frozen apple foam; fennel-seared tuna; crab croquette; octopus; pork belly; rabbit with carrot puree; mushroom fideos; paella Valenciana; pork cheeks in brava sauce; passion fruit parfait; churros.
DRINK A very good Spanish list, with 17 worthy wines by the glass (Rueda Garciarevalo "Casamaro," Manchuela Bodegas Ponce "Clos Lojen"), a solid range of bottles (try the Labastida Crianza Rioja, or splurge for López de Heredia "Viña Cubillo"), a nice sherry selection (la Cigarrera Manzanilla), and a memorable sherry-infused cocktail (Las Ramblas, a Manhattan with Amontillado.) The small beer list is respectable (Unibroue; Sly Fox), but the most intriguing bottle is the funky Isastegi Basque cider.
WEEKEND NOISE Up front, it's extremely noisy at 96 decibels. It's quieter (but dull) in back. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sun.-Thurs., 4:30-10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat., until 11 p.m. Late night menu Sun.-Thurs., 10 p.m.-midnight; Fri. and Sat., 11 p.m.-1 a.m. Brunch Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tapas, $4-$18 (about three per person.) Paella for two, $30.
All major cards.
Free parking lot on Germantown Avenue north of the Piazza at Schmidt's.
Chef David Ansill talks about Bar Ferdinand at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. EndText