Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love so it warms my heart that we now have Volver, a restaurant to welcome locals and out-of-towners alike with four-hour, $600, luxury-laden feasts; I suppose we all have different takes on fraternal love but this one fits my definition pretty well. Props to Iron Chef Jose Garces for bringing America's fifth-largest city some culinary diversity at the ultra-high end.
The spendiest destinations for long-form gastronomy have been thriving in New York, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area as of late. Tony spots like Atera, Atelier Crenn, Alinea, Benu, Blanca, Next, and Saison all serve 11 - 30 course meals to reasonably full houses most nights. And while Philadelphia remains brimming with ambitious places to eat — from the sharable plates of Serpico or Zahav to the set menus of Avance — the extended-tasting menu sector remains dominated by just a handful of venues, like the Italian-tinged Vetri, at $155 per person, as well as Lacroix's internationally-inclined chef's table, priced at $165.
And now we have Volver in Rittenhouse Square, repping the modernist beat and serving up 14 courses for $150. Tack on $95 beverage pairings and your dinner date is now $617. That hefty sum will get you, among other extravagances, eleven pours of wine, Monterey Bay squid with two different foams, and perhaps Kentucky Fried Squab, which looks like what would happen if a local manager from KFC spent 20-seconds trying to beautify heat lamp junk food.
If only the Colonel could sell Volver's Kentucky Fried Squab in a bucket.
If only the Colonel could sell Volver's squab in a bucket. The dark game explodes with rich, earthy flavors. The tan crust crumbles in the mouth with ease. And little pools of sweet corn sauce and salty gravy encourage the same type of sloppy meat mopping you'd employ if this were takeout.
No, Volver isn't the same type of turn-your-jean-shorts-inside-out-and-eat-them avant-gardism that you'll fall in love with at Alinea in Chicago or Minibar in Washington. Garces likes to balance out the liquid nitrogen with verdant intermezzos of warm peas in pea butter. Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising thing about Volver is the deconstructed bill; at the end of the meal I received one check for the food, which included gratuity, and another for the wine, to which I added the tip myself.
It's worth noting that Volver is one of those pre-paid restaurants like Elizabeth or Trois Mec — except the booking system, operated by Thundertix, is a bit different. You enter your email address and are asked to read 285 words worth of terms and conditions, check the box saying you understand those terms, and then look for a reservation. I spent 30 Sisyphean minutes navigating through various pitfalls in the system, gave up, took a hot shower, regrouped, then called the restaurant and purchased my reservations over the phone in 120 seconds.
The table you're buying, incidentally, is for an experience called the "performance tasting," a nod to the theater of dining and a hat tip to the given location. Volver is set inside the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a stunning work of modern architecture that helps erase any memories of the Windows 95-style ticketing site.
A host leads you to your table with a prime view of the open kitchen on one side and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Spruce Street on the other. Your entertainment for the evening is watching the chefs tweeze away; your go-to drinking game is taking a sip of wine every time a waiter reminds you that Garces competed on Iron Chef.
Bread course; Duck liver
Dinner starts with canapes: duck liver deviled eggs (nice and irony) and a musky trio of lomo iberico, guanciale, and spallacia. You also get a caviar spoon with such a miserly portion of sturgeon roe you could snort all the pearls like cocaine if you accidentally inhaled too hard. Then a course or two later you encounter a pour of junmai daiginjo sake so modest that an ant could finish it and still pass a breathalyzer test. Smart restaurants like to regulate appetite as well as alcohol intake during extended meals; sometimes those attempts go overboard. This is one of those times.
In our modern era of tasting menu-only affairs, certain stalwart chefs, impervious to blood sugar fluctuations, send out slices of sourdough so late in the meal they could qualify as parting gifts. Not here. The bread course comes after the canapes and it's awesome: a thyme-infused laminated roll served with cow's milk butter and garnished with black garlic piped out of a pepper grinder.
One of the great things about Volver is that the dishes often have so many elements they can still wow even when the namesake ingredient phones it in. Does raw seabream come off as too neutral? Not a problem; the apple granita and horseradish foam it's matched with qualifies as a delicious sweet-sour-spicy soup. Is the live scallop forgettable? No worries; the ham broth and razor clam croquette that come with are sufficiently salty and succulent.
Hungry for a proper eye roll? The menu touts a salad made with "live" lettuce ("the leaves are clipped from the plant minutes before being plated"). That's accompanied by duck skin crumble, curried raisins, and Pacojet-pulverized goat cheese dirt. Sounds absurd, tastes great. So be it.
The menu touts a salad made with "live" lettuce...Sounds absurd, tastes great.
Garces and his chef de cuisine, Natalie Maronski, aren't so much pushing and prodding as they are gently weaning Philadelphia onto more progressive techniques and unusual flavor combinations. The kitchen is more Wes Anderson than Harmony Korine, a purveyor of whimsical candy-store creations like pork rinds with dulce de leche or savory bowls of cereal made with rice flakes, bacon, chicken oysters, summer truffles, thyme marshmallows, and astringent asparagus milk. That outstanding breakfast treat is the type of dish that cutting-edge cooks strive for, mining our taste memories to come up with a new classic that guests want to eat every day.
Like any long meal there are ups and downs. Sardines are perfect, grilled skin-side down, packed with good oil, and paired with perfumey dots of paprika sauce. American Wagyu, cooked over embers, is just so-so, without the dry-aged funk this regal cut deserves. Panna cotta? It's as average as a version in your local bistro. Deconstructed carrot cake? It might rank as a dessert of the year. You eat it with your hands like a kid at a birthday party — there's bright carrot sherbet, chocolate-hazelnut sponge cake, concentrated walnut puree, and a coconut-labne mousse, frozen with liquid nitrogen and smashed into smoking shards.
No, this isn't the type of place that justifies a trip to Philadelphia on its own merits, but for such a young venue, Volver is right where it needs to be, taking calculated risks and advancing edible experiments in one of our great cities. This is all a sign that the future of American food is strong.