"This is why Philly is so fat" read a quip under Nan's 2005 Zagat rating. Hmm...I guess that's high praise, but such a theory could be applied to McDonald's as well. Maybe they use too much butter. Exiting the Sino-French enclave, I drew my conclusion. Yes, the chef uses lots of butter, and no, it won't keep you from licking your plate.
Nan isn't located in the most inviting part of the city. Even more odd is its corner location, more reminiscent of a deli locale than an upscale restaurant's. Really, that's all beside the point. Nan has reigned on that spot for many years, creating, with astonishing consistency, some of the best food in the city. Once you step into Nan's demure white dining room, any concerns about your car's safety will be wiped away.
The restaurant's interior appears to have undergone some considerable renovation. Still, a budget can only be stretched so thin. My chair was somewhat uncomfortable, and the table was a tad wobbly. Annoying at first, but something that can be overlooked.
Moving on to the more important elements...The service at Nan is very solid. Our young waiter was pleasant and informative, and most importantly, he wasn't mealy. The restaurant isn't far from Penn University's campus, so it tends to be partially staffed and occupied by grads and undergrads. He promptly handed us the menu, which was filled with enticing options presented as simply as a roadside diner's: Pork, Venison, Sweetbreads. The blue-chipping present on nearly every swanky BYO menu in the city is totally absent from the menu. This typically indicates the confidence of the chef. He wants you to trust him with the preparations. And from my experience, trust me, you can trust him.
For appetizers, our party of three decided to split a Thai Beef Salad and a Diver Scallop Salad. Both were specials. One thing about Nan's menu, even their specials rotation, is that it never changes. Some see this as a flaw, other appreciate the restaurant's appeal to "regulars" (i.e. frequent diners). The Thai Beef was barely seared on both sides, leaving it with the intense incarnadine hue that probably would appeal more to hardcore carnivores than we civilized omnivores. Still, the flavors were very good, though the salad greens themselves added little to the dish. The Diver Scallops would be my pick from the two. Again lightly seared, the three treasures were soft but had just enough bite to feel substantial. The scallops sat atop radicchio and nice thick asparagus, and were surrounded by a thick beurre blanc -- intensely buttery. I'm not a fan of heavily buttered sauces (even though most culinary school sauces are, I appreciate it when the butteriness is subtle), but because the scallops themselves were not doused in the liquid, I'm not gonna complain.
For my entree. I chose the Peking Duck special. I've had duck that tastes like pork before; this was not that duck. I wasn't prepared for this succulent skinless treasure, I expected it to be more Peking-ed. The dish was loaded with a thick buttery sweet sauce (the waiter tagged it a "vinaigrette"). It was as if Asian and French iron chefs battled on my plate, and the French had emerged victorious. Diplomatically, the victors allowed for a slight spiciness and some soy to sneak in to the fruity buttery "vinaigrette." I suppose the Peking descriptor was also merely a votive for the fallen culinary comrades. Whatever the circumstances, the dish layered flavors very well. I mean, look at my description: buttery, sweet, fruity, subtly spiced. As a side note, the entree came with a cup of root vegetables. This was more of an afterthought; the veggies were unexciting and a tad dry. I would've been content with the plentiful duck.
As married couples oft do, the two other diners in attendance split the Pad Thai entree, their all time favorite dish from the Orient. And truly the only solely Asian dish on the menu. The waiter presented the entree on two plates; the portions were more than enough for two hungry diners. They ate happily.
We decided to skip dessert -- instead we stopped at the Green Line Cafe to sip lattes before going homebound -- although the decision was difficult. Despite the pastries chef's absence, our waiter dutifully noted, their most popular desserts remained: classic chocolate cake, two types of fruit-based puff pastries, and a creme caramel.
The bill was higher than the menu led us to expect, but the specials menu tends to be more expensive. The appetizers were $14-a-piece, my Peking Duck was $23.95 (which would have tied for the priciest item on the menu), and the Pad Thai (menu item) was 14.95. Through and through the place is a deal. The portions are on the larger side, and the quality is superb.
Location: 4000 Chestnut Street (University City), Philadelphia, PA