Several weeks ago, a question was posed to me: "would you like to have a graduation party, or would you like to go to Lacroix." Moments after the query was broached we were making reservations. After returning from a dreamy experience last night (6/2), I reassured myself that I had made the correct decision.
It goes without saying that any food-loving Philadelphian sets the bar high for the degustation at Lacroix. It's indisputably one of the top three restaurants in the entire area, and likely one that'll find a place on national lists (as if it needed more accolades). I too expected a meal of fantastical proportions, but I tried to be reasonable - one can only expect food to provide so much transcendence.
What made eating at Lacroix live up to my lofty expectations was not the exoctic French dishes I consumed, but, I dare say, the glamour and luxury permeating the restaurant's atmosphere. Spending a night at Lacroix is partaking in the complete dining experience.
To my initial dismay, I realized that I had left my camera behind at the house. How would I preserve the meal for later perusal? I worried. I thought about drawing pictures. After the fact, I'm glad I did not concern myself with materializing the sublime night with photographs. And you readers can leave the appearance of the foods up to your own imagination. Besides, a glance at the food's desriptions should suffice in causing you to salivate.
The dining room itself is supremely designed, with distinctively modern but unobtrusive architecture and arrangements. I was happy that the room was not all glitz and glam as one might expect for a restaurant in the Rittenhouse hotel. Those adjectives are more suited to describe the plating.
Connie, our warm and spritzy hostess, informed us that a tour of the kitchen was planned for tonight's meal, and that Chef himself had reserved a spot at the chef's table for our desserts. Though bubbling with excitement, I calmly agreed that it would be "wonderful."
Now it was time to open the Degustation Menu, and commense the feasting. After great deliberation our choices were set; I went for the 4-course plan ($69 compared to $60 for 3), due in part to a slight nudge from our waiter. In times of great celebration only true gluttony should be avoided.
For my first plate I selected a torchon of Foie Gras topped with a spiced bread paillette (cheese straw) and a side of Bosc pear moutarde. The foie gras's puck shape and pallor were more than a little off-putting, but never would I judge a food soley on appearance. But first appearances can be right: the first bite conjured a taste that was reminiscent of a bad goat cheese experience mixed with an awkward butteryness. The fois gras was simply overwhelming. Not even the slightly mustard-tinted pears could cut through the puissant goat flavor. You could say I was off to a rough start, but I did not let this misstep quash my high hopes. (Hey, we were enjoying the fresh metropolitan bread and expertly chosen libations.)
The Hawaiian Black Pomfret, swiming in a bacon broth along with a wonderful potato tourne and a pungent merguez sausage and a knot of pickled green beans, was just the kind of reassurance I needed. The pomfret, a tender mahi mahi-type fish, was expertly paired with a bacon-flavored broth. The tiny bridge-shaped merguez sausage packed a wallop of aged Spanish meat flavor.
The next dish proved equally as wonderful, although with a wholly different appeal. An artful swirl of sauces and ingredients mixed under two crossed Pan-Roasted French Quail thighs. These tiny packets of quail may have been apex of game flavor. The chef coaxed every morsel of stripped-pork flavor from the meat. There was no tough sinews or fats to chew through, just tender meat.
The fourth plate was less inspired, but just as good as any top quality byobs' fair. The Atlantic Skate Wing (like they really needed to say Atlantic) was lightly pan-seared so that each side had a nice tan. Skate usually has a mouthfeel like flounder, but Lacroix's chefs' preparation made the fish even more succulent, with help from an orange jus, and delicate. Accompanying the wing was a two-bite milk-braised pork shoulder -- tiny, but each bite was very satisfying.
Now I needed time to recline and let my belly rest. No such luck. Minutes later our waiter escorted us into the kitchen where the eponymous executive chef Jean-Marie Lacroix was introduced. Before he saw us, I watched as he sat unassumingly in his foreman-like office, overseeing the clockwork mechanics of his white-gowned staff. Unlike some other Frenchmen I've met, Chef Lacroix was both modest and reticent; although I couldn't imagine him being so quiet when a cog slowed the prep process. (A few chefs emphasized, with admiration, his dedication to perfection.)
We were shown to a table adjacent to the kitchen area. The placement was almost surreal: the shake and hustle of the kitchen surrounded us while we sat suited and tied, pleasantly slurping and sipping. Adding to the oddity of the situation, in the middle of our dessert course, a tourist group of about 18 were ushered into the room. Their guide explained to them the areas of the kitchen and then joked, "we even hired a couple of models." To make the evening even more unreal, I was able to visit the dessert station and the saucier's station. The patissier and his crew were round and jolly, and even the overworked saucier still readily obliged to a tour.
After all the wonderful events of the night, the desserts couldn't possibly have lived up to the proceeding dishes - it's true one of them didn't. The final course is courtesy of Chef (or free), but along side the grand presentations of the savoury dishes, the dessert selections don't make for a fitting finale. I would make this point without hesitation if it was a normal evening, but this night my dessert selection was accompanied by a flurry of extras: a two-piece chocolate set, several petit sweets, a scoop of Tonka ice cream, and a congratulations traditional petit four cake (which, it should go without saying, was way too good for such a tiny chocolate-almond cake). My actual selection was the Raspberry Tart: a finger-sized slither of tart was the base for six little raspberries. Thankfully, a dollop of lemon sorbet accented the tiny flavors of the tart.
I wouldn't have eaten more that night if you paid me, but when leaving Lacroix I wasn't thinking about my soon-to-be-grouchy belly. No, such corporal matters were of little concern - I was still floating from my French-themed high.