I first met chef Nicholas Elmi, then of Le Bec-Fin, more than a year ago when I invited him into my kitchen so I could learn how to butcher a rabbit. He then prepared it two ways and we enjoyed a delicious lunch.
When Le Bec-Fin was sold, I wondered where this talented man would begin the next chapter of his culinary life. He landed at Rittenhouse Tavern, the new restaurant housed in the Philadelphia Art Alliance just off Rittenhouse Square.
For as long as I can remember, there has always been a restaurant nestled in this gorgeous 97-year-old building. I enjoyed many meals at Opus 251. After a pretty long run, it closed and morphed into Gardenia.
That said, Sandy and I looked forward to a ladies’ lunch at Rittenhouse Tavern. The hostess greeted us and led us to a cozy table for two.
The dining rooms retained the rich, dark wood and the walls are painted a soft green enhanced by pretty prints. The acoustics were perfect as was the staff.
Our server answered our questions as we discussed the menu.
We began lunch with a charcuterie plate ($16). Four very different types of thinly sliced pork were arranged prettily on a long wooden board. Our server told us the first two were Virginia-style hams although they came from a farm in Kentucky. I liked the salty flavor of this type of ham, which played off well against the speck that also was included on the plate. Tiny house-made pickled vegetables and dollops of homemade purple mustard enhanced each meat. I took a slice of French bread, smeared on some mustard, topped it with the ham and enjoyed.
The Rittenhouse Tavern burger and fries ($15) was just what Sandy wanted. We’ve been disappointed in burgers served in a few places recently. Too much bread is usually the culprit. Some chefs use a sweet brioche roll for this savory dish. Elmi and his staff got it right.
About 6 ounces of hand-ground, nicely seasoned organic beef was formed into a patty and grilled to medium-rare. A bit of cheese (it tasted similar to a Manchego to me) was melted on top and served on a warm, not-at-all-sweet brioche bun. Thank goodness the roll was not super-sized. A metal bucket filled with piping hot, golden French fries made us happy.
“This is how I like my French fries,” Sandy said as she popped one in her mouth.
I suspect the smoked salmon ($18), which formed the base for my lunch, was smoked in-house. Four large slices of moist, smoked salmon were set in the center of the plate. Finely minced, chopped hard-cooked egg, sweet red onion and tiny capers were set around the fish. In the center was a perfectly cooked poached egg. I’ve never seen salmon served in this fashion before, but there’s a first time for everything.
A thick slice of toasted brioche took the place of a bagel. I loved the contrast of tastes and textures here. The combination of chopped egg with a runny poached egg and the slightly salty taste of capers was inspiring. I spread on some butter and piled the brioche with salmon and a bit of the poached egg.
Strong illy coffee ($4) was served in large English china cups.
I feel compelled to comment on the service at Rittenhouse Tavern. Never once did the hostess or staff call my sister and me “you guys.” We get this all the time. No one constantly interrupted our conversation. Never once did a server recite the description of the foods on our plates as he set them on the table.
I have not experienced such professional service in a restaurant in a long time.
Three tips of the toque to Rittenhouse Tavern.
About a year and a half ago, I decided to sample cheeseburgers served throughout the city to determine the five I found most satisfying. I prefer a good, juicy medium-rare burger on a soft bun. My favorite is the one offered at Devil’s Den.