Postcard from Tom: Small Philadelphia restaurants offer big flavor

In the City of Brotherly Love, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema finds a trio of small restaurants that are big on flavor.
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Think small.

In a nutshell, that's the best restaurant advice I can give to anyone traveling to Philadelphia right now. The last year or so has witnessed a mini-explosion of intimate dining rooms, many of them designated BYOB (bring your own bottle) and celebrating the talents of young, first-time chef-owners.

In tough times, it's a win-win situation for everyone. BYOBs minimize start-up costs for restaurateurs and keep dinner tabs down for their customers.

While I had the great fortune this winter to eat high (the Italian-themed Vetri) and low (no cheesesteak in the city comes close to John's Roast Pork), the places in Philadelphia that stuck in my mind after I returned home, the meals I still recall weeks after enjoying them, were the casual but conscientious neighborhood spots gracing the middle of the scene. Small in size, they were all big on flavor. Here's where to find them:

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Aside from the golden glow of some votives and a few photographs of the owners at play, the dining room at Fond strikes a modest pose. Its closely set tables are bare, its wood floors are uncovered and fewer than 40 seats fill the narrow townhouse space. Chef Lee Styer figures that he and his two partners spent no more than $45,000 to open their place, which takes its name from the French culinary term for base or stock, in East Passyunk in August.

The three have their priorities in the right place. Who needs interior decoration when there's so much that's so good coming from behind a curtain in the back? The chill of a recent cold winter night was erased with a gratis shot of hot vichyssoise and a young waiter who seemed eager to share the small menu's charms.

If there's a theme here, it's this: "Food we like to eat," says the chef. Chances are, you've had raw tuna before. Styer, 25, makes the commonplace starter seem novel again, primping slices of rosy crudo with watermelon radishes, creamy yogurt, pomegranate gastrique and sweet-tart sumac for a Mediterranean spin. I've had foie gras a hundred ways over the years, but never as the star of a soup, as I did here. The first course shows up as a dumpling, swollen with caramelized onions and dates, which is joined in its bowl by a stream of pureed seared foie gras poured from a small pitcher at the table. The dumpling, enhanced with brandy, is pleasantly sweet; the soup, fortified with duck stock and Madeira, proves intense. In another success story, sweet scallops are embellished with sauteed celery, golden raisins sharpened with vinegar and celery root veloute. Lean in and you'll get a whiff of black truffles from the sauce.

As young as he is, the chef demonstrates a lot of maturity on the plate. He comes to Fond from the highly regarded Le Bec-Fin, which is also where his fiancee and pastry chef, Jessie Prawlucki, worked. She makes a very good malted chocolate ice cream, showered with glassy pieces of peanut brittle, and closes dinner with adorable meringue buttons, sometimes zipped up with star anise. A patron also has to appreciate a host, co-partner Tory Keomanivong, who responds to "Taxi?" by dashing into the street to hail a cab rather than picking up a phone.

1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-5000. Entrees $18-$26.

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