Ansill seems to have built much of its reputation on Chef David’s willingness to source, prepare and serve offal and other less than typical animal parts. In practice, these dishes – bone marrow, pig’s trotters, sweetbreads and lamb’s tongue – occupy only a small part of a menu which is otherwise fairly straight ahead. Stylistic inflections from France, Italy and Spain abound. Thematically, Ansill Food & Wine places itself midstream in Philadelphia’s growing trend – started many moons ago at Dmitri’s and continuing with José Garces’ growing empire and places such as Snack Bar – for menus driven by small plates.
Every meal begins with a complimentary dish of flatbreads with white bean purée topped with hot oil. It’s a welcome change from the ubiquitous bread and butter or olive oil and a perfect something to snack on while perusing the food and drink options. Once decisions are made and orders placed, food quickly begins to arrive. Cold starters precede the cooked to order small dishes, followed by larger plates, with all items arriving randomly in order of readiness.
Our “starter” plates included a marinated olive mixture, roasted beets, pigs’ trotters and steak tartare (missing the final “e” on the menu). The olives and beets succeeded by virtue of quality ingredients. The lightly pickled, just slightly snappy beets were accompanied by a few sections of orange, lending a bright, citrus accent to the beets’ sweet, earthy and briny core. Perched atop a generous portion of steak tartare, in a play on the traditional hen’s egg, was a raw quail’s egg. A bold hand with use of purple mustard along with the more usual seasonings made for a high level of zestiness, nearly overwhelming the simple pleasures of the beef itself. The steak’s freshness, though, was unquestionable. Pigs’ trotters were roasted, the meat shredded from the hooves and then rolled with parsley and seasonings before being compressed, sliced and finally pan fried. Served with a toss of pickled red cabbage, they were juicy little medallions of goodness, far removed from any visual association with their original place in the food chain.
My wife, currently a vegan with occasional vegetarian lapses, put the kitchen to the test. Ansill’s website states that, “We will accom[m]odate vegetarian and vegan requests.” She took them at their word, not mentioning anything when making the reservation, instead asking for something special when we placed our orders. Frankly, that’s a tough thing to do to any kitchen, particularly a busy one. Ansill passed with flying colors, at least to my spouse’s inclination. She was presented with a composed plate of five small bites: roasted Brussels sprouts; sautéed porcini and enoki mushrooms; endive and orange salad; tomato and tapenade bruschetta; and shoestrings of butternut squash with wilted greens. The kitchen could hardly be faulted for the lack of a vegan protein source; they delivered a creative array which played to the strengths of the ingredients on hand from the regular menu without seeming at all an afterthought. Bravo!
If there was a weak point with regards to the food, it came in the form of my “larger plate” selection: pappardelle with venison, pancetta and truffle butter. That truffle butter was not in evidence; the pancetta made nary an impact. Larger issues were at hand though. The pasta was overcooked. So was the venison – tender yet braised for so long as to rob the meat of its very venison-ness. Celery, as it turned out, was the dominating flavor of the dish. Oh well…. In order to have a vegetable somewhere in the trotter, tartare and venison mix, I’d ordered a plate of (non-vegan) Brussels sprouts as well. Roasted to a nice exterior char and infused with a touch of bacon, the sprouts helped to make up for the main course disappointment. So did dessert, which brought the food-related quality of the experience right back to where it had been. A light, creamy cup of chestnut mousse, dressed up with a ginger snap garnish, was a simple delight.
Service at Ansill is solidly executed. Working only his third shift, our server nonetheless showed an admirable grasp of the menu. His delivery, and that of the other front of the house staff, was personable, casual, precise and unobtrusive. I wasn’t familiar with the setup of Judy’s Café, the former denizen of the space, but the Ansill’s appear to have done a lovely job with designing their restaurant. An attractive bar anchors the main room, with comfortably spaced tables looking out on Bainbridge Street and affording an easy view of the goings on. Dark wood tones, gentle, artful lighting and rich colors make for a cozy atmosphere. The smaller back room which overlooks the open kitchen is, in contrast, more brightly lit – and cacophonously loud. The split makes for two entirely different dining environments, something which bears consideration, based on your group and mood, when making a reservation.
Beer and, in particular, wine share top billing with the food at Ansill. The beer list is solid if somewhat unexciting, filled largely with the usual suspects but peppered with occasional points of interest such as Jever Pils and Kostritzer Black Lager, both from Germany. The wine selection, though, is in need of some serious work. Manciat’s Mâcon-Charnay is one of the few hidden gems on a list that’s otherwise populated primarily by generic and underperforming producers. Both the Grüner-Veltliner by the glass and the 2004 Barbaresco from Produttori del Barbaresco (by the bottle) were underwhelming. A thorough reworking, with perhaps only a slight increase in average bottle price, could go a long way to bringing the wine part of Ansill Food & Wine more seriously into the mix. In the meanwhile, Tuesday is BYO-night and there’s a reasonable $15 corkage fee throughout the rest of the week.
The overarching concept at Ansill seems to be part wine bar, part snack bar (our waiter described the menu and execution as tapas-like) and part fine dining establishment. That’s a concept that’s hard to pull off, no matter how good the food. Of course, it’s a concept that’s impossible to pull off if the food’s not good. Ansill, for the most part at least, has the food part of the equation working in its favor.
Related reading: Pif Night at Ansill (September 2008).
Ansill Food & Wine (closed, July 2009)
627 S. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147