Friday, February 8, 2008

Marc Vetri at Snackbar

What happens when one of Philadelphia’s most soundly established and respected chefs, Marc Vetri, comes out to play at one of the city’s more adventurous micro-restaurants, Snackbar? Let’s just say the city’s foodies take notice. When last I attempted to secure a reservation for one of these Snackbar events – it was Shola Olunloyo’s guest chef installment – I struck out in the race for a table. This time around, I succeeded thanks to a little help from some friends. The payoff, as served at Snackbar this past Monday, made our group effort worthwhile. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the meld between Vetri’s soulful cooking and Snackbar chef Jonathan McDonald’s reputation for gastronomic edginess. In the end it was clear that Vetri took the lead, to good effect, while McDonald’s creative touches with textures, techniques and flavors were cleverly inserted into each dish.

Snackbar’s usual front of the house staff was on fine form on the evening. They were helped along by Jeff Benjamin, sommelier at Vetri, who selected the beverages paired with each course and worked the tables, imparting wine background and pairing rationale along the way. Though we wouldn’t discover it until the end of the evening, there was some extra guest support in the kitchen as well, courtesy of Michael Solomonov, late of Marigold Kitchen, soon headed to Zahav and once a member of Vetri’s kitchen team.

Arancine di Riso with Parmesan Emulsion
The first course they delivered was a teaser. One lonely little arancine, a risotto fritter posed in a wave of foam set in a miniature casserole dish. Actually, the fritter was a nice size; it’s just that I could have eaten a handful. The outer shell of rice was toasted to a golden brown, not quite crunchy but with a great tooth feel. Inside, tender, ground essence of veal and peas were perfectly seasoned, at once rich in flavor yet light in weight. McDonald’s touch could be seen in the parmesan emulsion. It worked much better here than a full on sauce would have, adding flavor and delicacy without marring the texture of the rice puff.

paired with:
Franciacorta Brut Rosé, Le Marchesine 2002
I love bubbly as a starter, so I wasn’t about to complain when the bartender leaned across the bar to fill our glasses. When I found it was Franciacorta, I was doubly happy, as it’s rare to find any in the Philadelphia market. If Jeff hadn’t stopped by to point out that it was a rosé, I may have never known, as this was the palest possible pink, barely discernible in the red glow reflecting from Snackbar’s crimson walls. Though not particularly complex, it did showcase the chalky, slightly grapey character of Franciacorta that makes good examples a nice meeting point between the fruitiness of Prosecco and the more intense structure of some Champagne. It didn’t hurt that it was one of the better pairings of the evening.

Shaved Porchetta with Treviso, Arugula, and Celery in Forms
Tasted in its separate parts, this course at first seemed disjointed. “Celery in Forms” were pretty to look at, had certainly been modified through some culinary craft but were still essentially just celery. Lightly charred treviso radicchio also seemed at first to be there simply as a foil to the gentle, fatty richness of the porchetta. It was the dish’s assertive dressing, infused with flavors of cured, salty meat, and hinting at a touch of nut oil (hazelnut perhaps?), that pulled the dish up a notch, making it more than just a nod to the salumeria.

paired with:
Colli Orientali del Friuli Tocai Friulano, Rocca Bernarda 2006
This was without question the pairing of the night. As Tocai is a classic match with Prosciutto di San Daniele, the famous ham of Friuli, perhaps it was an easy leap to matching it with porchetta. Nonetheless, it was a leap well taken. Crisp, slightly mineral, floral and peachy, this showed the best attributes of young, unoaked Tocai. Its lively acidity married well with the acid in the dressing as well as the fattiness of the pork.

Squid Ink Spaghetti with Braised Squid and Hot Tomato Jelly
Italy met the Basque country in this dish of tender braised squid, sauced in its own ink and served with a nest of al dente squid ink spaghetti. This was arguably the simplest dish of the night, which might explain why I would happily tuck into a full-on portion of this as a main plate. However, it still managed to represent a mischievous interplay between Vetri’s soulfulness and McDonald’s tweaks. Plain to see atop the pasta was a sprinkling of intensely sweet and tangy oven-dried grape tomatoes, while lurking behind those black noodles were a few gel forms of molten tomato essence, shaped to mirror their vine plucked counterparts yet more cerebral in both their texture and flavor delivery.

paired with:
Blanche de Bruxelles Bière
As much as I enjoy good beer and believe in the possibilities of pairing beer with ambitious food, I’ve always found it a bit odd that Belgian beers are give pride of place on the beverage menus at both Osteria and Vetri, our guest chef’s establishments. Mr. Benjamin explained that he was looking for a low-alcohol option that would work with spicy heat, which he rightly understands as a challenge, when high intensity, for even lighter, sweeter wines. The problem was that there was only a barely perceptible tingle of red pepper heat in the squid ink spaghetti. A clean, vibrant white from Campania could have handled it easily. The Blanche de Bruxelles was refreshing. It didn’t clash with the dish but it did just kind of stand there and do its own thing, offering very little in the way of spark in the pairing. But hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Braised Eel with Chanterelle Ragu and Winter Greens
There was real elegance in this dish, evoked by well integrated flavors, traditional flavors of the season and careful preparation and presentation, pulled back a notch only by its rather gray color palette. The eel itself was tender and richly organ-y in taste. Unlike the preceding course, it’s not something I’d want a heaping bowl of or something I’d choose as a regular dish. But it may have been the most challenging plate of the evening in spite of showing no obvious edginess.

paired with:
Bourgogne Pinot Noir “Vero,” Drouhin 2006
Named for Veronique “Vero” Drouhin, this is her “unique selection of Bourgogne Villages,” a wine she assembled from fruit grown throughout various parts of Burgundy. Her time spent working in Oregon, though, shows more than the wine’s cumulative possibility of character, as it lacked delineation, acidity and finesse, replacing them all with soft, round, one-dimensional fruit. As a guy who spends his days on the floor in a wine shop, I can understand the urge to concede to the popular desire for red wine. But this isn’t a party; it’s a chef’s tasting menu, man! I’m being overly tough on Jeff here, as it wasn’t a bad pairing. As with the beer/pasta combo, the Burgundy didn’t clash with the eel. I just didn’t like it. The wine, that is. Though not exactly seasonal, I would love to have seen rosé served here, perhaps a Bardolino Chiaretto, straight from the shores of Lake Garda where eel is a local staple. A Bardolino normale or a bright, un-pumped-up style of Valpolicella could have done in a red wine necessitated pinch.

Pomelo Campari Sorbet

The intermezzo on steroids. This cleansed the palate of the preceding courses and then some. The tart, bitter and explosively flavorful combo of grapefruity pomelo and herbal Campari was delicious. Its lingering tanginess left me very, very afraid to try the Negroamaro that had been poured in anticipation of the next course.

Veal Cheek and Sweetbread Duo
The final savory course of the evening took things back to a sound footing in comfort food, yet with a higher degree of elegance relative to the squid pasta. For me, the sweetbreads were the star of the plate, seared to a just barely crisp exterior and not shy of showcasing the tender, juicy offal. The veal cheeks were tender almost to a fault, buttery in their softness and richness, yet were hard not to like. A portion of saffron infused artichoke heart, firm and snappy in texture, provided color and art on the plate. It was cut and poised in a way that made it resemble, at first glance, a chanterelle.

paired with:
Salento IGT Negroamaro “Masseria Maìme,” Tormaresca 2003
Tre Bicchiere winner or not, this was (slightly) hot wine from a hot region in a hot growing season. Opaque, opulent and blowsy, it was another example of a pairing that neither clashed nor added much in the way of interest. Pugliese Negroamaro could certainly have been a nice match; it just needed a bit more acidity and cut in place of richness. Better yet, how about an old school Barbera d’Alba or a juicy rendition of Langhe Nebbiolo?

Castagnaccio (“Bad Chestnut”) with Ricotta Foam
Even after squid ink, eel and sweetbreads, the award for most unusual dish went to the dessert course, hands down. Essentially a brownie made with chestnut flour, this had wild flavors of fermentation, funk, even a slightly fishy nuance. It was irresistible. The slightly sour tang of the ricotta foam, texturally like airy whipped cream, matched perfectly with the Castagnaccio, while a generous streak of honey provided an optional spine of sweetness.

paired with:
Recioto di Soave “Le Schiavetto,” Le Mandolare 2004
Here, the pairing was on without question. For me, only the Tocai/Porchetta combination provided a more harmonious match on the evening. The honeyed nuttiness of the Recioto di Soave, along with its sound acidity, worked well and avoided the heavy handedness that might have come from a more obvious match like Recioto della Valpolicella or Banyuls.

Piccola Pasticceria
A little sugar artistry finished off the evening. The macaroon was well executed but it was the marshmallow – looking strangely like a decapitated Peep – that was the attention grabber. Artichoke and bitter orange zest, I believe, made it clear that Snackbar’s experimental tendencies were not being neglected.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Pacing was relaxed yet steady. Service, as mentioned earlier, was precise and friendly. Even sitting in the worst seats in the house provided its own pleasures. We may have suffered the occasional blast of cold air but our position front and center gave a great view of the room and afforded the opportunity to talk with the staff and other diners at the bar. The partnership between Vetri and McDonald clearly worked to good advantage in the kitchen. I’ll look forward to a return visit to Snackbar on a regular night and will certainly be on the lookout for their next guest chef event.

Many thanks are due to Philadining for sharing some of his photographs. The shots from the Arancine through to the Sorbet are all his. It was only beginning with the veal/sweetbread duo that I finally heeded his cue that shots taken at the bar were not likely to work. Check out his summation of the evening at the Philadining blog.


Anonymous said...

Dave - I check your blog every day here in NL, but I should know better to read so soon before dinner. This meal sounds unbelievable, and I can't think of anyone better equipped to enjoy it than you.

Miss seeing you,


philadining said...

Excellent review, thanks for being so meticulous about the wine notes, especially!

And more I think of it, once space opened-up, I guess we should have moved from those seats, but I was entertained by being at the crossroads...

I'm not sure who's in line as guest-chef for March, but I think I'd commit to going regardless.

Joe Manekin said...

The food looks and sounds great. Wine pairings, as you mention, look a bit uneven. At times (as in the case of the 'Vero') uninspired.

Still sounds like an evening well spent, however.

David McDuff said...

My apologies if I spiked your appetite. Thanks for the kind words. All my best to you and R.A.

Thank you, again, for the photos. I was tempted to switch to a table as well but was rather enjoying our perch at the bar.

Definitely well spent. It was a fine evening.

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