In spite of it often being considered an off night in the restaurant industry, I love going out to eat on Sunday. On the downside, one runs the chance of encountering less than pristinely fresh ingredients or kitchens running without the star chef. On the flipside, though, it’s far more relaxed than dealing with the Friday/Saturday dining frenzy and can be a great way to wrap-up the weekend and kick start the week to come. Choose carefully and the freshness issue should be a moot point. Choose even more carefully and you may find one of an increasing number of spots that are running Sunday night specials.
Ansill Food & Wine (Ansill, for short) is one such spot. Ever since owner David Ansill’s first spot, the widely beloved Pif, faded into the sunset in the summer of 2007, Sunday has been Pif night at Ansill. The regular Ansill menu remains available, while a second menu – a $40, three-course prix fixe option – is added, based on some of the more straightforward French bistro classics that originally put Pif on the Philly dining map. The “Pif night” menu is quite simple really. It offers a choice between four starters, four principal plates and four desserts. Dining with two friends recently afforded the opportunity to sample just about the entire menu, leaving off only the simplest option (salad, steak and ice cream) at each course.
The signature dish from the days of Pif – escargots plump and redolent of butter and Pernod, served alongside a head of sweet, nutty roasted garlic – practically disappeared before it even hit the table, certainly long before I could train the camera and snap a picture. The salad of red beets, first roasted and then marinated, delivered a nice sweet and sour contrast that paired well with its topping of fresh goat cheese. The only slightly ill conceived dish of the starters was the mussel soup. It’s not that it lacked flavor, just that it lacked depth. A spike of red pepper was the predominant flavor in the broth and soggy croutons did little to help, though freshly sliced scallions livened up the dish a bit.
To spice things up a bit, and for added insurance against leaving without full bellies, we supplemented our orders with a couple of small plates from the regular Ansill menu. Roasted mussels turned out to be an interesting preparation take on a bistro classic. When the little mollusks were just right, they were tender, savory and intensely infused with the aromas of the fresh rosemary sprig included in the roasting pan. The technique, though, did seem to result in less even flavor distribution relative to steaming or sautéing, and a few of the mussels were a little on the fishy side. I had no compunctions, however, about the deliciousness of our roasted bone marrow crostini, full of rich, zesty flavor and topped off perfectly with a sprinkle of smoked sea salt and a tousle of fresh greens.
Our main courses delivered the most uniformly successful round of dishes. The sweetbreads – ample, tender and meaty – may have been the showstopper, their perfectly cooked accompaniment of sliced shiitakes providing icing on the cake. Not lagging far behind were two petit filets of branzino, pan-seared to a perfect level of exterior crispiness and interior moistness and set atop sautéed greens, all surrounded by an intensely citrus yet light-footed beurre blanc. A duo of richly meaty lamb chops, seared just barely to the medium side of rare, matched nicely with crispy potato gaufrettes and roasted artichokes. Those artichokes, I’d swear, tasted like they’d been infused with lemon and pekoe tea.
An otherwise perfectly nice if somewhat perfunctory cheese plate was marred by the inclusion of Époisses that had gone to ammonia. I know it’s supposed to be pungent. And I know it’s expensive. But come on, sniff it – better yet, taste it – before you serve it. Our desserts, on the other hand, showed that the folks at Ansill don’t treat the final course as an afterthought. Both the pot au crème and bread pudding were delicious enough that I could envision stopping by late-night and ordering either of them just to top off the evening.
One more thing: wine. It’s tough to put together an interesting wine list in Pennsylvania – tough but not impossible. The list at Ansill includes a couple of dependables at the lower price points but otherwise falls short. I'd have a hard time finding anything I'd really want to order. On the bright side, Ansill smartly offers corkage ($15/bottle) at all times, a nod no doubt to the power of Philly’s BYO culture. Additionally, Tuesday night is their official BYO night, with all corkage fees waived. Finally, on Pif night, assuming everyone at the table orders the Pif prix fixe menu, then Sunday too becomes BYO night. It's an added Sunday bonus. Details on what we opened in the next installment....
Read more: A previous visit to Ansill.
Ansill Food & Wine (closed, July 2009)
627 S. 3rd Street
(3rd & Bainbridge)
Philadelphia, PA 19147 [map]