Monday, August 12, 2013

Chef's Tasting | Vetri

This past weekend, I was in Philadelphia with Lisa visiting Dani, and on this trip, we had reservations at the well-coveted and well-renowned restaurant, Vetri, near the Avenue of the Arts. It was a dinner that marked a very special celebration -- Lisa getting into business school and Dani getting into medical school! We made the reservation a couple months in advance (crazy, right?!) for 8:30 that Saturday evening, so imagine the hunger we experienced all afternoon into the evening when we had stopped eating earlier in the day at 1 PM!

Eponymous to its owner/executive chef Chef Marc Vetri, Vetri's namesake "was conceived in part in Chef Vetri's belief that people should strive to be their own boss. After years of working in some of the finest kitchens in Italy and the U.S., he returned home in 1998 to his native Philadelphia, took over the intimate townhouse restaurant that was once home to the lauded Le Bec-Fin and started to cook alongside his business partner, sommelier Jeff Benjamin." Vetri's debut proved to be stunning with "its outstanding rustic fare, handcrafted pastas, innovative flavor combinations, and artful presentations," gaining the restaurant a favorable following amongst diners, critics, and fellow chefs alike.


By 2000, the restaurant received the highest restaurant rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Chef Vetri was named one of Food & Wine's "Ten Best Chefs." Five years later, Chef Vetri won the James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic" which led to he and Mr. Benhamin to open three more restaurants in Philadelphia (Osteria, Amis, and Alla Spina). Originally opening and operating with a more traditional, a la carte menu, Vetri "moved to a tasting menu only format in March 2011 to fully showcase the constantly evolving, dynamic creativity of Chef Vetri and his kitchen staff and their desire to offer an unparalleled dining experience."

The restaurant's cozy space accommodates thirty guests, "making for a more intimate feel while allowing guests ample room to enjoy their dinner." The highlight of the dining room are two elegant hand-blown Murano glass chandeliers Chef Vetri had custom made by the famed artisans at the Formia glass factory in Venice, Italy.

Loved the water glasses we each had of a different color!

When we arrived at our table, with a much needed glass of the crispest prosecco in hand (which reminds me, I certainly need to ask the restaurant about it!), we were shown a copy of that evening's menu with four sections -- di pesce (fish), di verdure (vegetable), di terra (from the earth), and dolce (dessert) -- which deliberately allows us to peruse the best of the season's offering and broaches a meaningful "conversation with the restaurant's staff to shape the meal. From there, the kitchen works on crafting a personalized six-course tasting."

There was also a complimentary beverage program to consider. In its initial days, Vetri had a 70-bottle wine list that has evolved into a cellar that houses a collection of 2,500 bottles in present day. There were two wine pairing options available that evening -- the basic six-course wine pairing ($90 per person) and the grand wine pairing ($135 per person) -- as well as a beer pairing ($70 per person). Since we didn't realize that the six-course tasting wasn't identical for each person, Lisa was the only one who ordered the basic wine pairing, assuming the three of us would just share the pairing so we wouldn't drink too much. Looking back on it, I wish I had done my own pairing because the wine pairing for Lisa's dishes were stellar and unbelievably spot-on.

To start, we were given an assortment of aperitivo e assaggi: across the middle were three kinds of house-cured salumi, including three-year aged pork and prosciutto mostarda; an herbed vegetable torte at twelve o'clock; and pastrami foie gras (!!!) with with coriander and black pepper fennel moustarda over brioche at the bottom. All were divine, particularly the pastrami foie gras -- I haven't tasted something that shell-shocking in a while. Delicately rich, rugged with the spices of cured pastrami, there need not be any other explanation other than you need this in your mouth. This amuse was actually inspired by a visit to Spago in Los Angeles (run by Chef Lee Hefter) during which a foie gras pastarami (sweet, salty, rich, and creamy) floored Chef Vetri. The house-cured salami was unreal -- that personal touch does so much more.

Along with the little bites, we had a bowl of vegetable crudo with fennel, carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and fresh herbs alongside balasamic crema. A very hands-on salad sans the fork and fancy plate.

And of course, there was the focaccia filone (olives on the side) with French butter. Given how we'd been starving ourselves all afternoon, this made for a great satiating respite before the tasting menu courses would commence.

The first course plates started coming out, which landed me with the New Jersey tomato and corn tortino with corn salad. For such a petite savory pie as this, it sure packed in lots of flavors, playfully emulating the essence of the Garden State's precious produce. It made for light, nimble, and fresh morsels of a true Jersey summer. Can't beat a crisp corn salad like this one.

Lisa was served the soft shell crab with agrodolce (i.e., an Italian sweet-and-sour sauce). With soft-shell crabs still in the last stretch of its prime season, these molting crustaceans can pretty much speak for themselves. Juicy and tender with a loose crunch of shell and batter, the agrodolce merely added a rich tanginess to the already flavorful crab. The soft shell crab was paired with a 2011 Kerner produced by Abbazia di Novacella from Alto Adige, Italy. It was ripe and full on the palate with a bit of crisp acidity, working really well with the savory aspects of the soft-shell crab. Nicely done!

Dani was given a Piedmontese carpaccio with beets, figs, and goat cheese. Thin slices of raw beef lined the plate with quartered figs that had just ripened, making for one delicate but no less exciting carpaccio.

My next course was the whole fish "secondo il mercato" -- the catch that day was Alaskan salmon. The salmon was roasted whole, served and topped with zucchini blossoms (I think?) and some caviar. The broth was lightly sweet and had just the right amount of cream, with the silken flakes of salmon loosely coming undone. It wasn't as strong in flavor as I had anticipated, but it was still well roasted.

Lisa was served the sweet onion crepe with truffle fondue, one of the restaurant's long-term signature dishes, and we quickly grew to understand why. John told us that the onions in this dish are caramelized over the lowest possible heat for TEN hours (I know, right?!) -- this is done so that the onions get this rich, darkened color of being deeply browned, resulting in them tasting sweeter (more like an onion marmalade, per the restaurant's cookbook Il Viaggio di Vetri: A Culinary Journey) and even better with the cream and truffle. The resulting dish was like a crock of baked French onion soup, only brothless. It was truly the sweetness of the onions speaking so deliciously and the dreaminess of the melted truffle fondue that won us over in one fell swoop.

Oh, and don't get me started on the dynamo pairing with 2008 Dolcetto di Dogliani produced by San Fereolo ("Valdibà") from Piedmont, Italy -- flavors of beautiful ripe berries with layers of mint and spice that made it perfect for serving with a fresh pasta dish like this one and juicy burgers (I could see this onion crepe as a topping to a burger :P). The wine made this dish sing us not only a beautiful song, but a powerful ballad. There is a reason why this dish is a signature classic. I hope it never makes an exit off the menu -- that would just be blasphemous!

For her second course, Dani was given the Four Story Hill duck stuffed with chorizo. Cooked to a medium rare, pink center, the duck had soaked up all of the flavors and spices from the chorizo chunks stuffed inside it. Really tender with a little zestiness from the chorizo -- it can be challenging to find duck prepared to the nines, but I am glad we don't need to worry about that at Vetri.

The third course began the pasta portion of the dinner, which for me was almond tortellini with truffle sauce. This dish actually appears on the menu year round. Per Il Viaggio di Vetri, Chef Vetri shares that he first had an iteration of this dish at La Lucanda, a restaurant located in Bergamo originally owned by Chef Luca Brasi. Initially, Vetri used to fill the tortellini with ricotta cheese and toasted almonds, but he learned from Chef Brasi to use rice instead of ricotta, which gives the filling an amazing texture. Chef Brasi also likes to fill them with bitter almonds, which are difficult to find in the United States, but Chef Vetri has been able to track down a bitter almond extract that creates a similar flavor. This little tidbit from the cookbook explains a lot -- when I took a bite of the tortellini, I was expecting a rich, milky ricotta to ooze out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of what was actually inside -- a texture noticeably different than that of ricotta with a less creamy taste compensated with the playfulness of browned almonds and a dash of bitter almond extract. Together, the flavors created pillows of sweet and creamed delight that had that same fragrant aroma as toasted almonds right out of the oven. I now clearly understood why the almond tortellini has a permanent place on Vetri's menu through each and every season.

Lisa's first pasta course began with the spinach gnocchi with brown butter, another one from the restaurant's collection of long-term signature dishes. Although it was more like gnudi than gnocchi for us, that didn't make the dish taste any less fantastic. While most people associate gnocchi with potatoes, gnoccho is actually Italian for "dumpling" referring both to the food and also as a term of endearment. For Chef Vetri, he began to think of gnocchi as just about anything that is soft and tender, leading to his experimenting with making dumplings out of other ingredients besides potato and subsequently discovering that spinach worked beautifully. What makes these gnocchi "lighter than air" is in the thorough wiling of the spnich and puréeing it for a good long time. Funny enough, he and his staff got the recipe right just a few days before Vetri's opening day and has been on the menu ever since.

Upon sinking our teeth into these Italian dumplings, we didn't hesitate to say that they were almost godlike and pretty much "lighter than air" as described in the cookbook -- they melted against the warmth of the palate as the lightest creamed spinach I had ever tasted. It was sad to see these four dumplings go, but it was the perfect amount to bear witness to the whimsical talent that Chef Vetri has with pasta. The pairing, as  with the previous courses, was out of this world -- a 2010 rosso di Montalcino (a sangiovese, essentially) produced by Coldisole from Tuscany -- making the gnocchi even better than we could've imagined.

Dani had the agnolotto with pistachio vellutate and a zucchini salad. The pasta was really fresh filled with a beautiful nuttiness that you only get from toasted bits of pistachio. The zucchini was julienned into gorgeous strings embodying the fleeting weeks of summer we have left. The creamy broth was light and great for sweeping onto each bite. This is how pasta can be poetic here at Vetri.

The second pasta course for me was the culurgiones with corn, chevrot (i.e., goat cheese), and sweetbreads. Culurgiones are a Sardinian ravioli typically filled with potato. But like Chef Vetri did with the gnocchi, he tried something different here -- he instead made it with a mild goat cheese like chevrot. Like all of his pasta dishes, the dough is incredibly fresh (undoubtedly made that morning), and the corn was in prime season, juicy with the subtlest crunch. The sweetbreads were that extra savory this dish needed. I was concerned the goat cheese would be overwhelming for me, but it wasn't at all -- it was pretty subdued (in a good way, of course) and really added a fun texture compared to that of the expected potato filling. Vetri really knows what they're doing when it comes to pasta (and a lot other things, for that matter :P)! Plus, this dish had the same pairing as Lisa's next course (see below) -- a 2011 Grüner Veltliner ("Strasser Weinberge") produced by Martin Arndorfer from Kamptal, Austria. A solidly stellar pairing with goat cheese!

Lisa's second pasta course was the conchiglione with lobster dumplings, paired with the 2011 Grüner Veltliner I mentioned earlier. Great outer pasta, and well-poached lobster inside, only made better with this pairing.

As her second pasta course, Dani was served the lorighittas with frutti di mare (i.e., seafood). Originating in Sardinia, the pasta's name is derived from the original shape of the pasta which was similar to a ring as sa loriga is Saridnian for the "iron ring" that was once fixed to the walls of local houses to tether horses when menu returned from the fields. The process of making lorighittas is truly an art which takes years of training to perfect, taking about six hours to intertwine the rings required to make just one kilogram of pasta.One of the traditional pairings with this pasta is with seafood, which is what Chef Vetri has done here with squid, uni, and scallops. This made for a very delicate pasta dish, as everything was soft and fluid.

For our fifth course of the evening, we each were served the roasted lamb with preserved porcini and moliterno (an Italian sheep cheese from Basilicata). It was cooked to a perfect medium rare, where the texture of this cut of meat reminded me very much of a slice of beef from a rib roast, only with that distinct taste that makes lamb taste like lamb. The jus was a thicker glaze that blended well with the slices of vinegared porcini and the crumbled pieces of moliterno. This was paired with a 2008 merlot produced by Perusini from Friuli, Italy, which really brought the lamb to life, underscoring all of the great flavors that would've been otherwise tucked away.

Before the dessert course, we were served a fresh mango sorbet with Lancaster blackberry. It really helped cleanse our palates of the rich and savory dishes we had just eaten through together with the well incorporated tang and tart.

I really loved the porcelain china on which tea and dessert was served -- they're part of the Paola Navone collection by Richard Ginori.

After seeing that they had cannisters of Bellocq tea in their service buffet chest, Lisa and I had to treat ourselves to a cup of tea -- its No. 31 green tea blend called Siam Basil Lemongrass. It made for a light, fragrant, and soothing digestif that went nicely with our dessert course.

For dessert, I was served the Paris-Brest with hazelnut cream and blueberries. A Paris-Brest is a French dessert, made of choux pastry and a praline-flavored cream (in this case, it's of hazelnut). This dessert made for a nice and light cream puff, with the cream rich with that smooth nuttiness you get from hazelnuts as well as with the bursts of blueberry in the mix. Though the choux pastry was a little thicker than I expected, it was still lovely.

Lisa had the fiadone (typically a cheesecake from Corsica) with strawberries. Loved the sweetness of the strawberries with a thin layer of chocolate on top and an interesting curdled texture from the cheese made using sheep's or goat's milk.

Dani had the chocolate polenta souffle, which also happens to be gluten-free. Just as rich and luscious as a traditional chocolate cake made using flour, this dessert had more of a pudding-like texture. And of course, the accompaniment of ice cream just made it go down that much easily.

Along with our dessert courses, we had a small plate of piccolo pasticceria consisting of petit-fours including cubes of a lemon-almond cake, a flourless chocolate cake, an opera cake, and a plum cake.

And of course, Lisa and I got our hands on Il Viaggio di Vetri signed by Chef Vetri himself!

Findings: Our dinner at Vetri was easily one of the best meals I've had this year (right next to McCrady's, Atera, and The Modern: Dining Room) -- hell, it'd be one of the best ones I've ever had, especially if I'm narrowing it down to Italian cuisine. Until coming to Vetri, I had never had a chef's tasting focused around Italian cuisine, so I was quite impressed with the odes to tradition, the inclusion of unexpected ingredients, and the execution skills exhibited in the six-course dinner through which we had the pleasure of dining. Having been around since a bit before the turn of the millenium, it was refreshing to know that even a well-established restaurant like Vetri is still putting forth not only tried-and-true dishes but ones that are outside of the box of hyper-traditional Italian fare. The marriage of tradition and innovation is nothing but harmonious in the kitchen of Chef Marc Vetri, and the patrons in his dining room each and every night are no less content to be participants in such harmony. Most importantly, I see him as a sorcerer of pasta, knowing exactly how to bring out the best in each and every shape and size and make them shine on the plate.

The progression of the meal was deliberate and at a relaxed pace -- we weren't at all rushed through, permitting a thorough enjoyment of each course at our own leisure. I also liked that most of our courses were mixed, even though the meal was done in a chef's tasting format, so we could all play musical plates and really see a fuller repertoire of Chef Vetri's menu. Another thing I wish I had done for myself was opt for the six-course wine pairing. I was undoubtedly blown away by the glasses put forth by the sommelier for each of Lisa's courses -- quite possibly in the same way, if not more, in the way that sommelier Aldo Sohm did at Le Bernardin. Never has wine and the food for which it was paired, spoken to me like that since then, so I was relieved to know my palate is still capable of experience such surreal things whilst dining out.

Along with the extraordinary food and the mind-blowing wine pairings, the service at Vetri was quite exceptional, and simply put, seamless. Our captain, John, was unbelievably helpful and patient with us, particularly with our questions and genuine curiosity about how certain dishes were prepared. I really love it when we can have such engaging conversations with the service team about what's being served to us, especially when you see how enthusiastic they are in sharing those details that others dismiss right away and may not find as exciting.

All in all, I would say that Vetri puts forth a wonderful dining experience with all key elements (i.e., quality food and cooking, unparalleled wine pairings, and exceptional service) executed well past our expectations. Vetri was quite magical and impressionable on me, so much that I'm already scheming to bring Marcus here for our anniversary next year. Until then, Lisa and I may or may not be attempting to recreate some of these masterpieces (read: spinach gnocchi and sweet onion crepe) -- will report back when I know more! :P

Congratulations again to Lisa and Dani for getting into the professional school(s) of your dreams! I'm so damn proud of you!!

Price point: $155 per person for chef's tasting menu, $90 per person for the basic wine pairing.

--July 27, 2013

1312 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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