The Gist: http://www.blackfishrestaurant.com/
The Why: Located out in Conshohocken and featured on many of Philadelphia’s “best of” lists, Chip Roman’s Blackfish had been on my list of places to eat during previous visits, but with gourmands I trust deeming it unworthy of the hype (and drive) plus an online menu that never really wowed me I’d held off; to say the least Philly has plenty of great alternatives. Again taking a look at the restaurant prior to this visit, however, I noted a ‘special events’ section suggesting a Tuesday ingredient-driven prix fixe – the ingredient of the day being duck – in addition to the regular menu and I booked a table right away; what better way to see a chef’s skills than with my favorite ingredient?
The Reservation: Opentable for 1 at 5:45; perhaps not a necessity as the place didn’t begin to fill until seven, though by the time I left I gather they were nearly at capacity.
The Setting: Aside from traffic during Philadelphia’s rush hour converting my planned early arrival into a ‘just on time’ affair I found the space with ease and securing free parking just around the corner made my way to the door just on time, finding the space perhaps 1/3 full and myself the youngest person in the room by perhaps twenty years. Clean lines, white walls, wood floors, and a pair of rooms the space appears to be an old home and with the back room a bit louder (hosting a large party) with a bit duskier grey hue I opted to sit up front near the window. White tablecloths, shabby-chic wooden chairs, and a pile of books, the space is minimalist but comfortable.
The Service: Like most of the Philadelphia BYO scene the service is laid back – friendly but not chummy, and professional if not a bit preoccupied. Running a small crew, an elderly gentleman named Harold took care of water and bread refills throughout the night and frequently asked what I thought of the dishes, happy when I said things were good and attentive when I noted my first cup of coffee had some grounds in it, not only refilling it but taking it off the bill.
The Food: 4-course Prix-Fixe plus an additional appetizer and additional dessert, complimentary bread service and amuse bouche, coffee with free refills.
Salted Focaccia and Hearty White with Olive Oil: Preceding the amuse I received two breads and with both still warm from the oven I tried the white first – a dense smoky crust and hearty crumb – before moving on to the Focaccia that would call for 3-4 (more?) additional slices through the meal – a moist and salty sponge that went marvelously with the fruity olive oil and sauces, stocks, and dressings on the dishes to come.
Ginger Pear Espuma: Airy and intense – just a couple of bites and smooth as silk – this was as well conceived as an amuse as it would have been as a palate cleanser before dessert.
Foie Gras Soup, Chicken Dumplings, New Potato, Tuscan Kale: One of my supplemental courses and a sort of signature dish for the restaurant this shallow bowl featured a whipped stock rife with the unmistakable sapor of foie gras and light smoky notes that came through on palate yet not on the tongue. Certainly not a dish for those who do not fancy the flavor of foie gras itself, the accoutrements were none the less also quite excellent, the kale lending a much needed vegetal tinge while the dumplings brought just a touch of brine.
Duck Prosciutto, Watercress, Granny Smith: The first course of the prix fixe, and also the least memorable, this light salad was modestly composed with the duck quite delicate in flavor and largely lost to the bitterness of the watercress and sourness of the melon-balled apples. Undressed I think this dish possibly could have benefitted from a touch of acid, or at least something more than pepper to spice the protein.
Roasted Foie Gras, Strawberries, Rhubarb, Balsamic: If you want to make up for a boring salad this is certainly not a bad way to do so – a perfect piece of foie caramelized on the exterior and melting within paired simply with fresh strawberries, rhubarb puree, and a bit of aged balsamic. Perhaps the best example of what people had told me about Blackfish and Chef Roman’s style this was simply great ingredients prepared with a skilled hand and presented without a lot of fuss – and it was great.
Margret Duck Breast, Kohlrabi, Fava Beans, White Asparagus: Finishing strong both in flavor and in portion this was another dish where the ingredients spoke for themselves, the crackling skin of the duck separated from supple flesh by a light ribbon of fat and the vegetables all prepared with great care. Finished tableside with a cumin and sage spiced duck gravy this plate demanded another slice of foccaica before returning to the kitchen mopped clean.
Coffee with Warm Cream: Aside from a bit of grounds in my first cup it is tough to argue with freely refilled La Colombe.
Crème Caramel, Blackberries: As the prix-fixe dessert of the evening I will confess that I am not much of a crème caramel fan; despite my love for both caramel flavor and puddings/flans in general it always strikes me as more of a “jello,” and this one was no different. Rich and eggy but still with more jiggle than tooth the taste was delicious, but overall it left me wanting something more substantial…
Cinnamon-sugar beignets, English cream, Raspberry Confiture: Certainly more substantial, definitely more my style, and each about the size of a hemisected baseball this was my second a la carte choice and much like the soup, a restaurant signature. Highly recommended by friends, foodies, and by Harold these light pillows certainly lived up to their billing but perhaps even better than the beignets were the dipping sauces – great on their own, great on the donuts, great mixed, and great from a spoon.
The Verdict: Admitting already my fondness for duck and foie gras I can say without doubt that Chip Roman and his team are more than capable of preparing top quality ingredients with skill and grace, a true testament to any chef without doubt. Pairing the prior statement with pleasant service and a minimalistic but comfortable setting I can also say that almost anyone – from gourmand to picky child – could have a good meal at Blackfish…and yet with that noted I still cannot see how some consider it to be amongst the city’s 10 best, particularly given the distance from center city. A nice spot in the suburbs but not a “destination” in my opinion I definitely look forward to checking out some of Roman’s other spots during future visits to Philadelphia.
Having planned my trip to the East Coast well before the Kings miraculous run to the Stanley Cup my first order of business after dinner was finding a place back in the city where I could watch the game without all the hassles and annoyances of a sports bar (and its associated crowd) – a tall order anywhere, but one remedied by The Four Seasons, a hotel I’d certainly never choose to stay at, but featuring the Swann Lounge where a young bartender named Michael not only agreed to turn on the Kings/Coyotes game but also allowed me to hang out after the Lounge closed to finish watching the West Coast game as it went to overtime.
Generally not one to sit in a bar and drink but happy with the comfortable environs and posh stools as the game went on an additional perk of my time at Swann Lounge was the beverage service and the fact that desserts from the highly praised Fountain (a space I’d visit two days later) were available until 11:00pm – a fact I took advantage of first with a subtle and smooth beverage called The Marigold featuring Absolut Mandarin Vodka and Sauvignon Blanc with Honey Basil Syrup and Grapefruit Juice followed by an order of Banana Fritters with Morello Cherry Gelee and English Toffee Bavarian Mousse, a trio of nearly liquid bananas housed inside a crunchy coating alongside rich semifreddo that, although good, certainly did not rival the beignets at Blackfish which cost far less.
Decent desserts, great drinks, great service, and certainly not a traditional place to “watch the game” I will note that at $34 after tax and tip one certainly pays for the opportunity to visit Swann Lounge but when Dustin Penner scored the game winner and I walked back to my far less swanky hotel with a smile on my face the price seemed a veritable bargain.