Chicken used to be such a bore, or, at least, a safety dish every chef begrudgingly roasted with mashed potatoes to comfort the timid guest.
I can only imagine that cautious customer's consternation when his bird is delivered at Will BYOB. Peering beneath the crisp green Tuscan kale chips, posed like fig leaves over a plate of many mysterious and colorful parts, what could they be thinking as their server mentioned such ingredients as "meat glue," and "methylcellulose?" Question one: "What is a 'milk-fed poularde,' again?"
Quite simply, poularde is French for "fat chicken," and Pennsylvania's Four Story Hill Farm, popularized by the French Laundry, feeds its flock a milk formula that makes the flesh moist and flavorful. Easy enough.
It's what Christopher Kearse does to that chicken (and other familiar ingredients) that has adventure diners filing to his 30-seat noise-box of a BYO, the latest culinary draw on East Passyunk Avenue.
As much Mr. Wizard with a culinary chemistry set as he is a flower-in-tweezers disciple of Tru, Charlie Trotter's and Alinea, Kearse shows rare promise among his gadget-smitten generation of cooks. The 28-year-old has both the technical prowess and the artistic vision to create modern food that still makes tasty sense, and not just tricky nonsense. Usually.
The common thread in his best efforts, like the poularde, is the notion of a sensible pairing - chicken with greens - turned on its ear.
As per contemporary style, the main ingredient is deconstructed in myriad ways: the thigh deboned, then glued together with Activa into a perfect parcel of juicy meat wrapped in crispy skin; the breast brined, gently cooked in buttermilk, and crusted in ancho-spiced pecans; the tenderloin molded into a cylinder and poached sous-vide to impossible tenderness; the carcasse pressure-cooked into a quick natural jus, thickened to the right texture with guar gum (bye-bye antique roux); the liver, alas, flambéed and whirred into buttery mousse ("old-school, nothing new there," concedes Kearse.)
Paired with pureed Kabocha squash firmed into a cube with agar-agar and Tuscan kale two ways (baked into chips; creamed and rolled into a log set with "reverse gelatin" that holds as it warms), the once-boring chicken has been willed and worked into unlikely status: a Kearse-ified poularde star. Gorgeous, complex, intriguing, yet still comforting to eat.
Is there a more inspired example of avant-garde cooking in Philly now? If so, they're few and far between.
The challenge for Kearse is harnessing that magic on every dish. And there are still too many experimental slips to earn unqualified praise.
I was lucky not to break a molar on the unyieldingly hard-fried wild rice that crusted a compressed cucumber. And that was just before I bit into a mouthful of branzino our server hadn't bothered to warn us still had a complete set of bones.
And as much as I've warmed over time to some cutting-edge techniques (powdered fats, smoking guns, spherification, and even the occasional froth), the resurgence of aspiclike gelatin gives me the willies. I still wince at the memory of tiny diced scallops suspended in a cool terrine of Sambuca-scented gelatin jiggling off the fork like seafood Jell-O. Its hot-cold pairing with a warm boar terrine was a curiosity that just didn't work on the plate.
"Interesting . . ." was the word most often uttered. The occasional "wow" reassured that Kearse has another level to go.
Duck breast roasted with Sichuan peppercorns and clover honey, paired with orange-braised Belgian endive and duck jus touched by Earl Grey Bergamot oil, deftly updated vintage ã l'orange. Sweet potato potage, poured tableside onto a still-life of crab, compressed apple sticks, and squidges of curry and coconut puree, was even more compelling stirred together into one harmonious bite.
Delicate plugs of Parisian choux-pastry gnocchi were melt-away preludes to a textural chorus of seasonal veggies: sweet pureed carrots; tangy smears of fermented black garlic; spicy, crunchy, raw radishes; and sweet, earthy beets. A notable new fish (saltwater dourade farm-raised in the Hudson Valley) was even more memorable for its stunning garnish - a green-on-white anise swirl of fennel oil in fennel cream, punctuated by intensely earthy Jerusalem artichokes and raw matsutake mushrooms.
Such excitement was no surprise. Kearse had piqued my interest during his time at Pumpkin, which he helped finally attain three bells earlier this year.
His owner-debut at Will is a proto-Philly starter BYO: an overly packed bistro more about ambitious menus than creature comforts such as elbow room, a curtain to block the drafty door, or a reasonable sound level. (Some modest acoustical work has been done since my visits.)
He has an excellent young staff to deliver and lucidly narrate the plates (fish bones notwithstanding), and a strong kitchen compadre in James Ciampaglia.
And they have inventive fun with everything from the butter du jour (flecked with nori one night; brown butter and citrus another) to the intermezzo sorbets (Thai-inspired sour coconut was a fave.)
I had small critiques for some dishes - meat ground too finely for the guinea boudin; a fish tempura crust gone soft; a tendency to over-precious flourishes that would soar with more restraint.
But there were also plenty of brilliant sparks - the briny surprise of soft razor clams hiding beneath the green kale and potato-leek soup; an earthy amaranth porridge bobbing with braised snails and savory bottarga bits that spoke to my growing infatuation with congee; indulgent dollops of uni mousse whose creamy sea sweetness echoed the richness of Barnegat scallops.
Will's dessert course is slightly less compelling, though the modern approach remains. We preferred the chocolate-cherry Blackout cake to the dry pumpkin cake with pear. The goat cheese-white chocolate cake was too dense. My favorite, though, was Kearse's banana twist on popular pot de crème - even if its lid of trendy salted caramel was (you guessed it) an aspic-like gelée. "Interesting . . ." I said, cynically spooning in.
But as its many layers of flavor and texture shifted past my taste buds, the crunchy cardamom-walnut streusel followed by savory sweet caramel, then an eggless banana custard that was truly powerful puddin', any hesitant thoughts of high-tech carrageenan (vegan gelatin) melted away into a single word: "Wow."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Blue Belly BBQ. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.