Small plates are the newest and hottest dining trend, and Philly has finally caught on. They have great appeal, allowing diners to sample a wide range of the menu and submit to the dietician's biggest no-no: grazing. While Old City's hip and expansive Amada introduced Philly to tapas with the flavors of Spain, where this dining concept originated, Ansill takes a more liberal approach. In a long, narrow dining room on a Queen Village corner, the cuisine is classified as "European tapas," which translates into little plates ranging from a fan of five pristine slices of hamachi ceviche ($6) to fluffy scrambled duck eggs ($8) to crostini topped with bone marrow ($4).
The room, like the food, is elegant and interesting -- with dangling, cone-shaped light fixtures and walls painted in warm colors of muted orange and green -- but never overly embellished. The beautiful dark-wood bar runs almost the full length of the front room, serving up boutique beers, signature cocktails and wines by the glass, bottle or carafe.
Chef David Ansill, also owner of the tiny French BYOB, Pif, separates his namesake restaurant's menu into six simple sections, and there's something, if not everything, intriguing in each. An ideal snack or light meal can be made with a carafe of house wine and a few selections from "Cheeses and Charcuterie," or a couple of crostini from "Breads and Sandwiches." The menu changes often, but the night we visited, the grilled mackerel sandwich ($11) was a standout: two toasted slices of rustic bread, each topped with a meaty piece of fish and crunchy shaved celery root.
For a well-rounded meal, sample from "Meat and Fish" and "Hot and Cold Vegetables." The langostinos ($14) in a truffle vinaigrette come out three to an order, with little forks to help easily extract the buttery meat from the shells. The baby octopus ($10) was a generous heap of tender and tasty tentacles, with sherry vinaigrette lending nice acidity. Roasted porcini ($9) had a sweet balsamic flavor only matched by funghi porcini in Italy, and came with luscious, melting taleggio cheese. Ansill elevates vegetables normally relegated to garnishes into stand-alone dishes -- like grilled scallions with romesco sauce ($6) and fingerling potatoes ($6) roasted with bacon and onion.
Depending on your appetite and what you order (prices are usually indicative of portion size, our waitress wisely advised), ordering two to three plates per person should justify a meal. Dishes arrive in phases, so you're never left waiting, and sharing is ideal. Desserts are not tapas-size, but in the spirit of grazing, sample a couple -- the rice pudding is creamy and light with grilled apples floating on top and a sauce of burnt caramel swirled in, and the panino du jour is always a solid choice -- on our visit it included Nutella and raspberries.
Ansill's outstanding food and comfortable atmosphere provide assurance that there's more to small plates than scene and trendiness.