As an aspiring Philadelphia foodie, I tend to embrace the inherent superiority of BYOs over their liquor-laden counterparts. There's nothing like sitting down in a six-seat restaurant with a bottle of 41st and Market's finest; when the emphasis is on the dining and not the décor, there's a certain je ne sais quoi about eating there.
But when a sultry September evening demands a bolder choice, there's one place to go that serves up panache alongside its pommes frites: Stephen Starr's latest Philadelphia venture, Parc. Strategically and stunningly located on South 18th Street, Parc opens up directly onto Rittenhouse Square. If you're lucky enough to snag a prime seat straddling the indoor and outdoor areas, the experience will so imitate a Parisian bistro you'll be forced to ease up on the French jokes, even if just for a couple hours.
Starr's impeccable attention to detail will delight even your most historically minded friend who got kicked out of Epcot for that unfortunate incident with the Swiss delegation. The intricate mosaic floor, combined with the worn red booths and street corner-esque lighting, conjure a homey atmosphere that's absent from the likes of Tangerine and Buddakan. After all, Paris is for people-watching, an element Starr captures perfectly here.
And the food doesn't disappoint in its homage to the motherland. We began with the shrimp cocktail ($16), four large, fresh and succulent shrimp. The spinach ravioli ($11) is homemade and prepared with a tomato confit that stews the fruit in its own juices. While the pasta was slightly overcooked, the ricotta and spinach filling more than made up for it. Also delicious was the duck confit appetizer ($14), crispier and sweeter than chicken but offset harmoniously by the sharp greens that accompanied it.
We enjoyed the steak frites ($24), a dish that pairs beef cooked medium with just a little pepper and tender frites bathed in the rich au jus. But it was the roast lamb ($25) that really won us over - the flavors are bold enough to withstand the creamy nature of its partner, a garlicky polenta that had us wondering why this grain isn't given more air time.
If you have room left for dessert, try the seasonal berry tart ($10) and baked chocolate mousse ($8). The tart, replete with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, is nestled underneath a generous crown of hazelnut ice cream. The choice of hazelnut, as opposed to the ubiquitous vanilla, contrasts crunchy nuts with gooey fruit and underscores the meticulous preparation Parc offers. The baked chocolate mousse is more bitter than sweet, but pleasingly so, and made us seriously consider moving to France if the November election doesn't pan out.
The service was outstanding and the waitress genuinely friendly and upbeat. While I still can't rid myself of the notion that I'm just a cog in Starr's stellar machine (and what a delectable machine it is), I appreciate the earnestness with which the restaurant operates. Open just a few months and serving hundreds a day, the restaurant beckons so seductively we can only pity Rouge in its unfortunate proximity.
Parc doesn't wow with ingenuity; it dazzles with consistency. And while the noise level might make it an impractical choice for a first date, you'll still be able to hear us shout above the din: vive la France!