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Dinner at James

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Had to post after a wonderful dinner at James last week (Tuesday). Yes, I have always enjoyed my meals at James but I feel compelled to post because if you have never been you really need to consider going before they close (June).
For appetizers I had the slow roasted beets, foie gras shortbread, grapefruit and leek vinegarette. It was sublime. The baby beets were whole, roasted perfectly and stood around the square of foie gras shortbread - soft and silken - like chess pieces, the richness of the foie gras perfectly accentuated by the slight tang of the grapefruit - leek vinegarette. Chowspouse had the cauliflower in textures with bread rillette and slow cooked egg. Strange order for the more carniverous of the two of us but again cauliflower prepared four ways; fried, pureed oh I cant remember how else, each different each wonderful.
For a pasta course we had the stinging nettle tortelli with spicy chic peas and bagna cauda. I have been trying to get the C-S to eat things with whole chic peas and she often just says "oh. that recipe isnt doing it for me" after this meal I will be using some chic peas! The nettles were nicely seasoned and not overly cooked in their little delicate pasta pouches and the chic peas - crisp from their spin in thebagna cauda were a perfect balance to the smooth texture of the nettles.
For our mains I had miso marinated veal loin (local, humane) with tarbais bean puree, morels and local baby fennel. Spring on a plate! Tender veal, full of flavor, not milky white beautifully accented by the morels and fennel. C-S had the suckling pig roasted in milk, artichokes braised and raw with bearnaise essence and pea tendrils - I'd like to tell you about this dish but I didnt get any - even though we brought home leftovers. Best I can do is share "oh, oh, oh my god this is so good...uuummmm" .
The line on James is that it is expensive - those five dishes cost $107 and were, IMHO worth every penny. We took home leftovers of both mains that were enough to be the centerpiece of a dinner at home. I wont go in to what our total was with wine because we were walking home and took full advantage of that. I will say the cava cocktails are amaxingly good.
So just a thought - consider going to James before Jim Burke stops doing "fine dining" he is truly (IMHO) one of the best chefs in the city. After this meal (well, the next day, see above re: wine) we were discussing Jim vs Marc Vetri and honestly I think Marc Vetri is truly the best chef in the city and beyond but Marc relies alot on tradition and Jim Burke on innovation and creative combinations. I hope Jim and Kristina surface nearby so I can continue to enjoy his meals.
They do offer a chef's tasting menu thuesday thru Thursday (call to reserve) and Sunday Supper - different each week for $40 per person.
no I am not related, but seriously don't miss this guy doing what he does best.

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  1. Bigley thanks for the great review of what must have been a marvelous evening. I still remember my first bite of their duck pappardalle with orange and chocolate... combinations that on face value make me shudder but it was heavenly.. you are so right that they do a great job. I wish you would tell us what you paired with those dishes. I think Kristina does a superb job as sommelier, and I always love getting the wine pairing with their tasting menu.

    1. Funny—I was just about to post a James review myself. Hope you don’t mind me tacking my comments on to yours! I had a somewhat complicated response to the meal, so please pardon my rambling.

      I finally made it to James last weekend, spurred by the news of their imminent closing. It really is a shame that they aren’t making it; there are so many things James does right, and it will be sad to lose a space so committed to the fundamentals. Ultimately, though, I left thinking that I wouldn’t return were they to remain open. I just didn’t think the quality of the experience justified the high cost.

      It’s not that I don’t appreciate just how much they’re doing. The service, for instance: it was terrific. These guys know how to pour wine, they fold your napkin when you leave for the restroom, and most important, they’re kind, patient, knowledgeable. And, of course, there is the beautiful space; they’ve done about as much with the room as you can do. And the silver is elegant, the stemware is totally bling. I notice and value these things, and recognize that they come at a cost, and I am perfectly ready to shell out $100+ on a special-occasion dinner.

      But the food has got to blow me away at that cost, and the food at James didn’t quite. No doubt, care and attention to detail are clearly in this kitchen’s DNA. Everything we tasted was perfectly cooked—veal was a rosy medium rare, fish was succulent, the moist meat in the suckling pig was topped with shatteringly crisp skin, and across the board the knifework was precise and plating was attractive. But in general we found the flavors to be quite subtle, sometimes odd, and even bland. The absolutely beautiful fish in the crudo dish was plagued by a lack of salt, which unbalanced the too-tart vinaigrette that accompanied it. The veal and pork dishes likewise registered as unfortunately bland—their sides and sauces didn’t carry much weight on their own. There also seemed to be a recurring presence of bitter notes in dishes, like in the veal pan sauce, the foie gras cookie, and the sunchoke soup. This gave them a complexity and novelty, but the complexity didn’t immediately register as a good thing—we often had to ask ourselves, “is this delicious?” Sometimes the answer was yes (that foie dish was pretty brilliant), but sometimes it was no. Desserts and cocktails likewise: complex flavors, but not necessarily delicious (in fact we didn’t like our cocktails at all, and felt pretty ripped off at $14 a pop). I should add that the pastas were uniformly fantastic, but also unlike the rest of the food—they were salty, fatty, and easy to like; that nettle dish--wow.

      Bottom line for me is that I really wish Philly could sustain this restaurant (a wealthier city like Boston no doubt could), but I wish even more that James were just a bit better at generating the vivid, unforgettable flavors that justify this price point. And perhaps there’s a silver lining in their closing: it sounds like their next planned restaurant will concentrate and expand on what I liked best about James, like those crave-worthy pastas.

      6 Replies
      1. re: nwinkler

        Thanks for this review. I've been meaning to check out James before they close, but your review hits on the general impression I've had of the place, which is why I haven't made it over there yet.

        Their lease is up and they imply they are staying in the business--just moving elsewhere in the city--so I don't think it's fair to call James a failure. Really, staying open for five years even at break-even is not bad for a small restaurant, especially one that pushes boundaries like James. Sometimes the economics just don't work out, even at places that fill seats and execute consistently. In James' case, maybe the landlord wanted to raise rent. It's hard to say without knowing the details.

        Your final statement that a wealthier city could support a restaurant like James strikes me as odd. If your assessment of the food is accurate, you could equally say that a city with less dining options or worse taste could sustain a restaurant like James. In any case, although Phila proper has a high poverty rate, the Phila and Boston metro areas have comparable incomes and consumer spending levels; actually, Philly metro has higher personal income and more millionaires. I do think that a Center City location would have helped James and they indicate their next venture will likely be there. If they end up doing that, one way to look at the closing is that they are "moving up" to Center City--indicative of a healthy dining scene to me.

        1. re: barryg

          Both very fair points, and I should have provided more context to begin with. You're certainly right that there's no failure in five years of business; my sense that there's sadness in James' closing came from the tone Burke struck in interviews (mealticket in particular) and was confirmed in a chat with a bartender there, who cast the move as being all about finances and the need to increase foot traffic. He also confirmed that whatever restaurant opens in Center City, it's not going to be another James--lower price point, more pasta-focused (which I take to mean less fussy and rarefied).

          My Boston comment was not meant to be in praise of their dining scene--from my experience with it, there's more frivolous throwing around of money than here (in general, their restaurants are less interesting but more expensive). But I guess I also do think that Philly bats under its weight class at the upper end of the dining spectrum. Even though, as you point out, there's loads of money in the metro area, our dining scene isn't harnessing it as much as a town like Boston, which has more "fancy" restaurants per capita than here. For the most part, I think this is a good thing--I like that Philly's strengths are in affordable and casual restaurants, since that's almost always the sort of place I like to eat at. But I do wish there were more destination restaurants here, and I take James' demise as a sign that this is a tough town to succeed at rarified (and hence expensive) cooking. I guess I see how this could seem weird in light of my not having liked my meal there all that much; maybe instead their closing is a testament to the quality of palates in the Philly region.

          1. re: nwinkler

            My experience there was the same as yours, and I've been there a few times, always going back to give them another chance after reading a glowing review like Bigley's. They just never delivered on that promise for me. The only thing I ate there that I thought was really great were the canapes at the bar. Mostly everything else was either bland (like you, I once had a perfectly cooked piece of meat that tasted like nothing) or not done properly (undercooked risotto). I hope they're successful but I won't miss their old place.

            1. re: Buckethead

              Good to hear that your experience was so similar. I should add that there were a few things that really did rock my world (the foie gras dish described by the OP and this amazing "bread rillettes" served with cauliflower), but not enough of them to make me feel good about how much money I spent on dinner. I'm also wishing them the best in their new venture.

            2. re: nwinkler

              I hear what you're saying about the tone of the interviews. I also got the vibe that James wasn't quite as successful as the proprietors had hoped. Then again, an awful lot of quality establishments have opened over the past five years and in my memory (which may be selective) we have seen a net gain of quality establishments with very few notable closings. Ansill stands out n the latter category and is also an example of "rarified" cooking as you put it. I don't think Phila is a conservative town when it comes to food, but very few successful restaurants have catered only to the crowd that appreciates experimentation; usually a variety is offered but I think overall (with exceptions, to be sure) quality speaks louder than hype and trendiness here.

              As I mentioned above, I think James also suffered from its location; most of the wealth is definitely not in the immediate neighborhood ready to just pop in, there isn't much else to do within walking distance, parking is perceived as poor, transit is weak, and with so many options in Center City and other clusters it probably was simply forgotten by many diners. Five years ago, there was barely a scene on East Passyunk and Northern Liberties was just budding; I think the 8th St location was a bit of a gamble that didn't pay off (in hindsight, the lack of a nearby commercial corridor may have made it a bad gamble from the beginning). Of course, Bibou stands out as an exception in a very similar location, but they are still riding a popularity surge and the BYOB aspect is attractive to many. But I wouldn't be surprised if Camels moves on after the lease is up there, too.

              When you talk about the fancy places in Boston, what price range do you mean exactly? Like Fountan-level?

              1. re: barryg

                I am with you that Philly respects quality, and I'm still banking on a place like Speck, RIP, making it here (ideally hemled by Shola!). And I agree that location plagued James, though I do think it's instructive that Bibou has been such a success. It's smaller, it's got lower overhead as a BYO, but it's also cheaper. Interesting to wonder whether James would have made it on Passyunk, or NoLibs, or even the newly invigorated 9th St. corridor.

                About Boston, I was thinking of places with check averages well past, say, $65/person, of which there are tons. But even at the way higher end, I think Boston still outnumbers us. And perhaps most tellingly, they've seen high-end openings in just the last few years that have been ridiculously successful (O-Ya, Menton). Maybe Philly could support such places, but it seems like no one in the business is taking that gamble right now.