Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ambitious Chefs Buck the Economic and Culinary Trends

February 07, 2011|By Craig LaBan, Inquirer Restaurant Critic

Hold the obituary on fine dining, and pass the 12-course tasting menu, please.

It's a refrain chef Marc Vetri hopes to hear often after March 15, when his signature gem, Vetri, abandons a la carte dining altogether for $135 tasting menus, a decadent splurge previously required only on weekends.

In a move that seems counter to these recessionary times, not only is the city's best Italian restaurant raising the cost of midweek dining, but Vetri is also shaving six seats from the townhouse dining room. At 36 before, it was already a picture of tight-squeeze intimacy.

"When people walk in and just order an appetizer and entree and then leave, they're not getting what we really set out to offer. They're not getting the whole experience," says Vetri.

The upscale moves may foretell a trend on the horizon born of pent-up desire, as other young chefs have plans to open small venues dedicated to gastronomy. Ambitious tasting menus elsewhere are also gaining new traction.

The notion seemingly flies in the face of the most recent currents, which have brought mainly trouble for "whole experience"-style fine dining, as white-tablecloth formality unraveled under the pressure of economic turmoil and a cultural shift toward more casual venues.

Walnut Street's Restaurant Row continues to crumble. Restaurant Week-style bargain menus abound year round. The Four Seasons Hotel has been exploring the potential of an independent operator for its luxurious Fountain Restaurant.

And in a bid to survive two years ago, Georges Perrier's bastion of prix-fixe luxury, Le Bec-Fin, embraced an a la carte menu for the first time in its four decades, even started serving hamburgers at lunch, before announcing last year plans to finally close - moves Perrier has since reconsidered and regretted.
"I think I panicked too early and made changes I should never have done," conceded Perrier, who said his prix-fixe menus, which range from $40 to $185, are now back up to 80 percent of his meals.

Indeed, the irony is as rich as beurre blanc. Perrier's legendary restaurant, of course, began its life at 1312 Spruce St. - the townhouse address where Vetri has now ascended to the hot list of an international dinerati, which sometimes comes in from London, L.A., Chicago, or New York (not to mention Rittenhouse Square) just for dinner.

Achieving that level of fame has been a steady evolution for Vetri, a James Beard Foundation Award winner. Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, have since opened larger casual venues (Osteria, Amis) to offer more flexible options to the salad-and-pasta crowd. Thus, the flagship has become a focal point for Vetri's dogged pursuit to craft the nation's ultimate experience in alta cucina.

New Italian china and Venetian vases have been ordered. Snazzy new uniforms for the staff ("nothing formal - but playful!") are in the works. The vestibule is being rehabbed. A new chef de cuisine, former Vetri sous Adam Leonti, is due back from a six-month kitchen stint in Bergamo. And demand for the elaborate tasting meals, with their inventive seasonal dishes and hand-painted menus, has grown over the last two years from weekends only to half of Vetri's midweek meals, when a la carte was still an option.

Read the complete story here.

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