I will in confidence say that for my first restaurant review, I could not have chosen a more wonderful hidden secret in Philadelphia. Maybe not so secret after Philadelphia Magazine placed Square 1682 at 50 on the list of “50 Best Places to Eat” and certainly not so hidden considering that I could only secure a 6 o’clock reservation last Friday night.
Chef Guillermo Tellez does it like I like it; simple and subtle from the outside, but full of life as soon as you step inside his eatery. An LEED certified restaurant, details are noticeable if you find them, but the decor for the untrained eye is really just scattered shapes, vibrant colors, and a simple ambiance. Thematically it is very much disjointed, but with the cuisine being considered, “New American”, it is only right that they invented their own flavor in terms of menu construction and interior design. That is not to say that I think the menu is flawless. I found myself struggling to understand not only the flow of it, but what the rationale was for some dishes being considered appetizers when clearly they would hold their own as an entree, and even why there needed to be so many dishes involving fish. I hate when that happens…. Not that I am any expert on menu formulation, but there is nothing worse than not being able to choose courses because you are spending too much time just trying to read the menu.
Seated on the second floor, a mere spiral staircase ascent from the hustle bustle of the hotel happy hour going on in the bar and lounge below, I found myself snuggled very comfortably into the booth side of one of the two person tables that dotted the center of the room. This was clearly the intimate dinner refuge for those that wanted to get some semblance of peace in a restaurant on a busy block in the city. The crowd downstairs cared more about their drinks and their shared plates, being a bar scene fed in from their sister establishment, the very hip Kimpton Palomar Hotel.
It is easy to forget that the restaurant is linked at the elbow of the hotel, in most respects at least. If it had to be connected to anything, the Palomar is perfect as it is far from predictable style wise, and stands alone as one of the few boutique hotels in the city… Therefore what filters in from the hotel, fits in with the rest of the clientele that 1682 caters to.
As I sat taking in the great aromas of my glass of Predator Zinfandel, and enjoying cracking off bites of the well seasoned olive oil flatbread, the sites were minimal. Different menu items passed by my table, but with very little in the way of eye catching decor, I found myself searching for something to notice other than the what seemed like oversized desk lamps that cascaded off the walls shedding light over the diners.
My first course amazed me with the sheer extent of flavors and textures it encompassed. Bacon Wrapped Roasted Dates. A perfect combination of the sweet smoothness of a date, exploding in my mouth enveloped in a smokey sensation of the bacon, salty zip of the local goat cheese, and tied together with the pop of the piquillo peppers. At first I forgot what flavor it was that I was actually enjoying the most; it was stone ground mustard, marbleizing itself amongst the sauce that each bacon wrapped gem sat happily in on the plate. A spectacular starter, perfect finger food, and certainly something that Chef Tellez will find me coming back for.
In the same way, the lemon scented hummus amazed me, and as a little lebanese girl that is a rare occurrence as I have had more hummus in my days than 1682 has yet to serve to its clients. As my waiter, who was beyond spectacular to boot, approached my table with my second course, I smiled. The presentation was oh so obvious, yet I had never seen it done before. Hummus, packaged perfectly in a shallow jar, with house made preserved lemon slices hugging the sides of the glass. He removed the lid of the jar and balanced it gently on the plate, exposing the beautiful swirled around dip ready to be enjoyed. The garlic and herb naan could have been more fluffy, but with each dive it took into the hummus, the lemon flavors mixing with the nutty sesame tahini and the perfectly smooth chickpeas, it served its purpose. As I was directed, I didn’t cast away the preserved lemons. I urge you to follow suit… the slight chewyness of the rind mixed with the incredible sweetness that the once very sour innards had now taken on was remarkable. I was a little overwhelmed by the use of spices in this appetizer however. Obviously intentional, I felt that the spiciness took over your mouth after a few tastes and you lost the wonderful lemony influence that the title of the dish boasts.
For an entree that I did not anticipate choosing that evening, the Goat Chili, one of Chef’s specialities had a uniqueness about it that restaurants don’t usually choose to take a gamble on. Amongst several predictable options, this dish did not quite go with the rest of the palette I had been enjoying moments before, but it was a creative take on a very typical homemade comfort food. The black eyed peas were a great spin on things, and the pancetta’s influence was evident. I loved the presentation, the slice of cheddar cheese, floating like a boat lost at sea amidst the ocean of chili, keeping it’s mate, a hunk of delicious cornbread, above water, while it served as the bed for the piece de resistance, the shredded goat. That being said, I am not sure I would order it again. The cornbread got mushy too easily, and the amount of ground meat in the chili itself was a little overkill… But even if you order it just to taste the shredded goat, it is something to not miss.
As if I needed another reason to smile and roll my eyes into the back of my head, I made the wise decision to wrap the red bow around my evening with a taste of the Chocolate Bar dessert. This is the dish that a 3 musketeers and snickers bar spend their nights dreaming to become. A layer of fouilatine combined with coconut as the foundation to a heavenly helping of chocolate mousse delicately balancing atop was then covered by a significant layer of the most delicious semisweet chocolate, dotted with a puddle of mint gelee and chocolate covered almonds. It is the dessert that I am going to spend the next 300 days trying to perfect. I have never had something that combined the flavors of mint, chocolate, almond, and of all things coconut; it was a wonderful surprise to see a pastry chef take the same risks that the rest of the menu’s New American cuisine embodies.
The experience was unforgettable, not because it was my first time considering every bit and piece that I consumed both with my eyes and my stomach, but the service was spectacular, the presentation was original, and I truly believe that there is not another menu in Philadelphia that matches the one that Chef Tellez and his team have put together for Square 1682. A must taste. [A A A A]
(I am using the rating system of “A” instead of stars. A restaurant can earn a maximum of 5 “A”s)
One of a kind dishes.
Bite before a night on the town.
Quiet meal alone.