Ahh the make believe Village of Whiskey. I picture something reminiscent of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory...except with booze. Yes, bourbon would flow down the river, you could pick fresh buttermilk biscuits in the field or help yourself to a Quail drumstick lolly-pop. Pickled vegetables would fill the vegetable gardens, duck-fat-fried french fries would sprout up like wildflowers and mushroom caps, upon closer inspection, would actually be the most beautiful foie gras topped burgers you could imagine.
In reality a place that offers all of these eats and more does exist, and it's called Village Whiskey. It's famed Philly chef Jose Garces' newest hit restaurant in Philly and it's menu reads a lot like my make-believe land, minus the fantasy and magic. Perhaps, however, it could do with a bit more magic...or at least a spit and polish.
I'm not sure if this high-class remake of traditionally low-class food can be classified as a current trend, but it certainly looks that way. Just yesterday I received the latest edition of Garden and Gun magazine (a delightfully unique magazine I might add...that happened to be one of my favorite all-time gifts...thanks Pops and Janet!). This month's "Talk of the South" section featured a section on "The Bourbon Renaissance" and on the adjoining page printed a recipe for "No-Fail Quail". This combination happened to be the exact same thing I ordered when the hubby and I visited Village Whiskey a few weeks back. Coincidence, fad, or simply a match made in heaven? Perhaps all of the above.
To say that Village Whiskey is a small establishment is being kind at best. It's located directly next to Garces' Tinto, and, from what it looked like to me while snooping around on my way to the ladies room, shares a basement kitchen with said Tinto. It looks to me like Garces had an empty space and filled it with a great restaurant concept...that really needs 3 times the space.
The hubby and I tried twice to get a table at Village Whiskey (they don't take reservations). The first time we arrived around 6:30pm on a Friday, only to be told that the wait would be 2 1/2 hours, but we were "welcome to grab a drink and wait". 2 1/2 hours of drinking expensive bourbon!?!? If anyone agreed to that they would inevitably be broke AND trashed by the time they were seated for dinner.
The second time we tried to get in we arrived around 5:45pm and were told it would be a more reasonable 45 mins wait. We gave them our cell phone number and wandered over to a dive bar to kill some time. 45 mins later came and went without a phone call. We wandered back and checked on our table. "Oh, we called you" said the snobby host. "You most certainly did NOT", replied my husband. I can support this statement. We skipped lunch that day and sat, bellies grumbling at the dive bar down the block staring at the cell phone which we placed directly in between the two of us. It did not ring...I can promise you that. "The next open table will be yours" the host replied. Then he recommended that we grab a drink and stand in the back of the restaurant to wait. I'm not sure if I can properly explain exactly how cramped this restaurant is. We squeezed our way towards the back of the restaurant and packed ourselves in like cattle while we perused the menu. Someone asked us if we would like a drink while we were waiting and honestly, I don't think we had enough elbow room to raise a glass to our mouths. We said that we would wait until we were seated, and continued to stand shoulder to shoulder, ass to ass with the other human cattle (some of which were actually trying to enjoy a drink or even a BURGER in that hallway they call a bar). After about 10 minutes a table opened up and the hubby, who was NOT playing around by this time, squeezed his way to the front of the restaurant to be sure we received THAT table.
Once seated we re-perused the menu and decided on some bourbons. I have to say, the selection was impressive...over 50 bourbons and then countless other whiskey varieties. The hubby chose the Basil Hayden (his NOW favorite daily sipping whiskey) and I chose the Kentucky Vintage. Both delicious, but cheap they were not. Each were $14 for a 2 oz serving, BUT, I have to admit, I've never seen such a selection, so we were happy to be able to taste bourbons without having to roll the dice on a whole bottle.
For a starter we shared the Homemade Cheese Puffs. I asked the waitress if they were similar to Gougeres, and after looking a bit confused she said, "no, they're more like puff pastry". When they arrived they were in fact delicious cheesy Gougeres. They were light, fluffy and actually quite a literal interpenetration of "cheese puffs"...who could ask for anything more?
For his main course, the hubby ordered the Whiskey King. This burger has taken Philly by storm and he had been thinking about it since he first heard it mentioned weeks before. It's an 8 oz Angus burger topped with blue cheese, apple-wood smoked bacon and *drum roll* a huge hunk of foie gras. Before he dug in he asked if I would like a smidgen of foie. "YES!" I exclaimed. We both let the foie melt on our tongues, while we made equally silly yummy faces. Wonderful quality foie, wonderful quality burger, WONDERFUL quality bacon (no lie...this bacon was to die for). Unfortunately, that lovely slab of foie gras became utterly lost in the sea of rich beef, pungent blue cheese and smokey bacon. When Nick was done he said how he wished he had eaten the foie gras au-natural before he consumed the burger. Sometimes you CAN have too much of a good thing.
I ordered the Kentucky Fried Quail, which, as I look at the current menu, seems to have disappeared and looks to have been replaced by fried chicken. That's a pity because my quail was wonderful. It was delicate with just the right amount of smokey spice to counter balance the somewhat gamy quality quail can have. It came with a succotash of sorts and a delicious, albeit TINY homemade biscuit. It wasn't a lot of food, but paired with a started and the bacon fat fried french fries we shared it left me satisfied.
When our meal was finished and we were sitting comfortably (finally) at our table we had mixed emotions. The front of house staff was an unfortunate disappointment. Our waitress was ok I suppose, but the host and hostess were, for lack of better terms, snobby, unaccommodating and entirely unapologetic. I suppose they thought that since they were working at one of the new hot-spot restaurants in town they could get away with telling people that they should cram into what should be the restaurant's coat closet to over-pay for a drink while they wait for their table that they should have had an hour ago had the call ever been placed.
On the plus side, the food was amazing and the whiskey was abundant. Not one piece of our meal was over or under cooked...over or under seasoned...over or under pretentious. Garces, it seems, knows his food. I wish, however, his front of house would try to act more like they're in the hospitality industry. But I suppose if the whiskey is flowing and the food is finger licking good, the rest will hopefully fall into place.
118 South 20th Street