For better or worse, it seems James is to Philly food media what Anna Nicole Smith has been to E!. There was a Daily Candy plug, a beating on eGullet, and two dedicated threads in this week's Chowhound. While we're waiting for LaBan's verdict, we at Blogalicious figured we'd throw in our two cents.
Owners Jim and Kristina Burke (he of Vetri, she of Miel) preach a sermon of strict seasonality in this glossy temple of SoPhi society. "Our menu focuses on local, seasonal produce, humanely raised meats, wild seafood, and artisan cheeses," says James's website. "Because we select only fresh locally-grown ingredients, the menu changes with the seasons." Yeah, yeah, yeah. In the words of Sunshine Anderson, we've heard it all before. In a world where WalMart carries organics and farm names are suddenly status symbols, every restaurant would have you believe its menu is seasonal, fresh, and local.
James is not one of these poseurs. They don't casually adhere to the philosophy just to be chic (the hip, New Yorky atmoshere--gleaming hardwood, sleek leather sofas, exposed brick, snapping fireplace, and loungey soundtrack--takes care of that). One look at the menu and it's easy to see the Burkes aren't just fresh-local bandwagoneers. Currently, it's in transition as winter rides out its last month. Hearty duck and oxtail ragouts and meaty wild mushrooms are still there, but the heirloom apples and exotic citrus that were prominent during one visit are now fading as the days get longer.
This high seasonality isn't to say James's cooking is a one act show. The kitchen plays up some odd combos you wouldn't think would go together. The pappardelle with a satisfying duck Bolognese gets an unusual twist with orange zest and a tableside shaving of dark chocolate that falls from a microplane like cocoa flurries. Coconut gelato is infused with cayenne pepper. Potatoes get the barbeque treatment, smoked then whipped into a luxurious puree. Squares of chocolate terrine sit on crispy crostini (pictured) that leave greasy ghosts of olive oil on your fingertips. The chocolate and olive oil work magic together, and a sprinkling of fleur de sel hits you after, a chocolate-covered-pretzel-type tingle all the way down. We hate to make broad, city-wide declarations, but this is Philly's best dessert right now.
After some unexpected L&I delays (ya don't say!), James secured their liquor license two weeks ago and this Friday the lounge and bar were jumpin'. The crowd is indicative of the new South Philly; artsy youngbloods in scarves and Citizen jeans sipping neo-retro cocktails like cinnamon-infused Manhattans, gin-and-honeydew rickeys, and lavender cosmos. Not to be forgotten is a smart wine program (with some interesting Italians from Sardinia and the Venetto) that on average will set you back about $50 for a bottle. The stemware sparkles, and the bartenders are warm, bubbly as prosecco (pictured), and not at all bad to look at.
Believe the hype (and ignore that rant on eGullet). Yes, the prices higher than the red gravy trattorias usually seen in Bella Vista, and the portions are on the Nicole Richie side of slim, but when cooking's this inspired, there's no need to gorge. If you go the appetizer, entree, dessert route, you'll leave satisfied. And definitely throw a cheese course in there; fromages are generously portioned, perfect for sharing, and only $4. When a waiter wasn't positive about the nuances of a last-minute substitution, he volunteered a complimentary taste. That's service.
James proves that seasonality isn't just a feel-good feather on some press release. Just thinking about summer's watermelon, Hammonton blueberries, peaches, and Jersey tomatoes has us giddy. Look out for Farm Dinners, a riff off wine dinners to showcase a single ingredient of one local farm. Personally, we can't wait. With its sophisticated, smart, seasonal cooking, James is poised to become one of the best new spots this year. Amen.