There was huge build-up. Many people from the food world and some of Philadelphia's who's who kept telling me Vetri is the best restaurant in the city and the best Italian restaurant in the country. A tall order to fill.
A call-ahead had the first good omen: there was no dress code. No coat was necessary, and jeans were acceptable. For a guy who hates dressing up--and wears Wallabee shoes as a protest symbol--being able to eat in jeans was nice and relaxing. Crazy mix ups made me about 45 minutes late for the reservation. No worries. The staff was completely relaxed about it. Another very good sign.
We selected the tasting menu which is not set but is made by the chef from dishes on the main menu and based on a whim. The waitress pro-actively asked about any dietary restrictions or preferences and indicated the chef was completely accommodating. Yet another very good sign. When we requested one of the signature dishes be brought out beforehand to be nibbled, the sommelier came to the table to suggest the dish was too rich and that he would recommend serving it as the pasta course. A fourth good omen--all before the very first dish was served!
Throughout the evening the service was the paradigm of what a diner wants.
Dinner began with a series of four different amuse bouche. Focaccia with chevre and diced black trumpet mushrooms was beautiful. The chevre was a bit too subdued for me, and the mushroom pieces were lovely but too sparse to have the flavor stand out. The mozzarella with brussels sprouts was also beautiful with the green leaves against pure white squares, but while the mozzarella was fresh and the texture properly gelatinous, it was also a bit too mild to really sing.
The second proper dish was a crepe over-stuffed with golden sweet onions caramelized for 10 hours. The circular slice of the crepe resting in a white truffle foundue was nothing short of phenomenal. The caramelized onion was brown and mushy, like mole, and had this wonderful sweetness. The white truffle sauce added complexity without being overpowering. This caramelized onion crepe may well be one of the top 10 dishes I have ever tasted.
Then came one of Vetri's signature dishes: spinach gnocchi with brown butter. The four bright green gobs resting in brown liquid and covered in cheese were--as we were warned--rich. Each bite was thick and creamy and tasted like it had 1,000 calories. But even better, during the course there was a plate brought out for the "table" of another pasta--a home-made pappardelle with lamb ragu. This was brilliant--and in my view better than the spinach gnocchi. The pappardelle were perfect yellow pasta ribbons cooked just right, soft and wiggly with just a hint of crunchiness. And the lamb ragu was the right combination of rich with the lamb flavor but delicate and not overpowering.
The entrée was roasted goat. Goat is the meat of the moment, but it is very hard to get right. Usually it is tough and has too much of the barnyard, gamey flavor. This version was well roasted, crisp with crunchy skin. But it was a bit dry. Underlying the goat meat was soft polenta. It was, as my Italian dining partner pointed out to me, completely authentic. The texture was perfect. It may have been perfect, but for me, however, it was too bland for a goat meat dish.
The palate-cleanser was a cranberry sorbet with marinated diced apple pieces. Sorry to say I could not taste the cranberry. Way underpowered. Cranberries are tart, sour, and lip pursing, but somehow that uniqueness was all washed out. The micro apple pieces were more tasty and potent.
The dessert came with a wonderful touch. Instead of serving us all the same dessert, the staff gave us three different desserts to rotate and share. Vetri's take on a molten chocolate cake was a dark chocolate polenta cake-souffle with vanilla gelato. The chocolate was rich with that touch of bitterness that high-cocoa chocolate has. What made this dish fantastic was the polenta texture with its graininess--a unique combination. Unfortunately, once again the vanilla gelato was bland; we had a hard time telling it was vanilla. The apple fritters were excellent--warm and chewy with a coating that was more flakey than usual. But again the accompanying maple gelato was underpowered.
I was annoyed by the bland dishes and gelato, preferring the complexity of many different flavors coming together--and maybe because my taste buds are not so discriminating. Conversely, my dining partners liked the more subdued accompaniments which allowed the main items--the goat, the apple fritters and chocolate polenta soufflé--to dominate. You choose.
Throughout the evening the service was the paradigm of what a diner wants. It was relaxed and made you feel relaxed. And yet the wait staff was subtly attentive, without being hovering. They helped with wise suggestions and interventions, but never got up-tight, tense, or fretted because I was late or we were taking too long--despite the fact that we did not leave until after 11 p.m. on a weeknight. This combination is very, very difficult to accomplish, and its perfect execution is doubtless why Vetri has won James Beard awards for outstanding service. It truly was outstanding in every way.
The best Italian restaurant in the country? Who knows. But with some truly outstanding dishes, outstanding service, and a relaxed ambiance, Vetri is definitely worth going out of your way to visit.