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.