Trey Popp reviews Avance for the April issue of Philadelphia magazine, and it's not pretty. Before we dig into it, let's recall what the weeklies have had to say: Brian Freedman, for Philly Weekly, breathlessly described his experience as "brilliant dining magic." Adam Erace, for City Paper, was slightly more reserved, devoting a large percentage of his word count to praising the cocktails (and taking a few digs at the interior design), but conceding that "[Justin] Bogle's food is art" and ultimately finding a lot to like there. Cue Popp:
...Chris Scarduzio and chef Justin Bogle are trying to telegraph the next New Era of Fine Dining in Philadelphia.
Only at Avance, it feels a lot like the old one. Yes, the silver cloches have made way for the odd sneaker-shod hipster. And the Louis XVI decor has definitively been exorcised. But this hallowed address remains bloated with a hovering army of hosts and servers and under-servers, all awkwardly playing out an antiquated ballet of service in this self-consciously contemporary setting.
And while many of his problems lie with the service, that's not all — Popp finds the food very uneven, and only occasionally seems impressed.
The pickled mussel starter, which has received much praise from pro and amateur reviewers alike, is described as "iridescent flash of creativity." So far, so good! Then, as the first meal progressed, "it offered technical prowess and intermittent glimpses of that opening morsel's originality" — hmm, not awful, but not exactly a ringing endorsement. And, well:
Carrots and caramelized squid? Make that rubbery squid, beached on a slurry of amaranth. Swordfish crowned with crispy chicken-skin threads? Hauled in way too far from sea and dumped into a strange, salty bath of yeasted chicken consommé that tasted about as delicious as it sounds.
Even as he moves on to praise other, more successful surf-and-turf riffs, he interjects that "sometimes — sometimes — they're delicious." [emphasis in original] Sometimes it's not the choice of word but the repetition of it that wounds.
Many of the most wince-inducing (and funniest) gripes throughout are about the over-rehearsed "service robots" who "from blue-balled start to the tepid-espresso end, [...]spared no interruption" (and who seem to make a lot of technical missteps, as well, for bots). And ultimately, Popp seems at least mildly offended by the tone of some claims of the Avance team that their restaurant is the fine-dining cure for all that ails Philly.
...the truth is that the much-anticipated New Era of Fine Dining is already here. It's happening at Serpico and Vedge and Vernick and Laurel. And by comparison, Avance felt like a place conceived to strip-mine the rich and privileged.
In the end, Popp awards Avance just 1 and a half stars out of four.