During Inquirer critic Craig LaBan's live food and restaurant chat this week, much of the discussion centered, of course, around his two-bell assessment of Volver. You can read the full transcript here — in contrast to all the discussion of one of the city's priciest meals, LaBan also offered up his thoughts on last weekend's hot dog cook-off at Headhouse, Spruce Street Harbor Park, and the best spicy Asian dishes — or just check out our Volver-centric summary of the highlights.
· LaBan pointed to a Peter Dobrin-authored piece published this week that explores the overall financial outlook and changed focus of the Kimmel Center — including a small bit on the government grant that helped fund Volver. The construction of the restaurant is reported to have cost a total $3.5M, and Dobrin says half of that came from a Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program grant from the state government.
· In response to one chat participants' wondering if he should keep his October reservation, LaBan said that the menu should have received a seasonal update by then, though the "instant classics" will stick around (presumably, that means dishes like the "milk and cereal" and Kentucky fried squab). And, he adds, optimistically:
...there are a lot of really excellent elements in play at Volver — certainly the potential for a higher-rating.
· LaBan expressed a lot of love for Bar Volver's "gorgeous, warm room with that beautiful fabric sculpture, top notch cocktails and plenty of excellent nibbles," and specified that for his review, he tried out the bar, the abbreviated pre-theater tasting, and the full performance tasting:
I found it telling that I enjoyed it less the more courses there were, rather than the opposite of being transported to a higher plane. The pre-theater experience was actually a pretty good deal, as long as you didn't mind the stories - slightly less grating over the course of only 9 dishes. The 15-courser seemed to only magnify Volver's flaws...
· He further clarified that while he had problems with the service, they had nothing to with the people providing the service — the servers were "lovely and skilled," while sommelier Gordana Kostovski gets a shout-out as "hands down one of the best sommeliers in the city." The problem lay in what they were being asked to do:
For me, hearing the explanation ahead of time pretty much spoiled the delight and surprise of what's coming. Like explaining the trick before performing the magic. Food first, then stories (if requested.) The fact that every story revolved around the very moment that Chef got his great idea only added to the agitation, and the sense this whole meal was built around the legend-building of a personality.
· LaBan also attempted to compare Volver to other pricy and lengthy tasting menus, contrasting Volver with the "more intimate and organic experience" at Vetri, where he concedes there still may be a little too much food offered up...
But I recall leaving [Vetri] inspired by my meals, wishing only that I'd had more space to keep going.
· And, while considering meals at places like Per Se and the French Laundry, that helped launch the marathon-tasting trend, LaBan laments that the element of surprise may be gone for good from such menus:
It's possible now to go into one of the most exclusive meals fully prepped with a full portfolio of Yelp photos on what to expect. Sort of ruins it for me.
· Finally, on the question of price, LaBan invokes all the far more affordable places he's awarded three bells to in recent months:
The major challenge these days is that the quality of food in the middle tier of restaurants has gotten so good. It's going to take a lot more to impress at over $100 a seat in 2014 than it did in 2004.