OK, let’s get this out of the way up front. There is no way to discuss Avance without mentioning its predecessor. Le Bec-Fin, the landmark Georges Perrier restaurant held down the same Walnut Street address for almost 30 years before closing in 2013, the victim of numerous factors, including its own success at establishing Philadelphia as a city that could support fine cuisine of all types and price points.
For those who enjoyed the pleasures of pressed duck, synchronized dome-lifting and dessert-laden gueridons, there will no doubt be a moment or two of cognitive dissonance. Gone are the trappings of long-ago Paris, supplanted by a modern, urbane and welcoming atmosphere.
The emphasis on wood and greenery evident at the understated entrance to the restaurant are echoed in the Pomegranate Group-designed dining room. Tables are hewn from Vermont black walnut by a craftsman whom executive chef/partner Justin Bogle met during a sourcing trip through the Green Mountain state. Multiple living walls softly reflect the light from dozens of naked Edison bulbs hanging at different heights from the impressively high ceiling. This is a place comfortable in its own skin, designed to make guests feel at ease and impressed at the same time while the staff sets the stage for the rest of the meal.
Watching the tailored crew glide across the dining room, seamlessly gauging and engaging each table’s wants and expectations, is indeed a bit like watching a choreographed performance. Among the uniformly exceptional staff on the night we dined at Avance were two holdovers from Le Bec-Fin — the bar manager, Bradford Lawrence, and the sommelier, Alexandra Cherniavsky. Lawrence, who holds court in the restaurant’s downstairs bar — which has been given a sleek update from its Le Bar Lyonnais days — has developed one of the city’s most accomplished cocktail programs and one of its most eclectically named lists, featuring drinks like the Johnny Utah (bourbon, Amontillado sherry, three-pepper tincture and herbsaint mist) and See You Around the Bend, a concoction of Hendricks gin, sage, lime, rosemary and Strega that carried the promise of warm summer breezes belying the late-March cold snap whipping through Center City that evening. Be sure to ask if there are any off-the-menu additions. Ordinarily, as both a brown liquor drinker and as big a fan of Point Break as the next guy, I would order a Johnny Utah to start the evening, but there was no way I could resist Lawrence’s 10 Bells, which featured both Buffalo Trace and Booker’s — as well as Amontillado sherry, Antica Formula vermouth, Campari and gunpowder tea tincture — aged over Japanese charcoal for 10 days.
Cherniavsky has assembled a deep and fascinating wine list, with plenty of heavy hitters, as well as a substantial section of wines priced at $80 and under. Her by-the-glass program is also exceptionally accommodating, whether you’re looking for a flute of Dom Pérignon or an austerely satisfying Blanc de Blancs from Varichon & Clerc. She was so enthusiastic and confident about recommending lesser-known varietals and producers for each course that we decided to let her pick the wines for our first courses and entrees, but it was her selection for the mid-course — which we specifically declined to match with a wine — that still has me singing her praises weeks later. Explaining that she “just thought we would enjoy trying something different,” she brought out a Moscatel Dorado sherry from Cesar Florido to drink with Bogle’s foie gras. The pairing produced the kind of synergy that sauternes can only dream about. The honey traces from the muscatel grapes, tempered by the slightly dry nature of Spanish sherry, seemed to amplify the richness of the foie gras, which undulated across the length of the plate, hemmed in by a supporting cast that included pickled grapes and crumbles of black walnuts.
Like everything else that was laid in front of us during the meal, this dish spoke volumes about Bogle’s commitment to both classic sensibilities and modernist cuisine. Using tart and crunchy components to set off the unrelenting richness of the liver while preparing the foie gras with a high-tech Thermomix blender allows the palate to enjoy elemental flavors in an unexpected manner.
It is this type of thoughtful cooking that made the Roxborough-born and Restaurant School-educated Bogle one of the area’s most watched chefs from the moment he announced he was opening Avance. And for good reason: The 33-year-old was most recently at Gilt in New York City, where he earned two Michelin stars three years in a row. (There are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Philadelphia at present.)
The menu, like the décor, is a study in high-end restraint. Each dish lists its components, and nothing more, not even — refreshingly — the seemingly obligatory farmer roster, even though it is very clearly seasonally driven.
Among the appetizers, a tartare of silky Arctic char, set off by antigriddle-frozen green apples, fermented elderberries and fennel juice shed new light on this too-little-seen cold-water fish.
Another highlight among the starters was the suddenly hot Jerusalem artichoke. The bulbous sunflower root was first cooked sous vide and then roasted and served with sheer tuiles of Seckel pear, yuzu (better known as the Sukkot staple citron), a tang of buttermilk and a sunflower seed brittle to bring it all together.
Surprisingly, the most intense possession battle of the course occurred over the sweetbreads — the happy combination of pan-crisped sweetbreads and ribbons of pickled pumpkin, parsnip foam and cocoa dust proved irresistible to former offal avoiders.
I had fully intended to order the wild sturgeon as an entrée — I can’t remember the last time I saw it, either on a menu or in the wholesale market — but Kane Seydou, our server, gently but firmly insisted that the striped bass was the way to go. By this point, it was obvious that the Avance staff had fully mastered the art of advise and consent-restaurant edition, so that was the way we went.
It was the right call — after all, I can always go back for the sturgeon. A brick of bass was given a generous coating of black truffles (not truffle oil, as Kane emphasized) and adorned with nothing more than pliantly yielding cabbage hearts and sweet potato batons in a “beermonté,” a play on the traditional beurre monté sauce that is made with Unibroue’s Ephemere beer instead of white wine.
Luckily, Kane heartily agreed with our other entrée choice, a duck breast that had been dry-aged for 10 to 12 days in-house. I’m not sure why no one else has offered this yet, but it’s just a matter of time before dry-aged duck begins showing up on menus. Because it is delicious. The process gives the meat a finer grain and a markedly more intense flavor that is enhanced by a musky trip through the accompanying puree of black garlic and black trumpet mushrooms.
The attention and intelligence applied to the previous courses left me eager to try dessert. Unfortunately, my dining companion wanted cheese, not least because it meant another chance to sample the wares of the in-house boulangerie. Claire McWilliams, Avance’s baker was the baker at Parc for the past three years, and the offerings here, served according to the course, are spectacular with or without a dollop of the housemade butter.
Not that I needed my arm twisted too much: Of the five cheeses offered, four of them are raw-milk varieties, including a standout Dunbarton from Wisconsin and a Majorero, a goat milk cheese from Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands.
Keeping to the seasonal theme — and magical thinking, considering how the winter wouldn’t let go this year — we had a dessert featuring the season’s first rhubarb, welcomed by an Asian-inspired combination of matcha tea and toasted rice ice cream that flowed into white chocolate. If you’re unsure of what kind of coffee would go with this dessert, no worries — Zach Urbanski, the restaurant’s dedicated barista, can help. He is solely responsible for pulling the espresso drinks and doing the pour-overs of the single-origin beans provided by Elixr Coffee. If the El Injerto is still on the menu, get it — I didn’t taste all of the notes that the coffee menu listed, but I can tell you it was one damn fine cup, one that only got more interesting as it cooled.
For all of the amazing things I experienced during my three hours in Avance, the most telling was what happened when I left — not a single thought about what had been there before; just reflections on how Avance was such an aptly chosen name for a place that has so quickly escalated the expectations for what a dining experience can be.
1523 Walnut St., Philadelphia, avancerestaurant.com; 215-405-0700. Dinner for two: around $250 with drinks.
This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.