If only they'd called it "Monday Tuesday Wednesday" or something, anything, besides "Friday Saturday Sunday," Chad and Hanna Williams might not still be hearing the steady cries for chicken Dijon and cream of mushroom soup. After 42 years steeped in the nostalgia of Philly's restaurant renaissance, those retro comforts came to symbolize dinner at 21st and Rittenhouse Streets.
But I've grown to admire chef Chad's stubborn determination not to cook backward in time and instead move forward with sometimes edgy but always delicious and ultimately approachable updates to some basic food groups. Strip steak? It comes with a smoked potato puree, and the meat's Angus savor is deepened with an aromatic rub of shiitakes, clove, and allspice.
Carrots? They arrive standing at attention in a multicolor forest of heirloom hues, some cooked in confit and warm, some pickled, and some shaved raw over labneh yogurt tinted orange with powdered carrot skins.
Pasta? The toothy house-extruded semolina gemelli is infused with caraway and topped with an unctuously soulful pork trotter ragù dusted with the crunch of crumbled pork skins: "I have to do what I've got to do."
There are ghosts to reckon with when you take over a four-decade-old institution such as Friday Saturday Sunday, many hiding in the shadows behind the black-lit menu boards and tented fabric ceiling of the dark, old upstairs Tank Bar. All of it had to be ripped out as the restaurant underwent a total and handsome revamp for 18 months, bringing the bar downstairs (now gorgeous with Vermont marble counters and checkerboard wood floors) and moving the dining room up to a now-airy second-floor space full of light and navy blue banquettes.
It can be uncomfortably noisy up there, especially for groups larger than four. And that understandably peeves many of the silver-haired patrons who began frequenting this corner as youngsters, when Nixon was president and an eclectic menu ranging from ceviche to Chili Elizabeth Taylor was served on mismatched plates and embodied its own generational revolution for staid Philadelphia.
But a tufted captain's chair at one of the quieter deuces in the front window overlooking 21st Street is among the most comfortable spots in the city. It's even better with one of bartender Paul MacDonald's inventive cocktails rattling its big ice cube inside a cut-crystal tumbler, a plate of raw day-boat scallops fanned beneath charred pineapple and dashi vinaigrette, and a plate of the city's best new beef tartare to jump-start the appetite.
The dusting of dry "smoked beef heart" grated over top may scare off some more timid eaters, but it adds a subtle note akin to a carnivore's Parmesan — a zesty ping of concentrated beef — that melds with the lusciously soft raw Angus sirloin, pickled celery root cubes, crunchy shallots, and smoked horseradish crème fraîche. Irresistible.
"At last … the most normal thing on the menu!" one guest said with a sigh when a lacquered half-chicken scented with gingery grains of paradise appeared. A longtime devotee of the old FSS, she was warming to the overall experience of the new incarnation after a jarring early dinner months before. "Much better than our first visit!"
Chad Williams, a West Philly native and longtime Garces vet (Amada, Chifa) who also worked at Mugaritz in Spain, Saison in San Francisco, and more recently opened Tela's Market in Fairmount, is clearly pushing some comfort-zone boundaries. But it's a mistake to believe this young couple has no respect for history. Hanna was raised amid the restaurant renaissance by her parents, Charlie Whitaker, a chef at the Frog, and Christine Whitaker, a waitress at both the Frog and Astral Plane, who used to drink at Tank Bar before their daughter was born.
So I can only imagine the ghosts of this once revolutionary corner were looking down with smiles on Oct. 13 when, at the end of reconstruction, this ambitious couple showed up in their best clothes and had general contractor Vince Massara officiate their wedding right in the middle of the kitchen. Hanna was radiant in her Charlotte Olympia Desirée leopard pumps: "We wanted to put a little good juju on the building before we opened," she said.
They haven't looked back in making it their own, from the tasteful renovation to the stellar cocktails and solid wine list to a service staff that's found its groove after what I understand from colleagues were some overly chatty early days of hovering over guests.
Most important, Chad Williams is making his case as one of the city's emerging stars, with a talent for giving familiar ideas a modern twist. Plump shrimp cocktail gets extra zing from an aioli dip tweaked by yuzu koshu pepper paste. The bisquelike fennel richness of a lobster bucatini sauce is intensified by a pesto of Peruvian aji panca peppers and almonds topped with a funky, dark crumble of dried seafood and chili XO paste. For $18, it's a surprisingly hearty plate and fair value, like the other pastas here. Although the ethereally light $15 gnocchi, whose potato essence was magnified by a "tea" sauce steeped from peeled skins, rose to pure luxury beneath a lid of shaved black Périgord truffle chips, as earthy as fresh-turned soil and well worth the $25 supplement.
The larger entrées range from $20 to $35, but the N.Y. strip hit the mark for its quality. A roasted halibut topped with nori-sumac butter was memorably moist, soaked in an exotic coconut dashi aromatic with cardamom and kaffir lime beside silky Japanese sweet potatoes. An overly charred octopus was one of my few disappointments — wasting some exceptional Rancho Gordo beans stewed in a cascabel chili menudo broth with bits of tripe.
A special raw-bar-only nibble of grilled toasts topped with chopped steamed mussels and aioli is as good a reason as any to park at the bar, where MacDonald masterfully backs up his cocktail nerd amari banter (plus, how do you get eggplant into a drink?!) without sacrificing good taste or balance.
The elegant touches of cut crystal, Bernardaud and locally crafted Felt + Fat plates, and even the antique-style gold letters scripting "Fri Sat Sun" on the front picture window, show an investment in details rarely seen in new restaurants these days.
So is a page-long list of dessert wines, brandies, and Rare Wine Co. Madeiras. And so is a real pastry chef. Tish Smith is one of those, using her experience at Foam Floatery to craft a small but excellent dessert list built around some exceptional ice creams. A ginger ice cream spiced with Sichuan peppercorns elevated an almond-pear coffee cake. The sea salt brownie and brown-butter blondie with the "black-and-tan" sundae were impressive. But it was the vivid vanilla ice cream that set off the puffed caramel rice, whipped caramel, and hot fudge. I also loved the smooth textures and pure flavors of her nightly ice cream trio so much on my second visit — sesame-chocolate studded with sesame candy, a hive-fresh scoop of honey brittle, and a deeply fruited fig-balsamic sorbet — that I wished I could go back in time to my first meal and order her riff on three different shades of chocolate I'd regretfully passed on.