A friend of mine summed it up best: Daniel Stern can cook. Note the italics there, because they’re important: His cooking-and he’s behind the stove virtually every night at Rae-takes dishes that in other hands might be very good, and transforms them into something altogether wonderful.
To paraphrase the great philosopher RenÃ©e Zellweger, he had me at the smoked rabbit nachos.
This, of course, might seem like an odd way to begin a meal at the city’s most high-profile new restaurant. Located in the gleaming, color-shifting Cira Centre, Rae is the embodiment of dining sophistication. The space is well-lit, open, and impeccably designed. So beginning a meal with nachos might seem to go against the expected culinary grain at a place like this.
In chef Stern’s hands, however, even the humble nacho is raised to stratospheric heights. In this case, deep-fried homemade tortillas are stuffed with impossibly moist, cured, smoked, and braised rabbit meat, spruced up with jalapeÃ±o, sharp cheddar, and cilantro, and served alongside a surprisingly subtle jalapeÃ±o crÃ¨me fraÃ®che. I have a sneaking suspicion that this dish may be unmatched against other rabbit preparations.
The menu at Rae is divided into two main sections: Standards and Renditions. But anyone who’s dined at Gayle, chef Stern’s other restaurant, knows that choosing between the two is difficult. Whether you go with his version of the classics, or his more adventurous flights of culinary fancy, you’re sure to be won over. So my advice is to go with your gut…literally.
Ms. Martini, adventurous eater extraordinaire, looked up from her menu and made a good point. “I never get chicken,” she said. “But I’m kind of in the mood for it. And if it’s going to be good anywhere, it’ll be here.”
It was, indeed, fantastic. At Rae, half an organic roast chicken ($24) is given the poultry equivalent of the royal spa treatment. The breast is cooked slowly, crisping the skin and ensuring a perfectly moist interior; and the thigh and leg are cooked in chicken fat, tenderizing the meat and making this humble bird far more delicious than you’ve likely ever experienced. It’s all served with a sauce of Yukon Gold potatoes, Dijon mustard, shallots, garlic, chicken stock, and white wine. The team at Rae calls it “Yukon Gold sauce,” but, like everything else here, it’s a whole lot more than that deceptively simple name implies.
I decided to go with an entrÃ©e from the Renditions side of the menu. The poached salmon ($30), was a moist, generous portion of olive oil-poached fish topped with horseradish-and-herb-spiked salmon tartar and a side of potato skins with crÃ¨me fraÃ®che and thin ribbons of smoked salmon. The juxtaposition of these three preparations of salmon was creative, delicious, and brilliantly showed off the range of this fish. I cannot think of a more interesting-or tasty-salmon dish I’ve had in the past year.
We supplemented our meals with an item from the “Sides” section of the menu. This, we discovered, was unnecessary. The portions are quite more than generous, as your mother will be thrilled to discover. But the fondue onions ($6), a deep-fried combination of onions, leeks, and shallots that were slow-cooked in a bÃ©chamel and given a bit of a salty punch from the addition of parmesan, were so good that we finished them, despite the fact that we were getting full.
Palates dancing, we wanted something sweet to bring the meal to a close, and the caramel walnut apple pie did just the trick. Based on chef Stern’s family recipe, this pie was everything you’d hope for…and then some. Sweet but not cloying, rich but not heavy, and served in a perfectly sized portion. And Ms. M. nearly keeled over when she tasted the cinnamon streusel caramel sauce.
In the end, we spent $135.73 for dinner, two glasses of wine, tax, and tip, plus $10 for parking (a significant discount from the standard $17 rate)-still cheaper than taking a cab.
Rae’s arrival on the Philadelphia dining scene is cause for genuine celebration. Or, to paraphrase philosopher Zellweger’s co-star, Tom Cruise, it just
might complete us.
Rae, Cira Centre, 2929 Arch St., Philadelphia, 215.922.3839; www.raerestaurant.com
Click here to read previous installments of Hundred Dollar Baby.