Among the chattering chowhounds of Philadelphia—and their ranks are growing all the time, despite the fact that no one seems to have much money for meals these days—much of the talk about chef Joseph Poon’s new venture on the 100 block of Chestnut Street has focused on his more unusual flights of multi-culti fancy. Unorthodox combinations like spinach nachos with Parmesan, mustard seed and a Thai chile–garlic dip, or the linguine accompaniment to Poon’s always-excellent General Joe’s chicken, have dominated the discussion in these early days of his Old City business.
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Review: Joe’s Peking Duck
But it seems to me that harping on those dishes misses the point, that it diverts attention from what really matters right now. After all, every restaurant goes through a period of tweaking its menu as it finds its own footing and gauges the mood—ever mercurial—of its core group of customers. And every restaurateur worth his salt-shaker (and certainly Poon’s decades of not just experience, but leadership in this city’s gastro-intellectual life, make him a flag-bearer in that department) reconsiders some of the preparations that seemed so exciting in the beginning but that, in the end, just don’t gain the foothold they need to justify a continued place on the menu.
So by the time I visited the restaurant, I wanted to stick with the more traditional items—or, at the very least, with the ones that were rooted in the mostly traditional concepts that Poon’s fans have come to love. And anyway, my inquiry, for example, into what the waiter thought about those nachos elicited a response that could be considered reserved at best. Well, he said, they’re good for snacking on while watching a football game but… His voice trailed off. Maybe not for dinner, he summed up. Fair enough.
Peking duck with crispy bun, on the other hand, was built on the one component that Poon is known for perhaps above all else. And, indeed, the duck itself was fabulous: Moist yet still hearty enough to provide the teeth some resistance, sweet yet possessed of that gentle headiness that the best preparations of the bird exhibit and, when dragged through the cognac-hoisin sauce off to the side, rich with a subtle smoky-vanilla quality that seemed the definition of ethereal.
The crispy, tongue-shaped bun, while a touch oily, provided an interesting and unexpected vessel for the duck meat, and its own funnel cake-like sweet nuttiness worked in excellent counterpoint to its filling. Even the side of salsa, with its well-calibrated pickle-like vinegar level, lifted the more central flavors and gave them a greater sense of focus.
Wasabi pork—shrimp shumai, however, found no such success. I’m sure there were greater depths of clearer flavor hiding in there somewhere, but the wasabi note simply overpowered everything else—it was like listening to an old John Coltrane recording through a car-stereo system with high-octane subwoofers: The music sounds great when the bass is merely a component of the whole, but less so when it dominates everything else and drowns it out. The honey-bourbon reduction helped tame that almost monolithic wasabi note, as did, surprisingly, the unexpectedly sweet wasabi mayonnaise, but in the end a lighter hand with the horseradish will be the only remedy for the issue.
The light, tempura-like crust on the thick slices of fried striped bass and the sliced, perfectly cooked flank steak in “lemon pepper beef medallions” were both notable for their tenderness, and the vegetables accompanying them—red and green bell peppers, onions, baby corn—were as fresh as you’d expect from Poon, whose background in nutrition and whose own fascination with the health benefits of what we eat have for years made his food among the most naturally satisfying in town. And the toothy, julienned potato sticks provided an interesting, unexpected starch component and vessel to carry the heartier flavors of the ginger–garlic–black bean sauce. There was so much of that sauce, though, that a side bowl of rice would have been a nice touch: Its absence reminded me of a great coq au vin I once had without the added benefit of a baguette with which to sop up all the juicy goodness.
The clay pot with little neck clams, lemon grass, cilantro, basil, dried Sichuan peppers and saffron rice, on the other hand, was not as pleasing. It struggled under the weight of an overaggressive lemony note; the cilantro and the lemongrass just overwhelmed most of the other flavors. Balance, such a standard aspect of Poon’s best dishes, was missing almost entirely here.
My prediction is that, eventually, the menu here will be condensed and the dishes that make the cut will be given a once-over. The underpinnings are all in place for a successful restaurant, but a greater sense of focus should be brought to bear on both the menu as a whole and on a number of the dishes in particular. Until then, it’ll have to do to cherry-pick, to enjoy the kind-hearted service and clean-lined, decidedly Old City space (exposed pipes, lots of lovely wood) and wait for the restaurant to come into its own.