Garces' model shot: courtesy of Phoodie.info
Garces opened JG Domestic under two weeks ago, perfect timing for a trip to check it out with the
One comment- accessing the restaurant is a little awkward. It's actually best to go through 30th Street Station, head north through the SEPTA terminal, and cross over into the Cira. Walking across several lanes of non-pedestrian-friendly traffic is not recommended. Once inside, however, I was quite impressed. Having never been in the building before, I don't know what kind of building blocks Garces began with, but he has created what feels like a European open air cafe. A variety of different seating areas and options, a large bar with seating, an open kitchen, a semi-private back room, and even an upstairs area (not sure what's up there!). We sat at a long communal table, thankfully not crowded by the parties on either side.
Our waiter was a bit unsteady at his new job-- but I'll cut him some slack since he'd only been there a week-- and walked us through the menu. The focus of the restaurant is the origin of the food- all sourced from the United States, with information about each participating "grower." Honestly, I didn't really read it too carefully, I was just excited about eating, but I do find it an interesting concept, and one that seems to be embraced more and more.
The menu consists of "snacks" (related to a bar snack), cold and warm "plates" similar to a small appetizer, vegetable "sides" and meat and fish. To create more of an entree, you would combine a meat or fish with one or more of the vegetable plates, as the meats come rather alone. There is also a chef's tasting menu ($65), a few daily specials, and a "whole animal," which varies from night to night and showcases different parts of a single animal. Each of us made several selections based on what we were interested in, but then proceeded to share each dish as it arrived.
We started with the Salt & Vinegar Kettle Chips ($4), which were the freshest potato chips you will ever experience. The vinegar flavor comes from a creamy aioli that lies beneath the chips. The bowl was quickly polished off and practically licked out (this became a theme of the evening), and we moved onto the house-baked rolls: soft, yeasty, hot and perfect with a dab of butter and a smidge of homemade jam.
Our first appetizer followed on the carb wagon- Wood Oven Flatbread ($12), similar in style to Garces' flatbreads at each of his other restaurants, and covered with a variety of mushrooms and salty cheese wisps on a crispy base. Definitely delicious, but not necessarily one of the highlights of the night.
One of the night's specials was an abalone dish- red abalone, shipped from the coast of California, is a large sea snail which our waiter called "foie gras of the sea." Well, after that description, there was no way we were turning this down-- but for the $25 price tag, we would have liked a little more. And, to be honest, it wasn't anywhere close to foie gras! It's a little bit buttery, a little bit rubbery, a little bit clam-like. Served atop a pile of perfectly cooked rice, intermixed with a bit of steamed-down greens and wild mushrooms, the presentation overall gave it more of a meaty feel rather than a seafood feel. The mushrooms maintained a good bite, with a bit of a woody taste and texture. Very unique, but not necessarily in a good way?
However, the next dish to arrive pretty much blew us away. I think we all would have agreed that the Smoked Chestnut Souffle ($9) was at the top of our list for the night. It's hard to describe, but essentially a base of creamy spaghetti squash, crunchy candy-like chestnuts, and soft golden raisins are topped with souffle- essentially eggy, bready, whipped cream. It came with a small pot of pureed squash, butter, and maple syrup, a perfect sweet topping that I wanted to spoon up eternally.
Pure Food Genius
Next up: the meat dishes. One of the more unique options was the Texas Wild Boar ($22), which came prepared much in the same way as I imagine a classic beef dish- grilled, smothered in a mustard based glaze, and served atop creamy grits and braised greens. The party next to us ordered a platter of four of these "steaks," leading us to false hopes that we would be getting our hands on a lot of meat. Not the case-- each order is a single serving, but we all enjoyed the bite or two we had, swiped into quite possibly the best grits of all time. I envisioned boar to be more closely related to the domesticated pig, but the tender meat was much like a good cut of beef.
My meat dish of choice was a little out of character- the Colorado Lamb Spareribs ($16). I don't typically like lamb- it has that gamey, weird flavor, but I was convinced that if anyone could make me like lamb, it would be Garces. These ribs are texturally amazing- soft and almost falling off the bone. The dark glaze seemed to have a deep Asian-inspired flavor, which helped offset the hint of "lambiness" (closely related to "goatiness") of the meat. Am I now a lamb convert? Maybe not, but these were good! They were served with a tiny pile of soft "country fried" apples, which seemed more like a classic baked apple.
We had a bit of a lull in our meal at this point, much to the chagrin of our waiter-- who kept anxiously checking in on us and assuring us the next "course" would be out soon. We didn't mind at all; a few minutes to talk and digest were more than fine! Soon enough, the final vegetable side and meat dishes arrived. The Kabocha Squash ($10) may scare some diners off by it's name and description, but we weren't fooled and loved it just as expected. Kabocha is similar to butternut or acorn squash, and was melon-balled and roasted for perfect caramelization and flavor. The round chunks are tossed with tender kale and baked pumpkin seeds, adding necessary crunch.
The squash was brought out alongside our "Whole Animal," which on this night was a Jidori Chicken ($28). Our waiter once again tried to make an analogy with a well-known meat, comparing the Jidori chicken to Wagyu beef- originating in Japan, and being top-of-the-line in terms of a common meat. In a serving bowl were laid onions, carrots, and fingerling potatoes, and topped with large pieces of the chicken (actually, not a whole animal, but a half!). Breast, leg, thigh, drumstick- all slow-roasted, creating a juicy interior and a bit of a crispy skin. The vegetables underneath benefitted from the chicken fat drippings, and were super soft and coated in gravy.
At this point, we had run out of dishes arriving from the kitchen, and it was time to think about dessert. Usually, after hitting all those high food notes, I would choose to pass, but word on the street was that dessert was not to be missed. We decided to split two of them- each named with a single descriptive word, the "Pumpkin" and the "Chocolate." Our waiter seemed hesitant to recommend the Pumpkin ($8), and told us it wasn't quite as it sounded- the Pumpkin Cake and Ice Cream were accompanied by a bit of PB&J influence, with peanut butter worked into the cake and grape jam also making an appearance.
Thankfully, we happen to love this flavor combination, and were glad we stuck with it. The cake was a good mix of both nuttiness and organic sweetness, and the ice cream tasted more like butter than the advertised "Sour Cream and Pumpkin Swirl." The grape jelly reduction was a great addition, bringing a burst of fruity sweetness to every bite swiped through it. Possibly the best part of the dish-- the pumpkin confit piled a bit lonely on the other side of the plate. Nature's candy? Garces' love of the green garnish also played a role.
The Chocolate ($8) was also a big hit- basically, if you at all like chocolate, you will love this. A rich chocolate cake, oozing melted chocolate with the first bite, sprinkled with rich dark cocoa and accompanied by "chocolate chip" ice cream-- cacao nibs playing the role of chocolate chips and providing a sharper, more bitter flavor. Chocolate soaked figs and a drizzle of olive oil finished the deal- seemingly strange, but a match made in chocolate heaven.
I have somehow picked up the habit of craving a warm coffee drink at the end of huge, decadent meals, and decided to try one last item on the Dessert/Coffee menu. Entitled "Coffee & Donuts," I asked our waiter if my coffee would in fact be accompanied by donuts. The answer-- no. Instead, fresh glazed donuts are soaked in milk overnight, and this milk is then strained and steamed and served with coffee, cafe au lait style. Can I just say it again- Pure. Food. Genius. Or, coffee. Whatever. I signed up immediately, and savored every last sip. With each taste my brain wavered, "Is it coffee? Is it donuts?" It was amazing-- the perfect end to one of the best meals in my recent memory (do I say that a lot..?).
The total bill actually didn't break the bank as much as I expected-- and while the parents were footing the bill, I was glad it wasn't too outrageous. My dad listed off each item that we had ordered, marveling at the range of foods we had experienced in a single meal, "Abalone.. boar.. souffle.. a whole animal!" It was pretty impressive, and we still left many items left to be explored. I'm hoping for a return trip, and very soon.
Cira Centre, Ground Floor
2929 Arch Street