Iron Chef José Garces is hard at work putting the finishing touches on one of the most anticipated openings of the spring: Volver, a Champagne and caviar bar and performance kitchen in the lobby of the Kimmel Center.
Garces has spent the past 15 years eating, traveling and cooking. Volver, a Spanish word meaning "to return," is the culmination of his travels — "a place where I can demonstrate my interpretation of some of the best meals that have been etched in my mind," said Garces during a sneak peek on Tuesday.
Those meals, presumably some of the best in the world, will inspire a 12- to 16-course tasting menu five nights a week — one menu, no à la carte. The price is still to be determined, but Garces promises that it will be comparable to other tasting menus in the city. (Marc Vetri offers his tasting menus for about $150 a person.)
With Garces at the helm, those who can flip the bill will surely enjoy the live show. The 40-seat dining room wraps tightly around the "stage" — a fully equipped, custom built, performance kitchen — the island suite.
It's the Ferrari of restaurant equipment, he joked.
"We have a smoker, a pressure fryer — which I'm planning on doing my version of the Colonel's fried chicken," he said. "I got a lot of heat for getting a pressure fryer for one item, but that's kind of the specificity of the cuisine."
Not just dinner and a show
The Champagne and caviar bar will be slightly more accessible with seating for about 60. The lounge is flanked by a floor-to-ceiling wine unit, with the capacity to hold 1,200 bottles, including 40 to 50 varieties of sparkling wine.
"Each area has different textures, patterns, and offers a different experiences, whether you're looking out from the bar or out to the street," said Marguerite Rodgers, restaurant designer to Philly's culinary stars. "The people sitting behind the bar can see the space and have a different experience than on the lower level — so we're trying to create little worlds within it, too."
Rodgers has been designing the city's most prominent eateries for decades now and is most well known for her work at Rouge, Stephen Starr's Striped Bass and Neil Stein's Avenue B.
Most prominently featured amongst the art is a 10-foot by 20-foot textile mosaic by Philadelphia artist Conrad Booker.
"What I call 'Quiet Rain' was inspired by concentric circles and waves and a variety and shades of blue that have all been hand dyed using burlap and then cut," said Booker.
He used more than 4,000 fiber buttons and over 200 yards of burlap to create invitingly rustic embroidery.
It's this thread-work that seems to play out throughout the theme of Volver, the return: the mixing of wood and metals, of performance art and cuisine.
Volver embodies indulgence and elitism. It is a destination — at best, a 16-course meal prepared by one of the nation's top culinary talents; at worst, a stop off for one of the world's most extravagant "small bites" — caviar.
This is not a pre-show burger and basket of fries. So, will theatre-goers be able to stop in during intermission to scarf down something quick?
"We're not scarfing anything down," said Garces.
All part of the plan
The idea to make the Kimmel more inviting took form in 2009 with a "Master Plan" that also included the Hamilton Gardens, which opened last year, explained Kimmel's president and CEO, Anne Ewers.
The Kimmel expanded the space four feet out into the street — part of the performance kitchen that will give passers-by and diners the chance to cross gazes with the Iron Chef.
It's intimate and will surely be one of the toughest tickets in town after the doors officially open.
Volver was initially slated for a September '13 debut. Conceptualization and construction has been in the works for years now. Restaurant openings generally run behind schedule. While it's had more than its share of delays, the performance kitchen and caviar bar are almost ready for the spotlight.
Any opening on the Avenue of the Arts is a challenge, for sure — but staying open is the true test of sustainability.
The Avenue has its stalwarts; take Capital Grill, and Sotto Varalli for example. And some recent successful additions like Spraga by Kevin Spraga. But it also has a checkered history of retention, as more than a few restaurants have failed to thrive over the years.
"Where Capital Grill was, it was called Heritage," said Karen Lewis, executive director of the Avenue of the Arts, Inc. "That didn't survive. There was also Avenue B."
And let us not forget Ted's Montana Grill.
In the early days, say 2000 – 2001, you'd hear developers talk a lot about critical mass, but prior to the rise of all the residences like Symphony House, 777, The Lofts at 640 and Residences at the Ritz Carlton, the numbers just weren't there, said Lewis.
"As the Kimmel Center came on line, we started to see that critical mass. And I think it was then that we became a more vibrant destination for dining," said Lewis.
The Avenue now attracts more than a million people annually, said Lewis, and its venues employ an estimated 10,000 full time workers.