Petruce et al. puts its 7-foot wood-burning oven to exemplary use throughout its attention-grabbing menu.
If one of your dining companions at Petruce et al. is a woman who has enjoyed shopping at some point in the past 20 years or so at Suzanne Roberts — the boutique that previously occupied this prime Walnut Street location — then she may get a look on her face that is equal parts cognitive dissonance and nostalgia. But don’t worry. After the first hunks of the new tenant’s sourdough bread are torn apart and slathered with a cheekily Gallic-inspired butter studded with strands of watermelon radish, thoughts of dresses past are sure to be consumed by anticipation of courses to come.
That is as it should be, because Petruce et al., which opened in March, will command your full attention in the time it takes to walk through the handsomely appointed, light-filled front bar area — where those former dress display windows now filter Center City daylight and, in the case of our visit, rain-slicked reflections of headlights — and into the dining room arranged around the open kitchen.
In a city suddenly replete with them, Petruce et al.’s open workspace sets itself apart by its oven, a 7-foot-wide wood-burning behemoth, and the accompanying hand-welded Argentine-style grill from the Tesla of grill manufacturers, Michigan-based Grillworks. Watching the kitchen staff — helmed by brothers Jonathan and Justin Petruce — gliding around the oven and each other, working the grill’s flywheel, tending to plates and ingredients both seen and obscured, lent an immediacy we didn’t know was missing from meals brought out from behind traditional kitchen doors.
The brothers, veterans of late, lamented destinations like Daniel Stern’s Rae and David Katz’s MéMé, put both their culinary and art school backgrounds to effective use in their menus.
The plural is necessary: Even though the Petruces’ offerings only fill one side of an 8½ x 11-inch piece of paper, a quick scroll though their Facebook page and Instagram posts reveals that the date stamped at the top of each menu is there for a reason. According to Tim Kweeder, the restaurant’s general manager and wine director — and the brothers’ “et al.” partner — the menu does change somewhat on a daily basis based on what their purveyors bring over.
That said, there are a few items that seem to have become standard offerings, including a chicken liver appetizer. How good was this little crock of offal, roasted and then whipped into mousseline airiness with Madeira and glossed with an apple aspic? Evidently so good that my dining companion asked if I could stop making muffled grunts of pleasure after each bite. When spread on that same just-charred sourdough with some pickled mustard seeds to offset the richness, this could hold its own against any goose or duck liver mousse in the region.
The bread was also useful for scraping up the residue left inside the miniature terracotta casserole that held cauliflower roasted to crisp-tender in the oven before being strewn with almonds and slivers of brick-red Calabrian chiles and a drizzle of grapes and brown butter. The nuttiness of the cauliflower playing with the almonds and enhanced by the nod to beurre noisette, the French term for brown butter that literally means “hazelnut butter,” showcased a kitchen that not only knows the classics, but how to have fun with them as well.
Like everything else we had at Petruce et al., the sweetbreads came out of the hearth. Justin Petruce, who was responsive to questions from diners on the evening we were there, said that on any given week, the hearth will burn through half a cord of wood. For those unfamiliar with wood-burning ovens, that translates to 64 cubic feet of primarily oak logs stacked 8 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet, weighing somewhere around 2,700 pounds, give or take a few trees. A week.
This greener form of combustion — according to The Green Trust, “ … the combustion of wood for energy production is essentially carbon dioxide neutral when the normal forest regeneration period is considered. When wood combustion replaces the consumption of fossil fuels, however, the net reduction in carbon dioxide release is almost immediate” — unlocked a new depth of flavor in the sweetbreads. Cloaked by a heat-wilted leaf of Brussels sprout plant (not to be confused with the much smaller leaves of the actual sprout — that would make for a very small portion of sweetbreads) and flanked by caramelized sunchokes and honey cap mushrooms, the 1,000˚-plus oven coaxed out an extra layer from the dish. If umami is the fifth flavor — after sweet, sour, salty and bitter — then maybe this is the sixth. Every plate that comes out of Petruce et al.’s oven seems to be kissed by the smoke, not overcome by it. For anyone who has only known the classic, pan-roasted rendition of crispy-edged sweetbreads, both the creamily dense texture and added flavor of this version will be a revelation.
As will the mackerel entrée, if it is available. The brothers favor fish with higher oil content like mackerel and bluefish, and they put it on the menu whenever they can get ones that meet their standards. The brilliant white fillet we enjoyed came with sweetly firm baby beets and more of that chicken liver, which soon dissolved into an earthy sauce that amplified the clean, saline meatiness of the fish. If more people could taste what a skilled hand can do with mackerel, it wouldn’t be held in such disregard.
While I longed to see what that grill could do to one of the restaurant’s dry-aged strip loins, we went for another rarely seen dish instead. Thick slices of veal breast came out of the oven bubbling and crackling from the thin, fatty layer that self-basted the meat. The cut, which is the same as a brisket on a fully grown cow, can be unforgiving in the wrong hands — it needs to cook low and slow in order to break down the cartilage and fat that become so pronounced in brisket. Here, the juicily yielding meat was brightened by generous dollops of Romesco, the Catalan purée of peppers, nuts and garlic. Musky tendrils of maitake mushrooms and grill-softened leeks served as exemplary sauce-mopping aides.
With so many flavors competing for the palate’s attention, it would be a daunting challenge to find a beverage that could not only stand up to the food but also complement it. Kweeder, a veteran of Moore Brothers Wines in New Jersey and the man who assembled a.kitchen’s acclaimed wine list, is more than up to the task. He has chosen a rotating list of authentic ciders from Spain, Germany, France and the United States as well as a range of natural-production varietals from organic and biodynamic vintners, and is constantly talking to tables to find out what they ordered to eat and what they like to drink so he can make recommendations from the fairly priced lists. In addition to a flight of three lingeringly dry French ciders, we enjoyed an Ol’ Yeller from the cocktail list, which featured genever, orgeat and smoked lemon bitters among its seven ingredients. It tasted like what a pisco sour wants to be when it grows up.
Our favorite recommendation of Kweeder’s was the one we never would have chosen: a lambrusco from Baldini in Emilia-Romagna. Having only experienced the overly sweet and carbonated versions of lambrusco mass-produced by Cella and Riunite, this sparklingly robust wine that fizzed gently on the tongue and went together so well with both entrees was a pleasant surprise — a reaction Kweeder says he gets from many who try it.
Kweeder’s knowledgeable hand shows in one of the deepest selections of digestifs — 17 on a recent dessert menu — in the region. Safe driving protocol took precedence, so we consoled ourselves instead with an excellent cup of Rival Brothers Revolver coffee to accompany dessert.
It is possible to make an incredibly Jewish meal out of dinner here: a chopped liver variation for the appetizer, a veal breast for the entrée and apple cake for dessert. Of course, the version served at Petruce et al. has a few more accouterments than what you get at home. A dollop of vanilla ice cream and shards of cinnamon streusel formed islands surrounded by a caramel sauce that clung to each forkful of moist cake.
The chocolate torta was another impressive piece of engineering, with dark chocolate ganache sandwiched between two thin layers of genoise then given a comfort-food tweak with a confetti of housemade caramel corn and streaks of marshmallow to help everything stick together.
I would return to Petruce et al. simply because their menu is larded with so many things I didn’t get to try the first time around — roasted carrots with bagna cauda, a sweet potato appetizer that is reputed to be among the best starters in the city, those strips, and the “unusual suspects portion” of Kweeder’s after-dinner drink list that includes a Pine Barrens single malt whiskey. But winter is coming, and I will go back sooner rather than later. There are few places I would rather be on a cold, windy night than sitting at the counter across from that oak-fueled hearth, enjoying its primal glow as my food gets imparted with that sixth flavor.