[ review ]
"You know, I've never tried marijuana."
Three glasses of Grenache in, the sixtysomething wasn't holding back. She wobbled on her stool and dropped her bag. "Am I missing out?" She turned to her friends. "We should try it some time."
She was sitting next to me at the oddly proportioned bar at M Restaurant in the Morris House Hotel. The stools are too short, the counter is too tall and it's next to impossible to eat here comfortably unless you're Pau Gasol. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.
Why? Two words: Michael Caspi.
You probably don't know the name, but here's a list of the people who do: Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Thomas Keller. Caspi has worked for all of them. The 29-year-old Jerusalem native's last stop before coming to Philly this year was Per Se, and the New York destination restaurant's cerebral playfulness is evident in his cooking at M. The velvety "polenta" is actually a slow reduction of sweet heirloom corn juice thickened with Parmesan. (A newer version uses red kuri squash.) Instead of shrimp cocktail, there's "Shrimp and a Cocktail," crustaceans roasted with kaffir lime and paired with a lemongrass vodka fizz. Most of what I tried was good enough that even if you've never gotten high, like my friend at the bar, you'll leave M feeling all tingly.
And maybe a little paranoid. Behind 18th-century wrought-iron gates, the enchanted garden area has always been M's main attraction. But with outdoor dining on its way out for the season, what will happen to the already-thin crowds?
Here's hoping they'll retreat inside, where, during my visits, white cloths and ivory walls gave the narrow space a sense of drab elegance, the kind of place Dr. Faye Miller would come after being dumped by Don Draper. Fortunately, renovations are under way that have colored the accent walls crimson, and replaced the faux-vintage French movie posters with mirrors. This, plus the planned windows on the Eighth Street side should give the dining room the fresh air Caspi's presence has given the kitchen.
I could be marooned on the Siberian tundra and I still wouldn't turn down a bowl of his gazpacho. The experience is almost mystical, moving through layers of apple and celery root and quince. After marinating the first two ingredients in Champagne vinegar, Caspi purées them with cooked quince and olive oil, portions the mix into bowls and freezes them. Once set, a hot apple gelatin is poured over the frozen gazpacho, forming a thin veil of gelée under which the soup re-liquefies in the fridge. You might wonder how the sprigs of peppy micro cilantro and quenelle of apple-celery marmalade seem to float on the gazpacho's surface, since visually, you can't tell there's a gelée on top. The first spoonful delivers a textural surprise of solid and liquid. I could see this starter costing $12 elsewhere. Caspi charges $7.
You know on Project Runway, when they talk about making clothes look expensive? That's what Caspi does with food. Each plate is a composition, and though they can get a little busy, I can't help but admire the intricate work each represents. The tamarind-lacquered short ribs could have done without one component, but which? Keep the stiletto carrots that added a bit of crunch to the plate. And definitely keep the plank of smoky bacon "melba" propped up on the rib like a see-saw. It would have to be the stripe of celeriac cream, its cold temperature more distracting than delicious.
The sweetbreads faced the same issue. It takes Caspi and his crew a week to transform the glands into crispy, creamy wonders, and mere seconds to bury their glory under lots of stuff, including (but not limited to) three preparations of parsnip (tuille, panna cotta and powder), arugula cream and Romanesco broccoli, the cauliflower cousin whose spiraling pyramid heads, in baby form, dotted the dish like scale-model ziggurats.
But Caspi is also capable of keeping things simple. There's also a show-stopping salad that features more than 25 greens (and purples) from three local farms. Dewy with peach vinaigrette, the leaves came piled one by one, then showered with bacon and brioche crumbs for texture. The juicy, well-seasoned roast chicken shouldn't be missed, either. It's served with a slice of sausage made from thigh meat and chicken mousse. Rich, funky and dripping with mustard jus, it's no wonder Caspi seems really proud of it.
Outsourced desserts, on the other hand, he does not seem proud of. He shouldn't be. Tiered white-and-dark-chocolate mousse was a serviceable bore, and the currant tart might have been tasty were it not ice-cold. Caspi is looking for a pastry chef, but for a guy who worked (albeit briefly) at New York bread mecca Sullivan Street Bakery, he should be able to put out something acceptable in the interim.
In the meantime, there's cheese. Vivacious manager Hannah Howard (Caspi's better half) curates the selection, showcased in a handsome wood-and-glass cabinet at the far end of the dining room. The cheeses are lit like movie stars, and Howard removes and unwraps each with the care of a maternity nurse. Glass vessels on the shelf above the cheeses cradle condiments: musky lavender honey, pickled apricots, peach mostarda, sticky dates. Howard knows which goes with what, an intuition that extends to the rest of the smart, polished staff.
I drizzled the spoonful of lavender honey over a nutty tomme from the French Pyrenees and dug in. It's a different kind of high at M, but one that's no less addicting.