Audrey Claire is a small New American gem in the heart of elegant Rittenhouse Square. Owner Audrey Claire Taichman gives the restaurant its name and also its minimalist elegance, which engulfs guests with bare white walls and palatable heat from the open kitchen. Executive Chef Kiong Banh mixes up traditional New American cuisine, creating simple yet inventive dishes such as Roasted Leg of Lamb with Cranberry-Rosemary Puree. Taichman's conceptual direction coupled with Bahn's insistence on excellence and innovation ensure that Audrey Claire’s atmosphere and menu remain sophisticated without being pretentious, and unique while retaining simplicity and quality.Read More ...
Audrey Claire Taichman, one of Philadelphia's leading restaurateurs, opened Audrey Claire 11 years ago in the heart of Rittenhouse Square, an area that combines old-world historic charm with modern amenities, and that boasts some of the best shops and restaurants in the city. Upon its debut, Audrey Claire was one of Philadelphia's only BYOB's, and was designed with a West Village, New York City feel. Taichman also owns Twenty Manning across the street, a restaurant that is reminiscent of New York's Soho district, making Taichman the only woman in Philadelphia to own two restaurants. Since both restaurants were described as resembling some area of New York City, I was surprised to learn that Taichman is actually from Canada, and that the references to New York are made to portray the progressiveness of her restaurants. Taichman is often described as vivacious with a down-to-earth demeanor, traits that are also very true of her namesake restaurant.
Audrey Claire’s Executive Chef, Kiong Banh, puts an interesting twist on New American cuisine with his eclectic culinary and personal background, having being influenced by his Chinese decent, Vietnam upbringing, and 12-year training with French-Asian chef Philippe Chin. Insisting on only the highest-quality ingredients, Bahn shuns generic delivery trucks and instead visits the Asian market each morning where he personally selects meats, seafood, and unique vegetables such as persimmons, Chinese long beans, and kumquats.
From the southwest corner of 20th and Spruce, it took me a moment to realize that the small, unmarked restaurant with a plain exterior on the corner was Audrey Claire. The outdoor seating area, open when the weather permits, unfortunately was not set up the night I visited. I snuck a glimpse at the warmly-lit and filled, but not crowded interior from outside, thanks to large open windows on both street sides of the restaurant. When my guest and I entered the restaurant, there was no formal host or hostess to greet us, and instead, I got the attention of one of the servers, all of whom were dressed in all white. She promptly seated us at a prime two-top, one of four tables lining the Spruce street window. A bigger group of about six was seated to our right, and another lucky party at one of the tables right next to the open kitchen. The tables were close enough together that you could eavesdrop on a conversation if you so wanted, but far enough apart that you didn’t need to censor your own.
As I sat down and glanced about the restaurant, I noticed that it was all one big room, including the open kitchen, which is separated from the dining area by only a small wall. The walls, like the servers uniforms, are all white, and completely bare. There is a minimalist elegance going on at Audrey Claire, with the thick dark brown wooden tables adding to an air of warm invitation.
Since Audrey Claire is BYOB, there are no wine or drink options aside from bottled water, soda, and coffee. A waitress was with us almost immediately to open the bottle of South African Cabernet that we brought with us. Audrey Claire does not use formal stemmed wine glasses; rather, they provide clear water glasses for guests who bring wine, again adding to the casual yet stylish air of the restaurant. Our waitress diligently brought us some ice water and a half loaf of soft white bread accompanied by thyme-infused sesame seed olive oil, and the menus.
Audrey Claire's menu is separated into two essential categories: “smaller dishes” and “bigger dishes.” The smaller dishes section is then divided up into three subsections of grilled flat breads, antipasta/mezze, and “small dishes;” while the bigger dishes section lists about eight different entree choices including the daily special. One flat bread in particular that immediately caught my eye—more than the Spicy Hummus and House-Cured Salmon, or Pear, Gorgonzola and Walnut options—was the Braised Short Rib and Fontina Cheese Flat Bread topped with truffle oil. I asked the waitress what she thought about this dish, just to make sure, and she mentioned that while it was delectable, it was quite rich, and should probably be split between two people. Although the vibe of the restaurant is casual, the service is extremely professional, as the waiters and waitresses proved themselves to be extremely knowledgeable, with helpful opinions about the menu. My companion and I took our waitress's advice and ordered the Short Rib Flat Bread along with a lighter small dish of Grilled Octopus Over Greens to start.
I was impressed when our first course arrived in under ten minutes, despite the fact that every table in the place was occupied. The Short Rib and Fontina Cheese Flat Bread was everything our waitress told us it would be: delicious, but very heavy. The braised short rib was tender, pulling apart with even the lightest touch. The pungently meaty, almost gamey taste of the short rib was balanced nicely by the mild creaminess of the melted Fontina cheese. The first thing that hit my taste buds when biting into the flat bread was the mild yet unmistakably distinctive buttery taste of the generously drizzled truffle oil. The flat bread itself maintained the density of a pita with the consistency of a pizza crust. This flat bread turned out to be the catch-22 of our meal, in that its fault was being too good, and therefore too filling.
The Grilled Octopus Over Greens, as it was called on the menu, was really more of a Greek salad topped with about four or five pieces of grilled octopus served in a shallow white bowl and garnished with parsley. The greens were a crisp romaine mix, with red onions, red tomatoes, scooped out (no seeds) cucumbers, and a high quality Feta cheese with lemon vinaigrette. The octopus was tender, not chewy, and therefore safe to deem fresh. The dish was very refreshing and appropriate for a first course to whet the appetite, but I was a bit disappointed by the small amount of octopus, and felt a bit misguided by the menu description, which seemed to promise more of a dish than a salad.
Since I heard great things about the freshness of Chef Bahn's seafood selections, my guest and I both ordered fish for our main meals. I ordered the Grilled Ahi Tuna with Pomegranate Molasses, which the waitress noted as the most popular dish on the menu. My guest ordered the Grilled Atlantic Salmon with Mashed Potatoes and Asparagus in a cream leek sauce. Both dishes were artfully plated on thin, asymmetrical white plates.
The Ahi tuna was accompanied by two small, triangular polenta cakes and simple haricots verts, which were peppered with thinly sliced, sweet, pan-roasted shallots. The pomegranate molasses was ladled over the tuna and a bit thinner than I expected. The sauce showcased the natural taste and grainy texture of the pomegranate, while being subtly thickened and sweetened by the molasses. The tuna itself was cooked medium/medium rare, rather than a more traditional seared rare, causing the fish to be a bit dry. However, the combination of the lean, almost-fruity tuna with the pomegranate, the perfectly seasoned polenta cakes, and the crisp green beans was delightful.
The Atlantic salmon was nothing short of decadent, plated on top of three jumbo asparagus over smooth mashed potatoes and covered in cream leek sauce. The salmon was cooked all the way through without compromising any of its juicy tenderness. The cream leek sauce that smothered the fish was almost the same consistency as the thin, creamy mashed potatoes, and the mild-yet-pronounced flavor of the leeks brightened up the entire dish. The asparagus were soft but retained a nice crispness, while their beautiful green color against the white sauce and potatoes and the coral salmon created an artful presentation.
Our waitress gave us ample time to relax and digest after our meal before inquiring about dessert. Although we were more than satiated from our meal, the desserts sounded too good to pass up. The dessert menu is not printed, but actually written on a blackboard in the rear of the restaurant, and our waitress informed us that they do this because their dessert menu is always changing. Out of three options—vanilla bean crème brûlée, chocolate cake with cream and berries, and vanilla rice pudding with golden raisins—we decided to split the pudding, because it sounded the most interesting. And it was. The consistency of the pudding was thick and smooth, as if the rice was creamed and blended in. The golden raisins provided a burst of sweet tartness that brightened up the mild vanilla flavor of the pudding. It was a truly delightful end to our evening.
A testament to the excellence of Audrey Claire was our spotlessly clean plates. The food was not only delicious, but fresh, interesting, and refreshingly innovative. Although with so much to choose from and not enough stomach space to store it all, you'll have to visit Audrey Claire more than once to experience all its splendor. I know I will.
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