As I was reading Craig LaBan's review of Restaurant Taquet, that old Groucho Marx joke came to mind: "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." Actually, with apologies to Groucho, it was a paraphrase of his pun that loomed prominently in my thoughts: "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have Craig LaBan as a member."
I say this because Mr. LaBan, the much-feared restaurant critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, always seems a bit nonplussed by a touch of class within restaurant precincts. And his critique of Taquet is an excellent case in point. At the very outset, he describes the restaurant as "very good, but clubby," and then goes on to dwell on the young hostess's less than enthusiastic reaction to his friend's jeans jacket. Well, with all due respect, his friend should have known better. And the fact that he didn't is more a reflection on Mr. LaBan and his dinner companions than it is on the establishment's staff.
There is no question that Restaurant Taquet represents a certain Old World charm and civility... and this, for whatever reason, seems to offend Mr. LaBan's delicate proletarian sensibilities: "The cricket club instincts here die hard... And Taquet is about the closest one gets to a public country club. Its posh main room is dressed in tweeds and silver hair. Its long bar is well-stocked for martinis and classic spirits. And its breezy terrace seats ring the Tudor Revival façade of the century-old hotel with a clientele modeling the latest Lilly Pulitzer trunk show."
One often receives the distinct impression that Mr. LaBan would be just as happy as a clam munching his way through life in grubby cutoffs and tattered T-shirt. Fortunately, however, there are restaurants that do attempt to maintain certain standards of dress and decorum; and his significantly less than subtle sarcasm with regard to such establishments does him absolutely no credit. Interestingly enough, my wife and I have dined at Taquet on numerous occasions and have yet to encounter the stodgy, straitlaced scenario that Mr. LaBan seems to find so offputtingly offensive.
One thing of a certainty, however: Chef de Cuisine Clark Gilbert's lively, contemporary French fare is anything but stodgy. His decidedly innovative touch is a feast for the eye as well as the palate. The bill of fare changes with regularity, but here are a number of presentations we've sampled during several recent visits...
Among the appetizers, the wild mushroom ragoût ($14.00) is a standout. The ragoût is incredibly rich, intensely flavorful, and is set on a pillow of crisp Parmesan polenta. The country duck pâté ($10.00) is also quite sustaining. Two large slabs recline on a tangle of mixed greens and are companioned by the usual accoutrements... but it is a luscious onion marmalade that proves to be the perfect culinary catalyst.
The salads here - definitely not your typical greenery - also make excellent starters. The roasted beet and haricots verts salad ($12.00), for example, is presented in the form of a Napoleon. A foundation of tender diced red beets is crowned with creamy goat cheese on a crisp toast and then, in turn with haricots verts cut on the diagonal and tiara of mixed greens. The presentation is then surrounded by an exquisite hazelnut vinaigrette. A special salad of mixed greens ($13.00) is embellished with candied pecans, slices of poached pear, and generous morsels of Maytag bleu cheese. The finishing touch is a gentle tossing with just the proper amount of a subtle strawberry vinaigrette.
Interestingly enough, appetizers are quite generous... a bit too generous, in my opinion, but entrées are perfectly proportioned. And among the main courses, piscatorial pleasures abound... A special halibut filet ($30.00) is beautifully pan seared and served on a sumptuous seabed of sautéed maitake mushrooms and English peas and surrounded by a sensuous pool of a saffron, tomato, white truffle jus. A moist, slender filet of rainbow trout ($20.00) is adorned with haricots verts, toasted almonds, and an extraordinary lemon brown butter. The filet of black cod ($28.00) is presented on a ragoût of artichokes, potatoes, and fava beans, and consummated with a superb saffron herb broth.
I also highly recommend the Barnegat Light sea scallops ($28.00). The five bivalves are pristinely fresh and marvelously meaty. They are pan-seared and set on a pillow of wild mushroom Bolognese. The Bolognese is remarkably rich yet earthy, and proves to be the perfect counterpoint to the creaminess of the melt-in-your-mouth bivalves.
Among more carnivorous pursuits, the grilled Nebraska center-cut filet mignon is complemented by a heady cabernet wine reduction ($29.00) and the braised Pennsylvania veal cheeks are sided with a silky parsnip purée and sautéed spinach ($28.00).
Desserts, of course, continue the kitchen's excellent work. The rice pudding ($8.00) may sound plebeian; however, it is anything but. Placed on a slice of fresh pineapple, the pudding is delicate and creamy of disposition and infused with coconut, ginger, and lemon grass. The crowning touch is a wafer-thin slice of caramelized pineapple. And confirmed chocoholics will find it difficult to pass up the silky bittersweet chocolate mousse companioned by a hazelnut crunch bar ($8.00). For a somewhat lighter denouement, be sure to sample either the fresh fruit salad with coulis ($7.00) or the assortment of delicious homemade ice creams ($8.00).
The wine list is extensive - with a preponderance of French vintages - and, given the machinations of Pennsylvania's Liquor Control Board and the restaurant's hefty markup, quite pricey. Still, if you're wallet is able to stand the strain, there are a number of oenological treasures to be had.
There is no question that an evening at Restaurant Taquet is not an inexpensive proposition. For that special occasion, however, it is surely a dining experience that will not disappoint.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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