It’s Restaurant Week in Philadelphia, and Joe invited me out to dinner for a Date Night (which is something we old married folks like to do every so often). Django has a great reputation as one of the best BYOBs in the city– and in Philly, the BYOB capital of the east coast, that’s saying something. They’re part of the Buy Fresh, Buy Local alliance as well, so we headed to 4th and South, bottle of cabernet sauvignon in hand, to give them a try.
We arrived half an hour early for our 9:30 reservation and were seated almost immediately. The dining room is small and cozy, with a retro ’30s-style look: the napkins and curtains were reproductions of ’30s patterns, and the furniture is simple. A tiny, clean stove with a few colorful, old-fashioned teakettles occupies one corner. Servers, all female when we were there, wear simple, vaguely retro cotton prints as well.
Unlike some participating restaurants, which try to tempt you to order from the regular menu instead of the Restaurant Week $30 prix fixe, Django is serving only the prix fixe, with five or six options in each course. Most of the entrees were engineered to showcase a couple of dishes, which is a great way for the chef to show off an inventive menu to diners and tempt them to come back for more– which is, of course, the point of Restaurant Week.
For an appetizer, Joe ordered the charred baby octupus with “BBQ bacon” (a wonderfully smoked slice of pork belly), edamame, avocado, soy and truffle vinaigrette. A coworker of his had tried it and couldn’t stop raving. The octopus was delicious– tender and flavorful, not chewy as you might expect– but the real highlight was the small cube of pork, with pink, smoky meat and crispy skin. The pool of vinaigrette that topped off the dish was good enough that we soaked up every last drop with our piping-hot flowerpot bread.
My appetizer was the crispy brie with verjus macerated red grapes, sweet & sour sultana puree, and tender baby greens. When it arrived, I was surprised to realize that the breaded, fried brie wedge looked just like the fried mozzarella I used to live on in high school. The flavor, however, was something else entirely. Where the mozzarella of my youth was generally heavy, greasy, and served with sweet marinara sauce, this brie was light and crisp, its flavors brought to life by the tangy sultana sauce and sweet grapes. The sauce also served as a dressing for the mini-green salad, which cut against the richness of the cheese. Very nice.
We waited quite a while for our entrees, with our bottle of wine to keep us company. When they came, though, we were very happy.
My entree was a crispy piece of smoked rainbow trout with sweet potato spaetzle, lobster mushrooms, smoked cipollini onions, wilted chard and cranberry brown butter. It was beautifully presented in a small tower, with the chard on the bottom, mushrooms, onions and spaetzle in the middle, and the fish perched on top, with a square hole cut into the middle out of which bloomed a little flower of red-tinged mushrooms. The flavors were strong and intensely smoky– the smokiness could probably be taken down a notch to allow the cranberry butter’s flavors to shine through. The mushrooms, onions and spaetzle functioned almost like a stew, thrown together in an autumnal mix. Some of the spaetzle had caramelized a bit against the side of the dish they were cooked in, and they added deep, rich flavor. I felt like I was eating freshly caught trout at a bonfire out in the woods somewhere– the flavors were so evocative. We had wondered if red wine with trout was a good idea, but the flavors were so rich and earthy that the combination made perfect sense.
Joe ordered a Jewish-influenced dish that showcased three items at once: little towers of prime hanger steak sitting on squares of potato kugel, brisket and kabocha squash tsimmes, and zucchini and pine nuts. The tsimmes is a stew, filling and intensely sweet from the ripe squash and the tomato base. The kugel, scented with rosemary, was a savory complement to perfectly medium-rare bites of steak. Both dishes were seasonal in a way that made us realize it’s almost October in Pennsylvania. Lovely.
Desserts were another difficult choice. I went with the chocolate almond terrine, which was served over Frangelico-laced ice cream with an almond nougat chocolate sauce and crunchy praline crumbs. It was incredible– totally permeated by almond flavor and very satisfying for a chocoholic like me. (Yes, you heard me right, I’m addicted to chocohol.) Joe ordered the goat cheese cake with spiced pumpkin purée, pepita crunch and Vermont molasses. The pepita crunch is a candy brittle made with pumpkin seeds, and it was a little difficult to eat but delicious. The cheesecake was rich and filling, with just a hint of goat cheese’s characteristic funkiness. The pumpkin-molasses combination brought in another seasonal element, and the creamy cake combined with hard pepita crunch made for an interesting combination of textures.
Our service was capable and competent: the servers are professionals (as opposed to perky college-student types) who answered our questions knowledgably, kept our water glasses full and generally took good care of us. They clearly know the menu well and, while I didn’t have any special diet requests, I felt like a gluten-free diner would be in good hands here. Several of the dishes appear to be gluten-free, and I think a kosher or dairy-free diner would be quite happy as well. There are plenty of vegetarian options which appear to be as creative and thoughtful as the rest of the menu: I nearly ordered the vegetarian risotto with truffled porcini froth.
We left Django full, satisfied, and ready to go back: Restaurant Week succeeded in drawing us in. If you’re looking for a seasonal, locally sourced, and well-thought-out dining experience, this is a great place to find it.
[where: 526 S 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147]