by Len Lear
Jon Myerow, who ran Pollo Rosso, a terrific restaurant in the Chestnut Hill Hotel in the 1990s for eight years, has become a wine-beer-cheese maven in the past decade at his two Tria restaurants in center city — 123 S. 18th St. in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood and 1137 Spruce St. in Washington Square West. It’s been said that loitering is encouraged at both locations, usually filled with Generation Y-ers in an inexhaustible tango with the small plates, wine, cheese, beer, charcuterie and chocolates.
Anyone who runs restaurants is used to flames, but the hottest fires make the strongest steel. So Myerow and his two partners in Tria, Michael McCaulley and David Kwass, reached out across the Schuylkill River and the Walnut Street Bridge last October to light another fire with their third wine bar, Biba (from “bibere,” the Latin word that means “to drink”), a cozy, small Tria cousin at 3131 Walnut St. in the Left Bank apartments.
The property, formerly a coffee shop, combines a farmhouse aura with millwork cut from a century-old redwood water tower with an industrial vibe, e.g., the stunning glass wine-storage wall humidor in the rear. There are 32 seats, many at a communal table in the middle of the room (“in a totally non-hippie, awesome way,” according to one blogger) and others at the bar, a single table or at drink rails, and there are convenient hooks under the tables that hold your coats. There are 26 wines by the glass and about eight artisinal beers by the bottle. All of the seats are bar stools, so it is advisable not to lean back. There are plans to build a 12-seat outdoor patio as well.
One amazing signature must-try dish is the gratin of truffled egg with potato, wild mushrooms, spinach and fontina cheese and grilled crostini ($7), served in a hot skillet. A super combination of textures and flavors. I’d eat that dish off a flip-flop. And the bacon-roasted butternut squash with goat cheese, honey almonds and pumpkinseed oil ($5) put the “you better give this back to me after you taste it” look on my wife’s face.
The cheeses are prepared and served in a way that certainly isn’t fussy or overcomplicated. Just familiar flavors that sang in true harmony, two such examples being the rustic, homespun Westfield Capri goat cheese from Massachusetts ($6) and the ultra-creamy La Tur goat/sheep/cow blend that was simply moo-velous ($8.50). The cheeses are served with freshly made red beet jam, spiced pear butter, cherries and crusty bread slices. The spiced pear butter reverberated in waves of heat and sweetness. The wines by the glass are all under $10, which is good, but the portions are absurdly small, which is not.
You may wind up sitting at the communal table. Very chummy. At our drink rail, I overheard one conversation with Penn undergraduates. One funny wiseguy who is obviously working on his MBA asked rhetorically, “Why should the children in China get all of the good factory jobs, and our American kids can’t get any?” The guy obviously collects one-liners like so many seashells. He also said, “When my friend Charlie got down on one knee to propose marriage to his girlfriend, it was the first time in many years that he was down on one knee and not being tasered by the police.”
We expected to have extreme difficulty finding a parking spot near Biba, but the opposite turned out to be the case. We got a space right across the street for $1 in a Kiosk, and there were plenty of other empty spaces within one block. The charming Biba manager Sean Faeth said that after a basketball game at the Palestra or other major campus event, parking spaces are a lot harder to come by.
Myerow, holder of an MBA from Dartmouth College, became director of operations at Neil Stein’s late Avenue B after leaving Pollo Rosso and before opening the first Tria. He still lives in nearby Lafayette Hill.
When asked a while ago by this reporter if his goal is to have a chain of Trias across the country, like McDonald’s, Myerow laughed. “It took me three years to get the second Tria, so at this rate I don’t think we’ll quite wind up like McDonald’s … Our philosophy here is straightforward. Without the distractions of cocktails or any hard liquor, we can focus on truly exceptional fermented products that are crafted by passionate artisans.”
A self-described “beer geek,” Myerow also runs the Tria Fermentation School at 1601 Walnut St., the city’s first institute dedicated to the study of wine, cheese and beer. Students are able to learn while eating and drinking the syllabus. Classes are taught by winemakers, cheese makers, brewmasters and authors.
“Whether you’re a beginner or an industry professional, these classes will help you to better understand and appreciate your love of wine, cheese and beer,” said Myerow. (Fermentation is the chemical process used for the manufacture of products such as alcohol, wine and cheese through the action of yeasts, mold or bacteria. It improves the flavor, aroma and/or quality of the end product.) Tria Fermentation School has been chosen as one of “America’s 50 Most Amazing Wine Experiences” by Food & Wine magazine.
For more information about the school, call 215-972-7076 or 215-972-8742, or visit www.triacafe.com
Biba has lots of special wine nights, where you get to sample and compare different types of wines, and on Monday through Thursday, 10 p.m. to midnight, all wines are $6 a glass. For more information, call 215-222-BIBA or visit www.bibawinebar.com