by Barbara Sherf
Rated this January as number one on Philadelphia Magazine’s list of “Best of Philly” restaurants, the 5-year-old Blackfish in Conshohocken and its owner/chef Charles “Chip” Roman are bringing a similar New American cuisine to Chestnut Hill Friday, March 18, with Mica, named for the shiny minerals in the stone on the front of the building at 8609 Germantown Ave.
Roman, 31, of Lafayette Hill, is not resting on his laurels after receiving the number one (out of 50) spots on the “Best of Philly” restaurant list. On a recent snowy morning, he met with an architect and his new landlord to have the former ¡Cuba! Restaurant, located in the 8600 retrofitted for the new restaurant. (¡Cuba! closed its doors Jan. 10.) Roman told us that he originally planned to call it Stone House for the building on the grounds of Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill, where Roman attended Montessori school and where his two young children attend pre-school.
Blackfish, a small BYOB, was the first restaurant Roman owned and operated after graduating from Drexel University’s Culinary Arts program. He coupled that program with a degree in business. Working under acclaimed chefs Marc Vetri of Vetri restaurant, among others, and Georges Perrier of Le Bec-Fin (and several others), Roman started Charles Roman Catering in 2004 before opening Blackfish three years ago.
It was quickly named “Best New Restaurant in the Suburbs” by Philadelphia Magazine. Located at 119 Fayette St. in Conshohocken, Blackfish combines Roman’s passion for fresh ingredients with a seafood-centered, American cuisine with French influences.
Roman was at the new restaurant on a recent weekday morning, after dropping off his children Charlie, 4, and Caroline 3, at Norwood’s Stone House, a routine he conducts five days a week. He and his wife, Amanda, also have an 8-month old daughter, Julia. “Amanda is the boss. She is the glue that keeps it all together,” he said.
Roman was urged by the parents of students at Norwood to open a restaurant in Chestnut Hill. Given his Norwood education and Lafayette Hill residence, he gave it serious consideration and finally decided to pull the trigger.
“They would say Chestnut Hill needs a new restaurant, and they planted the idea in my mind,” he said. He started looking for a suitable location on his own, and he also contacted Eileen Reilly, the Hill’s retail recruiter. She credits him with ultimately finding a small space that suited his needs.
“It all came together very quickly and easily,” said Roman as he toured the former ¡Cuba! along with architect Richard Stokes and landlord Sanjiv Jain.
“This is bittersweet,” said Jain as the three pondered the idea of turning a closed fireplace into a working hearth when the new eatery opens this Friday. “Had ¡Cuba! opened at a different time, I think they would still be here today.”
Stokes noted that plans are being drafted to make the front interior room reminiscent of a living room in a historic stone house, complete with a reclaimed wood floor, painted paneling on the walls and a working fireplace. The rear room has been made over to look like a kitchen with tile walls, a wood ceiling and an 8-seat chef’s table. Total seating throughout the restaurant will be 42 seats.
Tina Breslow, public relations spokesperson for Roman’s Blackfish Restaurant Group (more restaurants are expected in the future; Roman also had a Blackfish in Stone Harbor, NJ, but it closed last summer), said that Mica will be BYOB for approximately one month, whereupon Roman expects to have his liquor license application approved by the Pa. Liquor Control Board. Chef Jason Cichonski, formerly executive chef at Lacroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel, has been working with Roman for the past eight months to find the right location.
“We will have an initial menu and then listen to our customers and tailor it from there. We will cook for the neighborhood,” said Roman. In addition to the a la carte menu, there will be 3 course prix-fixe menu for $50, a 4-course menu for $60, a 5-course menu for $70 and a 7-course tasting menu for $90.
Acerbic Philadelphia Magazine restaurant critic Craig LaBan had this to say in his three-bell (excellent) review of Blackfish: “Roman is also the first local chef I’ve known to list spruce bark as an ingredient … On a post-holiday whim, he acquired several leftover Christmas trees and shaved them down with vegetable peelers. After drying the wood, he used it to infuse the butter sauce for his arctic char with a light piney flavor. A bit too subtle, perhaps, for the effort. But I was nonetheless disappointed to learn it was being removed from the menu because I can’t find Christmas trees anymore.”
Roman, who grew up in Fishtown, credits his two grandmothers with teaching him to cook starting when he was 3 years old, and instilling in him a lifelong love of food.
“While other kids would be out playing baseball, I would be watching cooking shows on Channel 12,” he admitted.
Roman, who worked for five years at Le Bec-Fin and received a scholarship from Chestnut Hill resident Georges Perrier to go to Drexel, referred to Perrier as “my hero … when I thought of where I wanted my career to go, I would think of Le Bec-Fin. Georges and I have a great relationship, and I’m so glad he’s sticking it out.” (Perrier had previously announced plans to close his Center City restaurant, but has since decided to stay open.)
While at Le Bec Fin. Roman was chosen to enter the “2004 Young Chef Rotisseur Competition” sponsored by the Chaine de Rotisseur Foundation. After winning the Mid-Atlantic contest, he earned second place in the national competition, opening many doors that he has proceeded to walk through.
Barbara Sherf is a frequent contributor to the Local and a lover of fine food. She can be reached at Barb@CommunicationsPro.com.