by Len Lear
“I have worked in a lot of restaurants before, and it’s always been the owner and staff who thank the customers for coming in. Here, though, so many customers have said to me, ‘Thank you for coming to Chestnut Hill.’ I have never been told that before, and believe me, I do appreciate it.”
The man on the receiving end of these expressions of gratitude is Al Paris, 54, the peripatetic missile who opened Heirloom, a BYOB which has had very few empty seats since exploding on the scene last December on top of the Hill (8705 Germantown Ave.), next to the State Store, where Shundeez Gourmet Foods Store previously resided for five years and before that, Roller’s Grocery. Al is one innovative chef/owner who, unlike some, has never gotten onto the hamster wheel of jealousy and envy.
The only complaints I have heard about Heirloom have concerned the at-times unpleasant noise level and the difficulty in getting a reservation on short notice, even in mid-week. One co-worker at the Local who loved Heirloom on each of her three visits said she was told on three other occasions that the place was booked when she called for a reservation. Several weeks ago I called one week in advance for a Friday night reservation and was told they were completely booked. Heirloom can seat 44 indoors (including a butcher block communal table for 12) and 16 outdoors. (Maybe they should ask if they can set up more tables in the wine store next door.)
To understand why Heirloom is by far the toughest reservation to grab in the Chestnut Hill area, one only has to read the local restaurant blogs. I have been checking them out for a few years before venturing into any restaurant, and I’m pretty sure that Heirloom has the highest ratings I have ever seen. Last week, for example, I checked on yelp.com and found 11 reviews for Heirloom, every one of which was either four or five stars. On urbanspoon.com there were 37 reviews of Heirloom, of which 36 were in the “liked it; would return” category; and on opentable.com there were 228 reviews of Heirloom, with the average review at four-and-a-half stars. The usual scabrous comments one finds about even the most prestigious restaurants (probably written with a scalpel) were conspicuous by their absence.
Here are typical comments posted May 9 on yelp.com by Charlie C.: “We have dined here on four occasions over the past three months, each time with different persons in our parties, and each time (there were) raves all around. Have not been less than very happy with any entree or appetizer … Eclectic and well prepared offerings. Great service and very nice ambience. Reasonably priced for the quality of the experience.”
“You expect to fill up your restaurant on the weekends,” said Paris last week, “ but it has been really gratifying to have so many customers during the week. The people who go out to eat on Tuesday night are serious diners, and if you can fill up on Tuesdays, you are in good shape.”
The décor at Heirloom has a rustic farmhouse feel; it features golden and brownish accents, tables made by Paris himself with reclaimed wood, vintage reproduction fabrics, ceiling beams, banquettes against a back wall that is lined with blue slate, a stone wall on another side and picture windows looking out onto the outdoor tables, pedestrians strolling by and a garden planted by Paris which is yielding eggplant, zucchini and three types of beans, among other things. (My suggestion that he plant Cajun shrimp was rejected.)
One thing Paris will never run out of is recipes. He has a collection of cookbooks that would fill up a library, but his most intense passion is reserved for classic American dishes from 1900 to 1950; of course, Al puts his own contemporary spin on each one. For example, his popular chicken entree comes from an Amish farm and is smoked with applewood bacon and served with spoonbread, wilted greens, a sensual honey-cider reduction and toothsome apple-bacon jam. Chef Paris may be walking out on the high wire with these combinations of ingredients, but loyal customers are making sure he does not fall off.
Salads and other appetizers range in price from $7 to $13 and entrees from $17 to $29. One memorable starter is the escargots not served in a ramekin, as one might expect, but rather simply tossed with some woodsy wild mushrooms, home-made pasta, ribbons of zucchini and a whisper of pepper to spike a judiciously portioned buttery sauce. Also reverential is the chop salad, an architectural revelation with crab and shrimp wedded to candied bacon and glistening with the smoky shimmer of a unique tomato dressing. The flavors flow together into the taste equivalent of a Beethoven piano concerto.
A filet mignon, its expertly seared crust around a pink center, had density and flavor to spare with a dollop of blue cheese, fingerling potato bullets, warm arugula and springy, smoked Vidalia onion, with every component counting. And portion sizes are healthy, although unlike in some restaurants these days, they are not the size of a hubcap on a bus. Homemade desserts are pitch-perfect confections, made with confidence as obvious as the quality of the ingredients. The “Tuxedo cake” is culinary alchemy with a layer of irresistible chocolate mousse and a layer of vanilla mousse and a layer of sorcery that Harry Potter would be proud of. And although the price of coffee is getting so high that B.P. may start spilling it into the Gulf of Mexico, at Heirloom the French press coffee is so rich, it is worth whatever it costs.
A native of South Philly, chef Paris (born Parisi) spent much of his childhood learning secrets of the kitchen from his beloved Neapolitan grandmother. His restaurant career began as a dishwasher at age 12, and at just 18 years of age he was named sous chef at the then-hot Lily’s in New Market. Paris later landed in San Francisco, becoming sous chef at famed Café Riggio and after that, executive chef at five other highly rated restaurants in northern California.
Paris eventually became homesick and returned to Philly as corporate executive chef for the city’s most popular Italian restaurants of that time, Marabella’s (owned by Chestnut Hill’s Gabriel Marabella) and Pomodoro. Paris proceeded to own and/or operate numerous Philadelphia restaurants including Restaurant Row’s Circa, Old City’s beautiful Rococo; a French bistro, Oberon; jazz restaurant Zanzibar Blue at The Bellevue; the Asian fusion Mantra near Rittenhouse Square; South Philly’s red-gravy Pat Bombino; Public House at Logan Square and City Tap House in University City, where Paris created pub menus. Al has created just about every kind of restaurant except one that serves only grilled cheese sandwiches and tofu.
Paris has been honored with numerous awards from his culinary peers, including Gourmet Magazine’s “America’s Top Tables” and City Paper’s “Best New Restaurant Award.” Paris also has been featured on the cover and profiled in Wine and Country Magazine. He has won Philadelphia’s “Best Gourmet Cheesesteak Award,” and he was featured at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City, but the narcotic of success has never seduced Paris, whose ebullience energizes the dining room when he comes out nightly to schmooze with customers.
One thing that several Hill diners have told me — and which numerous people have noted on the internet — is that the servers and hostesses at Heirloom are genuinely welcoming. Their smiles are as ubiquitous as the savory bites. Our server last Thursday, Eileen, was a perfect example. She could not have been more pleasant, charming and knowledgeable.
In fact, customers leaving Heirloom are usually smiling like a teenager on the day before summer vacation starts. For more information or reservations, call 215-242-2700 or visit www.heirloomdining.com