by Len Lear
In the 1990s Jim Coleman was a virtual one-man media conglomerate and one of the hottest chefs in the country. The burly native Texan who once owned three restaurants in Dallas was executive chef of the Rittenhouse Hotel, cookbook author, host of a call-in show, “A Chef ‘s Table,” on the local National Public Radio affiliate for 14 years, host of “Dream Meals” for visiting celebrities like Bruce Willis and Robert Redford, and the only local chef to break into Channel 12’s then-imposing Saturday afternoon lineup of cooking shows with his syndicated “Flavors of Philadelphia.” He was also featured on the CNN show, “On the Menu.”
In addition, Coleman wrote two cookbooks, “Flavors of America,” published in 1998 as a companion to his television show, and “The Rittenhouse Cookbook: A Year of Seasonal Heart-Healthy Recipes,” published by Ten Speed Press in 1997. Also a successful entrepreneur, Coleman created his own line of gourmet mustards and ketchups, called “The Chef’s Table,” which were distributed across the country. He even had a weekly column in the Philadelphia Daily News, in which he answered readers’ questions.
But the thing I will never forget about Jim (which he related to me in an interview about 14 years ago) was the fact that he was an eyewitness to the Tienanmen Square murder of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, China, in 1889 by the Communist government.
Coleman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was there because he was executive chef overseeing five restaurants in the Great Wall Hotel, a 1,000-room behemoth close to Tienanmen Square that hosted diplomats, heads of governments, corporate executives, etc., from all over the world. “The demonstrators were jovial and having a good time,” Coleman told me, “so it was a complete shock when the soldiers started shooting and killing them.”
Coleman left China because occupancy at the hotel dropped by 70 percent after the massacre, and the mood among his employees was relentlessly somber. He returned to the U.S. and in 1992 joined the Rittenhouse Hotel in center city, which he eventually left to open “Coleman,” an upscale restaurant in Normandy Farm, a hotel and conference center on Route 202 in Blue Bell, right across the street from the Blue Bell Country Club.
In 2010, however, Coleman abruptly left his eponymous restaurant in Blue Bell and seemed to fall off the earth. I remember calling the restaurant, whose name was changed to The Farmer’s Daughter, to find out why Coleman had left and where he went to, but I was stonewalled. It wasn’t until earlier this month that I finally got an answer.
That’s when Coleman, who was hired in March of this year as the new executive chef at the Sofitel Hotel, 17th and Sansom Streets, told us in the hotel’s Liberté Lounge about the sudden departure from his Blue Bell restaurant in 2010. “My mother in Dallas was very sick, and I felt I should take care of her because my father, who is now 90 years old, was not able to. So I just went back home because my mother was more important than anything else in my life. She seemed to get better for a few months, but then she went downhill and after about a year, she died.”
Considering Coleman’s mega-star status during his time in the Philadelphia area from 1992 to 2010, it is surprising that his return to Philly this year has attracted little attention in the local media. His new employer, Sofitel Hotels, is a French-based chain of 119 luxury hotels all over the world, including Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Cairo, Munich, Athens, Mumbai, Beirut, Warsaw, Singapore, Bangkok, et al (and, of course, Philadelphia).
Their property at 17th and Sansom Streets looks like a place that really appeals to the upper crust, so we figured that the yeast we could do was check out Liberté, a restaurant/lounge, after learning that Jim Coleman was the hotel’s new executive chef. Liberté offers a contemporary, eclectic menu and hand-crafted cocktails in a classy setting with custom light fixtures, a variety of fabric textures, banquettes and plush sofas that seat about 100. It replaced the old Lounge Bar La Bourse.
Liberté’s focal point is the gorgeous oval-shaped central bar where mixologists shake, rattle and stir hand-crafted cocktails. We checked out customer reviews on yelp.com, and the first one that came up last week concurred with our opinion: “Great food, great service, great setting. A bit pricey, but well worth it … Stopped in with a friend after going to a comedy show nearby for late night dessert/drinks. It was nice to have somewhere to just chill out and escape from the usual Saturday night crowds elsewhere.”
Jim Coleman’s menu pushes the possibilities of cooking and presentation like a jockey whipping his mount down the stretch. The menu is relatively small, but the food is designed on the plates with a jeweler’s precision. The portions are not huge (appetizers $8 to $12 and entrees $24 to $32), but the flavors and textures of dishes like the Japanese wild bass and the saffron sauce on the lump crab cake are delicate and divine. And the desserts, particularly the chocolate peanut butter entremet and pumpkin goat cheese cake ($8 each) are otherworldly.
One thing we both appreciated about Liberté was the spacing of the tables, which produces a quiet, non-invasive experience. It is not a bar/restaurant screaming with headaches, as so many are these days. And our server, Anna Lisa, a culinary school graduate who previously trained the staff at Outback on Ridge Pike in Conshohocken, definitely enhanced our dining experience with her class and personality.
Another big plus at the Sofitel is that if you are dining at Liberté, you can valet park your car for $12, which is half the usual rate. For more information, call 215-569-8300 or visit www.libertelounge.com.