by Len Lear
If fine dining is as much theater as it is memorable food served in splendid surroundings, then aMuse, which is probably the best restaurant you never heard of, is the Forrest Theater, or even the Academy of Music of dining.
Our recent experience at aMuse, tucked away behind the hotel lobby at the seven-year-old Le Meridien Philadelphia, 1421 Arch St., was an epic poem to indulgence in high-quality luxury products. The preparation and presentation by executive chef Andy Matulaitis and his staff bespeak a primal, judicious love of great products and of sealing in every drop of flavor. And general manager John Connor is a very classy host. The only question is the affordability factor, even for a celebratory occasion.
The name of the restaurant comes from its muse, “the fabulous but fictitious Jacqueline La Belle.” Although she was not a real person, a restaurant spokesman insists that she was — in spirit — “a Philadelphia heiress of French ancestry. She threw outrageous parties and was a fashion icon and patron of the arts.”
The building at 1421 Arch St. was originally opened in 1907 as a YMCA with eight floors. The ninth and tenth floors were added, and after the YMCA closed, it became the DA’s office and other city offices. Le Meridien Philadelphia, which took over the property in May of 2010, apparently has become a popular venue for weddings, rehearsals and other celebratory events.
Surrounded by the original exposed brick façade, their fifth floor atrium, which hosts many cocktail receptions, boasts a 75-foot glass ceiling. The Abele Library features the original tiger oak walls, built in bookshelves, two working fireplaces and views of City Hall as a backdrop.
aMuse, a few dumplings’ lengths away from the hotel bar, is a quiet oasis from the crowded city streets outside the windows. French onion soup was a refined luxury, beautifully presented in a crock kissed with lots of Gruyere cheese and brioche croutons ($11).
A tuna and crab tartare tower ($17) was an architectural paragon of sweetness that revealed itself in waves of flavor. It was ennobled by pineapple, tomato, wakame (subtly sweet seaweed) and a glorious citrus soy ginger reduction. We kept remarking that each bite of this dish was different from the others, and each one was more ethereal than the last. It bears as much resemblance to some of our recent tuna tartare offerings as chicken thighs do to chicken pox.
The vierge sauce, a French sauce usually made from olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and chopped basil, that was married to an Atlantic salmon entree reminded me of a remark by Grimod de la Rayniere, a famed French gourmand, who once wrote, “I would eat my own father with such a sauce.” (I personally would not go that far, but I would definitely not allow the plate to return to the kitchen with a drop of the sauce remaining on it.) The salmon was pan-seared and citrus-basted and served with a grilled fennel and potato salad ($26). The complex flavors here are just as genuine and inviting as Andre Teixeria, restaurant supervisor, and, Connor Kelly, a strikingly handsome server with a movie star smile.
Filet mignon was probably overpriced at $42. It was a muscular piece of tasty sinews but was slightly overcooked. Two side dishes, French fries and macaroni and cheese, were both four-star gold. The only other issue we had was the long, long wait for the entrees to come out. Also, each time I checked the hotel’s website in recent weeks, the menu on it was completely different from the one we had in the dining room. (I mentioned this to them a month ago, but it still has not been updated.)
A dessert of pere Helene, red wine-poached pears perfumed with sweet mascarpone and drizzled with port wine sauce ($8), was decadent and ultra-indulgent. It is easy to rhapsodize about turning simple ingredients like these into exciting adventures.
An Edie Sedgewick cocktail, named for a model and muse of Andy Warhol, was pricey at $15, but it was of Library Bar quality, which is top of the line, with amaretto, Grey Goose vodka, syrup and fresh strawberries. I’ve never been kicked by a mule, but I imagine it would be something like drinking aMuse’s French martini with Lillet Blanc (a French apertif), gin and orange bitters ($15).
We need more restaurants like aMuse with edgy character and food of real epicurean ambition. We enjoyed the dinner about as much as people can without arousing suspicion.
Amuse has a hopping Happy Hour at the bar. Valet parking is available in front of the hotel for $21. For more information, call 215-422-8222 or visit amusephiladelphia.com