by Len Lear
David Jansen, 52, chef/owner of Jansen’s at Germantown and Gowen Avenues in West Mt. Airy, wears talent like a second skin. He has bitten into his job like a juicy peach. He’s the can of Red Bull we need in Northwest Philly producing the kinds of drool-worthy dishes you’d otherwise have to go into Center City to enjoy.
An entree of sauteed fluke, accompanied by a mathematically precise marriage of spiced cauliflower, orange supremes, Meyer lemon emulsion and toasted almonds ($31), for example, is a perfect suite of enticing flavors.
Jansen also mines great flavors with a first course of grilled Romaine lettuce with dried figs, aged cheddar and a Caesar-style dressing — a beacon of gustatory joy ($18).
Another flavor blockbuster is the short rib of beef, scented with horseradish hash, braised to a sublime tenderness and enriched with natural beef jus ($29). You eat this food, and you feel like a member of the Smile High Club.
Jansen, originally from Downingtown, has food genes in his DNA. His grandmother was a pastry chef and his grandfather was a butcher. His mom’s mom was the first female head of housekeeping for the Bellevue Hotel, and his mom’s dad worked at the front desk. They were straight off the boat from Germany.
Unsurprisingly, Jansen started cooking at the Tabas Hotel in Downingtown at age 14, cutting smoked salmon. He was an executive chef at the West Chester Golf Club by the astonishingly callow age of 20.
“I was making good money,” he recalled, “but I told my dad I did not want to keep doing prime rib, stuffed flounder, etc., so I went to the Philadelphia Restaurant School.”
After graduating with honors in 1990, Jansen then did an unpaid apprenticeship at the Four Seasons Hotel, whose Fountain Room was then one of the city’s top two haute cuisine palaces of gastronomy, along with Le Bec Fin.
“I consider Jean Marie Lacroix [then executive chef at the Four Seasons] like a father,” he said.
In 1999, Jansen himself became executive chef of the Fountain Room, replacing Martin Hamann (now with the Union League), who had replaced Lacroix. Jansen and his Four Seasons mates were adherents of the farm-to-table philosophy long before countless others hitched a ride on that culinary bandwagon.
Jansen held that exalted position until 2010, not long before the hotel closed. “I saw the writing on the wall and took a hiatus to raise my kids. It’s the best thing I ever did.” (He has a son, James, 24, and daughters Hannah, 23, and Addison, 17, now on the Springside rowing team.)
Jansen has lived in Wyndmoor for 15 years and before that on Bryan Street in Mt. Airy for 10 years. When he was looking for a Northwest Philly location for his new restaurant, what sold him on the location he selected was the outdoor setup, which backs up to the New Covenant Church, with its many acres of greenery, flora and fauna.
“When I walked outside, I fell in love with this place.” (It was previously home to the Latino Avenida and before that, Cresheim Cottage Café.)
In July 2016, four months after Jansen opened, Jason Sheehan, restaurant reviewer for Philadelphia Magazine, gave Jansen a two-star review, conceding that the food was very good but in his view, too old-fashioned. He called Jansen “a disciple of a cuisine that was vanishing from the scene even before he did” and that the chef/owner chose “to ignore today for yesterday’s charms.”
Jansen takes issue in extremis with those “pretentious” remarks.
“A lot of what I do is from French cuisine,” he said. “The same technique as [legendary French chef] Paul Bocuse. Young hipsters are a flash in the pan [so to speak]. They’re gone a year later. Molecular cooking was big for a while. Do you see that anywhere now? Gimmicks don’t last. Why did I stay at the Four Seasons so long, 22 years? Because it was the gold standard. We had the greatest chefs in the world come into the kitchen and say we were kicking ass, like Marcus Samuelsson, Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Michel Richard and so many more!”
Of course, I asked about prices since Jansen is the highest-priced Northwest Philly restaurant, although his prices would not raise an eyebrow in Center City.
“I know some people complain about prices, but they do not understand what we have to pay for the best ingredients. Fluke, for example, used to be $2.99 a pound. Now it’s $15 to $19 a pound. I give away some courses for free (to regular customers) plus an amuse bouche. Nobody wants to feel ripped off, of course, and cost is on my mind all the time, every single day.
“People respect you if they know they will get value for their money. Look at our Happy Hour prices (Wed, Thurs, Fri, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), which is all year round (dishes, $6 to $12, drinks $5 to $9). I want people to come here every day, not just for special occasions. I never wanted this to be a special occasion restaurant. And it is so beautiful outside. More and more people are coming here from the Main Line, center city, even South Philly.
“When I started here, we did not have a single entrée over $29. For cocktails, I use the best ingredients, and we try not to mark up prices like center city. It is hard to make a profit in this business. Look at vermouth, $40 a bottle. But we also have a $9 glass of mimosa for brunch. Open Table reviews give us a 4.8 rating out of 5.”
Jansen is proud of his staff, which he calls his “family.” Pastry chef Patrick Conroy was previously the executive pastry chef at Vetri (“talented beyond belief”), and general manager Zachariah Bourne was previously with Jose Garces. Special events coordinator and beverage director Jerri Banks previously worked for New York celebrity chef/cookbook author Alfred Portale. The walls also feature the works of rotating local artists, currently Wendy Concannon.
Jansen can seat 16 upstairs for private parties, 60 downstairs, a few at the bar and 35 outdoors. On June 9, Jansen is getting married in back of the restaurant to Debbi Gress, a kindergarten teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.
“It took me 50 years,” Jansen said, “but I got really lucky!”
For more information or reservations: 267-335-5041 or JansenMtAiry.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org