The cab comes to a quick stop.
I had given the address, but eying stenciled numbers while driving isn’t the smartest or easiest thing. And the part of Fishtown where the (fishy) placards jump from the buildings is several blocks over. We had traced the long arc of Frankford from Girard and were in lower Kensington.
We stopped in front of a row home in the middle of the block, the cab’s rear passenger window framing a Wes Anderson diorama shot: to the right, two gentleman in jeans, button shirts, and worn leather shoes huddled over a lighter, the eggshell plumes they exhaled followed by even easier words as I panned left to a wiry character whose expository words on the evening ahead—delivered via mobile phone to some friend, lover, or perhaps would-be mistress—quickly faded as my eyes shifted back to the middle to dive into the warm glow pouring from the open doorway.
“Is this a bar,” the taxi driver asks.
“It’s not a bar. No, it couldn’t just be that,” I say.
Or at least, maybe I would have, if it was a Wes Anderson movie.
But a flare for the dramatic is exactly what Chef Alex Garfinkel is aiming for with the private dinners he’s throwing in a row home in Kensington (let alone the ones he runs in two Old City locations and sites scattered about the countryside). He’s bringing his experience from Le Bec Fin, Lacroix, Morimoto, and Amada to four monthly dinners (two casual and two fine dining). While he wants to keep things relaxed, he aims to create singular experiences.
For the casual series, he’ll work with anyone from ambitious home chefs to unheard of line cooks. The fine dining series will feature big name chefs: Chef Yehuda Sichel of Abe Fisher will feature on May 5th; Chris Kearse of Will BYOB is on the bill on June 8th.
The dinner I attended on Wednesday, April 22nd featured deep flavors, perfect execution, and a creativity that didn’t betray the (deceptively) simple nature of dim sum.
I watched Garfinkel use a blowtorch to apply the finishing touches to a rack of ribs that he seared before throwing in a low oven (150 degrees) for hours to “get the same effect of a sous vide,” he says. A caramelized exterior gave way to a buttery, quickly deliquescent interior as my teeth easily dug and tore.
The other dishes that stood out amidst course after impressive course were three that I wouldn’t expect to find on a menu meant for a non-Chinese audience: pig ear salad, salt and pepper duck feet, and braised chicken feet.
Thin tendrils of pig ear lent a pleasant chew to a salad of shredded carrot, red onion, chilies and cilantro bathed in lime, sesame oil and a fish sauce with a perfect balance of sweet,tart, and spicy. The cartilage from deboned duck feet was an even softer bite under a perfectly spiced fried coating. And the braised chicken feet were much more approachable here, with Garfinkel’s collaborator and friend Huy Pham braising deboned feet in oyster sauce, fermented black beans, sesame seed oil, star anise, dried chili peppers, brown sugar, and white pepper.
Along with solid pork belly buns–that only needed crispier cucumbers–and deeply flavorful soup dumplings, this night provided the best dim sum I’ve ever had (and yes, that means it beat out Joy Tsin Lau, bus terminal Dim Sum Garden, and yes, Bing Bing Dim Sum).
We sat at two wooden tables stretching out in the small, yet hangar-like space, a certain openness provided by restricting the normal trappings of a Kensington row home to the two couches huddled by the entrance way. To the left of the front door, three quizzical portraits hung; hard to make out a first, they eventually settled into being as underwater shots of decorated storefront windows dancing with neon in the shadow of the nearby El. As the room pulsed with conversation and jazz played, Garfinkel and friends put their creativity to plate in the open kitchen behind us.
I sat down the next day to talk with Garfinkel about the dinner I experienced and the all the projects he’s currently working on.
Brion Shreffler: When was the Balboa dinner series launched?
Alex Garfinkel: I found the place off the market in January. I took it over at the end of January and it took us about a month to get it up and running. We only did an open house [dinner on March 15th]. This is our third casual series dinner for Balboa. We did Taco Tuesday, Fried Chicken Monday and yesterday [the 22nd] was dim sum. The goal is to have two casual series dinners a month and one or two high end series a month to kind of play across the full audience we’re trying to reach. We built the spot as a collaboration space not only for myself and my endeavors but also for other local small businesses, both culinary or otherwise to create this incubation space of creativity across all genres of art. It’s moving in that direction. I’m excited to see all the connections and relationships that will come of it.
You had two friends helping out, Huy Pham and Ryan Fitzgerald. How do you know them?
In regard to Ryan, I was reading an article that someone wrote and it mentioned Boku and I was like how have I not heard of Boku Supper Club. I researched, checked out his website and everything it said was aligned with what we already accomplished with Balboa. Gave him a call, left a message out of the blue. Turns out he knew my friend Jack Goldenberg, you know who did these [other] supper clubs. After an hour on the phone, we were virtual best friends and since he didn’t have a space yet, he was very excited about using Balboa as a launching site for Boku and that’s part of what I want to do [help people get started]. Collaboratively, we’re gonna start working on more events. The other side of it is I’m gonna help him with marketing and we’re gonna see how that develops.
As far as Huy, he’s been an old friend in the industry. He loves to cook. He’s got a passion for dim sum and Asian cuisine. He’s always excited to get his hands dirty and with these kinds of casual events, I really find it better to bring in multiple culinary minds. It’s a lot of fun.
As a chef, what is the creative impact then of working with other people?
You’re getting the sum knowledge of an entire person’s lifetime with food when you bring in another mind. I myself learn things and my guests get to experience a broad range of culinary identities. I was speaking to one of the guests last night and he said he could actually tell the difference between the three styles of cooking. Even though Ryan did one dish, there’s still three distinctive—or so I’m told. I enjoyed it. I think it’s fun collaborating with people.
In addition to the casual series, you have the fine dining collaboration series where it’s just you and another chef. Have you done one of those yet?
Besides the three casual events, I did one collaboration dinner with my chef and mentor Hari Cameron from a(MUSE) in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware. So we did a 9 course tasting dinner. Our next one is on Cinco de Mayo with Yehuda [Sichel] from Abe Fisher.
So, for each event you’ve had a different collaborator?
I haven’t done a solo culinary event out of the house yet. Each time, I partner with someone. So, the Sinful Feasts series with Landmark and Art In The Age—that’s always me. When I go to a farm, that’s usually me. But at the house, I want that to be about collaboration.
After the dinner with Yehuda Sichel, you’re doing a dinner with Christopher Kearse. Have you known them both for awhile?
Chris Kearse, I’ve known peripherally just through growing up in the Philadelphia food scene. He’s always been that name that just stands out as an amazing chef. Jocelyn [Garfinkel’s fiancé] sold meat to him [through Debragga & Spitler]. I went to dinner there [Will BYOB] for our anniversary. I talked to him about the space and he was very into it. When I asked him if he would like to do a dinner, he said he’d be happy to, which I was very excited about.
When was that?
That was almost two months ago and we actually have to sit down in the next few days and plan the menu. But Yehuda was a friend of Jocelyn’s through her work. He was happy to do—actually he was the only chef to say he wanted to do the competitive version of it. So, we’re doing a heads up battle. I love competition, so I’m happy to do that.
How is the battle going down?
For the heads up battle, we each have four or five courses. I let Yehuda choose the theme for the battle and I was surprised when he said Mexico. He apparently has a lot of passion and creative drive coming from that cuisine, and I’m very excited to see what he brings. I lived in Spain for a year, so I’m very familiar with Spanish and Mediterranean cuisines, so I’ll try those flavors in a few directions and give it a Mexican twist. We’ll have Kelly Pipich from Shake Mixology DNA. She is starting to partner with us for our events to do drink pairings. We’re hoping to launch a few more alcohol sponsors, including a tequila partnership.
It’s both to keep the price down and it’s a savvy way for some of these brands to market themselves.
Yea, exactly. We sell ourselves as an extremely high end catering service. When we try to do partnerships, it’s very easy to attract companies that want to align themselves with a high end brand. There’s Rival Bros. Coffee, which I think is a fantastic product. I use it at the house. I want to support what they’re doing. ReAnimator is another great local company that is working with Felt+Fat [on a fundraiser for them; Reanimator has also bought plate ware from them]. Felt+Fat just launched their Kickstarter. They make plates and kitchen serving pieces.
What about you and Christopher Kearse? What are the two of you going to do?
We’re looking to do the most creative, avant-garde tasting menu that we can put together, between his lofty ideas and his dream journal and mine. We want to push whatever boundaries we can push. My own personal style of cooking fits his. We go local, we go seasonal and we let the food speak for us. So hopefully we come up with some pretty fun ideas.
Tell me about the dream journal.
I don’t know if every chef has it. All interesting ideas that I don’t get to carry out or write down somewhere. He has—I’m calling it a dream journal—but all the cool culinary tricks…you have a million ideas weekly and you’re not gonna execute them all.
That really ties into some of the things I really liked from yesterday. I don’t think a dim sum place outside of Chinatown would be serving up braised chicken feet, salt and pepper duck feet and…what was the other dish?
There was the pig ear salad which you loved.
I did. I took some of that home.
[Referring to his fiancé]. She wouldn’t eat it.
You had three things right there that some people would be like, no way.
When you have ten items on the menu and we do a tasting menu, you can push the boundaries because if, on any one dish, if I have enough components and there might be one thing you’ve never tried or you don’t like it, but the rest of the dish kills it, you’re going away with a positive memory of that dish. There might be a few things this person doesn’t like, but overall, if there are so many more positive things, you don’t remember the negative things. If you have a less than average experience, you’re gonna nitpick on all the things you don’t like. But, if it’s a positive experience, you’ll get away with a lot. If I want to serve frog’s feet, I’ll kill with seven dishes that I know people are gonna go crazy over. And then maybe I’ll turn a few people over to frog’s feet.
But you’re also bringing in people who are easier to please.
I want to target foodies or foodie wannabes, or people who want to have a culinary adventure. While sometimes I stay with safer flavor combinations or techniques that I know will please the group, I try to push boundaries here and there. I think it’s key to know just how far to push the boundaries. If it was just me doing this dinner, it would have been feet and offal. By bringing in three chefs, three minds, you’re getting a declarative experience that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I probably wouldn’t have done that type of feet because I don’t think I can sell chicken feet to a crowd. That’s an example of Huy bringing depth to the game.
Huy told me that he’s always been a bartender and he loves cooking.
Yeah, he’s an amateur chef.
What’s Ryan’s background in cooking?
He never went to school and he never worked as a chef in a kitchen but he loves cooking, he’s loves food and he’s done a lot of reading. With Youtube and the internet today, it’s not hard for someone who loves it to learn.
My impression was that everyone back there had a load of experience because everything came out flawlessly executed. Besides that you were pushing it with feet and ears, there was amazing flavors all across the board.
Thank you. A, we’re blessed with a great kitchen space for that crowd. Huy’s got good enough experience. He knows how to turn out food. How to properly sear or cook something. I guess Ryan has the least service experience, but wants to learn and he’s very enthusiastic and passionate. With a three person team last night, we killed it. Everything came out in a very timely manner. We should have said, raise your hands when you can’t eat anymore. Is it too much food? Just say stop. Dim sum is about eating until you’re happy.
What about preparation. How much time did you guys spend working on the menu?
We talked about the menu. I said, what do you want to do. He [Ryan] said, I want to do my [pork bao] buns. Awesome, great, you got it. I said to Huy, what do you want to do. He had a list of like ten things. I was like, ok, we have to tone it back. I came up with my list of ten things and we tweaked it. We took four things from him and five things from me and we had a well-rounded menu. There was so much food, you guys didn’t even get two of the courses.
Yea, no cockscomb. Love me some cockscomb.
No cockscomb and the shumai never made it out. And the summer rolls didn’t make it out.
Did Ryan do the shrimp toast as well?
I did the shrimp toast. He only did the bao buns.
I had four of those. Those were tasty.
Yeah, everything was really great and I got to learn a few things from Huy, and I hope to do more dinners with Ryan.
Besides the ones we discussed, there are some other dinners on the horizon.
Yeah, we’re gonna do Sinful Feast once a month. We use either The Physik or The Powell House for those. We have a guest speaker, Nic Esposito coming to the one on the 30th. He just did a book on urban farming. The Physick and Powell House are two landmark sites run by the preservation society. They wanted more people coming in through their doors. Between myself, Art In The Age, and a few other partners, we did these supper clubs that aren’t necessarily very profitable but they’re making people aware of these great venues—they’re living museums. They’re incredible. And they have amazing gardens. Come summer we’re giving them an hour cocktail party in the garden which is something new. So, we’ll continue doing that. We did three farm dinners last year. My goal this year is to do six if possible.
Where will those be held at?
We have one scheduled at the end of the summer at Red Hill Farm. We have one at North Star Orchard, which is an apple orchard which does two hundred varieties of apples year round. I’m hard pressed in the coming months to make some trips to set up some farm dinners. They’re a lot of fun. Out Standing In The Field is a national group that does this. They put out your traditional catering food product, but it’s aesthetically beautiful. You’re sitting at long wooden tables in a field. Our goal is to up that ante. We did one—we have pictures: fine china, artfully plated dishes in the field. We’re looking to keep the consistency and quality up. We’re keeping numbers closer to 60-80 people per event as opposed to 200.
Jesus, you have a lot of events going on.
Yeah, I’ve been told to stop spreading myself so thin.
You mentioned possibly bringing a live musical element into the casual series.
I worked with a really talented musician, a girl named Rinna Mai. She’s a violinist. She was at the open house. I would like to open the opportunity to any solo musician or small group that wants to showcase what they can do and earn a little bit of money–I’d love to have them for our events. We’d like to do a series of dinners just for musicians and/or artists to create almost a social/networking experience.
We’re going to be doing a dinner with Kit and Ace, a retail chain. Part of their brand, their business model is that every retail store should be hosting one supper club dinner a month. What makes them different is that they’re hand chosen. Ten people and you can’t come with someone. So it’s all single—not single people, but individuals that have to be ten other interesting individuals. A complete networking experience over a five course dinner. We’ll be doing one with them. They’re also working with other supper clubs. They also have a show space in each store for local artists. Like their space, we have this great wall space. We want to invite local artists to put their work up and give them a place to sell it. And we’d like to find a way to incorporate any kind of art form, including music into everything we do.
What we decided what this company does and who were are—I tried to come up with it and said, we’re a catering company.
This person was like, no you’re not.
What do you do?
We’re a personal chef company.
No, you’re not. What do you do?
Well, we create memories. We create food driven memories. The memory, the experience encompasses everything.