Ansill Featured in Philadelphia Gay News

Posted on Saturday, February 28, 2009

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Ansill brings European style to Queen Village
by Suzi Nash

For many of us, Judy’s on Third and Bainbridge was the place where we tried out our little gay wings. It was comfortable and not overtly gay. As a neighborhood restaurant, if you ran into a school chum it didn’t mean that you automatically outed yourself — unlike, say, if you were spotted at Backstage on Fourth and South. If you were seen there, chances were that you were family. You could fly under the radar at Judy’s, and I’d go there to be around other gay people as I took tentative steps out of the closet. (Though I never understood why we weren’t bright enough to figure out that if the school chum was in the same gay establishment, there was a good chance he or she was family too.)

The place has changed ownership but it still retains that welcoming, comfortable feel. And the old gal looks a heck of a lot better. The lovely eatery, still at Third and Bainbridge, is now Ansill Food + Wine, run by owner and executive chef David Ansill. He opened the place in 2006 and named it in honor of his father, Leonard.

Ansill actually got his start at Judy’s, working as a bartender in the 1970s. Wanting to change careers but still stay in the restaurant business, he enrolled in The Restaurant School with the help of his father. He spent the next 14 years working at restaurants from Miami back to Philadelphia, including the Rittenhouse Hotel, Café Nola, Lucy’s Hat Shop, Continental and back to Judy’s. His first restaurant was Pif, a BYOB in South Philadelphia that won rave reviews and a number of “Best of Philly” awards.

He has since closed Pif to concentrate on Ansill, and it seems to be paying off. Ansill is a tranquil spot with subdued lighting and a sleek but comfortable feel. I knew we were in for a good time when our server walked up to my dining companion and said, “Nice kicks!” I hadn’t even noticed his size 8-1/2 feet covered in shiny red patent leather. Score one for the server.

As we pondered our choices, we were treated to an eclectic mixture of tunes ranging from African jazz beats to Johnny Cash. Ansill serves up European-style small plates, “snacks and a wine bar for food-conscious adults.” The menu features a wide variety of European dishes and encourages sampling and sharing. We started out with the marinated beets topped with pistachio-encrusted goat cheese ($8). I got a sense of déjà-vu as our order was brought out, not from any sense of nostalgia, but because this same dining companion had previously told me he didn’t like beets, only to consume half of them. Again, he proceeded to tell me he didn’t like beets, but as our server brought forth the plate of red and yellow beets brushed with olive oil and ringed with balsamic vinaigrette, I saw his eyes glaze over as he lifted his fork in the air. Gentlewoman that I am, I shared without harassing him too much. They indeed were lovely to look at and wonderfully flavorful, so I could understand why he would have a change of heart and become a dedicated beet man.

Next we had the house antipasti ($18), a nice sampling of meats, fish, vegetables and cheese. The plate included a number of cured meats, such as pork tenderloin and chorizo; a variety of marinated olives, pickled vegetables, a hard-cooked egg, marinated tuna topped with bocarones (small white anchovies) and a small sandwich. Most of the antipasti was good, but the grilled mozzarella panino was fantastic. The mozzarella was marinated in olive oil with the bread dressed in a basil puree.

Our last small plate was the steak tartare ($12). I must admit, I am middle-of-the-road when it comes to adventurous eating. I’ll try a number of things even if I don’t know what it really is. I’m game for a good steak tartare (raw steak, for anyone who’s unfamiliar), but when this dish came out I had misgivings. It was a large mound of raw steak topped with half of an uncooked quail egg. But being ever faithful to you dear readers, I dove in and, oh, what a treat. The sumptuous delicacy was made with cognac and purple mustard. There was another secret ingredient that Ansill revealed to me, but my lips are sealed on that one. You’ll have to go and ask him yourself.

For our first large plate, I went with the pasta du jour ($12). That night’s offering was braised pork shanks with diced smoked ham on a bed of spaetzle twists, an interesting and delicious combination of flavors and textures. It was a hearty platter, the sort of comfort food I needed after my earlier ice-skating accident.

My dining companion had the New York strip ($16). The steak came out a little pink for his liking — odd, after eating steak tartare — but our server cheerfully took and brought it back in a timely fashion cooked to the desired intensity. The steak was served with delicious butter-braised leeks and came with bone marrow, which was light and puffy.

Ansill’s wife, Catherine, makes the desserts. My companion had the poached pear ($7), made with spiced red wine and served with vanilla ice cream. He described it as light and delectable and I would have to concur.

I had the financier ($7), a sweet almond-butter cake, which was fabulous. Egg whites and sugar baked into it made a sweet, crunchy topping while the inside remained smooth and silky. The sweetness of the almonds played nicely against the accompanying tart cranberry compote.

As I sipped a glass of garnacha ($8), a soft Spanish red wine, I listened to a Bridget Bardot song playing in the background. With the sage walls and candlelit tables, one could almost imagine being wined and dined along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, forgetting about the loud South Street crowds a mere block away.

I spotted Ansill as he walked through the restaurant talking to patrons, and asked him who designed the new interior.

“My only requisite when designing the place was lots of wood and lots of glass bottles,” he said. “The rest was worked out by my wife and the architect. I’m a food guy: The menu is all mine. I love to travel and I’ve used influences from all over the world in the menu. I try to get the best fresh foods in here that I can: If the product is good, the rest is simple. I like using a lot of raw foods and taking things that might not usually be accessible to people and bringing them into a neighborhood restaurant. Most neighborhood restaurants don’t serve bone marrow with parsley salad, but it’s one of our most popular dishes.”

Ansill also shared a little about his childhood and how he became interested in cooking.

“I was a nice Jewish boy from Elkins Park,” he said. “My younger brother and sister were both nuts and I was the good kid. I was a bit of a jock growing up and if we won the game, I’d want to celebrate with good food, and if we lost, I’d want to console myself with good food! Food was always a center point of my existence. When I was in culinary school, I shared a barber with the chef who was here at the time it was Judy’s. He got me a job here as a prep guy and expediter. It was a great, great, fun place to work. It was a neighborhood institution. I remember when we were underage, we would come here and get served. It was much different back then and not such a big deal. So I have fond memories and hope that people will build new memories here now. I want the place to have that same welcoming feel for people from all backgrounds. I think the gay community is just starting to rediscover us, which is nice. We’re still a casual, comfortable place, just tweaked a little for the new millennium.”

As for upcoming events and specials, on Tuesdays, Ansill does not charge a corkage fee for patrons who bring their own wine. Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m., Ansill hosts Happy Hour with $1 oysters, $5 Finlandia martinis, $5 Prosecco sparkling wine and $3 Yards Philadelphia draft beer. And on March 4 and 5, Ansill will bring back its popular European-style barbecue: $35 gets you a heaping plate of roasted pig, assorted grilled meats, marinated vegetables and a selection of sauces.

As for Ansill’s personal mark on the place, if you look closely, you’ll notice a squirrel or two (fake, of course!) peaking around various spots at the bar. These are a reference to the chef’s nickname, given to him by his best friend in grade school: Squirrelly. The name has stuck ever since.
627 S. 3rd Street (at the corner of 3rd & Bainbridge) * Philadelphia, PA 19147 * 215.627.2485 *
ansillfoodandwine.com

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