By Trey Popp
YOU ENTER A WROUGHT-IRON GATE on 8th Street, follow a brick path past a blaze of pink azaleas, duck under the low-hanging boughs of a heat-stressed holly, and settle around a table perfumed by the blossoms of a dwarf magnolia tree.
Any moment now, the Ladies Auxiliary will arrive in a parade of pearl necklaces and semi-permanent hairdos. There will be Cobb salads, she-crab soup with sherry, and a polite club manager who’ll end your intrusion with a gentle request for your membership number. Surely this magic can’t last.
Only it does—and with a surprising twist. After an icy old-fashioned from the bar, a waiter delivers a rectangular plate of Kindai sashimi and hamachi tartare dotted with pickled and fermented radishes, ponzu marmalade and a block of puffed wild rice. Not bad. Next there’s a salad flanked by two-toned triangles of something as delicate as chilled flan. Only it’s not. The bottom layer is house-made split-yellow-pea tofu, the top a pale jade gelatin of pistachio cream—but somehow the whole thing works as a perfect foil for a pile of mixed local greens tossed in pine-nut-milk vinaigrette. And now you’re thinking, “What’s going on here?”
What’s going on is Michael Caspi, who slipped into the head chef job at the Morris House Hotel about a year ago with approximately zero fanfare and one-tenth the buzzing fuss that generally attends the Philly arrival of a cook who counts Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud among his old bosses. All of a sudden the tofu geometry starts to make a little more sense.
M Restaurant’s venerable garden is a draw on its own, but Caspi has real treats in store for those who venture in for more than a happy-hour drink. One evening, they might include roasted barramundi with sweet-sour hibiscus sauce and leeks whose leaves break on the tongue like potato crisps; on another, a champagne flute of morel foam with blueberry puree at the bottom. If there’s beef ravioli on the menu, order it: The dish starts in the kitchen with a three-day confit of shallots in beef fat, continues with jus-soaked roast beef, and ends with you, in your seat at the table, eyes rolled brainward in ecstatic surrender.
If only you didn’t also have to surrender to sometimes boggling waits between courses. Caspi has yet to master the art of running a kitchen that’s not staffed with dozens of ingredient-obsessed perfectionists like him. But when the setting is this idyllic, it’s well worth swallowing that weakness to get a taste of his strengths.