In 1993, Guillermo Tellez was the first-ever winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Felipe Rojas-Lombardi Award of Achievement for Hispanic Chefs. Since then, he’s enjoyed stints at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Philly’s Striped Bass and, most recently, Northbrook MarketPlace in rural Chester County.
At Northbrook’s 20-seat farmhouse table, it was all about locally grown and raised vegetables and meats. And though not quite on par with Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, the sustainable experience offered by Tellez and partner Rob Boone was impressive. But its low-key locale and slow start apparently weren’t enough to hold Tellez’s attention. The big city beckoned for this Downingtown resident.
Northbrook opened in 2008, and by the fall of 2009, Tellez was on the move. His latest stop: Square 1682, the dining room at Kimpton Hotels’ luxe new Hotel Palomar—a little slice of Manhattan in Center City, with its top-hat-donning valet and refined yet friendly service.
The culinary concept at Square 1682 is “New American with world flavors.” And like at Northbrook, sustainability is the hook. In fact, Kimpton sought out Tellez for this very reason.
Currently, the chef gets his provisions from 40 Pennsylvania growers, including Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, Hoover’s Farm Market in Lititz, Shady Brook Farm in Yardley and Deer Creek Farm in Reading. But he’s been known to go outside the state, too.
After a warm welcome from Square 1682’s maître d’, we began our evening at the elegant, 10-stool bar, where the vibe was at once classy and relaxing. San Francisco-based designer Dayna Lee enhanced the space with geometric prints, clean lines and Art Deco accents. In the lounge area beyond the bar, sleek sofas face a fireplace.
The wine list offers a broad spectrum of reds and whites from the United States, France and elsewhere. The eclectic signature cocktail list more accurately reflects the restaurant’s New American credo, with hints of Mexico, Asia and India. I had the Bell Pepper Smash, a smoky, sweet, lightly spiced combination of Domaine de Canton ginger-flavored liqueur, muddled raspberries, bell pepper and chilled Ketel One Citroen vodka.
Food wise, the bar menu offers dishes well-designed for sharing—crispy maitake mushrooms with citrus dipping sauce; roasted dates with West Chester-made Shellbark Hollow Farm cheese wrapped in smoked bacon; and 1682’s signature lemon-scented hummus.
Upstairs in the dining room, the menu is broader, with small and large plates that invite group participation. The design concept is consistent with the look downstairs, from the flat cutlery and square bread plates to the chic mesh place mats and geometric wine glasses.
They split the Korean hot pot for us three ways, our waiter pouring the clear broth over petite bowls filled with monkfish, crayfish tails, a delicious soba noodle cake, and a few bits of edamame and baby bok choy. The vegetables’ soft texture played perfectly against the fish’s grilled crust and flaky, tender center. The broth was nicely peppered, though a little salty.
Also heavy on the sea salt, the duck sausage cassoulet was quite filling for an appetizer, with its tender, crispy meat, creamy white beans and smoked bacon.
Among Square 1682’s other notable appetizers, the fragrant grilled lamb chops were served with baby white sweet potatoes over a fine dusting of mint leaves. The black cod’s sweet glaze played well against the sharp caramelized leeks. But, alas, the short ribs were served over a thick, dark sauce so salty I couldn’t finish it. This seems to be a recurring theme.
As for the main course, the black cod porchetta was prepared to perfection—delicate, plump and juicy. But the accompanying polenta wasn’t quite cheesy or creamy enough—and over-salting was again an issue.
The lamb (rack and loin) was sweet, tender and prepared to an exacting medium rare. Served with al dente white beans, chunks of smoky chorizo, mint and a tangy spicy tomato jam, it was the night’s sole flawless plate.
Our third entrée was a combination platter of beautifully presented, crimson-hued yellowfin tuna and ginger-braised short ribs with root vegetables and a too-heavy, too-cloying Korean barbecue sauce. The seared tuna loin was wrapped in peels of potato—a concept I liked. But they weren’t crispy enough to offer a palatable contrast in texture.
For dessert, we went with a memorable grape sorbet to neutralize the salty aftertaste. And the signature apple fritters—dense and moist, with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and served with tiny bites of dried apple and a rich dollop of crème fraîche—was the perfect ending. It paired quite nicely with a reasonably priced Calvados apple brandy from the plentiful selection of after-dinner cordials, sweet wines and scotches.
THE SKINNY: Square 1682’s décor and ambiance are exquisite, the service superb, the kitchen’s presentation inviting, and all meats and seafood top quality. Tellez’s international assortment of flavors—some delicate and subtle, some bold without being too overpowering—is as daring as it is brilliant.
Now, if you please, Guillermo, adjust the sea-salt grinder to a finer setting.
Location: 121 S. 17th St., Philadelphia; (215) 563-5008, square1682.com
Cuisine: New American with a global twist.
Cost: Dinner entrées $16-$35.
Attire: Urban chic.
Atmosphere: Sophisticated Manhattan vibe in the bar; posh but comfy upstairs.
Hours: Breakfast: 7-10:30 a.m. daily. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Bar menu: 2:30 p.m.-midnight daily. Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Extras: $45 Latino-inspired prix-fixe menu on Sunday.