Most new restaurants need a clear identity to succeed. But labels come easier to some projects than others — especially in a neighborhood that stokes preconceptions. So, if I told you one of my new favorite restaurants was in the Italian Market, one might understandably guess that it served either Mexican or Southeast Asian food, two of the area’s current strong suits, or a taste of the multi-generational Italian cooking that has given its name to a corner of the city still so vibrant with immigrant food stories.
Alice is none of these. It’s a modern American restaurant and bar whose boundaries are only defined by chef and owner Dave Conn’s imagination, diverse experiences and considerable skill. A charcoal-fired oven and seasonality are the elements that most define its menu, a free-flowing collection of variously-sized plates that slide seamlessly from carpaccio and crudo to large format sharing platters without any of the old “appetizer” or “entree” demarcations that have long organized our dinners into tidy courses. Such labels can seem like such unnecessary formalities in today’s restaurants, where the best meals simply flow and sharing is encouraged.
Diners typically order between two and four plates per person at Alice, a casually elegant and airy corner space previously occupied by Sicilian-inspired Monsù. It’s been redesigned with an open kitchen bordered by a 10-seat bar and 32-seat dining room just beyond decorated with understated earth tones, bare wood tables and brown leather banquettes. The vivid colors come from Conn’s cooking, which draws from a global pantry of ingredients and techniques gathered over his two decade long career, from Indian-inspired flatbreads to hard-to-resist fresh cut French fries with shio koji, chermoula-marinated lamb and a butterflied whole chicken with Burgundy truffles I’m still thinking about.
In lesser hands, it could be a non-sensical fusion mess. But the Baltimore-raised Conn, 41, is one of the best chefs whose cooking many Philadelphians have eaten but never knew by name. He worked as a key player behind the scenes for a dozen years with Jose Garces (Amada, Tinto, JG Domestic, Garces Trading Co., Volvér and Iron Chef), followed by another six at Stephen Starr’s El Vez.
I catch glimpses of many of those stops in Conn’s food, as well as homier Jewish influences and a love of farmers’ markets inherited from his late mother, Alice, for whom the restaurant is named. Her affinity for unpretentious hands-on eating experiences are evoked in the picnic vibe of the flavorful deep-fried organic chicken with house hot sauce and roasted Caraflex cabbage. (Which would have been perfect if my bird had been just a hint more tender.)
Conn’s first job as a teen was at an Indian restaurant in Maryland. He’s carried his love of naan with him, using a traditional recipe for the yogurt-infused dough in untraditional ways, flashing the folding flatbread over the coals to be garnished with light but umami-powered toppings, from Spanish anchovy fillets with confit leeks and Aleppo pepper, to the spicy eggplant cubes laced with oceanic bottarga.
Conn’s mission is to put great ingredients front and center — but I wish he was more determined to source locally. When he finds a product he values, be it baby greens from California or a special pigs from Texas, he certainly does them justice. That even goes so far as daring to serve rare pork, a practice that’s anathema to many Americans. But the domestic Ibérico from pigs that have feasted on acorns is so delicious, its lightly cooked and richly marbled flesh is the star of one of Alice’s most distinctive dishes. A carpaccio of coriander-spiced presa cut from the shoulder is just kissed by the coals, then fanned into shear slices beneath an herbal vinaigrette sparkled with garlic chips, shallots and mustard blossoms.
The top of Alice’s menu, partly organized by temperature from cold to hot (as well as increasing in size), is full of bright flavors and seafood. Salt Water Taffy oysters from Barnegat Bay are illuminated by a citrusy cucumber aquachile. Glory Bay salmon crudo is paired with a garlicky puree of sesame ajo blanco and an herbal green matcha sauce steeped from tea sourced from neighboring Function Coffee Labs. The “green salad,” a typically mundane dish I’d usually pass over, caught my attention with its green garlic-buttermilk twist on Caesar, then kept me transfixed with crunchy artichokes showered with Parmesan.
Alice is at her height, though, when the charcoal hearth’s warmth is present, crisping Portuguese octopus marinated in piri-piri with Jimmy Nardello chilies and preserved lemon puree; turning thick chunks of foie gras into melty pads of richness over garlic toast with figs; heightening the deep savor of Wagyu culotte paired with parsley root puree and sweet huckleberry juice; or roasting half lobsters with nora chile butter before snuggling their sweet meat beside a pouf of coconut foam over roasted fennel.
A big burger is also a natural move for Conn’s Kopa oven from Slovenia, its charcoal firebox gifting a thick patty of dry-aged beef the smoky savor of a backyard cookout. With cloth-bound Cabot cheddar melting down its sides, drizzles of aioli and house BBQ sauce over tangy caramelized Vidalia onions, and a poppy-dusted Essen challah roll to frame it, this is a next level burger, for sure.
But it wasn’t a given for Conn’s fine-dining instincts. I’m glad the chef listened to his wife, Sarah Conn, who insisted he put that $19 burger on the menu to keep Alice from drifting too far into special occasion preciousness. It’s the kind of relatively more affordable option for a menu that hits the $30 range and above for larger plates, and helps this ambitious corner retain a measure of spontaneous neighborhood appeal, given that the copious sidewalk seating and bar framing the open kitchen already generate a friendly, casual energy.
The thoughtful cocktails also help stoke that vibe with drinks built around a signature ingredient. Those include the ashwagandha honey paired with tequila and pineapple for the Pura Miel; charcoal-roasted sea salt for the brown buttered rum; absinthe to energize the ginny Green Hour; and the artichoke savor of Cynar in the King Vidi, a Boulevardier twist named in honor of Frederick Vidi, a former chef and the contractor who helped realize Conn’s vision to install a live fuel hearth for his restaurant. Even the glassware has a personal touch. Drinks are served in the beautiful, swirl-textured hand-blown coupes by Conn’s childhood friend, Evan Kolker.
The service team overseen by general manager Robert Scully, another Tinto alum, nicely balances personable warmth with professional polish, ably guiding diners through the smart list of 29 wines, mostly natural, food-friendly, and half of which are refreshingly available by the glass . As a result, they’ve cultivated best-selling options out of uncommon selections like a crisp ugni blanc (Rimbert), a pét-nat riesling (Piu-Piu), the wild red fruits of a Cali sangiovese (Stolpman) or silky Chilean country (Cacique Maravilla).
Either of those reds would work well for the chermoula-spiced lamb (tasty, but not a great value at $42 for a two-bone chop) or what might be the best reason to come to Alice, a whole Poulet Rouge chicken for two ( $65). This uncommon heritage breed bird from Joyce Farms in North Carolina comes spatchcocked and largely boneless, saving for its two wing bones. It balances maximum flavor with minimized cooking time, the brined chicken flash roasted over the coals to a golden crisp in just 12 juicy minutes flat, served alongside earthy wedges of hakurei turnips and a storm of fresh-shaved truffles. It’s rustic and luxurious at the same time, and easily among Philly’s sexiest new destination chickens. (The slate-colored earthenware plates with raw clay edges from Connecticut artist Jane Herold echo that aesthetic).
When it comes to dessert, Conn is one of the few savory chefs with a start-up restaurant whose desserts aren’t a let-down. Alice turned out a perfect Bosc pear tarte tatin drizzled in bourbon caramel, an upside down blueberry cake (for summer), and a series of worthy house-spun ice creams — one infused with Ultimo coffee and toffee; and another scoop with blackberry pie mixed in, crust and all. None, though, is quite as dreamy as the frosty steel coupe of absinthe ice cream, a grown-up take on mint chocolate chip infused with the herbal anise liquor, stylishly crowned with a grooved cloud of Chantilly dusted in cocoa.
Once my absinthe coupe was scraped clean and I eagerly packed the rest of my truffled chicken to go, I realized Conn had achieved something difficult in an era where branding is king. In a neighborhood often typecast for a few specific genres of dining, he’s created a restaurant that challenges easy categorization. But it succeeds because this unsung chef is finally doing it his way in his long overdue ownership debut — and whatever he cooks happens to be delicious.
901 Christian St., 215-798-6766; alicephiladelphia.com
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 4:30-10 p.m.
Main plates, $19-$42 (large format shared items, $65-$75).
Street parking only.
Not wheelchair accessible. There are two steps at the entrance, although bathroom is wheelchair accessible.
About 75% of the menu is gluten-free and all but two items can be modified.