Q&A: What to Expect at Petruce et al. in Center CityBy Danya Henninger
January 14, 2014
Wood-fired cooking is hot right now, and within the next month, Center City will get its first restaurant centered around the concept. Brothers Justin and Jonathan Petruce and partner Tim Kweeder are preparing to launch Petruce et al. at 1121 Walnut Street, adding a destination dining room to a stretch currently dominated by cafes and quick-service spots.
We caught up with the trio to find out what to expect when they open, including modern plating of rustic preparations, natural wines, George Costa cocktails and zero pizza on the menu.
Zagat: Why focus on wood-fired cooking?
Jonathan Petruce: I was originally going to open a pizzeria with Tim, but then that kind of got out of control and everyone started opening pizzerias. But I still liked the concept of cooking with wood.
Zagat: So you’ve been planning to open your own place for a while?
Jonathan Petruce: I first started thinking about it maybe four or five years ago.
Justin Petruce: I didn’t get involved until about two years ago after Fish closed, and then I decided to join forces with these guys and make the project grow into more than a pizza place.
Jonathan: So then we decided to get a liquor license, because Tim’s got all this liquor and wine knowledge, so why not make use of it. The project turned from a small pizza BYO to a 70-seat restaurant on Walnut Street.
Zagat: What are the benefits of wood-fired cooking?
Justin: Not necessarily a smoky flavor, but I think it gives it a depth that you can’t get.
Justin: I’d call it umami - it gives it a flavor you can’t place, but can’t get anywhere else.
Jonathan: Then it turned out our whole project just revolves around doing things the natural way. Cooking with wood, fermenting products, baking bread, natural wines that haven’t been messed with. We’re going to try to do kind of the same thing with cocktails.
Zagat: Are you developing the food and the drink menu together?
Justin: Definitely - they’re both going to evolve, because we’re going to be as seasonal as we can, and the wine menu will coincide.
Tim Kweeder: I’ve been the beverage director at a.kitchen and a.bar for the past two years. It’s cool to be at a place like that, because we’re known for cocktails and wine and beer, not just one. And for Petruce et al., we’ve hired bartender George Costa and he’s going to be doing some seasonal syrups, maybe sodas. We’ll make as much as we can in house.
Zagat: Have you come up with the menu yet?
Justin: It’s very much a work in progress. I think about it too much - I change it and then change my mind and go back to what I originally started with. It probably won’t be ready until the week before we open.
Jonathan: We have a general idea - we want the bread program to be a big part of it, since we have that capability. Not bread before dinner, but composed plates with different types of breads.
Zagat: Are there any dishes you know will be on the menu?
Justin: Not really... we’re going to have a pretty large section of vegetables and smaller plates. Also some larger cuts; we have the ability to roast whole animals in the oven, so we’re going to take advantage of that.
Jonathan: A big, bone-in steak from the grill!
Justin: ...just smother it in some herbs and garlic. And definitely a couple pastas - baked in the oven.
Zagat: What kinds of wines go with wood-fired cooking?
Tim: We’re going to do a mess of food-friendly wines. Not your big-trophy wines, but more progressive wines. From small importers. Wines that are popular in food scenes in London, Paris, Tokyo, Lower Manhattan, San Francisco. These wines aren’t yet really popular in Philly, but they're catching on. Wines with character, not just neutral. Probably 100 on the bottle list, at prices accessible to everyone.
Zagat: Is there anything you know will definitely NOT be on the menu?
Justin and Jonathan (in sync): Pizza!
Zagat: No pizza?
Jonathan: Maybe we’ll do it like once a month, but we really don’t want to be a pizza restaurant.
Justin: Both Tim and Jonathan cooked in Naples, so they have a lot of talent and experience with real Neapolitan pizza. I think we should do something with that. But it won't be a regular menu item.
Zagat: Will you combine the wood-fired cooking with modern techniques?
Justin: I’m not opposed to that, but I don’t think we’re going to be doing sous-vide or anything, we’re going to keep the techniques pretty old-school.
Jonathan: On the plate, people probably will not think the food looks as rustic as we cooked it.
Justin: There will definitely be attention to detail on the plate. Not just turning the pan over.
Jonathan: We like to make things look nice.
Zagat: How would you describe your plating technique?
Justin: I often change the plating throughout the night. I’ll tweak every one throughout the night.
Jonathan: It’s probably less noticeable to the diner than to us.
Justin: But it makes it more interesting for us.
Jonathan: We both have a bit of an artistic side... we both went to art school, for a bit.
Zagat: How is the interior arranged?
Justin: The front room is mainly a bar area, a 13-seat bar and seating around the walls, then up around five steps to the dining room and the very open kitchen. It’s mostly built-in seating, booths on the wall. Urban Space Development did the design. Old world meets modern.
Zagat: Are there any other restaurants you took inspiration from, in food or design?
Jonathan: We got the idea for the Argentinian grill from a couple places in Portland.
Justin: The Portland restaurant scene - that look and feel is probably how it’s going to be inside.
Jonathan: Peasant in New York was probably the first wood-fired cooking place I’ve ever been too. That stuck in my mind. The smell, when you go in there, it’s just amazing. We’re going to have that, bring it to Philly.