On Avance, Justin Bogle’s New Restaurant

By Danya Henninger  |  August 22, 2013

Later this year, the former Le Bec Fin space at 1523 Walnut Street will bloom again as Avance, a progressive American restaurant from chef Justin Bogle. An area native, Bogle got his start cooking here - he worked at  Alma de Cuba and then at Striped Bass under Christopher Lee, who he then followed to Gilt in NYC. Bogle eventually assumed the top toque spot at the Madison Avenue dining room.

We caught up with the chef recently via telephone to find out what convinced him to return, what he thinks of the Philadelphia dining scene, what made him feel like he was just handed the keys to a Lamborghini, and what to expect at Avance.

Zagat: How did you decide to relocate to Philadelphia?
Justin Bogle: When Chris Scarduzio asked me to get involved at 1523 Walnut, I’d already been looking for a spot in New York for several months, since Gilt closed back in December. Actually, the previous general manager at Le Bec Fin had reached out to me, too, but I wasn’t ready. Then Chris got involved, and offered full involvement in the creation of a totally new restaurant. It just worked out.

Zagat: Had you heard good things about the Philly food scene?
JB: Yes, especially recently. So much has changed since I was here. Before I even moved back I had great experiences - I sat at the bar at Vernick and loved it, and same thing at Fork. Now I’m just starting to explore everything that’s popped up since I’ve been gone. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a really great meal at Will.

Of course there’s also my standards - Taqueria La Veracruzana on Washington Avenue, all the great Vietnamese places, the roast pork sandwiches.

Zagat: What’s the Philly restaurant that most reminds you of New York?
JB: I’d have to say Serpico - that makes sense, I guess. I had a really good dinner there. [Chef Peter Serpico also recently relocated from New York, where he worked under Momofuku maestro David Chang.]

Zagat: Serpico definitely has a style unique in Philly. Can we expect an experience like that at Avance?
JB: I think I have developed my own unique style - it’s very close to my heart. When I took over Gilt, I was just 28 years old, so I didn’t have my own thing yet, but my food really evolved over those four years.

Zagat: PR calls your style “progressive American” with “inventive plating preparations.” What does that mean?
JB: There’s this horrible label of “molecular gastronomy,” and the food at Avance is definitely not that. There have been good things that have come of that movement, sure - look at sous-vide, everyone uses it - but it’s good only when it’s needed. If I can cook a dry-aged duck on the bone over wood, and that results in a better final product, that’s what I’m going to go for. It’s not the technique that drives the cuisine, it’s the texture and flavor.

Zagat: Regarding plating, do you use tweezers and such? Christopher Kearse makes a salad at Will with tweezers, plucking from over a dozen mis-en-place containers.
JB:  I do have a salad that I’ve gotten recognition for that is similar, 15-20 components that are intricately plated. But at Avance, there will be beautiful but there will also be simple - I don’t want the food to be boxed in, in any way.

Zagat: What’s will be the driving concept behind the food at Avance, then?
JB: My key goal is to “speak of the moment” - not what’s trendy right now, but what’s in season. What are we thinking about in the kitchen, what are the farmers thinking in the fields, what are the guests experiencing at this very moment? It’s about the ingredients.

For example, peaches and tomatoes, they’re around and pretty good for a big chunk of the summer, but there’s a short window when they’re at their very best! We’d like the restaurant to evolve to a point where we’re only using them during that window.

We’re going to be always changing the menu at Avance, always pushing ourselves forward - it’s in the name. We’re not going to open and say, “Ok, that’s it, done, we’re good to go.”

Zagat: Will you do prix-fixe tasting menus like Le Bec Fin? Will they be at the same (high) price point?
JB: We’re going to have an à la carte menu and also two different tasting options, at least to start. Likely a five-course tasting and something larger than that, which will probably come in a bit below $150.

I want people to be able to stop in and have an app and an entree and a glass of wine, a casual meal. However, if you’re interested in seeing what we’re really about, what we can really do, you should go for the tasting option. Maybe someday we can go tasting menu only - it’s one of my long term goals - but at the beginning, we want to cast a wider net.

Zagat: So the restaurant will be more casual than Le Bec Fin?
JB: We want people to have fun at Avance - it’s not going to be a stuffy room. There’s a redefined version - a new definition - of fine dining. The old guard has faded, though they’re still respected, but now we’re reinterpreting what great dining is.

Zagat: Shorts in the dining room?
JB: [Laughs] Oh no, not really a shorts kind of place, I don’t think.

Zagat: Will the decor be fancy, then? Do you have a say in that side of things?
JB: Yes, I’m 100% involved in the design, and it’s pretty much a dream come true. To be brought on and then have people say “Alright chef, tell me what you want!” - it’s like someone gave me the keys to a Lamborghini and said "Take it for a spin.”

Right now we’re trying to keep the actual design under wraps, but I can say that the room will speak of the food - it will have very modern and contemporary approach, but be organic in nature.

The decor and the dining room atmosphere are a huge part of the whole experience. I feel like that connection is missing sometimes, that there’s a disconnect between what’s coming out of the kitchen and what the experience is on the other side of the door.

It’s very important to tie those things together. The kitchen can be all geeked out over incredible ingredients, but if that message can’t be relayed somehow, on the other side... I’m not saying servers are going to give you a 15 minute speech about the origins of each dish, but knowledge will be an important part of the Avance experience.