REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
In mid-October of 2010, the Sofitel Hotel at 120 S. 17th St., Philadelphia, opened Liberté, a restaurant and lounge serving contemporary, French-inspired food and hand-crafted cocktails in a classy setting that seats about 100. Liberté’s focal point is the gorgeous oval-shaped central bar where mixologists shake, rattle and stir hand-crafted cocktails. You’re likely to see some beautiful people there.
Liberté offers French-inspired plates from a kitchen led by executive chef Justin Perdue, who told us he decided to become a professional chef because “my best friend growing up told me, ‘You’re always cooking. You should go to culinary school.’” He has probably been asked dozens of times if he is related to the Perdue chicken empire family. His answer: “If I was, I would not be working for a living.”
Perdue came to Philly by way of LM Restaurant in the Sofitel Hotel in Chicago and the Windy City’s Michelin-star Sixteen at Trump International Hotel & Tower, where he was sous chef. He started at the Sofitel on March 10 of this year, replacing Jim Coleman, who was once a major force here when he was head chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel as well as a radio and TV personality with a Saturday afternoon cooking show on Channel 12.
“My early career,” said Perdue, “was a true blend of classic French and contemporary American between my education and time with chefs Bobby Flay and Rick Bayless … And working with chef Frank Brunacci at Sixteen changed my mentality of how to approach food, and it was there that I learned to incorporate artistry with refined ingredients and find balance in every bite.”
Perdue pushes the possibilities of cooking and presentation like a jockey whipping his mount down the stretch. The food is designed on the plates with a jeweler’s precision. Each plate is constructed like a recipe, with every component building upon the one before, resulting in dishes that look artistic and taste sublime.
The menu is not extensive, including just five appetizers, six entrees and six desserts. Appetizers range in price from $8 to $12 and entrees from $22 to $32. But when it comes to price, I say, “Damn the torpedoes of our ongoing economic malaise that defies the booming stock market!”
Cocktails are a major part of the equation at Liberté. “Hotel bars are the original epicenters of class and cool,” said one mixologist at Liberté. We loved two “girly,” fruity cocktails, Rendezvous and Four Aces, although they are very pricey at $14 each. I tried Honey Bud ($12), which is for the hard-core, two-fisted straight whiskey drinker. For me it was like a punch in the gut.
An international wine list offers quite a few varieties by the glass and wine flights that will allow guests to experience three styles for the price of one. One great choice was the Nicolas Potel Pinot Noir, 2011, from Burgundy, with a well-balanced acidity and soft tannins. Beer selections include several local favorites.
A starter of stone ground polenta with crispy egg, a whisper of wild mushroom and au jus, was impeccably moist and delicate ($12); fresh burrata cheese, as soft as down feathers, luxuriated in a marriage of pickled mushroom, arugula, blueberry and fig vinegar ($12). A seared Alaskan halibut entree (according to the menu, only 310 calories) practically melted into an indulgent confit of leeks, spring vegetables and a divine sauce vierge (a French sauce made from olive oil, lemon juice, chopped tomato and chopped basil). It was well worth the $26 price tag.
The Atlantic salmon was a study in symbiotic contrasts with a transcendent artichoke puree, fava beans, spring onions and citrus vinaigrette ($24). This was understated luxury, the perfect antidote to so many of the boring salmon warhorses one finds these days. “Cleaning the artichokes is the hardest part,” said the chef.
Our server, Annalisa Ragusa, was an absolute treasure who enhanced our dining experience with her sparkling personality and intimate knowledge of the food and wine menus.
Although Liberté has been in business for almost four years, even many foodies are not aware that it exists. What they need is a front door facing the restaurant, as they do have at the Palomar Hotel across the street and at a.kitchen near Rittenhouse Square. Countless thousands of people walk right past the Sofitel every day, but they cannot see the restaurant, which is about 50 yards or so back from the front door. “Most of our dinner guests are people staying in the hotel,” said Perdue. “We hope to change that and get more locals in here.”
Liberté is open for lunch and dinner daily, with a late-night menu available until 1 a.m. Afternoon “LiberTea” is served from 2 to 4:30 p.m.
For more information, call (215) 569-8300 or visit www.libertelounge.com