When I first heard about a new chef taking the reins at Six Burner, the description of his hands piqued my interest. With the words foie gras spelled out in tattoos across his knuckles, I thought, this guy's either a poser or really serious about his craft. During the past year I've sampled his cooking many times, and Philip Denny lives up to the hype.
A native of Chicago, where he attended culinary school and was influenced by its ethnic cuisines, Denny also worked at Michel Richard's Citronelle in Washington and Lemaire in Richmond. In the fall at the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction, his Six Burner team took second place with its trotter and foie gras croquette — ground pigs' feet and foie gras in a panko-crusted ball of heaven with a spicy harissa sauce. It's one of my top five dishes from 2009.
While chef Denny's craft is genuine, it's unfortunate that the front-end operations haven't reached the same heights. Two recent visits are strong on the food side, but the experience suffers from mediocre service. A Wednesday night finds the restaurant almost full of pre-“Wicked” theater patrons. After a drink at the bar and a fortuitous reservation cancellation, we're seated. Excited about the prix fixe special, we choose from the regular menu as the Web site indicated. We are told, however, “that policy has been changed,” and instead we must choose from a much more limited menu.
Lack of choices withstanding, the meal is excellent. As an addition, I can't resist the lure of shad roe, a favorite rite of spring that I hope lives up to its description. It does, and more. Breathtaking flavors and the combination of lemony arugula salad, sunchoke purAce and fried egg perfectly complements the pan-fried sacs of roe, paradoxically fragile yet hearty, more akin to liver than caviar.
The fried oysters are another hit, lightly battered and crisped just long enough and artfully displayed with a spicy tartar. Tender roast quail is served on mashed potatoes surrounded by a demiglace redolent of rosemary. As good as my meal is, my wife's doesn't meet the same high mark. Her rockfish is surprisingly fishy tasting, and a bed of polenta is bland. Our desserts are uneven as well. While the homemade espresso gelato shines, the red velvet cupcake is dry.
A recent trend is the Sunday supper. New to the Six Burner list of offerings, we decide to treat the family to dinner. After seeing pork chops on the menu and confirming the offering on the phone, the kids agree and we're even more enticed by the Web site offer for kids younger than 10 to eat for free. Upon arriving a few minutes before opening, we're surprised at the crowd 25 deep that's queued up waiting for the doors to open. We're seated at a booth, and are happy to see the white paper over the tablecloth that will serve as a drawing surface for our boys while we wait for dinner.
While our service is adequate, the wait staff is out of sync with the kitchen and is undereducated as to its offerings. It seems that menus are still being printed. And there are no pork chops as I had confirmed. The Sunday supper menu consists of a salad or fried oysters, roasted quail with mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe, and a choice of citrus panna cotta or small apple pies for dessert. My kids' palates go beyond mac and cheese and chicken nuggets, but I'm anxious about the quail.
They pick at the salad starter of spicy microgreens topped with a lemony dressing, a bit too peppery for them but perfect for us. When the platter of quail arrives, I see their eyes get big, but they do well with it. The food is all very well prepared, and for $20 a head, the three-course meal is very well priced.
The apple pies, served a la mode with vanilla ice cream, are a hit, and my 5-year-old declares, “It was better than catching a leprechaun.”
While chef Denny's cooking offers glimpses of brilliance, I wish I could say the same for the service. I hope that Six Burner learns to keep its Web site updated and educates its staff about what's coming out of the kitchen. Sometimes it's pure magic, and it's a shame when that gets overshadowed by lackluster delivery. S
Six Burner ($$$)
1627 W. Main St.
Monday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.
Sunday supper and a la carte 5:30-8:30 p.m.