Chef Sam Noh Impresses at Rouge
by ken alan
If Philadelphia were to suddenly become Paris circa 1925, then Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest of that moment’s café society would surely be regular clientele of Rouge, the diminutive jewel-box bistro that enraptures today’s residents and visitors alike, just as it would those auteurs célèbres from that bygone golden era.
Owned and operated since 2006 by Rob and Maggie Wasserman, and originally opened in 1998 by Maggie’s father, scene-breaking restaurateur Neil Stein, Rouge sits in the proverbial catbird seat along what’s arguably the city’s plummiest placement on Rittenhouse Square. With exceptional French-inspired cuisine, an exclusively élan cocktail culture, and Center City’s first and, still, most appealing sidewalk dining, Rouge endures as it adapts to today’s culinary directions—now more than ever, thanks to the subtle gustatory changes invoked by executive chef Sam Noh.
Noh was officially appointed lead chef earlier this year after almost two years as sous chef, working under Michael Yeamans. As Rouge loyalists will recall, Yeamans helped open the restaurant in 1998 and later returned for a successful two-year stint. But with Noh’s tutelage comes the promise of innovation through his Pan-Asian influences, as well as his keen interest in Mediterranean cuisines. No worries—the Rouge classics are here to stay. “Relax, Philly,” laughs Rob Wasserman. “Favorites like our hamburger, pomme frites, and the seared tuna will never go away.”
Chef Noh often finds himself deconstructing traditional, heavier recipes and re-creating them in a lighter vein. “I do this by using fresh seasonal ingredients and a bit of acid, and relying more on the flavor of the protein.” Recent examples can be seen in two creative offerings: fluffy potato herb gnocchi and fresh vegetables, contrasting the textures deliciously with a white verjus butter sauce, mint, and ramp tops; and his new scallop dish featuring risotto—“It gets a twist in my using a bit of vodka-soaked lemon zest, and then a Gallianoherb buerre monte.” Subtlety is Noh’s credo; there’s nothing overseasoned or swimming in butter at Rouge.
Rouge also invests heavily in its specialty cocktail cache. Ryan Reigel, who for two years ran the well-regarded beverage program at 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert, in the Ritz-Carlton, before joining Wasserman’s team in April, recognizes the importance of adding an artisan’s touch to his drinks menu. “Look for comeback spirits to be spotlighted at Rouge,” says Reigel. “Old-style vermouths, hand-crafted whiskeys, specialty aperitifs, and fun cocktail experimentations, as well.”
What has remained pleasantly static at Rouge are the 600 or 700 covers its staff sees a day during the weekend and, because of those numbers, how completely coveted each table—indoors or outdoors—can be. Wasserman understands the appeal: “Rouge is very unique, our customers are diversified, and every table has a story all its own.” He sees countless regulars—sports stars, local and international celebrities, socialites, top industry executives, and most everyone of influence from City Hall. Every Saturday afternoon, Film Office maven Sharon Pinkenson and hubby and Electronic Ink chairman Joe Weiss nuzzle at their favorite corner table; Phillie Shane Victorino rubs elbows with power players from Cozen O’Connor. “If Table 33 could speak of the [characters] that have sat in its chairs,” Wasserman laughs while recalling celeb sightings that include Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jack Nicholson, and Mick Jagger, “it could write a tell-all book!”
The Wassermans have more than just Rouge to occupy their time these days. They operate the burger paradise 500 Degrees on Sansom Street, and they’re soon introducing an American grill to Suburban Square called The Saint James, an exciting collaboration with chef Michael Schulson, who runs Midtown Village’s Sampan and Izakaya in Atlantic City. “We’ve brought on chef Matt Moon, who had previously been with some of the area’s top kitchens, including Talula’s Table and Talula’s Garden,” says Wasserman.
Meanwhile, back at Rouge, and again, assuming this were Paris in the 1920s, the young lions, the art and fashion makers, and the city’s leaders of the day would surely be toasting within this see-and-be-seen bistro, just as we do today. After all, any year is a good one to venture to Paris, and at Rouge, you’re practically there. 205 S. 18th St., 215-732-6622
photography by andrew kahl (rouge); getty images (diaz, jagger)