by kristin detterline-munro photography by andrew kahl | December 8, 2011 |
Food & Drink
The Buddha watches over Buddakan’s many diners.
Pull open Buddakan’s glossy door and step inside, and you are immediately struck by the coolness of it all. The flowing water wall; the gauzy floor-to-ceiling drapes; the nameless faces adorning each starched, stark-white chair back. Waiters dressed entirely in black move purposefully around the open dining room, their well-traced orbits lined with guests of all ages and manners of dress. Wavy ambient beats ring out from above, a Zen-inspired soundtrack that has kept Buddakan’s ethereal golden Buddha contentedly cross-legged since 1998. No one has been more content with the success of Buddakan than owner Stephen Starr. After 13 years, his ode to Asian fusion cuisine remains one of Philadelphia’s biggest food successes. It is the sweetest of payoffs for a concept that critics dubbed risky and expensive at the time of its opening. Buddakan was only Starr’s second restaurant, after all, an ambitious follow-up to his retro-hip The Continental, a few blocks away. But Philadelphians were immediately captivated by its mood as much as by its menu, waiting for hours to dine family style at the 24-seat communal table. No matter, though: The Philadelphia dining scene was having a moment, and stalled seating simply meant more time to soak it all in alongside the city’s heavy hitters and visiting celebrities. After all, they were probably stuck waiting at some point, too.
Edamame ravioli in a truffled Sauternes-shallot broth
Buddakan’s newness may have faded in the literal sense, but in its place, there remains a true feeling of familiarity. Consistency and a faithful stable of regulars are the primary factors, says Buddakan general manager Michele Evans. “We are so grateful that people still come to Buddakan after all this time and that we continue to meet their expectations,” says Evans, who has been a member of Team Starr for more than five years. (Most recently, Evans was part of the opening staff for Starr’s wildly successful Parc.)
There have been few dish changes along the way; overall the majority of the menu is very similar to the one that first enamored guests, a family-style affair with a firm Asian foundation that has strong American appeal. At lunch, hot and cold appetizers, dim sum, and entrées include Buddakan staples that make an appearance at dinner as well: silky edamame ravioli, garlic-laced grilled lamb chops, char-grilled aged beef with Szechuan fries, and the pan-seared sea bass. Some of them even appear on Buddakan’s famous well-portioned and customizable Bento Lunch, a menu that dominates among the mid-day crowds of businessmen, ladies who lunch, and unhurried out-of-towners.
Kobe beef slider with Thai basil aioli on toasted sesame brioche
Executive chef Mark Hellyar, who took over for veteran opening chef Scott Swiderski in mid-2010, has been slowly carving out his own legacy by offering more avante-garde dishes that are still in line with the Asian fusion theme, like the Vietnamese O Toro carpaccio with finger lime caviar and peanuts. He says it has been a chance to engage more sophisticated or curious palates with traditional preparations he learned during his time in Japan. “We offer these dishes as daily specials,” says Hellyar, who worked at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo. “It’s really about making sure the waitstaff is educated so they can educate diners.”
One thing is for certain about Buddakan’s frequent diners: They are well schooled when it comes to the menu. “If we take a dish off the menu or alter it in any way, our guests know,” says Evans. “We are very strategic about movement on the menu. There is such an emotional nature to these dishes, for both guests and the staff.” Prime-time reservations are especially hard to come by during the holiday season, when larger parties vie for seating at the communal table. And bolstered by the success of last year’s inaugural run, Buddakan will be open once again on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Don’t look for any special holiday menus, though. As 13 years proves, there is no point in messing with a good thing. 325 Chestnut St., 215-574-9440