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March, 2005 3 Moderate-Expensive 40th and Chestnut Streets
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It pains me to do this, really, but I just pulled a fork from Nan's rating, it had carried the highest rating for several years, and now drops to a 4-fork "excellent" rating. But PLEASE don't be dissuaded from going, I still think it's a superior restaurant, and probably worthy of a 4-and-a-half, or four-and-three-quarters fork rating if I were going to get that picky about it. I do still like Nan more than most of the 4-fork places reviewed here, but my last visit just wasn't quite as "close to perfect" as previous ones had been. It comes down primarily to the side-dishes. On my first three visits, ALL aspects of the food were delightful. On my last visit, the sides were not very good, but more distressing, not carefully done. I still heartily endorse this restaurant, and will go back soon, and hope I can restore that fifth fork, but I just felt it would be negligent of me to leave that highest rating in the face of a significant flaw in the food.

Despite sharing the name of an Indian flatbread, and its location, in the heart of West Philly's former concentration of Indian restaurants along 40th and Chestnut, Nan is not an Indian place. What it is, is a little hard to describe. It's fusion cuisine in the best sense of the term, an amalgam of Asian, French, Nouvelle and other styles. At our visits, just about everything worked.

The decor here is minimal, bordering on spartan, with plain cream-colored walls, adorned only with a few fabrics. They could probably use a few more of the fabrics, as the broad expanses of bare wall can really amplify the noise of animated diners, but the spare, clean look does compliment the efficient no-nonsense cuisine.

Indicative of the breadth of influences, the soups on our first visit were Thai chicken lemongrass and a cold cucumber with dill. The cucumber soup was delicate and flavorful, with a pleasing not-too-pureed texture allowing small bits of cucumber to remain. Another special of cauliflower-watercress was touched with a bit of cream, and somehow balanced on the razor-edge between hearty and light. The chicken lemongrass soup, did not knock our socks off on the first visit. It was a very fine version of the classic Tom Yum available at any Thai restaurant in the world, but seemed less than special. But the sizeable bowl we got recently was truly special: tangy, hearty, with the tenderest chicken I've ever had in soup.

An appetizer of chicken satay is a dish that has been done to death, so what new could the kitchen have to show us? Yet this satay was transcendent. The sauce was mellow but complex, not just a glob of gentrified peanut butter. But the remarkable aspect was the chicken itself. It was impossibly tender, extremely juicy, and much more chicken-y than usual, enhanced, but not overwhelmed by grill flavors.

A special thai beef salad followed the same pattern, it was structurally the same as the "Yum Nuea" you might get at the Thai place down the street, but this was amped-up by using only the highest-quality ingredients. Thinly sliced rare filet mignon had a beautiful caramelization around the edges, the sweetness of that crust playing off the sour lime and fishsauce dressing. A bed of fresh spring greens contrasted with the still-warm beef.

The grilled squid salad featured perfectly cooked squid, tender with just a touch of grill char, served just slightly warm over a salad of good greens, thin roasted red pepper strips, fresh mint, and a lime dressing. The combination of the slightly sweet caramelized edges of the grilled squid, the sour dressing, the rich roasted pepper and a tingle of mint, is a taste that lingered in my memory for days.

A Goat Cheese, Arugula and Radiccio salad was another example of the sum being greater than the parts. Not that there was anything wrong with the parts: the goat cheese was tangy and creamy, the arugula and radiccio scrupulously fresh, a subtle vinaigrette binding the elements together. Simple. Perfect.

A special of asparagus in puff pastry was electrified by a lemon butter sauce so intense it threatened to run away with the dish, but just barely stayed within bounds, to make this a refreshing, spring-like refresher.

I've tried three versions of duck (I know, I need to get out of this rut!) first the "Peking" duck breast, which bore no structural similarity to classic Peking Duck, but instead featured boneless duck breast in an intense, fruity sauce that echoed the tangy edge that hoisin sauce plays in the original. I order duck as often as I can in restaurants, and this was one of my favorites. The sauce was extremely powerful, but somehow, magically, would gradually give way to the rich, full flavor of the perfectly medium-rare duck.

The roasted half-duck in a plum-tamarind sauce is not lots different, featuring boneless, crispy slices of duck breast alongside a leg. This sauce is similarly intense, fruity and a bit sour from the tamarind. DDP flailed his head around and jumped in his chair when tasting it, and pronounced it superior.

The third version, a recent special, found a generous portion of thin duck breast slices, crusted with five-spice powder, seated in a deep red Chinese vinegar sauce. The duck had a silky softness reminiscent of liver, but none of that taste, just a right meaty, slightly gamy flavor accented by the musky spices and sour sauce. In retrospect, I wonder if I mis-heard my server on my first visit, and the dish was actually "Pekin" duck, referring to the breed of the bird. There's some chance that this recent special was actually the same as the first duck dish mentioned here.

This is a common complaint about Nan, even from its fans: that the menu has remained almost unchanged from the day the doors opened, even the "specials" are pretty reliably the same. On one hand I like being able to go back and reliably get my favorite dishes, on the other hand, a little variety would be nice.

DDP's salmon with red curry and lemongrass was much more subtle than the intense duck, despite the assertive spices. The mild and fresh-tasting fish was topped with a spicy but not overwhelming red curry paste, and seated on a pool of coconut cream enlivened by lemongrass and mild curry.

CDP was glad she took a chance on a special of Opa fish with herb crust in a ginger sauce. This was a fairly strong-tasting fish, but one that held up well to the crunchy herb coating, and the sweet ginger sauce on the plate.

A special of Tilapia in a miso cream sauce was also subtler than some of the offerings here, but every bit as delicious if you let the flavors reveal themselves to you.

Entrees were usually accompanied by perfectly-executed sides of simply sautéed vegetables, and dangerously delicious potatoes or rice. On our third visit a disappointing plate of bland, dry and cold roasted root vegetables was the only mar on an otherwise fantastic meal, this sidedish really seemed like an uncharacteristically sloppy afterthought.

Portions were large, so large in fact that we couldn't fit dessert the first time, but on my second run we found some space somewhere. The warm chocolate cake was delicate and refreshingly not too sweet, complimented by a pool of raspberry coulis. More unusual was a feather-light puff pastry filled with pastry cream, topped with sautéed apples, hovering above a sea of caramel sauce that was somehow intense without being cloyingly sweet. We got the same two desserts on another visit and they were every bit as good.

Dinner with two soups, appetizers and entrees, but no dessert, ran about $70 including tip. Swapping the soup for dessert actually saved us a couple bucks, totaling about $65. Soup, apps, entrees AND dessert just topped $100 for two. Considering the quality of the food here, Nan is quite a bargain, with some entrees remaining below $20, and most in the low-to-mid 20s, at least 4 or 5 bucks less than similar dishes would go for a few blocks away. And, it's a BYOB, which can save you a couple bucks on wine if you plan ahead.

It's a small place, and seemingly very popular, so reservations are strongly recommended especially on Friday or Saturday nights. Service has been very friendly, and a bit on the casual side, which is fine with me.

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