LA TERRASSE REVIEW
La Terrasse, the restaurant that pioneered upscale dining on the
Penn campus in the late 1960s, has returned. After a nine-year hiatus,
the restaurant has been revived at the same location on Sansom Street by
Bill Hoffman, C'81, an alumnus of both Penn and the original La
Terrasse. For most students, it was a special-occasion restaurant; for
the law school, a nearby watering hole. For the faculty, the original La
Terrasse was a place to feed, and possibly impress, visiting seminar
speakers and potential Penn faculty without causing too much fuss at the
departmental business office when filing for a reimbursement. Asked by
this publication to review La Terrasse, I recalled that my first visit
was during my interview trip to Penn in December of 1971.
by Ponzy Lu
The logo for the new La Terrasse says it was established in 1966. Back
then, the terrace was of irregular red brick with big trees that grew
through the roof and radiant heaters, both gas and electric, that kept
diners warm throughout the winter. The new La Terrace is slick, with a
smooth brick floor on the terrace and white cloths on the tables. The
graphics in their advertising and menu are antiqued black-and-white
photographs of the new chefs and an old French sidewalk scene. There is
also a Parisian chef who shuttles in regularly to maintain a direct
connection to the source of gastronomy.
The lunch menu offers both traditional items and more trendy choices.
For the traditionally minded, there is cassoulet with confit of duck and
salade Nicoise. I do not recall ever eating cassoulet from a table with
a white tablecloth; usually it was part of a plat du jour served on
newsprint or possibly a red checked table cover. Seared fusion-cuisine
tuna in a salad from the Cote d'Azur seems a novel idea for a French
restaurant, but Tex-Mex is also now hot in Paris.
For our appetizers we went for the classics: escargots and foie gras.
The foie gras was perfectly sauteed, but its bed of crunchy lentils -- a
contrast of textures in principle -- did not work. And the layer of
greens, a visual contrast to keep the plate from being too brown, was
wetted with a too-acidic vinaigrette. The snails, fricasseed with wild mushrooms,
were the light composition that is trendy these days. It reminded me of
the vegetable soup of our landlady in Marseilles and would earn a
healthy choice by our health care system. Traditionalists, however, will
miss the ritual dunking of bread in melted garlic butter.
The main courses were grilled duck breast and venison fillet. These were
the highlights of the evening, both with brown sauces that were close to
perfect. The duck (cut across the muscle fibers rather than along the
fiber as is usually done in France) was served with a poivarde, and the
venison in chevreuil. To complete the basic food groups, mashed potatoes
accompanied the duck, and couscous was used as a footing to display the
fanned array of thin venison slices. The potatoes were ordinary, not the
kind with copious butter and heavy cream found in French cookbooks. The
couscous was actually quaint -- and reminded us of the role of North
Africa in today's French diversity.
Desserts, a Marjolaine with warm cherry sauce and a chocolate gateau,
were visually exciting, but they tasted more like Milky Ways than
patisserie. This was the weakest course. The wines by the glass were
adequate. The house Portuguese wines, which the original La Terrasse
introduced to Philadelphia, are still there. My fondest memory was the
1970 Chateau Haut Brion at a price we slipped by the Chemistry business
office without a stir -- less than $100 a bottle in the late 1980s.
The service was flawless, the dining experience certainly the best in
West Philadelphia. La Terrasse today is the equal of most of the best of
Center City. Only three or four places can be counted on to be
consistently better. We spent $135 for two including wine and tip, and
it should be quite easy to leave contented for under $100 for two. To
put this in perspective: our dinner took about 100 minutes, or the same
as two class periods. At the current rate, two class periods for two at
Penn cost $240. Dinner at La Terrasse is a good buy.
3432 Sansom Street