15 S. Third St.
Credit cards accepted
Open for lunch and dinner
Reservations a good idea
Webster’s Dictionary cites five definitions for the Latin-rooted "novelty." One is "an article of trade having mainly amusement value and whose appeal is often transitory." Things like joy buzzers, whoopee cushions, pet rocks and holiday tchotchkes such as Halloween rubber bats and plastic Easter eggs come to mind.
Until two years, ago, there was a long-standing shop in Old City that sold every kind of novelty under the sun. In June 2000, chef Bruce Cooper, who earned rousing culinary success when he opened Jake’s in Manayunk years ago, decided to turn the vacant novelty store into a restaurant. The name?
Novelty, of course.
Cooper is known for his understated style of cuisine. He never went in for gimmicks or food that was cutesy. He always insisted upon using the freshest ingredients available and created a dish, bursting with flavor, with just a few of them.
For some reason, Novelty escaped me. I don’t know why it took me two years to review the restaurant. And what a glorious experience dining at Novelty truly is.
We booked a table for 6:45 on a weeknight and were delighted to discover couples sipping drinks outside and happy patrons dining inside. Edward and I were in for a surprise. Two months ago, Cooper decided to offer a three-course $25 prix-fixe dinner Sundays through Thursdays, and now will offer three glasses of wine during the meal for an additional $10. You get the chance to order your dinner from the regular Novelty menu. In other words, this is a real bargain.
Service was as fine as the food. We settled into a roomy table and received sourdough bread and whipped sweet butter studded with chopped chives. From the wine list, Edward selected a rich red ($27) from the Apuglia region of Italy. We chose the red because, thank goodness, it was a cool, breezy night and we were in the mood for hearty fare.
Fried oysters and homemade succotash were an appetizer special. Although the oysters were on the small side — there were four of them — they were crisp and free of grease, and creamy inside. The succotash did not contain lima beans. It was a mixture of sweet, local white corn, off the cob, mixed with chopped tomatoes. It was a cool, tasty foil for the piping-hot oysters.
Four steamed veal dumplings were fashioned with transparent homemade dough, each filled with nicely seasoned minced veal. They arrived in a homemade consomm� enhanced by fresh shiitake mushrooms, ginger and chopped scallions. I ate them with chopsticks and finished the broth with a spoon.
Edward and I split a salad for $7 extra. It was prepared with three of my favorite greens: watercress, Boston lettuce and endive. The flavored mix was downright delicious. Watercress has a peppery flavor while Boston lettuce is light and buttery. Endive provides a slightly bitter taste and crunch for texture. The salad was tossed with Roquefort and bits of crisp bacon, all perfectly dressed in a light vinaigrette.
Roasted Peking duck was tender and luscious. The breast meat was sliced and fanned out prettily on the plate. A juicy duck leg was placed in the center.
Duck with orange sauce is traditional and tr�s Fran�ais. I haven’t seen it on a menu in years. The sauce was reduced with natural juices and fresh orange juice, imparting a slightly sweet flavor. A mound of braised baby bok choy accompanied the duck.
Herb-crusted lamb steak arrived rare as ordered. I received four meaty slices, tender, juicy and filled with flavor. It was so tender, I didn’t need the steak knife our courteous waiter set by my plate. My dinner arrived with saut�ed spinach studded with toasted pine nuts, sweet currants and saut�ed onion. The lamb was served in a pool of demi-glace shot with apricot juice.
I never pass up homemade pecan pie because it is one of my favorites. I received an individual tart with pecans and traditional filling, which was not at all sweet. Sometimes the corn syrup used in making pecan pie overpowers the nut-like crunch because the pastry chef has a heavy hand. A small scoop of rich, homemade vanilla ice cream sat on the tart. The plate was decorated with rich caramel sauce. With this in life, I don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving.
Edward feasted on homemade warm chocolate pudding cake, thick with dark imported chocolate with the consistency of a dense bread pudding. The dessert was decorated with raspberry and chocolate sauces and a bit of cr�me anglaise.
Service was excellent throughout our meal. Flatware was changed for each course. Our waiter asked if we wanted more bread and butter because both enhanced our appetizers and salad. He poured our wine and filled our water glasses because he was watching the table. The dining room was busy and I noticed the patrons around us received the same considerate care and attention as we did.
If ordered � la carte, the oysters are $8 and the veal dumplings $7.50. The Peking duck is $22.50, the roast lamb $22. All desserts are $7. Entr�es run $18-$23. Thus, the $25 prix fixe has to be one of the best deals in town.
Cooper obviously has another winner with Novelty. Although he is culinarily responsible for Jake’s and Novelty, neither suffers because he has not spread himself too thin. He waited a number of years before opening his second restaurant. Novelty is novel, indeed.
Three tips of the toque to Novelty.