It felt like we were intruding on a private moment. It was 5:30 p.m. on a cold February evening when we walked into James for an early dinner. There was no music playing in the restaurant. No one was even humming a tune, at least none that we could hear. But Chef Jim Burke and his wife, Kristina, were slow dancing in the restaurant’s intimate lounge. Chef Burke deftly twirled Kristina in front of the crackling fireplace. They smiled and laughed playfully. A small crowd, mostly James employees, watched silently as a well-equipped photographer snapped pictures of our two dancers. But the enchanted couple barely seemed to notice as they glided through the room to their own ballad. After one final spin and a longing gaze, it was time to get back to work. Chef Burke headed to the kitchen and Kristina returned to the elegant dining room to check on preparations for the evening’s service.
The restaurant had been open only two months when Chef Burke and Kristina danced to their silent music, but the song of James’s success was already starting to be written. The first note was the photographer that night. He was taking pictures for the June 2007 issue of Food & Wine magazine in which James’s signature dish was featured, Risotto alla Kristina—a scrumptiously soupy Venetian-style risotto made with Prosecco, orchid oil and raw oysters that are folded in at the end of the preparation to give them just a touch of warmth. Before the Food & Wine piece hit the streets, though, other influentials formed an inspirational chorus: Philadelphia Magazine, City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly, Philly Style Magazine, aroundphilly.com—each a unique voice, but all singing generally in tune. Then came Craig LaBan’s review. The deep, resonate tones of LaBan’s rarely-heard “three bells” and his lyrically penned prose made the symphony complete. Now, everyone can hear the tune that was guiding Jim and Kristina’s steps on that cold evening back in February. And the reservation book shows it; a thirty-two person wait list is not unheard of and the lounge is packed with diners clamoring to eat from the slightly abridged bar menu.
Such high accolades may seem surprising given that this is their first restaurant venture, but this couple has paid their dues. Kristina’s management stints have included the recently-closed Pasion!, Striped Bass and Miel Patisserie. And Chef Burke’s pedigree includes Vivo Enoteca in Wayne and Stephen Starr’s short-lived Italian restaurant, Angelina.
But the one restaurant on Chef Burke’s resume you could probably guess just by tasting his pasta is Vetri. Chef Marc Vetri is renowned for crafting authentic, homemade pasta. And it’s clear that Chef Vetri passed these artisan skills on to Chef Burke because the pasta at James is pitch perfect. Burke’s skills do not stop there; he’s also a virtuoso when it comes to combining flavors to strike creative culinary chords. The espresso, for example, he added to the winter menu’s savory Sweet Potato Ravioli with Oxtail Ragu gives the dish depth and allows the sweetness of both the filling and red wine sauce to emerge. Similarly, the delicate earthiness of the porcini mushrooms in this season’s Stuffed Tortelloni highlight the bright blueberry sauce. And, of course, the synergy between the mild orange and chocolate flakes shaved tableside in his popular hand-rolled Pappardelle with Duck Ragu makes this dish a masterpiece.
Burke’s meats, too, should not be overlooked. His secret is to select fresh, quality cuts of meat and not to overly prepare them. Last season’s pork loin, for example, was prepared by first gently searing it and then slowly cooking it on a low heat to concentrate the flavors and hold in the juices. This season’s Cornish Game Hen receives similar respect—delicately crisp on the outside while tender, juicy and flavorful on the inside. And the locally grown vegetables that were still in the ground only a few days earlier serve as the perfect complement to this hen.
The desserts at James trend toward the savory side, but they often incorporate citrus elements for a little sweetness and some refined contrast. The addictive Chocolate Terrine, which is made with bittersweet chocolate, sits on crisp olive oil fried bread and is topped with Fleur de Sel, is accompanied by some refreshing quince paste. Also, the rich Brown Ale Mousse, which sits on a pillowy almond cake and is topped with a crisp, toasty almond toffee, comes with sliced pears. Those with more of a sweet tooth can add a scoop of homemade gelato, which have included exciting flavors such as Cardamom and Black Walnut from Green Meadow Farms.
If there’s anything about James that could strike a challenging chord for some, it would be the portion size and price. The portions are not large; they’re elegantly sized, probably more in line with the amount of food we should be eating and not what we’ve been conditioned to believe is necessary. So, those looking for never-ending pasta bowls should eat elsewhere. That said, the meals I’ve had at James have been satisfying and I’ve never left hungry or wanting more. The prices at James are in line with what you’d expect to pay at other fine restaurants in Center City. And the stylish food and professional and attentive service at James are definitely worth the money. But the prices mirror the grace and sophistication of the couple’s creation, making James more of a special occasion destination than an everyday hangout.
Much like a poetic symphony from the Romantic era, James seems destined to become one of the classics. Center City will be singing and dancing to Jim and Kristina’s music for a long time to come.
824 S. 8th Street
For more pics, check out the James set on my Flickr page.