Give Philadelphia credit for consistency. The last time the CVB was here in Washington, D.C., they hosted a lunch at Le Diplomate — a then-new French bistro that just so happens to be owned by a premier Philly restaurateur. This past Wednesday, they were back in D.C. to celebrate the opening of Rural Society, a new Argentinian steakhouse from Jose Garces, probably Philadelphia’s best-known chef, with a James Beard Award, an Iron Chef title, and 17 restaurants in seven cities to his name. He’s also an amazing cook and a terrifically nice guy, but more on that in just a bit.
Philadelphia did a good job of mixing business and pleasure by rooting its event in the culture and rhythms of the new restaurant— like they’d invited all of us to hang out at this cool place they just discovered, and by the way, here’s some information that might interest you. As guests arrived and began to mingle, waitstaff circulated with trays of drinks — the spicy El Diablo, with tequila, pineapple, and habanero, and the tart Macau, with rum, guava, and citrus. Eventually Lorenz Hassenstein — general manager of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which last fall signed a management contract with SMG — stood at the front of the room. Against the clangs and sizzles of Rural Society’s grill-fired kitchen, Hassenstein spoke at length, with a sort of optimistic candor, about SMG’s ongoing efforts to resolve the “interesting jurisdictional challenges” involved in working with the six different labor unions that operate in the center. (Read here about a show that just announced its return to Philly specifically because of the convention center’s new work rules.)
Then the chef took center stage. Gracious and unassuming, Garces invited people to arrange themselves around a table set with ingredients for two of Rural Society’s signature grilled dishes: pamplona de puerco (stuffed pork tenderloin) and mollejas (lamb sweetbreads). As he prepared the dishes, he alternated between discussing the influences on his cooking in general and this menu in particular (the pamplona, for example, was the result of a trip he and his team took to Uruguay) and, like a hospitality pro, talking up his city. A Chicago native whose parents emigrated from Ecuador in the 1960s, Garces called Philadelphia “my adopted hometown.” He said: “Attracting convention business is key, and we’re happy to be part of that allure just by offering good food.”
He wasn’t kidding. The pamplona and mollejas were both delicious, seared and smoky, crispy and chewy. Later Garces sat toward the back of the room, chatting and signing copies of his new cookbook, The Latin Road Home. I learned that he still roots for Chicago sports teams but also has a soft spot for the Philadelphia Eagles (my kind of guy — have I mentioned that I’m from Philly?), and we talked about the complicated fan dynamics of raising kids in a different sports town from where we grew up.
Garces moved to Philadelphia and began building his restaurant empire some years after I left, but I’ve always felt a connection to him because of my hometown, and it was nice to reinforce that in person with some good food and interesting conversation. I guess you could say it was just another successful face-to-face event.