Restaurant Review: Society Hill Society

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Society Hill Society | Photo by Courtney Apple

In the annals of faint praise, neighborhood restaurant is a peculiar epithet. People usually apply it to the places that make them feel most welcome. Yet it’s a dismissive classification—not just because it implies that a place merits only limited attention, but because it suggests that one neighborhood restaurant is more or less interchangeable with any other. Warm hospitality, a menu that’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, consistent cooking, and bang—your Brewerytown pals are all, “Why can’t somebody open a place like this by us?”

Nobody would ask that about Society Hill Society, because Reed Barrow has remade the old Artful Dodger into a public house that looks like pints have been sliding across its hammered copper bar since the first bricks were laid on Headhouse Square (and only lately, eclectic cocktails). Locally crafted spindle chairs and coarse-grained chestnut soak up the warm light of yellow globe fixtures on patched plaster ceilings. The upper bar shelves hold objects so random, it seems they must have taken decades to accrue. Is that a femur wedged in next to the ship captain’s hat?

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Restaurant Review: Crow & the Pitcher

Crow & the Pitcher | Jason Varney

Crow & the Pitcher | Jason Varney

For food-obsessed Philadelphians, the first half of August unfolded like a rigged game of Two Truths and a Lie. In case you were down the Shore, let’s play. Pick the fib: The Ritz-Carlton turned over 10 Arts to a barbecue pit-master for a night; chef-cum-doughnut mogul Michael Solomonov came out in the New York Times as a self-described “crackhead” during Zahav’s early days; and Georges Perrier did a three-night gig at a restaurant that serves deep-fried pickles and a “Cool Ranch Dorito Omelette.”

Now, you already know the game’s fixed. All three are the God’s honest. But still, Georges Perrier—Georges “I declare war on Steve Starr” Perrier—moonlighting in a kitchen that crumbles junk food into the eggs? Well, that casts Le Bec-Fin’s legacy in an unexpected light.

The highbrow/no-brow tug-of-war has been playing out in Philly since at least the 2004 debut of Barclay Prime’s $100 cheesesteak, but Crow & the Pitcher (which marks chef Alex Capasso’s return to Philadelphia after seven years operating Blackbird in Collingswood) is our first restaurant to carry the yupster embrace of cognitive dissonance to what you might call a post-ironic stage.  

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Restaurant Review: Junto

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Junto | Photos by Courtney Apple

“Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up,” members of Ben Franklin’s mutual aid society would ask one another, “whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?”

They’d ask the same thing about “deserving stranger[s] arrived in town since last meeting.” And while neither description exactly matches MacGregor Mann, who’s cooked in Philadelphia for more than a decade, they’re close enough. Before naming his solo debut after Franklin’s eclectic club, the Garces vet went on a culinary walkabout ranging from an Idaho fly-fishing lodge to a stage at Denmark’s Noma­—often named as the best restaurant in the world. And when he returned, he was bent on digging deeper into his home turf.

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Restaurant Review: Charlie Was a Sinner

Charlie Was a Sinner | Photos by Jason Varney

Charlie Was a Sinner | Photos by Jason Varney

Just how much sinning do you like to do over dinner?

That’s a good question to chew on at Nicole Marquis’s mysterious new bar on 13th Street, where you can drink bourbon and absinthe beneath a looming hardback edition of In Cold Blood, watch sultry projections of Marilyn Monroe flicker upon the ruffles of a diaphanous wall curtain, and soak up your alcohol with food completely untainted by animal products.

In an era abounding with culinary hobgoblins—gluten for him, fructose for her, GMOs for the guy down the street—veganism still reigns unrivaled as the diet of the ethically upright. But the plant-only jawn feels a little racier at Charlie Was a Sinner, and not just because it’s next door to the last surviving porn shop on this once-seedy strip. Marquis, the woman behind HipCityVeg, named her lounge the way Elmore Leonard started crime novels. Who’s Charlie? Has he—or she—repented? Exactly what sort of sin are we talking about here?

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The Revisit: Amada

Amada | Courtesy of Garces Group

Amada | Courtesy of Garces Group

When he opened Amada nine years ago, Jose Garces had two visions for his debut restaurant. Only one survived—succeeding so lucratively that it suffocated the other.

You can still visit the latter’s burial place, though: just ask for one of the best six seats in the house.

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Leftovers: Stray Thoughts From My Review Of Townsend

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A few additional musings about my meals at Townsend

Not all the wine comes in kegs
Much as there is to recommend kegged wine, sommelier Lauren Harris does right by bottles, too. Her trim list at Townsend offers some attractively priced, offbeat picks that complement Wentz’s cooking beautifully. Especially worth trying is Eric Texier’s “Rouletabulle,” a Chasselas varietal sparkler that makes a scintillating feint toward sweetness on its way to a bone-dry, mineral finish. And if you doubt the value of kegged wines in general, do yourself a summer favor and beat the heat with glass of the Gotham Project’s Finger Lakes Reisling being poured at Townsend (a wine which Tria Taproom is pouring at the moment as well; Pizzeria Vetri also often has a Gotham Project wine on offer).

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Restaurant Review: CoZara

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Photos by Courtney Apple

We here at Philadelphia magazine decided last month to start debuting restaurant reviews early on Foobooz. We had reasons. And we discussed them here. Welcome to the new world.

If restaurants are like fishermen, constantly angling for customers, CoZara is that guy at the end of the pier who keeps changing his bait as fast as he can reel in the line.Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka’s sophomore effort (following his eponymous sushi den in Rittenhouse Square) opened with a 60-item menu patterned after a Japanese izakaya. Small plates were grouped into nine categories, with sushi notable for its absence. A few weeks later, CoZara added lunch: rice bowls, ramen, and gluey alt-burritos whose delicate soy-paper wrappers struggled to contain heavy cargoes of soggy rice entombing the likes of teriyaki salmon or BBQ eel. Then the dinner menu, which had already been tweaked, changed again, shrinking by about half in response to what chef de cuisine Chris Paulikas called the “deer-in-the-headlights look” of customers who found the original one “ominous.”

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Restaurant Review: Townsend

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Photos by Jason Varney

We here at Philadelphia magazine decided last month to start debuting restaurant reviews early on Foobooz. We had reasons. And we discussed them here. Welcome to the new world.

Townsend Wentz was an analytical chemist shifting toward genomics research when he got a chance to cook at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons for a day. It was 1996, he’d just wrapped up a second bachelor’s degree in biology, and recombinant DNA was calling his name. But Jean-Marie Lacroix interrupted, and fate took care of the rest.Wentz, who’d cooked his way through college, had a great day in the French chef’s kitchen. It beat testing canola oil acids, and it was more social than laboratory bench work. When one of the restaurant’s line cooks quit that very day, Wentz’s lark in Lacroix’s kitchen, and later Lacroix at The Rittenhouse, turned into nearly 10 years.No wonder the Riverton, New Jersey native’s sauces are so good.

Philadelphians wise to Wentz’s transformation of McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount have known that for three years already. In May, he opened a place of his own—really, truly his own. From the salvaged cherrywood he planed to cap a rebuilt bar to the floors he refinished with his sous-chef and sommelier to the furniture they stained and reupholstered by hand, his fingerprints are all over the place. Before Wentz became a chemist, he built racing sailboats.

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The Revisit: Lolita

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“You can drink as many of these as you want,” our server said brightly. “They’re good for you!”

The concoction in question, a Green Garden Margarita, featured what Lolita’s new menu called “green stuff” and our waitress had likened to a “juice cleanse, only with tequila in it.”

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The reason Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, after ten years running Lolita–every Center City twenty-something’s favorite modern Mexican BYOB–went out and got a liquor license: to dole out Mason jars of juiced spinach, kale, celery, basil, cucumber, ginger and Cozadores Reposado.

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Checking In At Bar Volver

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People go to bars for all kinds of reasons. To hang out with neighbors over three-dollar lagers. To knock back Beam-and-Pabst specials while stomping their feet to liquor-drinking music. To find out what happens when an eccentric teetotaler mixes a vast booze library with grapes juiced to order. To be quiet and get drunk.

In other words, to escape. And if Philadelphia is what you want to get away from, you need travel no further than to the bar at Volver.

Like the ticketed-entry dining room it abuts in the Kimmel Center, Jose Garces’ champagne-and-caviar lounge is in Philadelphia but not quite of it. Look one way and your eyes fall on a marbled white bar lit by the glow of four sleek halos that could have been commissioned by Starfleet. Look another—at an ultra-saturated blue textile mural crafted by local artist Conrad Booker out of 4,000 buttons and 200 yards of deeply dyed burlap—and you feel like you’ve warp-tunneled your way into Pedro Almodóvar’s Madrid. Meanwhile a soft-footed fleet of servers patrols the ebony-stained floorboards wearing black quasi-judo jackets trimmed with Jupiter orange, like a squad of acrobatic assassins waiting for Roger Moore to request a shaken martini.

It is a very, very cool place to sit down for an hour.

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