Boudin Noir. Photography by Jason Varney
YOU HAVE TO FIGURE that any ingredient is fair game in a menu section labeled “Bizarre.” But Pierre Calmels sure pulled a fast one on me at Le Chéri (which replaced the Rittenhouse Tavern after Nick Elmi left to open Laurel on East Passyunk). The only dish I didn’t like at the Bibou chef’s classically French makeover of the Philadelphia Art Alliance space was his lamb offal pot-au-feu, whose gutty broth occupied that uncanny valley that separates the authentic from the macabre. But oh, the “pistachio fries” floating in it! What culinary jewels, those mild and tender ovals bearing mosaics of crunchy nuts!
Only later did I discover the source of my captivation. “Ah, pistachio fries!” Calmels chuckled over the phone. “This is a way of saying ‘testicles.’”
Culinary jewels indeed.
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Mushrooms Sandwich. Photography by Jason Varney.
IT’S SELDOM A GOOD IDEA to boil down a restaurant recommendation to a tweet-size paragraph, but for prospective visitors to High Street on Market, a short questionnaire might be in order.
Do you go for broccoli rabe? What if it’s fermented? How about juiced and given a leading role in a mezcal cocktail?
If you answered yes to all of those questions, congratulations: You’ve clearly gotten your money’s worth out of your Vitamix! And now Eli Kulp, who made Fork required dining for serious eaters in 2013, has given it a next-door neighbor where you can quench your appetite for left-field gastronomy from breakfast straight through dinner.
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How do you keep the spark alive?
Restaurants face the same question that haunts many a marriage—only, with restaurants, it comes ‘round a whole lot sooner. If spouses can hope for seven years before the proverbial itch begs scratching, restaurateurs are lucky if they can make it past the first anniversary.
That thought chorused through my head during a recent meal at Ela—repeating like the 90-minute loop of down-tempo indie-rock throbbing softly in the background of Jason Cichonski’s Queen Village resto-bar.
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Laurel’s Grilled maitake. Photography by Jason Varney
Twelve years is a long sentence for someone who hasn’t committed a crime, even if you get to serve it in some swanky cells. Ask Nicholas Elmi. The onetime apprentice at Manhattan’s Daniel and Lutèce rose to become Georges Perrier’s right hand at Le Bec-Fin, then glided into the blue-blooded precincts of the Philadelphia Art Alliance as head chef at Rittenhouse Tavern. But in 2013, at long last, the golden handcuffs came off.
His coming-out party began on national television, where he competed on Season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef. But that’s beside the point—not just for this cable-shunning critic, but for any food lover within taxi distance of East Passyunk Avenue. Because it’s there, in a 10-by-15-and-a-half-foot kitchen barely big enough to afford him the company of a single sous-chef and a culinary student, that Elmi is finally doing things his way. And what a way that is.
After a career spent “cooking other people’s food” and then chafing against his corporate leash at Rittenhouse Tavern, Elmi opened Laurel as a co-owner in November. Two weeks later, he cooked my favorite BYO meal of the year. Three weeks after that, my favorite meal anywhere. From the thimble-sized snowballs of frozen horseradish that bedazzled cubes of poached tuna to the tongue-tingling windfall of pink peppercorns clinging to a marbled foie gras terrine shot through with brown veins of cocoa, his plates took my table by storm.
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Jerry’s Burger. Photography by Courtney Apple.
“Brunch is punishment,” Anthony Bourdain famously wrote. “Nothing makes an aspiring Escoffier feel more like an army commissary cook, or Mel from Mel’s Diner, than having to slop out eggs over easy with bacon and eggs Benedict for the Sunday brunch crowd.”
That’s never how Marshall Green made it feel at Café Estelle, which must have been responsible for 85 percent of the weekend traffic on North 4th Street for the five years he slung the best shirred eggs in town, among other favorites, at that widely adored spot. But there’s nothing like 1,500 early mornings to drive a man to drink—or at least to a place fitted out with a well-stocked bar.
Jerry’s Bar, where Green landed last May, has two of them. A long slab of marble salvaged from Independence Mall is the center of gravity downstairs, and a dark wooden barroom evokes an unbuttoned Ivy League clubroom on the mezzanine.
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Will 2014 be the year restaurant critics come out of the shadows? The editors of New York magazine kicked off that conversation in a big way last week, splashing critic Adam Platt’s photograph on the cover of their January issue. Whether professional food critics actually matter may be much doubted in the InstaYelp Era, but apparently there’s still a lot of faith in their ability to drive city-magazine sales.
Platt, who has reviewed restaurants for New York for many years (and just named the new Han Dynasty in New York as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the city), explains his decision—and acknowledges his editors’ prodding—in a thoughtful essay that had me nodding amen from the first sentence.
My own seven-year stint as a “professional glutton” has likewise been an “accidental career.” (These days you can meet any number of college kids who’ll tell you they want to grow up to be food critics, but I hardly knew the job existed until I found myself doing it.) Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I too have grown a little tired of putting my dinner guests through the rigamarole of a review meal. It’s a pain to make people nervous about simply saying your name out loud. It’s a bigger pain to know that many of them are straining to defer to your perceived preferences around what to order—especially when you don’t have any, which in my case is actually most of the time. No grown person should have to spend the first 10 minutes of a meal divining the potentially nonexistent whims of his host.
Then again, no one’s complaining when the check goes on an expense account at the end of the meal. Least of all me. There aren’t many sweeter gigs than taking people out to eat.
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This year’s gift roundup skewed more toward cooks than straight-up eaters, which probably tells you something about how I mainly think about food. (Speaking of which, here’s something else: I hate wasting it, which is why one of the things on my wish list this year is a pack of cheese paper, so that next year I’ll get a leg up on the bacteria and ammonia that just love to ruin any nice wedge of Délice de Bourgogne you suffocate with plastic wrap.)
But the last item on my list goes out to all you folks who’d simply like to take your favorite foodie out for a solid bite to eat. You could do a lot worse than treating them to my favorite new sandwich of the year, the pulled lamb shoulder from one of Reading Terminal Market’s newest tenants, the Border Springs lamb stall.
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The driving force behind this series is that you don’t need to spend that much to spread serious joy to the cooks and eaters in your life. Gift guides that sing the praises of Le Creuset Dutch ovens and copper saucier pans drive me crazy. Sure, those things are lovely to have to any kitchen. But they cost an arm and a leg, and more to the point, everybody already knows how great they are.
So today’s recommendation is an exception—in half measure, at least. It’ll set you back $95. But on the other hand, I feel sure that it’s never been highlighted in a gift guide before—mostly because it is a non-essential kitchen item for which you can buy a perfectly acceptable substitute for a small fraction of the price.
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If you’re like me, you’ve spent at least some of the last week Googling “Best Cookbooks of 2013”—and then wondering if Ottolenghi, by London chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi (which turns up on just about every list) is really all its cracked up to be.
I don’t know. Nor do I know if Jerusalem, which won the same author heaps of accolades in 2012, deserved them. But I can tell you this: either book would have to be mind-bogglingly good to surpass Plenty, which he put out in 2011 to slightly less acclaim.
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City living rules out a number of cooking methods—even plain old grilling can be hard to pull off in an apartment building—but it puts the biggest kibosh on one of the most primal: spit-roasting.
And yet your favorite urban foodie still has a hankering for moist, low-and-slow meat with a crispy skin, right? So set him or her up with a Romertopf baker ($40-$90, depending on the size). This unusual two-piece unglazed clay vessel has a valuable specialty: Before you use it, you soak the top and bottom in water for 15 minutes. This impregnates the walls of the vessel with moisture, which is converted into steam for the first phase of cooking. Then, when the steam runs out, the Romertopf transforms—with no effort on your part—into a dry-cooking environment that will crisp up the skin of that lamb shoulder. (That’s my favorite thing to use it for—specifically, Moroccan mechoui—but it also does a great job on whole chickens.)
Bonus: For great recipes suited to the Romertopf and other clay vessels, consider Paula Wolfert’s brilliant Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking as a companion gift. This is one of the best five cookbooks I own, and has never, ever let me down.
Check out Shopping For Foodies, Part 1 [f8b8z]