It’s that giving-and-getting time of year again. The Internet is ringing with endorsements of $410 kitchen scales, crazy expensive coffee gear, and gold-plated liquor-pouring gizmos. Time to take the price tags down a notch with my second annual holiday gift guide.
Wishbone is a curious name for a chicken shop that can go weeks without serving any sort of bone at all. Alan Segel and Dave Clouser’s successor to the longtime Lee’s Hoagie House in University City promises “craft fried chicken,” but that turns out to mean boneless, skinless chicken nuggets coated with dried pretzels. I can’t be the only customer surprised by that discovery. But hey, who’s to deny the craft in separating breasts and thighs from their skeletons?
Chicken nuggets have had a rough run lately. A 2013 analysis of nuggets from two unspecified national chains determined that chicken muscle only accounted for about half the content of one specimen, and a mere 40 percent of the other. Plenty of ground-up blood vessels, nerve tissue, and bone fragments, though!
So in fact there is a decent case to be made for taking the industrial revolution out of the chicken nugget, and putting some craft back in.
The easiest way to tell a bar from a restaurant is by the smell of the men’s room.
I couldn’t keep that thought away from my olfactory nerve during a recent night at Southwark. It had been years since my first time there. And my first time had also been my last. I remember having a fine dinner, but one that failed to cast the spell that so many other folks had fallen under at the then-new, classically styled Queen Village haunt.
In retrospect, that was probably because I’d eaten in the back dining room instead of at the bar, where bartender George Costa was mixing Gibsons and Aviations when the rest of the city was still one big slosh of pink-lemonade Cosmotinis.
Almost ten years later everyone else has caught up—and Costa has moved on—but Southwark is still humming along. It recently installed a new chef, Sam Jacobson, whose previous tenure at Sycamore helped put Lansdowne on the dining map.
On the first day, there were white tablecloths. People dressed for restaurants the way they did for Pan Am Stratocruisers, and entrées arrived beneath silver domes. On the second day, the kitchen came into the dining room, and the menus were written in chalk. People brought their own wine to dinner, and entrées didn’t arrive at all. Tapas came instead. On the third day, the servers changed into blue jeans. They stripped the lampshades off the lightbulbs, served drinks in mason jars, and pretended supper was happening in a barn. But it wasn’t until Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran opened Little Nonna’s that anyone thought to festoon an outdoor dining area with a laundry line.
I guess nothing says “Come to Granny” like old-timey aprons (illuminated by bare Edison bulbs strung from the rafters, natch) drooping above a patio lined with weather-beaten wood.
Just when you think the march of comfort dining has run out of striding room, it steps into Even More Casual Alley. It’s only a matter of time before some restaurateur plunks a bucket of potatoes in the middle of the dining room with an old man in a V-neck undershirt to peel them. Until then, Turney and Safran’s homage to the ghosts of Philly’s red-gravy past stands at the forefront of the flight from the cutting edge.
I was wrapping up lunch at Pizzeria Vetri when a gentleman approached my table. He was skinny and stooped-over and appeared to be in dire straits. Very politely, he asked for help getting a little food. I handed him the last slice of my rosemary-and-mozzarella pie.
A black blister had erupted from the only part of the wedge that wasn’t overburdened with cheese. The slice flopped over in his grasp, as the rest had in mine.
“Is this what they gave you at this restaurant?” he asked.
“Yes,” I nodded, attempting a reassuring smile.
His brow creased. “Were they angry with you?”
That was a little less polite. Save for one flighty server overcome by the dinner onslaught, Pizzeria Vetri’s staff was exceptionally pleasant on all four of my visits. And doubly so when my lunch date required a kiddie cup. Yet my unexpected visitor wasn’t totally off the mark. Pizzeria Vetri has many things to recommend it, but consistently good pizza isn’t one of them.
It can sometimes seem like Counter Culture (North Carolina) and Stumptown (Oregon) have a bean-roasting lock on Philly’s new-wave coffee scene. But Tom and Chris Molieri roast their own at GreenStreet, which now boasts a post in the Gayborhood. The tiny space and fickle wireless signal limit its appeal as a workspace, but there’s ample sidewalk seating on both sides of the corner — and more-than-ample coffee options. Think three espresso varieties and a pour-over menu that hooked this Ethiopia lover with a choice between washed- and dry-processed crops from that country. 1101 Spruce St., 610-504-3934, greenstreetcoffee.com.
In these days of small kids and early mornings, it takes live jazz or a special occasion to get me out to a bar purely for drinking. Which is why my name is absent from Foobooz ‘s annual round-up of Philly’s 50 Best Bars. But even beaten-down parents have birthdays, which is how I found myself at A.Bar this week.
The Grit Invasion of Philadelphia may be long in the tooth by this point, but that hasn’t kept new armadas from lashing the city with ever-growing waves of cream-soaked, butter-fatted, cheesed-up swells of coarsely milled corn.
And with each new entry into the city’s unofficial shrimp-and-grits competition, you could be forgiven for wondering if grits should be classified now as a dairy product rather than a grain. That’s all fine and good, as its goes. Not exactly shocking that restaurant kitchens still like butter and cream in 2013.
But consider the recipe provided by Anson Mills–the South Carolina grain specialist whose grits have become the gold standard in high-end restaurants. It’s a simple ingredient list: grits, a bit of salt and pepper, and water. Plus a pat or two of butter to mix in at the very end. Pretty austere, right?
The thinking at Anson Mills is straightforward: too much dairy fat eclipses the flavor of the corn they take so much pride in growing and milling.
This philosophy sprung quickly to mind not long ago at, of all places, The Twisted Tail, a blues venue that got an awful lot wrong about Southern cooking back when it opened two years ago. But those memories of mediocrity faded away in the light of many of new chef Leo Forneas’s dishes, not least his Louisiana-style shrimp and grits.
It’s not every day that you come across a condiment that makes you do a double take. Heck, it’s not every year. But think about how it felt the first time you smeared wasabi on a sushi roll, or dolloped pepper jelly on a country ham biscuit—and then head to the corner of 9th and Arch immediately to get a jolt of that same rare giddiness at Xi’an Sizzling Woks, which opened as softly as a whisper in May.
A glass bell jar capped a pint-sized cupcake platform. A ceramic owl was also a cookie jar. Bone china plates painted with chameleons or honeybees alternated with stoneware bearing zigzags or abstract circles. Delicately etched wine goblets sparkled above the dull gleam of mismatched silver-plated utensils.