So Have You Eaten There Yet?

Six months of reviews, nothing but the hits.

bud-marilyns-Cheese Curds 940

We have a wall at the office entirely given over to a Post-It Note snapshot of everything happening in the Philly restaurant world at this given moment. Hundreds of yellow squares, on which are written the names of restaurants, initials, arrows and mysterious heiroglyphs that only Art and I (and mostly I) can understand.

The Post-Its move. Get grouped, get broken up. The restaurants we love and the restaurants we hate are all represented (in wildly unequal numbers). Restaurants that are coming–addresses chosen, opening dates optimistically scheduled–have their own space, as do established and open restaurants whose reviews are in the works. Lately, that particular section of wall has been growing crowded. There are just so many goddamn restaurants coming (it’s spring, that happens) that it feels overwhelming.

So with six months of (mostly) weekly reviews behind me, and dozens of new openings incoming, I figured this might be a good time to look back and highlight the best moments of the past six months–places that you might’ve missed, places that you really ought to get to (if you haven’t already) before the lure of new-new restaurants becomes too overpowering.

So let’s start with…

Bud & Marilyn’s (my first official review, from September, 2015)

I mean, you’ve been here, right? You can’t say you haven’t had the time. It has one of the most comfortable bars in the area, fried cheese curds on the menu, and that weird, haunting sense that no matter when you’re there, if you stay just five minutes longer, something cool is going to happen.

Usually, it doesn’t. But the feeling persists. And even when nothing cool is happening, there’s still those cheese curds.

Fried cheese curds are perhaps the second-greatest contribution of the Midwest to American food culture. They aren’t difficult to make, and yet are served only in a few rare, wonderful restaurants where the chef— through upbringing, fortunate discovery, or possibly the sale of his or her soul to some greasy-handed demon—has learned the simple, magical food-based equation stating that cheese + batter + hot oil = The Greatest Appetizer Ever.

Whetstone Tavern (reviewed October, 2015)

I didn’t think about this place hardly at all after I reviewed it, except that now, months later, I find myself thinking about it quite a lot. It was an incomplete and imperfect experience then. Today? It has slipped smoothly and easily into the role of “neighborhood restaurant” for a previously under-served mini-neighborhood. There are brunches and lunches, hand-made breads and pastries from Jeremy Nolen’s wife Jessica at Little Bird Bakery (which wasn’t even open yet when I reviewed the place), and a solid dinner crowd that has essentially turned the bright, airy dining room into their personal clubhouse.

With the warm weather coming, I feel like I’m missing out on something by not hanging out here. And if you haven’t been, now is the perfect time to check it out.

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Stargazy (Also reviewed in October, 2015)

A banoffee tart is like bananas Foster without the pyromaniacal tendencies. It’s (duh) bananas and melted toffee in a tart shell, topped with an excess of homemade sweet whipped cream and nothing more. It’s what I imagine rich people in London must eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner and for midnight snacks, because, seriously, if you have the means, why would you ever eat anything else? I don’t even like bananas that much, and Jacobson’s version is so good and so right-in-the-veins addictive that even after I’m far beyond full and just lolling at my desk like some kind of beached walrus in blue jeans and a button-down, I still keep picking at it.

I can’t even begin to tell you how happy it makes me just knowing that Stargazy exists in this city. It gives me comfort in the same way a hip flask or a hidden pistol does. And seriously, if you’ve never been, you have to go right now or you and me have nothing further to talk about.

DanDan (from November of 2015)

They just re-did a portion of their menu recently, adding more crowd favorites and Taiwanese specialties. And the thing is? The menu was already pretty good before. There have been some disappointments lately in the high(er)-end, multi-Asian restaurant scene here, but DanDan rises above all that. It’s sleek, modern, cool and crowded, full of cold beer and chiles, and you should definitely go.

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South (reviewed November, 2015)

I hate restaurants with live music. Like, seriously, on the big list of things I hate, “Restaurants with live music” is NOTABLY high. Not as high as things like poverty, Franzen novels or flavored vodka, but higher than paper cuts.

South is a restaurant with live music. It’s essentially a jazz bar with a restaurant attached. And I don’t care. I love it anyway–possibly because I was so starved for a solid, modern interpretation of American Southern cuisine done with no ironic detachment, or possibly because it’s just that damn good.

Among the pickle jars and the whitewashed wood, under the skylights hung with artistic moss and empty bottles strung from strings (an alcoholic’s mobile, Faulkner’s sweetest dream), Martin and his crew do the classics (the creamed collards will fill you for a week, and stick to you like brimstone preaching). They do New South (excellent crawfish fritters, jumbled up in a smear of sweet-and-sour sauce that tastes, deliciously, like something from a Chinese takeout restaurant). They do fussy, sitting-room food like blue crab toasts with smashed avocado and crispy potato dumplings with a parmesan fondue. And they do modern standards like an excellent shrimp and grits—grilled Carolina shrimp over creamy, white, soft and perfect Anson Mills grits spiked with lobster stock and studded with lobster meat, and topped with a lace of lemon and saffron beurre blanc sauce to smooth things out. I would’ve loved the plate unreservedly if only I could forget the wings of dark and intrusive New Orleans-style shrimp barbecue sauce that Martin’s kitchen chose to spread across the well of the shallow bowl.

Coeur (December, 2015)

The recent chef change altered the menu significantly from when I was there reviewing the place, but one of the good things? The poutine is now enshrined in a place of honor on the actual menu. Some Bulleit in the glass and a plate of poutine in front of you? That’s a fine way to spend a Tuesday night.

duck breast : heirloom beans : burnt orange vinaigrette : frisée

Aldine (also from December, 2015)

I have had a long, strange relationship with Aldine. And while I still don’t love the space, the ridiculously tiny little bar is improving, and the kitchen? Well, the kitchen has always been a kind of mad scientist’s lab where chef George Sabatino obsesses over carrots and conducts experiments on just how far Philadelphians are willing to stretch their notions of what dinner really means. I’ve hated the place and loved it, but recently the kitchen seems to have hit a groove where they’re turning out very interesting riffs on American cuisine.

It was fascinating when I was there a few months ago. It’s apparently even better now. But it’s also a very easy place to forget about without being constantly reminded of how brilliant Sabatino can be, so this is me officially reminding you to check it out now before the next shiny, pretty thing comes along and distracts you.

Heffe (January, 2016)

I went at the worst possible time and liked Peter McAndrews’s shoebox-sized taco stand anyway. The burritos were huge. Everything seemed to have a fried egg on it. The Mexican-style poutine was suitable only for weird drunks and settling bets. But there’s a genius to the place that is all about durable business models and deliberate geographical ignorance. Plus, summer is going to be its season, for sure.

Ting Wong (January, 2016)

Then I moved here. Got this job. I went to Ting Wong with Lê from Hop Sing Laundromat, and it was like going to a completely different place. He introduced me to the best dish the kitchen does (a beautiful mess of a ginger-and-scallion noodle dish from the Hong Kong Noodles section of the menu, with sautéed Chinese greens folded up at one end of the plate) and taught me how to dress it properly—with red vinegar, soy sauce and red chili oil in a shifting ratio that I will happily spend the rest of my life trying to get right. He taught me that those ducks, those barbecued pork loins, those chickens—everything hanging in the window, around the front-mounted kitchen where the white-jacketed cooks labor over flaming burners—aren’t just there for decoration. You can (and should—seriously, seriously should) just step right up and order them for dinner. A whole duck—fatty and pressed almost flat, with crisp skin that crackles under your teeth and meat that is so tender and delicious (even if you have to spit out the bones like a savage)—is ridiculously cheap. Ten bucks, maybe a little more. You can (and should) order barbecued pork with your fingers, holding them out, a certain distance apart: I want this much.

You can (and should) go there right now. It remains one of my favorite restaurants in the city. It probably always will be. I would be there right now if I wasn’t sitting at my desk trying to finish writing this post–eating Hong Kong noodles, maybe some soup, then dashing over to Hop Sing for happy hour before the sun even starts to go down. No day like that could ever be considered wasted.

Buckminster’s (February, 2016)

It’s small and weird and uncomfortable and ugly, but the food coming out of the kitchen is some of the most original and awesome I’ve had in months. There is absolutely no reason for you to go here except for that one thing–the food. Almost all of it, almost all of the time. The bologna alone will change the trajectory of your life.

At Buckminster’s, the bologna comes on a plain white plate. It’s sliced, then each slice is quartered, and the quarters are kind of loosely stacked on the plate with a smear of beer mustard glopped onto one side. It looks, more than anything, like the kind of plate your grandmother might compose for you if you came over for a visit. Like the kind of plate you’d make for yourself during the commercial break of a 3 a.m. Welcome Back, Kotter marathon. It is absolutely one of the ugliest plates being put out by any restaurant in Philly that knows better. But what’s on it (the bologna, which Buckminster’s had no hand in making, which Marzinsky and his crew only order, cut, and stack so haphazardly) is remarkable, so I don’t care. The ugliness only makes me like it more, because, seriously, would a sweet spoon-drag through that mustard improve the plate in any real way? No, it would not.

Tredici Enoteca (February, 2016)

You wanna go somewhere that makes Philly feel alive and vital and cosmopolitan even on a Wednesday night? Go to Tredici, eat the Israeli couscous and the gnocchi, drink too many gin and tonics, stumble out into Midtown Village from the roar and glow of the dining room and think to yourself, man, when will I get to do that again…?

That’s what I did. It was a great night. And then I went back again the next day.

Potato balls, ie hand grenades at El Rincon Criolla | Photos by Claudia Gavin

El Rincon Criollo (March, 2016)

I mean, to eat a fried mashed potato ball in this day and age? In this psychological climate of kale salads, yoga and green juice? Baby, that’s like taking your mortality in your hands, squishing it down into the shape of a hand grenade, deep-frying it and then eating it. It’s like being devoured by a lion or dying facedown in a mountain of cocaine—if you’re found dead with a half-eaten fried mashed potato ball next to you, no one is going to shake his head at the untimely tragedy. That, they will say, is a man who went out on his own terms. He was living his best life right till the very end.

I don’t think I have to say anything else here, do I?

Clarkville (reviewed last week)

I called this review “The Stupid Joy Of Simple Things” and it might have been one the the truest headlines I have ever written. Everything there is to love about Clarkville is wrapped up in moment and time and space. It is a perfect restaurant for its place–would be maybe disastrous anywhere else, or at least certainly less–and never tries to be anything more than precisely what it needs to be. There are pizzas, most of them good. There is great beer. There’s a single pasta, some snacks, a great fried chicken plate, kids and families and strollers and beer nerds and neighborhood weirdoes.

And while owners Brendan Hartranft, Leigh Maida and Brendan Kelly could have fought against the gravity of bright light, green spaces, and streets with houses packed shoulder to shoulder like pickets in a fence—while they could have turned the old Best House Pizza into some kind of wine bar (which might have worked) or hipster cocktail bar (which probably wouldn’t have) or artsy, cold temple of foams and tweezered garnishes (which would have failed so fast it would be easier to just burn it down on opening night)—they didn’t. They surrendered to address and space and surroundings and built a restaurant so ideally in tune with the needs and desires of the neighbors that if they hadn’t built Clarkville, I’m pretty sure Clarkville would have just grown there organically, sprouting like a magic beanstalk that bloomed with pizzas and fried chicken and sweating pints of Neshaminy Creek Jawn.

It’s a place that had soul for miles on the first day it opened, and just makes people happy to be there–rare magic for a restaurant these days. The pizzas are cheap. The joy comes free.