Everyone knows that opening a restaurant is the surest path to an empty checking account, but George and Jennifer Sabatino know better. For truly shredding your bankroll, nothing beats not opening a restaurant — as the couple spent an agonizing year doing before the first customers finally came to Aldine in October.
We expect a lot from restaurants these days. If they don’t transform liquids into powders or barrel-steep cocktails with homemade bitters, they’d better serve chickens that roamed freer than our children do. So when a forneria bowls you over even before the door whooshes shut as you enter, it’s time to ask what really matters most.
I’m not the only winter-bitten soul to feel that way crossing the threshold of Brigantessa, where great blasts of heat from a Vesuvian-ash pizza oven ripple along a bar teeming with platters of sausage-stuffed long hots and oil-poached swordfish and wood-grilled octopus salad. Chef Joe Cicala’s sophomore effort on Passyunk Avenue has been rollicking since it opened in October.
On the first evening of Rosh Hashanah this year, BuzzFeed posted a video called “The Jewish Food Taste Test.” In it, Gentiles sample iconic Ashkenazi dishes. Gefilte fish comes first. “It’s like a cold sausage with sour paste on the top,” one goy cringes. “I’m not quite sure what meat it is,” confesses a hoodie-clad Asian dude. A vaguely Nordic-looking hipster delivers the kicker: “It tastes like a grocery store smells.” Suffice it to say that these people were not eating the gefilte fish on offer at Abe Fisher.
Chef Yehuda Sichel, a longtime loyalist of Abe Fisher co-owner Michael Solomonov, stuffs rainbow trout with a delicately nutty forcemeat of striped bass, smoked trout, walnuts and matzo. After poaching the trout whole, he cuts them into what amount to three-inch-thick boneless steaks, crisps the skin, and glazes them with a sweet reduction of carrot juice and port wine. Smoked Hungarian pepper wafts from a slaw of carrot shreds and pickled raisins piled on one side. Underneath it all is a subtly mustardy puree of butter-roasted carrots, accented with horseradish—lest anyone complain that the “sour paste” is missing.
Pity the Philadelphia hotel restaurant. City dwellers will flock to food trucks, night markets, pop-up gardens and pizzerias with no seats, but just try getting us to eat in a building full of minibars. For every A.Kitchen, there are five Winthorpe & Valentines (a place that really exists, no joke). With Bank & Bourbon, the downtown Loews is now targeting the ground in between.
As the successor to the awkwardly named SoleFood (again, not kidding), which merged corporate decor and loads of dead space under Miami Vice lighting, B&B clearly yearns for some kind of contemporary relevance. Its whiskey-bandwagon name and predictably rustic trappings—now dominating restaurant design so utterly that Fortune 500 conglomerates are doing it, too—are enough to make a cynic roll his eyes and sigh, “Here we go again.”
By the time Gary Cattley maneuvered his tuba into Paris Bistro’s basement, Drew Nugent & the Midnight Society had been ragging Tin Pan Alley curios for an hour already. The bar was full, and every table was taken. At the tip of the arrowhead-shaped room, wearing a brown double-breasted suit, Nugent faced a vintage 1935 Shure microphone lashed to a Walmart towel ring with springs and a bootlace, warbling into a miniature teakettle through a trumpet mouthpiece jammed in its spout.
Cattley, who’d concocted the microphone getup, smiled. Snaking past servers bearing crocks of French onion soup and parfait glasses of chocolate mousse, he squeezed onto the postage-stamp bandstand to join the unlikeliest recent development in Philadelphia nightlife: the Prohibition-era vocal jazz scene in far Chestnut Hill.
Consider the radish…
When I reviewed Vedge two-and-a-half years ago, that was my opening line. Sometimes I wonder how many people stopped reading after the third word. But I don’t regret it. Plenty of things on Rich Landau’s menu sounded more appetizing, but the black slate bearing his “fancy radishes” was a dish that changed my whole way of thinking—not only about that lowly stepchild of the brassicas, but about vegan cooking altogether.
Five varieties came five ways, from roasted to half-roasted to raw, with an artful precision and a cup of smoked tamari soy sauce that boldly begged comparison with top-shelf sashimi. It was a definitive dish: the last word on an ingredient nobody else was really even offering a first word about. So if anything was bound to stay on Vedge’s menu, it was the radishes. As an emblem of Landau and Kate Jacoby’s galvanizing approach to vegetables, it was too perfect to replace.
Yet not too perfect to improve upon, as I discovered on a recent, belated return to a restaurant that I’ve spent the last two years sending people to.
The folk of East Passyunk Avenue dwell within an embarrassment of restaurant riches, but when the weather’s as lovely as it was at the beginning of August, apparently only one bar will do. That’s what I couldn’t help thinking when I turned up at Stateside on an evening when its giant windows inhaled a mild breeze. Every indoor stool but one was occupied. The open-air counter facing Cross Street was full, and the sidewalk bar on Passyunk was three deep with what looked like the tail end of a Hugo Boss shoot.
When a stroke of luck swept me into a Steam Age swivel-mount seat on the Cross Street side, there was no denying that life was good.
Then the wait began.
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?
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.
“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.