Photo by Emily Teel
Look, I’m not pissed off about my meals at Aqimero. To be pissed—for my experiences to rise to the level of actually making me angry beyond a kind of vacant, low-boil frustration—would presume that I was at all surprised by my experiences.
I’m sad, a little bit. It’s depressing to see what could have been a great restaurant space (what should have been a great restaurant space) so terribly misused, and the liveried staff lingering expectantly around the host’s station, waiting for customers who are never going to arrive. To look at those soaring ceilings and sky-reaching pillars, the marble, the vastness of it all, and to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that Aqimero will be (or, again, should be) experienced solely by visitors staying at the Ritz who are afraid to leave the shelter of its luxurious walls, incapable of walking a couple blocks, or just so careless about the price of things that $17 for a (small) plate of fried shrimp seems perfectly reasonable, is just dismal. I didn’t love 10 Arts, which lived here before big-time international restaurateur Richard Sandoval brought Aqimero to the Ritz-Carlton a few months back. I had great meals there, and ones that were merely so-so. A bit of its luster rubbed off after it lost Eric Ripert’s oversight and Jennifer Carroll in the kitchen. But 10 Arts still undeniably fit into the vaulted lobby of the Ritz. It belonged there in a way that Aqimero just … can’t.
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Bop’s bar with kitchen in the background | Photo by Laurie Satran
I ate the mandoo at Bop and they were fine. Tasted like a thousand other dumplings at a hundred other American-Asian restaurants in a dozen other cities and were, in exactly that way, as perfectly satisfying and completely non-threatening as McNuggets. The leeks (chopped in with the beef, pork and vermicelli noodle filling) were a nice touch, I thought. But I wasn’t in love.
I had the fried rock shrimp, too — little knuckle-sized lumps with the consistency of fried shrimp, if not the flavor, and a nicely crisped tempura crust that stood up admirably to the generous slicking of sweet-hot, creamy, almost mayonnaise-y chile sauce. They, too, were fine. I’m a sucker for fried shrimp on an appetizer menu anyway. (Some lingering poor kid’s equation of shrimp=special and fried=awesome that will never go away because shrimp is the lobster of the lower-middle class and the white in my collar still looks blue in the right light.) I’ll order them anywhere, in any regional or ethnic variation, and these were, if not unique (at all), then certainly as good as anyone else’s fried sea protein in spicy Asian goop.
I ordered the bulgogi and I ate it and I was surprised when I saw that half the Korean marinated beef and half the rice and half the seasonal vegetables were gone without my hardly even noticing. Then I paid my bill. Then I left. And outside, I saw a man carrying three umbrellas.
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Mural at Tiki | All photos by Chelsea Portner
It’s way too early to be writing this review, and I don’t care at all. Best thing about being a critic? That moment when you find something that’s best only in that moment. That, for whatever reason—despite calendars and schedules and plans and rules—demands to be paid attention to now.
There’s nothing to the place. It’s so stupidly simple that I love it in stupidly simple ways—without thought, just on pure reflex and lust for fried dumplings, acid-tinged surf rock and Bacardi 151.
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Blackfish Reviewed | Photo by Samuel Markey
The dining room at Blackfish in Conshohocken is white, but not cold. Not icy, the way some white, restaurant-shaped boxes can be. The dark wood floors help. The matching chairs. The colorful spines of cookbooks stacked on a shelf, making the place look like it’s been styled for an Architectural Digest photo shoot, or maybe something from a summer issue of Martha Stewart Living. Not lively, exactly, but alive.
The white ceilings and white tablecloths and white plates make every color pop. The sharp red of garden tomatoes in a summer salad, the green tangles of seaweed on which sit the stony shells of oysters, the rich, textured yellow-brown of a curry sauce puddling around a fist-sized cut of tilefish perfectly golden from the pan: In this sterility of white-on-white, the plates being put out by Chip Roman’s chef de cuisine, Yianni Arhontoulis, and his crew go off like fireworks. The entire restaurant becomes a blank space, and all you can see are the blooms and sparks in front of you. Everything else fades into the background.
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The Dutch | Photo by Emily Teel
Breakfast is the last great, untouched frontier. Of all the meals available to us (lunch, dinner, supper, elevenses, fourthmeal, midnight snacks, etc.), breakfast is the most pure, the most un-fuck-with-able. No one in his right mind tries to innovate during breakfast. No one tries to dazzle you with technical wizard-powers or supply lines to long-lost fruits and vegetables. Breakfast is toast and jelly. Coffee. Pancakes. Eggs and bacon. Waffles in all their myriad glories. It is, occasionally, oatmeal. Complicated (but comforting) pastries. Half a grapefruit doused in Wild Turkey. Whatever.
I love congee and chilaquiles as much as anyone, but Americans own breakfast the way the French do dinner. We have stolen all the great ideas ever had about breakfast and made them our own. Americans are so good at breakfast that our canon doesn’t extend merely to regional variations, but to social, religious, economic and historic ones as well. The trucker’s breakfast is a thing. The yoga breakfast. The camp breakfast. The Lutheran pancake social or Continental or Southerner’s petit déjeuner. Breakfast knows no bounds save temporal. And brunch? Well, brunch doesn’t even have those rules to adhere to. Brunch laughs at the notion of rules.
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A soaring plate at Jansen in Mount Airy | Photo by Emily Teel
My wife, Laura, hated Jansen as soon as she walked through the door.
To be fair, she actually hated it before she walked through the door. She’d looked at the menu online, with its photos of the dishes available—shellfish sauces, slouching ring-molded tartares with sprigs of thyme poking up like tiny trees, food stacked or clenched tight like fists amid the vast white space of plates doodled with sauce)—and asked why we were doing this.
“I’ve eaten enough country-club food in my life, Jay. Why would I want more?”
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Woodfired oven at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons | Photo by Michael Persico
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons is the best-smelling restaurant I’ve been to all year.
It’s pretty, sure. Big, new, shiny, polished, fitted out with rich woods, artisan tile and carefully preserved architectural flourishes. But when you’re playing at this level, who isn’t pretty? Packaging matters. Every crack in the walls, every scuff on the floor or scab of tarnish on metal is as deliberate as the gleam on the walnut tables (as though the trees were grown to no other purpose than to be made into them, arranged in this order). There’s a big new skylight that lets brilliance spill in like water. The bar is long, brick-backed and achingly well stocked. The tall windows don’t rattle when the El snaps past, but you can feel it—roaring like a memory of dinosaurs and catching you right below the heart. This place has the design culture of second-gen hipsterism in its bones.
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Stove & Tap | Photo by Craig Slotkin
On a Sunday night, Stove & Tap is busy. Not full, but I’m not really sure there would ever be enough people dining out in Lansdale on any given night to fill the place completely, what with two floors, outdoor tables, multiple bars and an upstairs patio. It’s big, loud, hot, polished, beautiful, and there’s a bear—a taxidermied brown bear in the front window, standing on its hind legs with a sign asking people not to feed it.
I wanted to buy a stuffed bear once. I found it at a pawnshop in Royersford, standing amid the hocked stereos and stationary bikes. It was a nice bear—huge and fierce—and my wife, seeing the wild look in my eyes, offered what was not exactly a rare connubial ultimatum and said I had a choice to make: her or the bear. Piece of advice? Don’t ever hesitate when offered those options. I did. For perhaps half a second too long. Now, years later, she still won’t let me forget it—the day I considered, however briefly, trading my wife for a pawnshop bear.
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Fig Dakos at Opa | Photo via Opa
When Opa first opened, it was loud, brash, crowded and dull. The kitchen seemed incapable of dependably executing the most basic dishes. The cooks were occasionally flummoxed by the simple interaction of meat and fire and would season things like toddlers given a spice rack to play with. I’d seen dudes in the park fresh off the spike who moved with more purpose than the floor staff on a weeknight, and the crowds that mobbed the place were a weird collection of neighborhood regulars and knots of sports-coated business bros who’d cluster like wolves at the corners of the bar, laugh too loud, and order rounds of Heineken and Amstel Light like they were on the last night of their package tour to Ibiza.
Back in the day (August 2011, to be exact), Trey Popp, Philly Mag’s restaurant critic at the time, gave the joint one-and-a-half stars, which I thought was too many by three. I hated the place pretty much unreservedly, and in the augmented-reality Terminator vision I have while clocking restaurants in this city, I always saw Opa with a big red X through it and the words AVOID AT ALL COSTS.
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In the basement of Double Knot | Photo via Double Knot
Breakfast, 9:30 a.m. // Like Garfield and 10,000 novelty t-shirts, I don’t do mornings. Particularly not ones that haven’t snuck up on me accidentally—the sun rising while I’m still out doing whatever it is that insomniac food editors do—and caught me still in last night’s clothes.
One of the reasons I became a writer was so I’d never have to get up before noon. Sadly, somewhere in my youth I missed an important distinction. Some writers get to sleep the mornings away, sure. They’re generally the ones who own more than zero berets and have strong opinions about pencils. And then there are the ones who actually have to make a living.
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