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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Photo via Sate Kampar
This is what you do. You go to Sate Kampar on a first date. You save it for someone special—for when Tinder, the phone psychic, your matching Deadpool tattoos or shared fear of dying alone and being eaten by raccoons tells you this is the one. That it’s going to go the distance.
You go to Sate Kampar and you drift down into the hard-backed wooden chairs, under the soft yellow glow of the lights. You order off the sate menu (satay is how you spelled it, always, until seeing it done this other way in a place that probably knows), because meat on sticks? That’s easy. That’s just a little bit foreign but still approachable, good for a first date.
You go for the kambing (the goat) because it’s that kind of night and you’re willing to take chances, and then the ayam (the chicken) for safety.
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The Scallion Pancakes at Tom’s Dim Sum | Photo by Claudia Gavin
There are a lot of restaurants in this town that I go to because it’s my job. There are some I find myself in because life is strange and sometimes the lesser of many evils is a plate of greasy mozzarella sticks and a hip flask of Jim Beam and Coke at 3 a.m. Others I go to because I get caught up in the excitement just like everyone else—the frenzy of the new—and want to be there to see what all the fuss is about. To weigh this particular fuss against the fuss of last week and whatever fuss might be coming along next.
And then there are places I go to because I simply can’t not go. Because something in them draws me like gravity—a comfort beyond simple sustenance, strong drinks or good company. The bar at Bud & Marilyn’s is like that. Ting Wong in Chinatown. El Rincon Criollo. This little sushi place in Suburban Station that I love just because all the sushi is made by robots and I love robots. Stargazy, which I sometimes dream about because the banoffee tart blew my mind once and I can’t ever get there often enough.
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Dumplings and Scallion Pancakes at SuGa | Photo by Emily Teel
I love the smell of SuGa. The dim warmth of it. The banquette tables that run along the wall opposite the bar, in the front of the narrow, shotgun space in the middle of Center City. I love the weird, blobby lights that hang down, casting spotlights onto those tables. There’s a drama there that I can appreciate. A sense of controlling the environment.
There’s a sheen to everything at SuGa of newness and polish and efficiency. It’s a new restaurant (not even quite three months old yet) that operates like there are 20-year grooves cut into the floor. Everything is on rails, running with a precision that would make German train engineers jealous. This place represents the culmination of decades of experience—of Susanna Foo’s return to Center City (where she got famous, where she made her name) after closing her namesake Walnut Street restaurant in 2009 and its Radnor offshoot last summer. A veteran returning to the trenches, Foo is backed up by her son Gabriel on the floor (he grew up in the restaurant industry, went to medical school, but then found his way back to restaurants again) and sous chefs Clara Park (who opened SuGa with Foo, then left) and Chris Dougherty (who stepped up when Park left) in the kitchen. There are no amateur mistakes at SuGa. Nothing happens without a reason.
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