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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The breakfast sandwich at Hungry Pigeon KOs the Egg McMuffin | Photo by Neal Santos
The first time I went to Scott Schroeder’s new restaurant, Hungry Pigeon, I showed up for breakfast and liked it so much, I stayed for lunch. There was just something so … welcoming about the place. Comfortable. It felt cool without even trying (which, I suppose, is the essence of cool), and as though it had been living there forever, in its little corner on Fabric Row, rather than for just a few weeks: the pale wood, the tarnished and mismatched silver wrapped in a side towel on the counter, the birdcages everywhere. It just worked in a lo-fi, garage-sale kind of way that rich restaurateurs pay tens of thousands of dollars to try to mimic.
It didn’t hurt that I am, by nature, a lazy man and relished the excuse to just hang out there for a couple hours, scrunched up in a corner banquette seat, sipping tea and eating Schroeder’s one-punch takedown of the Egg McMuffins of our collective youth. His version is assembled from a house-made English muffin toasted on the flat grill, an egg done just tight enough to hold together as part of a sandwich, local jack cheese and, variously, bacon, ham, or chicken sausage—the latter being the perfect accompaniment unless you’re into scrapple, in which case the scrapple is even better.
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A Mano | Photo by Emily Teel
In the back, chef Michael Millon is dancing.
Not dancing-dancing (because that would be weird), but that’s what it looks like. He and his crew, the other white jackets working the line at Townsend Wentz’s new BYO, A Mano, turn and weave around each other, reaching and ducking as the floor staff crowds up against the short pass, waiting on plate after plate after plate. It’s formal, this ballet. It only looks like a disaster happening and then re-happening every second, a series of near-misses and almost-collisions. It’s a culinary galliard—chaotic but measured. Practiced. Natural. In reality, it’s just another day at the office.
And at A Mano, it’s loud in the dining room. I’m seated about halfway down the banquette that runs the length of the far wall, so there’s no way I would’ve heard them if they were talking anyway, but I’m watching pretty closely (staring, really), and I don’t even see them speak. Don’t see lips moving or heads turning except in the simplest, most terse nods and single syllables.
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Photo courtesy Peggy Baud-Woolsey
When the server told me the special for the night was a plate of snails packed with herb butter, I didn’t get them, because snails wouldn’t really have gone with everything else we were ordering. Wouldn’t pair with the fried cheese curds. Wouldn’t sit right against the oysters Rockefeller or feel right sharing a table with the chicken potpie.
Further, the snails? They were just kind of sad. They’d been a star of chef Peter Woolsey’s menu during La Peg’s first iteration, as a funky, modernized and geographically unhinged French brasserie—the kind of place where you could get bone marrow with sauce gribiche served alongside scrambled eggs and toast as a snack at the bar on a Friday night, or authentically French onion soup, potato rosti, pho consommé, and coconut milk-laced mango and passion fruit sorbet for dessert. A place where the fat Burgundy snails sat proudly among the entrées and couldn’t have been more French if Woolsey’s crew had served them with tiny little Tricolour flags flying from their shells.
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Photo by Emily Teel
The thing that matters most about Clarkville is where it lives. It’s a pizza restaurant with good beer, a single solid pasta, and a short, tight menu of things that aren’t pizza—things that aren’t always great, but feel like pleasant surprises anyway when you stumble across them on the menu. But that’s just what it does. In some places, the restaurants make the neighborhood—Manayunk, Fishtown, Walnut Street during Le Bec Fin’s first youth. In others, the neighborhood shapes the restaurants. Clarkville? Absolutely the latter.
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Skate wing at 26 North | Photos courtesy of Mike Stollenwerk
The 1990s were a bad time for the American restaurant scene. We were, as an emerging culinary entity, in our first youth—like awful (if precocious) toddlers who’d gotten into Daddy’s special juice. All we did was copycat, put things in our mouths and stagger around blindly from impulse to impulse. Sure, we were occasionally cute. Occasionally (accidentally) brilliant. There were great restaurants that somehow managed to avoid all the foibles and excesses of the age, but on balance, almost everything was terrible all the time.
Consider a brief list of things restaurateurs and chefs thought were good ideas in the 1990s:
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Photo by Arthur Etchells
By my own estimate, I consumed 13 billion calories at Urban Farmer the last time I was there. Maybe 13 and a half. I’m not very good at math, but I’m still pretty sure I’m right. And if I’m not, it surely felt that way. So much red meat. So much starch. So much cornbread, hot Parker rolls with melting butter, crumb-topped creamed spinach spooned from a cast iron bowl. So many sea creatures. And all of it—all of it—was so good.
There were problems, sure. The service varied between charmingly bumbling and infuriatingly incompetent. The bathrooms looked, from the outside, like you were entering through a giant shipping crate (which was at least in keeping with the faux-homespun style of the place) and, on the inside, like some kind of throwback to black marble Rat Pack Vegas, missing only the elderly man offering breath mints and Brylcreem (which was not at all). And the dissonance between the foie gras and the gingham—between the rustic Amish barn-raising decor at this third Urban Farmer steakhouse from Sage Restaurant Group and the ultimate price tag, which ran to more than a hundred dollars a head—was disturbing. It creates an all-hat-and-no-cattle kind of cowboy situation. Like some soft-handed politician throwing on a new-off-the-rack Carhartt jacket and a pair of stack-heel boots that have never touched mud and trying to prove his down-home bona fides by eating fried chicken with a fork and knife.
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Mashed potato balls, aka the hand grenades at El Rincon Criolla | Photos by Claudia Gavin
In a sane, just and rational world, all I would have to say is that El Rincon Criollo has fried mashed potato balls on its menu, and all of you would already be halfway to your cars.
We’re talking mashed potatoes, formed around a delicious core of spiced ground beef, dipped in batter that tastes something like crushed-up Cheez-Its and liquid joy, then dropped in the Fryolator. They are delicious in a way that makes you wonder at their legality.
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