High-Gloss Rustic: A Mano Reviewed

A Mano | Photo by Emily Teel

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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An American In Paris: La Peg Revisited

LaPegMacCheese

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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The Stupid Joy of Simple Things: Clarkville Reviewed

Photo by Emily Teel

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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Smooth Jazz and Skate Wing: 26 North Reviewed

Skate wing at 26 North

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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Blood and Gingham: Urban Farmer Reviewed

urban-farmer-sign-940

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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Eating the Hand Grenade: El Rincon Criollo Reviewed

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

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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A Small World After All: Tredici Enoteca Reviewed

Tredici | Photo by Emily Teel

Tredici | Photo by Emily Teel

From the outside, the light spilling from Tredici’s windows was cool and white, and the glass appeared to be sweating. We could see the crowd—at the bar, clustering around the host’s stand, jamming all the tables. Inside, it was a wall of noise, like stepping into the middle of a party that’s been going on without you for a good long time. To speak to the hostess working the stand, I had to lean over and talk almost directly in her ear.

We were lucky. We snagged the only open table on the floor—an odd corner spot that was all banquette, past the curve where the front room’s bar ends and the counter seating and seats in front of the raw bar begin. The two of us could sprawl across room enough for three. Spread out. Get comfortable.

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The Heart and the Head: Buckminster’s Reviewed

Photo via Buckminster's

Buckminster’s at 22st and Federal | Photo via Buckminster’s

It was the bologna that threw me.

I mean, really, it was everything. But it was the bologna most of all, because I loved the bologna at Buckminster’s—thick-cut quarters of Ely Farm honey bologna, stiff as salami, delicately sweet, tasting precisely nothing like anything you’re thinking of when you think of bologna—and I truly, honestly believe that everyone in the city who loves food and gives even a passing damn for locality and the bounty of this region ought to go there and eat it right now. It was far and away the best bologna I’ve ever had in my life (a life dedicated, more or less, to finding best things and loudly telling people about them), and like all best things, it’s worth going out of your way for.
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Let Me Go Wild: Revolution Taco Reviewed

Duck Tacos at Revolution Taco | Photo by Claudia Gavin

Duck Tacos at Revolution Taco | Photo by Claudia Gavin

The first time I walked into Revolution Taco, they were playing “Blister in the Sun,” and all the people in the neighborhood were still getting used to it. At the counter, everyone seemed to know someone.

Your first time?

Yeah.

You’re gonna love it. This place is great.

The tables were crowded, and turned over quickly. The space was spare, clean, simple—just a box painted yellow, blond wood tables, the barest necessities. Lunch rush was running the small kitchen ragged, and customers kept coming as fast as the crew could get them out the door, but the place wasn’t much more complicated than the food truck (or trucks, really) that it’d been born of. A roof instead of wheels. An open kitchen to replace the submarine claustrophobia of a repurposed panel van. But the vibe was the same: Get ’em in, give ’em tacos, get ’em out.

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