“Asian Fondue” in Chinatown

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Craig LaBan reviews Simply Shabu in Chinatown and finds that the Asian version of fondue is a hit.

The Chinese woman beside us said the meat portions seemed skimpy compared to her nearby favorites. And no doubt the heap of shaved meat at Happy Noodle Bar dwarfed the eight perfectly rolled curls of sliced beef at Simply Shabu. But there’s a major quality difference: the beef at Happy Noodle was so shabby that it instantly shriveled into wads of yellow fat, while Shabu’s nicely marbled USDA choice rib eye (Pennsylvania-raised like all of Shabu’s meats, and not unlike what goes into a good cheesesteak) remained beefy and superbly tender.

Two Bells – Very Good

Authentic hot pots heat up Chinatown [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Simply Shabu [Official]

Did We Create This Culinary Monster?

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what kind of restaurant town we really want to be. In the Philadelphia magazine that’s on the stands right now, I’ve got an essay asking what it means to our restaurant scene when being merely great is no longer a guarantee of success. We’ve been writing an awful lot about VolverJose Garces‘s new high-stakes (and high price) gamble at the Kimmel Center which now stands as the most expensive dinner in town by a long stretch. And as we all know by now, between knee-capping reviews from both Craig Laban and our own Trey Popp, and a whole lot of people on the streets wondering if the storied Walnut Street address might be better off if it was just turned into a Jamba Juice and ignored until all the ghosts of Le Bec-Fin have departed, Avance is having itself a very rough month.

And now, with all this in mind, I just ran across this essay over at Esquire’s “Eat Like A Man” blog which essentially lays the blame for every modern sin in restaurant-dom squarely at our feet.

Read more »

French Classics Prepared by a French Master

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According to Craig LaBan, Pierre Calmels is hitting on all cylinders at his new Le Cheri. LaBan’s list of favorites appears to be most of the menu.

I can’t remember a better steak tartare than Le Chéri’s finely diced filet, edgy with Dijon and glossed with raw yolk, mounded atop the crispy potato lattice of fresh gaufrette chips. The onion soup is deeply sweet from onions caramelized for hours, but balanced with wine and stock, then sealed beneath the nutty tang of molten Comte. Familiar steak-frites gets an upgrade with earthy bavette (flat sirloin) and shallots soaked in Marchand de Vin gravy. The potatoes “Darphin,” crispy rails of shredded spuds in clarified butter, are the hash-brown sticks of my dreams. The choucroute is a classic crock of kraut beer-stewed to brown with bacon, foie gras fat, and house-made duck-pork sausage, then topped with a crispy blade of braised pork belly and mildly salted but flavorful duck confit.

Three Bells – Excellent

Calmelses’ Le Cheri: Back to Bistro [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Le Cheri [Foobooz]

The Bell Rings Twice for Taqueria Feliz

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Lamb Barbacoa at Taqueria Feliz | Photo by Courtney Apple

Craig LaBan visits Manayunk’s Taqueria Feliz where he is generally impressed with what’s coming out of Lucio Palazzo’s kitchen, grasshoppers and all. But the reason to go, is Palazzo’s lamb barbacoa.

Palazzo’s true destination masterpiece, though, his lamb barbacoa, is considerably more accessible. Rubbed for days in a mulato chile paste aromatic with canella and charred onion, smoked over cherrywood, then baked six hours inside banana leaves over chickpeas, it’s a Mexican cousin to the legendary lamb shoulder at Zahav, where he once worked. It’s very much worthy of the legacy – sublimely tender on the bone over refried beans and plancha-seared nopales strips, with a soulful lamb and chickpea consommé on the side.

Two Bells – Very Good

Taqueria Feliz: a nice addition to Manayunk [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Taqueria Feliz [Foobooz]

Three Bells for Osteria Moorestown

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Craig LaBan has tons of praise for Marc Vetri’s Osteria outpost at the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey. Not the least of which is the cheaper wine prices. But other dishes stand out as well.

My ultimate Osteria splurge, though, is the $36 lobster spaghetti, a dish so intensely infused with lobster-ness – the sauce enriched with tomalley and roe, plus a stock fortified with shells – that casual seafood pasta eaters might not love it at first. But with the tender meat from a 11/2-pounder twined up in the al dente strands, a flicker of spice, brandy, and basil lighting the sauce, it was soon impossible to resist. (Plus, it’s no longer available in Philly.)

Three Bells – Excellent

Osteria Moorestown: A Vetri marvel at Jersey mall [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Osteria – Moorestown [Foobooz]

Three Bells for Laurel

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Craig LaBan finds that Nick Elmi is doing more than just turning out fantastic plates at his BYOB, Laurel. It appears the chef has also found serenity.

His albacore starter may be the best raw tuna dish in town, firmed ever so slightly in tepid olive oil before being dressed with the delicate sweetness of shaved Asian pears and a powder of frozen horseradish and yuzu “snow” that melted in mouth with a cooling sparkle. A bracing edge of mustard oil, chile-spiked ponzu, and fermented daikon cubes were the perfect foil to assertive Spanish mackerel seared crackly warm on the skin side and sashimi raw on the reverse. A study in Berkshire pork – loin roasted, belly braised, tender shoulder pulled then formed into a patty – was memorable for its elegant necklace of huckleberry, kale, and chestnut sauces.

Three Bells – Excellent

A “Top Chef” champ returns to his roots [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Laurel [Foobooz]

Three Bells for High Street on Market

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Craig LaBan is wowed from bread to cocktails at High Street on Market. And he’s similarly impressed by dinner, especially the dishes that are products of the kitchen’s obsession with fermentation.

A kimchi-style fermented parsley-mint vinaigrette adds punchy spark to the richly marbled Wagyu short rib, served as an irresistible sharing platter with a salad of roasted Brussels sprouts and crispy tater-tot-shaped rice cakes.

That rib was the best piece of beef I’ve eaten in months – and one of several unusual ingredients Kulp revels in serving. Another was a huge pork shank, a sharing entree served over a wooden bowl of cracked-corn porridge scattered with crumbles of liver sausage ragu. The cider-braised mallet of meat was so yielding, it shimmered with juice at the touch of a fork, then fell apart.

Three Bells – Excellent

High Street on Market: Veggie-focused, ambitious, bold cafe at former Fork Etc. [Philadelphia Inquirer]
High Street on Market [Foobooz]

Craig LaBan’s Ultimate Guide to Chinatown

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Photo by Jeff Fusco

Everytime you walk through Fujianese soup dumplings  you can find a new culinary discovery. Such was the case as Craig LaBan discovered Chinese Restaurant, a nondescript storefront where LaBan finds Fujianese soup dumplings and delicate wontons. That is just one of the discoveries the Inquirer’s food critic reveals in this guide that takes you from Chinese waffles to the best duck in Chinatown.

Chinatown: The Ultimate (but never, ever complete) Eating Guide
How to speak like a ‘neighbor’ in Chinatown
The best duck in town (Gallery)
Chinatown’s flying fish

Three Bells for Marigold Kitchen

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Craig LaBan reviews the modernist cuisine of Marigold Kitchen in West Philadelphia, where chef Robert Halpern is turning out vivid avant garde dishes.

The most memorable course, though, unfolded before us in a multistage presentation that teased several senses. A jam jar filled with a dried porcini, red chile, a bay leaf, and a Japanese orchid petal was covered tableside in warm mushroom dashi and set to steep. Two aromatic minutes later, it was poured like a woodsy tea over a bowl of soy-cured hamachi sashimi. With a “forest” of exotic mushrooms perched like a still life on the bowl’s rim for extra-earthy punch, the entire composition was a deeply layered umami bath – but also remarkably light. The sensation that lingered most was still the luxurious snap of the succulent raw fish.

Three Bells – Excellent

50 Best Restaurants – Marigold Kitchen, #2 [Philadelphia Magazine]

Delectable dishes beyond the razzle dazzle [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Marigold Kitchen [Foobooz]

Craig LaBan’s Year in Bells

Photo by Jim Graham

Photo by Jim Graham

Craig LaBan’s Year in Bells came out last weekend. The annual feature includes some revisits to restaurants reviewed earlier and the announcement of a Chef of the Year award.

The Saint James in Ardmore, which was skewered a year ago in its initial review has now been upgraded to a single bell (hit-or-miss). Citron & Rose, which lost its partnership with Michael Solomonov and his Zahav team maintained its two-bells, based on the strength of new chef, Karen Nicolas.

Tiffin Bistro and Red Owl Tavern rounded out the revisites. Each managed to hang on to their one bell ratings but frankly, each sounded lucky to have done so.

Chef Eli Kulp, who came to Fork and High Street on Market from New York’s Torrisi Italian Specialties was named Chef of the Year. LaBan said of Kulp’s cooking, ”his knack for unexpected combos and rustic techniques (offbeat pastas, fermenting, charcuterie) produced grand presentations like his whole-duck feast – a multi-part poultry masterpiece that was among the best birds (and meatballs) I’ve ever eaten.”

Craig LaBan’s Year in Bells [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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