Abe Fisher Gets Three Bells

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Photo via Abe Fisher

Craig LaBan is back on Sansom Street, just weeks after giving Dizengoff three bells, to test out Michael Solomonov’s Ashkenazic restaurant, Abe Fisher. LaBan is a fan of just about everything, from the pastrami smoked short rib to the bacon tinged take on the egg cream.

But Abe proved its worth in many ways. The uniquely creative menu is bolstered by outgoing, informed service. The excellent drink program was thoughtfully conceived, from well-crafted theme cocktails (the beet-stained and rummy Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition) to its $12 Cruvinet pours of intriguing food-friendly wines, from grenache blanc to bobal and negrette. This is easily one of the year’s most distinctive, well-rounded, and ambitious openings.

Three Bells – Excellent

Read Trey Popp’s review of Abe Fisher and Dizengoff from December’s Philadelphia magazine.

Abe Fisher [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Abe Fisher [Foobooz]

Two Bells for Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange

grain-exchange-interior-940Craig LaBan visits Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange in Mount Airy and finds a restaurant and bar that is elevating food and cocktails on Germantown Avenue.

For $18, a slice of sustainably raised Verlasso salmon, nicely seared over buttery barley risotto studded with diced sweet potatoes, is one of the best fish bargains I’ve tasted in a while. A handsomely roasted acorn squash, brimming with flavorful red quinoa sparked by hazelnuts and cranberries, was one of several hearty seasonal salads that anchor the menu’s starters. A hot skillet of Anson Mills grits came topped with tender shrimp, pickled cherry tomatoes, and house-made sausage, a satisfying $17 meal of Southern comfort.

Two Bells – Very Good

Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Drink: Honey Bear at Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange [Facebook]

Laban Gives One Bell To The Gaslight For Its “Flicker Of Hope”

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Ouch.

Over the weekend, Craig Laban finally dropped the hammer on Jason Cichonski’s Old City tavern, The Gaslight, giving serious consideration to handing out zero bells, but finally offering the arguable mercy of a single bell in recognition of the fact that Cichonski apparently already knows how badly his restaurant sucks.

But chef-owner Jason Cichonski is the one here with the jittery hand. The poor fellow’s nerves have gotten the best of him as we speak on the phone, and his voice oozes the dread of self-recognition – without any prompting on my part – that things have not gone as hoped with his second restaurant, even nine months after opening: “I’m going to have to take this one on the chin.”

1 Bell – Hit Or Miss

The Gaslight: A flicker of hope for this Old City pub with the cool chef {Philadelphia Inquirer]
Sex Panther! Gaslight Review [Philadelphia magazine]
All of Craig Laban’s Zero Bell reviews, 1998-2013 [f8b8z]

Two Bells for Bangles Indian Cuisine

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Criag LaBan heads to Bangles Indian Cuisine in Philadelphia’s suburban “Dosa Belt.” LaBan finds that chef Dhirendran “Dhiru” Paulraj has a deft touch with Southern Indian cooking.

Paulraj’s takes on traditional flavors, especially his dosas, are what really generate this menu’s resonance. I agree with my completely obsessed pal Jeff that the rava dosa is hauntingly good, its semolina-rice batter scented with curry leaves and ginger and griddled into a lacy crisp around roasty threads of toasty onions.

A more familiar dosa, rolled into an oversize crepe around curry-spiced masala potatoes, is unusual because its cuminy batter is tinted green with cilantro, chilies, and ginger. The spongier crepe for the paneer and peas variation is wrapped snug like a burrito around a garam masala-onion-spiced stuffing of grated fresh cheese.

Two Bells – Very Good

Bangles in Downingtown, melding South Indian flavors, American twists [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Bangles Indian Cuisine [Official]

Two Bells for Charlie was a sinner.

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Craig LaBan reviews Charlie was a sinner. this week and gives the “plant-based” restaurant in Midtown Village two bells, though he does find more than a few things wrong.

Some otherwise beautiful dishes still need tweaks: The elegant sunchoke soup, pureed and poured over intricate garnishes, was spun off-kilter with too much sweetness from Asian pears. The potato gnocchi with favas were dense and doughy minus the levity of the usual egg. I saw more sweet-tart raisins than barley in the mushroom-barley toast.

Also of note, opening chef Michael Santoro has moved on, Max Hosey is now in charge of the kitchen.

Two Bells – Very Good

Call it ‘plant-based’ or vegan, Charlie is a winner [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Charlie was a sinner. [Foobooz]

Two Bells for CHUlicious in Mount Laurel

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Craig LaBan makes the reverse commute to Mount Laurel, New Jersey to find a Chinatown chef is now offering Taiwanese and Sichuan dishes in a South Jersey strip mall.

the real reason to come are the genuine Taiwanese and Sichuan dishes that earned Chu (a Taiwanese native trained under Sichuan chefs) his well-deserved reputation. Sichuan food, of course, has found mainstream popularity in the region, and CHUlicious serves excellent renditions of familiar bellwethers: Chu’s vegetarian ma po tofu is my favorite, the bean curd cubes patiently infused with the fruity heat of a sauce made with three different chilies, then dusted with a finely ground haze of Sichuan peppercorns that numbs the lips. The crystal wontons are another must, the same chicken dumplings as in the soup, but mounded over a bull’s-eye of earthy chili sauce and spotted with garlicky sweet black soy.

Two Bells – Very Good

CHUlicious: At a modest Mount Laurel BYOB, hard-to-find Taiwanese and Sichuan specialties [Philadelphia Inquirer]
CHUlicious [Foobooz]

Two for One Reviews by LaBan

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Dizengoff and Stock are both reviewed by Craig LaBan.

This weekend, Craig LaBan offered two reviews for the price of one Sunday Inquirer as he reviewed both Stock and Dizengoff. Each spot focuses on a single specialty with admirable results. 

Stock – Two Bells, Very Good

Where Stock truly excels, and the best reason to hang with Fishtown hipsters at the counter, are the small menu’s beef-free options. The mushroom pho packs an umami punch the beef pho lacks. The shredded green papaya starter is one of the most irresistible salads in town, the crunchy threads and roasted peanuts basking in a tart and funky fish sauce-lime dressing that flickers with chile heat. Of the daily banh mi hoagies, which included tasty chicken meatball and unexpectedly bland pork sausage, the surprising winner was filled with custardy tofu, bright with soy-garlic marinade, pickled cabbage, and creamy Japanese mayo.

Stock: The meticulous beef pho has depth, but is outshone by other offerings [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Dizengoff – Three Bells, Excellent

[T]his hummus takes on its magnetic powers thanks to chef Emily Seaman. The Zahav alum compulsively creates new garnishes daily based on what farmers deliver, with spot-on instincts for textures and flavor contrasts.

Summer corn took on the musky sweetness of fenugreek. Red peppers, simmered with pomegranate, went for a muhammara mood with crushed walnuts. Soft cannelinis were tinted yellow with Yemenite hawaj curry, dusted with smoky black flecks of Urfa chilies. Charred eggplants were cooked to a gloss, then tanged with vinegar and garlic. Fragrant ground lamb, one day topped with pickles, another stewed with orange and pistachios, hit a high with aromatic Persian spice.

Dizengoff: At this ‘hummusiya,’  the chickpea puree takes on magnetic power [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Junto Gets Three Bells

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Craig LaBan is full of praise for MacGregor Mann’s Junto in Chadds Ford, calling it the best suburban dinner he’s had in a long time.

But there were so many highlights, especially with seafood, that my quibbles were minor. Huge scallops were perfectly fried in a sheer tempura crust made from sweet corn, amped by an intense brown chip of dehydrated scallop and a creamy remoulade of pureed mussels and lovage. Tart sorrel granita and shavings of fresh horseradish enlivened briny raw Cape May Salt oysters. Beautifully steamed black bass fillets basked in anise-scented froth over poached fennel. A lemon verbena white wine butter glaze added a subtle herbaceousness to that juicy fillet of smoked sturgeon.

Three Bells – Excellent

Read Trey Popp’s similarly positive review of Junto from the September issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Junto: One of the suburbs’ top new restaurants [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Junto [Foobooz]

Turney and Safran 13th Street Update

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Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney at a still under construction Lolita | Photo by Jack Cotter

There’s always a lot of going on along the Thirteenth Street empire of Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, although recently, it has been extra newsworthy.

Craig LaBan visited the post BYOT Lolita and rewarded the Safran and Turney’s original restaurant two-bells, though he predictably does gripe about the noise.

What’s happening at 13th and Locust » 

Treemont Gets Two Bells

Photo by Alex Tewfik

Photo by Alex Tewfik

This weekend, Craig LaBan reviewed Chip Roman’s The Treemont and wonders where all the diners are. Scared off by an unusual deadspot in Center City or dissuaded from the Cheesecake Factory construction site down the block? But for those who have made it in the doors, there are rewards.

If Roman has the financial fortitude to endure the leaner months, the Treemont has the ingredients to become, with refining (and maybe some noise-proofing), a reliable, fine-dining hideaway with quality entrees, fairly priced in the mid-$20s.

Two Bells – Very Good (93 decibels)

Treemont mystery: Good food, few eaters [Philadelphia Inquirer]
The Treemont [Foobooz]

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