Gastronaut: The Case for Crawling

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Illustration by Kagan McLeod

When we were young cooks, none of us could ever stand still.

Work — 12 or 14 or 16 hours. White jackets and checked pants; prep and then more prep and then the first hit, the dinner rush, the long, slow glide toward wipe-down. Crews rolled out the back doors of restaurants, converged on the nearest bars for first drinks, then moved on — looking for salty things and fried things and sushi and pho and flat, floppy slices and weed. We were perpetually unsatisfied, a whole knot of us growing antsy and weird if we spent more than 45 minutes in any one place, because no matter where we were, there was always the chance of something better waiting right next door.

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Gastronaut: Summer in the City

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods? Whatever. People have been spouting that trite crap since the notion of the neighborhood was invented, about any municipal area with a population larger than three. And while arguments can be made for the neighborhood-iness of Philly during the lethargic heat of the dog days (when no one wants to go farther than the corner bar for a cold beer and some company) or the depths of snow-day winters (when having a good restaurant within walking distance can make the difference between sane survival and going all Jack-Nicholson-at-the-Overlook), what Philly really is is a city of festivals. Read more »

The Gastronaut: I Love the ’80s

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I am, for better or for worse, a child of the 1980s.

Born in 1973, I spent my youth in a haze of Transformers (the original ones), Atari and Members Only jackets. I owned an actual pair of parachute pants, though I only wore them to school once, was mocked, and acquired, briefly, the nickname “Parachute.”

More important, I started cooking in the ’80s. I cut my teeth in the industry through the late ’80s and early ’90s (seeing as this was upstate New York during the pre-Food Network American food scene, the ’80s lasted until about 1996), and I can tell you one thing: The food was terrible. Read more »

The Gastronaut: It Gets Better

MO-gastronaut-032015-400-kagan-mcleodI was at Aldine for dinner on opening night, and it was awful.

Of all the dishes set before me, I only found two of them appetizing enough to finish, and with another one, I had to pull the old Oh look, some of it fell on the floor trick just to make it appear as though I’d taken more than one bite.

But it’s okay. Don’t worry. Aldine got better.

I ate at Sbraga years ago, shortly after it opened. It was one of the most talked-about restaurants in the city, but not all the talk was good. And, frankly, neither was dinner. It was gimmicky, too clever, muddled in a way that I think was supposed to feel casual and fun but didn’t.

But Sbraga got better, too. Read more »

The Gastronaut: Hey Santa …

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Dear Santa,

First things first, I have to thank you for being so good to Philadelphia since the last time I wrote you. I asked for a lot of things on behalf of the city last year — outdoor drinking and BYOs and soup and more delivery options — and you came through in spades.

This year, my requests for Philly are a little bit darker. Rather than asking for things we need, I’m asking for things to go away. This is mostly because we’ve had such a good year already, and because our neighborhoods are so full of amazing restaurants and chefs doing the best work of their careers. Hard as it might be to say, what Philly is due for is a cull. To keep the scene healthy. And Santa, sometimes hard choices need to be made.

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The Gastronaut: Notes of Honey, Pine Needles and Regret

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Sure, sure. The holidays are a time for togetherness. For family. For stuffing yourself full of food and then passing out on the couch. But they’re also a time for drinking — both the joyous, let’s-give-a-toast-to-the-season kind, and the more common (and occasionally much more satisfying) let’s-just-have-another-drink-and-see-if-we-can-get-through-this kind.

Which is why I’ve assembled this list of ideal pairings for a variety of holiday-specific foods and scenarios you might be faced with in the coming weeks. So here’s what to pair with …

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Gastronaut: We Like to Watch

gastronaut-september-kagan-mcleodWhen Serpico first opened on South Street, one of the main draws was the big, open kitchen and the man himself — Peter Serpico, late of the famous Momofuku empire, standing right there making dinner for you. The most popular seats in the house were the ones snugged right up against the counter behind which Serpico did his work.

Zahav has never wanted for trade, but when Michael Solomonov started running his Kitchen Counter dinners, people went bonkers. Fork’s cooks work right out in the open, filling the dining room with excitement that goes far beyond the drama of plates being walked across the floor. Petruce et al., Vernick, Cheu — they all let you sit within poking distance of the cooks. At Volvér, the kitchen isn’t just open to view; it’s integral to the layout of the dining room. Customers are told (repeatedly) to go up to the pass and watch the chefs working. To ask questions.

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Gastronaut: Arts and Crafts

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

I saw this coming years ago. Not because I’m clever or prescient or some kind of unappreciated soothsayer of cuisine, but simply because I was on the front lines. I was a restaurant critic in Denver, Colorado, back during the second boom of New American cuisine.

I saw this coming years ago, but it had no name — not until GQ’s Alan Richman gave it one a few months back. He wrote about young chefs, exclusively male, working “with like-minded discipline, hardly ever haunted by doubts, seemingly in possession of absolute confidence.” He called it “Egotarian Cuisine” — food that is “intellectual, yet at the same time often thoughtless … straddling the line between the creative and the self-indulgent.” More to the point, food that is created solely, and with arrogant singularity of vision, to please the chef. Not the owners. Certainly not the customers. It’s food as memoir and manifesto. And often, it’s terrible.

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Gastronaut: The Meat of the Matter

First off, let me say this: I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to portraying Philly as a mecca for twig-and-berry eaters.

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Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Like just about every other food writer out there, I was won over the very first time I stepped into Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge in Midtown Village. After years of sharkishly eating my way through several major American cities as an itinerant restaurant critic, I’d formed some pretty strong opinions about the depth and limits of vegan cuisine, and all of them were burned away the minute I tasted Vedge’s sweet potato pâté.

This, I thought, is what every vegan restaurant in America should be aiming for. This is a cuisine to be proud of.

Immediately I began telling people about it. Loudly and repeatedly. I brought people to Vedge specifically so I could share the weird sideways joy of finding a groundbreaking and totally unexpected version of something you were pretty sure you were going to hate going in.

And it wasn’t just Vedge. It was the bloody beet steak at the Farm and Fisherman. It was the daily lines outside HipCityVeg, and the vegetarian prix fixe at Le Bec-Fin (which, as things turned out, didn’t go so well), and the sudden explosion of plants on so many menus around town. It was the fact that here, of all places, genius vegetable cookery had become the direct heir of the farm-to-table movement, offering the city’s best chefs a whole new range of flavors and textures to play with. After all, if the people of the city appeared willing to eat turnips and roasted brussels sprouts, someone had to charge them for it.

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Gastronaut: Best of the Best (of the Best)

gastronaut-kagan-mcleod-042014I have absolutely no reason to eat at Dandelion anymore.

I mean, I have plenty of reasons: I like it there, there’s always a seat at the bar, generally a table is available. It’s close to my office. Its new chef is doing an admirable job. I like the beers on its list, and the menu is just deep enough that there’s always something on it I want to eat right then. As far as neighborhood restaurants go, Dandelion has everything I want, which is why I find myself there a lot. Yet I really have no reason to go there anymore.

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