Aiming For The Middle: Cinder Reviewed

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I go to Cinder on a gray afternoon, looking for comfort and distraction, and find it at the bar—two giant TVs showing football on one side, talking heads silently shouting about sports on the other. It’s quiet because I’m there between services—too late for lunch and too early for a meal to reasonably be called dinner—but I’m not alone. A two-top in the corner is occupied, as are a couple tables on the floor. At the bar, some beer nerds are taking advantage of owner Teddy Sourias’s unapologetic ode to the newest retro-fad among drinkers: cider. Sourias already has BRU, which focuses on beer and sausages, U-Bahn (his Berlin-subway-theme bar) and Uptown Beer Garden (which, obviously, is a sushi bar). In other words, he’s got beer covered and has always put together good lists of interesting brews, generally braced by the things people like to eat while drinking.

Cinder falls solidly inside that bull’s-eye. Everything about it, from the highly polished bar and hi-top tables to the orange glow coming from the mouth of the big oven in the open kitchen, speaks to this moment in Philadelphia’s edible history. It’s an efficient and highly designed concept restaurant masquerading as a neighborhood bar and aiming for that sweet spot of two-notches-better-than-you-expect—the benchmark level of acceptable quality in Philly these days.

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Alpha And Omega: Scarpetta Reviewed

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Photo courtesy Briana Louise Photography

Along the arc of a graph reading “Why Is My Restaurant Not Good?,” two opposite mistakes hold down either end of the bell curve. On one side, you have a good concept crippled by poor execution. On the other are bad ideas masked by a talented, passionate crew trying like hell to fight its way out of a losing situation. Between these two points falls every other reason for a restaurant to go bad: terrible food, awful service, a coked-up owner snorting away the profits, rats, that weird smell, location, location, location. But existing with beautiful, snow-white purity are the alpha and omega of reasons: Either you had a good idea ruined by thumb-fingered losers who turn all gold to crap, or you had a bad concept that no amount of earnest polishing will ever make shine.

The first one? That’s unforgivable. And the second one is Scarpetta.

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The Authenticity Trap: Harp & Crown Reviewed

Photo courtesy Will Figg

Photo courtesy Will Figg

On a cold night in December, we threaded our way through the crowds on Sansom Street and found the unobtrusive door. We pushed through the heavy curtains hung to keep the drafts out and stepped into the front room hung with green and living things like a Charleston sunporch, then into the massive, vaulted main space of Harp & Crown, Michael Schulson’s newest experiment in feeding and watering Philadelphia.

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A Whole Lot More Of The Same Old Thing: Aqimero Reviewed

Photo by Emily Teel

Photo by Emily Teel

Look, I’m not pissed off about my meals at Aqimero. To be pissed—for my experiences to rise to the level of actually making me angry beyond a kind of vacant, low-boil frustration—would presume that I was at all surprised by my experiences.

I’m sad, a little bit. It’s depressing to see what could have been a great restaurant space (what should have been a great restaurant space) so terribly misused, and the liveried staff lingering expectantly around the host’s station, waiting for customers who are never going to arrive. To look at those soaring ceilings and sky-reaching pillars, the marble, the vastness of it all, and to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that Aqimero will be (or, again, should be) experienced solely by visitors staying at the Ritz who are afraid to leave the shelter of its luxurious walls, incapable of walking a couple blocks, or just so careless about the price of things that $17 for a (small) plate of fried shrimp seems perfectly reasonable, is just dismal. I didn’t love 10 Arts, which lived here before big-time international restaurateur Richard Sandoval brought Aqimero to the Ritz-Carlton a few months back. I had great meals there, and ones that were merely so-so. A bit of its luster rubbed off after it lost Eric Ripert’s oversight and Jennifer Carroll in the kitchen. But 10 Arts still undeniably fit into the vaulted lobby of the Ritz. It belonged there in a way that Aqimero just … can’t.

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Endless Summer: Tiki Reviewed

Mural at Tiki | All photos by Chelsea Portner

Mural at Tiki | All photos by Chelsea Portner

It’s way too early to be writing this review, and I don’t care at all. Best thing about being a critic? That moment when you find something that’s best only in that moment. That, for whatever reason—despite calendars and schedules and plans and rules—demands to be paid attention to now.

That’s Tiki.

There’s nothing to the place. It’s so stupidly simple that I love it in stupidly simple ways—without thought, just on pure reflex and lust for fried dumplings, acid-tinged surf rock and Bacardi 151.

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A Fish Story: Blackfish Revisited

Blackfish Reviewed | Photo by Samuel Markey

Blackfish Reviewed | Photo by Samuel Markey

The dining room at Blackfish in Conshohocken is white, but not cold. Not icy, the way some white, restaurant-shaped boxes can be. The dark wood floors help. The matching chairs. The colorful spines of cookbooks stacked on a shelf, making the place look like it’s been styled for an Architectural Digest photo shoot, or maybe something from a summer issue of Martha Stewart Living. Not lively, exactly, but alive.

The white ceilings and white tablecloths and white plates make every color pop. The sharp red of garden tomatoes in a summer salad, the green tangles of seaweed on which sit the stony shells of oysters, the rich, textured yellow-brown of a curry sauce puddling around a fist-sized cut of tilefish perfectly golden from the pan: In this sterility of white-on-white, the plates being put out by Chip Roman’s chef de cuisine, Yianni Arhontoulis, and his crew go off like fireworks. The entire restaurant becomes a blank space, and all you can see are the blooms and sparks in front of you. Everything else fades into the background.

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Breakfast of Champions: The Dutch Reviewed

 

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The Dutch | Photo by Emily Teel

Breakfast is the last great, untouched frontier. Of all the meals available to us (lunch, dinner, supper, elevenses, fourthmeal, midnight snacks, etc.), breakfast is the most pure, the most un-fuck-with-able. No one in his right mind tries to innovate during breakfast. No one tries to dazzle you with technical wizard-powers or supply lines to long-lost fruits and vegetables. Breakfast is toast and jelly. Coffee. Pancakes. Eggs and bacon. Waffles in all their myriad glories. It is, occasionally, oatmeal. Complicated (but comforting) pastries. Half a grapefruit doused in Wild Turkey. Whatever.

I love congee and chilaquiles as much as anyone, but Americans own breakfast the way the French do dinner. We have stolen all the great ideas ever had about breakfast and made them our own. Americans are so good at breakfast that our canon doesn’t extend merely to regional variations, but to social, religious, economic and historic ones as well. The trucker’s breakfast is a thing. The yoga breakfast. The camp breakfast. The Lutheran pancake social or Continental or Southerner’s petit déjeuner. Breakfast knows no bounds save temporal. And brunch? Well, brunch doesn’t even have those rules to adhere to. Brunch laughs at the notion of rules.

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The Time Machine: Jansen Reviewed

A soaring plate at Jansen in Mount Airy | Photo by Emily Teel

A soaring plate at Jansen in Mount Airy | Photo by Emily Teel

My wife, Laura, hated Jansen as soon as she walked through the door.

To be fair, she actually hated it before she walked through the door. She’d looked at the menu online, with its photos of the dishes available—shellfish sauces, slouching ring-molded tartares with sprigs of thyme poking up like tiny trees, food stacked or clenched tight like fists amid the vast white space of plates doodled with sauce)—and asked why we were doing this.

“I’ve eaten enough country-club food in my life, Jay. Why would I want more?”

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Buying Cool: Wm. Mulherin’s Sons Reviewed

Woodfired oven at Wm. Mulherin's Sons | Photo by Michael Persico

Woodfired oven at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons | Photo by Michael Persico

Wm. Mulherin’s Sons is the best-smelling restaurant I’ve been to all year.

It’s pretty, sure. Big, new, shiny, polished, fitted out with rich woods, artisan tile and carefully preserved architectural flourishes. But when you’re playing at this level, who isn’t pretty? Packaging matters. Every crack in the walls, every scuff on the floor or scab of tarnish on metal is as deliberate as the gleam on the walnut tables (as though the trees were grown to no other purpose than to be made into them, arranged in this order). There’s a big new skylight that lets brilliance spill in like water. The bar is long, brick-backed and achingly well stocked. The tall windows don’t rattle when the El snaps past, but you can feel it—roaring like a memory of dinosaurs and catching you right below the heart. This place has the design culture of second-gen hipsterism in its bones.

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The Mathematics of Sandwiches: Stove & Tap Reviewed

Brisket sandwich at Stove & Tap | Photo by Craig Slotkin

Stove & Tap | Photo by Craig Slotkin

On a Sunday night, Stove & Tap is busy. Not full, but I’m not really sure there would ever be enough people dining out in Lansdale on any given night to fill the place completely, what with two floors, outdoor tables, multiple bars and an upstairs patio. It’s big, loud, hot, polished, beautiful, and there’s a bear—a taxidermied brown bear in the front window, standing on its hind legs with a sign asking people not to feed it.

I wanted to buy a stuffed bear once. I found it at a pawnshop in Royersford, standing amid the hocked stereos and stationary bikes. It was a nice bear—huge and fierce—and my wife, seeing the wild look in my eyes, offered what was not exactly a rare connubial ultimatum and said I had a choice to make: her or the bear. Piece of advice? Don’t ever hesitate when offered those options. I did. For perhaps half a second too long. Now, years later, she still won’t let me forget it—the day I considered, however briefly, trading my wife for a pawnshop bear.

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