Two Bells for Rosa Blanca

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Craig LaBan finds that Jose Garces’s Rosa Blanca may suffer from a split personality but is worth it when it comes to Cuban classics.

Rosa Blanca is at its best when embracing its Cuban comida soul. The ropa vieja was stewed to brisket silk, profound with a subtle molasses sweetness and sneaky red fresno chili spice. Flavorful cubes of pork-shoulder masitas were intense with savory adobo seasoning, practically melting on the tongue. The garlicky roast chickens, meanwhile, are among the most flavorful in town, dripping oregano and achiote-tinted essence down from the spit onto baby potatoes that turn yellow with flavor. With a crock of perfect black beans and rice on the side, it’s a satisfying value for $18.

Two Bells – Very Good

Rosa Blanca still seeking an identity [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Rosa Blanca [Foobooz]

Sex Panther Obscures the Gaslight’s Potential

Adam Erace has some problems with the food at the Gaslight, but that’s nothing compared to what he had to say about the drinks. gaslight-cocktails-400

The Gaslight, the new bar/restaurant from Jason Cichonski, a chef whose reputation is built — fairly or unfairly — on equal parts scallop noodles and sex appeal. When he and Nick Elmi first encountered each other on the last season of Top Chef, Elmi looked at Cichonski’s pastel pink shorts and quipped, “You look like you just got off a yacht.”

I felt like I was on one at The Gaslight, that’s about how rocky the food was, but the cocktails were even weirder. This list appears to have been curated by a Cherry Hill bachelorette party, with confections bearing names like Pirate Hooker (a red currant Bellini, because who doesn’t want that at 9:30 p.m.?) and Hello Kitty, a martini whose fruity flavors (green tea, lychee, strawberry) make more sense together at Old City Frozen Yogurt down the street.

Tragically named cocktails aren’t the only missteps at The Gaslight [City Paper]
The Gaslight [Foobooz]

“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]

The Revisit: A.Kitchen

a.kitchen-signYou know those people who go to new restaurants purely to order the same dish they order everywhere else? Because the “litmus test” of a good place is how well it makes a roasted chicken—or guacamole, or steak frites, or chocolate mousse, or whatever that person has arbitrarily determined to be the whole point of eating out?

It’s a dwindling species these days. Fewer and fewer chefs want to cook what the other guy’s cooking; straight-up comparisons are harder to find. And I’ve never counted myself part of that tribe anyway. Meals out are too ripe with potential adventure to waste them looking for litmus tests.

But there’s no need to be dogmatic about it, so today I’m going to nominate one anyway: stuffed squid.

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PHL’s Local Offers Real Food

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The last several times I’ve been to Philadelphia International Airport I’ve considered making the trek down to Terminal F to try out Jose Garces’s menu at Local. But the timing just hasn’t worked out. So I was intrigued when I saw that Brian Freedman reviewed the iPad-based eatery in yesterday’s Philadelphia Weekly.

Everything you eat at Local, from sides to proper entrees, you order through a clever iPad system; you can customize your order, add items, pay through it and even browse the interwebs. And while some people may push back at the lack of much human contact during the meal, I actually found it to be perfectly suited to the context of the airport. Checking your bags, wending your way through security and dealing with the myriad other headaches of air travel are stressful enough. Being able to retreat into your own world in this well-appointed space is fantastic.

Local: It’s actually good food at Philadelphia Int’l Airport [Philadelphia Weekly]
Local [Foobooz]

Where We’re Eating: Vernick Food + Drink

Photo by Karrisa Olsen

Photo by Karrisa Olsen

I can remember, a long time ago, back when Greg Vernick was first opening his eponymous restaurant on Walnut Street and the early reviews were just coming in, talking with my food-nerd friends about the place—about how good it already was, and the weird feeling we all had that it somehow had the potential to get even better. Now, two years in, it seems to have arrived. The menu, with its oysters and small plates, simply roasted fish and chicken and brilliant toasts, is solid and welcoming and comforting while at the same time inventive enough to never be dull. The short cocktail program is well thought-out, and the service has mellowed and relaxed into a perfect upscale-neighborhood-restaurant model, with easy smiles all around. While there have been some complaints that the menu doesn’t change often enough, the benefit of this (relative) stability has been a crew brought up on consistency and attention to detail, which shows through on every single plate.

Vernick Food + Drink [Foobooz]

Where We’re Eating: Vietnam

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On a recent visit to one of the many hole-in-the-wall pho joints on Washington Avenue, I saw a table of large white construction workers slurping up noodles. And while there might not be anything strange about that today, things weren’t always that way. Twenty-five years ago, when Benny Lai took over Vietnam on 11th Street from his family, no one in this town who didn’t grow up on home-cooked Asian food knew a pho from a bun. Lai opened the door, making the food more accessible while getting lots of us drunk on Flaming Volcanos and other tiki concoctions. These days, there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants in town. But Lai’s Vietnam (and the mirror-image Vietnam Cafe in West Philadelphia) remains the place for Vietnamese dinner with out-of-towners, the in-laws, etc. Order the barbecue platter (Lai’s version of the pu pu platter), salt-and-pepper fried shrimp and some of those flaming drinks, and you’re good to go. 

Vietnam [Official]

First appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Where We’re Eating: Tria Taproom

The team behind Tria Cafe has opened a pizza-and-beer joint. That would be one way to describe Tria Taproom, but not a particularly apt one. The Taproom offers flatbreads, not pizzas. A co-worker wondered if the only difference was pretense, but from my point of view, the Tria team can call them whatever they want as long as they keep making them, whether topped with burrata, balsamic onions and lemon zest or gorgonzola, duck confit and foie gras mousse. The Taproom lives up to its name as well, with 24 beers on tap from a system that’s one part work of art and one part peek into the future. The tap handles are mounted on an illuminated marble backsplash. iPad-based menus describe the beers, which come from Norway, Nebraska and Downingtown. The iPads also illustrate just how much beer remains in the keg, so you’ll always know when one is getting down to the dregs. The wine program is also entirely on draft—a system that promises fresher-tasting wines and incidentally befuddles the city inspectors trying to enforce Philly’s mandatory recycling program: What do you mean there’s no waste? Since this is a Tria operation, cheese, the third fermentable, plays a part on the menu, with options ranging from Approachable to Racy—which is an altogether accurate description of what you get at Tria Taproom.

Tria Taproom [Foobooz]

First appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Serious Food at Sancho Pistola’s

Photo by Neal Santos

Photo by Neal Santos

Adam Erace visits Sancho Pistola’s in Fishtown and has praise for chef and partner Adan Trinidad’s food.

The tomato-based Veracruzana sauce forming a crimson moat around the whole snapper is like a Mexican puttanesca — punchy with crushed olives, salty capers and fresh cilantro. The fish’s salamander-broiled skin shone and crinkled like tinfoil, its flesh beneath moist and glistening as it flaked into the chunky sauce dammed by tender peanut potatoes and sweet fried plantains. I’d put it up against any whole fish in the city.

Sancho Pistola’s brings solid Mexican fare and a righteous beer list to Fishtown [City Paper]
Sancho Pistola’s [Foobooz]

 

Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Rosa Blanca

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Masitas de puerco. Photography by Michael Persico

Jose Garces can take you places. And the most compelling ones are those you’d have the hardest time reaching on your own. That’s why Amada, with its broad embrace of Spain, has always been second in my book to Tinto’s deep dive into Basque country. And it’s one reason JG Domestic’s all-American pantry, for all its ambition, has always felt more expendable than Distrito’s gaudy fantasia of luchador masks and tequila-cured ceviche.

So if there was any silver lining to the closure of Chifa, whose Peruvian-Chinese cuisine was Garces’s most inspired adventure, it was the news that its replacement would be a destination that gets stamped on even fewer American passports: a Cuban diner.

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