By The Numbers: A Fantastic Year For Philly Restaurants

Never did this finely wrought food feel fussy.  | Photo by Jason Varney

Photo by Jason Varney

I was talking with Philly mag restaurant critic Trey Popp the other day, and we were discussing (as we so often do) the state of the restaurant scene in Philly. More specifically, how weirdly awesome this past year has been for restaurants in general, but for restaurants in Philly in particular. It’d gotten so that he was actually concerned with the numbers of 3 star reviews he’d been handing down lately–not because any of the restaurants on which he’d bestowed the stars were undeserving, but because he was worried that, after a while, a whole lot of 3 star reviews in a row just become noise.

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Three Bells for Petruce et al

petruce-940Petruce et al is the ninth three bell review for Craig LaBan this year, a number it usually takes a year to achieve. In La Ban’s review states that this effort by Justin and Jonathan Petruce is one of the best.

Petruce may well become best known for interpretations of some true basics – such as lasagna, roast chicken, and steak that are instantly among the city’s best. The hearty eight-layer lasagna, its fresh pasta ribboned with nutmeg-scented béchamel, is oven-finished to a crunch in cast iron. The simply roasted chicken brings parchment-crisp skin and juicy flesh, with creamy grits ringed by an electric-yellow sauce of slow-cooked yolk thinned by white soy and lemon.

Three Bells – Excellent

Wood-fired excellence at Petruce et al [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Petruce et al [Foobooz]

A.kitchen Gets a Second Look from Craig LaBan

akitchen-interior-940

Not even a stolen purse from next door’s a.bar can put a damper on Craig LaBan’s opinion of the revamped a.kitchen.

[T]he grill’s true stars were whole fish for sharing that are different from any others in Philly. That aji, butterflied and grilled over a Japanese grill grate that blistered the skin over dusky, buttery flesh, is a new favorite. The regal Dover sole, vented for the grill with vertical slashes and served over brown butter-lime vinaigrette – will be a bone-in change-up for older diners accustomed to black-tied servers doing all the fillet work. But the crispy skin and luxurious, moist meat was extraordinary. Like the restaurant’s unconventional wines, this is an a.kitchen challenge worth embracing.

Three Bells – Excellent

a.kitchen: A city gem not undone by a city problem [Philadelphia Inquirer]
a.kitchen [Foobooz]

Three Bells for Eli Collins and Pub & Kitchen

Photo via Pub & Kitchen

Photo via Pub & Kitchen

Craig LaBan revisits Pub & Kitchen at 20th and Lombard and finds that the corner hot spot has gone from gastropub to restaurant with a bar. And a mighty fine restaurant at that.

A perfectly seared fillet of fluke came over a sweet dice of yellow rutabaga with lentils and whole-grain-mustard crème fraîche. Tiny, tender calamari were stuffed like sausages with spicy house-made chorizo over a milky almond-anchovy puree with grilled celery stalks that had been tanged with lemon. Giant head-on prawns, brushed with a tangy spring barbecue glaze of rhubarb and aji amarillo chiles, paired with toasted farro and a vivid green puree that also snapped with whole fresh sweet peas.

Three Bells – Excellent

A second look at Pub & Kitchen [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Pub & Kitchen
 [Foobooz]

French Classics Prepared by a French Master

le-cheri-facade-940

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]

Three Bells for Osteria Moorestown

osteria-moorestown-wine-940

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

laurel menus

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

high-street-on-market-prep-940

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]

Three Bells for Marigold Kitchen

marigold-kitchen-940

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]

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