Three Critics Walk Into a Chat Room

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Craig LaBan’s online chat this afternoon will feature LaBan talking with City Paper’s Adam Erace and Philadelphia magazine’s Trey Popp. Stop by Philly.com at 2 p.m. to ask the trio about restaurant criticism, anonymity or what their favorite restaurant is (because we’re sure they never get that question).

UPDATE: Here’s the direct link to the archived chat.

Craig LaBan Restaurant Chat [Philly.com]

Did We Create This Culinary Monster?

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what kind of restaurant town we really want to be. In the Philadelphia magazine that’s on the stands right now, I’ve got an essay asking what it means to our restaurant scene when being merely great is no longer a guarantee of success. We’ve been writing an awful lot about VolverJose Garces‘s new high-stakes (and high price) gamble at the Kimmel Center which now stands as the most expensive dinner in town by a long stretch. And as we all know by now, between knee-capping reviews from both Craig Laban and our own Trey Popp, and a whole lot of people on the streets wondering if the storied Walnut Street address might be better off if it was just turned into a Jamba Juice and ignored until all the ghosts of Le Bec-Fin have departed, Avance is having itself a very rough month.

And now, with all this in mind, I just ran across this essay over at Esquire’s “Eat Like A Man” blog which essentially lays the blame for every modern sin in restaurant-dom squarely at our feet.

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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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Philadelphia Restaurant Review: Avance

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Foie gras mousse. Photography by Courtney Apple.

Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. And Avance is what happens the third time around.

Ninety minutes, 120 bucks and one bite into dinner for four at 1523 Walnut Street, the successor to Le Bec-Fin and all its reboots was careening. We’d already been told our table wasn’t ready (as the minute hand smacked solidly against our reservation hour) and been sent to pay tribute at the downstairs bar. Two sips into cocktails there, and a hostess appeared to reclaim our glasses and ferry us past a bevy of empty tables in the soaring slate-gray dining room, bringing us to one of several more vacancies on the mezzanine. A self-congratulatory announcement prefaced the replacement of white napkins with black ones (for the benefit of the ladies’ pants, of course), yet when the silver tongs appeared later to replenish the linens a second time, it was back to white again.

And then, 20 minutes after we’d ordered an audaciously marked-up white to accompany appetizers, our server airily chirped, “The sommelier’s upstairs. I assume she’s having trouble finding it.”

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Having a Ball at Le Chéri

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According to Trey Popp, the Art Alliance may have finally found its restaurant in Pierre and Charlotte Calmels’ Le Cheri. Popp bestows three stars on the French bistro, despite being served testicles under the guise of “pistachio fries.”

Calmels cuts his boudin noir—another “Bizarre” selection—with extra flour, pushing the sometimes-crumbly texture of that blood sausage into the realm of dense chocolate cake. Best I’ve ever had.

And if there’s ravioli on the menu, get it—even if it sounds boring, like the delicate cream cheese ones whose tangy fillings turned out to be infused with truffle peelings one night.

Three Stars – Excellent

Restaurant Review: Le Cheri [Philadelphia Magazine]
Le Cheri [Foobooz]

Living in Left Field: High Street on Market Reviewed

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Eli Kulp at High Street on Market | Photo by Jason Varney

Trey Popp thoroughly enjoys High Street on Market, Eli Kulp’s follow-up to Fork.

Kulp likes to say that if Fork is “one step left of the mainstream,” High Street is meant to be another step or two to the left of that. Even some of the simplest things on offer here push the envelope on farm-to-table fare—which, let’s face it, has been sorely in need of a little pushing for a while now.

One of my favorites was a bowl of flash-fried broccoli florets battered with such a thin coating of rice flour that the resulting shell was barely visible, then tossed with a “chowchow” subjected to a lacto-fermentation that bent the tangy relish halfway toward spicy kimchi. Think tempura toned down from flavor-dominating crunch to tongue-tickling crackle, with a condiment kicked up from one-note quick-pickle to a full chord of funk.

Three Stars – Excellent

Restaurant Review: High Street on Market [Philadelphia Magazine]
High Street on Market [Foobooz]

What Comes After Brunch?

Smoked Scallops | Photo by Courtney Apple

Smoked Scallops | Photo by Courtney Apple

Trey Popp finds that Jerry’s Bar is a great and reasonable place to drink, the food’s not bad either.

And come back on Sunday morning. My favorite dish at Jerry’s was a special that paired cured smoked scallops with springy polenta—an enthralling alternative to the now-ubiquitous shrimp and grits.

Two Stars – Good

Restaurant Review: Jerry’s Bar [Philadelphia Magazine]
Jerry’s Bar [Foobooz]

Nick Elmi Breaks Free at Laurel

Daurade at Laurel | Photo by Jason Varney

Daurade at Laurel | Photo by Jason Varney

Trey Popp reviews Nick Elmi’s Laurel for the February issue of Philadelphia magazine. Popp writes that Elmi’s cooking has been unshackled from cooking other people’s food and has found his way. It’s a three-and-a-half star review, the highest rating Popp has doled out as reviewer for the magazine.

The dish I least wanted to order—pork with acorn squash and
chanterelles—turned out to feature loin and belly and the best “sausage” I’ve ever had: pulled pork shoulder perked up with sherry vinegar, set on brioche, and wrapped in caul fat that, when pan-fried, transformed the bread into the Platonic ideal of crispiness. And the accompanying pumpkin seed vinaigrette revealed itself as a rustic cousin of marmalade, sharpened by the trace bitterness of oranges blanched 10 times.

Yet never did this finely wrought food feel fussy. Some chefs put so much intellectual effort into a dish that the plate resembles a notebook crammed with all the scratch notes that preceded it. Elmi doesn’t show all his work, only the elegant answers.

Three-and-a-half-stars – Excellent to Extraordinary

Laurel [Foobooz]
Restaurant Review: Nick Elmi’s Laurel [Philadelphia Magazine]

 

The Anonymity Debate: Trey Popp On Adam Platt’s Unmasking

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Will 2014 be the year restaurant critics come out of the shadows? The editors of New York magazine kicked off that conversation in a big way last week, splashing critic Adam Platt’s photograph on the cover of their January issue. Whether professional food critics actually matter may be much doubted in the InstaYelp Era, but apparently there’s still a lot of faith in their ability to drive city-magazine sales.

Platt, who has reviewed restaurants for New York for many years (and just named the new Han Dynasty in New York as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the city), explains his decision—and acknowledges his editors’ prodding—in a thoughtful essay that had me nodding amen from the first sentence.

My own seven-year stint as a “professional glutton” has likewise been an “accidental career.” (These days you can meet any number of college kids who’ll tell you they want to grow up to be food critics, but I hardly knew the job existed until I found myself doing it.) Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I too have grown a little tired of putting my dinner guests through the rigamarole of a review meal. It’s a pain to make people nervous about simply saying your name out loud. It’s a bigger pain to know that many of them are straining to defer to your perceived preferences around what to order—especially when you don’t have any, which in my case is actually most of the time. No grown person should have to spend the first 10 minutes of a meal divining the potentially nonexistent whims of his host.

Then again, no one’s complaining when the check goes on an expense account at the end of the meal. Least of all me. There aren’t many sweeter gigs than taking people out to eat.

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Cheap Eats: Wishbone

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Wishbone is a curious name for a chicken shop that can go weeks without serving any sort of bone at all.  Alan Segel and Dave Clouser’s successor to the longtime Lee’s Hoagie House in University City promises “craft fried chicken,” but that turns out to mean boneless, skinless chicken nuggets coated with dried pretzels.  I can’t be the only customer surprised by that discovery.  But hey, who’s to deny the craft in separating breasts and thighs from their skeletons?

Chicken nuggets have had a rough run lately.  A 2013 analysis of nuggets from two unspecified national chains determined that chicken muscle only accounted for about half the content of one specimen, and a mere 40 percent of the other.  Plenty of ground-up blood vessels, nerve tissue, and bone fragments, though!

So in fact there is a decent case to be made for taking the industrial revolution out of the chicken nugget, and putting some craft back in.

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