Sneak Peek: The 2009 Philly Mag 50 Preview

We decided, once again, not only to uncover the region’s 50 best restaurants, but to rank them, just 15 months after we did it the first time. (You’ll be surprised how much has changed.) Since last Tuesday, we’ve been posting two Top 10 winners a day, in descending order, here in the Restaurant Club blog — and e-mailing members as soon it’s up, so that you’ve known the best before everyone else. (Including the restaurants themselves!) Tomorrow we reveal the number-one spot — and the rest of our list!

Think we’re totally off base on one (or all) of our picks? Let’s hear that too!


2. Vetri (last year’s ranking: 7)
Marc Vetri says all he wants is for diners to remember what a great time they had at his namesake Spruce Street spot. While that philosophy may seem uncomplicated, executing it is anything but. Vetri is now in its 11th year, and the culinary missteps of meals past (like a lackluster squab) are gone, thanks to a talented team of servers led by sommelier and business partner Jeffrey Benjamin and a kitchen championed by Vetri’s trusted chef, Brad Spence. Here, luxury is redefined with a provincial approach, but despite the carefree air the place exudes, everything is intricately planned, and nothing is overlooked. Mouthwatering pastas are draped in sauces like beefy rib-cap ragu; bay scallops are so tender, they masquerade as gnocchi; and the gnocchi are a weightless version of the doughy puffs you thought you knew. Of course, all this approachability has its price: The weekend tasting menu is $135, and the scant 35 seats make nabbing reservations hard. But it’s still the finest dining in an ain’t-no-big-thing vibe that makes Vetri the cornerstone of our current, groundbreaking restaurant era. Order: The house-cured sausage. Restaurant Details


10. Blackfish (last year’s ranking: 3)
This clean-lined Conshohocken BYO celebrates simplicity — so light and airy, all pale grays and Shaker-style chairs. Amiable servers don’t even play up the complexity of chef Chip Roman’s dishes, though they certainly could wax poetic on the way the cherry jus mingles with the pistachio-crusted ball of foie gras, or how the smoked salmon wrapped around a soft deep-fried egg meshes so nicely with the crème fraîche. Happily, the scene, the servers and the chef all let the food speak for itself. And this food doesn’t just speak; it sings —­ without ever being heavy or overdone. Order: The delicate bouillabaisse is a proven crowd-pleaser, but you can’t go wrong with the house specialty — fish. Restaurant Details

9. Talula’s Table (new to the list)
Many diners who experienced the magic of Django in its heyday now wait up to a year — for a reservation at Talula’s Table, where chef Bryan Sikora whips up an eight-course “Farm Table Dinner” for 12 lucky diners nightly in the gourmet market he and wife Aimee Olexy run in Kennett Square. When you arrive at the store, shoppers are still checking out, and it’s hard to imagine the room will become a worthy setting for one of the best food experiences of your life. But once the lights dim and your wine has been poured, you feel cocooned by the quiet of horse country and the onslaught of intricately composed plates. The prix-fixe menu changes monthly, but often includes wild ingredients (like ramps and leeks) harvested by the chef himself. Order: Nothing! Dining here means you eat what Chef has prepared. Restaurant Details

8. Amada (last year’s ranking: 4)
Nearly four years after its debut, Jose ­Garces’s flagship is still one of our restaurant scene’s crown jewels. While other eating places have lost relevance, Amada continues to set the bar high for stylish but fun fine dining. The place is somehow equally perfect for a peaceful early-evening albarino paired with the city’s best charcuterie (still sliced to order) or a rowdy night out with a gaggle of pals. Its dim light, gauzy fabrics and dark wood make it simultaneously sexy and serene. Amada has always been a restaurant that knows what it is: authentic Spanish tapas. And in a city where new restaurants can lose their luster fast, it remains one of the best — and most reliable — spots in town. Order: Tortilla Espanola. Restaurant Details

7. Distrito (new to the list)
The mango margaritas flow, the neon-pink walls glow, and the roaming mariachi sings his heart out at Jose Garces’s whimsical homage to Mexico City. You might find the sensory overload overwhelming, but this manic space feels just right in University City, where diners include compulsively texting Penn students, hard-drinking docs, and young West Philly families. The focus is on the flash here, but Garces’s gourmet versions of Mexican street food — tacos, tamales, guacamole — are shockingly elegant, not to mention some of the best eats we’ve had anywhere all year. This culinary carnival is not only pure fun, but a shining example of how Garces manages to brilliantly achieve diversity while never straying too far from what he does best. Order: Skirt steak nachos. Restaurant Details

6. Fountain Restaurant (last year’s ranking: 12)
With entrées priced in the upper $30s, formal table settings and gracious waiters, the Fountain Restaurant is taking the last-man-standing approach to fine French dining. And if it keeps on executing with such perfection, survive it will. Some menu items seem to defy culinary logic, like an egg yolk that’s panko-crusted-crispy yet oozing on the inside. Others are just shining examples of the seasoned staff’s timeless cooking techniques, like the simmered-for-hours Pommery mustard demi that coats the ideally pink veal chop. And while this is cooking in its most classic form, dining here means you’ll remember the stellar service, hushed conversations and tasteful dining room as much as you do the food — which is exactly the experience the Fountain is going for. Order: The cheese course — it’s a treat that’s rarely done this well. Restaurant Details

5. Lacroix (last year’s ranking: 2)
We wouldn’t blame the brass over at the Rittenhouse Hotel if they freaked out when Matt Levin announced in December that he was leaving Lacroix to open his forthcoming Masano in Northern Liberties. It was Levin, after all, who turned the hotel restaurant into one of Philly’s most exciting places to eat. But everyone can relax: Levin’s young chef de cuisine, Jason Cichonski, is at the helm, and he’s rocking the job with an innovative menu (love the tomato-cheddar soup, garnished with a wistful drizzle of charcoal oil) and note-perfect execution (even an escarole salad was a triumph) on almost all the dishes. Add to that a contemporary Zen decor, servers and a sommelier who are unerring in their recommendations, and details that make us smile (amuses-bouches that could be art; the chef’s take-home breakfast pastry, gratis), and you have a restaurant we’re still excited to call our own. Order: The five- or eight-plate tasting menu — the more you get to sample here, the better. Restaurant Details

4. Osteria (last year’s ranking: 1)
There are tons of reasons to love Osteria, the rustic Italian gem belonging to Marc Vetri, Jeff Benjamin and Jeff Michaud: the smell of spiced sausage as pizzas are pulled from the oak-burning oven; the happy clanking of forks and cacophony of conversation that set this place apart from the more reverent vibe of big sister Vetri; the solicitous sommelier whose joy in life, it seems, is to bring you tastes from the well-thought wine list; and the food. Oh, God, the food. Last time, we loved the pork cooked on a spit, the soft, fatty deliciousness of roasted pig juxtaposed with a crackly bit of skin; the time before that, gnocchi so light they were more like a pasta soufflé, embellished with a crunchy strip of pancetta; and countless crisp-crusted pizzas before that. And while entrées can be a tad inconsistent, almost two years in, the magic hasn’t even begun to wear off. Osteria still thrills. Order: The octopus salad, which is lemony, lightly charred, and just the right amount of chewy. Restaurant Details

3. James (last year’s ranking: 6)
Candied bacon, it turns out, tastes like peanut brittle. But better. Sweet, crunchy, salty, and vaguely redolent of actual meat, it takes an already luscious dessert—roasted apples atop a brown-sugar cake—and turns it into something you remember. Something you talk about the next day. So it goes with pretty much every dish at James, the refined little foodie refuge in Bella Vista, where a sunchoke soup manages to be light (tinged with lemon) and rich (served over black truffles), and a buttery, loose risotto—the most delicate you’ll find this side of Milan—is dotted with bits of oyster. Chef Jim Burke and his wife, Kristina, run the show with such intense attention to detail that naysayers have called the place too precious. The naysayers are wrong. James has earned serious accolades from Food & Wine magazine for the very reasons that we remain evangelical about the place: It has a serious chef making memorably good food in a pretty space. What’s not to love? Order: Tagliatelle with duck ragu, shaved chocolate and orange. Seriously. Restaurant Details