Looking Back: The Best (And Worst) Restaurants Of 2016, Part 3
If Part 1 was a tale of woe and eventual closures, and Part 2 was a turning point in a year that’d started off rough, then Part 3 is a redemption story. The summer of 2016 was one of the best times to be an eater in Philadelphia in recent memory, and it all started with the best new restaurant opening of the year thus far: Michael Schulson’s Double Knot.
Double Knot wasn’t just a great new restaurant. It quickly became obvious that it was one of the best in the city, period. A smart concept in the right space, gorgeous design that compromised nothing, a kitchen turning out a risky, daring and highly original menu–there was nothing Double Knot wasn’t doing right.
Downstairs, time stops. Appetite is all that matters. The menu is enormous, expansive, bonkers with ambition and double-bonkers in that it fulfills that ambition time and time and time again. Order five plates, 10, 20. Cocktails from the interesting list of smoked and spiced and infused classics that exist somewhere halfway between Prohibition and tiki. Sake from a bottle list that goes on for pages.
The Japanese fried chicken comes in finger-food chunks like the Devil’s own McNuggets—small and tender, panko-breaded, addictive as hell with their smear of togarishi mayo. The beef tataki is the best I’ve ever tasted, smoky and salty, wrapped around bundles of daikon for crunch and set in a dash of white soy. A special of spear squid arrives, classically styled, brushed with soy and draped over balls of rice as big as two thumbs. Yanaga’s rice is unbelievably good (served warm, sticky and salty, cooked in small batches and almost sweet with varying levels of rice vinegar) and the care he takes with it is proof of that old kitchen axiom that getting the small stuff right matters more than anything—provided you get the medium stuff and the big stuff right, too.
The funny thing is, I almost gave Double Knot four stars–something that I hadn’t even considered for any other restaurant in the city. The thing that stopped me? In my mind, Double Knot was actually too good for four stars. Four stars would’ve suggested a seriousness and, I don’t know, a stodginess that the place just didn’t have. The place was just too fun to be a four-star restaurant, so in the end, I gave it three and moved on.
Next up? A revisit to Opa–the Greek restaurant on Sansom Street that’d been saved by the hiring of chef Bobby Saritsoglou who turned the place into an example of how classical cuisines can be modernized without losing what made them classic in the first place. And then I went out to the suburbs to check in on a couple of Starr vets who’d opened a huge bar and restaurant in Lansdale called Stove & Tap and ended up telling a very long story about a stuffed bear and then eating some of the best sandwiches I’d found in a long time.
It wasn’t that everything else wasn’t good. The flatbreads, the burger—they were fine. The fries without gravy, without cheese curds and beer cheese, were okay. But the sandwich—stuffed fat with shaved brisket so pillowy and tender that it seemed to merge into the soft roll, everything smoothed out by melted gouda and punctuated by the hot spike of horseradish mayo—was the best I’d ever had.
Granted, I’m saying this as a man who falls into and out of love with sandwiches weekly, sometimes daily. A man who always (almost always) loves the sandwich in front of him more than any other remembered sandwich or potential sandwich yet to come. I’m saying this knowing full well the scope of my own hyperbole when it comes to the things I love, but also understanding the way it brushes up against mathematical reality.
On a Monday night, the brisket dip sandwich (did I forget to mention the rich, salty, slightly sour beef jus on the side?) was the best sandwich I’d ever had. As it sat there in front of me, I would have sworn that to anyone. But it also, simultaneously and absolutely, existed within the set of best sandwiches of my life overall, completely independent of proximity. I don’t know what they do to their brisket at Stove & Tap, but the kitchen deserves some sort of sandwich-based genius grant. The horseradish (which I enjoy with perhaps too much enthusiasm) was like cocaine to me. I wanted to rub it on my gums. Laura and I had intended to share the sandwich, but as it grew shorter, its approaching vanishing point became a threat to our relationship, the equitable distribution of last bites the sort of thing that might have required lawyers and a hostage negotiator. The only solution, as we saw it, was to get another—to make sure there was too much sandwich for either of us to eat in a single sitting. The leftovers we would deal with later, in the privacy of our own home.
After Double Knot, after Opa, after my (brief) love affair with a stuffed bear, there was Wm. Mulherin’s Sons. And if Double Knot had absolutely blown me away with its risk-taking and surprising genius, then Mulherin’s was almost equally impressive for its polish and its expertise. On our newest list of the 50 Best Restaurants in Philadelphia, Double Knot comes in at number 6 and Mulherin’s is snapping at its heels at number 8. In between them is Serpico, which should tell you something about just how good these two places are.
Painter changes up his pasta menu regularly, rolling out specials as though even the eight on his board aren’t enough to contain all the possibilities rattling around in his brain. I eat pig’s head tortelloni—little envelopes, perfectly stiff, in a sauce made of the pig’s cooking liquid spiked with rosemary, black pepper, orange juice and zest—and cavatelli with porcinis and a creamy taleggio fonduta. The pappardelle noodles are thick and rough, ribboned onto the plate with sliced disks of young asparagus and a thick cap of parmesan. The corzetti is made with the meat from whole rabbits, turned into sausage, in a reduced blonde stock made from their bones, plus some fava beans and parmesan. Over and over again, the plates of pasta are restrained and delicious, complex in ways that have you chasing flavors to the bottom of the dish, not wondering at their unnecessary convolutions. There’s an honest, homey rusticity to them—even to the artsy drags of ricotta on the messinesi, the careful placement of hand-torn basil leaves, the snowfall of parm. Nothing contrived at all.
And when, early on a Sunday night, I follow the smell of wood smoke into the dining room, to a table pressed into a corner (because Mulherin’s is already busy, crowded with neighbors and friends), and ask for gin and a double margherita pizza with buffalo mozzarella, basil, perfect sweet tomato sauce and blobs of soft burrata half melted from the heat, what arrives is one of the best pies in the city. The crust is remarkable—tender and crisp-edged, leopard-spotted like it’s posing for a Lucky Peach cover shot, chewy at its heart and perfumed so deeply with that smoke that even the smell of it seems to have weight. The toppings are simple, but so ideal. The burrata adds a smooth creaminess to every bite, an additional level of texture that elevates traditional margherita to another level. If the pizza I had on that Sunday (along with the cavatelli, the tortelloni, and a plate of dates wrapped in prosciutto, stuffed with gorgonzola, baked until the skin of them cracks under the teeth, and then served with a thick plum purée) isn’t the best in the city, it’s very close. I’ve had maybe two or three better during the past five years of Philly’s crazy-ass pizza renaissance, and even that judgment is debatable. Mulherin’s pizzas, right now, are the definition of what modern traditionalism should taste like: a considered combination of contemporary flavors and the collected knowledge of hundreds of years of culinary refinement.
This was the high point of the year–Double Knot and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons reviewed within the same month–and 2016 wasn’t going to get any better. Jansen in Mt. Airy came next, which I loved because it was a kind of culinary time machine, a trip back to the best days of New American cuisine as prepared by a guy who was right in the middle of that last revolution.
That habit of verticality. The urge to give food a clean frame and the drama of height that, to a certain generation of cooks and chefs, screams siren-loud of a certain time and place along the developmental spectrum of American cuisine. A simpler and more innocent time when all most of us knew how to do was steal and run endless, looping riffs on dishes we’d already cooked a million times. Before fluid gels and reverse-sphericalization. Before modernism and the (flawed) notion that every schoolboy cook is a budding Thomas Keller whose genius must be coddled and allowed to flourish in tasting menus and televised cooking contests. Before tweezers.
The Dutch came next (breakfast and brunch in Pennsport, served every day by two big name experts, Joncarl Lachman and Lee Styer). Then another revisit–to Blackfish in Conshohocken this time. I went and ate my way through the menu at Tiki (to give me something to do while I was drinking my way through its bar, because who doesn’t love putting down tiki drinks with friends on someone else’s dime?), and liked it maybe more than some people thought I should have, but screw them. If you can’t have fun at a tiki bar, you can’t have fun at all. And then came Bop, a flawed, modern Korean restaurant on Broad Street that’s been improving since I made my official visits.
But then came the low point of 2016.
Aqimero was the worst restaurant of 2016. The worst reviewed restaurant for sure and, arguably, the worst overall.
I’ve been eating at Richard Sandoval restaurants for years. He has several in Denver (which is where I wrote about food for many years before coming here), and in those days, back when he was still very much a part of my beat, he was known as a restaurateur who’d gone in early and heavy on the whole Latino/Asian fusion thing and then just never let it go. He’s got something like 40 restaurants these days, in Qatar, Dubai, Mexico, Serbia, all over the U.S. He must, at this point, employ hundreds of cooks and chefs and culinary professionals at various levels—committed lifers who know a thing or two about the way people eat in their towns, cities or, you know, countries.
And yet, still, on a cool autumn afternoon, I requested a table in the more restaurant-y part of Aqimero (meaning along the side wall, with the banquette seats, not right out in the middle of the lobby, at the raw bar or the bar-bar) and found myself eating off a Nuevo Latino fusion menu of the sort that NO ONE has been interested in since the aughts. Chicken tacos glopped up with gochujang BBQ sauce? Japanese ceviche with chunks of ahi tuna and sweet potatoes? Who, in this time, in this place, is going to go out of his way for a $19 Nikkei lobster sushi roll that had to be deconstructed (the micro-cilantro removed, some of the mayonnaise-heavy spicy sauce scraped off, the limp, cold sticks of asparagus poked out with a chopstick) before it tastes even remotely of the rubbery lobster that makes up its core? Or for a shrimp quesadilla that’s fancy, sure, with its avocado espuma (foam) and smoked bacon, but not, in any real way, actually good. Or at least not functionally better than those served across the bars of dozens of restaurants in this town more in tune with what (and how) actual human beings living in 2016 would like to eat, thank you very much.
It wasn’t just that Aqimero was dull and terrible. The worst thing about it was that it could’ve been–should’ve been–so much better than it was. This was the restaurant that replaced 10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton and in that space ought to live Philadelphia’s greatest restaurant–the culinary face we want to show to the world. It was rarely as great as it should’ve been when it was 10 Arts, but on its worst day, 10 Arts was never as disappointing as Aqimero is at its best.
Which, okay, is kind of a downer on which to end our look back at 2016, but that’s the way these things go. When you rise as high as we did with Double Knot and Wm Mulherin’s Sons, there has to be an equal and opposite fall to weight the other side. And that’s what Aqimero was.
But hey, maybe you disagree. And that’s awesome. I do love a good argument. But let’s just have it at the bar at Mulherin’s, huh? Because I’m never going back to Aqimero again.
Restaurant Reviews [Phillymag]