HughE Dillon: Philly Cooks Picks Restaurant Faves

The annual Philly Mag event tempts crowd with mouthwatering dishes from local chefs.

Last night, Philadelphia magazine’s annual food competition, Philly Cooks, was held in a brand-new venue: the 33rd Street Armory at Drexel. This year, proceeds were donated to the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, which received a $20,000 check. Every year the event is held on the fourth Wednesday of the month. I was curious how the turnout would be this year, as it was the same date as Ash Wednesday, which is a day when Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat and signals the start of the 40 days of Lent, when people are supposed to give up a vice (typically people choose sweets). The turnout was better than ever, and I had a lot of fun conversations with people. Below: “Dish of the Year” for 2012 was awarded to Chris Calhoun of the Hunt Room at the Desmond Hotel. His team made a poached Pacific halibut filet with saffron aioli, served atop tomato-orange braised Lacinato kale, with pommes allumettes. It melted in your mouth. The Hunt Room received a $1,000 prize for their win. Chris tells me that they will donate it to their charitable foundation, the Desmond Project, which is a joint endeavor between the Great Valley School District and the Desmond Hotel and Conference Center. Other winners from the evening were: Chefs John Strain and Evan Turney of Valanni (Best Entree for pan-seared magret duck breast over mashed sweet potato), and Stefanie Kitchener of Ciao Bella Cakes (Best Dessert for her lemon butter cake filled with ginger-infused bittersweet chocolate, rum syrup, and Hawaiian red salt.) Pictured with Calhoun below, LT Jones, 6 ABC’s Melissa Magee and Adam Joseph, and Andrew Davidson.

Below: Last year’s winner of “Dish of the Year,” Chip Roman, owner/chef of Mica and Blackfish, with David Lipson, president of Philadelphia magazine. Congratulations to Chip as the March issue of GQ just named his Chestnut Hill restaurant Mica as one of the 10 Best New Restaurants in the entire country! On top of that, he and his wife, Amanda, are having another baby next month. Currently they have a boy and two girls.

Below: When I was chatting with people and vendors, I asked if anyone mentioned Lent. Morgan Anderson of SophisticCakes in Drexel Hill told me that one lady said “Mmm … it looks delicious, but I gave up cake for Lent.” Then a few minutes later, she returned saying, “I did give up cake for lent, but I didn’t give up icing. Pass me a fork.”

Below: Nina Tinari, of T2 Consultants, on the front lines helping Michael Schulson’s Sampan, with Michael Wertzberger, general manager, and Carla Torres making vanilla Cap’n Crunch ice cream cones.

Below: Lauren Ferst and Alan Domb loved Stateside, but Alan was also partial to his own place, Schlesinger’s Deli’s corned beef special.

Below: Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse team, Anny Deirmenjian, Image Unlimited Communications, David Boyle, executive chef, Beta Blakely, and John Meaux. In honor of March’s Hawaiian-themed 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show, Davio’s Philadelphia is offering a twist on a delicious coconut panna cotta dessert that will make you feel as if you are vacationing on a tropical island.

Below: Mike Lentowski, here with Christine Buben, tells me he is giving up drinking for Lent during the week—well, “except for tonight,” he laughed.

Below: Michael Marcucci and Rosa Marcucci, with friends Cass Benevetto and Ernie Benevetto.

Below: Philly food dude Darren A DeBlasi, Kristy Gilboy and Anthony Sica all raved about Tashan’s Montchevre goat cheese with flaky onion seed bread, and pineapple raisin chutney. The March issue of GQ also names Tashan on South Broad, in the list of 5 Best Dishes of the Year for its Naga Beef Sümi.

Below: Brauhaus Schmitz’s chef Jeremy Nolan, Stateside owner William Bonforte, and executive chef George Sabatino. George tweeted about their dish that they made 1,500 pieces of crostini for their foie-gras-and-butternut-squash mousse on crostini.

Below: Besides delicious food and the charity component, another nice thing about big events like Philly Cooks is catching up with old friends and making new ones. On the right, executive chef Andrew Brown, Opa Restaurant, is chatting with executive chef Eric Yost from White Dog. Eric has been there for about three years, arriving just about the time Andrew left to pursue other things. They were comparing notes and reminiscing.

Below: Jenn Nelby and David Gilbert enjoyed the evening. Jenn told me that she was a day behind and that it was her Fat Tuesday, and that she’d start Lent on Thursday by giving up sweets. At Philly Cooks, her favorite dish was the vanilla Cap’n Crunch ice cream at Sampan. David loved Lucy’s Smokehouse.

Below: Kim Simpkins and Jasmine Davis enjoyed their first time at Philly Cooks. They love all the different restaurants; their favorite was Davio’s lobster dish. They wanted to try Capital Grille’s steak, but the line was so long.

Below: Jason Cichonski (second from left), of Ela, won Best Appetizer with whipped robiola bosina with shortbread, preserved kumquat, and smoked wild mushrooms. Also below, Nicole Cicchitti, Ilanna Waber, Gloss PR, and Sam Shoap, field director at Schwartz for Congress. Look for a nice spread about Jason in the new March issue of Philly Mag.

For Philly Mag food editor Jason Sheehan’s take on the Philly Cooks event, see his post over on Foobooz.