The bells: One more time

What a fine dining year it's been: A maturing Philadelphia scene enjoys confident second restaurants, exciting neighborhood action, Belgian pubs, and more tasty surprises.

Posted: December 30, 2007

This was the year of the second restaurant, the Vetri offspring, and the Belgian bistro boom. The plates got smaller. The wines came by the glass. And pork bellies became the new short rib.

No, none of the new stars were able to quite crack the city's four-bell restaurant elite. But 2007, in many ways, was a year in which Philadelphia's dining scene grew in significant ways. With the usually noisy Stephen Starr machine momentarily quiet, the next generation stepped to the fore with big ambitions.

Jose Garces, whom I am tagging my Chef of the Year, proved with the exquisite small plates at Tinto (his smash-hit Rittenhouse pintxo bar) that Amada was no tapas fluke. We'll be hearing much more from this young Latin maestro soon, as he expands his empire to West Philadelphia and beyond (like his hometown, Chicago).

But Garces was hardly the only chef with a new restaurant on his mind. More than a quarter of the 45 restaurants I reviewed this year were second locations, from Xochitl (from the Marigold crew), to Susanna Foo's Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, to the revived Silk City Diner (from the gastropublicans at N. 3rd), and Rae from Daniel Stern.

Rae, Stern's expansive contemporary brasserie in the ultramodern Cira Centre, was a hitch slower than some others to reach its potential. But it was among three of the six restaurants revisited at year's end that did improve enough to step up a rating.

Meanwhile, Marc Vetri's casual new second place, Osteria, my Restaurant of the Year, was a home run from the start. With authentic rustic Italian cooking, a fabulous lofty space, and a wood-fired, thin-crusted margherita that was instantly the best pizza in town, Osteria is an image-changing pioneer for North Broad Street.

Osteria was also the debut for one of our brightest young chefs, Jeff Michaud, who was one of three former Vetri sous-chefs this year to earn three bells. Chip Roman at Conshohocken's Blackfish and Jim Burke at James in Bella Vista were the others. Dionicio Jimenez, crafting inventive nuevo Mexican food at Xochitl, was nearly a fourth, but sits at a solid two bells for now.

Menus trended toward wine bars and small plates, from Malvern's Cosimo to Doylestown's Honey. Belgian pubs continued to bubble up, from moody Zot in Headhouse Square to Teresa's Next Door on the Main Line.

Some neighborhoods began to show new life through a restaurant surge, like Fishtown with Ida Mae's, and even the Northeast, which has an ambitious BYOB with Rylei. It was also a banner year for South Jersey, which acquired worthwhile newcomers in Kitchen 233, Onasis, Blackbird and Fuji, a successful Haddonfield relocation for one of my favorite chefs, Japanese master Matt Ito.

Ito's stunning omakase tasting was just one of the many highlights of my eating adventures. There was Liberian fufu soup at Memdee's in Southwest Philly. A garlicky bowl of perfect cockles over spaghetti alla chitarra at the relocated Tre Scalini. A dangerous new addiction in the butter chicken from Tiffin, which has redefined ethnic takeout with its perfectly timed, GPS-guided delivery guys.

And then, of course, there was the eight-course autumn feast at Talula's Table in Kennett Square, the splendid new gourmet market from Django founders Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, who cook dinner for just one private party each night. It was my Most Memorable Meal of the year, even though it wasn't formally rated. I'll need at least one more dinner there before I can toll those bells, and the next available seating isn't until July.

Yet another reason to look forward to 2008.102 W. State St., Kennett Square, 610-444-8255; www.talulastable.com.

Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, the original owners of Django, have traded their Center City BYOB for a gourmet market in the heart of horse country. The store features stellar artisan cheeses, fabulous baked goods, and standout prepared foods, from awesome lobster pot pies to Sikora's homemade sausages. The private tasting dinners served at the market's farm table, though, are among the region's most special (and hard to reserve) dining experiences.

Note: Talula's farm table dinner is not formally rated because it has not yet been visited multiple times. Featured Oct. 14.

EXCELLENT

619 Collings Ave., Collingswood, 856-854-3444; www.blackbirdnj.com.

REVISIT: Alex Capasso has resurfaced with a hit in his owner-chef debut at this casually elegant new BYOB in Collingswood. The former chef of Max's and Misto deftly melds French and Italian techniques with international flavors for exciting contemporary dishes that easily rank among South Jersey's best cooking.

Capasso's widely publicized dining-room tussle with a customer, and a spate of disappointed reports, raised concerns that Blackbird was losing focus. But a recent lunch was as impressive as my review dinners, including a perfect roast chicken with herbed risotto and an $18 bento-box special (lamb, mussels, luxe mac n' cheese) that was a particularly great deal. Reviewed Sept. 16; revisited December.

119 Fayette St., Conshohocken, 610-397-0888.

A new BYO star has risen in the storefront space of the former Maya Bella, where ex-Vetri/Le Bec-Fin hand Chip Roman has brightened the rooms and is producing a stellar bistro-plus menu full of clever surprises, from foie gras streaked with cinnamon oil to seafood flavored with spruce. Service also shows some polish. Reviewed Feb. 18.

116 E. Kings Highway, Haddonfield, 856-354-8200; www.fujirestaurant.com.

The move from his longtime Cinnaminson outpost to a Haddonfield mini-mall hasn't dimmed Matt Ito's exquisite Japanese cooking one bit. His creative kaiseki tastings remain one of the region's most special eating adventures, while the standard menu rises on quality ingredients and authentic preparations. The room is simple but pretty; service needs work. Reviewed Aug. 5.

824 S. 8th St., 215-629-4980; www.jameson8th.com.

Former Vetri sous-chef Jim Burke has teamed with wife Kristina to bring an impressive taste of contemporary fine dining to Bella Vista. The muted green room has a sleek modern look, and the staff can be a bit effusive. But the kitchen backs it up with exciting (albeit pricey) little dishes that vividly pair great local ingredients with authentic Italian techniques. Reviewed May 6.

640 N. Broad St., 215-763-0920; www.osteriaphilly.com.

Marc Vetri's long-awaited second restaurant brings authentic Italian comfort food (including some amazing pizzas) to a lively North Broad Street space that melds an urban loft with the rustic warmth of country tables and a glassed-in churchyard patio. It's (slightly) less expensive and more accessible than Vetri, and already the city's next-best Italian. Reviewed May 20.

Cira Centre, 2929 Arch St., 215-922-3839; www.raerestaurant.com.

REVISITED: Chef Daniel Stern's latest venture is a contemporary American brasserie in the Cira Centre lobby. The creative menu ranges from updated bar food (rabbit nachos and truffled pizzas) to haute foie gras tastings, but was initially too wide-ranging and overwrought for its own good.

A recent revisit, though, was spectacular, showing plates with a lighter touch and more elegance, from an incredibly complex but tasty turbot stew to witty updates of Jewish soul food like mini-Reubens and veal kreplach with artichokes. The modern space may be austere for some, but the service is impressive, and so is the wine cellar. With the kitchen now locked in, Rae is finally becoming the powerhouse destination it was meant to be. Reviewed April 1; revisited late November.

114 S. 20th St., 215-665-9150; www.tintorestaurant.com.

Chef Jose Garces takes his magic tapas touch to Rittenhouse Square, where his lively new wine bar, Tinto, turns out exquisite "pinxto" small plates that do for Basque flavors what his Amada in Old City did for Andalusian tapas. The noisy, crowded space and uncomfortable tall tables are the only drawbacks, but should be alleviated by an imminent expansion. Reviewed June 24.

VERY GOOD

705 Chestnut St., 215-928-2838.

The neighborhood near Jewelers Row gets a satisfying taste of exotic Malaysian cuisine with this sleek venture featuring a former chef from Chinatown's Penang. The long dining room has a waterfall to soften the minimalist look, but the food also offers plenty of intrigue, with a proper dose of an authentic funky edge (e.g. shrimp paste chile sauce) to keep the otherwise mainstreamed Malaysian menu real. Reviewed Jan. 7.

1017 Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting, 610-277-3917; www.sushibluefin.com.

The strip-mall storefront doesn't promise much, but chef Yong Kim crafts some of the suburbs' best sushi for a devoted and lively clientele. The crunchy, spicy Marlee roll is a favorite creation, but simpler here is almost always better. The kitchen needs more range and consistency to be an elite destination, but this is already neighborhood sushi at a high level. Reviewed Nov. 18.

1617 Baltimore Pike (at Old 100), Chadds Ford, 610-388-8088; www.brandywineprime.com.

REVISITED: The team behind Wilmington's Deep Blue has crossed the Pennsylvania state line to revamp the historic Chadds Ford Inn into a swanky chophouse and grill. The grand old stone inn has gotten a chic update, and also improved the menu enough since its initial review - most notably, in lightening its sauces - to step up to a second bell.

At a recent revisit, seafood dishes remained a weakness. But the Angus cattle rancher at my table had to concede: His special 14-ounce prime dry-aged rib-eye was shockingly expensive ($50!), but it was memorably, meltingly good. So was my big elk chop with cranberry sauce, and a fabulous California meritage, Lateral, listed (like most of this cellar) at a very fair markup. Reviewed June 17; revisited early December.

4371 Main St., Manayunk, 215-483-1979; www.chabaathai.com.

This pretty, multilevel eatery brings a pleasant taste of Thai to Manayunk. The traditional menu is mildly spiced but fresh and authentically aromatic, with some notable highlights. The fabric-draped two-story space is one of the city's most serene havens for good pad Thai. Reviewed Sept. 30.

700 S. 5th St., 215-238-9000; www.coquettebistro.com.

Queen Village has landed a lively and likable French bistro from Sansom Street Oyster House owner Cary Neff. The white tile, raw bar and rattan-chair look is classic Paris cafe. The kitchen's Gallic standards need some fine-tuning, but are good enough, and affordable enough, to lend this corner a welcome breath of bistro life. Reviewed Nov. 4.

614 N. Second St., 215-627-9844; www.copperbistro.net.

First-time owners Daniel Connelly, the chef, and Jason Serock, the manager, have given the old Aden space a brighter, upscale look. The menu doesn't break new ground, but offers simple and satisfying renditions of New American standards (short ribs, fish and lentils) that make this BYO a pleasantly mellow option for edgy Northern Liberties. Reviewed Jan. 21.

209 Lancaster Ave., Malvern, 610-647-1233; www.cosimorestaurant.com.

Two Dilworthtown Inn alums (owner Anthony Mastroianni and chef Stephen Delaney) have combined talents for an ambitious wine bar and restaurant unique to the far western burbs. With 40 good wines by the glass and an impressive contemporary menu, the overdesigned space and green service can be overlooked. Reviewed Aug. 19.

555 E. Lancaster Ave., Radnor; 610-688-9463; www.flemingssteakhouse.com.

The Main Line has a solid steak house in this Outback-owned chain. It does enough essentials right - superb prime meat, great onion rings, and 100 wines by the glass - to compensate for its generic chophouse soul. The service still needs polish, as does the kitchen, which struggles with anything that involves finesse cooking. Reviewed Feb. 4.

1337 Chestnut St., 215-636-9700; www.fogodechao.com.

Carnivores go wild at the city's first upscale churrascaria, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian chain that has transformed the old J.E. Caldwell store into a spectacular dining space. The meats aren't fabulous, but the gauchos' tableside showmanship, the grand ambience, and the wine list add up to an undeniably fun one-time experience. Lunch is an especially fair bargain. Reviewed April 8.

42 Shewell Ave., Doylestown, 215-489-4200; www.honeyrestaurant.com.

Lit with a romantic amber glow, this stylish little contemporary eatery from first-time owners Amy and Joe McAtee gives Doylestown a taste of the small-plate trend. The fusion creations range widely, from lamb samosas to tea-glazed ribs. Some of the honey-laced ideas need polish, but this ambitious venture is off to a sweet start. Reviewed Nov. 11.

2302 E. Norris St. (at Tulip), 215-426-4209; www.idamaesbruncherie.com.

This charming corner bruncherie gives Fishtown an eater's destination any neighborhood would covet, with a laid-back ambience and thoughtful cooking inspired by fresh local ingredients. It's clear from both the hearty Irish-themed brunches and the sophisticated New American menu at night that Ida's has pushed the gastro-border deeper into North Philly.

The P.J. Whelihan's crew opened this stylishly upscale wine bar and eatery with former Tangerine chef Chris Painter. Since Painter's departure, though, the creative Mediterranean menu has been scaled back a notch in ambition, with more traditional steak-house items and slightly lower prices. It has not been revisited since the review.

You can slurp cold raw oysters and savor a lobster roll after a mall splurge at this handsome branch of the Boston chain. But don't get fancy - the menu's strengths are proper New England classics like the creamy "chowdah" and soft-shell steamer clams. Service is pleasant, if not expert, but be prepared for long, beeper-assisted waits.

REVISITED: This promising Italian BYO across from Eastern State Penitentiary offers the Fairmount crowd a decidedly Northern Italian menu, from sage-buttered dumplings to pappardelle with goose stew. The sunny corner room is an appealing new option for the neighborhood, and the kitchen has overcome some consistency problems at the initial review to earn its second bell in an October revisit.

At that revisit, the chef's penchant for earthy flavors and game sang through a succulent wild boar chop wrapped in crisped pancetta. A "tartufo" toast topped with shaved truffles, raw chanterelles and creamy cheese was like biting into a morsel of the Piedmont. Service has also relaxed and improved.

New chef and co-owner David Cox has brought some much-needed stability to this charmingly historic Chester County inn, in operation since 1814. Cox delivers some excellent French country cooking, much of it a cheese-centric homage to his tenure at Manhattan's Artisanal. If service and the wine cellar ever catch up, the old inn could soon relive its heyday.

Discover the home-cooked flavors of Liberia at this humble but bustling little dining room, located in the middle of a Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Most of the small menu's items rotate daily, but the plantain fufu with spicy soup broth is a daily staple that is alone worth a visit for any adventure diner.

This simple storefront BYO offers some of the scant traditional Korean cooking to be found in Center City, with a broad menu of well-cooked classics ranging from dolsot bibimbap to seafood-laced pancakes and marinated meats cooked on your in-table grill.

Former Rembrandt's chef Peter McAndrews pays homage to his training in Italy with this bustling new BYO near Fishtown that has the feel and flavor of an authentic osteria. The four-course $30 turista menu is worth the visit, even if the cooking and service are still not quite yet perfetto.

REVISITED: This upscale fish-house chain brings both retro classics and contemporary inspirations to a soaring art-deco space. It's now on Chef No. 4 (David Wiederholt) since opening, but a recent lunch revisit brought consistently satisfactory results.

The prices are very high, and there were some subtle details to be improved (a so-so risotto; clams casino that needed some butter-soaking crumbs). But it also has genuine qualities to appeal to an older fish-house clientele. A fabulous raw bar, huge portions of pristine ingredients, some worthy chef signatures (scallops with braised house-cured bacon), and snappy service give this special-occasion chain a fair chance to float.

The owner of Cafe Zesty has transformed the old Cherry Tree Diner into a whitewashed Greek seafood palace where pristinely grilled exotic whole fish and other Hellenic specialties are the feature. The service is earnest but awkward, and some of the taverna fare is so-so, but the imported seafood, while pricey, really is worth a visit.

This pleasant little husband-and-wife-run bistro brings an ambitious Center City-style BYOB to the fine-dining desert of the Northeast. Self-taught chef Jose Vargas' debut is worthwhile, with a small menu that spins good ingredients into appealing dishes at prices low enough to give this trailblazer a chance.

Davide and Kathryn Faenza have opened a larger Center City sibling to their charming L'Angolo in South Philadelphia. This friendly BYO offers satisfying interpretations of authentic home cooking from Davide's native Puglia, including game ragus with homemade pasta, bean dishes, and seafood. The boisterous whitewashed room feels a bit basementlike, but the genuine flavors are worth a visit.

In the former Roller's space, tucked behind the bookstore and bus station atop Chestnut Hill, the Lavasani family serves authentic renditions of traditional Persian cuisine, from delicately seasoned kabobs to pomegranate-sauced chicken. Affordable, flavorful and friendly (though service needs work), it's one of the neighborhood's best bets.

The red neon and stainless steel are aglow once again at Philly's seminal hipster diner, thanks to new owner Mark Bee, of N. 3rd. It's not yet the ultimate diner rethink it could have been, but given some early kitchen tumult, the updated comfort food still has plenty of cool moves (a boar BLT?) to fuel a hot dance night in the DJ lounge.

Get your foam on at this avant-garde small-plate boutique in the former Salt space near Rittenhouse Square. The edgy culinary munchies (and low-slung, oversized furniture) can feel overly precious for the loungey little room, but when young gun Jonathan McDonald hits the mark, his food is among the most intriguing in town.

REVISITED: Susanna Foo has brought a more casual rendition of her Chinese fusion cuisine to a contemporary Main Line space, with a focus on dumplings, small plates, and reasonably priced entrees. There are some winning flavors, but the overly broad menu needed more fine-tuning to approach the success of its elegant Center City sibling.

A November revisit showed little progress. There were great dumplings and authentic dishes, like ginger-poached chicken over warm sesame noodles. But there were also too many duds - pedestrian sushi with mushy rice, dry Peking duck rolls - to nudge this kitchen beyond two bells.

The Main Line goes Belgian at this handsome new mussel and brew house attached to popular Teresa's Cafe in Wayne. The 24-tap bar and 200-bottle list is the serious beer destination the suburbs have been lacking. Unexpected authentic taqueria flavors spice up the decent, but inconsistent, Belgian fare.

Order your "tiffin" boxed meals online or call for tandoori the old-fashioned way, because this clever Indian project from Karma founder Munish Narula not only is redefining ethnic delivery food, it's also the best Indian kitchen in town. The dowdy Girard Avenue dining room has expanded to an upgraded upstairs room, making the restaurant itself more worth a visit.

This longtime South Philly favorite has moved a few blocks south to a nicer space on reviving East Passyunk, but chef-owner Franca DiRenzo's deft and unpretentious cooking hasn't changed a bit. The homespun flavors at this pleasant Italian BYO are about the closest we get to being fed by an authentic nonna Molisana. Reviewed June 10.

Former Vetri stalwart Dionicio Jimenez makes an impressive head-chef debut at this exciting Nuevo Mexicano in Headhouse Square. Some dishes are stunningly original, others need fine-tuning. But the evocative space, co-owned by Marigold's Steven Cook, has sophisticated service, an excellent tequila list, and mucho potential to become something special.

Ex-Morimoto sushi man Gunawan Wibisono has opened an austerely white but charming little nook for sushi lovers in Old City that is a more ambitious counterpart to his popular Kami express near City Hall. It's still bare-bones, and the cooked menu needs refining, but Wibisono cuts some of the most satisfying (and well-priced) raw fish in town.

Chef-owner Bernard Dehaene brings a taste of his native Brussels to Headhouse Square with this handsome new Belgian bistro, where you can choose from 30 kinds of mussels and a range of simply done meats with about 20 sauces. Service was a problem, and the big beer list is still growing, but Zot's food already sets the mood for a happy ale-soaked outing. Reviewed June 3.

HIT-OR-MISS

The Monk's crew has opened a kindred bistro in beer-savvy Fairmount with 250 brews worthy of a Belgian drinker's admiration. The menu, though, is an unexpected disaster, from watery mussels to an odd fixation on vegan items that taste even worse than they sound. Stick with the burgers and beers.

Owner Wilson Encarnacion has the right idea in refocusing his forgettable cocktail lounge, World Fusion, into a high-style restaurant that updates authentic Filipino flavors for the Old City mainstream. The clever ideas and good flavors, though, were too often wasted with poor execution that is unacceptable at these prices.

The Westin jumps on the farm-to-table bandwagon with a remake of its Grill, touting local ingredients for updated comfort food for world-weary business travelers. Too many menu buzzwords and not enough consistent good cooking, though, make it feel like just another corporate hotel redo dressed up in the latest trends.

The picturesque old stone house has gotten a nice dose of TLC from its current owner, Donna Fitzgerald Robb, a longtime former chef at the much-missed Judy's Cafe. The affordable menu gives appealing New American updates to Judy's older take on eclectic comforts, but too many slips in execution held it back from its potential.

You can nibble fancy pigs in a blanket in the crushed-velvet booths at this highly styled restaurant-lounge near Washington Square. The appealing space feels like a less annoying, affordable take on an Old City hot spot, but the updated comfort foods rarely go beyond cutesy concepts to satisfying flavors. Hopefully, a new chef slated to begin in January will fulfill 707's real potential.

The brothers Bynum, Benjamin and Robert, have moved their Old City blues club to a smaller but spiffier space near South Philly's riverfront. The colorful room offers improved sight lines, but the soul-food menu could use more gusto, consistency and ambition. Service also needs work.Reviewed March 11.


Craig LaBan

Best chef: Jose Garces.

Best restaurant: Osteria.

Best meal: A "farm table dinner" at Talula's Table.

Best ethnic delivery: Tiffin.

Best relocated classic: Fuji.

Best new BYOB: Blackfish.

Best single bite: 

Tinto's blue-cheese-smeared

"montadito" toast topped with duck confit wrapped in Serrano ham, crowned with a black cherry.

Best raw food: Scallop and watermelon seviche at Xochitl.

Best updated bubbe food: Veal kreplach with artichokes at Rae.

Best cheeseburger: The cheese-stuffed wonder at the Good Dog Bar.

- Craig LaBan

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