Dining's big new wave

Posted: September 07, 2008

Slow economy? You wouldn't know it by the openings lighting up the local dining scene, going through its biggest growth spurt in recent memory. And we mean "big," from the mega-size of these new restaurants to the hefty checks and the big names behind them. Upscale ethnic eateries, power steak houses, ambitious pizza bars, and bold new places for the suburbs have also changed the eating landscape dramatically. Rick Nichols offers a primer to catch you up on hot spots you might have missed this summer. Craig LaBan, meanwhile, looks hungrily toward some highlights still to be tasted this fall.


Mexican Revolution

In less than a decade, our Mexican scene has gone from mild to blazing-hot, with everything from authentic taquerias to nuevo tamale tastings. The high end gets even spicier now with four new entries, including the sprawling Distrito in University City, the riotously playful ode to Mexico City from Jose Garces, who created the menu at El Vez before he became the city's tapas king. Competition for those stylish taco dollars will come from two spots in Northern Liberties, where Cantina Dos Segundos is a new sibling to the South Philly Mexi-gastropub, Cantina Los Caballitos, and the Bar Ferdinand crew is about to launch a "border bar," El Camino Real, serving tacos and Texas barbecue in the former Deuce. In the Italian Market, meanwhile, relatives of the chef at Xochitl have stoked a growing buzz for their polished takes on traditional fare at Paxia, which replaced Molcajete Mixto. Talk about a combo platter of choices!

Distrito, 3945 Chestnut St., 215-222-1657; Paxia, 746 Christian St., 215-413-0171; Cantina Dos Segundos, 931 N. Second St. 215-629-0500; El Camino Real, 1040 N. Second St.

Starring in A.C.

There's still a jackpot of cash fueling new restaurant projects in Atlantic City - ever hopeful of channeling Vegas' dining mojo to the East Coast. The Borgata's $8 million transformation of Suilan into sultry Izakaya may be one of its best bets to get lucky. It's a sake-splashed coming-out for owner-chef Michael Schulson, a longtime former Stephen Starr talent who opened Pod and Manhattan's Buddakan. He's offering a high-style take on Japanese pub fare, with miso-glazed lobster roasting over a wood-fired robatayaki grill, sushi from an ex-Morimoto hand, and 25 sakes by the glass.

Schulson's old boss, meanwhile, is back in the A.C. game, too. Stephen Starr has two new spots - Chelsea Prime, a swanky supper-club steak house with a fifth-floor ocean view; and a poolside coffee shop called Teplitzky's that should be draws to the new Chelsea hotel.

Izakaya, the Borgata, One Borgata Way, Atlantic City, 1-866-692-6742; Chelsea Prime and Teplitzky's, the Chelsea, 111 S. Chelsea Ave., 609-428-4545.

Brewing Pizza Prophets?

There's power in great pizza and beer, maybe even enough to spur a lagging neighborhood dining scene. The theory will be put to the test in two ambitious new pizzerias: Earth Bread + Brewery in Mount Airy, and Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar in Manayunk. The eco-friendly Earth Bread will likely become as notable for its brewery as for the flatbreads baked in its igloo-shaped wood-fired oven. Co-owner Tom Baker, who was the beer genius behind the now-closed Heavyweight Brewing in New Jersey, is firing up his kettles again - and the beer faithful are thirsty.

Cooper's is the casual next-door sibling to upscale Jake's, which, after two decades, is still Main Street's best restaurant. Creative pizzas (short rib with horseradish cream?), bistro plates, and artisan cheeses anchor the menu. About 30 good wines by the glass share the drinks list with 20 craft beers. By crust and cup, it could be just what the neighborhood needed.

Earth Bread + Brewery, 7136 Germantown Ave., 215-242-6666; Cooper's Brick Oven Wine Bar, 4367 Main St., 215-483-2750.

Suburban Queen

Few regions are as needy in the good dining department as the northern burbs. So it's no wonder Fort Washingtonians are eager for the opening of Alison Barshak's second suburban act, Alison two, planned for sometime this month. Barshak's home base, Alison at Blue Bell, has been a smash hit since it opened five years ago. This one will be twice as large and "more designed," she said, but still with a casual wooden-tabletop style that's been her trademark vibe. The menu is still in development, but Barshak and her chef, Bill Lewis, plan to serve dishes inspired by their world travels. "Not fusion!" she insists. "Just stuff we like."

Fancy pho for lunch in Fort Washington? Based on Barshak's recent track record, it might be worth repeating a few times.

Alison two, 424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington,

Melo Moves

Of all the city's great Italian BYOBs, Melograno has long been my fave - a paragon of fresh trattoria cooking served in the urban simplicity of a tiny corner room. But what happens to that delicate magic when Gianluca Demontis and Rosemarie Tran open Sept. 16 in a new space that's double the size of their old 36-seater? A lease dispute spurred the move. But the Rome-born Demontis has promised to keep most of his old menu, from the house-made pappardelle with truffled mushrooms, seasonal ravioli, and zesty amatriciana, to juicy porterhouse cuts of bistecca alla Fiorentina, more seafood, and perhaps more slow-braised meats.

"We loved our little corner," says Tran. "Hopefully, people will love the new one, too."

Melograno, 2012 Sansom St. (at 20th St.), 215-875-8116.

- Craig LaBan, Inquirer restaurant critic

Maia, Maia

Enough with this whining that there’s nowhere to eat on the Main Line. Sprawling mega-Maia does it all under one roof, offering (1) a crisp coffee bar serving fresh, house-made pastries; (2) charcuterie, crusty breads and 200 beers to go (or stay) in its big, sit-down market; (3) a splashy bistro with clam pizza and Alsatian tartes; and (4) a Pacific Northwest-style fine-dining room featuring the Feury brothers’ (Terence and Patrick) singularly fresh and un-suburban seafood: It’s as if Striped Bass never died.

Maia, 789 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova, 610-527-4888; www.tastemaia.com

To Zahav and Hold

Suddenly Israeli street food is all over the streets. But handsome, big-windowed Zahav is taking it to another level, literally, on a knoll above Society Hill's Ritz Five theater. What it lacks in sweaty bustle, it makes up in beautiful plates and lovingly rendered, wood-oven flatbreads, vegetable salads, salmon skewers, tender roast lamb, and a fine-dining option featuring chef Michael Solomonov's haute "modern Mediterranean" stylings. Zahav answers the question: Can you make an evening of Israeli comfort food?

Zahav, near Second and Walnut, 215-625-8800, www.zahavrestaurant.com

Parc Place

Rittenhouse Square hasn't seen a flurry on the order of Parc since an awninged salon named Rouge ignited the sidewalk-cafe craze 10 years ago. Stephen Starr has gone to extraordinary lengths to re-create an authentic Paris bistro. And re-create it he has, right down to the house-baked baguettes, trout amandine, steak frites, zinc bar, and cigarette-smoked mirrors. If you want to hear, best to snag an outdoor table; 80 seats to choose from - with a parc view, of course.

Parc bistro, 227 S. 18th St., 215-545-2262, www.parc-restaurant.com

10 Arts

When New York's acclaimed Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin) opens a lounge-restaurant in the classic rotunda of the Ritz-Carlton, you might expect a Franco-American collision. But at 10 Arts, Ripert has installed Philly girl Jennifer Carroll as chef, and done up the formal room in slightly jarring mod purples and reds. The menu is Paris-salutes-Billy Penn - haute soft-pretzel nuggets with Dijon mustard dip, pristine Pennsylvania brook trout and Striped Bass "Grand Mere," mini-fishburgers, elegant oysters on ice, and to finish, sugared beignets or malted "Tastykake" ice cream.

10 Arts, 10 Avenue of the Arts, or S. Broad St., 215-523-8273, www.10arts.com.

High-Def

The city's mightiest new skyscraper - the Comcast Center - has unveiled its newest power steak house-bistro, Table 31, a collaboration from towering talents Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio (Le Bec-Fin and Brasserie Perrier). Suits can have a cocktail at the contemporary bar, or chow down with a client (the second floor offers more privacy) on macho bone-in tomahawk steak, wagyu sliders, or potato-crusted halibut. Outdoors, next to spouting fountains, a lighter menu is served at the sophisticated Plaza Cafe, ideal for seeing and being seen - a least for another month or two.

Table 31, Comcast Center, 1701 JFK Blvd., 215-567-7111, www.table-31.com.

- Rick Nichols, Inquirer food columnist

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