Reader: Saw Michael Klein's piece on all the new places in Ambler - coincidentally just tried Dettera. The interior was incredibly impressive and the service was top notch - very knowledgeable about wines and menu. Food was excellent. Only question is whether they can survive in Ambler at a Center City price point.
CLB: Thanks for this report on one of Ambler's newest ambitious spots. I'm looking forward to trying Dettera. Whether it can survive is an interesting question - is there such a dearth of ambitious places in the northern burbs because no one bothered to make one, or because the market isn't there?
Reader: I don't know what the problem is in the northern burbs. Alison Barshak is probably the best example of someone who tried to give the market a shove upward. Definitely a more bargain-centric crowd and, perhaps more importantly, a less adventurous eating crowd on the whole. Try to find sushi (other than Blue Fin).
CLB: Alison has definitely been a suburban pioneer, but her struggles at Alison Two - which I think she improved greatly upon at the end of year - have been less about menu ambition and prices than simply the consistency to execute those ideas.
Reader: What's the deal with the Starr restaurant in Fishtown? I am not a Starr fan, but this has to make a significant statement about the neighborhood.
CLB: Yes, Starr is working on a seasonal outdoor beer garden at Frankford and Girard (just across from Johnny Brenda's). I agree that hipster Fishtown is about the last place you'd expect to find Mr. Slick landing an outpost - but he's always looking for the next thing, and it appears that both Fishtown and beer gardens fit. Not ideal for the pioneering "indie" vibe, but a reliable forecast of commercial success for its future.
Reader: I think Fishtown is taking off with some really good additions, most notably Starr's Biergarten and and Adam Ritter's Kraftwork.
CLB: Kraftwork is the new place from the owner of Sidecar Bar in G-Ho. Looking forward to it. It seems, Fishtown is finally finding its groove.
Reader: Are there places that you like in New Jersey other than the chains? I don't like to cross the bridge and pay those big parking prices.
CLB: Yes - Collingswood is full of worthwhile independents, many of them Italian (Nunzio's, Sapori, Bistro di Marino, Joe Pesce), plus a new Indian, IndeBlue, Blackbird, LoBianco . . . also, Matt Ito's Fuji in Haddonfield, one of the region's best Japanese. In Westmont - along with neighborhood standby Cork - I think Treno, the pizza-charcuterie-wine bar that replaced Kitchen 233, is worth a visit.
Reader: The problem is it's hard to find a place with a liquor license that is not a chain in Jersey. I am not a big fan of Italian and that seems to be 90 percent of the restaurants over here. Why no places that are gastro pub-like?
CLB: Yes, Italians dominate, though we can add Casona (nuevo Cuban) and El Sitio (new Ecuadoran place in Collingswood), Penang (Malaysian in Maple Shade) to the diversity list. Gastropubs? My impression is that liquor licenses in Jersey are so crazy expensive that big corporate restaurant companies own most of them and are prone to big, corporate brews on tap. I'm curious what the PJ Whelihan's people have done with the revamp of the Westmont bar down the street from Treno, the Pour House; serious craft beers are on tap.
Reader: I'm sad to see that Misso closed but I'm not surprised given the hidden location. I'll miss the extra details like wrapping squid in shiso leaves and the fish balls.
CLB: I was sad to see Misso tank, but also not surprised. Stuck underneath the overhang arcade of that high-rise building, it was a difficult location. I loved Bruce's use of spicy-crunchy tuna things.. . . luckily, we're having a little sushi renaissance right now, with new spots like Zama, Doma and Fat Salmon (off Washington Square).
Reader: Do any Philly sushi restaurants make their own sake? Many restaurants/bars pride themselves on their own infused vodkas, etc.
CLB: This is a fantastic idea, Ed, but given our strict liquor laws (not to mention the difficulties of honing a craft as tricky and regional as sake), I doubt anyone is making their own rice brew.