The following most certainly will be tops on most foodista hit lists. - Craig LaBan
Speck Food + Wine in the Piazza at Schmidts, the showpiece modern restaurant for chef Shola Olunloyo that’s been awaited so long, the better part of a decade, that I’ll only cross it off my list of urban legends once it actually opens, supposedly later this month.
Olunloyo, 37, hasn’t actually run a restaurant kitchen since 2001 (remember Neil Stein’s Bleu?). But he’s grown such a cultish following through his refined Studio Kitchen private dinners and years of networking the local scene that this restaurant is expected to dazzle. Don’t expect traditional fine dining for this hip Northern Liberties locale — just a chef who plans to “push the envelope” with good ingredients, clever twists, and handmade food, plus an occasional dab of molecular meat glue for his skirt steak. The small-plate menu prices should be within reach, but if it’s good, expect a foodie stampede for the more adventurous $120 menus at the “Studio Kitchen” bar, whose eight seats must be reserved ahead, in the spirit of Manhattan’s trendy Ko.
If there’s one thing more fashionable than snagging an elusive limited-seating reservation, it’s following an even more elusive new food truck on Twitter. Former Chew Man Chu chef Tyson Wong Ophaso is launching one called Bee-Innovation with a pan-Asian menu. And I’m guessing that one of Jose Garces’ most anticipated new projects, Guapo’s Tacos, will be roaming the city to especially big crowds from the tweet-and-eat scene.
A former bread truck has been souped up Iron Chef-style, bedecked with 40,000 bottle caps and a taco menu with nods to tradition (veal tongue) and Asian fusion (pork belly and radish kimchi). Garces expects to be rolling for regular lunch and dinner hours by October, and locations are still unknown. He jests about one spot of interest on Chestnut Street, though — not far from Stephen Starr’s El Rey — that looks particularly enticing, if only to emphasize the friendly rivalry between him and his former boss.
Garces already has plenty of other big projects to draw his attention, including an ode to wood-grilled sausage, Frohman’s Wursthaus, planned for the hot 13th Street corridor in December. First, though, he’s set early October for the debut of JG Domestic, his ambitious revamp of the former Rae space in the Cira Centre where his team will be showcasing great American products from near and far, from house charcuterie to Jidori chicken and spelt soup, whole suckling Pennsylvania lambs to products grown on his own new farm in upper Bucks County. He’s already taken in several job applications to be the full-time company farmer, which is likely a first in Philly, and a big step toward giving “farm-to-table” some extra oomph.
Not to be outdone, Starr is about to enter one of the busiest periods in his company’s history. On tap for December is his renovation of the former Fishmarket space at 18th and Sansom into a multifloored 140-seat British gastropub. He’s even gone to a Michelin-starred restaurant in England to find his chef, Robert Aikens. Deliberately shifting his focus from mega concepts to more on-site chef personalities, he says, Starr is also following through on longtime plans to create a showplace for his talented corporate chef, Chris Painter (Tangerine, Stella, Angelina), who’s traveling in Italy at this moment in search of inspirations for Il Pittore, also tentatively set for opening before the new year, though the location is apparently still in flux. There are other plans on the spring horizon, too, including the Bier Garten for Fishtown, delayed all summer, but still on tap, Starr says, for spring.
Speaking of Fishtown, it should remain one of the city’s hottest emerging neighborhoods, with a seafood-centric beer-and-whiskey bar called Fathom from Michael Stollenwerk of Fish. Stollenwerk (whose relaunch of Little Fish is on hold due to a legal tangle with the landlord) took the plunge to renovate a corner real estate office “on impulse,” he said, after soaking in the energetic vibe at nearby Kraftwork and Johnny Brenda’s. He plans to keep it casual with a big raw bar and seafood-themed bar food (smoked cod pierogi, lobster grilled cheese), and ever-popular craft beer, of course, will reign.
The beer bar as agent of urban renewal will also be the theme at the tentatively named American Sardine Bar. From the folks behind the pioneering South Philly Tap Room in Newbold, this project boldly ventures into yet another still-gentrifying neighborhood — Point Breeze — where chef-partner Scott Schroeder is hoping the former Wander Inn at 18th and Federal will become a draw for “bad ass sandwiches” (sardines and pickled eggs; a “Pittsburgh” cheesesteak stuffed with fries) plus 15 taps of the good stuff.
For the first time in recent memory, though, wine bars are showing the urge to regain some of their chic from the beer crowd. The owners of Tria are set to open a pocket-size wine-cheese-and-chocolate (and beer) bar annex called Biba in the Left Bank in University City. On the 1500 block of South Street, meanwhile, the Jet Wine Bar is promising to start serving bglass vino and global small plates later this month.
The city, though, isn’t the only area seeing new restaurant action heat up. The lately sleepy Main Line scene is getting a triple jolt in Wayne, where a long-in-the-works branch of West Philly’s organic food icon, the White Dog Cafe, is scheduled for a late-September launch, and not one, but two Mexican-themed restaurants, a cantina called Matador and Xilantro, are planned. Both are slated for October openings, just in time for a “Boho” Day of the Dead, and I’m especially intrigued by Xilantro, which is connected to the well-regarded El Serape in Blue Bell.
If there's a suburban Mexican, though, that really puts some heat into the salsa of expectations it will be the Fort Washington opening of Cantina Feliz from first-time owner-chef Tim Spinner, 31, a longtime Garces associate who's cooked alongside his mentor from Starr's El Vez to battles on the TV show Iron Chef and Distrito, where he's finishing soon. Expect a natural extension of that experience - modern Mexican with authentic roots, from Baja fish tacos to calabaza tamales, and the occasional special-order suckling pig. Spinner, though, is keenly aware of this area's sore luck with upscale restaurants - the demise of overambitious Alison Two, which briefly occupied the space, still hurts. So he's promising reasonable prices and larger portions than the small plates he's been cooking in Garces-land.
For this dining-disadvantaged corner of Montgomery County, though, I am guessing that this now-independent and talented veteran of the "Jose and Stephen Show" has as good a chance as any this year of debuting a welcome restaurant hit.
Rick Nichols' picks:
Philadelphia doesn't lack for Vietnamese fare - pho kitchens, banquet plazas, storefronts hawking banh mi, the crunchy Vietnamese hoagies. What it hasn't had, though, is a sleek, contemporary, 100-seat dining room-bar faced with cultured stone on the order of Le Viet, near the Italian Market. Its basic rice-vermicelli dishes and spring rolls are passable. But the sweet-soy beef cubes on wilted watercress are tender and sublime, and the clay pots put a smile on your face - particularly the warmly spicy, paprika-red broth of caramelized shrimp, pork, and quail egg. It's about time.
Le Viet, 1019 S. 11th St., 215-463-1570, www.levietrestaurant.com.
Heralded by a giant wrench dangling above Girard Avenue (and a Bunyanesque handsaw over its tiger maple bar), Kraftwork recently announced its blue-collar chic, gastropub self in a still-funky stretch of Fishtown, east of pioneering Johnny Brenda's. It's already crawling with craft-beer geeks cadging sips from the 25 - count 'em - taps. Pub fare runs to crackling margherita flatbread, slow-braised short rib, house-made rabbit terrine, and a sweetly delicate trout sandwich, ill-served by overly dark toast - the only bad toast in the well-krafted joint.
Kraftwork, 541 E. Girard Ave., 215-739-1700, www.kraftworkbar.com.
Irrepressible restaurateurs Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran have put their imprint firmly on a once-grim block of 13th Street, most lately with the debut of Barbuzzo, a moody urban farmhouse offering earthy Mediterranean fare. Its small plates often lack the polish of Zavino, next door. But its farm-market vegetable board (shredded kale, slivered radish and beet cubes, juicy oyster mushrooms, etc.), rustic beet-and-goat-cheese ravioli, honest pizzas, and a crisply edited beer and wine list are likely to create a roster of loyal regulars.
Barbuzzo, 110 S. 13th St., 215-546-9300, www.barbuzzo.com.
There's much to love about fledgling, big-windowed Adsum, former Lacroix chef Matt Levin's gem of a "refined neighborhood bistro," at the edge of Queen Village. There are the exquisitely fried oysters, a decadent poutine (involving duck-fat fries, lush cheese curd, brown gravy, and foie gras), and arguably the finest fried chicken in town. Plus, order a Negroni, and you'll likely get a fine one - not a blank look. The ballyhooed Kool-Aid pickled watermelon, however, is much ado about nothing - a small quibble for such a sparkling new neighbor.
Adsum, 700 S. Fifth St., 267-888-7002, www.adsumrestaurant.com.
The newest wrinkle on the Main Line is the return (after eight months for a dazzling makeover) of Hunan, the Lancaster Avenue stalwart. Its standbys, including an incomparable hot and sour soup, haven't changed a bit, even as chef Chris Foo has added pork belly banh mi, banana fritters and Capogiro gelato, and Taiwanese bar snacks to the menu. Old customers are voting with their feet, overjoyed their old-shoe favorite is back.
Hunan, 47 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, 610-642-3050, www.hunan-ardmore.com.
El Rey / Ranstead Room
Restaurateur Stephen Starr's latest - El Rey, a sort of poor man's El Vez in the bones of an unlamented diner at 20th and Chestnut - can crank up the noise to deafening, spoiling your stuffed poblano. But Starr (wittingly or not) also supplies the perfect escape, the dark, moody Ranstead Room (entered from Ranstead Street out back), offering proper, well-made, retro cocktails, and a quiet oasis to nibble a lamb taco from El Rey, just across the border.
The Ranstead Room, 2013 Ranstead St., 215-523-9999; El Rey, 215-563-3330; www.elreyrestaurant.com.