Gourmet pizzas were hot; flavor trend was to hearty side

DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer
Posted: December 26, 2010

It was pizza-palooza in Philadelphia 2010, as kitchens from Headhouse Square to South Jersey and Ambler let the gourmet pizzas fly.

Stephen Starr launched the 'za-fest with Stella, but was quickly followed into the promised land of artisan pies by Zavino, Dettera, Treno, City Tap House, Radice, Barbuzzo, and even the Garces Trading Co.

With effects of the recession still lingering, the pizza players all aimed to feed the public's insatiable hunger for serious ingredients with refined comforts in spaces that were casual and affordable. We could still have our truffled egg yolks, Iberico ham, house-made lardo, and hand-pulled mozzarella - but we'd devour them on heat-blistered rounds straight from the wood-fired oven. Or as a revamped meatball, or a pierogie, a fried arancini, or a spicy "Korean taco."

The year's favored flavors trended hearty, toward house-made charcuterie and pickles for the now-ubiquitous antipasti board, or whole animals deconstructed into a single meal, or servings of hot bone marrow (the new duck fat) adding a gloss of high-octane decadence to everything from burgers to nachos and pizzas (naturally).

On the flip side, this was not a year when most restaurateurs aimed high-end. Craft beer remained a force, with gastropubs such as Resurrection Ale House, Kraftwork, and City Tap pioneering in Fishtown, University City, and other hot emerging neighborhoods. The corner of 13th and Sansom Streets finally came into its own. But good brew this year streamed beyond mere trend status deep into the mainstream, as the most ambitious new openings - Marc Vetri's Amis, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran's Barbuzzo, and Matt Levin's Adsum - paid serious attention to beer. Culinary cocktails - with kitchen-made mixers, herbs, and artisan spirits - were close behind.

It was a year that also unveiled several exciting new talents for the future - David Gilberg and Carla Gonçalves at Koo-Zee-Doo, Joe Chmiko at Resurrection, Sam Jacobson at Sycamore, and Mark Tropea at Sonata, whose infatuation with sous-vide food science was shared by virtually every other young chef, including the Plescha brothers, Mark and Eric, who've brought an innovative spirit to Charcoal in Yardley. First-time owner Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka gave us a self-named Rittenhouse Square sushi haven that is our best since Morimoto. And there was also Han Chiang, the city's cranky new maestro of fiery Sichuan banquets at Han Dynasty in Old City - the $25 twice-monthly 20-course bargain feasts already booked well into spring.

Let's hope that means 2011 will be just as hot. But first, let us re-toll the bells and highlights of 2010.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan

at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

Revisited Restaurants

Every year, I revisit several restaurants that I suspect may have either improved or declined after their initial review, or underwent a major change. This year, only one of the seven revisits produced an upgrade (Dettera), five stayed the same, and one (Pizzeria Stella) slipped down a rung.

EXCELLENT

Adsum

700 S. 5th St., 267-888-7002; www.adsumrestaurant.com

Gifted chef Matt Levin has traded his posh perch at Lacroix for the more casual stage of his own bistro in Queen Village, but the affordable prices haven't stifled his creativity. The ever-changing menu indulges both adventurous decadence (foie gras poutine) and high-tech-vamped comforts (sous-vide fried chicken), with a steady focus on vivid and clever combinations. Add in smart service, a reasonable wine list, plus a cocktail bar steeped in culinary mixology, and Adsum adds up to a well-tuned bistro for the postrecession foodie. Reviewed Oct. 10.

Amis

412 S. 13th St., 215-732-2647; www.amisphilly.com

Marc Vetri's third restaurant is his most casual yet, a boisterous industrial space with a menu inspired by the simple-yet-striking combinations of rustic Roman cooking. The portions are small, the prices aren't low, and it's noisy. But there's hardly a false note on the plate, on the wine list, or with the now-seamless service as Vetri and his rising-star chef, Brad Spence, add yet another original gem to the city's pantheon of Italian flavors. Reviewed April 25.

Barbuzzo

110 S. 13th St., 215-546-9300; www.barbuzzo.com

The doyennes of Midtown Village - chef Marcie Turney and partner Valerie Safran - have added to their mini-empire in a big way, with a wood-fired Mediterranean wine bar that radiates rare energy and vibrant seasonal dishes. From the urban farmhouse look to the top-notch pizzas, smart service, affordable wine list, and, especially, Turney's spirited return to Med flavors, Barbuzzo's affordable small plates capture the casual sophistication of the day. Main drawbacks? The cramped seating and formidable din of an "it" restaurant already in high gear. Reviewed Dec. 5.

Garces Trading Co.

1111 Locust St., 215-574-1099; www.garcestradingcompany.com

Jose Garces has raised the bar for casual dining at this uniquely ambitious multipurpose venue - part gourmet market-cafe, part sit-down BYOB - with a State Store oh-so-conveniently inside. The market is appealingly stocked with high-end ingredients, but the full-service restaurant is the strongest suit, with fantastic pastas, small-plate nibbles, straightforward grilled meats, and, especially, daily plats du jour for sharing that offer smart updates to Euro classics. If only wine prices could be so fair at all of Garces' venues. Reviewed June 27.

Han Dynasty

108 Chestnut St., 215-922-1888; www.handynasty.net

Suburban Szechuan master Han Chiang has brought his peppercorn-fired pyrotechnics and opinionated tableside manner to a downtown showcase that's become a must-stop for heat-seeking adventure eaters. The Old City space may be unremarkable, but Han's talented Sichuan chefs create some of the area's most exciting and authentic Chinese flavors, including an epic monthly banquet at bargain prices, with the ever-pushy, entertaining, and eccentric Han in the dining room to guide the way. Reviewed July 28.

Koo-Zee-Doo

614 N. Second St., 215-923-8080; www.koozeedoo.com

The name is phonetic for "cooked" in Portuguese, but David Gilberg and Carla Gonçalves, the married team behind this BYOB, fill in the blanks with a culinary passion that elevates the rustic flavors of Portugal to rare sophistication. From homemade breads to the duck rice, soulful soups, and braised chicken gizzards (that you'll actually want to eat), each dish is a gem of refined authenticity. Add in warm service and a flickering candlelit romance, and Northern Liberties has a charming new winner. Reviewed Jan. 17.

Radice

722 W. DeKalb Pike

at Village Square, Blue Bell,

610-272-5700; www.radicerestaurant.com

Moonstruck's Toto Schiavone and his chef-partner Donna Ewanciw have gone suburban in a big way with their bright new Blue Bell gem, an ode to rustic Italy with a big domed, wood-fired oven that turns out a soulful array of earthen crocks brimming with authentic flavors at their simple, seasonal, handcrafted best. An accessible wine list and pleasant service solidify a steady all-around debut, but this trattoria's success story is also about Ewanciw's quiet emergence as one of the region's best Italian chefs. Reviewed Oct. 24.

Zama

128 S. 19th St., 215-568-1027; www.zamarestaurant.com

Amid a boomlet of new sushi destinations, this Rittenhouse Square offering from the ex-Pod chef nicknamed Zama is a standout, with superior fish, inventive-yet-elegant rolls, clever cooked fare, and smart service. It is the best all-around Japanese to open since Morimoto (though the intense wood-slat decor isn't for everyone.) Reviewed March 21.

VERY GOOD

Argan Moroccan Cuisine

132 S. 17th St., 215-568-8354.

An authentic taste of Morocco can be savored in this subterranean nook just steps down from a sidewalk near Rittenhouse Square, where house-made semolina bread, flavorful tagines, and rare real couscous are worth a visit for casual lunches or the more ambitious dinners. The husband-and-wife team has occasionally struggled to handle sudden crowds, and could stay more focused on purely Moroccan flavors, but recent staff additions give this humble-yet-worthy ethnic haunt a shot to play to its strengths. Reviewed Nov. 14.

Avalon

312 S. High St., West Chester, 610-436-4100; www.avalonrestaurant.net

Self-taught chef-owner John Brandt-Lee has transitioned well from the dining room to the kitchen and transformed his West Chester dining destination into a slightly more casual space dedicated to rustic Italian flavors. The cooking is an ambitious work in progress, but the kitchen's learning curve is steep and already shows enough promise (and great values on the tasting menu) to make Avalon a worthy all-occasion spot to keep tabs on in the western burbs. Reviewed Nov. 21.

Avenida

7402 Germantown Ave., 267-385-6857; www.avenidarestaurant.com

A Latino flair has breathed fresh life into the Colonial stone bones of the old Cresheim Cottage, where the husband-and-wife team of Edgar and Kim Alvarez have brightened the rooms and conjured a menu inspired by Edgar's native Guatemala. The food uses good ingredients for simple but satisfying New American presentations, with bright flavors and neighborhood-friendly prices ($20 or less an entree) that should make Mount Airy happy. Reviewed July 25.

Catahoula

775 S. Front St., 215-271-9300; www.catahoularestaurant.com

The flavors of Louisiana have given zesty new life (yet again) to the pocket-size Queen Village bar once known as La Creole, where the upscale pretense of the short-lived Sauté has been replaced by a friendly neighborhood destination for affordable fare with Cajun attitude. Lafayette, La., native Paul Martin's deep, dark gumbo alone is worth the visit, among other bites, even if much of the inconsistent menu still needs some fine-tuning. Reviewed Nov. 7.

Charcoal

11 S. Delaware Ave., Yardley,

215-493-6394; www.charcoalbyob.com

Still a classic Bucks County diner by day, but now an experimental food-science bistro at night, the latest incarnation of this riverside luncheonette morphs into the future when owner Anton Plescha's chef sons, Mark and Eric, unleash their sous-vide and liquid nitro. Their modern takes on everything from quesadillas to foie gras range from inspired and witty to youthful folly. The no-frills Formica also needs some p.m. help. Even so, it's impossible not to appreciate the inventive new spirit surging from this old kitchen. Reviewed Oct. 31.

Dettera

129 E. Butler Ave., Ambler,

215-643-0111, www.dettera.com

Ambler's burgeoning downtown dining scene has a potential powerhouse destination in this slick bi-level wine bar and grill, replete with mahogany trim, fireplaces, and more than 50 wines by the glass. Unfortunately, during the initial review, the eclectic menu, ranging from pizza to prime steaks, was underwhelming and overpriced.

A major improvement, however, has resulted from the arrival of new chef Jeffrey Power (ex-Blackfish, Le Bec-Fin). Our meal brought one impressive dish after the other, from spicy duck dumplings to tender head-on shrimp with white bean ragout, crispy pizza topped with merguez and goat cheese, a perfect local pumpkin soup topped with soft cubes of sweet pumpkin bread and a crackly chip of nougatine, followed by a moist pork loin wrapped in a sheer crisp of bacon over lentils. The once-clueless service has made serious strides, too, especially in wine service. As a rule, restaurants can't rise (or fall) more than one tier based on a single end-of-year revisit. But if Dettera keeps up this consistently, it has a chance to reach a more elite echelon some day. Reviewed April 4; revisited December.

Doma

1822 Callowhill St., 215-564-1114; www.domarestaurant.com

This sleek and serene little sushi nook has brought stylish raw fish and cooked fare with a Korean accent to the Callowhill corridor's suddenly growing dining options. The sushi bar has limitations that keep Doma a neighborhood-grade destination - but it's a charming space well-suited for a low-key date night or a business lunch, with several menu highlights (especially the Korean flavors) worth the visit. Reviewed May 23.

El Rey

2013 Chestnut St., 215-563-3330; www.elreyrestaurant.com

Stephen Starr has replaced a Rittenhouse dive-diner with a casual taqueria, serving authentic street food in front and classic cocktails in an obscure back-alley lounge called the Ranstead Room. The swanky hideaway bar is the best reason to come, but there are also some very soulful dishes from chef Dionicio Jimenez to counter a few menu slips, service glitches, kitschy movie-poster décor, and a painfully noisy room on weekends that should appeal to few over 25. Reviewed Aug. 1.

Fish

1708 Lombard St., 215-545-9600; www.fishphilly.com

The man behind (soon-to-reopen) Little Fish, Mike Stollenwerk, goes for the big catch at this full-service crosstown sibling in the former Astral Plane, which has been made over into an inventive seafood emporium. The ever-changing contemporary plates already rank among the city's most interesting fish cookery. With a little more consistency, more push to distinguish this menu from Little Fish, and service fine-tuning, it could eventually swim up to a more elite rating. Reviewed Jan. 31.

232 Woodbine Ave., Narberth,

610-660-0160; www.gemellinarberth.com

The neighbors are probably hoping that well-traveled Clark Gilbert (Taquet, the Fountain, Saloon, Avalon) stays put for a while at this warm Narberth BYO in the former Margot/Carmine's space, where the chef-owner is producing satisfying bistro fare with French and Italian overtones. There are some details to improve (like desserts), but the successes are reason enough to become a regular. Reviewed Feb. 28.

Green Eggs Cafe

1306 Dickinson St., 215-226-3447; www.greeneggscafe.net

The city's growing brunch scene gets a polished new player at this beautifully rehabbed corner cafe in deep South Philly, where weekend crowds wait on leather couches beside a fireplace and flat-screen TVs (with hunger-inducing food shows) for hearty from-scratch meals of creatively stuffed French toast and everything-skillets richly creamed in sausage gravy. The cooking could use some finesse (ironically, with eggs), but the popular appeal of this bright new haunt for the old neighborhood is irresistible. Reviewed March 28.

Hoof + Fin

617 S. Third St., 215-925-3070

This charmed Queen Village bistro space (formerly Gayle) is serving rustic grilled flavors inspired by Argentina (with Italian accents) from the team behind Stone Harbor's Quahog's. Stick with the back patio for tranquil fair-weather dining, because the minimalist inside room designed with garage-sale kitsch is noisy, noisy. Either way, chef and co-owner Carlos Barroz melds good local ingredients and his native flavors with a casual, contemporary flair. A late-year menu initiative has placed added focus on the Argentine specialties, with tasting menus ($19 for two courses, up to $36 for four) that add up to tasty value. Reviewed June 20.

Kraftwork

541 E. Girard Ave., 215-739-1700; www.kraftworkbar.com

Fishtown's rising nightlife avenue now has one of the city's more ambitious new gastropubs, a corner beer bar fitted with hop-leaf-carved saw blades, tiger-maple communal tables, and a tool motif that's an ode to industrial days past. The seasonally minded kitchen had its share of small stumbles during the review, but some exceptional sandwiches and charcuterie, plus one of the area's best draft-beer lists and a good-energy room, made this pub a keeper. A new chef, the Sidecar Bar's Brian Lofink, also took over kitchen duties here this fall, and a revisit brought an excellent improved burger, and a house-made bratwurst wrapped in pastry that's a must-order. Reviewed Aug. 8; revisited December.

Le Viet

1019 S. 11th St., 215-463-1570; www.levietrestaurant.com

Washington Avenue's gritty Vietnamese corridor gets a sleek update with Bruce Cao's contemporary new space, where the black-leather and smoked-glass look appeals to both mainstream and ethnic crowds. But there's also substance with the style, as Bruce's father, Sinh, cooks well-wrought traditional flavors, plus uncommon dishes including less-sweet northern Vietnamese pho. The warm, English-fluent young servers make this a smart destination for Viet first-timers. Reviewed Nov. 28.

Mr. Martino's

1646 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-755-0663.

Set amid the youthful bustle of one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods, this 18-year-old trattoria remains happily reclusive in its limited weekend-only hours, understated facade, and simplistic Italian cooking. The plain preparations aren't for everyone. But some dishes capture a certain home-style magic that, paired with the 19th-century hardware-store ambience, good dining companions, and the owners' quirky personality, can add up to one of Philly's uniquely charming dining experiences. Reviewed June 13.

Pelican Restaurant

508 Hurffville-Cross Keys Rd., Sewell, N.J.,

856-589-6969; www.thepelicanrestaurant.com

This standby South Jersey BYO has been revived under its latest owner, Bill Fischer, a lifelong commercial fisherman and former longtime chef at Caffe Aldo Lamberti. Fischer's Italian-influenced seafood menu goes for well-wrought familiar flavors over flash, with good ingredients that generally merit the prices, which otherwise seem a shade high for the suburban setting. The menu is too large for its own good, and the friendly servers are inexperienced, but what this ambitious and pleasantly upscale space really needs (and deserves) is more customers. Reviewed Feb. 7.

Percy Street Barbecue

900 block of South St. (at Percy), 215-625-8510; www.percystreet.com

Philly's long-lagging pit scene gets a taste of Texas at this casual South Street barbecue hall, where the team behind Zahav tackles the tricky Hill Country style, a beef-centric approach that's all about the meat and smoke. Talented ex-Marigold chef Erin O'Shea hits the mark often with addictive "burnt ends," plus some sublime pecan pie, but could use more consistency across the menu, better drinks, and snappier service. Still, this ambitious project is already a worthy addition. Reviewed March 7.

Pizzeria Stella

420 S. Second St. (at Lombard), 215-320-8000; www.pizzeriastella.net

Trend-collector Stephen Starr launched Philly's year-of-the-high-end-pizza with this casual and bustling space in Headhouse Square, where the wood-fired ovens quickly helped raise the city's sagging pizza scene to a new level. The delicate Neapolitan-style pies, topped with everything from truffled cheese and a spreadable egg yolk to sausage with long hot pepper pesto, or the magnificently simple sauce-only Marinara, are clearly top-notch, with arguably the city's best puff-and-crunch dough.

This kid-friendly destination has been happily frequented by my own family as much as any new restaurant. But as the year progressed, ambitious competitors arrived with a greater zeal for house-made toppings, Starr's kitchen "A-Team" moved on to other projects, and the restaurant's overall limitations (an uninspired wine and beer list with clunky tumblers; the addition of mediocre pasta; a general lack of inspired menu evolution) made it clear that Stella, no matter how welcome its arrival was, did not belong anymore in exclusive three-bell company. Reviewed Jan. 10; revisited often, most recently in November.

Resurrection Ale House

2425 Grays Ferry Ave. (at Catherine), 215-735-2202; www.resurrectionalehouse.com

Brendan Hartranft and Leigh Maida, the couple behind Memphis Taproom and Local 44, have expanded their gastropub empire to a third emerging neighborhood: "SoS" ("South of South," southwest of Center City.) Casual and affordable, this pleasant bi-level space across from the Naval Square development shares the serious beer focus of its siblings, but chef Joe Chmiko ups the culinary ambition with a menu built on scratch cooking, Mediterranean flavors, and some exceptional vegetarian options. Reviewed Jan. 3.

124 S. 13th St., 215-732-3501; www.sampanphilly.com

Chef Michael Schulson brings a high-style pan-Asian menu of affordable and often delicious small plates to a color-shifting, high-energy room in the hot restaurant district at 13th and Sansom. The vast menu, updating dishes from Vietnam, Korea, China, Thailand, and Japan, covers more ground than it can handle, judging from a few off-register flavors. Service also needs fine-tuning (as does the roaring din). Otherwise, this is a fun, flavorful, and promising city owner-chef debut for the hand behind Atlantic City's Izakaya and Buddakan NYC. Reviewed April 11.

Sonata

Liberties Walk, 1030 N. American St., 215-238-1240; www.sonatarestaurant.com

Chef Mark Tropea's low-key, New American BYO has simmered through its first year just off the radar a block from Northern Liberties' main drag, wooing patrons back to the former Swallow space largely by word of mouth. This promising young talent, though, deserves wider recognition for creative modern fare that's among the more-ambitious cooking to be found in a neighborhood with few white-tablecloth options. Reviewed Oct. 17.

South Philadelphia Taproom

1509 Mifflin St., 215-271-7787; southphiladelphiataproom.com

With its double-wide townhouse dining room and the recent opening of a take-out beer and coffee annex nearby (Brew), the Taproom has become the epicenter of South Philly's beer revolution. The well-chosen draft list and impressively brew-versed waitresses make it a fun place to drink. But the arrival of current chef Scott Schroeder is what finally put some consistent gastro into this ever-adventurous pub, with a menu that blends American comfort updates and authentic Mexican flavors with wit and good-flavored indulgence. Reviewed May 30.

Square 1682

Hotel Palomar, 121 S. 17th St., 215-563-5008; www.square1682.com

This snazzy bi-level restaurant in Kimpton's new Center City hotel is bursting with colors and modern high design. Chef Guillermo Tellez (Charlie Trotter's, Striped Bass) turns out an upscale globe-trotting menu that's imaginative, artful, and fun, albeit sometimes uneven. Still, every visit showed improvement and the clear potential for this likable new addition to become a keeper. Reviewed March 14.

Sycamore

14 S. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne,

484-461-2867; www.sycamorebyo.com

Long-deprived Delco diners take note: Lansdowne has landed an ambitious BYO with candlelit coppery warmth and a creative young chef in Sam Jacobson, whose seasonally minded menu pays admirable homage to his mentor, Sycamore's late founding chef, Meg Votta. There are still some rough edges (especially with service), and entrees feel a shade pricey for the pioneering location, but this promising storefront bistro is already a keeper. New tasting menus added since the review ($29 for "many courses") are worth checking out. Reviewed May 2.

Tavolo

2519 Huntingdon Pike,

Huntingdon Valley,

215-938-8401; www.augustocuisine.com

Augusto Jalon, the chef behind Augusto's in Warminster, has extended his fine-dining foothold in the northern burbs with an upscale Italian BYO for the hexagonal dining room that once was Stefano's. The kitchen could sometimes use more finesse with seafood, but overall, good ingredients, homemade pastas, bright flavors, and outgoing service provide a solid dining destination for an area with limited options. Reviewed Aug. 29.

Treno

233 Haddon Ave., Westmont,

856-833-9233; www.trenopizzabar.com

The upscale-but-struggling Kitchen 233 has been transformed into a more casual Italian that is remarkably affordable given the artisan pizzas, handmade pastas, and house-cured salumi from chef Todd Fuller. The kitchen's efforts are constantly dimmed by the ditzy, amateur service and a "wine bar" that rarely offers more than plonk, but it's hard to argue with the pull of its genuine food value and neighborhood-friendly ambience. Reviewed June 6.

Tweed

114 S. 12th St., 215-923-3300; www.tweedrestaurant.com

Like the namesake fabric, there's a classy and vaguely retro feel to the sleek revamp of this well-worn Center City space that is an upscale anomaly for fine-dining-weary Philly. Owner Edward Bianchini has the charm to pull it off, and chef David Cunningham's contemporary take on local American flavors has appealing style. Considerably more finesse with execution and service, though, is needed for it to reach its potential. Reviewed Oct. 3.

Zavino

112 S. 13th St.; 215-732-2400; www.zavino.com

This lively pizzeria-wine bar adds a worthy new option to Philly's suddenly growing artisan-pizza scene, with a corner cafe space at 13th and Sansom that hums with a casual, youthful vibe. Founding chef Steven Gonzalez has left since the initial review, but a recent revisit proved Zavino's kitchen remains steady under new chef Matt White, with flavorful charcuterie and cheese plates and heat-blistered pies that easily rank among the city's best, from the minimalist perfection of the puffy-crusted Margherita (yes, better than Stella's) to the signature spicy meatball. The small and quirky wine list remains a mixed-bag work in progress. But a Snap liqueur-infused panna cotta for dessert was not to be missed. Reviewed April 18; revisited December.

Zinc Bistro à Vins

246 S. 11th St., 215-351-9901; www.zincbarphilly.com

This Parisian-style boîte near the Walnut Street theater district feels like a cozy nook in the Marais, where the corner zinc serves vin du pays and French aperitifs, and the menu ranges from bistro classics (snails "au gratin," skate meunière, tripe in Calvados) to the haute ambitions of its call-ahead wild duck pressed in an antique silver vise. After some early inconsistent years, the kitchen can now match the room's sympa charm. Reviewed Dec. 19.

HIT-OR-MISS

Amuse

Le Meridien, 1421 Arch St., 215-422-8222; amusephiladelphia.com

The new Le Meridien hotel has revamped a grand Philadelphia space with lounge-forward contemporary accents and a French brasserie looking out onto City Hall. There are genuine ambitions to update classic bistro flavors, too, with house-made charcuterie and good seasonal ingredients - but consistent fumbles with execution limit the kitchen's success to a few worthy basics, including a notable hanger steak-frites. Reviewed Sept. 26.

City Tap House

3925 Walnut St., Radian building, 215-662-0105; www.citytaphouse.com

The beer craze gets supersized for the University City crowd in a soaring Mission-style room inside the new Radian building that boasts an open kitchen, a "green roof" terrace with fire pits, and Philly's largest array of draft taps. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better, though, when craft brews get a corporate touch that fosters sloppy service, and a menu with pub-plus aspirations that too often falls short. Reviewed Sept. 19.

Hop Angel Brauhaus

7980 Oxford Ave., 215-437-1939; www.hopangel.com

The German zeitgeist is flowing in Fox Chase again now that the old Blue Ox has been reborn as a brauhaus under the new ownership of the crew behind the Grey Lodge Pub. Intentions are gut for this beloved neighborhood institution (and so is the lager-ific bier), but the kitchen's take on classic German fare is pretty dreary beyond what has already been prepared by the sausage masters at Illg's Meats in Chalfont. Reviewed Dec. 12.

MidAtlantic

3711 Market St., 215-386-3711; www.midatlanticrestaurant. com

Chef-owner Daniel Stern turns to scrapple-as-canvas in this intriguing University City project to update Pennsylvania Dutch cookery and other regional touchstones. The concept is smart and long overdue, the rustic barn-on-modern decor is fun, the outgoing service and craft beer list a plus. But there were also far too many basic cooking blunders preventing this big menu from tasting like more than a promising experiment.

A frustrating recent dinner showed far too little progress, as problems with seasoning and execution lingered large, from the bland and burnt brick of meat loaf to a stunningly dry roast chicken, pork belly "pig wings" that were tasty (but almost entirely pure fat), a cold-in-the-center butterscotch bread pudding, and greasy black swiss chard dumplings that were certifiably the ugliest food I was served all year. The aim here is noble, but the ambition to redeem a contemporary identity for scrapple (with everything from crab to chicken packed into gluey stuffing patties) has proved a folly in MidAtlantic's hands. Reviewed Feb. 14; revisited December.

R2L

Two Liberty Place, 37th floor,

50 S. 16th St., 215-564-5337; www.r2lrestaurant.com

Despite the soaring city view at Daniel Stern's second project this year, a swank restaurant and lounge atop Liberty Two, the fine-dining experience was shaky in its opening months in the spring. The ambitious New American menu, drawing partially on past glories from Rae and Gayle, was inconsistent for the lofty prices, and the service was so frazzled, it couldn't add up an accurate bill.

Amazingly, a year-end revisit was even worse, from the puffery of our server's endless preamble ("Daniel Stern is known for reinventing American cuisine! . . .") to a train of dishes that instead portrayed a "pretender" rather than "innovator" - rubbery scallop dumplings inside raggedly frayed wrappers of dough made from pureed bacon; short ribs as chewy as bark; taquitos with pasty rabbit filling; burnt surf-and-turf cocktail franks; browned avocado on the minuscule chopped salad, and more - at fees as high as R2L's perch. Even the tap water was skunked. If it wasn't for the unique view, cocktail lounge, and decent desserts, the year's loftiest dining project would more appropriately sit in the "no-bell" cellar. Reviewed May 9; revisited December.

Twenty Manning Grill

261 S. 20th St., 215-731-0900; www.twentymanning.com

Audrey Taichman and chef-partner Kiong Banh have given their decade-old Rittenhouse resto-lounge a homey makeover, replacing the once-trendy Asian-fusion fare and black-leather chic with a warmer yellow bistro look and a broader menu with lower prices and neighborhood appeal. This cheery and smartly redone corner space feels like the local hang it was meant to be, but the comfort-food menu has a surprising number of rough spots.

A disappointing recent revisit showed little improvement. The burger was too finely ground and squishy. A side salad was inedibly salted. The lobster pot pie was remarkably undecadent. Two ill-chosen sauces - maple-syrupy figs and over-creamed Gorgonzola cheese - made a pork chop evoke breakfast pancakes and a wedge salad on the same plate. Twenty Manning, alas, is reverting to its true calling as a Rittenhouse bar scene. But keep it simple, as even the cocktails (like the undrinkable Iconoclast) can be hit-or-miss. Reviewed Aug. 15; revisited December.

NO BELLS

POOR

Chew Man Chu

440 S. Broad St.

CLOSED. Reviewed Jan. 24.

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