Along Broad Street, across the city and beyond, we'll see a host of new restaurants from stars and rising talents.

Posted: September 11, 2011

Broad Street could soon be called Avenue of the Culinary Arts if much-anticipated openings from such big names as Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr, Kevin Sbraga (our own Top Chef), and Tiffin's shiny new sibling, Tashan, live up to expectations.

But the fresh dining action is pulsing far beyond that main artery, too, as one of the most torrid restaurant opening seasons ever unfolds from deep South Philly to the Main Line. From gastropubs and doughnut shrines to vegetarian pioneers and pizza prophets, from debuts for young talents to new locations for familiar names, the autumn curtain is lifting on a cast of culinary characters that should make us all hopeful for some good eating soon.

- Craig LaBan, Inquirer restaurant critic,

and Ashley Primis, Inquirer food writer

                                                                   

The notion of South Broad as a marquee dining strip is a tantalizing idea - especially with the decline of Walnut Street's Restaurant Row. But it has also long been elusive, as the traffic-clogged lanes and quick-bite theater crowds have scared away (with a few exceptions) all but the deep-pocketed chains. Philadelphians, it seems, prefer dining more in a genuine neighborhood, a cozy crossroads such as 13th and Sansom Streets nearby, for example, which continues to grow into our most vibrant nexus of nightlife eats.

Is this the year Broad Street's restaurant fortunes change - both to the South and North? The south side's new apartment buildings will cast their hopes first on two particularly exciting projects. Tashan (777 S. Broad St.; www.mytashan.com), which opened Thursday (the name means style or swagger in Hindi) is a bold gamble indeed from Tiffin founder Munish Narula that Philadelphians are ready for upscale Indian cuisine. Narula promises "the food will be Indian. We're not making a fusion restaurant. We're not dumbing down the flavors."

The open-kitchen setting will be dramatic, the ingredients should be prime, and presentations, he said, will reflect a contemporary Western approach, like Goan masala-dusted lobster, or tandoori-cooked venison with smoked clove and plum chutney.

Like so many of the other restaurants this season, Tashan's menu is built around small plates, with diners encouraged to order several (figure $45 a person for food.)

But the small-plate concept won't necessarily mean "pass it around tapas-style" at Sbraga (440 S. Broad St.), the prix-fixe showcase for Top Chef's season-seven champ, Kevin Sbraga, under construction for a November opening at Broad and Pine Streets in the former Chew Man Chu.

"My food is best eaten in smaller portions," says the 32-year-old vet of Perrier, Garces and Starr. "But it's a progression of dishes, not necessarily meant to be shared."

Expect comfort food with a modern twist on Sbraga's prix-fixe menus (four courses for $45, nine for $100), from truffled meatloaf with house ketchup and bacon sauce to sashimi-grade fluke fish & chips with curried remoulade. There will also be a dose of kitchen reality for the reality TV chef: "You'll see me back there cooking."

When it comes to North Broad Street, Marc Vetri's Osteria has proven to be one notable success. He and his partners, Jeff Benjamin and chef Jeff Michaud, are a good bet to score again when they open nearby Alla Spina (600 N. Broad St.; www.vetrifamily.com), an Italian-themed gastropub with fold-up garage door awnings in the former Wilkie Subaru service bay, most likely in January. Expect some funky Italian brews on its 20 draft taps, homemade sausages and salumi, and adventurous small plates (of course), from mortadella sliders to crispy pigtails with salsa verde, lamb speck panini, and duck lasagna. Bigger groups, meanwhile, might gravitate to the "Animali" part of the menu - "whole things," says Vetri, whose chef, Damon Menapace, will roast everything from pig heads and shoulders to whole branzino for two.

If ever North Broad got a mainstream endorsement, though, it's coming from the omnipresent Stephen Starr, who's joining Vetri in the former Wilkie space with a seafood house where the former dealership's showroom used to be. Starr has named his newest restaurant Route 6 (in honor of the road that runs the length of Cape Cod), and is aiming for a November debut. It's not so much an updated take on Bookbinder's, he says, as it is an ode to New York's Pearl Oyster Bar with New England and Mid-Atlantic flavors thrown in. Think raw bar with a wood-fired grill and oven, an entire chowder section on the menu, oyster pan-roasts, lobster melts, and spaghetti with crabs.

Equally intriguing, though, are the many projects popping off Broad.

Just a block-and-a-half away, in the Locust Street manse that was once Deux Cheminees, one of the year's most anticipated openings is Vedge (1221 Locust St.) - the hyper-ambitious "vegetable restaurant" from Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, whose now-closed Horizons was one of the country's best vegan kitchens. Few chefs have evolved more on my watch than Landau, and he's promised this menu will be focused more on "the vegetable cooking" rather than proteins, with smaller plates (naturally) that will allow him to "stop when a dish is finished" rather than feel obliged to bulk it up with chickpeas to entree size. Eggplant brasciole stuffed with smoked eggplant and cauliflower? Wood-grilled maitake with truffled vegetable stew? This grand old space is being reborn into the 21st century.

Considerably farther beyond City Hall - in Collingswood, as a matter of fact - one of Vetri's best proteges is giving South Jersey a taste of Sicily at Zeppoli (618 Collings Ave.; www.zeppolirestaurant.com), a 36-seater launched in August. Yes, Collingswood's scene is already more pasta than some mid-size Italian villages. But the genuine Sicilian flavors here look to be far from the local norm. There's lemon tagliatelle with Sicilian bottarga, pesto made from pistachios, stewed rabbit, swordfish on the grill, homemade sausages and gelati - much of it inspired by the months Joey Baldino (a South Philly native) spent in Sicily itself.

An exciting Italian trip was also a source of inspiration for Chris Painter's Il Pittore (2025 Sansom St.), which is set to replace Noble on Sansom Street in mid-October. The longtime Starr corporate chef (Tangerine, Stella, Frankford Hall) has finally been given by his benefactor the long-promised stage to strut his stuff. It should be much evolved from his earlier effort at Starr's Angelina, and will lean toward Northern Italian flavors, with fresh egg pastas like duck agnolotti, house-cured salumi, and some creative riffs (foie gras-Lambrusco gelato sundae?) to keep things interesting.

And just to make sure we've got enough Italian flavors flowing, South Philly will boast two new spots bidding to up the city's pizza game: Birra (1700 E. Passyunk Ave.), an Italian pub at East Passyunk and Morris with 50 beers and the signature "Birra bowl" (a.k.a. a "pizza pot pie"); plus, a branch of Nomad (611 S. Seventh St.), from Hopewell, coming to the former Horizons space in October. I visited the original last month, and those wood-fired crusts rank among the best I've tasted. Anywhere.

Bring on the fall dining already! I'm hungry! - Craig LaBan


Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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