Craig LaBan chats: Charcuterie sans nitrates; a bit on the bells

Bresaola (salted, air-dried beef) from Larchmont Charcuterie in N.Y. CRAIG LaBAN / Staff
Bresaola (salted, air-dried beef) from Larchmont Charcuterie in N.Y. CRAIG LaBAN / Staff (Bresaola (salted, air-dried beef))
Posted: March 15, 2012

Excerpted from Craig LaBan's online chat:

Craig LaBan: It's been a busy seven days for me. Got a chance to taste some fantastically complex and interesting Italian beers from Tuscany's Bruton. And I got my first taste this weekend of DiBruno's excellent nitrate-free bresaola (Lombardy-style salted and air-dried beef) from Larchmont Charcuterie in Westchester County, N.Y., that I hope to visit soon. And while it's expensive ($29.99 a pound) a little goes a long way. This entire sheet of thin slices (right) cost about $8.

Reader: Do you have a minimum standard of how "polished" a restaurant has to be to give it a try (not necessarily a review)? Some neighborhoods like Chinatown and West Philly seem to have restaurants and cafes with very basic amenities/decor, but I'm never sure if the food will reflect that (basically, the place looks like a dive, but you get the feeling they really can cook.)

C.L.: I've eaten in (and reviewed) many places most people wouldn't dare to enter - and come out loving it. Dim Sum Garden, tucked under a tunnel beside the fumes of idling Chinatown buses, probably still takes the prize for the most "negative ambience" restaurant I've ever given two bells - if you don't count the beat-up Yue Kee Chinese truck parked across from the Wharton School in West Philly.

Reader: Any thoughts on Zeppoli in Collingswood being up for a Beard Award for best new restaurant in the country? Big accolades for such a tiny place!

C.L.: I agree that it was one of the more exciting openings in our region last year, so I'm glad that it made that long list of national "semi-finalists" - to be winnowed down to five finalists by March's end.

Tashan and Farm and Fishermen were other really worthy locals to make the list.

Reader: Is it my imagination that diner food has gotten really crappy in the past couple of years? More mixes, less from-scratch items? My pet peeve is frozen chicken croquettes. I miss my diner food!

C.L. Totally agree. I hope that some day, some ambitious young chef will take its revival on as a mission. Best croquettes I've had in recent years, FYI, were at the Brooklawn diner in South Jersey; the Oregon in South Philly has had its moments, but it, too, is inconsistent. We love chicken croquettes.

Reader: I sometimes think the number of bells you give is much harsher than the actual review reads. Take Route 6, for example. I really think you are sometimes a little too careless with the 1 bell. That can be crushing for some restaurants.

C.L: I disagree with you here, because I put a lot of thought and serious consideration into every rating I give. But there is a misconception, perhaps, that one bell equals "bad restaurant." It's never quite so black-and-white. A number of potentially very good restaurants - like Route 6 - land in that category because they performed poorly during my visits.

I can only write about what I eat. And as much as I see some virtues here - like the raw bar, the good lobster cookery, the chowder, etc. - inconsistency really can bring a place down. And when I especially have problems with the more expensive entree section of a menu (in this case, I had complaints about 5 of the 8 I tried) I'll have a hard time handing out 2 bells, which is a solid recommendation. Hitting only three-for-eight in the entree section is pretty much the definition of "hit-or-miss" which is, in fact, the definition of the one-bell rating. That, however, is what my end-of-year revisits are for - to see if some underperformers can get their act together. Hope so for Route 6.

Reader: Consistency is key. It's off-putting not to have one's expectations met.

C.L.: It is the real challenge in the restaurant industry - not simply to come up with a great concept, a great staff, and a great menu - but to do it night after night without a hitch.

Reader: Food tastes are so subjective and personal. I read reviews for reconnaissance and to also find out about the crowd and whether it's the place for me. I'm glad you take the heat instead of me.

C.L: And man, is it hot in here!

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