Craig LaBan's weekly online chat

Pulitzer night at Le Virtu, where chef Joe Cicala prepared “maccheroni alla mugnaia. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Pulitzer night at Le Virtu, where chef Joe Cicala prepared “maccheroni alla mugnaia. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 19, 2012

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan’s online chat:

Craig LaBan: It’s been a rough few months here at The Inquirer, with big-time layoffs, etc., but what a ray of sunshine and jolt of energy when our education team won the Pulitzer for their amazing “Assault on Learning” series. Kudos! But … where to get a reservation for 30 on a moment’s notice when the obvious Center City places are already booked with a convention? The answer was Le Virtu, the authentic Abruzzo wonder in deep South Philadelphia. The reports are that it was a huge success, from the stuffed fried olives, house-made sausage, and antipasto platter with house charcuterie to the 100-foot-long rope of a noodle (maccheroni alla mugnaia) presented on a few big wooden platters in two different sauces — a tomato-lamb ragu, and another in garlicky pecorino. Thanks to chef Joe Cicala!

Reader: Where is the best pho/vermicelli is the city?

C.L.: I’m still a Pho 75 fan if I’m eating pho alone. But we’ve been stopping at Pho Saigon, on Columbus Boulevard just south of Washington, because there’s parking, a broader menu (kids like the lemongrass-grilled chicken over broken rice) and a great beer store right next door. The pho is not bad, but not as fine as Pho 75. I get mine with brisket, rare beef, and tripe?… (love those frilly-edged and crunchy white “noodles”).

Reader: Looking forward to the “Battle of Fairmount” reviews — Hickory Lane vs. La Calaca Feliz vs. Lemon Hill. Any thoughts on the resurgence of that area?

C.L.: You will have to wait! And not too long. Without tipping my hand, I’m thrilled for Fairmount to finally, after well over a decade of stagnation, get some serious new restaurant blood. Happened by the “Bunny Hop” drinking fest, and Fairmount was unfortunately at its worst — awash with so many drunk twentysomethings. That neighborhood, like every hot ‘hood, needs to manage its success as its post-college bar scene makes room for some more sophisticated newcomers.

Reader: I think I make a pretty decent balsamic dressing for my salads. However, I want to take it up a notch and add more ingredients to get that extra excitement in salads. Any tips on other ingredients I can add?

C.L.: I’m a super-simple-dressing believer. Your base should be great extra-virgin olive oil. I add aged sherry vinegar for more of a woody tang, and balsamic for a sweet accent. For something more elaborate, I sub some good-quality walnut oil for half of the olive oil. then fresh herbs — tarragon, if you have it, but chives or parsley will also do. For classic French Dijon vinaigrette, one secret we picked up from French friends was just a few drops of Maggi, a concentrated liquid veggie base that lends a certain savor. Not too much!

Chef John Brandt-Lee: Balsamic dressing … use grapeseed oil to really allow the balsamic flavor to shine, saba will add an extra depth of sweetness, and I really love fresh shallots in my vinaigrette. Tarragon and basil are almost always a must. Use some local honey if you want to stay emulsified.

C.L.: Great tips, chef Brandt-Lee (of Avalon and Avalon Pasta Bistro)… thanks!

Reader: Are the new restaurants all the same concept, craft beer, small plates, local ingredients?

C.L.: The “gastropub” field is getting very crowded. Nothing wrong with craft beer and local ingredients — if they’re served thoughtfully. But we need places that are distinct and diverse, as well. Time to keep growing.

Reader: Big fan of fresh bread. What’s your favorite restaurant bread basket?

C.L.: Good question. I liked the fresh breads at Heirloom in Chestnut Hill.

Reader: Parc has an incredible bread basket.

C.L.: One of the best in the city — love the baguette, country loaf. Also the outstanding breads at Dandelion, especially the one made with Victory Storm King Stout.

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