Craig LaBan's online chat: A romantic dinner

Sometimes simpler is better: Seafood marinara for the LaBans’ anniversary dinner. CRAIG LaBAN / Staff
Sometimes simpler is better: Seafood marinara for the LaBans’ anniversary dinner. CRAIG LaBAN / Staff
Posted: May 10, 2012

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

Craig LaBan: Last week was my wedding anniversary, so I dusted off the dinner I cooked 15 years ago when I proposed to Elizabeth — seafood linguine with garlic bread. I would have gone all-out with a shellfish stock reduction, rare seafood, and a pop of Pernod. But Elizabeth prefers a simpler touch: I sweat garlic, onions, and chile flakes in olive oil, then add a splash of white wine. Once reduced, I add a can of hand-crushed Mutti tomatoes (from Eataly), then let it all simmer and thicken for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, I marinated sea scallops and peeled shrimp with olive oil, chopped garlic, the zest of a lemon and parsley. While the sauce simmered, I seared the seafood medium-rare on a grill pan, then set aside. When the sauce and pasta were cooked, I added the seafood and juices into the sauce to warm to temperature, about 1 minute, added a handful of ribboned basil, and served. Sometimes, simple really is best. It was, indeed, the “linguine of love.”

Reader: I went to In Riva and the pizzas are fantastic, as good if not better than Stella and Zavino. Two pizzas, two salads, the mussels, and a beer for 4 people. The check was $99. Very affordable and very good.

C.L: Been there and you’re right — In Riva is worth a visit. I’m not going to weigh in yet with my thoughts on the pizzas — but the similarities to Stella are uncanny (from the menu to the wood community table, etc.). Very appealing addition to East Falls — especially with a patio overlooking the river, ideal for weekend bikers taking a break.

Reader: A bit surprised by your glowing review of La Calaca Feliz. A lot of my Fairmount friends (and myself) weren’t nearly as impressed. I thought the fish tacos were awful, hated the thick plantain batter. You couldn’t even taste the fish. Guacamole was excellent, though. Didn’t have a lot of what you spoke about in your review, but other stuff we had (carnitas taco, mushroom taco, an enchilada) was nothing special in my mind.

Reader: I’ll have to disagree. I thought the fish was meaty and moist, the crust not too thick. My only issue with the fish taco: too much slaw on top. The other things you mentioned — classic taqueria items like carnitas — were very good. Where Calaca is starting to shine though, is with the special items — the tuna ceviche with margarita-compressed melons; white asparagus soup with queso-encrusted scallops; the pig’s ear-guajillo terrine with bicolor salsas — that reflect some of the most creative and sophisticated Mexican cooking in town. They should nail the fish tacos, too. But that’s also sort of like judging Morimoto on its California roll.

Reader: My fiance loves nice Mexican restaurants such as El Vez. I feel like “fancy” Mexican restaurants aren’t worth it because there are so many Mexican restaurants with really good food, huge portions, and a lot less expensive. I even prefer some of the burrito places over a white-tablecloth type.

C.L: I understand where you’re coming from, but I think our Mexican scene has matured to the point where there are differing KINDS of Mexican places, from creative nuevo kitchens (like Calaca, Distrito, El Vez, etc.) to hipster taco trucks (Honest Tom’s) to elegant classics (Tequila’s) to the authentic taquerias of South Philly (el Jarocho) and Kennett Square (La Pena). To me, they don’t compete. They’re different food groups, different desires. I love both. The appeal with the Nuevo places, though, is when chefs with the freedom to be creative can set their minds to plates with the best ingredients available.

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