Good road-trip eats; sad closing in Philly

Smoked Lake Charlevoix whitefish tartine on grilled pumpernickel, savored at American Spoon Cafe, Petoskey, Mich.
Smoked Lake Charlevoix whitefish tartine on grilled pumpernickel, savored at American Spoon Cafe, Petoskey, Mich. (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)
Posted: August 03, 2012

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

Craig LaBan: It's good to be back home after my annual jaunt to northern Michigan, though I had a number of great meals along the route.

Mid-Pennsylvania: Heading west, Brownstone Cafe in Middletown, outside Harrisburg, where Thursday is all-you-can-eat chicken pot pie day - the Pennsylvania Dutch variety, essentially chicken and dumplings. Very good country cooking in a rehabbed bank, but heavy. Returning east, the historic Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford, with an excellent selection of Pennsylvania beers and wine, and a tavern menu with local ingredients. Favorite dish: irresistible oatmeal pie.

Pittsburgh: Really, really excellent New American flavors built on seasonal whims at Legume Bistro in the Oakland neighborhood near Pitt. Fresh, handcrafted and unpretentious - one of the best meals I've eaten in Pittsburgh.

Cleveland: Noodlecat, the Cleveland ramen mashup from chef Jonathon Sawyer (of Greenhouse Tavern), one of the more inventive and personal takes on the ramen trend, infused with good Midwestern ingredients: steamed buns (tempura-fried walleye!), noodle bowls with spicy Ohio corn chowder, matzo balls and brisket (dense matzo balls needed work). Also some killer desserts, including a buttered popcorn pot de crème with salted caramel and a deconstructed S'more (with a smoked chocolate torte) that were almost worth the detour themselves.

Northern Michigan: American Spoon's retail branch in Petoskey, a regular stop for some of the best jams, salsas, and sauces in America. (You can order them online, as well the awesome cherry barbecue sauce.) They've opened a cafe next door, though, that is doing wonders for dinner with some of northern Michigan's best ingredients: amazing tartine of house-smoked Lake Charlevoix whitefish, aged cheddar tortellini with chanterelles and peas, a gorgeous pork loin with polenta, sweet corn, and local cherry compote. This is the "cherry capital of the world," and this dish was close to perfection.

In Philadelphia, there've been recent closings I'm bummed about - most notably Meme and Gilmore's, which closed after 11 years of fine French cookery in downtown West Chester. Also a couple of returns: David Ansill's now back from his "sabbatical" in Jamaica to take over the kitchen at Bar Ferdinand in Northern Liberties. I haven't been yet, but his new menu there will begin in late September, with Thursday tasting menus beginning this week. And one more that should warm the bellies of all cheesesteak/pork sandwich lovers: John Bucci Jr., now four years healthy after his bone-marrow transplant, is going back to full time on the grill at John's Roast Pork in South Philly: "It feels great to be making sandwiches again - I love it," he told me earlier Tuesday. "I'm back!"

Reader: Thoughts on Meme closing?

C.L.: I'm disappointed, because I think David Katz is one of our most talented chefs. I loved the minimalist presentation of big, focused flavors on the bistro-plus menu he perfected over there. It was never quite busy enough, though. It seemed unsustainable based on crowds that never materialized. I'm sure we're going to be hearing good things from Mr. Katz in the future - especially if he tackles the Moroccan-themed menu he's long promised.

Reader: We're sad to see Meme go. We only went once despite living a few blocks away. The host was so mean to us several years ago that we never went back. It had been on the list to try again because of rave reviews.

C.L.: There was an odd vibe about the place that a lot of people never got past. I did, eventually raising it from 2 to 3 bells. But it was in an awkward space between neighborhood spot and destination restaurant that never quite settled into one or the other.

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