I like alliteration. That is probably fairly obvious to anyone who reads this blog with any regularity. Indeed, I couldn’t resist the appropriate alliteration of the title above. Thankfully, though I thought about it and was tempted, I resisted the urge to utilize the cliched conceit of using “Ph” in lieu of “F” in that title.
Philadelphia’s food reputation tends to reflect more blue-collar roots than it does fancy fare. When most people think of the area’s culinary offerings, the items that typically come to mind are sandwiches like the Philly Cheese Steak, Dinic’s Reading Terminal Market roast pork with greens or Amish style soft pretzels, amongst other relatively inexpensive, but truly tasty bites that do speak of the area. What most people around the country or the world don’t fully realize, however, is that Philadelphia has been and continues to be a haven for good food of a wide variety of styles including a multitude of ethnic eats and fine dining. From the days of the legendary French restaurant Le Bec Fin to the more recent gastronomic empires of the Italian-influenced Marc Vetri, the largely Latin themed Jose Garces and the Middle-Eastern inflected Michael Solomonov, Philadelphia has been friendly and welcoming o a wide variety of international culinary influences. Lately, a number of the next generation of top chefs, including a couple of TV competition anointed “Top Chefs” have come to my attention and I spent a few days in the fair city to get a taste of what is happening there. I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, I could not get to all of the places on my interest list, but the quality of what I did get to has me yearning to return to continue the exploration.
A little over an hour away from NYC by Amtrak, Philadelphia is easy to get to, relatively inexpensive and quite manageable. For business, Central City is probably the place to be, but for those looking for a more casual agenda and a chance to explore this historic burgh, Old Town or Society Hill is a perfect spot to plant oneself. Accompanied by my great friend, Joe Bavuso, I stayed at The Kimpton Monaco on Chestnut Street, directly adjacent to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. With a stylish environment and comfortable digs, it was the perfect spot for my brief Philadelphia foray.
From the hotel, we could and did walk to all of our dining destinations including points in Center City, Old Town, Society Hill and South Philly. Despite the weather not being entirely co-operative, the walks were all easy, packed with fascinating architectural details, historic spots and a sense of civilized urbanity. Our guide for the few days was my friend, Shola Olunloyo, the extremely talented cook, private chef and culinary consultant behind the legendary Studio Kitchen pop-up dinners that helped put underground dining on the map over ten years ago. I have known Shola since those early days having connected through eGullet and his stupendous Studio Kitchen dinners.
Ironically, our first stop was to dine at the restaurant of a chef who made his reputation in NYC cooking at Momofuko Ko. Peter Serpico is a talented young chef, who was lured to Philadelphia by Stephen Starr, the very successful Philadelphia restaurateur. who is typically more well known for the stunning style of his spaces than for the culinary character cooked up within. That is not to say that Starr doesn’t have quality restaurants, though, in general, the restaurants under his name are more formulaic, a successful practice that has resulted in a very prominent career. The eponymous Serpico, located in a stylish setting (as expected from a Starr restaurant) with a central, counter-ringed open kitchen, is allowed creative freedom., which the chef utilizes to cook Asian-inspired dishes that are pretty, texturally rich and full of flavor.
A stand-out was Serpico’s Chili Dumplings with lamb and ginger-scallion sauce. While this was not a unique dish, it was extremely well executed, elevated and beautifully presented with a crisp, lacy overturned base, delicate skins, a delicious filling and a lovely sauce.
More novel and equally delicious was a special that evening of a warm cauliflower salad. Here fish sauce was used to great effect to enhance the rich, inherent flavors of the brassica, resulting in a deeply satisfying dish.
After Serpico Shola, Joe and I met up with a Jeff Towne, another friend from eGullet, who was instrumental in bringing attention to Studio Kitchen a decade ago. We finished the evening down the street from Serpico at a quite cozy spot, the The Good King Tavern. Entirely unpretentious, the place proved to be a superb bar with, as it happened, a very good French inflected bistro-like kitchen and earnestly excellent service. Though not particularly hungry, we indulged in a fine charcuterie plate and an excellent steamed artichoke stuffed with fried cauliflower.
The main attraction, however, remained the well made cocktails, the best of which was one recommended by the talented bartender, Guy Smith. Called “Going Back to Mezcali”, the superbly balanced, complex and supremely delicious cocktail featured Mezcal, lime, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and cucumber. This delectable sipper deserves greater attention as does the tavern itself. It is places like this that really provide a great sense of place and time as well as the thrill of “discovery.”
For two mornings, we walked around the block to High Street on Market for breakfast. Rated the second best new restaurant in the country for 2014 by Bon Appetit Magazine, the creative breakfast sandwiches, breads and pastries are unique and quite good as is the Rival Brothers coffee, but second best new restaurant in the country? Perhaps lunch or dinner would lend credence to the award, but that would have to wait for another visit.
Another nearby spot that impressed us with their coffee was a small coffee shop called Menagerie. Using coffees roasted in Minneapolis and San Francisco, Menagerie made delicious espresso and pour-over coffees.
More impressive was another restaurant by chef Eli Kulp, the chef also behind High Street on Market as well as the acclaimed Fork. His recently taken over a.kitchen + bar in City Center near Rittenhouse Square demonstrated dynamite cooking techniques, superb product and a sublime sensitivity to flavor and textural nuance. The team at a.kitchen relies a lot on their Grillworks grill and they use it to full advantage.
Both vegetables and meats were treated with imagination and finesse. Beets and cabbage pastrami dishes were exceptional.
Even better were the roasted duck and arctic char dishes. The duck, paired with roasted Brussels sprouts was particularly exquisite. It is not difficult to make roasted duck breast into a good dish, but by the same token, it is difficult to make one that really stands out. Kulp’s duck was juicy, tender and packed with outstanding depth of flavor. These guys know what they are doing and we were the beneficiaries. The restaurant itself is small, but with an efficient use of a handsomely designed space.
I mentioned above that Philadelphia has become an eastern US hotbed of ethnic cuisines, both inexpensive and elaborate. Vietnamese phô has become nearly ubiquitous throughout the city, providing taste and sustenance at a very reasonable cost. Shola took me to his favorite phô spot for lunch during my visit. Located near 9th Street and the South Philly Italian Market, Shola and I were the only non-Vietnamese customers in the simple and small, storefront dining room of Cafe Diem. The menu consisted of nothing but a variety of Vietnamese noodle soups. We ordered two. Shola’s favorite and now mine too, was the Spicy Beef and Pork Phô (bún bò huê) with enough spice to feel it, but not so much to destroy one’s taste buds. The spaghetti-like noodles were springy and warming and the depth of flavor of the broth was outstanding. This was satisfying and warming, perfect for a chilly afternoon.
Redolent of star anise and cardamom, the Phö Gà Tuoi or chicken phô was ordered without noodles to save on carbs. While that made it lack the textural comforts that would typically be part of the dish, we were still able to appreciate the flavor profile of the broth and enjoy the silkiness of the freshly dispatched chicken meat.
Philadelphia boasts two recent winners of the Top Chef cooking competition on televison. The first, Kevin Sbraga, is well on his way to joining established Philadelphia chefs like Marc Vetri, Jose Garces and Michael Solomonov with restaurant empires. Already with established hits like his eponymous fine-dining destination, Sbraga, and an homage to the food of the southern USA, The Fat Ham Kevin Sbraga was about to open his third restaurant, Juniper Commons, an ode to the 1980’s. A veritable who’s who of the Philadelphia restaurant scene showed up for a pre-opening friends and family event and I was fortunate enough to have been included.
With dishes such as a dynamite eggplant parm, prime rib and others inspired by Kevin Sbraga’s memories of growing up in the 80’s as well as a number of excellent gin based cocktails, juniper Commons promises to be a great restaurant to go with friends for a fun and tasty meal.
Another great restaurant to go with friends for a fabulous meal is Zahav. Chef Michael Solomonov and his restaurant are not new to the Philly dining scene nor have they been immune to receiving accolades. I have wanted to eat at Zahav for some time, especially after seeing and tasting Chef Solomonov’s workshop at StarChefs a year ago.
The food was fun, full of variety and packed with delicious flavors. My friends and I had a feast at a very reasonable cost. All of the dishes were so good that it is difficult to pick a standout, but the combination of Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate and chick peas and the Persian Rice was nothing less than sublime. Solomonov’s food is cravable and I look forward to trying his other restaurants.
Along with my friends, I packed a lot of great eating into just three nights in Philadelphia, but nothing exceeded the brilliance of the meal that my friend Joe and I had at Nicholas Elmi’s Laurel BYOB restaurant. Elmi, the most recent winner of Top Chef is building a formidable reputation and doing it the right way, focusing on his cooking in an environment that allows it to really shine. Laurel is a small, intimate restaurant, that is about as romantic as it comes (I must return with my wife!), but the place is about much more than a mere mood and setting.
Elmi’s cooking is focused, precise, creative, beautiful and outright delicious. Each plate was a highlight from the very first bite of his kombu cured fluke with yuzu, finger lime and candied Buddha’s hand citron to a devastatingly fabulous squab cooked en vessie and more. The fact that the restaurant is BYOB made it that much more affordable as Joe and I each brought a bottle of wine.
Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of attention around the country for its food scene. Part of that may be, because, like New York, it is relatively conservative, in terms of how it responds to cutting edge cuisine, especially if it is perceived as expensive. Justin Bogle’s recently closed Avance (which had been on my list of places to try), located in the former Le Bec Fin space, is a case in point. I didn’t eat anywhere that was truly pushing the boundaries of food, though there was plenty of creativity within the bounds of known cuisines. The best of what I ate explored the nature of those cuisines and created within those cultural boundaries, at times mixing a number of them. Philadelphia is an old city with plenty of important history everywhere one turns. To some extent that remains true in the food world, though these chefs are using that to their advantage and creating delicious food that while being comforting and familiar, remains creative and fun. With the restaurants discussed here as well as others that still remain on my list, I found that Philadelphia fosters fine fare along with its cadre of cultural commodities, that make it a city eminently worth visiting.