Restaurant Chat: Wine bars, pastry, gelato, reception ribs and more

When critic Craig LaBan chats, you never know what will wind up on his plate.

Craig: Good afternoon, my friends, and welcome back to the Philly food chat that should make you hungry. I’m always a bit melancholy after Labor Day, 'cause that means summer is done, and this one was a very good one on the chow side. Then again, that also means it’s block party season in this amazingly neighborly city. My block is so neighborly, we even had a pre-season block party last night (authentic Jamaican jerk!) to warm us up for the regular block party season, which begins next Saturday, complete with moon bounce (I always eat AFTER my turn). Anyway, if anyone has a block party secret recipe or anecdote to share, please step forward and contribute.

Craig: In the meanwhile, I’d like to get back to the fine grind of a properly roasted restaurant scene, and that means a return to the Crumb Tracker Quiz. Guess in order which three places I ate these meals at, and win a signed copy of my book (any CT’s out there who HAVEN'T gotten their books yet, please let me know!): 1) tacos al pastor – carved al fresco; 2) “Drunken” mussels in the burbs; 3) fried green tomatoes with crawfish remoulade – also in the burbs.

Cosimo in Malvern got a couple of mentions, including for its wine bar. This dish is a truffle- and grapefruit-infused Maine lobster and shrimp cocktail.

ivanka: Hi Craig I was wondering if there is any dining club in philadelphia for younger generation. I was looking la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, it seems like, you have to be invited to be member and, more middle age group then I'm interested. I love eating and learning about it, and would love to get together with people to talk and experience more about food. Thank you

Craig: Hi Ivanka - this is a great question, but one I think some of the chatters out there might be better suited to answer than I. Given my reclusive nature, I simply don't eat out in groups like these. But I know there are many, many available, both formal and informal. I know people who simply organize eating clubs among colleagues and friends - like book clubs - and make a monthly adventure. Others are more open to outsiders. It seems to me that the old line organizations like the Chaine are slowly being supplanted, at least for younger generations, by groups organized through various chat rooms like Chow Hound or eGullet. Some of these groups are wine/BYO focused, others, like the Dangerous Dining Club, focus on ethnic eats. Again, I can't speak about these in first-hand experience - except the Chaine, which I attended once about 15 years ago in Boston. My most vivid memory is the ridiculous ribbons and medals they all wore around their necks. Much more pomp than I care to wear.

Jeff: Craig, I recently watched an episode of Top Chef and a contestant used the term "chef's desserts," a term I had only heard once before when you used it in a review (you said something like "so and so restaurant offered some typical chef desserts") ... could you expand a bit on what that means?

Craig: Hi Jeff - I haven't been watching Top Chef as much as some folks, but I know what you're referring to, at least what I was referring to. This refers to restaurants where there is no one person in the kitchen dedicated to making desserts, and so the task falls upon the chef, who so often, just doesn't have the interest/time/technique/inspiration to do something special with the sweets. Thus the inevitable creme brulee, molten chocolate cakes or bread pudding. Lately, fresh-whipped sabayon has become popular. This is really quite common in the smaller restaurants that are so popular in the city - largely because staffing is tight. But savory chefs and pastry chefs are like different creatures. They think differently, and have different skills. I'm not a sweet-freak, so it's perhaps a slightly less major point for me, but a lack of great pastry chefs is one of Philly's biggest weaknesses.

Kristin: Hi Craig, yesterday we had what is probably the best gelato in the city. Bon Bon on Market Street, I think between 2d and 3d, supposedly uses authentic Italian recipes and you can tell! The hazelnut is amazing, but so are many of the other flavors e.g. tiramisu, straciatelle, chocolate etc. Oh yeah, they also serve panninis and pastries, but we filled up on the gelato so we didn't get to try those yet ... We also had dinner at L'Angolo and despite chef Davide now mostly working at their new restaurant on Walnut, the food is still as good as ever.

Craig: Hi Kristin - thanks for mentioning Bon Bon. I stopped in there just last week and was surprised to spot the gelato-mistress, Josephine Russo, who had whipped up similar frozen delights at Caffe Carmen on Moyamensing last year. They are very nice, and very traditional - and I wouldn't go so far to say they are better than Capo Giro. Still, I really enjoyed the pistachio gelato and lemon sorbetto, which was memorably creamy. I also understand the sandwiches and daily lunch specials, like lasagne, are being made over at La Famiglia.

Ed: Craig, my wife and I enjoy wine bars and have had great experiences at Tria, Vintage and Snackbar. Any other suggestions?

Craig: Ed - you've already named some pretty good ones. But you should also definitely try Ristorante Panorama, which is probably the mother of all wine bars, with a system that has something like 100 wines available by the glass - many of them rather upscale. Other places to consider are Ansill, Amada/Tinto/Bar Ferdinand (for Spanish), XIX, Rae, Penne, and Fork. Also, in the burbs, you should definitely consider Cosimo (which I just reviewed), Domaine Hudson (in Wilmington), and Kitchen 233 in Westmont, N.J.

Liz: what are your thoughts on well prepared short ribs for a wedding menu entree? seems to be a trend recently.

Craig: Liz - I haven't been to many weddings lately, so I can't comment on the trend. Also, it always depends on who's doing the cooking, right? That said, shortribs should be a nice, almost foolproof item to offer for a fall/winter wedding. It's a little heavy for warm season eating, I think. But you won't have to worry about whether you're guests are getting their filet or lamb chops cooked just perfectly medium-rare.

John Ryan: Can you recommend an avenue to aspiring food critics to get their start?

Craig: John - I'm sure there are many different paths to becoming a restaurant critic, whether you earn your journalism chops before your food knowledge, or vice versa. I'm not sure it matters which comes first. The most important thing is to begin your eating education, be a diligent reporter, and start writing for anyone who will publish you, build upon those clips and work your way up to better opportunities. I started after going to cooking school for weekly publications and the city magazine in Boston, bounced into graduate j-school and mainstream newspaper journalism and general assignment writing for a while, and then came back to full-time food criticism at a bigger paper in New Orleans. Right time, right place with the right background. All of those early experiences, though, were crucial stepping stones. Not to mention a lot of fun.

KL (west chester): I enjoyed reading your review of Cosimo in Malvern. I mentioned it in a previous chat, and you thought it was a bit far out, but we do have good stuff in the burbs! Had a nice dinner at Limoncello in West Chester, another BYO/

Craig: KL - very little is too far for me if it's tasty. And in Cosimo's case, it was worth getting to. They have an impressive by-the-glass wine program, and an ambitious kitchen, as well. Service is another story, but still, I found it worthwhile. As for Limoncello, I haven't been yet. Wanna share details?

Mark: Since you mentioned Bar Ferdinand, my wife and I went there with friends this weekend and loved it. How does Amada compare in terms of food, atmosphere and price? Second related question, what are your thoughts on sangria with a meal? We really enjoyed it at Bar Ferdinand, and wanted to know if you had recommendations for good sangria. Thanks.

Craig: Hi Mark - I like Bar Ferdinand very much, but find it to be a solid notch less ambitious - from a culinary standpoint, at least - than Amada or Tinto. I've sometimes referred to it as Amada Lite. In many ways, though, that isn't a bad thing. The food is a bit more traditionally minded than Amada's, which takes plenty of creative liberties. It's less fussy, but also less exquisite. Still, it's also more affordable, and the space is just beautiful. Very much a stylish, casual hang-out - rather than a special occasion destination - to go with friends for a good glass of vino and a tortilla espanola, steamed cockles and sliced chorizo.

Marty: Hi Craig. I recently purchased a variety of cheeses from Downtown Cheese in RTM for gift for some family we were staying with this past weekend. The cheese was excellent but I spent more than I wanted to. I asked the woman working there for some recommendations and she suggested the most expensive cheeses there. I chalked it up as a loss but I was wondering if you could offer some advice for politely refusing someones suggestions. I tried to say no to some of her suggestions but I felt like I was pressured in by the woman and another member of the staff.

Craig: Marty - I can understand your dilemma, as I routinely drop more money than I intended to on cheese (not just at Downtown, but also DiBruno's). On the one hand, none of these cheeses should be pre-sliced and packaged (unlike some supermarkets), so the final price is a mystery until cash-out. Then again, it's OK for you to be explicit with the counterperson helping you about what your budget is. That should allow them to give you advice that won't hurt too much in the end. As for samples, you should by no means feel obligated to buy everything you taste. That is just the best part of the experience - the learning part - and if the store does it well, they will leave you with a lingering taste in your mouth of something else to buy, and a reason to return.

KL (west chester): Limoncello is a somewhat new BYO on downtown WC, rather small, in an old rowhouse. I think in used to be a Domino's, so there was only one way to go, and that is up. Had a really good appetizer of clams and mussels in a garlic white wine sauce. Wild mushroom stuffed agnolotti in a cream sauce. Excellent tiramisu for dessert (and tiramisu is not my favorite).

Craig: Thanks for the report, KL. I'll have to head out to West Chester as soon as this chat ends! Just kidding. But Limoncello's on the check-out list now.

John: I had some gelato at Shriver's @ Ocean City and thought it was tasty. I don't get much chance to try gelato so I'd like to know if you are able to compare their gelato to the others mentioned earlier (i.e., Capo Giro). Also do you know of any good gelato up here in Bucks County?

Craig: John - I wrote about Shriver's new gelato shop when they opened last summer ('06) and found it to be quite worthwhile, considering the soft-serve competition. Still, gelato on the boardwalk isn't an easy sell. I recall the owner telling me that many customers thought the traditional pistachio looked like "creamed spinach." Not surprisingly, though, they were being churned in high-end imported machines, their most popular flavors, he said, were "Cookie Monster" and "Peanut Butter Cup."

Jeff: Any reason N. 3rd didn't make your somewhat long list of best burgers in the area? I know tastes vary, but this has been a fairly well received burger by a lot of places and you also complimented it in your review, albeit 2 years ago.

Craig: Jeff - I believe that might have been an oversight, or just the product of the fact that I hadn't been back to N. 3rd in a long while. All the burgers mentioned in my Burgermania roundup were eaten within months of pub-time, and I think I ate like 60 or more sandwiches. So you can imagine I missed a few. N. 3d makes a good one to be sure, and it probably would have made my Honorable Mention list if I'd revisited. That said, I don't think it's quite as distinctive or unique as Honey's Sit'n'Eat patty melt, which I believe represents well for the Northern Liberties crew.

Michelle: Crumb Tracker - 1) the Food Trust Farmers Market at Headhouse Square, 2) Theresa's Next Door, 3) Carmine's Creole Cafe.

Craig: Michelle - it's awfully late to start in on the Crumb Tracker quiz (where have you all been?), but you did get the first two correct. Not enough for a book, but nice job. I was thrilled to find one of my favorite Ninth Street taquerias, Los Taquitos de Puebla, slicing tacos al pastor - chile marinated pork cooked on a gyro spit. (I loved how the chef would chip a piece of the pineapple turning atop the skewer, flip it through the air and catch it on each taco! What showmanship! And delicious, too). Yes, Teresa's served up a mighty fine bowl of mussels, Mexicanized with chorizo, then Belgianized with some abbey dubbel ale. (See review on Sept. 23). As for No. 3, I ate that delightful dish at Ted's on Main, the new hotspot in Medford talked of in a chat last month. Can't give many details yet, but it was a very nice first bite.

Craig: And with that, I'm going to call this chat perfectly cooked. Thanks to everyone who persevered through some early techno-problems with the question link, and still managed to send me some great queries. Hopefully next week, we'll start the Crumb Tracker early and crown a new winner. Until then, be well, and eat something worth bragging about!