Friday, April 18, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Phila. celebrity chefs, Restaurant Week peeves

Back from Maine, Craig LaBan has lobster stories to tell.
Back from Maine, Craig LaBan has lobster stories to tell.

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

 Reader: Gut feeling, how do you think Tryst will be received?

C.L.: I've been out of town since Tryst opened as a replacement for Le Bar Lyonnais below Le Bec, so obviously, I haven't had a chance yet to visit. I think it's a good idea to give Le Bec a fresh draw - even downstairs - and chef Nicholas Elmi certainly has the talent worth highlighting. Lyonnais was a great spot for well-cooked bistro classics (quenelles, steak frites, etc.) but I always found it dark and claustrophobic. I'm glad they've brightened it up. Not sure at all about that name ... but we shall see.

Reader: What's with the sudden surge in celebrity chefs coming out of Philly? Sbraga, Garces, Battaglia, et al.?

C.L.: What I think you're seeing is now that the reality TV phenomenon has reached a certain age, there are just more of these so-called celebrity chefs out there, and some of them happen to be in Philly. Not that long ago, you needed to actually run a successful restaurant before becoming a celebrity chef. That's how Garces did it - and surprisingly not that long ago - before he became so big on the tube that he's now battling chicken puppets on Sprout TV. Anyway, I don't know much yet about Ed Battaglia, who recently opened a steak place in Haddonfield called Ralic's. But my impression was that Hell's Kitchen as a show collected chefs who were cherry-picked to be abused by Gordon Ramsay (that is, serious kitchen chops not required). Ed might be an exception (we'll see), but Top Chef, which crowned Kevin Sbraga its champ last season, is more of a chef-to-watch kind of show. And even though Sbraga has cooked with some of the best restaurant groups around here (Perrier, Starr, Garces, Ritz-Carlton, etc.), he has still never run his own place. I'm looking forward to it, though. Sbraga (in the former Chew Man Chu) should be one of the big openings this fall. And then we shall taste how much reality on the plate these reality TV chefs can actually bring.

Reader: During Irene I hunkered down with a dozen blue crabs, potato salad, and some Troegs.

C.L.: That sounds like an excellent plan ... especially the Troegs. (Ommegang, a while back, put out a beer called Ommegeddon that would have been thematically perfect for sipping as the beastly storm rushed in!)

Reader: With Restaurant Week fast approaching, do you have any recommendations of places to try out this time around?

C.L.: Is it Restaurant Week time ... again?! As chatters know, this is about my least favorite time of year, when restaurants roll out their cheap menus to draw in hordes they're ill-equipped to serve properly (and those RW diners too often come with outsized expectations - so it can be a bad setup all around). In general, I'd say avoid Restaurant Week if you care about getting good service (South Jersey, the 'burbs, West Philly, South Philly, etc., are great places to dine about then). That said, this might be a good opportunity to try out a nice place for $35 to see if it deserves a return visit at full price. Zama's one I'd give a try, as the menu looks substantial. This is also one of the few times a year that Zahav is open for lunch (very much worth a visit). Four courses for $35 at Zinc is also a good bet (lobster mise-en-bouche, braised lamb shank, house pate). ... Stick with the "Z" restaurants and you should be fine.

Reader: Really enjoyed a meal at Quahog in Stone Harbor. Are there other places that capture that "shack" style (and taste good) down the Shore?

C.L.: No, not really - and I don't know why. There is Allen's Clam Bar in New Gretna, the Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co., and a few other steamed lobster/clam places - but not nearly enough considering the natural bounty out there at chefs' disposal. Every wharf in Maine and Cape Cod has a seafood shack effortlessly nailing the shellfish and steamers. Why can't we do it here? I do not know, but hope it changes ... soon!

Reader: Do you think you possibly held Frankford Hall to too high a standard? Doesn't seem like it's aspiring to that.

C.L.: Not at all. I've reviewed many beer bars, gastropubs, and German restaurants in this town and held them all to a reasonably high standard - why should Starr's beer garden be any different? The fact that Starr has landed in Fishtown with such a splash is, in itself, a cultural event worth checking into, as Frankford Hall draws hundreds of new diners to the neighborhood each night. And I loved the space, the vibe, the beers, the schnapps, the ping pong table, even the sausages, though they were brought in from Illg's (not made in-house). There seemed to be no reason for the rest of the food to be so disappointing, other than a lack of ambition/effort, which I think is really, really unlike Starr's group. They may say, "This was never intended to be a serious restaurant," but I think it was a lost opportunity, for sure.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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