Craig LaBan chat: The critic recovers from an upset stomach

Transcript of Craig LaBan's online chat from Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012:

Craig LaBan: Good afternoon, my hungry friends, and welcome back to our weekly cyber-tour through the highlights (and occasional low-bites) of the Philly food scene. How are you all feeling today? I'm just grateful to be here sitting upright, frankly, considering the illness that struck me early Monday morning. I wouldn't pin it to any particular thing I ate. But a particularly unfortunate string of bad meals this weekend may have weakened my usually cast-iron constitution. I'm so used to eating well in Philly, a cluster of bum meals can upset the finely-tuned balance. I'll be sharing a couple of those in today's Crumb Tracker Quiz a bit later (hooray! It's 'low-bite' week!) But to what do I owe my swift recovery? Good old-school Lipton Cup-A-Soup with Saltines crackers, a flashback to childhood sick days that still, even for this critic, was the perfect comeback tonic. What is your ultimate get-better food?

It wasn't all bad this week, by a long stretch. Had a great family get-together meal at Vietnam Café in West Philly (Chinatown was too jammed this weekend. . .), that got fired-up with this Volcano, an old tiki favorite that is a great reminder that cocktails don't have to be "craft" to be fun.

In our unofficial quest for the best local pot pies, we fired up a quad of golden-crusted beauties from Le Bus . Nice center of finely diced veggies and meat, and good homemade flavor, too, though I would have liked a richer gravy (this one was a little broken.) No, it wasn't the ultimate rendition, but at $6.59 a pie, it's a good value for the quality.

I got a chance to visit Wursethaus Schmitz, the new Reading Terminal sausage stand from the Brauhaus crew. It's not serving hot sandwiches yet for another week or so until they get their stove hood approved. But they have an excellent selection of housemade sausages, salads and sides (as well as a wall of imported German ingredients, like curry ketchup). And I picked up a quart of their restaurant-made spaetzle, which I pan-fried at home (in a little butter) to go with some wonderful grass-fed steaks and tender pork chops from Wyebrook Farms in Chester County.

What have you all been up to since we last chatted? I'm curious to hear what's on your minds and plates. We can talk about Sunday's two-bell review of The Industry in Pennsport. I was also interested to see that NoBL, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago (a bit less favorably) has already temporaily closed for a much-needed "reboot."

In the meanwhile, let's get to today's Crumb Tracker Quiz. A couple of these dishes, I actually liked. Be the first to name all three places I ate them in order, and win a prize: 1) country ham and bean soup; 2) collard croquettes; 3) "Gabagool" burger. . . Ready, set. . . start crumbing!

Hi Craig! Did you have a chance to watch David Chang's Mind of a Chef last week? PBS aired 4 episodes in a I have a hankering for some ramen - with all of the new places in Philly, where do you suggest?

Craig: I didn't see that, as I don't get a chance to watch much food TV, though I'm a David Chang fan, in general. From our current wave of ramen spots, my favorites so far are Nom Nom on 18th just south of Market, and the new-ish Terakawa, which just replaced Ramen Boy in Chinatown. Recently wrote a GoodTaste feature on that - a very worthwhile replacement.

Tommy C.: Hi Craig, my old friend Bobby M and myself have been arguing for a while over which Italian restaurant is tops in Philly, he says Le Castagne. In my opinion Osteria wins "handily" any chance you can settle this bet?

Craig: Haven't been to Le Castagne in way too long, though my wife recently went for its Restaurant Week lunch, and gave it good marks. She knows her stuff, so I'm eager to return. Putting it in the same category as Osteria, though, might be a little optimistic. Others that might land there, or close: Le Virtu, Melograno, Il Pittore...

Guest: When will current craze of organ meats go seams like very restaurant is trying to serve tongue, bone marrow, chicken liver, sweetbreads....or am I just imaging this?

Craig: You are not imagining it. Indeed, we are in a golden age of offal - just look at some of my most recent reviews and you'll see chefs are challenging themselves (and diners) with everything from Buffalo-spiced sweetbreads (Industry) to brain Milanese (El Rey) and whole pig heads (Alla Spina). This has been percolating for a while, beginning with chefs like David Ansill at his now-closed Pif (and I understand he's bringing this a bit to his current spot at Bar Ferdinand, where he's revamped the menu). It's become far more commonplace now as chefs become more hip to the nose-to-tail movement, and diners become more appreciative. And it isn't all about shock value. When they're done well, a good slice of grilled veal tongue, or a rich roasted marrow bone, is a true indulgence. I've come to think of a bowl of pho as naked without some frilly tripe.

2:12: Do they serve beer at Wursthaus? Would love to drink two beers at once there.

Craig: Unfortunately, not at the Market. For brews, you'll have to go to Molly Molloy's nearby, though I'm not sure they'll let you bring food in. If you're craving good German brews with your wurst, best to head to the actual Brauhaus itself on South Street.

Tony: I am a big fan of Little Fish's Sunday Tasting Menu dinners. . .have gone four times over the past year and would like to branch out a little, though I have been disappointed with a couple others I won't mention here. What are your comments on the prixe fixe/tasting menu concept and would you recommend any such destinations in Center City?

Craig: Tony - tasting menus, especially well-priced menus in the $35-$45 range, are among the best trends of the past few years. There are lots to mention, from the $35 "turista" at Modo Mio, to the $40 sunday meal at Will BYOB (which I'm reviewing this Sunday...) Chatters, do you have any other favorites you'd like to mention?

beaunehead: Speaking of Wyebrook farms...what do you think of their pork...and why? We went out there in September and brought back several products...being charmed by the Ossabaw/Berkshire promise. But, we weren't all that impressed...they were pretty chewy. Maybe we don't understand what the product is really supposed to be, but we were not impressed, though it won't stop us from going back for another try.

Craig: Yes, Wyebrook uses a number of different heritage-breed pigs for its pork, including the Ossabaw, which has its roots in a pig from Georgia.. I found the pork chops to be really excellent, not tough at all, and full of flavor. The bacon on the other hand - that was a little chewy. I suspect it has to do with their curing recipe, which may not have cured long enough to tenderize... but I really liked the flavor on that bacon. A little less smoky than some, but with a very good, lingering savor. Here's a bit more on the Ossabaw:

22nd&Philly: abagool burger from Kris? Looks good...

Craig: You are correct on #3, 22&P, and it DID look good. Unfortunately, our recent meal at Kris was overall a big disappointment. Back in the day, Kristian's was one of the best restaurants in South Philly, a real favorite (made my books as such.) So I was really excited when Kristian Leuzzi decided to reopen with a more affordable concept. The weekend service staff, though, was just atrocious - slow, eye-rolling, huffing at the slightest request (more bread please? "I'll see if they have any left back there." He never found any...) And our food was really not very good at all - the rigatoni Bolognese was artless, with too much tomato; the flatbread was just flat-out burnt; the fettuccine was drenched in oil and lacking any trace of the advertised truffle cheese; and the "Gabagool" burger - a great name paying homage to the South Philly dialect for 'capicola', which is homemade here - just didn't work... the burger was way overcooked, the capicola cooked to leather; the patty seems to have even been partially sliced open to check for doneness - and they still put it on the bun even though it was too gray for medium-rare. At the end of our meal, we - and pretty much the rest of the dining room - was looking around for someone (anyone!) to step up and help us out, fill a water glass, deliver the food, the check, and maybe even inquire whether or not we liked our meal... no such luck.

Craig: Thanksgiving chefs: if you're looking for a novel approach to the turkey this year, other than my grilled method, you might consider this intriguing NYT piece on Jacques Pepin's turkey method - STEAM.

beaunehead: Have you tried Pizza Brain in Fishtown? Great concept..a pizza museum (I went out and bought a pizza clock after visiting.) Good pizza in a sort of New Haven style, I think. And, an ice cream place next door (Little Baby's: pricy but pretty good despite the price.)....Hope the pizza fantatics/lunatics at that place get rewarded for all their creativity and passion. Quite an experience..and good pizza, too.

Craig: What a fun place Pizza Brain is... though I'm not sure I'd go as far to call it New Haven-style, which really requires one of those ancient, room-sized coal-fired ovens... you'll be hearing more from me on Pizza Brain in the future.

indy: Just read your how-to recipe for barbequed turkey and forwarded it to my son. Can you also share recipe for brining? Thanks

Craig: The brine recipe is on that link, as well, just under my instructions for cooking the turkey... keep scrolling down!

Tony: We also used to love the paella at Garces Trading Company. . .came with rabbit! But they stopped offering that dish a while back and we've been hesitant to blind test an alternative. Even made our own last week, which was ok. . .though we couldn't find fresh peas anywhere this time of year so had to go frozen. So, question: who's got a reliable, quality paella?

Craig: Sorry to hear Garces Trading Co. has stopped offering its Friday paellas. His other places - Amada, in particular - are still your best bet for a top notch paella. Haven't had Bar Ferdinand's since Ansill took over. Strangely, our other good Spanish place - Jamonera - which I otherwise liked quite a bit, does not really do paella. On the topic of paella at home... frozen peas are totally acceptable. In fact, unless you carefully par-cook the fresh peas, the frozen variety are often more reliable for the finished product.

beaunehead:I'm wondering whether one has to look at the heritage-breed, free range pork different from the industrial stuff we all know best? Free-range anything can be pretty lean and sinewy. And, I doubt they feast on the acorns that their ancestors in Spain thrive on. I will certainly give it another try, as the concept is a great one....and seeing those contented, yet suspicious (and rightfully so) pigs running around out there leads me to believe that the meat could be really special.

Craig: That is absolutely correct, beaunehead. The same is true for "grass-fed" beef, which has considerably more chew than the buttery, grain-fed cattle we've all grown-up on. It has more of an earthy, minerally flavor, too, that isn't for everyone. Some of the heritage pork has a deeper, richer color, too, almost beefy in tone. We're so used to that bland "other white meat" passing off as pork, it's understandable that there will be an adjustment of expectations as people discover other breeds of pork on their table.

Tony: My go-to sickness elixir is red lentil soup and gatorade. And lots of zinc! Pizza Brain would be better if the "museum" wasn't the size of a coat closet. I considered it a bit of a bait-and-switch, frankly.

Craig: Wow - that sounds like a good prescription for a rainy day, but not a sensitive stomach. I'd worry about too much spice and flavor in the lentil soup. But a big thumbs-up on the Gatorade. Better than water in the early stages...

As for Pizza Brain, I do agree with you - the "museum" aspect is a bit overblown. Makes one think that anyone can get into the Guinness book if you just come up with a weird little niche no one has attempted before.. that said, it could become one of those self-fulfilling prophesies. I think the collection has grown considerably since the place even opened, next thing you know, they'll be commissioning I.M. Pei(zza) to design the new wing...

Bill Nolan: I am looking to deep fry a turkey this year, the instructions calls for peanut oil. Do I have any other options? Is the oil reusable?

Craig: Frying oil, in general, is always best when clean... so, the more you use it, the more it has difficulty holding its temperature. You may find it a flavorful oil to cook with afterwards - sauteeing, not frying. But I think it's it's pretty much "cooked" when that bird is done.

rick: My wife and I are taking my parents to the Society Hill Playhouse for a 2pm show on Saturday for my dad's birthday, and I was thinking about taking them to Blue Belly BBQ or Monsu. Which place would you recommend, and if neither what would be an ideal lunch spot? I know it is a broad question.

Craig: Two completely different experiences - Blue Belly is small, mostly counter seating (though there's a few tables), with inventive nouveau bbq takes on sandwiches and meat platters; Monsu is a more traditional restaurant set-up, with zesty Sicilian-inspired cooking. Untraditional in its approach, but a more familiar set-up, perhaps, to take the parents. My vote is for Monsu.

rick: I made a great bolognese on Sunday using pancetta from DiBruno's, a ground meat mixture from Cannuli's using chuck, veal, and pork, San marzano tomatoes, beef stock, milk, and a basic soffrito. Simmered it for 4 hours and had Superior pasta freshly made fettucini and it was delicious.

Craig: That sounds great, rick, and reminds me that I'm long overdue for my annual vat of Mario Batali's bolognese, which sounds fairly close to what you cooked. Make a batch of that, and you'll see why the version I ate at Kris seemed so lacking (especially for $19 a plate.)

sully: I had the rib eye at barclay prime last was one of the best steaks I have ever had....would you rank it in the top 3 steak houses in philly?

Craig: Well, I'm really glad to hear you had a good experience at Barclay, which, prior to my revisit earlier this year (prepping for the 4-bell package) was my favorite steakhouse in town. Revisit was a big disappointment, with a ribeye that wasn't just burnt (apparently, chef slathered it with butter), but had been switched from the dry-aged cut we'd all come to know and love and swapped with a cheaper wet-aged beef. Since then, there's been a change in the kitchen and a return of the old dry-aged cut.

Comment From eml: My go-to sickness food is my mom's matzoh ball soup. At various holidays she makes up way more than needed and then portions out the extra for everyone's freezers...the best medicine ever!!

Craig: Agreed. If only I'd been able to crawl to Schlesinger's or Famous Deli, I probably would have been hugging a matzo ball. Cup-a-soup was a good first step in that direction.

ChesCo: Can you recommend a Mexican restaurant in Chester County? Thank you!

Craig: Sure... Taqueria Moroleon in Avondale (old-school survivor, good for gringos and Mexicans), and La Pena in Kennett Square (as authentic as it gets). Don't forget to visit La Michoacana Homemade Ice Cream in Kennett Square afterwards for some sweet corn or mango ice cream dusted with chile and canella.

Michael G: On a recent Saturday night 6 of us tried to get sushi in Center City without a reservation at about 7pm. Zama none till 11, Morimoto none at all, Sushi Vic would mean we kicked out everyone else. So we ended up at Shiroi Hana which is a decent place but it's never busy which scares me for a sushi place. Do you like Shiroi Hana?

Craig: I like the idea of Shiroi Hana. I like the look of Shiroi Hana. It's a surivor that's been a Center City staple for sushi for a long time. I'm just never wowed by what I'm served at Shiroi Hana - it's adequate, but not exciting.

stephen: Any suggestions for empanadas in Center City or nearby?

Craig: Gavin's, the Argentinean cafe off Pine Street near the Schuylkill River Park, is a great destination for empanadas. So is the Zea Mayes food truck, often at LOVE Park. And maybe the most underrated empanada joint in town? Sketch burgers in Fishtown.. they're doing unconventional things (seitan empanadas, etc.) but very very good.

arak: Curious to get your take on the HBO show Treme. Specifically, how you think the show has depicted the struggling chef played by Kim Dickens.

Craig: As a former Nola resident, I'm a big fan of Treme for all the reasons you'd expect - its devotion to the city's food and music scene. More importantly, I think the show has finally hit its strongest season in terms of writing - the characters and story lines are so much tighter this year. And that includes Kim's character, Janette Desautel, as the talented female chef, exiled for a while by Katrina to her parents' Midwestern home, then to D. Chang's NY kitchen, where she's recruited back to NOLA to open a new place. She's a real composite of a lot of NOLA chefs I know, from Susan Spicer to Anne Kearney, but so much more complex than a mere tribute. She's believable. I love her inner-struggles with art and opportunity (she seems genuinely creeped out by a benefactor who seems to be living down to her worst expectations as a sleazeball owner), her confused relationships (sleeping with sous-chef, ex-lover Davis).. and yet, she's so likable. Her Sazerac-tossing scene in Season One, taking revenge on GQ critic Alan Richman for his post-Katrina smackdown piece of New Orleans, is legendary.

Jeff: I had a pretty bad cold last week, and some pork and pickled vegetable soup from Han Dynasty seemed to fix me up pretty well. A good pho or Bun Bo Hue can do the job too, as can Sang Kee's roast pork noodle soup. But I can actually see the retro appeal of Liptons!

Craig: Love all of those soups you mention, but again, I think the extra flavors would have been too much for Step One consumption..... also, I think a cold calls for different medicine than a stomach ailment...

Jeff: REALLY good empanadas out in the burbs - in Fraser, of all places - at a little strip-mall place called Mi Pais. They have a pretty extensive menu of Columbian food, but I can never resist a couple of empanadas...

Michael G: I smoke a turkey for an outdoor weekend music camping thing I go to 2 times a year. I use a brine of bourbon, orange and honey but am open to try another brine. do you have any suggestions?

Craig: Those fancy brines always sound so appealing, Michael G, but they also sound like a bit of waste of good bourbon. I question how much a spirit in the brine can really affect the flavor - more likely, they add an oaky vanilla note to the skin. I like a good simple brine infused with plenty of herbs, frankly, and you'll see that on the link I posted earlier. You'll get more bang for your bourbon buck with a glaze or sauce at the finish.

Risa: Collard Croquettes from Hot Diggity & Ham and Bean Soup from Dutch Eating Place in Reading??

Craig: With time running short... Risa nails the final answers to today's Crumb Tracker Quiz! Email me your mailing address ( so I can send you your prize! Yes, the Dutch Eating Place in the RTM is a great stop for cold-weather souping, especially this classic ham and bean soup. Hearty, homemade and delicious. Pair that with a plate of their roast turkey and gravy, and you're good for whatever cold November and December can throw at you.

As for Hot Diggity, we LOVED these collard croquettes, whose bright green centers were also blended with Brussels sprouts, bacon and ricotta cheese. Really addictive. What surprised me, though, was how much I did not like their hot dogs on this return visit - -the dogs themselves seemed a bit mushy, and the pile-it-on themed toppings were just too clumsy, and sometimes weird. All of us had a strangely bitter aftertaste that lingered after our dogs. And what was I thinking ordering a hot dog slathered in cream cheese (the Seattle Grunge)? I'll try anything once. But I've filled my quota there. That said, HD seems to be most talented with its fryer. Aside from the croquettes, they are easily one of my candidates for best fries in Philly.. take a look at these beautiful spuds!

Craig: Well, we're running over today, and I still haven't gotten to nearly enough your questions. The comment cue was exceptionally long. Thanks to everyone who came and participated, but sorry to anyone whose comments and questions didn't make this chat. But I'll be back next week for more, so come and ask early. In the meanwhile, here's to a more satisfying week of eating for me, and an even better seven days for you. Until then, may you all be well and eat something worth bragging about!