Craig LaBan's Year in Bells

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At Fork, chef Eli Kulp's duck feast for two features a whole Muscovy duck cooked Peking style with Sichuan-pepper glaze, accompanied by (clockwise, from lower left) duck meatballs simmered in a Venetian agrodolce, duck confit with broccoli rabe and sourdough croutons, and duck hearts grilled and sliced with duck prosciutto.

This was the year of the out-of-towners, as chefs from around the country arrived to make this city their new home. And Philadelphians responded in kind, hungrily embracing these fresh talents.

Among the brightest were a pair of stars from New York, Peter Serpico and my Chef of the Year, Eli Kulp, formerly of Torrisi Italian Specialties, who took an already great restaurant in Fork and, with owner Ellen Yin, helped bring it to an even more relevant level. His knack for unexpected combos and rustic techniques (offbeat pastas, fermenting, charcuterie) produced grand presentations like his whole-duck feast - a multi-part poultry masterpiece that was among the best birds (and meatballs) I've ever eaten.

Serpico partnered with Stephen Starr to create the year's Best New Restaurant in Serpico, the handsomely dark showplace where the perfectionist chef from Momofuku is challenging the notion that Philadelphians won't eat cutting-edge food (and on South Street, no less.) From his fried duck-leg buns to the Cope's corn ravioli, raw scallops in buttermilk, or exquisitely complex dashi, all belong on my long list of favorite bites from the year.

It was a homecoming for Philly native Joncarl Lachman, who returned from Chicago to produce some other memorable flavors at Noord Eetcafe, such as char-grilled Dutch breads, creamy bitterballen croquettes, and mustard soup.

The single greatest morsel - Brad Spence's brilliant rotolo - came from the wood-fired realm of Pizzeria Vetri, the best of a bumper crop of artisan 'za-makers this year. And the rotolo isn't even a pizza. But this crunchy-edged pinwheel of pizza dough coiled up with mortadella and ricotta, then topped with pistachio pesto, incited moans of wonder every time.

Sublime delicacy was the word for the poached oysters lavished with chowder cream at Fitler Dining Room in the sharp debut of talented Rob Marzinsky. The soulful corned beef at Lansdowne's Avenue Delicatessen - even better stuffed into "Reuben arancini" for Laura Frangiosa's multiculti mash-up - was just a tasty hint of the many Jewish flavors, from pastrami spice to schmaltz, suddenly seasoning mainstream plates.

At Fraschetta, Melograno's new Roman sibling in Bryn Mawr, Gianluca Demontis' house-cured lamb-belly pancetta elevated traditional carbonara to hauntingly memorable, with a distinctive personal tweak. Speaking of lamb, I can still smell the cumin spice wafting from the hot skewers at Xi'an Sizzling Woks, one of several kitchens adding more regional diversity to Chinatown's menus.

There were other thrilling international revelations, like bitter flower salad and prah-hok kahteeh, a crudite with funky fermented ground pork dip at Khmer Kitchen, in the vanguard of first-generation Cambodian flavors stepping this year into Philadelphia's melting-pot spotlight. More authentic Indian cooking also made strides in 2013, both with crunchy chaat salads (Indeblue, Tiffin Bistro) and the wicked sour spice of Indochinese fusion - gobi Manchurian and chili paneer - at Exton's Indian Hut, a counter-sevice mini-chain serving Indian expats working tech jobs in the far western burbs.

Favorite dessert? The warm maple bread pudding scooped tableside onto maple ice cream for the homey finale of a seasonal tasting menu dinner at Aimee Olexy's Talula's Daily. Bless the server who left the rest of the pudding pan on our table, just in case we wanted leftovers.

Yeah. You bet I did. But with star chefs already lining up with new projects - Justin Bogle, Jose Garces, Vetri, Kevin Sbraga, Josh Lawler, Pierre Calmels, George Sabatino, among others - I'm already saving room for 2014.

What follows is a summary of the restaurants reviewed this year. As always, there were second chances and revisits to a handful of restaurants to check for improvement.

I went back to four places that seemed within striking distance of a rating change. Good news: one stepped up a notch from the "No Bells" basement (the St. James), and another (Citron + Rose) at least held steady after a major chef change. There were no new four bells restaurants reviewed this year.

 

EXCELLENT (three bells)

 

Fette Sau

1208 Frankford Ave., 215-391-4888; fettesauphilly.com

The barbecue gods have finally smiled on Philly with a serious pit worth celebrating. This Fishtown branch of Joe Carroll's Brooklyn 'cue shrine was imported by partner Stephen Starr, who has built a vast hipster shack beside Frankford Hall, where sublimely smoked, coffee-rubbed meats (including don't-miss short ribs) are sliced by the pound with an epic American whiskey collection to wash it down. Paired with a great blues soundtrack and the perfect casual vibe, with communal seating for groups, this is serious barbecue as a complete experience, and a new standard-bearer in a genre that's long been a city weak point. Reviewed Feb. 3.

Fitler Dining Room

2201 Spruce St. 215-732-3331; fitlerdiningroom.com

There's magic in this tiny corner room at 22d and Spruce Streets, and the crew from Pub & Kitchen has found it with an elegant new bistro that is the third consecutive tenant to earn three bells, following Melograno and Meme. Chef Rob Marzinsky makes a notable Philadelphia debut with New American fare that channels seasonality through compellingly focused ideas and refined technique. The owners should continue adding more comfort to the stylish but noisy space. But they've already created a gem that, with an ambitious wine list, is among the most complete restaurants to launch this year. Reviewed May 19.

Fond

1537 S. 11th St. (at Tasker and East Passyunk), 215-551-5000; fondphilly.com

Little Fond is growing up, as chef Lee Styer; his pastry chef-wife, Jessie Prawlucki; and charming host-co-owner Tory Keomanivong move from their tiny BYO box to an airy corner space nearby, with a liquor license beside the Singing Fountain. The sophisticated cooking, fine desserts, and service benefit from the added comfort. The starter bar has some nice, affordable wines, but still needs polish with cocktails. And bottle-bringers shouldn't feel jilted: BYO is still free during the week, with a $10 corkage per bottle on weekends. Reviewed March 17.

Fork

306 Market St., 215-625-9425; forkrestaurant.com

Proprietor Ellen Yin has done the improbable: recovered from losing a star chef by recruiting New York talent Eli Kulp, whose spectacular whole-animal feasts and Italian-inflected fare has actually made Fork even better. Add a gorgeous, new mural (painted by longtime waiter Anthony DeMelas), ever-stellar service, and a smart drink program, and Fork remains one of Philly's best all-purpose, grown-up restaurants - but one now with genuine potential to someday reach even greater heights. Reviewed Jan. 6.

Fraschetta

816 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr; 610-525-1007.

Gianluca Demontis and Rosemarie Tran have opened a suburban sibling to Melograno, their long-running Italian BYOB hit in Center City. The bi-level Bryn Mawr space has rustic accents, solid service, and an intimacy that also gets very noisy. But the Roman-born Demontis' ode to his hometown is infused with the same special touch that renders simple, authentic memorable. The only question: How long before Main Liners realize what a gem they now have cooking alla Romana in their own backyard? Reviewed Oct. 6.

Noord Eetcafe

1046 Tasker St. (at 11th St.), 267-909-9704; noordphilly.com

After a decade and two restaurants in Chicago, native Philadelphian Joncarl Lachman makes his homecoming count with an intimate, Dutch-influenced bistro off East Passyunk's Singing Fountain that captures the best of our BYO scene. Lachman's "eetcafe" eschews trendy "new Nordic" cuisine for a more rustic take on Northern European cooking, from house-baked barley bread to rabbit smothered in zuurkool, and the soulful flavors trump any lack of flash in a simple corner room that exudes clean elegance and personal service. Reviewed Aug. 11.

Pizzeria Vetri

1939 Callowhill St., 215-600-2629; pizzeriavetri.com

Grab a seat at a communal table or counter, because Italian maestro Marc Vetri and company (chefs Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence and pizza master Manny Perez) have delivered an authentically inspired pizzeria that sets the bar, from consistently excellent toppings and a complex crust with more chew than softer, traditional Neapolitan doughs, to a concise but exciting drink list, and an all-around lively, casual vibe. But be forewarned: The tiny, 30-seat space with no reservations is considerably less enjoyable during peak hours. Reviewed Dec. 1.

Serpico

604 South St., 215-925-3001; serpicoonsouth.com

Peter Serpico's chef-owner debut marks the most exciting new restaurant this year, a handsome dark box of a room illuminated by a gleaming open kitchen and counter, where diners watch the former Momofuku Ko chef and his team create modern American cuisine at its best. At once edgy and beautiful, Serpico's food uses contemporary techniques without overshadowing good taste. Partner Stephen Starr deserves props for giving Serpico free rein - and South Street revival hope. Reviewed Sept. 29.

Talula's Daily

208 W. Washington Square, 215-592-6555; talulasdaily.com

It's all Talula's all the time since Aimee Olexy opened Talula's Daily, a gourmet market-cafe (and cheese-aholic paradise) to complement her Talula's Garden restaurant on Washington Square. This completes Olexy's city-country suite with a mirror to the original Talula's Table concept in Kennett Square, as the quick-serve market morphs at night into $50 set-menu suppers that change monthly. Though half as many courses as the Table's exclusive tastings, they are more accessible and affordable, and a more intimate counterpoint to the Garden next door. Reviewed Nov. 17.

VERY GOOD  (two bells)

Agricola

11 Witherspoon St., Princeton, 609-921-2798; agricolaeatery.com

A fine-dining Princeton anachronism has been replaced by the hottest new thing, as a farm-to-table open kitchen (with an actual farm connection) steps into the prime Tiger void left by 91-year-old Lahiere's. French Laundry vet Josh Thomsen succeeds with appealing dishes that pay simple tribute to the ingredients, and the space is handsome despite its clichés, from the pickle wall to the "Thank a Farmer" tribute to daily greens. Maintaining strong service for such a high-volume dining room, though, remains its biggest challenge. Reviewed June 16.

The Avenue Delicatessen

27 N. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne, 610-622-3354; theavenuedeli.com

Chef and co-owner Laura Frangiosa's Jewish-Italian deli mash-up is more than just a fun concept that fuses the Reuben into an arancini and drops matzo balls with greens and meatballs into "Jewish wedding soup." It strikes an ambitious spark for a new generation of scratch delis whose best flavors are made in-house, from outstanding corned beef (worth the visit alone) to moist Jewish apple cake, hearty breakfasts, and affordable, Italian-inspired dinner plates that strike a perfect tone of casual comfort for Lansdowne's reviving downtown strip. Reviewed Nov. 10.

Bar Ferdinand

1030 N. Second St., 215-923-1313; barferdinand.com

David Ansill has returned to Philadelphia from his Jamaican jag and shifted his roguish culinary gaze from French to Spanish flavors at what may be the last grown-up restaurant left in Bart Blatstein's slice of Northern Liberties. Handsome Bar Ferdinand finally has a chance at a chef-driven identity to go with excellent service and ambience. The menu has highlights but still shows the inconsistency of flux between the old standbys and the handcrafted, edgy approach that Ansill brings. Reviewed May 12.

Bufad

1240 Spring Garden St., 215-238-9311; bufadpizza.com

Michael and Jeniphur Pasquarello continue their mission to almost single-handedly feed the city's budding Loft District, adding this wood-fired pizzeria to their 13th Street lineup that includes Cafe Lift and Prohibition Taproom. The stylish, reclaimed-wood decor and seasonally tuned, affordable menu is appealing, even if the creative takes on Neapolitan pizzas and "SPQR" Roman-style square slices can sometimes use some tweaks and more flavor finesse to reach their full potential. Reviewed May 26.

Citron + Rose

370 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station, 610-664-4919; citronandrose.com

You don't need a kippah to know that kosher cuisine has never had it so good as this cool blue-and-white-tiled room in Merion Station, where the fine-dining experience is one even the strictest that rabbinic authorities would approve - despite major changes since the opening review.

Fans fretted at the departure of the Zahav partners who debuted the project. But successor Karen Nicolas, who worked for Charlie Palmer, Tom Colicchio, and D.C.'s Equinox, has kept ambitions high (as well as those huge, dry-aged chops). She's added more Sephardic touches to the largely Eastern Euro flavors, from cumin-scented duck meatballs in sweet potato soup to harissa with snapper and spaghetti squash kugel. Much more consistency and familiarity with the cuisine's roots, though, will help this kitchen hit the next level. Service can also be awkward. Reviewed with two bells Feb. 10. Revisited in December.

Cheu Noodle Bar

255 S. 10th St.; 267-639-4136; cheunoodlebar.com

Chef Ben Puchowitz of Matyson and childhood friend Shawn Darragh have taken their edgy fusion riffs on the Asian noodle trend from experimental pop-ups to chef-counter reality at this lively and casual 10th Street nook. The chalkboard menu deliberately veers away from authentic standards in favor of unconventional and seasonal takes on noodles, buns, and dumplings - at times either frustrating or thrilling. On good nights, though, a small-plate feast can add up to one of the most fun dining experiences in town. Reviewed June 23.

Gennaro's Tomato Pie

1429 Jackson St., 215-463-5070; gennarostomatopie.com

Pizza culture goes back-to-the-future at this charming Deep South Philly corner, where Mike Giammarino, owner of the much-missed Lombardi's, makes a welcome Philly return. The retro vibe pays homage to both '40s decor and a throwback pizza style, with crisp-crusted, cheese-on-the-bottom pies that opt for perfect heat-charred simplicity over gourmet toppings. The tiny BYOB gets crowded and noisy, and the no-reservation, cash-only policies are inconvenient. But Gennaro's captures an elusive "New York tomato pie" taste that hits a worthy niche in our rising pizza scene. Reviewed April 28.

Honey's Sit 'n Eat South

2101 South St., 215-732-5130; www.honeyssitneat.com

This Northern Liberties comfort food hit brought its updated diner ethos to a branch in Fitler Square, a neighborhood in need of brunch and casual options. The big menu still had some inconsistencies during the review, but was strong in daily specials featuring seasonal flavors and ambitious entrees (trout amandine?), veggie-friendly dishes, and breakfast with a Mexi-twist. Add unfailingly friendly service, local antique hardware store relics for decor, and a genuine sense of a community hang-out, and it's no wonder Honey's 2.0 has weekend lines out the door. Reviewed June 9.

Indeblue

205 S. 13th St., 215-545-4633; indebluerestaurant.com

Philly's growing Indian scene gets an upscale venue from Heather and Rakesh Ramola, whose new Center City branch of their popular Collingswood restaurant is a shimmery gold-and-plum-colored space with cardamom-scented cocktails and live sitar music for the 13th Street district. This menu offers more fusion options for the younger crowd, and it's fun when it works. Some inconsistencies and small portions, though, can make a meal feel overpriced on an off night. The live sitar-tabla music every Tuesday is a plus. Reviewed Oct. 13.

Indian Hut Curry & Cakes

Exton Plaza, 260 N. Pottstown Pike (Route 100), Exton, 610-363-9500; indianhut.com

There's more to this far-flung suburban strip-mall find than just the curious pairing of samosas, dosas, and curries with fresh-baked, Western-style sheet cakes: this counter service mini-chain (with locations in Bensalem and North Wales) also makes some of the most vividly authentic Indian food in the region. Blazing hot with aromatic spice and hard-to-find specialties from southern India and the Indo-Chinese canon, this quick-serve operation offers an extremely casual family setting and an unvarnished taste of home for the large Indian population that has come for tech industry jobs in the far western suburbs. Reviewed March 3.

In Riva

4116 Ridge Ave., 215-438-4848; in-riva.com

Can this Neapolitan-style pizzeria be the keeper this perennially difficult East Falls space needs? Owner-chef Arthur Cavaliere, a longtime Starr/Garces vet, has done a nice job keeping the prices neighborhood-friendly at less than $20 a plate, and the pleasantly casual vibe of the industrial-chic space with a riverside terrace is good for families and Kelly Drive cyclists alike. Ironically, the recent addition of handcrafted pastas and inventive antipasti (not the pies) are what finally gave this menu its most compelling flavors. Reviewed March 10.

Jane G's

1930 Chestnut St., 215-563-8800; janegsrestaurant.com

In a smart vote for bold authenticity over Americanized ethnic food, Jane Guo saved her splashy Center City restaurant return by swapping the dated fusion concept of her opening for the lip-numbing fire of genuine Sichuan cuisine. Instead of just another bland Rittenhouse Chinese flop, Guo's polished dining room is introducing the Square to the pleasure-pain of chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns, exotic cuts of meat, and deeply smoked duck. Quality ingredients, posh ambience, and earnest service make this newcomer more than just Han Dynasty Lite. Reviewed April 21.

Jerry's Bar

129 W. Laurel St., 267-273-1632; jerrysbarphilly.com

A corner-bar relic of old Northern Liberties has been splendidly transformed into one of the city's best new gastropubs, from the extraordinary rehab with historic touches by owner and contractor Bill Proud to the handmade menu from former Cafe Estelle owner Marshall Green. The mellow live-jazz brunch is a highlight (with house-smoked meats), but Green's dinner menu also delivers deft bistro classics that hit an ideal balance of affordability, quality ingredients, and well-crafted comfort. Reviewed Sept. 1.

Khmer Kitchen

1700 S. 6th St. (at Morris St.), 215-755-2222.

The vibrant flavors of Cambodia - spicy, sour, funky and fresh - are presented with home-cooked care at this family-run BYOB in South Philadelphia's growing Southeast Asian enclave. The little corner room is modest but tidy, and the friendly service can often be slow. But the uncompromisingly genuine (and affordable) menu of bracingly sour soups, bitter-flower salads, and exotic, authentically complex sauces are absolutely worth a visit. Reviewed Jan. 13.

Little Nonna's

1234 Locust St., 215-546-2100; littlenonnas.com

Philly's old-school Italian tradition gets a charming update from the duo behind 13th Street's Barbuzzo and Lolita. The hidden back patio and intimate little room, with red banquettes and string lights, rises a bit more on style than genuine gravy-pot soul. The food is solid enough, with the ambience to rise above its cliched corporate competitors for a pleasant meal. In the context of our present-day Italian scene, though, the fare lands in the meatball middle of the pack. Reviewed Nov. 24.

Mistral

66 Witherspoon St., Princeton, 609-688-8808; mistralprinceton.com

Princeton's swiftly improving dining scene has gotten another fresh burst of culinary energy from visionary chef Scott Anderson, whose breezy new BYOB turns out stunning seasonal small plates from its open kitchen that are a more-casual and affordable companion to his luxe fine-dining tastings at nearby Elements. Chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen is a serious talent to know. If only the disorganized and often inexperienced service can keep up. Reviewed Oct. 27.

Morgan's Pier

221 N. Columbus Blvd., 215-279-7134; morganspier.com (closed for the season until spring 2014)

Avram Hornik and ex-Stateside chef George Sabatino elevated Delaware Avenue deck dining to a new level last summer, with an innovative take on a "picnic" menu built from seasonal vegetables and scratch ingredients (from the American cheese to the water ice) to match the stunning bridge and river view, great craft beers and a serious DJ lineup. If mega-club crowds scare you, this pier may not be for you. But the fact that Sabatino could serve this level of cooking to 1,000-plus diners a day only stokes expectations for Aldine, his own restaurant near Rittenhouse Square being prepped for a spring debut. Reviewed July 14.

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House

1022 Race St., 215-923-1550; nanzhounoodlehouse.com

Delicate nests of noodles are hand-spun to order almost magically from a single lump of dough for the superb soups and stir-fries at this first-rate Chinatown bargain, which moved recently to a more spacious, polished address after a decade of winning fans in a no-frills nook. The larger kitchen allows for a wider menu, with some unique cold salads and curried dumplings. But it's still those springy noodles - both the pulled strands and the irregularly shaved ribbons - that make this one of C-town's must-know destinations. Reviewed March 24.

The Pass

88 Kingwood Stockton Rd., Rosemont, N.J., 609-961-1887; atthepass.com

Fine-dining dropout and charcuterie guru Matt Ridgway has returned to the restaurant world in a casually charming, country-store BYOB just beyond Lambertville, where the $38.50 prix-fixe is a bargain showcase for the seasonal bounty of local farms. The chef's classic culinary pedigree (Fountain, Lacroix, Joël) is on full display in the constantly changing tasting menus, but consistency varies. Finding sophisticated service to match the kitchen talent, though, is the biggest challenge holding this promising new destination back from reaching the next level. Reviewed Sept. 8.

Pennsylvania 6

114 S. 12th St.; 267-639-5606; pennsylvania6philly.com

This dramatic, bi-level, 12th Street space has struggled to retain a tenant, but a handsome bistro makeover, the growth of Midtown Village, and the addition of talented ex-XIX chef Marc Plessis should give this newcomer a chance. Service from the Public House team still needs polish, but Plessis' accessible American brasserie fare, from a good raw bar to stellar New England seafood favorites (fried Ipswich clams and an awesome lobster roll), plus a few southern accents, are worth a visit. Reviewed Aug. 4.

Sophia's

1623 E. Passyunk Ave. (CLOSED)

Ex-Striped Bass star Christopher Lee returned from New York with a bistro revamp of Salt & Pepper that delivered decent but safe takes on New American flavors. The unambitious menu dulled Lee's return, and Sophia's closed by summer's end. Reviewed May 5.

Strangelove's

216 S. 11th St., 215-873-0404; strangelovesbeerbar.com

The owners of Memphis Taproom and Resurrection Ale House have brought their expected array of destination-worthy beers to a rambling bi-level bar in Washington Square West. The addition of (ex-Catahoula's) chef Paul Martin, though, gives this smartly affordable menu the kind of identity - rooted in southern flavors (including excellent duck gumbo), plus numerous vegan options - needed for this gastropub to surmount the address' recent unlucky streak. Reviewed Aug. 25.

Sa-Bai-Dee

7038 Terminal Square, Upper Darby, 610-352-1119; sabaideethailaos.com

Adventure diners seeking Southeast Asian fare with a genuine edge should head to multiculti Upper Darby, where this no-frills BYOB turns out an authentic menu inspired by Thailand and Laos. The kitchen's Thai fare is among the region's most solid (including great satay and pad Thai), but the spicier, funkier, and less-sweet dishes from chef-owner Ketkeo Banthavong's native Laos (tom zap, som tom Laos) are the most compelling reason to come. Reviewed June 2.

Tavro Thirteen

1301 Kings Hwy., Swedesboro, 856-467-8413; tavro13.com

Terence Feury's bold career move has resulted in one of Philly's best chefs moving his kitchen to Deep South Jersey, and the Swedesboro crowds have been reasonably receptive to his modern American cooking. What will prove a greater challenge to surmount is the red leather-on-black contemporary revamp for a historic inn that frames Tavro's genuine qualities, from the sophisticated cooking to the excellent bar and well-meaning service, in garish relief. Reviewed Feb. 24.

Xi'An Sizzling Woks

902 Arch St., 215-925-1688; xiansizzlingwoks.com

Chinatown continues to evolve and diversify with the addition of this destination for the suddenly hot Silk Road flavors of Xi'an in western China. From spicy-sour handmade noodles to cuminy lamb skewers, pita-scattered lamb soup, brimming hot pots, and muffin-like meat pockets, a whole repertoire of novel-to-Philly flavors perfume the air of this modest Arch Street nook. Reviewed Nov. 3.

 

HIT-OR-MISS (one bell)

 

Bainbridge Street Barrel House

625-27 S. Sixth St., 267-324-3553; bainbridgestreetbarrelhouse.com

Queen Village is home to one of Philly's best new beer bars, whose 25 rotating taps, aging barrels, and 200-plus bottles are courtesy of the Fetfatzes family, which also owns the Bella Vista Beer Distributor. The once-derelict corner space has been handsomely rehabbed into a comfortable tavern with potential to be a great neighborhood eatery as well as a bar, but the updated pub fare was wildly inconsistent - save for a consistently heavy hand with spice. Best bets: anything ground and/or on a bun. Reviewed April 7.

Cedar Point Bar and Kitchen

2370 E. Norris St. (at Cedar), 215-423-5400; cedarpointbarandkitchen.com

There is genuine neighborhood appeal to this casual and airy gastropub, whose inviting corner deck perches over a six-point intersection in northern Fishtown and makes ideal outdoor sipping for craft beer fans. But the menu from chef and co-owner Shannon Dougherty (formerly of A Full Plate), is an odd mash-up of vegan virtues with deep-fried southern whimsies that suffers from poor execution. Matters aren't improved by service ranging from friendly-but-clueless to downright indifferent. Reviewed July 21.

Red Owl Tavern

433 Chestnut St., Hotel Monaco, 215-923-2267; redowltavern.com

With a prime corner across from Independence Hall, the new Hotel Monaco's restaurant is a dramatic bi-level space clad in reclaimed barn wood, antique pulleys, and industrial lights. The menu offers appealing American fare built on house-made charcuterie. But extremely spotty cooking and erratic service left this ambitious Old City newcomer feeling more like a tourist amenity than a destination on its own.

Opening chef Guillermo Tellez left in early September, but his slow-to-arrive successor, Jorge Chicas, has a daunting task ahead. My recent revisit (coincidentally Chicas' first week) showed a restaurant now dangling perilously over the "no bell" abyss, serving up the worst "homemade" sausage in recent memory (over scorched bread, no less), a pitiful crab cake, rubbery gnocchi, and amateur service. Reviewed Feb. 17. Revisited in December.

The Saint James

30 Parking Plaza, Suburban Square, Ardmore, 610-649-6200; saintjamesphilly.com

Considering the resumés of the local restaurant vets that collaborated (Sampan, Rouge, Talula's Table) on this much-anticipated contemporary bistro for Ardmore's Suburban Square - the early results were disastrous enough to earn a "no bells" review, with problems in both the kitchen and the dining room.

A recent revisit showed some worthy revisions, including lower prices for the updated American fare. Several new chefs later, there is also some improved consistency, with excellent salmon tartare and a decent pork chop. Too many goofs, though, from a lukewarm steak-frites to a horribly mushy cube-shaped crab cake and a $16 burger that was perfectly mid-rare but completely juiceless, show much work remains to be done. It's better, but only by a bit. Reviewed with "no bells" on Jan. 27. Revisited and upgraded to 1 bell in December.

Southern Cross Kitchen

8 E. First Ave., Conshohocken, 484-344-5668; conshygirls.com

West "Conshy Girls" Marianne Gere and Kim Strengari, the team behind Stella Blu and Gypsy Saloon, have gone southern, tastefully transforming a bi-level space in downtown Conshohocken into an appealing destination for craft beer, live music, and a menu crusted in cornmeal comfort. Unfortunately, their kitchen has virtually no feeling for genuine southern cooking, and the service is so rushed, considering the upscale prices, that meals have been paced like a parody of fine dining gone awry. Reviewed April 14.

Tiffin Bistro

1100 Federal St., 215-468-0104; tiffin.com

Munish Narula's Indian empire expanded to South Philly in a handsome corner space (formerly Kris) that was cast as a middle-tier option between basic Tiffin and upscale Tashan. While the menu has a handful of distinct highlights (eggplant chaat, Indian "sloppy Joes," Indochinese chili chicken), sloppy service and spotty cooking made this concept feel like the unattended and superfluous stepchild in the Tiffin family.

Few improvements, if any, were obvious at the revisit. The green vegetable seekh kebab was pasty and bland. The "gunpowder"-crusted scallops were flavorless blanks. The samosas were doughy. And the clueless servers were busier with their social media accounts than tending the table. Reviewed Sept. 22. Revisited in December. 

 

POOR (no bells)

Ocean Prime

124 S. 15th St. 215-563-0163; www.oceanprimephilly.com

The Cameron Mitchell restaurant group of Columbus, Ohio, invested $5 million-plus into a classic Philly space for the last thing Center City needed - another wildly overpriced steak chain (this one with seafood) that expects crowds to be dazzled by the golden onyx glitz of its soaring dining room. The crowds are coming, indeed, as the former Roy's has been transformed into full, gaudy glory. But awkwardly amateur service and stunningly mediocre food for $40-plus an entrée leaves this newcomer with few redeeming virtues. Reviewed Dec. 15.

 


claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

 

www.inquirer.com/craiglaban