LaBan's rising-star chef, and his baker of the year

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Kevin Yanaga, left, is the rising-star chef of 2016; Pat O’Malley, right, is baker of the year.

In a year full of fantastic flavors, debuts, and culinary acrobatics, some performances were particularly memorable. Over the next few days, I'll be sharing the Philly dining stars of 2016 I won’t soon forget.

RISING-STAR CHEF

Kevin Yanaga. Double Knot dazzled with its moody Japanese speakeasy ambience, stave-smoked cocktails and multi-menu personalities. But Kevin Yanaga’s mastery at the sushi bar, working with warm rice, myriad ponzu-spritzes and pristine seafood that’s often still alive behind the counter, is what elevates this basement lair to one of our premier sushi destinations.

Aji tartare at Double Knot.

Craig LaBan had this to say about Double Knot in his original review:

The moody, bilevel Asia-plex is connected by a back hall (and a shared liquor license) to Schulson's neighboring Sampan. And there are so many things going on in this all-day venue - serious Elixr coffees to go with Schulson's mother's zucchini bread, Viet street food lunches, impressive cocktails, a robatayaki grill, and extraordinary sushi for dinner - that trying to untangle them all can tie the mind back up into knots. Triple knots! Holy mackerel knots!

That's what I was thinking when chef Kevin Yanaga's stunning aji tartare special arrived at my table, the head-on horse mackerel stripped of its fillets but somehow suspended in a curling leap over a mound of its dusky, sweet meat, finely diced and tossed in a citrusy ginger soy.

It was especially impressive in the candlelight of the downstairs speakeasy, a warren of rooms designed by Kate Rohrer as a transporting hideaway clad in singed cedar-plank walls and scrimshawlike murals (designed by Fishtown tattoo specialists True Hand Society), with vintage nautical-theme fixtures that evoke an Asian mood just obliquely enough.

Read the full review of Double Knot here.

BAKER OF THE YEAR

Pat O’Malley. The all-day café concept depends on a great baker — and Hungry Pigeon has one of the best. Co-owner Pat O’Malley, who once ran Balthazar’s famed bakery, is now turning out the finest croissants in Philly, legendary banana bread sticky buns, and what may be the best pumpkin pie I ever ate.

The pumpkin pie that just may be the best LaBan ever ate.

Craig LaBan sang O'Malley's praises in his earlier review of Hungry Pigeon:

At Hungry Pigeon, where Pat O'Malley has gratefully returned to a more sane pace and the ability to keep his hands in dough, he's turning out some of the flakiest croissants around, with whorling pastry layers tanged by cultured butter and kissed with local honey. They're even better ribboned with bars of intense Valrhona chocolate.

Breakfast pastries at Hungry Pigeon.

His rolled brioche sticky buns, enriched with ripe bananas, walnuts, and a honeyed vanilla glaze, are the stuff of diner dreams. The crusty sourdough loaves scented with caraway, pure whole wheat, or olives compete with the best of Philly's new-guard breadsmiths, and, when cut into char-grilled wedges, are the ultimate scoop-tools for the deliciously funky molten ooze of baked Red Cat cheese.

A touch of sourdough lent deep resonance, inner lightness, and a delicate outer crunch to the whole-wheat pancakes, which on one recent morning were also laced with cider and tart Stayman apples. Paired with Counter Culture coffee curated by cafe guru Aaron Ultimo, it was one of the best breakfasts I've eaten in a year. And it only got better as I tried not to devour the whole buttermilk biscuit smothered in Schroeder's silky white sausage gravy while balancing an awesome breakfast sandwich in my other hand. With a juicy patty of sagey chicken sausage layered with eggs and jack cheese on a chewy, house-griddled English muffin, the McPigeon was everything the McMuffin wishes it could be.


Earlier this week, Craig LaBan named his best new restaurant of 2016his chef of 2016, and his dish of the year. Look for his full Year in Bells in the Sunday Inquirer.

Looking for more of Craig LaBan's best? Buy a copy of Ultimate Dining at philly.com/store.