A year in bites can be a blur, even if you’re keeping track. And that is absolutely what I do — meticulously noting, photographing and pondering every morsel that passes my lips in the hopes that it will be the greatest sandwich, sushi, steak, salad, or sate skewer I’ve ever eaten.
That bar is pretty high. With 58 restaurants formally rated this year over the course of multiple visits, along with umpteen other meals for my recent dining guide, our multiple neighborhood round-ups, Crumb Tracker clues for a weekly live chat, Jersey Shore round-ups, and Good Taste features in Food, I nibbled at somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,800 dishes in the past 365 days. (Has math ever given you indigestion?)
But this year, it’s fair to say, was perhaps my best eating year ever, with ever-rising quality of cooking from the high-end places that conjured four-bell glory to the homey all-day cafes, sandwich shops, international kitchens, neighborhood BYOBs, and bakeries that made me happy. Here are the 12 most memorable dishes, in no particular order, that made me the happiest.
(Scroll all the way down for the dish of the year.)
When it comes to the prettiest dish of the year, it's almost no contest. Pierre Calmel’s squash blossom stuffed with arctic char mousse at Bibou (1009 S. Eighth St., Philadelphia) was so stunning, it practically arrived to my table floating over a plate. It looked like a hot air balloon and it was nearly as light, the sublimely rich fish mousse inflating the canary-yellow flower petals beneath jewel-like orange beads of trout roe. As I dabbed each forkful through an ocean-sweet mist of sea urchin cream, I knew to savor the moment. Like so many delights on Bibou’s constantly changing weekly tasting menus, once it was gone, it was gone.
It’s easy to take something as prosaic as shrimp cocktail for granted. But there was something so distinctively perfect about the big glass chalice of shrimp cocktail at Blue Corn (940 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia) that it whisked me away to a Mexican beach. The shrimp, of course, are big, tender, and ample. But something else in that zesty tomato cocktail marinade kept me coming back. Could it be the secret splash of Jarritos orange soda? Perhaps. But I’m more certain that it was La Bruja (“the witch”), the tall cruet of magic vinegar zapped with chile peppers and herbs that cast a tangy spell on this seafood brew. Extra points for the garnish of authentic Mexican crackers.
This was the year the taco got its global fusion passport, from the duck confit wrapped in scallion pancakes at Revolution Taco to the soy-glossed sushi tuna cradled in crispy wonton skins at Suga. But my favorite alt-tacos this year were the coconut-braised Kerala short ribs wrapped in flaky parotta bread at Chaat & Chai (1532 Snyder Ave., Philadelphia), the colorful South Philly BYOB updating South Indian street foods. For a more authentic rendition (and perhaps the flakiest parotta I’ve ever had), check out the no-frills take-out specialist in the Northeast, Mallu Café.
When the Democratic National Convention came to town this summer, I went in search of the best versions of classic Philly foods to give visitors some sound advice in “Beyond Pat’s and Geno’s.” One of my happiest discoveries was a decisive new favorite Italian hoagie at Pastificio Deli (1528 Packer Ave., Philadelphia). Is it any surprise the owners of this hands-on deli in Packer Park used to be in construction? Not if you believe, as I do, that any great sandwich pays attention to architecture. And every layer of this masterpiece is meticulously calibrated and built, from the sliced-to-order imported meats to the sharp provolone to the thinly-shredded veggies. Every bite of its seeded roll delivers a perfectly balanced bite of South Philly swagger.
I could have chosen any number of things from Kanella Grill, where the vividly seasoned Cypriot kebabs are among the best quality-values in town. But the ongoing passion project that is chef Dominic Santora’s gyro sandwich at Kanella Grill (1001 Spruce St., Philadelphia) is already a memorable fistful of contrasting flavors, textures, and temperatures. This isn’t your standard issue frozen industrial gyro meat. Santora layers thin slices of beef chuck and pork shoulder on a vertical spit, the meat heavily marinated with oregano, garlic, coriander, and subtle but deep umami twinge of anchovy paste. Once the meat is roasted to a crisp, it’s shaved down and tucked into a special oval-shaped Cypriot-style pita with a cool and cuminy drizzle of tart homemade yogurt and cucumber tzanziki — and yes, a fistful of hot, crispy, freshly cooked French fries.
The amazing burgers kept coming this year, and for that I’m truly grateful. I had especially juicy offerings from Hungry Pigeon, Pub & Kitchen, swanky Autograph in Wayne, and Root in Fishtown, which also pulled-off the miracle of a veggie burger – the mushroom-based Duxelle – that I’ve actually come to crave. But the Royale with cheese at Butcher Bar (2034 Chestnut St., Philadelphia) is the beef burger champ of 2016. A towering ode to Pulp Fiction’s dream sandwich, this stack of two quarter-pound brisket-short rib patties comes layered on a toasty Martin’s roll with finely shaved pickles, lettuce, onions, and a blush pink sauce that mingles with a gush of juices that trickle down the sides. Considering I ate this beauty just days after the death of the Big Mac inventor, Pennsylvania’s Jim Delligatti, this tasted like a thoroughly proper hamburger homage.
Who knew modern French master Townsend Wentz could also cook Italian? He and his talented chef at A Mano, Michael Millon, proved they were very good at it indeed. In fact, the pasta at A Mano (2244 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia) was among the best I ate all year, from the spicy lumachelle all’Amatriciana to the moon-shaped cauliflower ravioli in balsamic butter. But I was especially taken by a special of delicate tortellini-shaped cappellaci stuffed with the tender meat of slow-braised osso buco veal. With fresh green fava beans and earthy morel mushrooms cradled atop their folds, I knew in one soulful bite that spring had come.
Refined simplicity is the secret at Vernick Food & Drink (2031 Walnut St., Philadelphia), where basic foods you thought you knew — roast chicken, pork chop Milanese, spaghetti in tomato sauce, toast — magically emerge from the wood-fired kitchen somehow more amazing than you ever imagined. The lobster pan roast at Vernick is an ideal example. Every part of this two-pound Maine lobster is cooked in the wood-fired hearth to tender perfection — no surprise, considering Vernick once worked in New England. But it’s the little touches that elevate this crustacean: the brief blanch in water infused with seaweed; a gloss of dashi butter that gets rubbed both inside and out; the bonus of green chile-flecked sausage links and blistered shishito peppers. The lobster flavor that emerges from the heat-charred shell is juicy, pure and true, but it’s also subtly amplified for maximum effect.
The beauty of Laurel (1617 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia) is its seamless blend of classic French ideas with a modern sensibility, delivered with dramatic flourishes in an intimate 22-seat room. So you can only imagine our delight when Nicholas Elmi’s truffle-stuffed Dover sole emerged from the kitchen and headed our way. The refreshingly down-to-earth chef himself set up tableside to slice the whole fish down, elegantly garnishing it with a truffled milk foam and fermented day lilly shoots. The pure luxury of those firm white fillets ribboned like a tuxedo with the intensely earthy perfume of dark black truffles was so good, I got the shivers. And then I asked for more.
Aside from the stellar pastas and cheffy Neapolitan pizzas, the wood-fired meats at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons (1355 N. Front St., Philadelphia) — from the lamb steak to the brick chicken — are a major draw. And Mulherin’s porterhouse is the big spender’s lust object of the moment, with 24-ounces of dry-aged beef savor that was the best slab of beef I ate in 2016. I also appreciated the original touch of the eggplant-potato gratin on the side. Pair it with a Sagrantino from the deep Italian wine list.
A review of Wm. Mulherin's Sons also appears in Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining. Buy your copy at philly.com/store.
I covet homey desserts, and few things are more homey than babka. But then Tova du Plessis one-upped pretty much everyone’s bubbe with her chocolate halva babka at Essen, her Jewish-themed bakery at 1437 E. Passyunk Ave. in Philadelphia. Yeah, I know – chocolate makes everything better. But it’s the savory sesame edge of that halva that takes this loaf of braided pastry to the next level.
And the Dish of the Year:
Hungry Pigeon’s salsa verde-braised chicken. Big dish communal dining became a thing in 2016. But few centerpieces invoked the cozy comfort of sharing, or the multiculti fluency of today’s menus, like the Hungry Pigeon’s steel pan of tomatillo salsa-braised chicken with fresh pressed tortillas, refried beans, and all the fixings. Can every night be build-your-own taco night?
Look for Craig LaBan's Year in Bells in the Sunday Inquirer.