Bangles aims to serve an Indian audience, but also attract mainstream American diners, with a little upscale polish, plus some fusion touches. That doesn’t mean it tempers the heat. A recent visit set our mouths aflicker with classic takes on Chettinad curries, Hyderabadi biryani, luscious prawns in coconut masala gravy, lamb pepper fry and an outstanding curry leaf fried chicken. We also loved modern takes like the curry leaf corn soup, lotus root scallops, and a dahi vada starter whose yogurt-glazed lentil fritters are striped with a web of chutneys. But my favorite dish here is still the lacy crunch of the onion rava dosa crepe bundled over masala potatoes.
At first glance, little has changed in the decade since I last drove deep into the heart of Chester County to visit this cafe.
Ringed by misty cornfields and steepled churches, this old general store turned idyllic French BYOB remains one of the single most charming dining experiences in the region. No wonder weekends are booked months ahead for the cash-only dinners. There’s almost always stuffed roast pheasant, fresh fish with wild mushrooms, rack of lamb with minted risotto, and warm butterscotch cake for dessert.
But so much here has, in fact, continued to evolve in the very best way. The chef changed his name to Francis Pascal (from Trzeciak) when the Aix-en-Provence native became an American citizen four years ago. He’s finally hired some help on the kitchen line, and begun expanding the menu, and even opened a pastry shop and café, ButterScotch (1406 Hollow Rd.), across the street to feature Jane Urban’s croissants and desserts. Most significant, though, he has happily married another restaurateur, Nui Kullana of Phoenixville’s Thai L’Elephant, and the cross-cultural influences have begun to appear in his cooking. The excellent duck comes with a Sichuan crust. Fish sauce and rice vinegar lighten the sauces. And then there are the gorgeous summer rolls whose supple rice paper wrappers are stuffed with delicately poached lobster marinated in Korean chilies and honey, and then posed over a creamy lobster bisque enriched with port and saffron. It’s a decidedly Gallic flourish for an Asian inspiration, but in this sweet bucolic corner, it’s the genuine taste of a talented chef embracing the latest chapter in his life.
Ten years ago, Chip Roman’s first bistro gave Conshohocken a sophisticated taste of the New American BYOB movement and became a trendsetter in suburban dining. After opening (then selling) several other restaurants over the years (Mica, Ela), the Fayette Street kitchen is once again Roman’s primary focus. A lovely meal this summer reminded why this Vetri and Le Bec-Fin alum’s food is still a hit, from delicate ravioli stuffed with English peas in brown butter to a tile fish caught by the chef himself over basmati and Madras curry sauce. At times, this menu can feel like an autopilot throwback to decade-old “classics” like the roulade of boneless chicken, the short rib-scallop twist on surf and turf, and beignets. But newer items, like the intense lobster ravioli topped with mild habanada chiles and a tostada piled with sweet crab, had a memorable Latin touch. The $49 Tuesday-Wednesday tasting menus built around changing themes also are especially worthwhile. A recent shellfish night featuring lemon spaghetti and shrimp in spicy ‘Nduja sauce, then gorgeous scallops with sweet corn and peppers, was a convincing reminder that Blackfish’s creative spark is still bright.
Blue Sage was one of the region’s true pioneers of serious vegetarian cooking when I first reviewed its globe-hopping menu in 2001. But a lot has changed in the past 16 years, as mainstream audiences learned to embrace their veggies and vegan cooking became the new meat-free dining norm. So I was delighted on my recent revisit to discover that not only had Blue Sage moved from its original strip-mall storefront into an impressive new contemporary space across Second Street Pike, but that chef-owner Michael Jackson’s cooking feels as fresh as ever.
Jackson, a one-time rocker turned self-taught chef, has always eschewed fake meats in favor of hearty vegetable and grain-based riffs on international favorites. That remains the case, but the dishes seemed more refined than ever, with more layers of flavor and a greater sense of balance that felt a little less heavy than before. They also brimmed with creativity that sometimes surprised me. Arancini rice fritters took on the unexpected fall tone of pumpkin and green apples in their moist fillings, with toasty almonds instead bread crumbs for crust. Some “Buddha” tacos over soft yellow tortillas (blue corn Johnny cakes are a gluten-free option) were stuffed with a sweet potato hash, toasty peanuts, a snappy tangle of greens, and chile-flared crème fraîche. The Korean Fried Chicken trend, meanwhile, appears here with fried cauliflower subbing for the bird, its crispy nuggets glossed in spicy-sweet sauce over rich popcorn grits and roasted baby roots. How could I possibly eat dessert, too? Well, there was a white chocolate cashew tart filled with whipped banana cream, caramel and brûléed bananas I just couldn’t say no to. After all these years of meat-free dining progress, a meal at Blue Sage is still a definite yes.
424 S Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-646-1320, visit website
After six years and several spin-offs (La Calaca Feliz, Taqueria Feliz), the original Cantina in Fort Washington remains the best of the Feliz family from Brian Sirhal and chef Tim Spinner, who’ve created here one of the region’s most satisfying Nuevo Mexican dining experiences, blending a colorful, casual space with outgoing service, excellent tequila cocktails, myriad fresh guacamole variations and a menu built to please a broad audience. While the food certainly caters to suburban American tastes, Spinner, a Garces alum, creates dishes that are rooted in classic, no-shortcut preparations updated with polished style and great ingredients, from excellent ceviches to the tender steak grilled al carbon with fresh tortillas, awesome fish tacos, and delicate black bass over creamy poblano rice with crab. And yes, Cantina also makes my favorite nachos, an imposing but irresistible tortilla montaña that’s intricately built, where every chip has a tasty salsa, pickled chile, soft frijole, trickling river of molten cheese or tender morsel of smoky brisket that seems to be calling my name. Cantina has proven to be one of the most consistent winners in the suburbs. It has continuously evolved and improved (now with soundproofing to dampen the margarita-fuled noise) — enough to step up to 3 bells.
Bucks County diners are often divided into two camps when it comes to Charcoal. Conservative eaters love it by day, when the Plescha family’s riverside haunt has a long track record as an unpretentious destination for pancakes and eggs, house-ground burgers (patties infused with butter!) and the slow-fermented, hand-rolled “extra fat” brioche doughnuts rolled hot in sugar that are worthy of the trip itself.
Adventure eaters, meanwhile, relish Charcoal at night, when the next generation of Plescha cooks, brothers Mark and Eric Anton, turns down the lights and transforms the crisp gray room into airy perch over the Delaware River serving some of the most inventive, avant-garde fare anywhere in the suburbs. The siblings have matured by leaps and bounds since launching their dinners in 2008, mastering their high-tech toys (immersion circulators, pasta extruders, Cvap ovens) for dishes that are irrepressibly creative but also accessible, from the exceptional house sourdough to the five-step grilled octo with savory caramel. The must-order whimsical pastas are often tinted with unusual ingredients in the doughs — A-1 sauce (for the meatloaf Bolognese), Worcestershire (for the chicken marsala fusilli) — that give a haute-wink to the restaurant’s diner DNA. Then there are odes to great local ingredients, like the fried Griggstown Farm chickens, glossed Korean-style sauce at my last visit, or a juicy slab of prime-grade rib-eye. Topped with minced broccoli gremolata, this steak was a carnivore’s delight, and the kind of classic idea touched with a modern twist that just might unite the two camps of Charcoal fans into one.
1333 W. Cheltenham Ave., Elkins Park, 215-782-3828, visit website
The name means tofu, in a nod to the bubbling bowls of spicy soondubu stew that make the signature dish. But you don’t have to be into bean curd to appreciate that this hidden gem, tucked into a surprisingly contemporary space at the back of an Elkins Park strip mall, is one of the area’s best all-around Korean restaurants. The menu covers a familiar array of authentic classics, from grilled L.A. short ribs to a stone pot bibimbap (with a wider “dolpan” bowl for more crispy rice), but with extra layers of depth, finesse, and spicy funk that set it apart. Don’t miss the mandoo or japchae and cold naengmyun noodles, excellent beef bulgogi, as well as a spicy pork variation. Bonus: with a colorful, glassed-in playroom near the entrance (with handy video monitors for parents) this is one of the more child-friendly restaurants around.
Can real food - seasonal, local, scratch-made, and creatively presented - survive in the suburbs in a way that feels accessible to a wide audience weaned on chains? The answer is yes. And co-chefs and co-owners Josh Lawler and Todd Fuller have cracked the code, transitioning from their fine-dining backgrounds to create a perfect neighborhood restaurant with their second edition of F&F Tavern.
This Pennsylvania counterpart to the South Jersey original feels more polished than Cherry Hill from the get-go, with refined recipes and ingredient sourcing, informed service, a wide-ranging drink program built on local craft beer and produce-forward cocktails (arugula gimlet anyone?), and a diverse American menu that delivers quality at every level, from garlicky roast pork sandwiches to seafood specials and homemade desserts - and with a greater sense of value than ever.
Lawler says their local produce costs about 30 percent more than what he could get from a Sysco truck, with a lack of standardization that often requires more skilled prep. But the multihued tomatoes burst with the juicy payoff of a nearby farm's summer ripeness, scattered atop creamy burrata streaked with balsamic.
And the value is still here: You can get out of happy hour with an outstanding burger and local beer for less than $10, a gorgeous crab cake full of sweet-lump crustacean for $15, or linger over a hearty plate of juicy Berkshire pork chops with creamed local sweet corn flecked with shishito peppers for $23.
The fritters might change daily on the must-order "Breads & Spreads" starter platter (ours were filled with quinoa bound with moist eggplant), but there's always a fresh-baked pita ringed by smoked paprika hummus, tangy red pepper romesco dip, chickpea fries, and pickles. Juicy hay-baked chicken, tender ribs glazed in birch beer barbecue sauce, and 24-hour onion fresh-made chips are other hits.
One can also serve a family of four for $40 with the nightly comfort-food takeout "bundles." The Monday fried chicken special, which pairs a whole bird with biscuits, two sides, and a dessert (doughnut holes with caramel!) was one of the most satisfying quality food values I've devoured all year.
508 Hurffville Crosskeys Rd., Sewell, 856-589-6969, visit website
Owner Bill Fischer was a commercial fisherman before becoming a longtime executive chef at Caffé Aldo Lamberti, so it’s no wonder his own restaurant, a warm BYOB with simple white linen elegance across from Washington Township High School, is one of the most reliable places in the region for Italian seafood specialties. Fischer’s menu cruises familiar waters with the classics, but with pristine ingredients, bountiful portions, and personal twists. Meaty crab cakes come laced with snappy green laces of zucchini. Tender coins of octopus tangle with shaved arugula and fennel. Crisp sheets of pancetta hide moist clams casino. Huge seared scallops crown truffled risotto studded with mushrooms. And flounder française, so fresh and moist, bends over buttery angel hair pasta beneath fistfuls of sweet lump crab.
In past meals, I’ve had outstanding whole branzino (filleted by Fischer tableside), silvery orata with orzo, creamy crab Imperial, and Chilean sea bass with frizzled leeks in citrus butter. I’ve enjoyed the non-seafood items here, too, from the seriously spicy long hots stuffed with prosciutto and Gorgonzola to an expert paccheri all’Amatriciana. But when there’s an option to order your dish with crabmeat — like the simple backfin sauté over angel hair in bright tomato basil sauce — the right answer is to always let Sewell’s fisherman-chef pile the ocean’s bounty on.
There are plenty of Italian restaurants cooking similar menus in the suburbs. But the food at the rustic Italian BYOB called Fraschetta is always interesting. Octopus — elsewhere always grilled — appears here simmered as coins in tomato sauce that flickers with chile heat, and pops with fresh peas and mint. Cacio e pepe, a dish Italian-born chef-owner Gianuluca Demontis has mastered in classic form at his Melograno downtown, appears at Fraschetta with the Pecorino-pepper sauce glossing ravioli filled with ricotta-fluffed mashed potatoes. Sparked by pickled red onions, they’re like Roman-style pierogi.
What impresses me more than those creative tweaks, however, is how Demontis manages to coax powerful flavors from good ingredients with smart but simple combinations. He dry-ages for an extra week a piece of grass-fed New York strip for the tagliata steak to “tenderize the meat and announce its flavor,” serving it over cannellini beans splashed with sweet tang of clove-scented Chianti vincotto. For dessert, Demontis literally explodes the familiar into its parts, the shards of a cannoli shell layered high in tiers between fluffs of mascarpone and pistachios in a sweet-tart balsamic glaze like some free-form dessert sculpture. Interesting, but most importantly, it was also delicious.
Chef Dominic and Lindsay Piperno's stylish wood-fired American BYOB is blazing away at next-level sophistication for Collingswood, with a moody corner space built from scratch across from the local library, and a wide-ranging modern menu that tastes like a transplanted Center City kitchen. The parallels in style and format to Vernick, where Piperno (also ex-Zeppoli) met co-chef Aaron Gottesman (Fat Ham) are obvious in a good way, from artful crudos and inventive seasonal pastas, to large format sharing entrees (what a porterhouse!) blessed by the heat of the flames.
Doug Henri’s big iron smokers are so powerful, they once stopped me in my tracks as I was driving home from the Shore on the Black Horse Pike. I turned my car around, went for lunch — and have been returning every year since. The fact is that Henri, a retired corrections officer who can often be seen tending his pit in polished shoes, turns out some of the best barbecue in the region, from the slow-cooked brisket to halo-pink ribs, pulled pork and tender chicken.
But it’s his weekend buffet that can’t be missed, even if you’re not a buffet person. This is one epic all-you-can-eat display of soul food — amazing fried chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, jerk chicken (which I may prefer to the barbecue version), tangy collards, spicy crab pasta, corn pudding and fresh peach cobbler — for just $15.95 (!) — that is absolutely one of the region’s greatest bargains. If that’s not enough, follow my lead for what may also be the best fried chicken wings anywhere.
The immigrant-rich agricultural community around mushroom country has a long tradition of great Mexican food, but La Peña Mexicana is my absolute favorite. This modest, no-frills taqueria has a paint job that’s impossible to miss, its shedlike buildings striped like a bumblebee in a Mexican flag. But it’s the vibrant food, rooted in the flavors of the northern coastal state of Guerrero, that really can’t be missed. Try the soft masa ovals of hand-pressed huaraches topped with creamy frijoles and tender chicken stewed in soulful guajillo salsa. The tacos are also top-notch, whether you go for the pineapple-spiked al pastor or what may be the most tender tongue around. The dish I really crave, though, is the chimichanga — a border food specialty long ago corrupted by American chains whose fried burrito heartiness has been restored to greaseless glory in a flaky tortilla shell wrapped around meticulously layered rice, beans and meats — all topped with a half-moon scoop of creamy avocado. Try the boneless smoked pork chop filling for something completely unique, then wash it down with a big gulp of one of the tropical fruit aguas frescas.
Dinner at Maize is so slow that the first time we traveled up to Perkasie for dinner, we barely made it to the welcome biscuits before we realized we had to go. But those drop biscuits were so good — baked to order and warm upon guests’ arrival with fresh-ground sprouted wheat and corn from Castle Valley Mills — they lingered in my family’s imagination for a year. When we finally returned with more time to relax, we waited some more, munching on bowls of olive oil-chive popcorn, and soon realized why people put up with Maize’s maddeningly meticulous approach to cook for its 28-seat dining room just a couple tables at a time. The food is simply delicious. And there just aren’t many restaurants in Upper Bucks county that have embraced the local farm bounty and micro-seasonal approach to cooking as much as this warm little BYOB from Lacroix-alum Matt McPhelin, who also worked at Savona and Slate Bleu.
Telford tomatoes are simmered down with leeks and mussels for a refined Mediterranean sauce to pair with swordfish. Castle Valley’s Bloody Butcher corn is milled into grits for seared shrimp and house-cured bacon ringed by grain mustard and chive sauce. One of the most luxurious lump crab cakes I’ve eaten all year arrives towering over a bed of corn — the ears picked that day — since, after all, this restaurant is called Maize — whose summer sweetness is nudged with a hint of vanilla bean. Blooming Glen pork cheeks are braised to a rustic softness alongside black-eyed peas. Tender duck breast fanned over silky sweet potatoes and snappy wax beans. By the meal’s end, we had run out of our budgeted time for dessert. But … Wait! Wait! Wait! The kitchen still had one more final treat baking for us in the oven before we left — a plate of still-hot mini-cookies traced with a chocolate smiley face. They were mirrored by our own.
Before the new, hip version of Phoenixville took root, Majolica was the pioneer. This ambitious 44-seat BYOB, launched a decade ago by Savona alum Andrew Deery, was the first project that really brought wider attention to the possibilities of Bridge Street as a nightlife district. With a French-inspired menu devoted to seasonal local ingredients, including many sourced from the borough’s standout farmer’s market, warm bistro dining rooms and polished service, Majolica remains not only Phoenixville’s most sophisticated dining experience, but one of the top restaurants in the western suburbs, period.
A fresh potato chip cradling tuna tartare got our meal off to snappy start, followed by the summer sweetness of milky white corn soup poured over tender morsels of lobster. A deconstructed take on rumaki brought luscious grilled scallops layered with chunks of house-cured bacon. Pan-crisped sweetbreads came glazed with earthy-sweet molasses butter. Seasonal softshells anchored a sea-flavored BLT. Perfect roast duck with grilled mushrooms took on the nuttiness of hazelnut oil-dressed beluga lentils. I loved the refined austerity and subtle contrasts of a crisped dorade over a bowl of honey-braised cippolini onions. A hearty crock of cassoulet, meanwhile, was a soulful invitation to rustic comfort, its richly flavored cannellini beans studded with tender nuggets of lamb shoulder and merguez sausage.
To finish, there was flourless chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream, and sugar-dusted beignets with coffee-cardamom pot de crème, a whimsical ode to coffee and doughnuts. Not a bad feast for a kitchen that numbers just two cooks and a dishwasher. But Majolica’s continued success proves not only that an energetic BYOB can spark a downtown revival, but that a great one can age gracefully and remain relevant even while the landscape around it rapidly changes.
Can a serious restaurant survive and thrive at the mall? Princeton’s star Scott Anderson is giving it a compelling effort with this airy King of Prussia sibling to his Central Jersey original, where a flexible menu of gorgeous plates in various sizes and diverse international influences finds a delicate balance between accessibility and modern culinary craft. The kitchen riffs on tartare, with warm lamb and raw tuna, as well as a Thai-spiced grilled calamari show Mistral’s edgy side, while a standout burger with bacon jam, pineapple-chili-glazed chicken wings and a flatiron steak with potato pave suit more traditional tastes. Great cocktails, a focused but outstanding wine list (with a genuine somm to point out that Corsican rosé), a breezy dining room and an expansive patio view of the high-rent valet lot add to this ambitious new project’s potential as a post-shopping oasis to dine.
Phil Manganaro bakes the bread and makes the pasta at tiny Park Place Café. He sometimes forages the wild mushrooms for his buttery rabbit agnolotti. He gathers tupelo berries from neighboring trees to make the sweet-and-sour juice that swirls through spicy oil around the luscious pink toro sashimi. The chef even boils down ocean water from his surfing jaunts to the Jersey Shore to make sea salt to scatter over top. If ever the case could be made for the BYOB movement as the single most effective way for one or two talented people to create a special dining experience despite a lack resources, this cozy 32-seat bistro with slanted walls, limited hours, and an old vinyl record player spinning vintage jazz in charming downtown Merchantville is the latest great example.
Manganaro, a largely unknown line cook until this ownership debut, worked a host of Starr restaurants under Chris Painter (Parc, the Dandelion, Butcher & Singer, El Vez, Il Pittore) and has stockpiled a versatile tool kit of culinary skills, from exceptional pastas (like the towering mound of fettuccine tangled with clams and house sausage, to charcuterie and a love of black truffles that were shaved like earthy checkers into an absolutely perfect French omelet for brunch. But the dinner is where Manganaro struts his most sophisticated moves, from a snapper over radishes ringed with bittersweet amaro reduction to a suckling pig special of sublimely tender meat sheathed in a crackle of crispy skin. With Manganaro’s girlfriend and manager, Francesca Venti, running the dining room with a soft-spoken grace, it seems normal that this unexpected bistro is serving edgy dishes like calf’s tongue tortellini and “crispy pig face” terrine with octopus to local wine aficionado clubs who have quietly discovered this gastronomic haven as yet another hidden BYO retreat since it opened in January. The sophisticated secret of Park Place Café, however, could only last so long.
It’s all about the live fire at Sean and Kelly Weinberg’s Malvern oasis, where the aromatic wood grill and the flavors of Northern Italy pair with excellent service and great Piedmont wines for a refined rustic vibe that makes for one of the best overall dining experiences in the suburbs. But what an evolution this restaurant has gone through over the past 13 years! Initially a 53-seat BYOB with a vague “Mediterranean” focus, Weinberg, who lived and cooked in Italy for several years, has more fully embraced his passion for Italian cuisine as the restaurant acquired a liquor license and expanded to 125 seats with a big back patio and a lively bar.
Fresh pastas are a specialty, like the tiny Alba-style plin ravioli stuffed with rabbit and prosciutto in sage brown butter sauce. But anything that kisses the grill is also recommended, from the charred octopus with celery and crisp potatoes over tonnato sauce, or the plump trout fillets whose silver skin is crisped before a pairing with crunchy raw escarole salad in hazelnut brown butter vinaigrette and juicy chunks of sweet peach. The slow-roasted pork may be Weinberg’s true masterpiece, the meltingly soft chunks of pig set over a polenta made with fresh sweet corn and chilies. For dessert? Butterscotch budino!
Weinberg has streamlined the once larger and composed entrées in recent years to focus on their proteins and leave accompaniments to guests, who get to mix and match sides from several choices, from farro arancini to garlicky broccoli rabe and smashed potatoes with chive créme fraìche. It’s a subtle but smart refinement tuned to the times that shows Alba, already a delicious destination, is not done evolving yet.
The soapstone bar in the downstairs dining room is the lively scene where most regulars convene at this French brasserie that has become Doylestown’s best restaurant. Set in the historic bones of a Civil War-era livery attached to the Agricultural Works, this is exactly where I sipped an afternoon away over a chilly glass of vermentino, good conversation, and a half-dozen Maine oysters perfectly baked beneath a crust of bread crumbs scented with Pernod and Piave cheese. Bar manager Jared Davis expertly crafted a perfect Corpse Reviver and paired wines with our plates. It was clear, as the meal unfolded, how much this restaurant has settled in to excellence over the past 11 years.
Owner-chef Mark Matyas brought a classically trained French pedigree from New York’s La Grenouille along with some silky quenelles in creamy crawfish sauce, textbook trout meunière, steak au poivre, and stuffed loin of lamb. A decade later, son Eric works alongside him in the kitchen while his daughter Siena works the dining room alongside his wife, Susan, bringing a genuine family warmth to the space. And while the menu format has shifted with the times from the traditional appetizer-entrée format to “bistro plates” (Matyas calls them “largish small plates”), the food is better than ever for sharing. Finely minced salmon tartare sparks with capers and preserved lemon. Seared scallops nestle into frothy lemon butter and mushroom risotto dusted with porcini powder. An unusual corn crepe studded with chicken livers and sherry vinegared shallots is one of the oddball sleeper hits.
And Slate Bleu doesn’t ease up when it comes to dessert, with colorful favorites like the pistachio soufflé and a seasonal whim like the corn-infused panna cotta with blueberries. But the array of homemade ice creams is not to be missed, especially sandwiched inside the classic choux pastry puffs of profiteroles. Caramel, vanilla, and espresso are the favored flavors, but I was wowed by the berry dark cassis sorbet. And nothing beat the boozy Argmanac-prune — basically rum-raisin for grown-ups, and the perfect finale to a memorable meal.
Hard to believe it’s already been a decade since the trendsetting debut of this locavore paradise for prepared foods, artisan cheeses, and evening tasting menu feasts put Kennett Square on every gourmand’s hot list. And amazingly, you still need to plan a year in advance to book dinner at the 12-seat country table in the charming market dining room, and a few months out for the smaller butcher block square in the fluorescent-lit kitchen (my preferred choice.) But there’s good reason for the fuss. The 10-course seasonal tasting dinners orchestrated by Aimee Olexy and her chefs are delivered with such seamless BYOB grace by her service staff that dinner here remains one of the region’s magical four-bell dining experiences.
One could make a memorable meal simply of the inventive hors d’oeuvres at my stellar meal this summer, from the mini-lobster rolls to the smoked foie gras biscuits with huckleberry jam, and individual forkfuls of toothy tonnarelli pasta coated in mushroom butter. But current chef Ryan McQuillan (ex-Mercato, Le Bec-Fin) showed his finesse for the multicourse format in the subsequent dishes that perfectly captured the spirit of local flavors in the moment. Lightly cured scallop crudo paired with sweet-tart strawberry sauce and charred rosemary oil. Cappelletti pasta dumplings stuffed with house-smoked ricotta glazed in carrot butter. An extraordinary bouillabaisse stew poured tableside from a teapot over clams and nuggets of tile fish beside croutons of Castle Valley grits. Onion dashi with an Avondale Hills Farm poached egg. Cherry meringues. Ice pops made from yerba mate tea. By the end, it was impossible to even think of another bite. But knowing Talula’s has yet to repeat a dish on any of the 80-or-so menus it has produced, I knew I’d be back for the adventure of another season to try again.
What began a decade ago as a Belgian bar with a novel Mexican twist has settled in, refined its Euro-taqueria bistro menu, and evolved into so much more than just a great beer bar. There simply aren’t many places on the planet where you can order a bowl of delicate waterzooi seafood stew alongside some amazingly tender goat tacos — the meat braised down overnight with chilies. But even more compelling, TND, which is in fact right next door to the Italian-themed BYOB Teresa’s, has blossomed into what may well be the single greatest place to drink well in the suburbs, no matter what your beverage preference — a distinction that has elevated it to a third bell. There are nearly 400 whiskeys from around the world, available in flights as well as outstanding cocktails (the $10 G&T bar offers 16 different gins and eight different tonics). There’s a tap box that is entirely gluten-free, with several meads, ciders, sake, and wines on draft. Beverage director Chris Peters’ 75-bottle wine list is about to go to entirely “natural” — wines made with minimal intervention, with the bonus of a license to sell those bottles retail with just $9 added to cost. (Few, if any, are available in state stores.) And, of course, you can also still find some of the greatest beers in the world on draft here, from Russian River’s Pliny the Elder to Val-Dieu blond and Italian stout brewed with balsamic among the recent choices on its 24 taps, along with three handpumps, and about 150 bottles from which to choose.
Chef and partner Andy Dickerson does a fine job making sure the menu is up to all that booze, tapping my most elemental poutine bar cravings with the Disco Frites tossed in Mornay sauce with Brie and demiglace gravy. Corn-crisped long-stemmed artichokes make a sophisticated nibble, while the fricadellen give a beer-braised Belgian accent to little meatballs made from nutmeg-scented veal and pork. The carnitas tacos are my second choice when I’ve had my fill of goat. That’s when it’s time to explore those whiskeys for an after dinner nip — at which point I’m grateful Teresa’s is not far from the train, or an easy ride request with my phone. “Uber,” Dickerson says, “is our friend!”
Can you imagine a bumping Northern Liberties-style gastropub slipped into a quiet retail strip “out in the sticks”? That’s exactly what Standard Tap alums Cody Ferdinand and Gerard Angelini have created at the Butcher & Barkeep in Harleysville, channeling that “city vibe by turning the lights down low and the music up.” They’ve also loaded the 21-tap draft system (plus a vast list of bottles) with one of the best beer selections in the suburbs covering local, esoteric and international stars. But this is more than a beer bar. I had some of the best craft cocktails of my summer here, including a perfect Boulevardier softened by the vanilla oak of weeks in a barrel. Next time, I’ll be stepping up to the boozy pyrotechnics of a North Country Fair, a bourbon-apple jack and Cynar concoction that gets smoked to order with a star anise pod. Killer Bloody Mary’s anchor the chicken-and-waffles Sunday brunch.
All the great libations are only part of the reason 550 people can cycle through its spacious series of barn-like dining rooms on a busy Saturday. Chef Jeff Sacco has created a neighborhood-friendly menu with bold flavors that adds up to an admirably affordable experience for the quality, with fresh takes on (fairly large) small plates almost entirely under $15 (the confit of rabbit hits $17), rotating meat and cheese boards, sandwiches built with scratch meats (house-corned beef for the Reuben), and a frequent Southern flair, from the decadent shrimp and grits with tasso ham and andouille pepper cream, to tender St. Louis ribs and a convincing shrimp gumbo over dirty rice. A thick slice of cashew-crusted mahi mahi over sweet potatoes ringed by chive cream was both creative and a stellar value at $14. But the can’t-miss dish here, no doubt, is the “sexy fries,” a mountain of fresh cut, excellent frites tossed in truffled hollandaise and shaved Parmesan with the crunchy lift of scallions. It is such a no-holds-barred decadent mess that resistance is futile. Yes, “sex” can sell French fries in a strip mall. But it’s really the complete package of the right concept in the most unlikely place that makes the Butcher & Barkeep one of the region’s great neighborhood restaurants.
339 E Broadway Ave., Clifton Heights, 610-623-9537, visit website
The Original Clam Tavern is a throwback in the very best sense, an old-school fish house of the sort that’s all but disappeared in Philly but stayed true to blue-collar Clifton Heights for 50-plus years, in fair prices, in classic nautical ambience — and also the beer situation. “We don’t have any fancy beers here, hon’!” the waitress warned preemptively, as she saw me flipping the small menu card over and over. I’ll have to go across the street one day to the Clam’s newer annex, the Broadway Bar & Grille (329 E. Broadway Ave.), to get my craft-brew fix with its signature fried chicken and waffles.
But the Clam is the place I covet. And its greatest asset is owner Tony Blanche, a childhood clam-shucker there who returned to buy it after a career in sales, and who understands the value of quality ingredients treated simply with pride. The clams casino are among the best around. The red-sauced mussels, creamy chowder, lumpy crab cakes, spaghetti with clams, and lobster fra diavolo are all spot-on. Even the filet mignon and veal Oscar lavished with buttery hollandaise and crab are fantastic. But nothing says tradition quite like the signature baked clams, the juicy middlenecks roasted whole in a distinctive steel tray beneath lightly browned Italian seasonings and a tangy, mysterious red dot. “It’s not pimento, which is what most people think,” says Blanche. “It’s ketchup. I never figured out why. But I stick by the recipe.”
No brewery has done more to put a suburban town on the national hipster map than Tired Hands, the iconoclastic producer of funky saisons and experimental “milkshake” IPAs that can incite blocks-long lines of beer geeks who’ve traveled from far and wide in hopes of scoring the latest release. (The owner of a beer store in Vermont recently told me he’d been to Ardmore “many times” — but never visited Philly.) In many ways, its swift organic growth into four separate facilities (including the Dispensary “oak throne room” aging warehouse) has helped to stamp Ardmore’s status as the Main Line’s coolest Main Street.
The sprawling Fermentaria brewpub is the primary draw. Set in the noisy industrial shell of a former trolley works filled with big oak barrels, this is the place to taste the widest array of the ever-changing brews along with a menu of traditional and unconventional tacos — curried cauliflower, carnitas, chicken verde — as well as hummus plates and a good burger topped with HopHands mustard. The original Brew Café is a more intimate destination for a distinct set of beers to sip along with house pickles, sandwiches, and tasty bread baked from beer yeast served warm with local butter. The General Store right next door, meanwhile, is the place to load-up on T-shirts, cyclist gear and growlers to go.
In a world that rewards multitasking, Frank Nattle is single-minded. And his quest — for the perfect Neapolitan pizza — has long been one of the best reasons to visit Phoenixville. Don’t get overly complicated with toppings. The pizza you need to know (and, lately, a steal at $10 for lunch) is just one: the Regina, a Margherita made with buffalo mozzarella, a sunburst of San Marzano sauce, and aromatic basil. True to the Neapolitan style, the crust puffs quickly and blisters from the 1,000-degree heat burst of a fresh log tossed in the oven, and the center remains soft and soupy (“almost rare, like a marshmallow,” says Nattle.) So try it with a knife and fork, Italian-style, and savor the roasty chew of the crust, the creamy cheese and bright fresh sauce in one bite. The added bonus: Nattle recently expanded the minimalist menu to include some more homey salads and classic pastas, like the excellent spaghetti with cockle clams and cherry tomatoes we devoured in between bites of that stellar Regina.
Yes, Joey Baldino’s 32-seat Sicilian BYOB is still noisy, cramped, and predictable. But I’ve long gotten over the rustic room’s boisterous tendencies and try to avoid the crowds with midweek reservations. And when I say “predictable,” I mean in the very best way possible. As in reliably great, and even exciting, despite the fact his printed menu never changes. Few chefs these days manage to draw the kind of powerful flavors from traditional cooking that Baldino does nightly in his detail-driven tribute to classic Sicilian flavors. I dream of his tender rabbit cacciatore, the dusky taste of oregano in his velvety Ragusa tripe, the lemony savor of a juicy grilled swordfish steak, and the oceanic whiff of salty bottarga roe shaved over silky tagliatelle twirled in lemony olive oil.
At a recent revisit, I was reminded of just how well Zeppoli satisfies the simple pleasures as we devoured a crackly crisp breast of a perfectly juicy chicken breast lit with rosemary oil, a bountiful antipasti platter topped with roasted cauliflower and tangy caponata, then a rigatoni alla Dizgraziata whose toothy tubes snapped against melty chunks of eggplant. And then there was the marvelous Sicilian fisherman’s stew, whose dark broth was deeply steeped with fennel and crustaceans (and just a whisper of cinnamon), then piled high with head-on shrimp, tender calamari, clams and saffron-stained beads of Tunisian couscous. By the time we were done, I didn’t think I could eat anymore. But then came the creamy nondairy almond milk panna cotta called biancomangiare, a vivid scoop of pistachio semi-freddo, and the most airy sugar-dusted fritters ever. Yes, I’ve had them many times before. But these zeppoli, like their namesake restaurant, never really get old.