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Ringing bells: 2012 in Philly restaurants

Mortadella hotdog with spicy pickles and cabbage relish as served at Alla Spine, 1410 Mt. Vernon St., Philadelphia, May 24, 2012.  ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer )
Mortadella hotdog with spicy pickles and cabbage relish as served at Alla Spine, 1410 Mt. Vernon St., Philadelphia, May 24, 2012. ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer ) David M Warren / Philadelphia In
Mortadella hotdog with spicy pickles and cabbage relish as served at Alla Spine, 1410 Mt. Vernon St., Philadelphia, May 24, 2012.  ( DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer ) Gallery: Ringing bells: 2012 in Philly restaurants

Just before The Inquirer moved this summer from its iconic white building at Broad and Callowhill, I climbed 21 stories into the clock tower's belfry and perched above the bells. There were four, coincidentally. And when they suddenly pealed at high noon, that huge iron carillon resonated so deeply in my hungry bones, I still feel its tune months later.

It was an apt sensation for 2012, because I was already on pace by summer to ring more bells of my own to celebrate Philadelphia's dining scene with higher ratings than ever before.

February's Four Bell project was a prime reason for that, as I revisited 16 favorites, and updated that lofty club with five gems landing on the four-bell summit: better-than-ever Vetri and Fountain Restaurant and newly minted elites Zahav, Bibou, and Talula's Table.

One of the most compelling story lines within that project, though, was the steep decline and sudden sale of Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin. It marked the definitive end of a classic era for a town embracing serious cooking in more casual venues than ever, and in emerging neighborhoods, too, from East Passyunk to Fishtown to South Street West and suddenly resurgent Fairmount.

More coverage
  • The 2013 Philly restaurant forecast
  • That Le Bec should be reborn so swiftly under such talented new owners, formerly of the French Laundry, is telling of another encouraging trend - an infusion of national talent that sees Philly as a city of opportunity - accessible, cosmopolitan, and ever-craving something new.

    And the year to follow would bring an exceptional crop of restaurants. South Jersey native Gregory Vernick returned home from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's orbit to open Vernick Food & Drink, my choice for "Best New Restaurant" because it most completely captures the spirit - sophisticated focused flavors without stuffiness - of fine dining's future. The stunning refinement of the seasonal small plates and charcuterie I witnessed between my initial review and end-of-year revisit to Stateside earned George Sabatino my nod for "Best New Chef." In the best year ever for young talent, those kudos could have gone to a number of chefs, from Christopher Kearse to Tim Spinner, Nicholas Elmi, Jason Cichonski, Walter Abrams, Michael Santoro, or Kevin Sbraga.

    Not to be forgotten are "Culinary Pioneers of the Year" Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, whose gorgeous and inventive Vedge elevates vegan food far beyond its niche. Steve Wildy has stepped out as this year's "Drink Maestro" for pushing both the Vetri group and Philly's beer scene deeper into the vibrant new world of Italian ales at Alla Spina.

    Some of my favorite flavors, as always, were also exotic adventures, like my subterranean journey to Chinatown's Tasty Place or the authentic Uzbek feast at Feasterville's Samarkand. I was also heartened that at least two of the five restaurants revisited for end-of-year checks (Stateside and Paramour) had improved.

    Their strides added yet more bells to a year already ringing with so many memorable flavors and exciting new names, 2012 is likely to resonate for many years to come.


     

    Every year, I revisit several restaurants I suspect have improved since their review. This year, two of the five revisits (Stateside, Paramour) produced an upgrade. The others (Route 6, Sbraga, and Square Peg) stayed the same.

     

     

    Superior (all reviewed Feb. 5)

     

     

    Bibou

    1009 S. Eighth St., 215-965-8290; biboubyob.com.

    There's a reason wine lovers clamor for reservations at this cozy South Philly BYOB: Pierre and Charlotte Calmels have created an intimate destination for personal service and soulful French bistro cooking from a master chef with haute cuisine cred. Adventure eaters thrill to the game birds and stuffed marrow bones, while more reserved diners will love the braised meats and perfect fish. The Sunday $45 prix-fixe bargain is a perfect introduction to what is already one of the best four-bell values in town. Review from Feb. 5, 2012.
     

    Fountain Restaurant

    Four Seasons Hotel, 1 Logan Square, 215-963-1500; fourseasons.com/philadelphia

    Philly's gold standard of posh hotel dining room may now be our last bastion of classic dining luxury, but it's still shining under Fountain chef William DiStefano. He's lightened some of the sauces, with a knack for exotic spices and modern ideas that lend international intrigue to the elaborate plates, served in three- or six-course tastings. Paired with some of the most seasoned service in town, the Four Seasons still delivers a taste of special-occasion opulence that is increasingly rare. Review from Feb. 5, 2012.

    Talula's Table

    102 W. State St., Kennett Square, 610-444-8255; talulastable.com

    The single-seating farm-table dinners at Aimee Olexy's crafty food market have stoked yearlong reservation waits for good reason. The ever-changing tasting menus reflect the best of farm-to-table seasonal cooking in 10-course whimsies of elegant little plates, and have become more stunning over the last five years. House-made pastries and sausages, exquisite cheese plates, and warm-but-sophisticated servers tending the intimate space and BYO wines create a sensation of the ultimate dinner party. Review from Feb. 5, 2012.

     

    Vetri

    1312 Spruce St.; 215-732-3478; vetrifamily.com

    Marc Vetri's bold move to all-tasting menus has upped the cost of dining at his intimate Northern Italian townhouse jewel. But it has also unchained his kitchen to reach new heights with personalized free-form feasts that meld classics (spinach gnocchi, onion crepe) with ethereal pastas and exotic meats (antelope alla Fiorentina in amarone sauce? Si!). Together with extraordinary wines, Philly's most complete fine-dining adventure has gotten even better. Review from Feb. 5, 2012.

     

    Zahav

    237 St. James Place; 215-625-8800; zahavrestaurant.com

    Israeli street food meets modern brilliance in the hands of chef Michael Solomonov. His wood-fired kitchen in Society Hill turns out some of the most inventive little dishes in the city, from duck kebabs to pomegranate-braised lamb shoulder and hummus so good it redefines hummus. The personable servers ably guide diners through the small-plate menu, as well as a standout Israeli wine list that helps make Zahav a completely transporting experience. Review from Feb. 5, 2012.

     

     

    Excellent

     

     

    Alla Spina

    1410 Mount Vernon St., 215-600-0017; allaspinaphilly.com

    Don't come to this garage-turned-gastropub expecting the fine dining and pastas of the Vetri crew's other places. This edgy new venture, though, is nirvana for beer geeks and nose-to-tail eaters, who'll find exotic Italian brews to wash down everything from fried pig tails to mortadella hot dogs. The small plate/whole-animal menu may be too large for its own good, but so many well-wrought flavors and a brave culinary spirit make this one of the city's new trendsetters. Reviewed June 2.
     

    Amada

    217 Chestnut St., 215-625-2450; amadarestaurant.com

    The tapas palace where Jose Garces first won Philadelphia diners' hearts remains his most compelling restaurant. It can feel like a fast-paced juggernaut while the crowds pour in despite the fact that the Iron Chef's attentions may be directed toward other projects. But the well-executed menu classics have stood the test of time, from the city's best octopus to the crispy-skinned roast pork, inventive gazpachos, and plancha-seared seafood. Reviewed Feb. 5.

     

    Ela

    627 S. Third St., 267-687-8512; elaphilly.com

    The Queen Village corner tavern that once housed Judy's and Ansill is now a showcase for one of Philly's most exciting young cooks, Jason Cichonski. The ex-Lacroix chef, in partnership with Chip Roman (Blackfish, Mica), is spinning creative whimsies like oysters topped with dill pickle foam, updated Vietnamese snacks, and a hot cookie-dough dessert that is obsession-worthy. Whether the ever-changing menu can find a harmony between the chef's haute instincts and accessibility for the neighborhood remains in question. Reviewed March 4.
     

    Fond

    1537 S. 11th St., 215-551-5000; fondphilly.com

    The couple behind Fond, chef Lee Styer and pastry chef Jessie Prawlucki, made enough progress this year at their original BYO (1617 E. Passyunk Ave.) to rise to three bells, with refined service, Philly's best pork belly, polished French-influenced cooking, and exquisite desserts. Whether their recent, post-review move to a larger full-service space on South 11th Street is another step forward should be answered in 2013. Reviewed Feb. 9.

    Il Pittore

    2025 Sansom St., 215-391-4900; ilpittore.com

    After a decade-plus as Stephen Starr's go-to corporate chef, launching restaurants as diverse as Tangerine and Stella, Chris Painter finally got a showcase of his own - an inventive modern take on Northern Italian flavors near Rittenhouse. The bi-level, skylit space is warm and comfortable, with outgoing service and a more restrained look than a typical Starr venue. Painter's menu makes a convincing case for the notion of another upscale Italian, even if there are still nuances to adjust and the inflated wine prices are a turnoff. Reviewed Jan. 22.

    Jamonera

    105 S. 13th St., 215-922-6061; jamonerarestaurant.com

    Indian is out, and Spanish is in as chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran replace Bindi with a moody tapas bar inspired by a trip to Spain. Turney's large and loosely authentic menu has honed some distinctive signatures, like the ink-fried squid, Iberico ham platters, and clever mussels escabeche. Add one of the country's most ambitious sherry lists and polished service, and Jamonera is a big small-plate hit for 13th Street's dynamic duo. Reviewed May 20.

     

    La Calaca Feliz

    2321 Fairmount Ave., 215-787-9930; lacalacafeliz.com

    Chef Tim Spinner and partner Brian Sirhal spread their Nuevo-Mex happiness to Fairmount with a city sibling to Fort Washington's Cantina Feliz, set in the skylit room and cheery back patio of the old Illuminare. Taking more risks than in their suburban kitchen, with inventive specials (pig ear terrine with guajillo salsa) and soulful flavors, Spinner has shed the label of "Garces alum" to stake a claim as the city's most exciting modern Mexican chef. The service is also outstanding. Reviewed May 5.

     

    Lacroix at the Rittenhouse

    210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 215-790-2533; lacroixrestaurant.com

    The Rittenhouse Hotel's green-velvet perch over the park remains one of the city's most lovely seats on which to spend the afternoon feasting on an epic, cutting-edge brunch. The Sunday extravaganza remains a worthy splurge, but several chef changes in recent years have dulled the attention to details needed to maintain the highest-level experience. The dinner service also showed a carelessness in timing that took away from otherwise inventive plates. Downgraded from four bells Feb. 5.
     

    Le Bec Fin

    1523 Walnut St., 215-567-1000; lebecfin.com

    Georges Perrier sold his institution shortly after February's two-bell re-review reflected its steep decline. A new owner and chef have brought this gastronomic French gem back from the edge, with French Laundry alums Nicolas Fanucci and chef Walter Abrams providing the talent Le Bec needs to rise again. While the $150 eight-course menu has extraordinary moments, it hasn't hit its full stride yet. (An $85 four-course option has since been added.) Aside from high wine prices, the decision to restore the room's stuffy old look rather than a bolder revamp risks relegating Le Bec to an aging demographic, when redefining the relevance of this experience is its challenge. Reviewed under new owners Sept. 23.
     

    Morimoto

    723 Chestnut St., 215-413-9070; morimotorestaurant.com

    Don't expect to find Morimoto himself very often in his Philly namesake anymore, but this contemporary room with wavy walls and color-shifting booths remains the city's premier topline Japanese experience. From the extraordinary sushi atop house-polished rice to the well-executed kitchen menu and sharp service, a meal here is an adventure. The omakase is a treat for first-timers, while repeat diners need to push for variation - an effort worth making. Reviewed Feb. 5.
     

    Osteria

    640 N. Broad St., 215-763-0920; osteriaphilly.com

    Since opening in 2006, Osteria has become more than the casual, more accessible sibling to Vetri. It's become a stage for talented co-owner/chef Jeff Michaud to produce inventive pastas and salumi, and modern twists on rustic Italian cooking. It has also become one of Philly's best all-purpose restaurants, whether for a power lunch or an intimate date over antipasti with one of our best Italian wine lists. Main complaint: Entrees are often outdone by the starters. Reviewed Feb. 5.
     

    Pumpkin

    1713 South St., 215-545-4448; pumpkinphilly.com

    Always a charmer, this pioneer of the BYOB boom from Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor has earned its third bell. The dining room was handsomely renovated with salvaged planks, and seats removed for more space. Longtime chef de cuisine Christopher Kearse was key to the kitchen's evolution with creativity and modern techniques. Whether this nook can maintain that level since Kearse left to open Will BYOB is yet another good excuse to revisit a longtime favorite. Re-reviewed Feb. 9.

     

    Rittenhouse Tavern

    251 S. 18th St., 215-732-2412; rittenhousetavern.com

    It's a dual comeback at the Art Alliance on Rittenhouse Square, where the city's most elegant indoor-outdoor space has been revived by talented young Nicholas Elmi, who's cooking like a chef with something to prove after his stewardship over the old Le Bec-Fin's final days. The space is ideal for many moods, from garden alfresco to fine dining. And so is Elmi's menu - seasonal, sophisticated, and artful in its New American takes on familiar flavors. Reviewed Aug. 5.
     

    Stateside

    1536 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-2500; statesidephilly.com

    A whiskey bar meets Mason-jar cuisine at this ambitious East Passyunk tavern, where fresh charcuterie, pickles, and affordable small plates with local ingredients pair with tasty cocktails and upgrade the gastropub genre.

    Talented ex-Barbuzzo chef de cuisine George Sabatino has swiftly become one of the year's most compelling cooks. A late-fall revisit showed a keen seasonality and vivid, creative pairings, from silky squash flan with charred Brussels sprouts to tender beef cheeks over tater tots and an extraordinary riff on chicken. There's also a deconstructed S'more that's one of Philly's best desserts. Reviewed March 18. Revisited, upgraded from two bells in October.

     

    Tinto

    114 S. 20th St., 215-665-9150; tintorestaurant.com

    By most measures, the Basque-influenced little plates, pintxo skewers, and plancha-seared fare at Jose Garces' second Spanish venture still ranks among the city's finest. The delivery of those exquisitely conceived dishes and quality ingredients, though, had taken on a feeling of autopilot during my review, especially the service. Reviewed Feb. 5.

     

    Vedge

    1221 Locust St., 215-320-7500; vedgerestaurant.com

    Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby took a big step into the spotlight with their move from Horizons to a stunning new home in the old Deux Cheminees, a grand manse revamped with modern style. Landau's vegan cuisine continues to evolve, with small plates that have left behind his tofu roots in favor of one of the most refined examples of pure veg-craft anywhere. With polished service and serious wines, Vedge transcends its niche as a star of national note. Reviewed Feb. 26.


    Vernick Food & Drink

    2031 Walnut St., 267-639-6644; vernickphilly.com

    Cherry Hill native Gregory Vernick has returned from the Jean-Georges Vongerichten universe to open Philly's best restaurant this year, a modern bi-level space off Rittenhouse Square where wood-fired ingredients emerge in simple yet refined combinations. The menu has small and large sharing plates, but Vernick does things with toast you won't forget. The first-floor bar is great for solo dining and cocktails, not to mention quieter than the upstairs dining room (though soundproofing remedies have been added since the review). Reviewed Sept. 2.

     

     

    Very Good

     

    American Sardine Bar

    1800 Federal St., 215-334-2337; americansardinebar.com

    The gastropub as gentrifying force is at work again as the South Philly Tap Room team pioneers the northern end of Point Breeze with a hipster and sardine makeover of an old corner tappie. It's a familiar formula built on craft beers and fun bar food. But there's also a lot of unique personality to chef Scott Schroeder's freewheeling all-sandwich menu (plus awesome onion rings) that just might make this quirky venture the destination it needs to be. Reviewed June 10.
     

    Barclay Prime

    237 S. 18th St., 215-732-7560; barclayprime.com

    New Age carnivores looking for a sexier steak house have long turned to the green leather couches of this posh Stephen Starr dining room for ultra-high-end beef, kobe sliders, and other items that require more cooking skill than the usual chop house can offer. An early year revisit still had the look - but none of the finesse in seasoning or execution needed to deliver this food right. The prices are too high for many off-nights like that. There's been a chef change since the review. Downgraded to two bells on Feb. 5.
     

    Blue Belly BBQ

    600 Catharine St., 215-238-0615; bluebellybbq.com

    Chef Gene Giuffi's smoker-powered lunch counter, just a few puffs from his popular Cochon, is one of several new barbecue options in town, and also the most unconventional. Purists may balk at the plain meats, as smoke is used more for flavor than low-and-slow technique. But the limited menu offers intriguing riffs on unusual meats (venison, boar), plus a knack for internationally flavored sandwiches. Reviewed Nov. 25.
     

    Forest & Main Brewing Co.

    61 N. Main St., Ambler, 215-542-1776; forestandmain.com

    Not your father's brewpub, this quirky microbrewery from Daniel Endicott and Gerard Olson sits in a refurbished Victorian home where beer fans come for cask-conditioned English-style ales, funky Belgian saisons, homemade pub fare, and an intimate ambience that adds to Ambler's rising dining scene. The unique brews aren't for everyone and the small menu could benefit from a lighter touch, but this is one of the most distinctive additions to the beer scene this year. Reviewed Aug. 19.

     

    Heirloom

    Top of the Hill Plaza, 8705 Germantown Ave., 215-242-2700; heirloomdining.com

    Well-traveled chef Al Paris (Rococo, Zanzibar Blue) has landed a new home in this ambitious BYOB at the top of Chestnut Hill, where he draws inspiration from regional American traditions for modern dishes that overflow with seasonality. The dishes sometimes get too cluttered with odd combinations, and the service can be stiff. But Heirloom is nonetheless one of the better additions to this neighborhood in a long time. Reviewed April 29.
     

    Henri's Hotts Barbeque

    1003 Black Horse Pike, Folsom, N.J.; 609-270-7268; henrishotts.com

    Douglas Henri has gone from prison guard to pit master with a roadside barbecue "retirement project" in South Jersey. His surprisingly simple approach of plain meat truly smoked, plus a mysteriously dark and tangy sauce, yields satisfaction in this modest dining room. Don't miss the fried chicken and wings, plus spot-on sides that'll make you want to picnic. Reviewed July 22.
     

    Hickory Lane

    2025 Fairmount Ave., 215-769-2420; hickorylanebistro.com

    Former Rouge chef Matt Zagorski has brought refined American fare to this sharp corner room beside Eastern State Penitentiary. The prices may be a shade high to lure a larger neighborhood crowd, and the plates aren't especially innovative. But high-quality ingredients and solid cooking make this open-kitchen bistro worthy for those seeking classics - a good steak, burger, or quality fish - properly done with a light, modern touch. Reviewed May 13.
     

    The Industry

    1401 E. Moyamensing Ave., 215-271-9500; theindustrybar.com

    Tap your inner line cook and go for the offal and craft beer at Pennsport's gastropub ode to local restaurant culture from the owners of Good Dog Bar. The kitchen delivers fun twists on familiar flavors, even if tweaks are needed for the menu to hit its stride. The experience isn't as edgy as the insider concept, which means that this nicely designed space is user-friendly for all, and a welcome neighborhood anchor. Reviewed Nov. 11.
     

    Lemon Hill

    747 N. 25th St., 215-232-2299; lemonhillphilly.com

    Add a great cocktail-centric gastropub to Fairmount's recent resurgence with this ambitious neighborhood tavern from the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. team. The menu delivers fun, seasonal, and handcrafted American fare with Southern accents. But the tuned-in service and exceptional drink program - craft cocktails, esoteric beers, and intriguing wines - really distinguish this updated corner pub. Reviewed Oct. 7.
     

    Loco Pez

    2401 E. Norris St., 267-886-8061; locopez.com

    Fishtown can't get much more hipster than this kitschy-cool Mexi-pub, where an affordable menu inspired by L.A. taco trucks has transformed a nuisance bar into a neighborhood hub. The menu plays against gringo and border-food clichés (hard-shell tacos, burritos, etc.) with good ingredients, house preparations, and a whimsical secret menu (try "K&A-style" waffle-fry nachos). With great beer and margaritas, it's no wonder this taco tavern has become a local favorite. Reviewed Jan. 15.
     

    The Mildred

    824 S. 8th St., 267-687-1600; the-mildred.com

    Chef Michael Santoro, formerly of Talula's Garden, has made a cast-iron comeback with old pal Michael Dorris for this sophisticated-rustic revamp of the old James, inspired by their Staub cookware. The French and Brit influences result in exciting updates to bouillabaisse and roast game for sharing, and the bar is well-rounded. The bland space is still finding its identity, but enough sparks make this debut feel like the beginnings of something great. Reviewed Dec. 9.
     

    Nomad Pizza

    611 S. 7th St. 215-238-0900; nomadpizzaco.com

    The pure simplicity of a pizza-and-salad menu is key at this breezy Bella Vista branch of the Hopewell-based pizzeria, which got its start on a refurbished REO Speedwagon-turned-pizza-truck. Craft beer and wine are added here (plus movie nights upstairs). But the focus on pie pays off: As a citywide pizza renaissance picks up, these heat-blistered and pliant Neapolitan-style pies are now Philly's best in the authentic genre. Reviewed May 27.

    Paramour

    139 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-977-0600; paramourwayne.com

    The Wayne Hotel's staid dining room has undergone a lavish face-lift, swapping the former Taquet's classic French inclinations for a more New American-style menu. The setting and prime ingredients are ready. But a lack of cooking finesse and overwhelmed service did not yet correspond to the seriously upscale prices.

    A revisit started ominously with oversalted soup. But the service was sharper. And the chef woke up, too, with some impressive plates, including succulent scallops with celery root puree and puffed rice, addictive bacon-onion-Gruyère flatbread, and excellent coconut "budino" for dessert. Reviewed with one bell April 22; revisited and upgraded in December.
     

    The Pickled Heron

    2218 Frankford Ave., 215-634-5666; thepickledheron.com

    Rising Fishtown and East Kensington is feeling the joie at this ambitious newcomer, a classically inspired French bistro from chef couple Daniela D'Ambrosio and Todd Braley. The cheery orange BYO exudes an appealing commitment to local ingredients and DIY passion, from the hand-laid cherry floors to the house charcuterie and churned butter. The seasonal menu could use more consistency, and perhaps a price cut, to ensure that a local following for this promising upstart takes root. Reviewed April 8.
     

    Pizza Brain

    2313 Frankford Ave., 215-291-2965; pizzabrain.org

    Philly's pizza revolution takes a quirky turn at this oddball outpost for pie and ice cream on the East Kensington-Fishtown border. "Museum" is a stretch for Brian Dwyer's pizza memorabilia collection, and the seat-yourself space still has rough edges. But the American-style pies are better than expected, and the in-house partnership with daring Little Baby's Ice Cream (at 2311 Frankford) creates a one-of-a-kind experience that's too fun and funky to resist. Reviewed Dec. 2.
     

    Rex 1516

    1516 South St., 267-319-1366; rex1516.com

    The resurgence of South Street West has acquired an appealing Southern accent with this Cajun-inflected bistro from the owners of nearby Jet Wine Bar. Dramatic curtains and wrought-iron accents evoke faded grandeur. Opening chef Regis Jansen, an Alabama native, lent the affordable menu an earnest Gulf Coast flair. Let's hope his recent departure, leaving longtime sous chef Justin Swain in charge, goes down as smoothly as a Sazeracs. Reviewed Sept. 9.

     

    Russet

    1521 Spruce St., 215-546-1521; russetphilly.com

    Whole animals and seasonal inspirations go into Andrew and Kristin Wood's kitchen, and superb pastas, house-cured charcuterie, and fine pastries emerge into the spare but elegant dining room at Russet, a husband-and-wife BYO with a farm-to-table bent. The couple have the right pedigree (Quince, Tru, Trio, Radius, James, Fork) and ingredient-first approach for great Italian-inflected dining. But just a few details held this bistro back. Reviewed June 17.
     

    Samarkand Restaurant

    1135 Bustleton Pike, Feasterville-Trevose, 267-288-5077; restaurantsamarkand.com

    A taste of Central Asian adventure awaits those who journey to this hidden strip-mall gem, where a blue-lighted banquet hall showcases the flavors of Uzbekistan. Charcoal-grilled skewers, soulful soups, meaty dumplings, and lamb-scented pilafs are prepared by native chefs for large tables of expats who come toting their own vodka and Cognac ready to dance their kebabs off to live music. Reviewed Oct. 21.
     

    Sbraga

    440 S. Broad St., 215-735-1913; sbraga.com

    Top Chef champ Kevin Sbraga made his much-awaited debut as a real-life restaurateur in an open kitchen framed by salvaged planks and stainless steel, where his fans watch the chef and his crew create ambitious $49 tasting menus. The New American plates are TV-gorgeous, from foie gras soup to fancy meat loaf, but often lacked finesse during the initial reviewl.

    The service - poorly paced earlier - had matured by year's end. But the food remains a paradox - exquisitely plated and inventive, but too often lacking real flavor impact, from thin shrimp bisque to a venison-foie gras terrine that paired awkward textures. The rabbit pot pie was underfilled and too overwhelmed by unexpected spice to merit a $14 upgrade to the tasting menu. There were exciting moments - miso-glazed bluefish, sublime veal cheek, and cinnamon churros. But the sparks were still too infrequent to move me - and this still-promising restaurant into three-bell territory. Reviewed Jan. 8. Revisited December.
     

    Sky Cafe

    1540 W. Ritner St., 215-271-1983; skycafe215.com

    This family-run cafe brings a sambal-spiced authentic taste of Sumatra to South Philly's Indonesian neighborhood. From the house-made noodle soups to the excellent pork platter, killer satay, and stir-fried rice, Sky delivers bold Medan-style flavors at affordable prices in a simple, pleasant room that should appeal to adventure eaters and novices alike. Reviewed March 25.

     

    Tasty Place

    "Chinatown Mall" basement, 143 N. 11th St.; 215-592-8990.

    Treasure-seekers head underground to find Simon Sei's gem, a bright nook at the back corner of a basement supermarket, where for nearly two decades the master chef has been cooking some of the freshest, most affordable food in Chinatown. Expect classic Cantonese wokery and neighborhood regulars, who come for salt-and-pepper chicken wings that rank among the city's best. Reviewed June 24.
     
     

    Ulivo

    521 Catharine St. (at East Passyunk Avenue), 215-351-1550; ulivophila.com

    Former Sovalo chef Joseph Scarpone has made a much-awaited return to the dining scene in a bare-bones Queen Village trattoria. The BYOB experience lacks some polish, but his affordably priced and vividly rendered Italian menu of simple, seasonal fare (amazing gnocchi) outweighs the inexperienced service and numbingly loud, wedge-shaped room. Reviewed Feb. 19.
     

    Will BYOB

    1911 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-7683; willbyob.com

    Ex-Pumpkin chef Christopher Kearse's debut as an owner shows potential to become Philly's next great BYOB, a simple 30-seat box with excellent service and ever-changing menus that recasts classical ideas with cutting-edge techniques. The inventiveness is exciting, even if the kitchen doesn't always hit its mark. As that success rate rises, and a finer balance is struck between edginess and culinary harmony, and more attention is paid to creature comforts, Will will be a prime candidate for a more elite rating. Reviewed Nov. 18.

    Yanako

    4255 Main St., Manayunk, 267-297-8151; theyanako.com

    This cedar-clad haven for quality sushi in Manayunk is the latest from Nongyao "Moon" Krapugthong, the owner of Chabaa Thai, who's turned to chef Agus Lukito to carry the Japanese menu of this tranquil bi-level destination. The straightforward preparations are stronger than the more complicated rolls, as well-cut, high-quality seafood distinguishes this fish counter as a worthy player. Some creative flashes, though, show greater potential. Reviewed Nov. 4.

     

     

    Hit or Miss



    Birra

    1700 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-324-3127; birraphilly.com

    Gordon Dinerman has the right idea with his fun revamp of a corner pizza-and-beer concept, emphasizing craft brews (many Italian), and pizzas with unconventional toppings (pasta). Unfortunately, the food was consistently stifled by poor execution and less-than-stellar recipes, leaving the lively central bar and sidewalk seating as the best reason to visit this East Passyunk hot spot. Reviewed April 15.
     

    The Cambridge

    1508 South St., 267-455-0647; cambridgeonsouth.com

    Expect to wait for a seat in this handsome new pub on sizzling South Street West, courtesy of the owners of Hawthornes Cafe. There are plenty of great libations, from craft drafts and coveted sour ales by the bottle to well-made cocktails. But the menu of handmade comfort favorites falls short with careless cooking, resulting in so many burnt items, it wasn't worth the wait. Reviewed Dec. 16.
     

    Fare

    2028 Fairmount Ave., 267-639-3063; farerestaurant.com

    Healthy-minded diners have embraced this warm yet contemporary restaurant bar, where the affordable menu stresses organic and low-fat with vegan options. While the concept is relatively guilt-free, down to the organic liquor cocktails, the kitchen consistently fumbled the cooking, limiting Fare's appeal to a neighborhood crowd rather than a wider audience. Reviewed Jan. 1.

     

    NoBL

    24 N. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne, 484-461-2689; noblbyob.com

    The team behind Sycamore launched this ambitious BYOB, a casual Mediterranean small-plater with a "salvage chic" decor and edgy menu. The amateurish service and poor cooking, though, didn't work - and NoBL closed briefly post-review to regroup. It recently reopened with a chef change and stripped-down menu. Reviewed Oct. 28.
     

    Popolino

    501 Fairmount Ave. (N. Fifth St.), 215-928-0106; modomiorestaurant.com (click the Popolino tab)

    Gregarious chef Peter McAndrews' rapid expansion of trattorias has produced a Roman-themed BYOB for Northern Liberties, where a vast "tavola calda" of seasonal antipasti salads, welcoming service, and a corner room set the scene for a menu of adventurous offal and bold flavors. The $40 four-course option is a good value, but the two-fisted cooking is so inconsistent it appears McAndrews' empire-building ambitions exceed his quality-control reach. Reviewed Sept. 20.
     

    Route 6

    600 N. Broad St., 215-391-4600; route6restaurant.com

    Philly's fish-house tradition goes East Coastal on North Broad Street, where Stephen Starr borrows inspirations from Maine to Maryland for his latest seafood project. The beach-evocative space and a few solid menu specialties (raw bar, lobster) make Route appealing, but the kitchen was too inconsistent at the initial review.

    The concept has since been simplified a bit, and the splendid raw bar (one of city's best) plus outgoing service remain genuine virtues. Kitchen changes, though, resulted in regression at my revisit. Almost the entire meal was overcooked, from a big dry lobster over the bake to the Ipswich clams (rubbery, both fried and steamed), to the puny and bland lobster roll, and a boringly plain whole daurade. The wood-grilled salmon was excellent - as long as we avoided the nearly inedible, metallic-flavored mustard sauce. Reviewed March 11. Revisited December.
     

    Square Peg

    929 Walnut St., 215-413-3600; squarepegrestaurant.com

    Chef Matt Levin, whose journey from haute cuisine wunderkind to junk-food savant began when he left Lacroix at the Rittenhouse for Adsum, has found an even more casual venue in this bi-level Wash West restau-bar to spin his decadent American-comfort revamps. Uncharacteristically spotty execution and comically weird service, though, weighed down my first review meals.

    The kitchen (with Levin on site) was even worse at a recent revisit, as our dinner ranged from juiceless over-fried chicken to rubbery pierogi, gloppy Salisbury steak, chicken tacos glazed in off-kilter Gen. Tso's sauce, and a mayo-drenched bowl of "hoagie dip" that was simply a very, very bad idea. The only things keeping this venture from sinking to No Bell depths were a well-spiked Big Lebowski white Russian shake, and our server, Patrick, who showed more pep, awareness, and enthusiasm than this let-down corner really deserves. Reviewed July 15. Revisited December.

     


    Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Fork. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan.

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