Thursday, May 28, 2015

Craig LaBan

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I joined the Inquirer as its restaurant critic in 1998, after a stint covering the food beat for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Having eaten about 500 restaurant meals a year here ever since, I never cease to be amazed by the diversity and sophistication of Philadelphia's kitchens. To travel from its many authentic ethnic neighborhoods to the gastronomic temples of Walnut Street to its beery gastropubs, cozy BYOBs and multitude of greasy-but-great steak joints, is to know this town delivers satisfaction at every level of the food chain. Including online dish.

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A rising column of smoke caught the corner of my eye just as I was zooming past. And then, as the low-slung white building of Henri's Hotts receded in my vision on the Black Horse Pike, the aroma hit me like a barbecue ghost — an intoxicating whiff of slow-roasting meat. My synapses fired, the steering wheel turned, and my car veered with appropriately screeching tires onto the Route 54 off-ramp to reverse our course from west to east. My kids howled in protest, and my wife went ominously silent at the sudden detour, eager as we all were to finally return to Philly from our time away at the Jersey Shore. But some things in life are worth straying off-course and off-schedule for. Some things merit making room for an early snack. And great barbecue — which has frustratingly proven to be one of the rarest finds in this part of the country — tops the list. Within a few moments, literally the second our teeth sank into the pink "halo" that kissed the meat of those baby back ribs with smoke, they would understand this, too.
Square Peg may be the perfect name for a restaurant featuring Matt Levin, a chef who's long been one of our most exciting cooks — but one who has also never quite fit in. From his debut splash at Moonlight, where his contemporary brilliance was a stark contrast against New Hope's touristy scene, to the luxury stratosphere of Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, where his cuisine soared but his edgy personality was at odds with the haute hotel (and its bureaucracy), Levin is a unique talent who always has sought to straddle the worlds of "fine" and "fun" dining, but struggled to find the right venue. His turn at Adsum gave a glimpse of his preferred more populist side — a vision for bar food at once sophisticated, playful, and indulgent that won critical acclaim. But it turned out not to be the sustainable neighborhood concept Queen Village really craved, as Tapestry, Adsum's less ambitious but thriving successor, can attest.

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