"Hi, I'm your server, and I'll be right back!" Well, that was quick. Our blur of a waiter was frazzled, but nice enough. And he did pause again at the table several minutes later, visibly perspiring on this bustling weekend night at the Lucky Well in Ambler. He wasn't ready yet to talk food but reassured us that a special order had been placed: At any moment, we should expect ice for our lukewarm, somewhat funky water.
Gooey perfection There is a fine line between gooey and runny. "I've battled with it for 15 years," says Laini Fondiller, standing on the picturesque hillside of Lazy Lady Farm, the "off-the-grid" goat cheese farm she's owned for three decades on Vermont's northern edge. "But I've finally perfected it this year."
Philadelphia restaurants have been in full ampersand mode these days. A string of new places have employed that curvaceous conjunctive glyph - Bank & Bourbon, Bourbon & Branch, Crow & the Pitcher - for a wink of retro style or, perhaps, a hint that no single word can encapsulate the multifaceted mission so many restaurants must juggle in 2014.
Philly's gastropub boom was a part of this hungry city's recession reply - beer-soaked, boldly flavored and casual - to the demise of glitzy haute cuisine. But in these postrecession days of heady restaurant growth, a new generation of more refined projects has lately emerged, including one notable newcomer in Townsend, on East Passyunk Avenue, which reaffirms the timeless virtues that carefully measured fine dining can still hold.
There are 15 courses in the "performance" that is currently dinner at Volver, Jose Garces' jewel-box kitchen atelier in the Kimmel Center. And some of them are memorable, from the skewered takoyaki balls stuffed with salt cod among the opening snacks to a bowl of "milk & cereal" unlike anything you'd eat for breakfast.
There's much more to Japanese food than raw fish. Hiroyuki "Zama" Tanaka is determined to make that point at his new CoZara in University City, where he's skipped the sushi bar and fired up the grill and deep-fryer to conjure some of his favorite homeland comforts for an izakaya-style gastropub.
As trend-spotting goes for Chinese food on the East Coast, the basement food court at New World Mall in Flushing, N.Y., is the place to begin. That's where Jack Chen, owner of Sakura Mandarin in Philadelphia's Chinatown, first spotted the spicy mix-and-match stir-fry bowls called ma la xiang gou.
On Sunday we headed off to Conte Farms in Tabernacle, Burlington County, for our annual blueberry-picking fest. It doesn't take long to fill those buckets - we collected 10 pounds in an hour, which at $2.50 a pound was a pretty good deal for berries so fresh . . . I find Conte's fruit reliably great every year, and it's a wonderful family ritual.
'I haven't picked up a vegetable peeler since I've been here - and it feels so good." Several thoughts strike me when Justin Petruce tells me this. Number one: It must be liberating to finally be the boss, as the 33-year-old and his co-chef brother, Jonathan, 32, are in their debut at Petruce et al., the buzzy Center City restaurant where they've partnered with one of Philly's top wine geeks, Tim Kweeder.
Live chat: Join Craig at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays in the chatroom.
Book: The Philadelphia Inquirer Restaurant Guide
4 Bells: According to Craig, the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.