Thursday, January 29, 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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4 Bells: According to Craig, the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

‘Work for great chefs” is usually the best advice I have for young cooks. The downside, of course, is that the shadow of a truly great mentor can be so long that eventually escaping it can take half a career. Tim Spinner, 33, moving with vibrant salsas, inventive ceviches, and duck-stuffed chiles en nogada in his wake, is now finally basking in his own light. It’s no wonder the skeletons look so joyous in the colorful murals that line the walls at La Calaca Feliz cafe (which means “the Happy Skeleton”), the sunny Nuevo Mex restaurant that he and partner Brian Sirhal opened just over three months ago in Fairmount.
Provençal rosé is doing the quick fade, at least when it comes to color. Popularity of the refreshing southern French pink, in fact, has never been stronger, with a 62 percent growth in U.S. imports between 2010 and 2011, according to the French customs agency Ubifrance. “It started with the yacht crowd in the Hamptons,” one distributor told me, “and spread from there.” The fashion among Provence’s modern rosés, however, has been to make them as pale as possible, and the best, like Château D’Esclans, manage to achieve this without sacrificing fullness of flavor. Just north of St. Tropez, this relatively young estate owned by Sacha Alexis Lichine allows the grenache grapes to ripen deeply, but uses high technology to keeps the grapes chilled, minimize skin contact, and prevent oxygen exposure. With the addition of aromatic vermentino, winemaker Patrick Léon has crafted some high-end rosés with complexity and aging potential (like my fave, the hard-to-find Les Clans, $59) Their entry-level bottle, though, Whispering Angel, is worthy in its own right, with limestone brightness and notes of strawberry and cassis that leap from the glass, with a creamy mouthfeel from extended time on the lees. The color may be pale, but the flavor sure isn’t.

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