Craig LaBan's Dining Year in Bells

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Chef/owner Konstantinos Pitsillides works the coals to get the correct fire for his charcoal oven and grill at Kanella South, 757 S. Front St. in Philadelphia, on December 9, 2015.

Philadelphia's chefs looked to nostalgia for new inspirations in 2015. They took whole-animal cooking to new heights. They turned on some bright lights in emerging neighborhoods and brought modern riffs on traditional Asian flavors to more established dining zones. And many of them also headed south, as more than a quarter of the restaurants I reviewed this year were in South Philadelphia.

But from the ever-growing nexus of new restaurant energy on East Passyunk Avenue to the Great Northeast and the bucolic hills of Chester County, the local dining scene showed absolutely no sign of slowing ambitions.

Yet this crop of new offerings was, on the whole, not quite as stellar as in 2014, when 13 restaurants scored three bells (excellent). This year, 10 restaurants left that special kind of three-bell impression - though two were re-reviews of existing restaurants (Zeppoli and Fitler Dining Room), and another (George Sabatino's second-floor Aldine) rose to the occasion in a rousing year-end revisit.

The steady soundtrack of retro flavors lent the year a fun, wistful backbeat, with updates to South Philly Italian (Triangle Tavern), stuffed-meatloaf comfort (Bud & Marilyn's), back-alley supper club (Franky Bradley's), Pennsylvania Dutch traditions (Whetstone Tavern), and even new cocktail-bar life for Old Original Bookbinder's (The Olde Bar). The swift demise of Kevin Sbraga's Juniper Commons, though, proved locals have a limited appetite for theme over substance.

But when chefs got it right, they delivered some real keepers. None arrived with more power, personality, and passion than Kanella South, the year's Best New Restaurant. If I worried chef-owner Konstantinos Pitsillides would lose some of his Cypriot magic by moving his little BYOB to a larger space, his South Front Street home assuaged the concern.

But Kevin D'Egidio and Mike Griffiths, co-Chefs of the Year at Helm, also proved our BYOB scene is still fertile ground for young talents to make their mark. With barely $10,000 in their pockets, they took a simple bistro space, a blackboard menu with roots in nearby urban farms, and put emerging South Kensington on the map with the best modern cooking north of Girard Avenue.

There were many other triumphs. The Vedge team expanded their remarkable vision for vegetable cuisine with the exciting international plates at V Street. East Passyunk kept surging with authentic Southern Italian flavors at Brigantessa, wood-grilled Italian chops at Palladino's, and creative takes on Asian street foods at Bing Bing Dim Sum.

The farm-to-table movement took a carnivorous turn with concepts driven by sustainable meat farms, the most ambitious being the revived Mainland Inn (owned by nearby Quarry Hill Farm). Wyebrook Farm brought in Russet's Andrew Wood to cook for one of the region's most stunning terrace views. Kensington Quarters brought the whole-animal butcher shop to a unique retail-restaurant hybrid in Fishtown, where Damon Menapace, one of the year's rising stars, turned out stellar charcuterie, parsnip ravioli, and the best new burger in town.

Other young chefs - Chad Kubanoff at Same Same, Sean Magee at Heritage, David Kane at Franky Bradley's, Joe Callahan and Kris Serviss at the Blue Duck in Northeast - also made smart impressions.

Jean Broillet IV's Fermentaria, the quirky barrel-aged beer haven in downtown Ardmore's former trolley works, set the bar high for the region's explosion of new brewpubs.

For all the splashy new ideas, I loved revisiting a quiet survivor such as Queen Village's Mustard Greens. And some of my most memorable meals came in no-frills international venues, such as the beef rendang and fried dumpling soup at Indonesian Lil' Java, and the full-flavored Punjabi fare served in plastic tubs at Dana Mandi, where the dining area of communal tables is tucked behind a gold curtain at the back of an Indian market.

What tasty Philadelphia treasures await behind the proverbial gold curtains of 2016? I can hardly wait.


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claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

www.philly.com/craiglaban