What 2009 put on our tables

The year in bells

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Checkerboard sashimi at Umai Umai in Fairmount. A drop-off with the cooked menu holds this gem of a sushi bistro shy of its potential. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

If a recession is the ultimate test of a restaurant scene's soul, 2009 proved that Philadelphia's virtue as an eater's paradise is growing as dynamically as ever. Yes, revenues on the whole were off. And, yes, we witnessed the pillars of another era's glory days begin to tumble, as Walnut Street's Restaurant Row saw Brasserie Perrier, Susanna Foo, and Striped Bass close.

But what filled the void – aside from a mini-stampede of upscale new steak houses - was heartening. We saw the promising rise of such new stars as Pierre Calmels (Bibou), Anne Coll (Meritage), David Katz (Mémé), Lee Chizmar (Bolete in Bethlehem), Lee Styer (Fond) and Robert Halpern (Marigold Kitchen). Old favorites came back better than ever. The Fountain reaffirmed its four bells under its new exec-chef, Rafael Gonzalez. Konstantinos Pitsillides payed homage to rustic Cypriot fare at Kanella. New chef Terence Feury led Fork to three bells. A new generation of Minks lent their Oyster House a bright update. Melograno made a seamless move to a bigger space. And Brauhaus Schmitz brought a much-appreciated return of brats and great bier to a city that had nearly lost its German roots.

The Brauhaus fits perfectly into a city that continues to be joyfully obsessed with beer, from our ever-growing roster of gastropubs (like Lucky 13 on thriving East Passyunk Avenue) to a bigger-and-better Beer Week festival. Jose Garces continued his march - with two new hit restaurants and the newly earned title of Iron Chef - to become one of the city's dominant restaurateurs.

As for the year's hit flavors, prime steak might have grabbed the early headlines. But as chefs looked for inventive ways to get the most out of their increasingly value-centric menus, pork was their inspiration in all its many forms, from the now-ubiquitous belly to increasingly sophisticated explorations of charcuterie and fun with pig trotters.

But I also discovered Shanghai juicy buns and silky scallion pancakes at a new Chinatown favorite (Sakura Mandarin), gorgeous sushi creations at Umai Umai, fiery Szechuan hot pots in Royersford (Han Dynasty), FedEx-fresh genuine mole at Que Chula es Puebla, and a sublime new burger idol (with a wall of bourbon!) at Village Whiskey.

Fun, indeed. A year of economic challenges brought out the best from our chefs. And with them lies the promise of a tasty year to come. But first, let us retoll the bells and highlights of 2009:

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Revisited Restaurants

Every year, I revisit a handful of restaurants that I suspect underperformed during their initial reviews. It's a second chance to mark improvement, a major change, or, occasionally, a decline. This year, two of the five revisits produced upgrades (Mémé, Alison Two), and one (Del Frisco's) slipped a rung. 

SUPERIOR

FOUNTAIN RESTAURANT

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

Newcomer Rafael Gonzalez has taken the executive-chef wheel, but his veteran crew has maintained a seamless consistency at Philly's palace of posh. The Fountain still purrs like a luxury cruiser in gastronomic overdrive, with the finest ingredients cast in beautifully inventive contemporary plates, delivered by some of the smoothest service in town. It's still a gold-plated splurge, but prices have actually been lowered recently a karat or two. There have been rumbles of a potential Fountain closure since the review, but the local Four Seasons staff adamantly denies that talk as rumor. Reviewed June 7.

EXCELLENT

BIBOU

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

Pierre Calmels has traded in the haute-cuisine trappings of Le Bec-Fin (he was night chef there) for a cozy little Italian Market BYO where he's cooking the most soulful and polished French bistro fare around. His wife, Charlotte, also runs the dining room with grace, making this perhaps the best successor possible to the former Pif - and Philly's hottest new BYOB period. With a little noise control and a shade less restraint for the limited, ever-changing menu, Bibou can be even better. Reviewed Aug. 30.

BOLETE

1740 Seidersville Rd., Bethlehem, 610-868-6505; www.boleterestaurant.com

The farm-to-table movement has a rising star in Bethlehem, where chef Lee Chizmar and Erin Shea have elevated a colonial-era stagecoach tavern into a destination that's drawing from well beyond the Lehigh Valley. With stellar New American fare inspired by the bounty of local farms, personal service from Shea's team, a smart wine list, and the building's quirky historic charm, this is a complete package worth a weekend jaunt. Reviewed Oct. 11.

BUTCHER & SINGER

1500 Walnut St., 215-732-4444; www.butcherandsinger.com

A gilded bull has replaced the big fish in Stephen Starr's transformation of Striped Bass into a palace for luxury steaks with retro shtick. It actually works, from the tufted half-moon booths and plaid carpet to the superb prime meats and throwbacks like lobster thermidor and baked Alaska. The management can be intrusively chatty, but the hard sell isn't necessary to see that this grand space is now among the city's elite chophouses. Reviewed Feb. 15.

CHIFA

707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555; www.chifarestaurant.com

Chef Jose Garces adds another small-plate star to his ever-growing constellation with this ambitious Chino-Peruvian-fusion palace on Chestnut Street's new restaurant row. The wide-ranging Latin-Asian menu is a shade less focused than his tapas and Mexican concepts, and the rambling, moody room has some undesirable seats. But the talented kitchen turns out so many gorgeous, intricate, and stunningly tasty dishes, from pork-belly buns to one of the best chickens in town, it's hard not to be impressed. Reviewed May 24.

FORK

306-308 Market St., 215-625-9425; www.forkrestaurant.com

With the arrival of a commanding new chef, this Old City pioneer has suddenly morphed from "old reliable" into "oh, my!" as one of Philly's most satisfying dining experiences. Chef Terence Feury (Striped Bass, Maia) has given the menu a sophisticated artisan upgrade in both the fine-dining room and the Wednesday night prix-fixe bargain meals in the market next door, finally crystallizing the potential of owner Ellen Yin's vision for the ideal New American bistro. Reviewed May 3.

KANELLA

1001 Spruce St., 215-922-1773;

www.kanellarestaurant.com

A far cry from the typical taverna, this corner BYOB near Washington Square is a heartfelt homage to the authentic Cypriot-Greek flavors of Konstantinos Pitsillides' island home, with an emphasis on soulful game stews, grape-leaf-wrapped fish, and ancient grains. The spartan space belies the passion behind the rustic experience here, which, both in food and in service, is genuine and unique. Reviewed March 8.

MÉMÉ

2201 Spruce St., 215-735-4900; www.memerestaurant.com

Talented chef David Katz has transformed the charmed corner nook of the former Melograno into an austere, yet lively, showcase for vividly redefined rustic bistro flavors. A small, seasonal menu focused on great ingredients, sharing-size portions, and sharp technique produced memorable takes on standards from skillet-sizzling mussels to roast chicken.

At a revisit, some early service wrinkles that held Mémé back at its initial review have clearly been smoothed. Katz's cooking, meanwhile, has only gotten better, with signatures like his knock-out fried chicken Thursday lunch, a spectacular pork chop for two that's one of the best sharing plates in town, and simple wonders - like his milky chestnut soup - that show a chef in command of his flavors. The small, new wine list could be more bold with its limited choices, but this corner is still in good hands. Reviewed Feb. 1; Revisited December

MELOGRANO

2012 Sansom St., 215-875-8116; www.melogranorestaurant.com

The recent move to a larger space hasn't dimmed the magic of the city's best Italian BYOB. If anything, the long and lively rustic space has only improved the trattoria, allowing Roman-born chef-owner Gianluca Demontis to begin taking a few more risks, adding gutsy new dishes like snail-porcini soup, pig's foot terrine with lentils, and a sea-flavored carbonara to an already stellar repertoire of deceptively simple, but well-wrought, classics. Reviewed Jan. 18.

MERITAGE

500 S. 20th St., 215-985-1922; www.meritagephiladelphia.com

It's the same name but a completely different restaurant at this old favorite; the most recent owners have gone casual with a cheery yellow redesign and lowered prices, and have hired an emerging kitchen talent in Anne Coll. Formerly Susanna Foo's executive chef, Coll brings an uncommonly deft Asian-fusion touch to gorgeous contemporary fare that is among the city's best fine-dining values. Service is earnest and personal, while the long-standing wine focus remains, but with an effort at affordability. Reviewed Nov. 8.

SNACKBAR

253 S. 20th St., 215-545-5655; www.snackbarltd.com

After a few years of noodling with avant-garde, small-plate preciousness, Snackbar has lowered prices and finally nailed the happy medium between innovation and accessibility - for which it earns a third bell. Talented young chef John Taus (ex-Zahav, James, Tangerine, Bliss) has a knack for updating familiar comforts, whether it's popcorn tossed in brown butter and fleur de sel, a croquette of crispy pig trotters and chanterelles over jalapeno grits, or a schmaltz-infused pastry round of chicken pot pie with a smear of creamy sage gravy on the side. It's still deconstructed - but only just enough to put this corner boîte (and its modern fireplace wall) back on my go-list of the city's hottest flavors. Revisited and rerated Dec. 3

VERY GOOD

A LA MAISON BISTRO

53 W. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore, 484-412-8009; www.alamaisonbistro.com

The Main Line gets a taste of the French-bistro resurgence with this lively storefront cafe in downtown Ardmore, where a menu of Gallic classics, from spot-on onion soup to hearty cassoulet, is served in a bustling room decked with antique copper cookware and rustic bric-a-brac. Some dishes could use some extra refinement (as could the service), but there's a joie de vivre to this pleasant newcomer that feels like the beginnings of a neighborhood keeper. Reviewed April 12.

ALISON TWO

424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-591-0200; www.alisontwo.com

Alison Barshak's suburban domain expanded, then contracted, as her longtime Blue Bell haunt closed in favor of more focus on this handsome new sibling outpost in Fort Washington. It's bigger and more comfortable than the original bistro, with one of the best cocktail bars and wine and beer lists in the 'burbs.

A lack of kitchen execution (beyond the fantastic potato chips) at the initial review put a serious damper on an otherwise intriguing, internationally inspired menu. But a recent revisit with newly hired Andrew Brown behind the stoves showed noticeable improvement, with lobster-huitlacoche enchiladas, tamarind-glazed short ribs, and phenomenally crisp skate in brown butter (a Blue Bell standard) alongside mashed avocado over a warm masa cake that were well worth the upscale prices. Finally! Reviewed Jan. 25; Revisited December.

BRAUHAUS SCHMITZ

718 South St., 267-909-8814;

www.brauhausschmitz.com

Brush up your umlauts over a glass of Köstritzter and a meter of house-made Nürnberger brats at this hopping new South Street bier hall, where Philly's dwindling German tradition has gotten a welcome (albeit noisy) revival. The menu is traditionally heavy, but authentically tasty and well-made. The beer list offers the city's most comprehensive German selection. And don't let the kitschy dirndls fool you - these well-versed fräuleins are some of the best bar servers in town. Reviewed Oct. 4.

EARTH BREAD + BREWERY

7136 Germantown Ave., Mount Airy, 215-242-6666; www.earthbreadbrewery.com

Brewer Tom Baker and Peggy Zwerver have a winner with their funky new pizzeria and brewpub, a sprawling and casual bi-level space where the wood-fired oven, eccentric artisan beers, and Earth-friendly mission are perfect for Mount Airy. The menu is limited (and the meat toppings need some work), but the affordable "flatbreads" are among the best of the city's new pizza generation. The Philly debut of Baker (formerly of central Jersey's Heavyweight Brewing) marks an important addition to the local beer scene. Reviewed Jan. 11.

FOND

1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-5000; www.fondphilly.com

Philly's magic BYOB machine has produced yet another winning bistro for an emerging neighborhood, this time with young talents from Le Bec-Fin and Lacroix bringing sophisticated New American dining to an intimate dining room on East Passyunk Avenue. The small menu has some memorable moments; the service is refined and outgoing. With more maturity and consistency, this promising gem can become special. Reviewed Nov. 29.

GIRASOLE

1410 Pine St. (in Symphony House), 215-732-2728, www.girasolephilly.com

This one-time orchestra-crowd Italian favorite has resurfaced after a five-year hiatus in a glitzy boutique of a space in the Symphony House - and it's worth a new look. The decor may be overdone in a showy prerecession gold shimmer, but there's still a genuine down-to-earth warmth to the kitchen, where generations of Iovino women turn out authentic carpaccios, fresh pastas, homemade sausage, and sweets with a Neapolitan touch. Reviewed Oct. 18.

HAN DYNASTY

Limerick Square Shopping Center, 70 Buckwalter Rd., Royersford, 610-792-9600; www.handynasty.net

Heat-seekers and fans of authentic Chinese fare alike will be rewarded for the long journey up Route 422, where this strip-mall gem is producing some of the best Szechuan cuisine in the region. Ignore the half-hearted stabs at Americanized Chinese cliches (and the accompanying rushed, distracted service), and enlist opinionated owner Han Chiang to be your guide on an adventure banquet through the numbing spice, exotic meats, cold dishes, and sizzling dry pots of fiery Szechuan cuisine. A new branch opened at the end of December in Old City. Reviewed April 19.

IZUMI

1601 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-1222; www.izumiphilly.com

Sushi lands - at last! - in the old Italian heart of South Philly, where this stylish little Japanese BYO from the owners of Paradiso adds a welcome taste of diversity to East Passyunk's evolving restaurant strip. The deft and affordable sushi menu is more successful than the cooked fusion fare, making this a pleasant neighborhood spot more than a destination. But it's an addition the gentrifying neighborhood needs. Reviewed March 15.

LITTLE FISH

600 Catharine St., 215-413-3464; www.littlefishphilly.com

The city's shrimpiest dining room has made a big splash with an all-seafood mission that has won surprising national accolades - and for good reason. Mike Stollenwerk, the latest owner-chef of this longtime BYO favorite, has taken the daily-changing menu to another level of sophistication with top ingredients and deft contemporary ideas. It's a bit pricey given the sardine-like cramped quarters and occasional off dish. But the Sunday prix-fixe menus are a bargain, and it's hard not to be charmed by the grand ambitions of this tiny pearl. (Update: Sous-chef Chad Jenkins has taken over since the review, while Stollenwerk focuses on the larger new Fish near Graduate Hospital.) Reviewed Feb. 8.

LUCKY 13 PUB

1820 S. 13th St., 215-336-8467; www.lucky13pubphilly.com

Yet another "old-man bar" turns hipster haven in this latest pocket-size addition to South Philly's burgeoning gastropub scene. But there's also a personality to this intimate nook that is unique, from amiable owner Clark Newman behind the bar to the surprisingly creative fare from chef Benjamin Johnson (ex-Plough & the Stars), whose eclectic menu ranges with wit and fair prices from a "deconstructed" meatball sub to handmade samosas. Reviewed April 26.

MANGOMOON

4161 Main St., 215-487-1230; www.mymangomoon.com

Chef Nongyao "Moon" Krapugthong has opened a contemporary Asian grill-pub serving flavorful Thai small plates that are an adventurous companion to the more familiar menu of her nearby Chabaa Thai. Service is still disorganized, and some items, from grilled Thai chicken livers to sea cucumber soup, may prove a bit daring for mainstream tastes. But the trilevel space is a handsome spot, nonetheless, with the kind of character and boldly unique flavors a reviving Manayunk can use. Reviewed March 29.

MARIGOLD KITCHEN

501 S. 45th St., 215-222-3699; www.marigoldkitchenbyob.com

Eaters of the avant-garde will want to investigate the modern plates now being spun at Marigold Kitchen by new chef-owner Robert Halpern - but the foam-phobic need not apply. Halpern uses every trick in the molecular gastro-book (from bubbles to meat glue) on plates that are usually tasty as well as inventive. There are still a few too many cliches and experiments in progress, not to mention service issues, but the promise is obviously worthwhile. Reviewed Dec. 13.

MIGA

211 S. 15th St., 215-732-1616; www.migarestaurant.com

Center City's first upscale Korean restaurant, courtesy of deli-buffet entrepreneur Sam Cho and his wife, Jackie, delivers mostly solid renditions of traditional Korean cooking with outgoing service in the posh space of the former ¡Pasion! The electric in-table grills and the moderate spicing won't replace North Philly's gutsy charcoal-fired BBQ haunts, but Miga is likely to become the friendly introduction to Korean cuisine for mainstream Philadelphia that is long overdue. Reviewed Nov. 1.

NOVITÀ BISTRO

1608 South St., 215-545-4665; www.novitabistro.com

What opened last fall as yet another addition to an overcrowded field of Italian BYOs has evolved to reflect more of the native Moroccan flavors of owner-chef Hassan Zanzoul. From chicken tagines to house-made merguez with charmoula, the exotic dishes add some distinction to the otherwise simple, but well-cooked, Mediterranean menu. Service is scattered, but a warm ambience and moderate prices make this bistro first-date-worthy. Reviewed June 28.

OYSTER HOUSE

1516 Sansom St., 215-567-7683; www.oysterhousephilly.com

The classic Philly fish house gets a welcome breath of new life with the third generation of Mink men now running this Sansom Street institution. Old-timers will be shocked by the room's airy and modern redesign, not to mention a lack of roux in the lightened-up fare on chef Greg Ling's up-to-date menu. But it all feels true enough to tradition to bridge the raw-bar generations, and with more consistency and a few tweaks, the next level is within its reach. Reviewed Sept. 20.

QUE CHULA ES PUEBLA

1356 N. Second St., (at Master) 215-203-0404

This modest-yet-tidy new taqueria adds another authentic note of Puebla-style cooking to our rising repertoire of Mexican flavors, though this outpost caters to the northern river wards, not the Taco Belt of South Philly. Aside from a few false token flavors for the gringos, Delfina Pacio's kitchen serves numerous dishes worth the trip, from one of the best moles around to Sunday pozole and stunningly rich flan. Reviewed May 10.

SAKURA MANDARIN

1038 Race St., 215-873-8338

This cheery green corner room in the former Ong's is quickly becoming a Chinatown favorite for a wide-ranging menu that has an authentic Shanghai touch, from "juicy buns" (soup dumplings) to wine-poached duck tongues, braised pork shoulder, and the city's best scallion pancakes. A surprisingly artful sushi bar plus some excellent Szechuan dishes, as well as friendly and attentive service, add to this newcomer's pleasant appeal. Reviewed Aug. 2.

SAUTE

775 S. Front St., 215-271-9300; www.sauteonline.com

Never mind the prosaic name, this promising bistro is one hop forward for a once-fallow Queen Village space, which now offers an intimate chocolate-brown dining room and a creative young chef, Nicholas Cassidy (ex-Alma de Cuba). The ever-changing, wide-ranging New American menu could use a bit more consistency (especially at prices a shade higher than typical BYOs), and the friendly but scattered service could also be tuned up. But this ambitious newcomer is already off to a good start. They've changed managers since the review and added a fairly marked-up wine and beer license, but BYO remains possible for $1 per person (no bottle limit). Reviewed May 31.

SLATE

102 S. 21st St., 215-568-6886; www.slatephiladelphia.com

The sleek new spot in the old Cafe Habana is a 'tweener for the gastropub scene - too polished for the usual hipsters, too casual to be an upscale destination. But a neighborhood crowd is starting to discover Slate's virtues: the long granite bar tended by the personable owner, Laurentiu Muras, and an affordable menu of creative, crafted flavors. Well-received chef Eric Paraskevas has left since the review (to launch Terra) and has been replaced by Matthew Hartnett, a veteran of Caribou Cafe. Reviewed May 17.

SPICE INDIAN THAI BISTRO

4843 W. Chester Pike, Newtown Square, 610-356-5262 (or 5252); www.spicebyob.com

The dual-concept menu at this stylish suburban bistro reflects the authentic flavors of the two owners' curry-centric homelands: Thailand and India. The Thai fare is decent, but it's the Indian kitchen, with its emphasis on less-common south Indian dishes, that distinguishes this newcomer. It's slightly pricier than most local Indian spots, but the contemporary ambience and quality cooking make it worthwhile. Reviewed Jan. 4.

SWIFT HALF

1001 N. Second St., 215-923-4600; www.swifthalfpub.com

This second venue from the Good Dog crew is one of the best bets of the half-dozen restaurants flanking the vast Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties, a unique new public space that evokes Europe more than Philly. The mostly tasty pub menu aims for more polish than Good Dog's, with good charcuterie, cucumber sandwiches, a "fudge board," and a stellar burger (even if it's not stuffed with cheese) to go with wee-size glasses of craft beer. Reviewed Sept. 27.

UMAI UMAI

522 N. 22d St., 215-988-0707; http://web.mac.com/umaiumai

With little notice over the last few years, chef-owner Alex McCoy has built a devout following for his intimate sushi bistro in Fairmount, and for good reason. He's one of the most creative fish-slingers in town, with inventive signature rolls and often exotic, high-quality ingredients that are worth coming for. The personable servers can also be impressive, but a serious drop-off with the cooked menu holds this gem shy of its potential. Reviewed June 21.

UNION TRUST STEAKHOUSE

717 Chestnut St., 215-925-6000; uniontruststeakhouse.com

One of several entries in our new luxury fleet of banks-turned-beef-palaces could be our grandest chophouse yet, with soaring cathedral ceilings, sleek design, and a superb raw bar to complement the prime chops. Early turmoil and chef changes in the kitchen, however, plus a less-than-prime economy, have had a noticeable effect, with lower prices and a less ambitious menu that needs to refine the details before this promising newcomer can rise to the next level. Reviewed July 19.

VILLAGE WHISKEY

114 S. 20th St. (at Sansom), 215-665-1088; www.villagewhiskey.com

Star chef Jose Garces has raised the "bar" high, with a corner saloon that turns out Philly's best burger in a drinker's paradise outfitted with a stunning wall of whiskey and serious mixologists working cocktail magic. But good luck getting in. The oddly designed little space coupled with the no-reservation policy makes it convenient only for small parties at off hours. At other times, expect hour-plus waits for what is otherwise a singular burger-bourbon fix. Reviewed Dec. 6.

WINE THIEF

7152 Germantown Ave., 215-242-6700, www.winethiefbistro.com

Mount Airy's oft-frustrated quest to land a quality neighborhood restaurant has gotten a moderate boost from this comfort-food bistro and wine bar. There are still plenty of rough edges and inconsistencies, from cooking details to slow service. But there are also more than enough nice flavors, good vibes, and wine values to mark this reasonably priced newcomer down as a potential local favorite headed in the right direction. Reviewed Oct. 25.

HIT-OR-MISS

EL CAMINO REAL

1040 N. Second St., 215-925-1110; www.bbqburritobar.com

A young Northern Liberties crowd goes burritos for this "border bar" revamp of the old Deuce from the owner of neighboring Bar Ferdinand. But the best of ambitions to recast Tex-Mex's tired image with a bi-concept menu of slow-smoked barbecue and scratch Mexi-cooking got lost amid the sloppy bar scene and inconsistent kitchen.

A late-year chef change had little positive effect. In fact, my December revisit was even less encouraging, from the guacamole-spattered menus to the inedibly salted seitan and a barbecued short rib that was both tough and bland. Stick with El Camino's stellar whiskey and tequila list, and sate the munchitos elsewhere. Reviewed April 5; Revisited December.

FIRECREEK

20 E. Lancaster Ave., Downingtown, 610-269-6000; www.firecreek-restaurant.com

The steak-house phenomenon has found its way to the far western 'burbs, where chef Carlo deMarco (who also owns 333 Belrose) and his team are serving meats and more in a stylishly rehabbed old paper mill overlooking a branch of the Brandywine. The vast space is dramatic, with exposed stone walls, salvaged mill wheels, and a riverside terrace. But service is sketchy, and the New American grill menu hasn't nearly enough consistency and finesse for the prices. Reviewed Sept. 6.

KONG

702 N. Second St., 215-922-5664; www.eatatkong.com

In his second restaurant, Bistro 7 chef Michael O'Halloran offers an unexpected take on Hong Kong street food - but this promising concept arrives with disappointing results. The former Sovalo has been intriguingly Asianized with birdcages and Kowloon graffiti, but the kitchen's affordable Western updates of Chinese specialties, from house-cured bacon to noodle soups, too often taste out of register and ill-conceived. Reviewed Nov. 22.

NOBLE AMERICAN COOKERY

2025 Sansom St., 215-568-7000; www.noblecookery.com

I want to love this ambitious arrival from the crew behind Blue (now closed on Long Beach Island). It sounds all the right themes, from a regionally inspired seasonal menu to the smart service, all-American wine list, and a handsome bi-level space stylishly fitted with salvaged wood, flip-up windows, and skylights. But too many execution goofs hampered this creative kitchen, especially with overcomplicated entrees that were too pricey to miss.

A year-end revisit brought a similar see-saw meal, with real highlights (duck with cranberry mole) dampened by real duds (an awful mustard-lathered arctic char). Noble, it turns out, was still in transition. A new chef is slated to start the first week of January - talented Brinn Sinnott, who last year helped earn Supper three bells. Let's hope he brings this Noble addition the love it deserves. Reviewed Aug. 16; Revisited December.

PARKER'S PRIME

4755 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square, 610-353-5353; www.parkersprime.com

The Somboonsong family's rapidly growing suburban restaurant group (Teikoku, Azie) has jumped into the steak craze with this Asian-accented chophouse in Newtown Square's former Roux 3. The sleek dining room, good ingredients, and expansive wine list are promising. But the menu is unimaginative considering the fusion possibilities, and the steaks are inconsistently cooked. Given the high-end prices, the service ranged from amateurish to offensive. Reviewed Dec. 20.

SEASONS 52

2000 Route 38, Cherry Hill Mall 856-665-1052; www.seasons52.com

The promise of seasonal, healthful cooking at the mall comes wrapped in an appealing package of wood smoke, great wines, and a handsome California-style ambience. But ultimately, the butter-free menu of grilled and oven-roasted fare offers an uninspired take on spa food that shows the lack of finesse (and lightning speed) one expects from a chain. Genuinely good wines by the glass and a fun piano bar are this newcomer's best traits. Reviewed June 14.

SOUL

8136 Germantown Ave.

CLOSED. Reviewed Feb. 22.

NO BELLS

POOR

DEL FRISCO'S DOUBLE EAGLE STEAK HOUSE

1426-28 Chestnut St., 215-246-0533; www.delfriscos.com

It's hard to imagine a bigger disappointment than this ultra-luxe steak chain, which upped the year's chop-house wars with a jaw-dropping columned space in a former bank, a towering glass wine cellar, a frisky bar scene for the corporate set, and prime meat chops at prices that were jaw-dropping, too.

For all the recession-blind glitz, however, the hard-sell service was irritating and the cooking too suspect to merit the expense. Amazingly, a year-end revisit was even worse, with several dishes bordering on inedible, from a wickedly oversalted asparagus bisque to rubbery shrimp cocktail (drenched in gooey sauces), grease-soaked giant onion rings, and a $39.95 strip steak dredged in so much black pepper that it had to be recooked. It was a memorably dismal meal worthy of elite distinction - the "No Bell prize" no one wants to win. Reviewed March 22; Revisited December.