Rising stars

It was a year of evolution on Philadelphia's dining scene, with talented young restaurateurs aiming high.

It was the year that small plates finally made it big. It was the year that restaurants figured out how to sell wine again - by the glass - despite the continued growth of BYOBs.

It was the year of Spain and gastro-pubs and a refreshing breath of smoke-free air. It was a year in which legends retired and rising stars stepped in. It was a year that reviving neighborhoods got hip new names (like G-Ho), and historic spaces (XIX Nineteen, Restaurant M, and the Water Works) returned for glory.

When the reservation books finally close on 2006, the year will be remembered as one of subtle but significant evolution for Philadelphia's dining scene.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the dinerati were not fixated by a new Stephen Starr opening, as his empire's sights turned to Manhattan and Atlantic City. But there are so many ambitious young restaurateurs filling the void, from Jose Garces to Daniel Stern and David Ansill, that perhaps more than one new dining empire was launched this year.

Garces led the way with his Old City tapas smash, Amada, making a case for Spanish small-plate wine bars that was followed by Northern Liberties' sexy Bar Ferdinand. There were numerous variations on the small-plate bar theme - the esoteric gems at Ansill, Asian small-plates at Mantra and Raw, a French bistro flair at Vintage, and Wilmington's polished Domaine Hudson - that point to a major departure from traditional three-course fine dining.

Although there are still plenty of those restaurants setting high standards around town. The entire four-bell category was updated, with Lacroix at the Rittenhouse and Striped Bass joining the elite club alongside Vetri, Le Bec-Fin, Fountain Restaurant, and Susanna Foo, while two others - ¡Pasion! and Django - slipped from the topmost rank.

But the year's highlights were not solely high-end. There were exciting ethnic flavors that poked their way out of obscurity, from Brazilian churrasco in the Northeast to fiery Szechuan in Chinatown and South Indian dosas in Exton.

The veggie crowd should be thrilled with the arrival of innovative Horizons in Center City, where Rich Landau is probably the best chef that Philadelphia's carnivores have never heard of. Meanwhile, a number of other promising new names also arrived this year - Kibett Mengech (Ansill), Marc Plessis (XIX), David Katz (M), Dave Clouser (Sola) - for a certified bumper crop of new talent that should make 2006 a year to savor for some time to come.

SUPERIOR

Fountain Restaurant

Four Seasons Hotel,

1 Logan Square, 215-963-1500.

The Fountain wraps diners in the lavish elegance of a grand hotel with the city's best service and a powerhouse kitchen. Expect to pay big, but the menu delivers stellar international haute cuisine rooted in the finest ingredients and refreshing imagination. Feb. 12.

Le Bec-Fin

1523 Walnut St., 215-567-1000.

The multicourse, budget-busting French feast may be a dying art, but Georges Perrier's gastronomic jewel remains an experience unlike any other. From the lavishly gilded room and tuxedoed minions to both classic and contemporary French cuisine at its highest level, this institution still delivers ultimate luxury after 35 years. Feb. 12.

Lacroix at the Rittenhouse

210 W. Rittenhouse Square, 215-790-2533.

Founding chef Jean-Marie Lacroix has stepped down from his green velvet perch overlooking Rittenhouse Square, but talented successor Matthew Levin has finally elevated this luxury destination to elite four-bell status. He's maintained the city's best blowout brunch, but also infused the other menus with the inventive spirit of Philly's most sophisticated contemporary cooking. Dec. 10.

Striped Bass

1500 Walnut St., 215-732-4444.

REVISIT:Striped Bass completed its comeback under latest owner Stephen Starr, when rising-star chef Christopher Lee brought it to the four-bell pinnacle early this year. Lee's sudden departure this summer, though, cast uncertainty over the big fish. The rating won't change while current chef Paul Liebrandt is still "interim." But is it holding steady?

A recent meal was reasonably reassuring. The room lacked some energy, the wine list was clad in a cheap plastic binder, and the menu seemed pared-down. But the service was seamless, and I ate some stunning modern dishes - lobster carbonara with parmesan froth, barbecued sweetbreads with crab croquettes - that make a good case for Liebrandt to settle in. Feb. 12. Revisited November.

Susanna Foo

1512 Walnut St., 215-545-2666.

Susanna Foo's exquisite French-Chinese cuisine sets the city's benchmark for creative but natural fusion cooking in a dining room dressed in silk and orchid elegance. Foo's kitchen does a nice job melding new ideas with her classic repertoire, and the service is impressively polished. Feb. 12.

Vetri

1312 Spruce St., 215-732-3478.

Marc Vetri's townhouse homage to rustic Italian cooking continues to mature as the city's most personal and intimate gastronomic experience. The chef revels in unique interpretations of authentic ingredients that are often daring but always delicious. The service is uncannily sharp, the wines are top-notch, and a handsome new vestibule entrance has improved the tight space. Feb. 12.

EXCELLENT

Amada

217 Chestnut St., 215-625-2450.

Discover your inner flamenco (and the city's hottest new spot) at this sexy tapas haven, where Jose Garces presents stunning updates to classic Spanish flavors in an evocative, 135-seat space in Old City. The service is impressive and the menu well-tuned, but those little plates add up quickly. Feb. 5.

Ansill

627 S. Third St., 215-627-2485.

The small-plate phenomenon meets strange meats at David Ansill's daring Queen Village wine and "snack" bar in the former Judy's. But set your inhibitions aside, because while the offerings may be exotic, chef Kibett Mengech spins them into exquisite bites served with style and one of the city's smartest wine-and-beer lists. May 14.

Gayle

617 S. Third St., 215-922-3850.

Former Le Bec-Fin chef Daniel Stern gives unexpected modern twists to familiar foods at this warm new destination in the former Azafran, where soups become sauces, stews are deconstructed, and endive will never be the same. Some experiments work better than others, but the gambles almost always pay off. Service is also superb. March 19.

Horizons

611 S. 7th St., 215-923-6117.

You don't have to be a vegan to appreciate what Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby have created at their new location for Horizons in Bella Vista - a pretty Caribbean-style room that is the city's only serious vegetarian restaurant. Landau's exotic and inventive preparations of seitan and tofu are spectacular, and the ambience, bar and service are major steps up from their now-closed suburban location. May 21.

Matyson

37 S. 19th St., 215-564-2925.

This charming storefront bistro from Matt and Sonjia Spector has matured into one of the best BYOs in the city. He cooks, she's a pastry whiz, and their creative New American fare has matured by leaps and an additional bell after my latest visit. The weekday theme tastings are fun, and the coconut cream pie alone is worth a visit. Jan. 23.

XIX (Nineteen)

Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue, Broad and Walnut Streets, 215-790-1919.

Hyatt has done a stellar renovation of the dining rooms high atop its grand hotel, dangling pearl-like baubles from the domed ceilings and swapping a modern look for fusty old Founders. The raw bar and wines-by-the-glass are a treat. The contemporary menu from new chef Marc Plessis, meanwhile, is often spectacular. July 2.

¡Pasion!

211 S. 15th St., 215-875-9895.

The brilliant seviches and chile-kissed flavors of Nuevo Latino cooking blossom in this beautifully tropical tented dining room. Chef Guillermo Pernot still creates some of the city's most inventive and personal cuisine; however, both the kitchen and service have slipped a notch in consistency - at the cost of its former fourth bell. Feb. 12.

Pond and Bistro Cassis

175 King of Prussia Rd., Radnor, 610-293-9411.

There are still swans in the pond and a storybook allure to the garden-trimmed restaurant and bistro complex that used to be Passerelle. New owner and chef Abde Dahrouch, formerly at Taquet, has added more of a French tone (with Moroccan accents) to a dual-venue concept that is a sophisticated addition to the Main Line scene. Aug. 6.

Sovana Bistro

The Willowdale Towne Centre, 696 Unionville Rd., Kennett Square, 610-444-5600.

Chef Nick Farrell's horse-country strip-mall gem has grown into one of the suburbs' best BYOBs, with a casual-yet-stylish contemporary room and a bright menu that elevates European bistro fare in creative ways, from awesome thin-crust pizzas (topped with clam chowder?!), to superb homemade pastas, and great hanger steak with three-day frites. April 23.

VERY GOOD

Alphabet Soup

34 W. Merchant St., Audubon, N.J., 856-310-0605.

After a sophisticated meal at this whimsical new BYOB, the dinerati should be able to spell E-X-C-I-T-E-M-E-N-T. The New American menu from chef and caterer Jayson Grossberg has some stunning dishes (best in a $65 multicourse tasting). With a few more touches, including better desserts, it could become one of South Jersey's best. Dec. 17.

Bar Ferdinand

1030 N. Second St., 215-923-1313.

The latest in a wave of Spanish offerings, this handsome mosaic-clad tapas bar in Northern Liberties from designer Owen Kamihira features well-cooked renditions of traditional Iberian flavors from young chef Blake Joffe. It's deafeningly loud, but with beautiful decor, nice wines, and affordable proper tapas, the crowds are bound to grow. Nov. 5.

Cantina Los Caballitos

1651 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-755-3550.

Mexican food goes gastro-pub at this appealing South Philly cantina. The tattooed hipsters come for killer margaritas in the moody orange room, tequila-ficionados find a stellar list of primo shots at the bar, and a talented new chef has upped the kitchen's burrito ambitions with both a trendy nuevo touch (seviches) and authentically rustic braised meats (baby goat). Nov. 12.

Casona

563 Haddon Ave., Collingswood, 856-854-5555.

South Jersey has found a surprisingly convincing Latin beat at this sultry newcomer, where traditional Cuban specialties, from tender pulled pork to seafood paella, are served in contemporary style at a splendidly redone Haddon Avenue manse. Prime seats are on a grand wraparound porch that lends a touch of the Caribbean to the Collingswood breezes. Aug. 13.

Deuce Restaurant and Bar

1040 N. Second St., 215-413-3822.

A slice of Old City has landed in Northern Liberties at this loungey restaurant, which feels like a gastro-pub with a feminine touch, from the red-lit, button-tufted decor to the corny cocktails and homemade ketchup. The kitchen tries hard to deliver creative upgrades to pub comfort food, though the chef has changed since the review. Jan. 8.

Devi

151 Whiteland Town Center, Exton,

610-594-9250.

Dosa lovers should make the trek to this obscure suburban Indian find. Wedged into a strip mall between Route 30 and the Pottstown Pike, it's an adventure diner's gem - a rare example of south Indian vegetarian cuisine so finely prepared, it transcends the steam-table buffet format and modest decor. July 25.

Divan Turkish Kitchen

918 S. 22d St. (at Carpenter), 215-545-5790.

This pretty new Turkish BYO is a bright surprise in the rapidly gentrifying Graduate Hospital neighborhood between South Street and Washington Avenue. The affordable menu offers excellent renditions of standard Turkish grill fare, from iskender kebabs to manti dumplings and whole grilled fish. Service is still uneven. Aug. 20.

Django

526 S. Fourth St., 215-922-7151.

REVISIT:The cozy BYOB that inspired a generation of ambitious bistros has seen few obvious changes to its ambience since it changed hands last year. But the appealingly seasonal New American menu has taken a noticeable step down in elegance and execution.

A year-end return visit showed a bit more focus to the plates, but too many dissonant grace notes and odd combinations (Peanut sauce with duck sausage and kimchee? Anchovies laced atop lamb ragout?) continue to diminish otherwise ambitious efforts. The service, once reliably impressive, also seemed to be drained of its usual zip and warm hospitality. Original review Feb. 12; revisited December.

Domaine Hudson Wine Bar & Eatery

1314 N. Washington St., Wilmington, 302-655-9463.

Wilmington gets into the small-plate wine-bar craze at this clubby little eatery, where a huge selection of intriguing wines by the glass is paired with ex-Dilworthtown chef Jason Barrowcliff's New American fare. The wines are worthwhile; the service is fine-tuned; and though the menu sometimes lacks focus, it's good enough to help the affordable wines shine. July 23.

El Vez

121 S. 13th St., 215-928-9800.

The city's most sophisticated Mexican food is still at Stephen Starr's colorful Tijuana fantasy room, with Mexican-born chef Adrian Leon. A slip in service and too much ice in the margaritas, though, dropped El Vez a notch from its previous three-bell rating. Feb. 5.

Estia

1405 Locust St., 215-735-7700.

The grand theater-district space left by Toto is now an elegant Greek seafood palace decked in Jerusalem limestone, rustic wood beams, and a display of imported Greek fish, the kitchen's signature. The whole fish are exquisite, but high prices and a limited menu have kept the vast dining room feeling empty. Feb. 26.

Gioia Mia

2025 Sansom St., 215-231-9895.

Two La Veranda alums have added yet another Italian restaurant to Rittenhouse Square's wealth of Italian options, but this one is worthwhile, with authentic flavors from chef Fabrizio Pace focusing on seafood, simple pastas and quality meats. The airy double-floored space (formerly Cibucan) is roomier than much of the competition. Jan. 1.

Good Dog Bar and Restaurant

224 S. 15th St., 215-985-9600.

The smoking ban has cleared the smog from one of the city's most intriguing gastro-pubs, where a mixed crowd of bike messengers and barristers swig cans of PBR and indulge the virtues of updated comfort cuisine stuffed with cheese - including Philly's best cheeseburger. Dec. 3.

Howard House Tavern

Main and North Streets, Elkton, Md., 410-398-4646.

Real Maryland crabs can't be found much closer to Philadelphia than Elkton, and this unpretentious pre-Civil War tavern delivers some of the best hard-shells I've had, succulent big guys steamed beneath a thick dusting of coarse Old Bay. The cheesy crab-stuffed soft pretzel is an instant classic. Sept. 10.

The Inn at St. Peter's Village

3471 St. Peter's Rd., St. Peter's Village, 610-469-2600.

Chef Martin Gagné has moved from the Loews Hotel to a poshly renovated country inn deep in Chester County, where he's serving upscale New American cuisine with polished service and a view of French Creek. The menu stresses local ingredients and stylish plates, but would benefit from more focused flavors. The potential here is huge. Nov. 19.

La Lupe

1201 S. Ninth St., 215-551-9920.

The city's best taqueria brings a fiesta of authentic Mexican cooking to Ninth Street's Cheesesteak Central. The service is painfully slow, but the made-to-order tortillas are worth the wait, as is most of the broad menu. The roll-up glass walls (and fair-weather picnic tables) also have a view onto this bustling South Philly hub. Jan. 22.

Picanha Brazilian Grill

6501 Castor Ave. (at Hellerman), 215-743-4647.

A Northeast diner has been transformed into a genuine Brazilian grill, with an authentic buffet leading to a back counter where the grill chef slices salt-crusted meats from the skewer to your plate. The owner's taxidermy collection adds a little churrasco touch to the coffee-shop decor. March 12.

Restaurant M

225-31 S. Eighth St.; 215-625-2946.

When the torches are ablaze in the secluded garden behind the historically appointed Morris House Hotel, this sleek newcomer is one of the city's special dining spaces. Chef David Katz is also impressive, with a minimalist New American menu that focuses on great ingredients and vividly framed flavors. With sharper service, more wines and better desserts, the potential here is grand. Oct. 8.

Restaurant Taquet

Wayne Hotel, 139 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-687-5005.

Clark Gilbert is the new man behind the stove at Jean-Francois Taquet's posh perch in the Wayne Hotel, an elegant room and grand outdoor porch overlooking Wayne's main drag. Gilbert has done a nice job updating the French cuisine. The restaurant still exudes Main Line stuffiness. June 4.

Slate Bleu

100 S. Main St., Doylestown, 215-348-0222.

Mark and Susan Matyas have brought a classic French bistro to downtown Doylestown's historic Agriculture Works building. The menu is upscale and features well-crafted retro standards (like airy quenelles) drawn from Mark's years as chef at Manhattan's La Grenouille. The low-energy service staff and weak wine list, though, need serious attention. March 26.

Sola

614 W. Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, 610-526-0123.

This cozy Main Line address has seen a string of sophisticated BYOBs, but the latest chef-owner, Dave Clouser, is the most promising tenant yet, providing a polished upscale New American menu in a comfortable space. A notch more consistency in food and service would nudge this ambitious bistro into more elite company. Nov. 26.

Szechuan Tasty House

902 Arch St., 215-925-2839.

Get a rare and fiery taste of authentic Szechuan cooking at this Chinatown newcomer. The colorful little room is pleasant enough, but it's the vibrant dishes that make the meal, with careful preparations and a peppercorn-flared chile heat that is both stinging and seductive. Feb. 19.

Taste

161 W. Girard Ave. CLOSED. Reviewed May 7.

Trio

2624 Brown St. (at Taney), 215-232-8746.

This pleasant Asian venture from three Siri's alums is one of Fairmount's first new restaurants in a while, offering affordable and fairly well-prepared Thai-fusion cuisine in a pretty multilevel space featuring an airy deck with a skyline view. The service is friendly but uneven; it feels more like a welcome neighborhood haunt than a destination. July 30.

Villa di Roma

936 S. Ninth St., 215-592-1295.

The DeLuca family's red-gravy classic may look and taste like a '60s time capsule, but it remains an essential part of the Italian Market experience, with some of the most genuine Southern Italian American home cooking in town; a lively, unpretentious dining room; and a staff that makes sure you polish off every last bite with motherly tough love. April 9.

Vintage

129 S. 13th St., 215-922-3095.

This bustling bistro from Delphine and Jason Evenchik presents a wine bar with urban style but also a refreshing lack of pretense. The menu offers affordable French bistro fare, from escargot nibbles to more ambitious blackboard twists, but the wide-ranging wine list - with more than 60 by the glass - is the main attraction. Dec. 24.

AVERAGE

Astral Plane

1708 Lombard St., 215-546-6230.

REVISIT: Few destinations have the quirky charm of this Restaurant Renaissance classic, where the '70s decor and charismatic owner, Reed Apaghian, have drawn loyalists to the tented dining rooms for more than three decades. The kitchen strives for updated flavors, but with the exception of a tasty barbecued pork chop, it's too inconsistent to carry it off. Service also lags, ranging from spacy to indifferent. A recent revisit showed little change. For Astral fans, though, that may be its greatest virtue. Jan. 29. Revisited December.

Crescent City

600-602 S. Ninth St. (at South), 215-627-6780.

This good-looking Creole newcomer has its cafe windows and warm burgundy-red dining room wide-open to the reviving South Street scene. Unfortunately, the kitchen's loose interpretations of New Orleans cooking are plagued with inconsistencies and misleading menu descriptions. Oct. 1.

Mantra

122 S. 18th St., 215-988-1211.

The latest tenant of the perpetually changing space that once was Fishmarket is an affordable Asian small-plate lounge from Al Paris, of Zanzibar Blue. His handcrafted decor is evocative, with a rippling gold bar wall and hodgepodge Zen imagery, but the "Asian soul food" menu tries to cover too much ground for its own good, stumbling over muddled flavors and spotty execution. Sept. 24.

Out of the Blue

253 S. 20th St.CLOSED.Reviewed April 2.

Pelican Fish

1305 Locust St. CLOSED. Reviewed Jan. 15.

Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge

1225 Sansom St., 215-238-1903.

REVISIT: The entertainment crossroads of 13th and Sansom has another cool nightspot in this stylish sushi and sake bar slipped into the bamboo-fringed storefront of the old Stetson building. It's great for a sip of serious sake and a light nibble, but the fusion cooking rarely tasted as good as it looks.

A revisit showed too little improvement for Raw to keep a second bell, with overcooked (and flavorless) teriyaki salmon and wildly overwrought maki rolls - too big, stuffed with too many ingredients, and streaked with a riot of multicolored sauce - that are the sushi equivalent of pop candy. June 18. Revisited December.

Sidecar Bar & Grille

22d and Christian Streets, 215-732-3429.

The long-promised gentrification south of Graduate Hospital gets a boost from this stylish corner bar, which has transformed an old-style taproom into an aspiring gastro-pub with microbrews, Quizzo nights, grilled "toastie" sandwiches, and arugula salads with blood-orange vinaigrette. If only the food were a notch better, this pioneer could be a hit. June 11.

Ted's Montana Grill

260 S. Broad St. (at Spruce), 215-772-1230.

REVISIT: You can usually bet on the bison at Ted Turner's casual new steak chain on the Avenue of the Arts, but not much else. The western saloon decor is appealing, as is the notion of affordable pre-theater dining, but the food is mundane at best, even the touted burgers. A recent revisit showed no improvement, with friendly but amateurish service and an inability to properly cook a $30 bison steak - despite two tries. For such a high-profile corner (formerly Avenue B), this newcomer is shootin' low. April 30. Revisited December.

The Water Works Restaurant and Lounge

640 Waterworks Dr., 215-236-9000.

A quarter-century in the works, fine dining has finally landed at the historic Water Works and its spectacular terraced view of Boathouse Row. It has tremendous promise as a destination, but the kitchen struggled to realize an ambitious (and pricey) contemporary menu with Medi-Mex accents. The reviewed chef has since been replaced by manager Ed Dougherty, who once upon a time was chef at La Campagne. Oct. 29.

Revisited Restaurants

The Year in Bells is a record of the year's reviews and ratings. But inevitably, the restaurants continue to evolve. With this in mind, I annually make year-end revisits to several restaurants which I suspect underperformed during their initial review, or underwent a major change. This year, I revisited five. For the first time ever, though, none had improved enough to move up a ranking - and one even slipped a bell.


Craig Laban