Craig LaBan:

Good afternoon, my hungry friends, Happy New Year, and welcome back to the first Philly food chat of 2008! I hope you all had stellar holiday celebrations – I know I did. The new year always has a note of rebirth to it, but this year begins, unfortunately, with a Requiem for a Dim Sum Darling. Upon my return, my email in-box was crammed with panicked notes from readers worried that one of my most favorite Chinatown joints had closed. It is true. Lakeside Chinese Deli, the best dimsum parlor in Chinatown, is done. I saw its gutted bones just this afternoon, and even spoke with owner Brenda Leung, and her brother, partner, and chef, Eric Ng, who were passing by out front. They have retired, she said, though they hardly look the age she claims (63 for him, almost 60 for her). The secret? All that duck blood pudding, I suppose (“Chinese chocolate,” as Brenda would say).. (more)....

Craig LaBan:

All of Lakeside's specialties were crafted to order with a touch rarely seen in the bigger Honk Kong dimsum palaces - those miniature baby bok choys, crispy chiew chow dumplings, meat and peanut dumplings, tiny cockle clams sautéed with spicy ground pork and black beans. Gone…. Brenda says she's hardly slept since the place closed a few days ago, she misses her customers so much. And yet, she seems relieved, relaxed. Stay tuned for more on the Lakeside story. In the meanwhile, who will become new dim-sum favorite? It is a difficult title to bear. Just take a look at this week's Crumb Tracker quiz...

Craig LaBan:

The Crumb Tracker Quiz: Guess the three places in order that I ate these dishes, and win a signed copy of my book: 1) A Christmas buffet with, among other things – venison meatballs and chocolate-glazed foie gras truffles; 2) chicken cutlet sandwich at a true, deep South Philly luncheonette (where the grill is just a hoagie roll’s throw from Goretti H.S.); 3) the most ordinary dim-sum in Chinatown (my unfortunate first try to replace Lakeside).

WPD:

Hi Craig. I was at Thomas Keller's Per Se over the holidays and a woman at another table, with Philly connections, said she'd heard that Keller is supposed to open a burger place here? The Per Se staff hadn't heard anything, but I was wondering if you knew of such a plan?

Craig:

Thanks for the note, WPD. Lucky you, to eat at Per Se, which is undoubtedly one of the best restaurants in America. I haven't heard that Keller is planning on doing a burger place - not here, at least, let alone NYC - but it wouldn't completely shock me. Every other haute restaurateur, from Danny Meyer to Daniel Boulud, has reimagined the burger. And as you all know, it's a genre I appreciate. If it happens, I'm sure Keller will rethink the burger in a way it's never been done before. Dare to dream, Burger-lovers!

Shawn:

Hi Craig, any idea on where to get a good mojito? Alma d Cuba's are decent and cuba libre's a disappointment. any thoughts?

Craig:

Shawn - mojitos are so early 2000s, I haven't had one in a while. We're on to rye mixers, herbal infusions (which in a sense minty mojitos are) and beer cocktails (the next wave). Also, I'd venture to say caiprinhas are the new mojitos, what with all the new Brazilian action going on around town. That said, I do recall that Cafe Habana made a mean mojito. Had one for brunch a couple years ago that I can still taste.

Wino:

I was recently at St Stephen's Green on 17th and Green...great pint and a decent menu..Chef McNamara is think is in the kitchen...any review coming soon? Also there seems to be a rash of new steakhouses coming downtown...Union Trust, Wolfgangs, etc...is this a sign that the chop house is back???

Craig:

Funny you should ask, Wino, but yes, Ben McNamara (ex-New Wave/Dark Horse) is now in the kitchen at St. Stephen's Green, and yes, I have a forthcoming review already in the pipeline (clear your kitchen tables Sunday, Jan. 20, for this one!) As for the steakhouses in the works, I think that's been a pretty steady trend for a while. Chophouses haven't been out of style for as long as I've been here - so I'll be more interested to see if these places offer any improvements/twists on the tried-old corporate steak chain formula (i.e. Cap Grille, Morton's, Ruth's, Flemings, etc.)

John:

1)? 2) Tony's 3)Ocean Harbor

Craig:

Good guesses, John. But sorry. That's not right.

scargosun:

Had a wonderful NYE dinner at Marigold Kitchen. Looking forward to trying the new menu soon. Any other good NYE experiences?

Craig:

Hey scargosun: glad to hear you had a good meal at Marigold. They're in kitchen transition, from avant-garde Med to contemporary southern, as chef Michael Solomonov has left to embark (with partner and Marigold owner Steven Cook) on the creation of his own place, Zahav, in Society Hill. I've heard good things about the new chef, though she's still very very new. But at least she's off to a nice start. IN the meanwhile, I'd be curious to hear how people's NYE dinners went. I NEVER, EVER, EVER eat out at on NYE - it's the worst night for overpriced mass-produced menus after Valentine's Day. I was lucky enough to spend NYE in a snow-bound house in the Poconos, where I spun fresh semolina pasta and cooked a big pot of Mario Batali's bolognese sauce (mix of veal, pork and pancetta, cooked with lots of veggies, milk, wine and just a touch of tomato paste) which is one of my all-time best go-to cold weather recipes.

Wine:

what about the south of the border invasion of center city (Mexican Post, Mission Grill, Jose Pistolas)...are we gonna see more of that, seems to me like people trying to cash in on Jose Garces and his amazing tapas

Craig:

Wino - of the places you mention, only Jose Pistolas is worth a visit, with its very focused gastro-pub revamp of the Copa Too, a nice little menu that focuses on fish taco variations. Had a good lunch there a while back (was a Crumb Tracker clue, by the way). The other places did not inspire me. In fact, I find them much closer to corporate Mexican creations than anything Jose Garces has made.

John:

Any chance of organizing a goodbye Lakeside meal - This little hidden gem will be missed by many around the area!

Craig:

John, unfortunately, the Lakeside kitchen is demolished. And Eric Ng looked like he was ready to never cook again. Who knows? Maybe I'll be able to convince a few recipes out of him for old time's sake. Stay tuned...

mc:

I ate at Shundeez this weekend based on your review and I think that you were right on all accounts. Another persian restaurant that is just a little further down Geramantown ave is the Persian Grill which I think has slightly better kabobs and definitely better bread. I look forward to going back to both again and again. Another other persian suggestions?

Sophie Belle:

Craig, I ate at Shundeez and the service was horrible. The tadik was impossible to chew and the chicken curry was tasteless. I think they have gotten so busy that they can't handle certain areas. I have had good meals there in the past. What can a restaurant do when they get too big for their britches too fast?

Craig:

Thanks for these reports on Shundeez, mc and Sophie Belle, though I'm sorry to hear about Sophie's experience. Shundeez would not be the only previously slow restaurant to struggle with a new crowd after a big review. I know the owner is committed to working it out. This is unfortunately just one of those things they have to figure out quickly. Restaurants have a window of opportunity to impress a new clientele and they can't waste it. Service was always an issue - even during my visits, though I wouldn't go so far as to call it 'horrible." As for the tadik, if the restaurant is trying to mass produce it rather than simply wait for the end of each pot, I think staleness is a danger. That's my fault, I suppose, for praising the tadik so much in the review.... Sorry!! I'm sure the Lavasanis will smooth things out. Give them time.

dim sum less one:

oh my god. I just went to lakeside deli and it is closed forever. it is a sad day. (still hungry, where do I go now?)

John D:

Recipies from Lakeside would be an awesome find - We'll surely miss them, they were always the friendliest folks to ALL their customers!

Craig:

No promises, but I'm working on it.

Kara:

1) ? 2) Standard Tap 3)Vietnam

R.B.:

La Croix, John's R.B., Ocean Harbor

Craig:

Sorry, Kara, but R.B. did get one of these right: Lacroix at the Rittenhouse is the first one. We went for the Christmas brunch and it was spectacular as usual, with tables of gastro-treats stretching straight into the kitchen where we ate everything from boar to five-spice crusted venison loin. I have to say, those truffles - foie gras ganache enrobed in dark chocolate dusted with fleur de sel - sounds daunting, but it was unbelievable. It just melted away, accented more by the bitterness of the cocoa and the crunch of the salt than anything. No wonder there've been foie gras protests outside! That stuff is dangerous. Meanwhile, my 6-year-old son, Arthur, loved the carving station so much, he announced to our table after cleaning his plate that he planned "to marry lamb chops" when grows up. Ah, the holiday memories!

Gregg:

Happy New Year Craig. On January 1, in order to start the new year off on the right foot, I waited for over an hour at Honey's for brunch and I am happy to say that it was (as always) well worth the wait. Is there any place that does a brunch remotely as perfect around the Rittenhouse Area (no including the gourmet places)? Thanks!

Craig:

Hi Gregg - I've groused a bit in this forum about the fact that Rittenhouse really doesn't have the kind of funky brunch options many other 'hoods do. We do have the Ants Pants cafe, but it's just a little small for a crowd. I can say, however, that the brunch we ate at Apamate was great. It's Spanish tapas, so you really may not want deep fried bon-bons of blood sausage for breakfast, but the Spanish tortilla was worth going back for, as was the creamy cafe con leche and the amazing churros con chocolate.

Dan P.:

1) Lacroix, 2) Shank and Evelyns, 3) Joy Tsin Lau

Craig:

Well, Dan P., Lacroix's already been taken. Shank's was too easy an answer to be right (It's not; note that I described its location in "Deep South Philly"; shank's is too far uptown). I would probably give you Joy Tsin Lau, except that Joy Tsin Lau isn't just ordinary, it's bad. I had extremely greasy dumplings there just a few months ago and wasn't happy. This place, which I ate at today - at the urging of the sign taped to Lakeside's window - was just very ordinary, but is quite well-known...

Susan:

1) La Croix 2) Shanks 3) Vietnam

Seth:

I know you saw NYE dinning is a NO NO, but I am happy to report that Pumpkin's 5 Course Dinner was fantastic and did not break the bank. I love their creativity and fresh ingredients!

W:

Ate at Meritage last week, not sure of the chefs name, but the food was very nice. A couple of good risottos and a very nice roasted Chicken (gotta respect a spot with a great roasted chicken). Have you been there under the new ownership? review?

Craig:

Thanks Wino (a.k.a. W) for that report on Meritage. I've been hearing nothing but good things about the new management/chef here. They are definitely on my must-revisit list.


Fred:

4 of us are "eating the alphabet" and are up to J. We have tentatively decided on Morimoto's but are interested in other suggestions.

Craig:

Fred, it's nice to see that some eating clubs are literate, too! Morimoto is definitely a blue chip destination, and I won't sway you there. That said here are some other M entries worth getting to eventually from my book of favorites from last year, plus this year's Year in bell M's: Majolica, Marigold, Matyson, Melograno, Monk's, Moshulu, Margaret Kuo's, Memdee's and Modo Mio.

Sal, Media PA:

#3 - Imperial Inn. Craig, any word on Azie? Hopefully, it's good. Unfortunately, I am somewhat disappointed in the scene in Media, which I would expect to be better given the all of the attorneys there and some affluent neighborhoods close by. BTW, Nectar for an early NYE dinner was great, but service a bit uneven.

Craig:

Yes, #3 is Imperial Inn, as I basically gave it away. Brend and Eric are very loyal to Imperial Inn because Eric was the first chef there 30 years ago, and it's owned by their uncle Louie. I have to say, though, my lunch there today was dull and disappointing. Their dimsum is totally standard, and it's done with none of the finesse and fine flavors that Eric always produced. Nothing was crisp. The dumpling skins were thick and doughy. The flavors dull and heavy. There is a time and place for the Imperial Inn (we once had a fabulous birthday banquet for my daughter here), but I'm still searching for a new dim sum darling. Of all of them, I think Ocean City on 9th Street has been the best of late. Try their bbq pork pies, which come in a flaky triangular pastry. These are really, really great.

Craig:

As for Azie, the new pan-Asian place in Media from the folks behind Teikoku, it's still really early. But one of my Swarthmore spies gave me a good report after his first early visit. I'll have to agree with you on the Media scene - underperforming given the ready-made downtown and clientele. I can say I had a pretty good meal recently, though, at the Margaret Kuo's there. It's my third favorite of hers (Wayne and Granite Run seem to be running at just a notch better), but Azie has the potential to offer that next level of experience for the Media crowd. We'll see.....

Dean:

1)Lacroix 2)Carmens 3) Imperial Inn

Craig:

Sorry, Dean, I think I must've made #2 too hard for all of you. The Crumb Trackers are going to be a shade harder to come by in 2008...

Seth:

I know you saw NYE dinning is a NO NO, but I am happy to report that Pumpkin's 5 Course Dinner was fantastic and did not break the bank. I love their creativity and fresh ingredients!

Craig:

Thanks for this report on Pumpkin, Seth. I haven't been since they've changed chefs, but I hear reliably good feedback on the place. It has a good history and a good vibe. Also, I think a small restaurant like that is usually a good bet for the mass-feed holidays...they're limited simply by the size of their dining room, so it's just another busy night.

Matt:

(2) Brunic's

Angelo:

Any more hints on #2?

Craig:

Well, it's on 9th Street.

Chris:

What is the beer drink you mentioned (c-tail).

Craig:

Chris - I was mostly referring to the growing national trend of using beer as a base for cocktails, like a Shandy (with ginger beer), or a Panache (with lemonade). It's a growing trend nationally, but the one I like best around here is the "Michelada" Dionicio Jimenez mixes with spicy tomato sangrita over at Xochitl. It is actually a fairly authentic drink in Mexico.

Dan P.:

One more try: Vincenzos

Craig:

With just seconds left in this chat, Dan P. sinks one from WAAAY beyond the 3-point arc! Yes, Vincenzo's is the corner luncheonette I ate at last week, soaking in the South Philly-ness of it. Just to listen to the banter at the counter between the senior ladies (chatting excitedly about the big pork sales over at Sam's Club in Deptford), the sassy chef behind the counter giving someone a piece of her mind on the phone ("you're a real pain in the you know wadda-wadda!") to the youngsters dressed in knock-off Gucci glasses picking up their bags of "mozzi stix", and the old dudes hobbling over to the meat slicer where they can still slice a platter of silky prosciutto with the best of them. I'd say the food was homemade and tasty, but far shy of Shank's in terms of freshness and gusto. Still, it's a great stop for an authentic neighborhood lunch if you happen to be picking up balloons for a party at Dino's next door. Dan P., email me your mailing info, and your book will arrive ASAP...

Craig:

And with that...I'm going to call this comeback chat perfectly crisped. Thanks for everyone who showed up after the big hiatus. I'll be back next week, though, with a whole menu of other highlight victuals to praise or skewer. Until then, may you all have a great week, be well, and eat something worth bragging about!