A taste of freshness

Nine restaurants take a bite out of the recession

Mahimahi with sweet potato and Madras curry at Little Fish, where it's hard not to be charmed.

A tough economy hasn't soured the ambitions of Philly's restaurant scene just yet. In the last few months alone, these nine restaurants highlighted the emergence of bright young talents, new lives for old favorites, and at last, hope for good pizza:

BISTROT LA MINETTE

623 S. Sixth St., 215-925-8000, www.bistrotlaminette.com.

This Queen Village French bistro has a neighborhood charm and handcrafted warmth, from the cheery red velvet banquettes and quirky Burgundian knickknack decor to the homemade bread. Chef-owner Peter Woolsey (ex-Striped Bass, Lucas Carton) indulges some intriguingly authentic bistro classics, many tasty, but inconsistent execution, especially with entrees still holds the kitchen back from its full potential. Reviewed Dec. 7.

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.

COOPER'S BRICK OVEN WINE BAR

4367 Main St., Manayunk, 215-483-2750, www.jakesrestaurant.com.

Bruce Cooper turns to wood-fired gourmet pizzas, small plates, and a wine bar in this bustling annex to his contemporary standby, Jake's, and it's the ideal casual concept to keep both the high-end dining room and flagging Manayunk relevant. It can be too noisy, and weekend waits are long, but a deft blend of style and quality New American cooking reminds why Cooper has been one of the area's best for decades. Reviewed Dec. 14.

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 bilevel space where the wood-fired oven, eccentric artisan beers, and earth-friendly mission are perfect for Mount Airy. The menu is limited (and the toppings need some work), but the affordable "flatbreads" are among the best of the city's new pizza generation. The Philly debut for Baker (formerly of central Jersey's Heavyweight Brewing) marks an important addition to the local beer scene. Reviewed Jan. 11.

LITTLE FISH

600 Cathearine 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 with top ingredients and contemporary ideas. It's a bit pricey given the sardinelikecramped quarters and occasional off dish. But the Sunday prix-fixe menus ($28 for five courses) are a bargain, and it's hard not to be charmed by the ambitions of this rising star chef. Reviewed Feb. 8.

LoBIANCO

2 Powell Lane (at Haddon Ave.), Collingswood, 856-854-4500, www.restaurantlobianco.com.

Nick and Stephanie LoBianco have transplanted their longtime Margate eatery to a pleasant storefront bistro in downtown Collingswood, where the New American menu adds a welcome note of variety to a scene with mostly Italian on the menu. The service is warm and personal, the ambience is neighborhood casual, and while the food may not be overly inventive, the flavors are well-wrought with good ingredients and solid cooking. Reviewed Nov. 3.

MELOGRANO

2012 Sansom St., 215-875-8116

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 and sea-flavored carbonarato an already stellar repertoire of deceptively simple but well-crafted classics. Reviewed Jan. 18.

MEME

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

Rising star chef David Katz has transformed the charmed corner nook of the former Melograno into a lively showcase for vividly redefined rustic French flavors. A small seasonal menu focused on great ingredients, sharing-sized portions, and sharp technique produced memorable takes on standards like roast chicken. With a little time to smooth some service wrinkles and adjust to its new liquor license, it may be ready for the next level. Reviewed Feb. 1.

PUB & KITCHEN

1946 Lombard St., 215-545-0350, www.thepubandkitchen.com.

The gastropub craze takes a "pabbit" leap forward with this lively rehab of the former Chaucer's, where Rittenhousers, Penn students and scenesters brave the noise and long waits for Jonathan McDonald's fresh take on pub fare. Inspired by rustic British cookery instead of his previous affinity for molecular gastronomy, McDonald's menu has unique highlights, from whitefish "roll-mops" to burgers with house-cured bacon and the definitive fish and chips, but more focus and consistency will help the "P & K" reach its considerable promise. The beer program should also improve a notch. But the power of the "pabbit," the pub's ubiquitous logo of a mythical rabbit-eared pig, is hard to resist. Reviewed Dec. 21.