In a year of stellar dining in the Philadelphia region, some stars deserve a curtain call.
Restaurant of the Year: Suraya
The great restaurants often gift us something we never knew we needed. Fishtown was already popping. We already had a world-class Middle Eastern restaurant. All day cafes and French pastries? We had plenty of those, too. And then along came Suraya, the Lebanese dream palace off Frankford Avenue where siblings Nathalie Richan and her developer brother Roland Kassis have conjured za’atar-dusted memories of their Beirut youth in one of the year’s grandest projects. Not only is the blocklong complex of rooms gorgeous, from the intricately tiled cafe to the tented dining room and lavish garden out back. But the food is fabulous, too, from the cardamom-sugared morning pastries to next-level kibbeh, shish taouk and contemporary interpretations by chef-partner Nick Kennedy that straddle a rarefied sweet spot between tradition and modern style. Halibut kebabs dusted with Omani lime. Baharat-braised lamb neck. Warm and flaky kanafeh with rose water syrup. Arak-cocktails to wash them down? Yes, we need those, too, for sure. And Philadelphia — not just Fishtown — is better for it. Suraya, 1528 Frankford Ave., 215-302-1900; surayaphilly.com
Chef of the Year: Jesse Ito of Royal Sushi
While some chefs earn fame with bold culinary statements and splashy restaurants, the quiet rise of Jesse Ito to the four bell elite this year at Royal Sushi has been more about his single-minded devotion to constantly improving the microscopic details of an ancient craft. Since he began over a decade ago as a teenager under his father Masaharu “Matt” Ito at Fuji in South Jersey, he’s carefully mastered the art of rice and a host of other tiny details that distinguish a sublime sushi meal from a merely great one. Now two years in to his omakase tasting menus at Royal Sushi — the reservation-only counter at the back of the more casual Royal Izakaya restaurant — he’s achieved a master’s touch with the decisive cuts and subtle timing, a sixth sense for the flow of an 18-bite feast, a wry flicker of counter-side charm, and the wherewithal to source the best fish that Philadelphians can taste. So when Ito hands each lucky guest a perfect nub of warm rice wrapped in glistening live scallop, tangy pike mackerel, briny crab or caviar-topped tuna belly, the most common reaction is a moment of reverent chewing as all those vivid flavors and textures unfold, followed by nods and moans of pleasure. Royal Sushi 780 S. Second St., 267-909-9002; oyalsushiandizakaya.com/sushi
Rising Star: Anthony Andiario of Andiario
Anthony Andiario was already a big deal talent before he left Phoenix, where he worked in Neapolitan pizza legend Chris Bianco’s orbit as the opening chef of Tratto. Since returning to Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and partner Maria van Schaijik to launch his self-named restaurant in West Chester, where, perhaps, many Philadelphians are not yet familiar with his name, he’s acclimated swiftly by diving deep into the spirit of his new landscape. Sourcing from farmers and foragers, even harvesting the cherry blossoms out their front door, he’s created a distinct menu that’s not exactly Italian so much as a rustic open-hearth expression of regional bounty, from fire-roasted pork rubbed with the tangy powder of local white fir, to Birchrun Hills Farm veal carpaccio scattered with pickled chanterelles and luscious summer blueberries. There’s also an evolving series of extraordinary pastas, including a plate of ricotta-filled casoncelli with wild black trumpets that, months later, I can still taste. Andiario’s impressive first run of cooking through a year in the Mid-Atlantic — curing, canning, dehydrating and preserving along the way —- bodes well for many rewarding seasons to come. Andiario, 106 W. Gay St., West Chester, 484-887-0919; www.andiario.com
» READ MORE: Andiario is the suburbs’ best new restaurant
Best Second Act: China Gourmet
A year ago, Salina Ko and her talented chef husband, Ming Fung, were cooking some of the city’s best dim-sum and Cantonese seafood at a nondescript little restaurant on Bustleton Avenue. But I could never have imagined what came next for China Gourmet: a move to a 400-seat mega-restaurant beside an Asian supermarket off Roosevelt Boulevard that would become the dim-sum destination of our dreams, a warehouse-size expanse of pink-linen and bubbling seafood tanks, where women pushing shiny steel carts glide between the tables with a steamy cargo of dumplings, chicken feet, and fragrant bowls of congee. Not only has this become a favorite new touchstone for crispy Peking duck and Ming’s wok-fired seafood perfection, the new China Gourmet, now drawing a thousand-plus diners on weekend days thanks to the growing Chinese community in Northeast Philly, is the kind of new community center-restaurant that changes how we see our city. China Gourmet, 2842 St. Vincent St., 215-941-1898; on Facebook.