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Craig LaBan’s 2019 picks for best new restaurant, chef of the year, and more

It was one of the best years ever for dining in the Philadelphia region, but some places were a cut above the rest.

A pizza with tomato, anchovy, garlic, oregano, royer mountain cheese from Pizzeria Beddia in Fishtown.
A pizza with tomato, anchovy, garlic, oregano, royer mountain cheese from Pizzeria Beddia in Fishtown.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It was one of the best years ever for dining in the Philadelphia region, but some places were a cut above the rest. Here’s an extra cheer for some of this year’s most outstanding restaurants and chefs.

Best New Restaurant: Pizzeria Beddia

It’s rare when a place lives up to the kind of hype that has followed Pizzeria Beddia, which was named the best pizza in America by Bon Appétit when it was still at its original location, a take-out corner with no phone where owner Joe Beddia made just 40 pies a day for crowds that would wait in line for hours.

It is even rarer, though, to find such a place that can then translate such exclusive cult success into a more accessible vision for the masses. And yet that is exactly what Beddia has done in his inspired partnership with Defined Hospitality (the crew behind Suraya and Condesa), transforming an industrial space on a Fishtown alley into an airy, rambling set of joyful rooms and al fresco tables where several hundred people a night can now partake.

They can turn out some of Philly’s very best pizzas — heat-crackled crusts topped with house-made sausage, “angry” spice, Sicilian anchovies, and cream-dappled seasonal produce of the moment. There’s a memorable revamp of the city’s tomato pie tradition, innovative salads (don’t miss the fish sauce vinaigrette), and a bar that’s now helping to lead the city’s natural wine revolution.

And then there’s the “hoagie omakase” room, a cozy alcove hidden in back where reserve-ahead private parties of six can experience a feast that’s redefining yet another Philly food icon — a sandwich revamp that scored my nod for Bite of the Year.

Some people were born to cook. And Thai chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon — who spent two decades as a flight attendant before landing in Philadelphia, then waited nearly another decade before opening Kalaya — is proof. She dazzled us with the indigo beauty of her tapioca dumplings tinted deep blue with butterfly pea flowers. But for me, the swirling complexity of her handmade curries and boldly spiced sauces pulsing with seafood funk were a real revelation.

This daughter of a food-stall chef from Southern Thailand has transported the flavors of her family’s Nyonya-style Peranakan cuisine to an Italian Market BYOB named in honor of her mom, Kalaya, which means “beautiful lady.” And she delivers them with uncompromising vibrance in a crunchy rice salad streaked with a fermented budu-palm sugar dressing, in spicy duck laab, in the lip-stinging heat of raw shrimp in sour nam jim fish sauce, and in a sultry chicken curry rich with coconut alongside green pandan rice.

At a recent visit, I tasted yet another Kalaya wonder: an epic seafood hot pot with the blazing hot-and-sour power of a true tom yum broth, ringed by giant fresh river prawns. It was the kind of vivid cooking that instantly replaced all the lesser versions I’d previously tasted to set a new standard for what true Thai cooking can be here. The flavors linger in the imagination and compel one to return, curious to see what else this supremely gifted chef has to share. I can’t wait to taste it.

Rising Star Chef: Hiroki Fujiyama of Hiroki

“Rising Star” awards are usually reserved for the 30-and-under set. But Hiroki Fujiyama, 47, had such a good supporting gig at Morimoto for nearly 15 years — the last decade of which he served as head sushi chef — that it’s understandable few people were familiar with his name until the investors behind Wm. Mulherin’s Sons literally put it onto the back-alley entrance of a mysterious new Fishtown restaurant. And the luxurious 20-course omakase feasts he’s been crafting inside the serene wood confines of Hiroki were among the finest I ate all year. A slice of rare nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) is lightly torched to bring all the oils to the skin. Japanese tilefish is pan-roasted to a rippling crunch with its scales still on. Tiny cucumbers are cut with impossible precision into green Slinkies over pom-pom slices of marinated squid.

Even the sushi rice — no, especially the sushi rice, which one fellow diner there from Japan described as “powerful rice” — was evidence, both technical and artistic, that Fujiyama is a master who finally has a worthy stage of his own.

New Suburban Favorite: Ripplewood Whiskey & Craft

Ripplewood isn’t exactly new — it opened in 2018. It’s just that I’d never come to this ambitious gastropub in Ardmore for anything but the fantastic cocktails (a perfect whiskey sour) and the amazing double-stacked burger, my current favorite. A deeper look and full review, however, revealed this rambling bi-level restaurant and bar had much more to offer, from the breadth of its whiskey collection (200-plus and growing) to the creativity that chef and co-owner Biff Gottehrer brings to a crave-worthy menu of updated comforts.

From the confit chicken wings to tacos on fresh-pressed tortillas, to a reimagined Snickers bar for dessert, and even a memorable reinvention of the Caesar salad crouton as a sort of soup dumpling — its liquid dressing inside the deep-fried cube — this casual yet stylish neighborhood-tavern upgrade exceeded my expectations at every turn.