This week, Fishtown is getting all low-lit romantic on us in the form of a new seafood restaurant. Also, let me tell you about an Italian BYOB in Central Bucks that properly rocks its wood-fired oven and a Mexican spot that might be South Jersey’s most popular newer restaurant. Meanwhile, critic Craig LaBan has local wine on his mind.
Romantic airs in Fishtown? That would be Aether, a candlelit bistro opening Feb. 8 at 1832 Frankford Ave., just off Berks Street. (Say it "either.")
Fia Berisha, running this sexy seafooder as part of chef Scott Anderson and investor Stephen Distler's Mistral/Elements restaurants out of Princeton and King of Prussia, intends this as a neighborhood-friendly bar-restaurant open from dinnertime through 1 a.m. And with the raw bar and worldly wine and cocktail list, I get that. Berisha expects tabs of $45 to $50 per person, though with entrée prices starting in the mid-$20s, I also see Aether as a destination, much as Suraya is down the street.
The almost all-seafood menu includes crab linguine among the pastas, a shrimp po’boy among sandwiches, and crispy fried whole branzino among entrées. Yes, there's chicken breast (with Thai sausage, shiitake, bok choy, tom yum, and chili oil); steak frites; and a dry-aged burger.
Kitchen hours are 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, and Sunday; 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar is open till 1 a.m. Closed Mondays.
Aether | Fishtown
Crunchick'n | Location
The Jersey Shore Korean snack shop opens at 212 S. 11th St. on Feb. 12.
Hajimaru | Fishtown
Ramen comes to Girard Avenue and Shackamaxon Street in Fishtown.
Musi BYOB | Pennsport
Eclectic food from chef Ari Miller at Front and Morris Streets, the former South Helm, opening Feb. 8.
4 Seasons Food Court | Center City
After 15 years running the popular salad bar across from Liberty Place, the Kim family has retired at the end of the lease.
RX the Farmacy | West Philadelphia
The five-year-old weekends-only bruncherie has run its course. Its Palmyra location remains.
American Sardine Bar, 1800 Federal St. 4-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 p.m.-midnight Sunday and Monday
Seven years ago when American Sardine Bar opened at the long-ago Wander Inn in still-gritty Point Breeze, then-chef Scott Schroeder put a $2 sardine sandwich on the menu as a link back to the olden days. “A tiny beer-inducing whimsy no doubt instigated by the bar’s name, but still seriously good to eat,” praised critic Craig LaBan.
A $2 bar snack? You're not herring things. It's still the same, even under chef Doreen DeMarco (who also oversees owner John Longacre's Second District Brewing): baguette rounds slathered with spicy mustard mayo and topped with canned sardines, shaved lettuce and red onion, and a hard-boiled egg.
Happy hour specials, which also are offered late night Sunday and Monday, include select half-price cans, as well such treats as $4 hot dogs and beef sliders and a $5 Buffalo chicken cheesesteak.
Acqua e Farina, 50 Richboro Rd., Newtown
You know that cute pizzeria with the warm, old world hospitality, the one that locals rave about? That's Acqua e Farina, a BYOB that Anna and Pasquale Palino opened in Newtown, Bucks County, two years ago as an adjunct to their popular Vecchia Osteria nearby.
Daughter Nunzia ("call me Nancy") works the dining room; son-in-law Crescenzo Epifanio mans the wood-fired oven, turning out 12-inch Neapolitan pizzas and a limited, ever-changing menu including baked pastas, stuffed meatballs, salads, and always an entrée. On my visit, that special was whole roasted Cornish game hen, which perfumed the high-ceilinged dining room and became a shared feast among tables of happy patrons. Epifanio's daily pizza was a truffle cacciatore pizza ($19) — a red pie topped with sweet sausage and the same sauce used in chicken cacciatore (onions, mushrooms, blistered tomatoes). The stuff of dreams.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1-9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Central Taco & Tequila, 350 Haddon Ave., Westmont
"Two hours," customers were hearing last Saturday night at Central Taco & Tequila before being handed a pager. Rather, "TWO HOURS" because it gets THAT LOUD in the former Irish Mile in Westmont, which the PJW Restaurant Group (P.J. Whelihan's, The Pour House, ChopHouse, Treno Pizza Bar) opened in December as a vast cantina with 134 seats including a 20-seat bar. Under the strings of lights, it's rather festive.
They're lapping up the 100-plus agave-based spirits (try the $9.50 jalapeño margarita, which starts with Wahaka Espadin mezcal infused with jalapeños), and digging a menu based on $3 and $4 tacos. (For something truly different: the tuna tostadas, whose soy-citrus-marinated ahi tuna gets a smoky balance from chipotle crema.)
Seating is primarily at either roomy high-tops or communal table.
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily.
Crystal-clear ice cubes can be a secret weapon, bartenders say. They don’t just look prettier. They melt more slowly — and they even taste better.
To mark its 23rd year, Victory Brewing is adding three year-round brews. Victory will release them Feb. 15 — the very day the Downingtown-based brewery opened its doors to the public back in 1996.
Tired Hands has announced its first Philly restaurant, St. Oner’s. (Yes, beer will be available for carryout.)
Reader: Where can I taste Pennsylvania and New Jersey wines in local restaurants?
Craig LaBan: Local wine has been on an upward trajectory for years. Just look at the blind-tastinng results of the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for proof. But people still need to taste to believe.
The ideal option remains visiting the wineries themselves, where you can experience the widest selection of current vintages and hear the stories behind the bottles. But many of these destinations are a bit too far-flung for many Philadelphians to visit. That has made finding a foothold in the local restaurant and bar market a crucial next step for the industry to earn credibility in consumers’ minds.
The options have grown recently. A number of South Jersey BYOBs have augmented their drink options by partnering with local Outer Coastal Plain AVA wineries to become retail satellites that can sell bottles, including Porch and Proper (619 W. Collings Ave., Collingswood), which sells wines from Atco’s Amalthea Cellars, and Alora in Marlton (892 Route 73), which sells a few Bellview wines. In Pennsylvania, a limited liquor license for brewpubs that allows them to sell other locally produced alcohols has made the brewery boom one of the region’s biggest new showcases for local wine, as well as beer, plus cider and spirits.
But there is an extra note of confidence when a restaurant with a full license, which could pour anything from around the world, decides to devote space to local wine. It is noteworthy, for example, when one of the city’s great wine restaurants, a.kitchen (135 S. 18th St.), chooses an estate chardonnay and meritage red blend from Karamoor for its private-labeled house “a.wines.” The Fort Washington winery has been among the most successful local vintners in placing its wines in local restaurants, in large part due to its use of draft systems. They’re available at more than two dozen restaurants, including Libertine (261 S. 13th St.), Green Soul (1410 Mt. Vernon St.) and wine powerhouse Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House (1426-28 Chestnut St.). A.kitchen and siblings Fork (306 Market St.) and High Street on Market (308 Market St.) have long been proponents of local wines and have several others on offer, including Va La Vineyard’s Silk at Fork, and choices by the glass at High Street of sparkling wine and chambourcin from Pinnacle Ridge, as well as Galen Glen’s grüner veltliner.
For the biggest selection of local wines by the glass, no place tops Kensington’s Martha (2113 E. York St.), where there are a dozen locals, including the most complete range of coveted Va La wines, some less-familiar wineries (like tiny Vox Vineti in Christiana, near Lancaster) and even some of Jersey’s best wines from Bellview. The Paris Wine Bar (2303 Fairmount Ave.) connected to London Grill was the real Philly pioneer in the local wine movement (and draft wines, too), and currently has wines from Chaddsford, Pinnacle Ridge and Karamoor.
Michael McCaulley, wine director of the Tria group, whose lists have always been leaders in singling out small, high-quality independents, features Karamoor’s rosé on draft at Tria Taproom (2005 Walnut St.) and Penns Woods’ reserve viognier at both its Tria Cafes (123 S. 18th St.; 1137 Spruce St.) The city’s largest wine bar, Panorama, also makes room for a handful of local wines, including a cab franc blend called Due Amici that Panorama owner Luca Sena actually collaborated on with Gino Razzi from Penns Woods.
Suburban restaurants like Andiario (106 W. Gay St., West Chester) digs deep into local terroir for both its food and wines, like the Riesling from Vynecrest in the Lehigh Valley, and reds from Vox Vineti, Penns Woods and Va La. Farm-to-table pioneer Aimee Olexy keeps a strong local spirit on her list at The Love (130 S 18th St.), where one of America’s best grüner veltliners from Galen Glen in the Lehigh Valley has been on the glass list since the restaurant opened. There is also a “friends and neighbors” section of bottles from Vox Vineti, Wayvine and Va La, as well as wines from the North Fork of Long Island.
Which raises another question. Exactly how far away still counts as “local”? The team behind Vedge (1221 Locust St.) and V Street (126 S. 19th St.), with the added filter of its focus on “natural” wines, has broadened its net to include New York (Bloomer Creek’s Edelzwicker) and Maryland (a “Pét Nat” chenin blanc from Old Westminster), to go along with select Pennsylvania bottles, including a grüner from Maple Springs that owner Kate Jacoby describes as “one of the best Pa. wines we have poured.” But, of course, supply from small local wineries is constantly in flux: “We plan to add them back,” says Jacoby of Maple Springs, “as soon as next week.”