Omakase, the social side of sushi, has been getting plenty of attention lately. Our town now has options for much less than $100 a person. Also this week, I visit one of the city's unsung heroes as well as a new Southeast Asian-inspired shop with bold flavors, and I offer a great brunch option in Center City. If you need food news, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it free every week.
The experience of omakase, where you sit at the sushi bar and put your selections into the hands of the chef, has a special-occasion feel, given both the challenges in getting a reservation and the stratospheric price tags. Morimoto and Royal Izakaya are into the triple-digits, and even the so-called tasting menus at Double Knot and Zama are not cheap.
But wait. Recently, a couple of spots now offer what you could call Omakase Lite — menus that won't break the bank.
DK Sushi, the fast-casual sibling of Double Knot at the Franklin's Table food hall at Penn, dishes a 10-piece omakase (plus dessert) for $35, and it promises to get you out the door in 30 minutes. Tasty, but who wants to rush?
The latest is Sakana Omakase Sushi, a spare, energetic BYOB that opened earlier this month at 616 S. Second St. in Queen Village, where Cedars was.
Owner Sam Lin offers a $58, 12-course omakase with premium fish that can be accomplished in 30 minutes, and a $120 omakase including three appetizers, a daily special fish, 17 pieces of nigiri, and a dessert. At lunch, he does a $38 omakase with eight pieces of nigiri and a hand roll, and a $20 "lady lunch" — a Japanese staple — including two tuna and two salmon sashimi, yellowtail ceviche, a salmon roll, and rock shrimp.
Right now, Sakana (215-922-2149) is open for walk-ins only from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
Cherry Street Pier | Delaware Riverfront
Friday, Oct. 12 is the first day for this open-air gathering place near Spruce Street Harbor Park, with multiple food vendors.
Denim American Bistro | Cherry Hill
This casual remake of the short-lived Farmhouse, a BYOB at 312 Kresson Rd. in Cherry Hill, is expected to open within days at the hands of its former chef. La Campagne enjoyed decades of success at the location.
Opa | Washington Square West
The Greek bar-restaurant at 1311 Sansom St. is back online, a full three months after the water-main break that flooded the neighborhood.
Paseo Tapas Bar | Fairmount
Chef Jose Vargas has reconfigured the landmark Bridgid's into a cozy Dominican-Spanish mix with a tight wine list.
South Philly Smokhaus | South Philadelphia
Pitmaster Eric Daelhousen, partnering with Robert Passio of the Reading Terminal Market stall Giunta's Prime, will sling barbecue from the former auto-body shop at the Bok Building, 1901 S. Ninth St. Set to debut Oct. 16.
Koukouzeli | South Philadelphia
Restaurant consultant Spyro Tsibogos is setting up a Greek street-fooder at 1134 S. Ninth St., next door to Connie's Ric Rac. Its debut is set for this week.
Gin & Pop | Francisville
The plug was pulled last week on this snug bar-restaurant yearling in the emerging neighborhood off Broad Street.
Pei Wei | Cherry Hill
The fast-casual pan-Asian-theme chain seems to be retracting, as it closed at the Market Place at Garden State Park last weekend only two months after shuttering its shop near the Moorestown Mall.
Sandler's on 9th, Ninth and Chestnut Streets
One of the happier Philly memories is Horn & Hardart's, the cafeteria chain that fed generations through the early 1990s. It offered good, solid comfort food at fair prices, and the Automat, a then-high-tech system where patrons selected their food behind coin-operated glass doors.
H & H's first Automat opened in 1902 at 818 Chestnut St., maintaining a spectacular run till 1968.
Fifty years later, the H & H is now a doctor's office, and this slice of Center City around Thomas Jefferson University Hospital had been fairly underserved, restaurant-wise.
Last summer, veteran restaurateur Paul Sandler secured the space at the old Ben Franklin hotel at Ninth and Chestnut and installed Sandler's on 9th. It's an all-purpose operation: roomy dining room, breakfast all day, something-for-everyone menu, well-stocked bar, takeout counter, open seven days.
The weekend brunch menu hits the egg/pancake/waffle game well, expanding into salads, sandwiches, and platters, including chicken in a pot for two.
The breakfast sandwich you may want to try is the Train Wreck, which layers Taylor pork roll, egg, American Cheese, and long hot peppers on a Sarcone's kaiser roll. Cocktail prices, including Bloodies, mimosas, and prosecco, top out at $8.
Just no Automat.
Serpico, 602 South St.
If only Peter Serpico's slick destination were in Center City and not buried among the downscale doings of South Street …
But as my colleague Craig LaBan wrote in his dining guide last year, the mild-mannered chef who helped put NYC's Momofuku on the map is "the city's most ingenious modernist chef," delivering "a rare display of culinary thrills" from the counter of its "spaceship open kitchen."
Which is why it deserves another look. On the plus side, it's not too hard to get a seat at the counter, especially weeknights. Bar is on point, service is Starr snappy.
The food: Everyone, it seems, digs a spoon into the raw diver scallops, popular since Day 1, bathed in buttermilk, and topped with poppy seeds and white soy that pick up the piquant, colorful punch of green yuzu kosho.
You might think one of his latest dazzlers, shown here, is cacio e pepe, the Italian staple combining pecorino and black pepper. But that's not pasta.
The main ingredient in Serpico's interpretation is enoki mushrooms, creating a toothsome (and carb-free) bite. Serpico says made sautéed enokis for his daughter for lunch, and she was eating it like pasta with chopsticks.
Serpico may be low-key and all, but he's a funghi.
Stock Rittenhouse, 1935 Chestnut St.
For his second act, set up recently in a spare Rittenhouse storefront, chef Tyler Akin has streamlined the concept of Stock, the Southeast Asian-inspired BYOB he opened four years ago with wife Nicole.
It's fast-casual here. Order at the counter, where the menu board allows customization of the banh mi, salads, cold noodles, and soups — based on a greatest-hits parade of Fishtown's menu, plus a few snacks such as Thai-style beef jerky and chicken lettuce wraps. Vegan-friendly, too.
You're rewarded with bold flavors.
As the weather starts turning cooler, soups are a fine way to go. There's a Thai curry as well as my pick, the "Good Deal," where you choose a protein (tofu, chicken, caramelized pork, shrimp, etc.) and a broth (chicken or mushroom broth with oyster sauce or the vegan "oyster sauce"). The cook adds rice noodles, crispy garlic in garlic oil, chili jam, palm vinegar-pickled jalapeños, cilantro, bean sprouts, and Thai basil.
Wash it down with Thai-style iced tea or coffee, or chrysanthemum-lemongrass tea. It's open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Website lays out the menu.
Spice Finch conjures seductive Mediterranean flavors, and brings star chef Jennifer Carroll home. Craig LaBan gives the blond-wood space near Rittenhouse Square three bells.
At Friday Saturday Sunday, Paul MacDonald prefers not to overload the cocktail menu. "I hate sitting at a bar and being given a book of 50 cocktails, " he says. "It's like giving someone a bunch of paperwork,"