PHILLY.COM

If you're into restaurant openings, this fall has been a ball. I describe. Also this week, I find fine Mediterranean eats in Haddonfield, a chicken dish that packs a punch in Eastern Montco, and indulgent Latin-style hot chocolate near Center City. Craig LaBan talks about the "anonymity" of his food critic's beat. If you need food news in your life, click here and follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Email tips, suggestions, and questions here. If someone forwarded you this free newsletter and you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it every week.

The bar at Oloroso, 1121 Walnut St.
MICHAEL KLEIN
The bar at Oloroso, 1121 Walnut St.

New flavors of Spain & Rome in Center City

Late fall always sees a flurry of restaurant openings, as projects are timed to launch in the red-hot Q4. The crew from Root in Fishtown just opened the market/cafe portion of Suraya, the first phase of what will be an enormous restaurant and outdoor garden themed to the Middle East. Up Frankford Avenue, Helm and Helm South's owners rolled out Tierce, a breakfast/lunch spot to serve the Fishtown/Kensington crowd. There's also Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy's sumptuous The Love near Rittenhouse Square; Royal Boucherie, Nick Elmi's buzzy Franco-American in Old City; and Tuna Bar, a chic Japanese number in Old City. Two more opened in the last few days: Oloroso, a sultry Spaniard featuring a sherry-heavy bar list from Townsend/A Mano's Tod Wentz (1121 Walnut St.) and the first U.S. branch of the Roman pizza al taglio specialist Alice (15th and Locust Streets), which besides pizza (sold by the ounce) has a bar, a dessert case, and coffee and gelato from the nearby Gran Caffe L'Aquila.

What we're drinking

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico
Courtesy of Castello di Albola
Castello di Albola Chianti Classico

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico

Wine writer Marnie Old enjoys pairing Italian wines with Italian foods. It's a great idea, given this dry, midweight Chianti Classico. It's so food-oriented, she writes, it can taste too harsh, tart or thin when served alone. But all it takes is the salty richness of roasted meats or the herbal tang of a hearty tomato sauce to turn the weaknesses of these wines into assets. It is precisely their acidity, astringency, and dryness that are so flattering with Italian recipes, she says.

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy, $13.99 (sale price through Dec. 31; regularly $16.99), PLCB Item #6508

Also available at: Super Buy-Rite Wine & Liquor in Williamstown, N.J., $9.99; Canal's in Mount Ephraim, $14.99.

Where we’re eating: Zaffron Mediterranean Cuisine, Jade Garden, Sazon

A solid lunch option in downtown Haddonfield: Have to opt for “Rocky” Farahmand’s warmly decorated Zaffron Mediterranean Cuisine, which has kept its front patio open behind an awning. Menu hits the Middle Eastern staples, including the healthful veggie kebab ($10) shown here. Don’t miss the kuzu soup, a riff on the signature Turkish lamb dish. It’s lamb stock brimming with chopped vegetables, orzo, and shredded lamb, and touched with grated feta.

One dish on a few Chinese menus around town is Yeh Yan chicken, a stir-fry in a thin brown sauce that’s equal parts sweet, salty, even sour. At Jade Garden, a Chinese/Japanese strip-mall standby in Dresher’s Dreshertown Plaza, they start with dark meat chicken, which gets cooking in soy, Hunan, teriyaki and Thai chili sauces, and then is finished with hits of honey and garlic ($11.95).

Hot chocolate season is reason enough to visit Sazon, the homey Venezuelan BYO gem at 10th and Spring Garden Streets. While chef/co-owner Judith Suzarra-Campbell turns out tequeños and arepas, husband Robert Campbell is out front with 27 kinds of drinking chocolate plus a case full of truffles. (He bills himself as the Chocolate Alchemist.) Orgasmo ($8) – shown here – is a signature: banana cream and chocolate shavings top chocolate, peanut butter, Kahlua, and banana.

This week’s openings

Alice | Rittenhouse

Rome's Domenico Giovannini hits America with 20 varieties of the rectangular pizza al taglio, sold by the ounce. Early crowds at 15th and Locust – the former Cosi – have been enormous. Psst. Say the name "ah-lih-che."

Oloroso | Washington Square West

"Tod" Wentz, who features American at Townsend on East Passyunk and Italian at A Mano on Fairmount Avenue, explores Spain with this tapas bar in the former Petruce et al at 1121 Walnut.

This week’s closings

Bardolino | Glen Mills

The owners of this Italian steakhouse/seafooder cite family issues for its shutdown.

Fuel | Ardmore

Owner Rocco Cima says his Main Line branch of the healthful-food restaurant is closed, pending a move in 2018. Rent rise.

Your dining questions answered

Reader: Craig, do you have a policy if you realize you are recognized while doing a review?

Craig LaBan: After a couple of decades of eating in one town, there's no doubt I'm recognized more and more. I'm aware of the stares from clustered staff, the sudden switch of server, the nervous energy growing around our table, which can often be a negative thing. But that moment is a fact of life that any anonymous critic must learn to compensate for and consider. I was aware of it even at the beginning of my career in New Orleans, when restaurateurs hired people to take pictures of me that were quickly distributed via fax. (How's that for dating myself?) But what I quickly learned is that anonymity, while useful when available, is just one tool in a critic's tool box, and not even the most important one compared to being a well-informed and discerning eater, and especially a good reporter. As a result, my reviews are always generated over the course of multiple visits and from a collection of sources – detailed notes on the dishes I'm eating, extensive post-meal phone interviews with restaurant owners and chefs and, especially, a lot of close observation of a restaurant's performance in live time, including how other tables are treated, which can give you a clue as to whether or not you're getting "the extra." I don't have personal relationships with the people I cover. And my visits are always unannounced, so it's not like the evening's ingredients or kitchen staff can be replaced with more skilled people, or that servers can suddenly learn important new details about the wine list or menu. To paraphrase the legendary former Washington Post critic Phyllis Richman, you don't always get better service, you just get "more." And many times a meal has suddenly taken a downward turn once I knew for sure a restaurant had spotted me – dishes take extra time to appear as they're cooked multiple times, and then they're fussed over so much in the kitchen, they're no longer hot by the time they arrive. That was the case of one upscale Italian restaurant in Center City last year that had my photo posted inside the kitchen door. A lot of restaurants, I suspect, would do better not to know a critic was there at all. Act natural – though I realize that's easier said than done when the stakes are so high. The good news is that I'll be back for multiple visits, so there's always another opportunity to see a restaurant from yet another angle in the hopes of capturing its true nature.

Email Craig here, and join his chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at Philly.com/food

The best dining in the suburbs

After 4,000 miles and countless calories, Craig LaBan has come up with 150-plus excellent food destinations in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs.

Go to philly.com/food for the full guide, or buy the print version  at philly.com/store.