Farm-to-table on menu all over
Craig LaBan's Year in Bells: Driven by passion or trend, chefs ran with the idea, and 12 months of memorable flavors followed.
It was a Green Acres theme this year for the Philadelphia dining scene, as restaurants from city to suburb stuffed their farm-to-table wheelbarrows with a rich bounty of local ingredients.
Some were driven by an inspiring passion for seasonal greens and sustainable fish. Others were simply moved by trend. And if the chef wasn't wearing his 4-H badge on his sleeve, his PR marketing machines certainly were, with an agro-concept frenzy that saw a crop's worth of new ventures - from cocktail bars to conference centers to food trucks - with a "farm" or "garden" sprouted in the name.
The best of the lot gave us restaurants that should flourish into welcome fixtures as their kitchens cycle through a full year of local heirloom produce, from The Farm and Fisherman, the city's best new BYO, to lovely Talula's Garden, the high-profile collaboration between Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr on Washington Square that, after a rough spell of chef changes, has finally settled into a satisfying groove.
It was an exceptionally busy year for the prolific Starr, who had two other projects reviewed (a charming English pub, The Dandelion, and the disappointing beer garden Frankford Hall), with two more openings (Il Pittore and Route 6) to be reviewed in 2012.
But 2011 was a year when, more than ever, other players began to surge forward. Tiffin owner Munish Narula delivered the year's most stunningly ambitious opening with Tashan, the contemporary small-plate update to Indian cuisine on South Broad that gave otherwise locally-obsessed Philly a welcome dose of exotic Bollywood glitz.
Chip Roman, of Blackfish, branched out to Chestnut Hill with a small-plate tasting menu at sophisticated Mica, then opened Ela, a collaboration with Jason Cichonski (on tap for review next year). Inventive, seasonal small plates have also been on the menu at a.kitchen, whose biggest draw has been the Philly return of talented ex-Talula Table co-owner Bryan Sikora.
Former Jose Garces hand Tim Spinner brought his Nuevo Mex mastery to Fort Washington with Cantina Feliz, as a prelude to a city sibling (La Calaca Feliz) to open next month in Fairmount - a neighborhood that is finally getting a long-overdue renaissance of openings. Fishtown and the nightlife nexus at 13th and Sansom Streets all saw continued growth in 2011.
And so did the Italian Market, where Peter McAndrews, of Modo Mio, was also in expansion mode with Monsú, his arancini-fueled ode to the suddenly resurgent flavors of Sicily. The most inspired effort in that genre, however, was to be found at Zeppoli, the Collingswood debut for ex-Vetri chef Joey Baldino, who needs only some good soundproofing for his beyond-noisy trattoria to land (not to mention hear) an otherwise-deserved third bell.
Baldino, undoubtedly, was one of the year's breakout chefs. But here are some more you'll want to taste and remember: Farm and Fisherman's guru of seasonal cooking, Josh Lawler; Tashan's Sylva Senat; Joe Cicala, who lifted Le Virtù to Three-Bell excellence; and Townsend Wentz, who transformed McCrossen's Tavern into one of Philly's best neighborhood restaurants.
Dandelion's resident Brit, Robert Aikens, also made an impression - especially with a fish-and-chips (fried in molten beef fat) that was one of the most memorable dishes in a year full of bold and decadent flavors, from the Cajun-dusted bacon-fat popcorn at Khyber Pass Pub to a.kitchen's homemade English muffin breakfast sandwich, to the electric Pakistani spice of chicken Chargha from Wah-Gi-Wah, and Le Virtù's house-cured salumi.
It was, all in all, a memorable year of great flavors - but also some duds, with an all-time high of three No-Bell clunkers. As always, though, there were second chances. Each year, I revisit a handful of restaurants I suspect may have either improved or declined since their initial review, and this time I made it back to five at the end of the year. Good news: three (Talula's, White Dog Wayne, and Thai Kuu) stepped up a notch.
Even better news: 2012's fresh crop promises to be even more exciting.
(Craig LaBan's ratings range from zero to four bells.)
EXCELLENT, 3 bells
135 S. 18th St., 215-825-7030 www.akitchenphilly.com
Chef Bryan Sikora (ex-Django, ex-Talula's Table) has made a resounding return to Center City's dining scene in the marble-counter-wrapped open kitchen of this spare, yet vibrant, cafe, where clean flavors, smart combinations, homemade English muffins, and small plates define a modern aesthetic of casual sophistication. The wine list is sharp, too, as are some of the servers. But the menu is the most compelling draw. One can only hope Sikora, nomadic of late, sticks around for a while. Reviewed Oct. 9.
124 S. 18th St. (at Sansom) 215-558-2500 www.thedandelionpub.com
Rittenhouse never knew it needed a British pub until Stephen Starr conjured one with convincing magic just north of the square, where the rambling townhouse rooms and cozy nooks scented with the tang of vinegar on perfect fish-and-chips already feel like a classic Philly space. The cask ales and talented English chef Robert Aikens are reason enough to visit, but I'd come simply for the surprisingly intimate, evocative fireplace setting. Reviewed March 27.
Fair Hill Inn
3370 Singerly Rd. (Rts. 273 and 213) Elkton, Md., 410-398-4187 www.fairhillinn.com
Co-chefs Phil Pyle Jr. and Brian Shaw were farming their own produce, making salumi, and tending honeybees at their elegant Elkton inn well before the "farm-to-table" fashion. Their ever-changing New American menus remain among the region's better examples of seasonal, up-to-date cooking wrapped in the old-time charms of a historic setting. Service is straightforward but pleasant, and the wine program offers quality at all price points. Reviewed Sept. 25.
The Farm and Fisherman
1120 Pine St., 267-687-1555 www.thefarmandfisherman.com
Philly's next great BYOB has blossomed in Washington Square West, where Josh Lawler, former chef de cuisine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and his wife, Colleen, are showing the pretenders how farm-to-table is done. Artful food and personal service are the focus in this spare, but pleasant, 30-seat room, where the menu changes daily to showcase ultra-seasonal and often rare (and sometimes foraged) ingredients with a naturalist's touch. The constant menu flux brought some early inconsistency, but Lawler's many hits provided thrilling new takes on the local bounty of sea and land. Reviewed June 19.
Temporarily closed for move, 215-545-9600; www.fishphilly.com.
The two-year-old Fish stepped up to its Three-Bell place at the top of chef Mike Stollenwerk's food chain - just before he subsequently closed or sold his two other ventures (Fathom and Little Fish), then announced plans to move Fish from Rittenhouse (the Lombard Street space is now closed) to 1234 Locust St. The new location is slated to open in January and will, it is hoped, continue to put out top-notch seafood plates guided by seasonality, cutting-edge techniques and vividly creative flavors, as chef de cuisine Justin Petruce helped craft this year. Re-reviewed and upgraded May 8.
Cira Centre, 2929 Arch St., 215-222-2363; www.jgdomestic.com
Jose Garces has transformed the lobby restaurant of the Cira Centre into his ode to great American ingredients, using wood accents and greenery to warm the contemporary chill of the former Rae, and unleashing talented chef de cuisine David Conn on a menu that ranges from Oregon truffles to Lancaster pumpkins, with whole heirloom animals in between. The space is still oddly situated, and portion freaks may gripe, but the kitchen's command of great American flavors (without falling into cliches) is already impressive and bound to grow. Train-station dining is rarely so good. (Conn has since left to open three restaurants in Scottsdale, Ariz., for Garces. JG Domestic's chef de cuisine is Andrew Sabin.) Reviewed Jan. 16.
1927 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-5626; www.levirtu.com
South Philly's best Italian restaurant has continued to evolve and improve over the last year, with an impressively wide array of house-cured salumi and the arrival of a talented new chef, Joe Cicala, who manages to celebrate authentic Abruzzese flavors and to make them feel fresh, original, and up-to-date. Add great wine values, proper service, and a handsome rustic space (plus a sweet alfresco patio), and Le Virtù has come into its own as one of the city's uniquely refined dining experiences. Re-reviewed April 17.
Seasonal Italian Cooking
1333 New Rd. (Route 9), Plaza 9 Shopping Center, Northfield, N.J., 609-646-8189; www.lukepalladino.com
Former Borgata star Luke Palladino took a brilliant gamble a year and a half ago when he traded in the high-volume glitz of casino dining for a 30-seat BYOB in a mainland strip mall. The uniquely intimate space, engaging service, and inventive Italian fare quickly became one of South Jersey's most compelling dining draws. Only time will tell if it remains this special, now that Palladino has decided to try his casino luck again, with the addition last summer of a large new (and equally excellent) venture at Harrah's. Reviewed March 6.
8609 Germantown Ave., 267-335-3912; www.micarestaurant.com
Chestnut Hill's fine-dining fortunes have gotten a serious boost with this sophisticated new atelier of culinary pursuit from Chip Roman, whose minimally elegant 30-seat dining room is the softer, gastro-focused sibling of Blackfish, his BYO hit in Conshohocken. The multicourse tasting format is pricey, but the early flavors from opening chef Jason Cichonski were worth it - inventive, refined, exciting.
A recent revisit with Roman himself at the kitchen helm showed no letup - as the meal was a picture of classic flavors respun with technically savvy modern tweaks, from the pedestal of browned sweetbreads over quince sauce to pristine salmon crudo or a perfect squab with pureed quenelles of purple cabbage. The newly acquired liquor license gives Mica a small, but well-chosen, list of wines and beers. The restaurant as a whole, though, needs to loosen up the austere ambience before it can relax and mature to the next level. Reviewed June 26; revisited late November.
210 W. Washington Square, 215-592-7787; talulasgarden.com
Aimee Olexy makes a spirited return to the city with benefactor Stephen Starr, who has given her free reign to revamp his brooding Washington Square into a breezy garden and airy dining room with a homey touch that feels like Django writ large. Between the lovely setting, organic wines, artisan cheese bar, and personal service, this urban sibling to Olexy's intimate Talula's Table in Kennett Square has potential for greatness. But it stumbled a bit with overly fussy plates and two chef changes early on.
A splendid revisit under current chef Sean McPaul showed a kitchen now in the groove with Talula's seasonal mission. From the exquisitely composed tuna crudo to tortelloni stuffed with braised oxtails, leg of lamb with squash and olives, and duck with chestnuts and Madeira sauce, these plates hum with a sensibility that prizes harmonious flavors over precious compositions - and are ultimately more memorable. Talula's will need greater consistency with the entrees (the lobster pot pie and bluefish were merely good) and cocktails (never quite right) before it can be considered a Four Bell contender. But that is within its potential. Reviewed with Two Bells on July 24; revisited and upgraded in December.
777 S. Broad St., 267-687-2170; www.mytashan.com
Tiffin meets Buddakan at this groundbreakingly ambitious new venture from Munish Narula, whose talented Western and Indian chefs have collaborated to update authentic Indian flavors with high-end ingredients and contemporary presentations - and shattered the cliches with thrilling results. From the smoked quail to venison with plum-rum chutney, this stylishly modern room captures drama in space, service, and flavor, and is about as far from your grandpa's curry-house buffet as it gets. Reviewed Dec. 11.
VERY GOOD, 2 bells
232 Woodbine Ave., Narberth; 610-660-0160; www.apertobyob.com
Chef-owner John Wolferth makes a welcome return to Main Line fine dining in this cozy, but polished, BYO tucked away in a Narberth neighborhood. The space has seen a string of upscale bistros (Carmine's, Gemelli), but Aperto keeps the good vibes rolling from the open kitchen, with Eurocentric fare that offers substance at fair prices. It's less a destination than a spot for locals who want to dine comfortably without too much fuss or travel. Reviewed Dec. 4.
424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-646-1320; www.cantinafeliz.com
Former Distrito honcho Tim Spinner has brought his experience as a top chef in the Garces universe to Fort Washington, where the old Alison Two is now a destination for some of the best Nuevo Mex flavors in the burbs, from "crazy corn" and lively ceviches to adobo steak with marrow-creamed spinach. The colorful space is casual, bustling, and relatively affordable for the quality, with friendly service that makes this a welcome addition. It will be intriguing to see if Spinner takes more risks when he and partner, Brian Sirhal, open a sibling called La Calaca Feliz in Fairmount in January. Reviewed April 24.
1516 Tasker St., 267-455-0785 (restaurant); 267-687-1778 (take-out); www.circlesnewbold.com
Philly's Thai scene - and the rising neighborhood of Point Breeze - have gotten a much-needed jolt of Southeast Asian spice from this surprisingly spiffy little corner dining room, where authentically cooked fare is walked across Hicks Street from a humble corner take-out kitchen. It's not as mind-blowingly unique as some online banter might indicate, but this kitchen still produces some of the freshest, most vivid renditions of standard Thai food (including the city's best pad Thai) in a town that's lacking in the genre. A branch is coming to Northern Liberties in early 2012. Reviewed Nov. 6.
102 S. 13th St., 215-735-7500; www.thephillycorner.com
The cold cocktail clinic that was Apothecary has been revamped into a warm, wood-trimmed ode to updated American comforts. Anything priced so reasonably (with entrees in the mid-teens) should do well in this red-hot neighborhood. But chef John Taus (ex-Snackbar) is a rising talent who keeps things interesting with inventive takes on familiar flavors, from pork-belly sliders and Tuesday's chicken pot pie to duck pastrami sandwiches. Reviewed March 20.
3572 Indian Queen Lane, 215-843-1500; www.fiorino.us
Long-suffering East Falls finally has a restaurant worth keeping, as veteran chef Franco Faggi (ex-Franco's Trattoria) makes a soft-spoken but satisfying return to a cozy corner BYO tucked up into the hillside neighborhood. Faggi's classic northern Italian fare is simple and familiar, but carefully prepared at fair prices, and served with the kind of personal charm that builds regulars. Reviewed Nov. 27.
Fork & Barrel
4213 Ridge Ave. CLOSED.
With obscure beer and wild game by candlelight, this memorable debut for the crew behind the Farmer's Cabinet was suddenly shuttered after six months. Reviewed Jan. 2.
Gemelli on Main
4161 Main St., 215-487-1230; www.gemellionmain.com
Talented but nomadic chef Clark Gilbert has moved yet again, taking his cozy Narberth BYO to a sleeker, multilevel Manayunk space with a liquor license. Gilbert has stepped the cooking up a half-notch, too, with polished bistro dishes (now leaning more French than Italian) that add needed depth to Main Street's scene. The upscale prices, though already starting to come down, may need to dip lower before this becomes the go-to neighborhood spot the chef aspires to. Reviewed Oct. 20.
382 E. Elm St., Conshohocken, 484-532-7470; www.barisabella.com
A Mediterranean tapas bar (with a pizzeria twist) lands with big-city ambitions on an out-of-the-way corner in Conshohocken. The extensive small-plate menu seems at times to be an overreaching suburban mashup of Garces/ Vetri/Bar Ferdinand greatest hits. But mostly, chef Michael Cappon pulls off the Spanish- and Italian-inspired flavors with house-made ingredients and some personal twists. Pizzas still need work, and the Latin soundtrack is all wrong, but this corner is good enough for the locals to occasionally sate a tapas craving without braving I-76. Reviewed May 29.
848 S. Second St., 267-687-1426; www.kennettrestaurant.com
A long-troubled Queen Village bar address has finally landed a keeper tenant, a warm gastropub built with reclaimed materials and a sustainable green focus on local seasonal ingredients with lots of veggie options, house-made charcuterie, and unusual burgers, plus a drink list that's one of its best assets. The kitchen has ambition, but can be rough around the edges (especially with the so-so pizzas), making this spot more a local draw than a citywide destination. Reviewed March 13.
Khyber Pass Pub
56 S. Second St., 215-238-5888; www.khyberpasspub.com
Old City's classic rock-and-roll beer bar was revamped, spruced up, and given a fantastic Southern makeover, with some of the best New Orleans-inspired cooking this town has ever seen, plus respectable barbecue, and a serious craft-beer list, too, paying homage to the bar's pioneering beer-scene roots. The dangerously addictive bacon-grease popcorn - so bad, but so good - may be the best reason of all to visit. Reviewed Feb. 27.
746 S. Sixth St., 267-455-0172; www.littlefishbyob.com.
This new incarnation of Little Fish, which moved a few blocks north to the former Salt & Pepper space, was sold by Mike Stollenwerk to longtime sous chef Chadd Jenkins. A meal prior to the sale showed this intimate BYO holding steady from an earlier Two Bell review - with good seafood ingredients, but somewhat limited presentations for the price. The five-course, $33 Sunday prix-fixe, however, remains one of the best gastro-bargains in town. Revisited May 8.
529 N. 20th St., 215-854-0923; www.mccrossens.com
This longtime Fairmount barroom has been transformed from "forgettable" to "memorable" since the arrival of chef-partner Townsend Wentz, a Four Seasons vet, who has brought serious cooking to a menu that still keeps prices accessible for casual dining. Smart upgrades to the small beer and wine lists, plus moments of surprisingly polished service and votive-lit ambience, have helped remake this survivor into one of the city's best neighborhood gems. Reviewed Oct. 16.
901 Christian St., 215-440-0495; www.monsurestaurant.com
Chef Peter McAndrews (of Modo Mio fame) channels the vibrant flavors of Sicily in all its citrusy agrodolce and nutty exotic spice to update southern Italian cooking in authentic ways that South Phil-Italy hasn't seen. His lively revamp of the old Butcher Cafe is one of the zestiest openings this year, both rustic and modern without a shred of pretense. A little more consistency in the kitchen and dining room would help Monsù reach its full potential. Reviewed May 22.
943 S. Ninth St., 267-687-2675; www.943byob.webs.com
Pascual "Pat" Cancelliere taps the rustic flavors of his Argentine-Italian heritage with homey empanadas, handmade pastas, and a grill-centric menu that lets simply prepared meats, offal, and house-made sausage shine with little more than chimichurri. Such zest deserves a bigger audience, but they'll come with a caveat: This pretty but spare Italian Market room gets noisy faster than you can say "Tango!" Reviewed July 17.
1311 Sansom St., 215-545-0170; www.opaphiladelphia.com
Greek food gets hip at this sleek, blue restau-lounge at 13th and Sansom streets, where siblings George and Vasiliki Tsiouris team up with chef Andrew Brown to present a menu that melds their traditional family flavors with contemporary attitude, from veal keftedes meatballs to mini-gyros that redefine gyros. Much of the affordable fare works, some still needs tweaking. But the cool space radiates a pleasantly modern Mediterranean vibe that offers a delightfully fresh take on a familiar theme. Reviewed May 15.
721 Bustleton Pike, Feasterville, 215-876-5253 or 215-357-4960; www.restaurantabsolute.com
It may be in an unassuming Lower Bucks strip mall, but this Georgian restaurant offers a surprisingly elegant setting of silvery chiffon, chandeliers, and Italian marble for expats to party like they're back on the Black Sea. The space relies on weekend banquets for energy, but the menu from chef-owner Teimurazi Kikvidze always delivers a homespun taste of pure Georgian soul, from the cheese-stuffed khachapuri breads to cilantro- and walnut-laced salads and flavorful charcoal-roasted kebabs. Reviewed Aug. 28.
9173 Gap Newport Pike, Avondale, 610-268-3066; www.taqueriamoroleonpa.com
After two decades, the Mexican restaurant pioneer of mushroom country has expanded from modest BYO strip-mall digs to a sprawling stand-alone locale, with a bar and room for hundreds to savor the Rodriguez family's consistently good cooking. There are some more modestly appointed and more regionally focused taquerias now in the area worth visiting (such as La Peña in Kennett Square). But Moroleón's menu, with roots in the bubbling molcajetes and seafood stews of Guanajuato, strikes a rare and delicate balance between authentic and Americanized tastes that appeals to a wide audience, and succeeds on high-quality ingredients and careful cooking. Reviewed Feb. 20.
138 N. 10th St., 215-928-1883.
This bustling Chinatown duck house is no-frills in its pink Formica decor, but all thrills when it comes to bargain meals in a bowl, from the peerless noodle soups topped with tender soy sauce chicken, wontons, and honeyed pork, to the soulful and warming congee rice porridge. Don't expect smiley service from the gruff, non-English-speaking waiters. But the vast menu has numerous other don't-miss items - crispy pig, cuttlefish, anchovy-chicken fried rice - that help distinguish this otherwise nondescript nook as one of Philly's most flavorful dining values. Reviewed Jan. 9.
757 S. Front St. (at Fitzwater), 215-551-2200; www.thevillagebelle.com
The Campanaro brothers, Louis and Joey, have returned to their home turf in South Philly to give new life to the former Frederick's. The Roman-column kitsch is gone, but there's still an Italian flair to the New American flavors, including meatball sliders that are all the rage at Joey's New York eateries (Little Owl). The friendly service can sometimes get too familiar, and the menu could use more consistency and a stronger identity to set this newcomer apart. But there are just enough good flavors here to give this historic old space some amore. Reviewed Jan. 30.
4447 Chestnut St., 215-921-5597; www.wah-gi-wah-halal.com
All skewers hungrily point west to this Pakistani kebab house in the Spruce Hill section of West Philly, where the exotically spiced Chargha chicken has instantly entered the city's pantheon of tasty fried birds. The modest but tidy space has become a gathering place for cabbies and international students craving an authentic taste of home - from vividly seasoned Karahi curries to meat-stuffed naans - and willing to endure the occasionally slow service. Reviewed April 10.
White Dog Cafe, Wayne
200 W. Lancaster Ave., Wayne 610-225-3700; www.whitedog.com/wayne
The Main Line sibling to West Philly's go-local food pioneer has a clubby, mansionesque decor rather than the original's bohemian funk, with a conservative scene in cashmere and tweed to suit. It may, in fact, be the single preppiest place on earth. The ethical-ingredient mission has survived the culture shock reasonably intact, but the adequate New American menu needed better execution to meet its potential. With a perpetual martini-fied mob at the bar unbothered by long seating delays and parking woes, this Dog has the underserved locals howling nonetheless.
A recent revisit was no less jam-packed (even at lunch), and the service remained friendly but confused ("A light red wine, sir? How about our best-selling cabernet?") But the food showed enough signs of improvement - especially the house-made falafel, the creamy mac-and-cheese, and a nice burger - to inch its way up to Two Bells. Lunch, with its bargain grilled-cheese / soup combo, may be this Dog's best-behaved time of day. Reviewed with One Bell on Feb. 13; revisited and upgraded in December.
618 Collings Ave., Collingswood, 856-854-2670; www.zeppolirestaurant.com
Joey Baldino's exciting debut as a chef-owner takes Collingswood's already-crowded Italian scene up a notch, with a heartfelt ode to authentic Sicilian flavors informed by the finesse of his pedigree (Vetri, Osteria, Amada) and the soul of his South Philly upbringing. A supersonic noise problem, though, drowns out the intimate pleasure of this tiny trattoria, and remains the only obstacle to a third bell. Reviewed Nov. 13.
HIT-OR-MISS, 1 bell
Baby Blues BBQ
3402 Sansom St., 215-222-4444; www.babybluesphilly.com
There are smoke signals in University City coming from the first East Coast outpost of this California barbecue mini-chain - but the menu's flavors were disappointing, with a weak smoke print from the pit and a lack of kitchen finesse considering the relatively high prices. The down-home decor, perky service, and giant beef ribs may be a college-town draw, but this isn't quite the BBQ step forward Philly still craves. Reviewed January 23.
The Farmers' Cabinet
1113 Walnut St., 215-923-1113; www.thefarmerscabinet.com
This moody craft drinker's paradise from the former owners of Fork & Barrel serves up obscure artisan Euro beers on draft and fantastic throwback cocktails to a raucous beer hall, with wood community tables and a live ragtime band. It's one of the area's unique experiences, but the wildly ambitious game-centric menu suffered from a serious lack of execution and focus that made it feel overpriced, too wide-ranging, and in need of better oversight. The entrees are still high, but a new chef since the review, Jason Goodman, will merit a check-back revisit here sometime soon. Reviewed June 12.
The Farmer's Daughter
Normandy Farm Hotel, 1401 Morris Rd., Blue Bell, 215-616-8300; www.normandygirl.com
Normandy Farm has traded the formality of Coleman for the trendy farm-to-table concept, with a stylish revamp of the expanded ("flirty") bar and more casual dining room, plus a menu with appealing contemporary ideas. Unfortunately, the striking presentations are dimmed by frequent cooking slips and service that sometimes bordered on incompetent. Reviewed June 5.
Fathom Seafood House
200 E. Girard Ave. CLOSED.
Mike Stollenwerk's stab at a casual seafood-centric gastropub had a guppy's life. It struggled during the review with basic execution, then was sold a few months later and revamped into a different (more generic) concept. Reviewed May 8.
1210 Frankford Ave., 215-634-3338, www.frankfordhall.com
Starr Inc. landed in hipster Fishtown this year in a big way, with a massive German-themed beer garden salvaged (just enough) from the brick-walled ruins of an industrial shell. The indoor-outdoor ambience is an undeniably fun playground for beer and table-tennis outings - even if it signals the potential Old City-fication of this emerging neighborhood. Aside from the grilled Illg's sausages, though, this kitchen is the least-inspired in Starr's portfolio to date. Reviewed Aug. 21.
Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge at the Piazza
1050 Hancock St., 215-351-5850; www.rawlounge.net
Tony Rim's growing sushi-lounge franchise is filling the sleek black void left by the Piazza showpiece restaurant that never was (Speck) - to mixed results. The showy sushi rolls are average at best and too pricey for Northern Liberties' young crowd. Smart proposed changes would highlight the kitchen's cooked-food strengths - robata-grilled meat skewers and noodle dishes - offered pop-up-style alfresco. To date, though, the secret to sustainably ambitious dining in the Piazza remains a riddle unsolved. Reviewed Nov. 20.
Salt & Pepper
1623 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-238-1920; www.saltandpepperphilly.com
This once-stalwart little Queen Village BYOB has moved south and stepped up to a handsome bi-level, storefront space with a full-service bar. The intimate ambience and warm service offer a nice touch of New Age date-night polish to the edgy East Passyunk scene. The overall ambitions of this American bistro, though, were underwhelming, with a thin wine list and a menu of dishes that are familiar to the point of being dull. Add spotty execution and some less-than-bargain prices, and the whole experience felt flat. Some recent positive buzz, however, would be worth a check-back in 2012. Reviewed May 8.
35 Bethlehem Pike, 267-297-5715; www.thaikuu.com
This Thai cafe has brought some white-leather style and D.I.Y. hot-rock cooking to a portico-covered strip-mall space atop Chestnut Hill. Unfortunately, the totally hapless service (slow, disorganized, confused) only emphasized the mediocre fare, which was bland to boring and made with prefab ingredients that, as a whole, did not even come close to meriting the upscale prices.
A recent revisit for lunch was far from perfect, with inclinations still leaning toward dull. But the service showed some snap. And the kitchen also had enough lively moments (juicy and crisp duck dumplings, herbaceous tom yum soup) and showed a willingness to use a chile pepper when called upon (for pungent green curry, fiery lab chicken salad) to finally scratch out a bell. Reviewed with No Bells on Aug. 21; revisited and upgraded December.
103 N Wayne Ave., Wayne, 484-580-8415; www.xilantro.com
Wayne's hopping downtown gets an ambitious new Mexican destination from the owners of the Serape chain, a modern indoor/ outdoor space with sleek, molded, white walls bathed in a guacamole-green glow - and a deafening din. The kitchen offers a stylish, contemporary take on Mexican dishes, too, but the flavors and execution fall far short of expectations, given the seriously expensive menu. Reviewed Sept. 18.
POOR, no bells
Sofitel 120 S. 17th St., 215-569-8300; www.libertelounge.com
The Sofitel has transformed its lobby bar into a chic lounge-restaurant with a French-themed menu, sleek decor, and aspirations to be more than a hotel amenity. The execution, though, was comically poor. The modernized bistro menu (coq au vin "drumsticks") reads well, but tasted like it was reheated by amateurs. Service was often clueless (broken corks, spilled soup, curtness over the phone), and the loud soundtrack - what's up with the '80s pop? - was the awkward icing on a half-baked concept. Reviewed Feb. 6.
10 Rittenhouse Square, 130 S. 18th St., 215-977-7755; www.serafinarestaurant.com
This Manhattan-based Italian chain landed on a hot corner just north of Rittenhouse Square with an open-windowed cafe scene that seemed to mesmerize the famous, the powerful, and the well-tanned. The simplistic Italian fare, however, from thin-crust pizzas to gloppy pastas and overdone fish, tasted soullessly mass-produced and overpriced by Philly standards.
The touted arrival of a new chef since the review brought little progress. At a recent lunch, my duo were seated at a manhole-size table wedged between a banquette and a register. The calamari were still chewy as rubber bands. The paglia-e-fieno pasta was still gloppy. The pizza sauce was salty and metallic. A simple scallopine al limone, meanwhile, brought veal that was burnt, with a sauce that tasted too little of lemon, and too much like scorched raw garlic - a No Bell taste that lingered all the way back to the office. Reviewed Oct. 2; revisited December.