Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat from Tuesday, Dec. 11:
Craig LaBan: I'm curious to hear about your holiday table traditions. I got a chance to pop into our neighborhood Israeli place, Hamifgash (800 block of Sansom), where the cooks were frying up fresh doughnuts for Hanukkah – both sugar-dusted Moroccan-style rings, and some luscious yeasted rounds, ready to be filled with jelly. Who doesn't love holiday foods?
Reader: My wife and I are celebrating our anni on New Year's Eve. We live in Coatesville, but are looking for a nice place to eat with a tasting or pre-fixe menu on NYE without going into the city. I may end up at Amani, but do you think there is a better spot in Chesco? (WC Kennett, etc.)
C.L.: My general advice for NYE is to stay home and cook something special. That said, it is the anniversary. What about Sovana Bistro in K. Square? Other options: Avalon or its Pasta Bistro sibling in Downingtown. Not sure it's fancy enough, but worth considering. And you might also look at Birchrunville Store Cafe.
Reader: In that area, it's time for a return visit to General Warren Inn. They are a grown-up restaurant run by grown-ups for grown-ups.
C.L.: Out that way, it's also worth mentioning Alba in Malvern, which is one of my favorite suburban spots, period.
Reader: If you could recommend one place in Fairmount for dinner and drinks, what would it be?
C.L.: I think La Calaca Feliz is the best new spot in Fairmount right now. But if Nuevo Mexican isn't your thing, give a try to Lemon Hill, which makes some outstanding cocktails. Also Hickory Lane and those old classics - London, Rembrandt's, and Bridgid's. Haven't eaten at the Belgian Cafe in years, but it remains a great beer destination.
Reader: Has anyone been to Ulivo recently? Any suggestions? Wine: Brunello? Chianti? Something from Piedmont?
C.L.: Good question. Ulivo was one of the restaurants I really enjoyed this year - a great seasonal Italian BYO for Queen Village, very affordable. I'd stick with a Northern Italian Piedmont Red here, thinking Barbera d'Alba or Langhe Rosso from Vajra (they sell this usually at Moore Bros.). Or a nice Veneto Ripasso from Zenato perhaps?
Reader: There is a lot of buzz around new and different restaurants, but are there classic Philly places that deserve some attention? ... Within a certain affordable range? Le Bec Fin is a bit outside my grasp.
C.L.: This town is bursting with so many new restaurants, almost each week, that it is hard to pay attention to the oldies. In the moderate price range, veterans that are still admirably doing their thing: Friday Saturday Sunday; Villa di Roma. Haven't been to La Famiglia in forever. But a friend just went and enjoyed an old Amarone they had in their world-class Italian cellar.
Reader: Speaking of oldies, how about the Saloon?
C.L.: I went to the Saloon a year ago and was disappointed. It was a good oldie - certainly one of the most beautiful old Philadelphia spaces. The meat, though, just didn't hold up in quality to some of the good cuts of beef we're getting in town these days. I used to think it was a bit overpriced, but charming and full of high-quality flavors (especially when Clark Gilbert was chef). On this last visit, it just felt a bit tired and expensive.