Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:
Reader: Have you had a chance to visit the new Blue Bell Inn? Thoughts?
Craig LaBan: Not yet, but I sure plan to . . . have you been? There have been so many big new openings in town, it has been harder to get to some equally worthy suburban spots.
Reader: I love the renovations they did , and the goal of attracting a somewhat younger crowd has certainly worked. I wasn't impressed with the menu. A bit overpriced for the quality. But they do have an excellent outdoor seating area, and the happy hour raw bar is great.
C.L.: Definitely hearing mixed reviews. But, I love old restaurants. And I'm always intrigued when owners undertake the important - but very delicate - art of trying to update a place without obliterating its classic character.
Reader: Please try to get to the suburbs more often. There are great places out here, we'd like to hear of more. Heading to the city for dinner is often difficult for us, especially on a weeknight. But we love good food out here too!
C.L.: Well, I do make it out to the burbs. Recently wrote great reviews for Junto in Chadds Ford, Bangles in Downingtown, and CHUlicious in Mount Laurel. But there aren't enough Sundays to cover all the worthy places - a good thing because it reflects the health of our dining scene. But it's frustrating for me, because I only have one stomach.
Reader: I agree about the suburban restaurants. The quality is generally not as good, but maybe some attention to this would help. Why are Vetri and Starr reluctant to open up on the Main Line?
C.L.: You'll have to ask them. There are definitely all sorts of factors that go into restaurant expansion, let alone expansion to the burbs. Vetri's choice to branch out to the Moorestown Mall earlier this year has proven to be a serious challenge in terms of maintaining the 3-bell quality of their Osteria downtown. Witness my recent demotion of Osteria Jersey to 2 bells. The bottom line is, while many of their customers downtown come from the suburbs, finding the staff to serve them at that high level closer to home is a really, maybe impossible, difficult task.
Reader: Wondering if you are sensing a bit of a movement in fine dining away from cerebral ingredients and "artistic" modernist platings? A move back toward less-fussy food and embracing tradition at the upper end? Is it just me wishing?
C.L.: Well, I've gotten a few e-mails and calls from older readers who were befuddled by some of the cerebral and artistic plates coming out of the Ashkenazi-inspired kitchen at Abe Fisher. But, on the whole, I think we've been seeing a return to more honest, flavor- and tradition-driven cooking where the contemporary techniques are just part of the modern chef's tool bag, not the end point in themselves. Townsend is a great example, and the return to some French inspirations that drive that cooking. The trend toward wood grilling and roasting is another factor that has emphasized more rustic flavors over prettily designed plates laden with cool spoon drags. Will BYO, on the contrary, is one place where the plates are no less beautiful or cerebral than before. Chef Chris Kearse simply matured enough over the last few years to make sure that every pretty flourish mattered, and added to the harmony of the plates. That's why he stepped up to three bells.