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Restaurant chat: Chiming in on bells

Inquirer critic Craig LaBan entertains questions from fellow foodies.

Fried oysters with fiery slaw, as served at Chesham Cottage. Readers of a recent review wondered how positive remarks about the Mount Airy restaurant translated into only a single bell in Craig LaBan's rating system.
Fried oysters with fiery slaw, as served at Chesham Cottage. Readers of a recent review wondered how positive remarks about the Mount Airy restaurant translated into only a single bell in Craig LaBan's rating system.Read moreED HILLE / Inquirer staff photographer

Craig: Gooood afternoon, friends, and welcome back to the Philly food chat that chews back. What's been on you plate this week? It has been a fine week on the dining front for me, as you can see from this week's Crumb Tracker quiz. Name the three places in the order I ate these dishes, and you'll win a signed copy of my book. Here are the clues: 1) spaghetti alla chitarra with cockle clams in white sauce; 2) Bruxelles-style mussels topped with goat cheese and smoked slab bacon; 3) fabulous malai kofta (Indian-style vegetarian fritter balls in a spicy cream sauce). Ready, set, get trackin'!

E-boogie: Craig, I won't be able to join the chat this week but after the whole Mexican food discussion I wanted to drop you a line to see if you've had the opportunity to visit Tacos Don Memo's. It's a little lunch truck on 38th and Sansom that's apparently been a well kept secret (from me at least), with the clientele mostly limited to the loyal college fan base in University City. I personally suggest the spicy pork tacos w/ cilantro, though since it's all fresh and homemade (as I'm told) I don't think you can go wrong with anything on the menu, especially given the low prices. Dollar for dollar I'd say it holds its own with the best Philly has to offer. It's just a shame they can't serve cervesas.

Craig: Hey E-Boogie, welcome back even if you're not really here right now. I haven't been to Tacos Don Memo's, but I have a hunch they'll probably be crowded next week! Sounds great. In a similar light, I wanted to mention how happy everyone at the Inquirer was today to discover that OUR long lost Mexican food cart, Spice, has suddenly reappeared. It is probably not Don Memo's - in fact, it's a tad Tex-Mex and the owner is Indonesian. But when you're on deadline, there's nothing like a spicy bean burrito to fuel a writer's fire....

Angelo: Hello

Craig: Hello, Angelo. You've chosen a nice quiet, sunny day to join the chat. What say you?

Angelo: I was a big fan of Tandoor Palace on route 70 in marlton. It closed recently. Does anyone know if that group is openining up in another location? OR ar there any other places that are so good?

Craig: Angelo - I only have a vague memory of that restaurant, and perhaps not as fond as yours. That said, South Jersey does have a few Indians worth checking out. The Palace of Asia stuck behind the Howard Johnson's on Route 70 (by the Cooper River) actually does a very nice job (it's a former Crumb Tracker clue). I've also had nice notices (but never been) to the Gagan Bistro on Route 73 (I believe) not far from the Olga Diner circle. It's worth checking out.

Django Fett: Craig, thank you for writing me that review of Creshiem Cottage Cafe on Sunday. I appreciate you responding to my lament for a lack of good Mt. Airy restaurants. Kidding aside, despite its One Bell rating, I found the review very hopeful and exciting, and can't wait to walk over to the cottage for a meal. That made me wonder if you've ever considered dropping the bell rating system. I would probably never spend $10 to go see a "one star" movie, but ironically, I would happily drop $50 to go eat dinner at a "one bell" restaurant, given the review you wrote. However, I doubt I'm in the majority on this, and am curious if you are concerned that many of your casual readers put too much stock in the number of bells over what you write.

Craig: Django - thanks for reading that review and seeing it for what it was. I really did like much of what I had at Cresheim, I like what chef Donna Robb is doing for the old place. But what started out to be an easy 2-bell review started to crumble over my last two visits, which were full of nicely conceived dishes that were very poorly cooked. So, in fact, the one-bell rating ("hit-or-miss") is accurate. I never said one bell is a bad restaurant. It's one that really needs to work on something, in this case, consistency. And some are better than others. These ratings aren't perfect, but they're essential, I think, to give readers something of a bottome line. Each tier has a wide range of restaurants that can fall into it. But I look at my ratings more as givings readers direct signals about how I feel about a place, rather than putting it into a specific style box. I don't think Cresheim hit half the dishes we ordered, even though I wanted to like them. It needs to do better for 2 bells.

Sherri: I agree with Django Fett. The Cresheim Cottage review was actually very positive, and I was surprised by the one-bell rating. I've dined many times at Cresheim Cottage, and it has been consistently excellent. When I first read your review I wondered if the one bell was someone's typo...

Craig: Sherri - thanks for your thoughts. Obviously we don't agree on Cresheim's consistency. But again, I don't see restaurants in black and white. It doesn't have to be all bad earn one bell. But it needs to succeed more than half the time to have a chance at two. Unfortunately, the very notion of ratings can make people think in black and white terms. As for the star-comparison, bells are definitely tougher. Two bells is meant to be a very worthy review. If takes reading the actual review then to get the full sense, then that's fine, too.

Isabelle: I just got back from a trip to Vietnam and I'm hankering for some good Vietnamese (or Vietnamese-inspired, I'm more interested in quality than authenticity). What do you suggest? Thanks.

Craig: Isabelle - that sounds like an amazing trip. Wish I could go to Vietnam some day! In the meanwhile, I've been quite happy with a number of authentic local places, like Vietnam, Vietnam Palad, Nam Phuong, and Pho 75 on Washington Avenue.

Sherri: Craig, thank you for the clarification. I understand what you're saying, and I am a big fan of your reviews. Ironically, I went to dinner at Cresheim Cottage Cafe last night, and I noticed that there was no pate on the menu and the wings come with bleu cheese... they must have been listening.

Craig: Well, that's interesting, though "constructive criticism" must sound like a dirty word to any restaurateur who just got reviewed. That review did point to a strange phenomenon, however, that occasionally pops up. I sometimes find myself eating in a place I really like, or think I want to like. But if the kitchen is cooking the duck to leather, serving raw chicken wings, or inedible pate, I can't deny the facts. There were other food issues, as well, but I decided to emphasize a few of the positive things rather than continue to nitpick just to justify a rating.

NY Times Reader: I have to chime in and agree with Sherri and Django. I read the review every week and this one really contradicted itself. If you think it was worth just one bell then your copy was too effusive - it didn't seem to fit the definition of one bell.

Craig: Glad you read the Inky, too, NYT Reader. But I'm sorry about all the errant nice comments in last week's one-bell review. Next time, I'll be meaner, OK?!

Jake from Chinatown: I see that WIP is working on another food hunt, this one being pizza. from your experience, what's the best pizza in town? and should I take WIP's resident critic seriously?

Craig: Jake - Glen Macnow is a great radio host, probably my favorite (and the most intelligent) of the WIP crew. As a food guy, I'm not sure how he plays. I haven't really been in total agreement with some of his past junk food hunts on burgers and bbq, but if the man's eating 30 pizzas, he's entitled to his opinion. I think sportswriters probably do know a thing or two about good pie. Just browsing over his list, I can see he's got some good ones up high, like Tacconelli's Port Richmond (though the South Jersey one is better now), Marra's and Lazaros. But Celebre's is way overrated. No place that puts American cheese on pizza should be in sniffing distance of a top 50. He's also got the Couch Tomato way at the bottom (33), which just isn't right - CT makes easily some of the best thin-crusted slices in town. If anything, this kind of thing gets us talking. But take it with a grain of He Man Talk Radio salt.

CJ: Craig, I'm an avid reader of yours every sunday. I was wondering if you're planning to visit and review any restaurants in the northeast in the near future. Keep up the great work!

Craig: CJ - that could happen, if the food stars align as I hope. It would be a long time coming for the Great (and deprived) Northeast.

Django Fett: Part of why I found your review "hopeful" was my hope that the chef/owner will read the review and work hard to eliminate those problems, which I have no doubt they will. I'm excited to hear Sherri report that two of your problems have been already taken care of. For what its worth, my point wasn't so much that I disagreed with your rating because I'm pretty familiar with how you give out bells from reading you over the years. But I could see why many would either think it was a typo, or worse, people who scan the paper and say "Wow, that restaurant got the same rating that Basic Instinct 2 got, I'm never going there!"

Craig: Django - thanks for your thoughtful comments on this touchy topic. I think you've nailed it. Ratings are just tricky, in some ways a necessary evil. They are part of my job as a service journalist, to give people a bottom line, and a quick entry into an opinion. But a number can't relate all the subtleties of a review. I HOPE people take the time to read the reviews, but I know it isn't always the case. So I have to make a good, honest and consistent decision on a rating, and stand by it. So I do.

NY Times Reader: One more comment and I will let this go. The point is not to be mean but to clearly convey an opinion - did you like it or not? How much? By the way the Inqs food section beats the Times by far. Thanks.

Craig: One more comment, and I'll let this go, too! If that wasn't a clear review, then I guess I'll have to try again some day. But the bottom line is that I liked where Cresheim Cottage was heading, but they didn't get there enough to earn 2 bells. It' s not always such a clear-cut verdict. You can appreciate some things about a place and still recognize frankly that they have a lot of work to do.

Sarah: Craig I just finished reading the the Food and Wine article on Philadelphia restaurants and was wondering what your take on the article was?

Craig: Hi Sarah (and Philly80 who also asked this question). I spoke with Dana Cowin about this story when she came to town for research and I think she gave us a very fair shake. She called the town boring a couple years ago, and came back to really consider what we had to offer in a thoughtful and thorough way. She really did her eating. We really aren't a town of Maverick chefs. But we DO have our share of ambitious YOUNG chefs and destination restaurants. I think her criticism of our market scene, with DiBruno's being the one and only big one, is fair - if you don't consider the Reading Terminal and Italian Market to be individual entities. Perhaps she didn't pay enough attention to those rare institutions. But in all, with a kicker like "There are now more places I want to try in Philadelphia than New York" it's hard not to feel Philly definitely got its due.

Sean: Has anyone gone to the Park Grille Steak & Chophouse in Bensalem? I think they are comparable to what Center City has to offer like Capital Grille or Barclay Prime.

Craig: Sean, is this the new restaurant at Philadelphia Park? I haven't been yet, but the menu I saw certainly had Capital or Barclay prices. I'll be curious to hear from someone who's done some scouting work for the chatroom.

Django Fett: Craig, I just got back from Vegas and they had the over/under line for your Osteria review at 3.5 Bells. I'm thinking of putting $500 down and taking the under, and playing another $500 on three bells straight up. Should I start shopping for a new BMW now?

Craig: Django - I'm gonna keep a poker face on that one. So, keep the Subaru for now, OK?

Craig: And with that, concludes yet another spectacular tasting meal of chat-a-licious banter. I was so glad to hear from a few new names this week, as well as a couple regulars. Also, I did receive a few notes that were critical of some restaurants - but they were unsigned, so off-limits for chat-print. Don't forget, if you want to bitterly complain, go ahead, but use your real name. Like some of us. In the meanwhile, have a great and tasty week. Maybe we'll find a real Crumb Tracker amongst us next Tuesday. Until then, be well and eat something worth bragging about!