Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat.
Craig: Before we start, I wanted to send a huge shout-out to the talented bakers at the Night Kitchen in Chestnut Hill. We ordered an "Ace of Cakes"-style cake for my mother-in-law's big 80th birthday party - shaped like a giant banana split - and decorator Peri Anderson nailed it spot-on. My mother-in-law just about cried when she walked into the room and saw this vision of fondant-wrapped diner decadence – banana splits have always been her favorite. I'd give the cake inside a slightly better-than-average grade, but A+ for the design, which had the desired effect of deep admiration - oohs and aahs - from the entire party. Very pricey, but for such a momentous celebration for a fantastic lady, it was worth it!
This year, I am hoping to perfect (among other things) my cider-glazed roast goose over last year's slightly dry first attempt - especially now that I fixed the thermometers on my grill! I'll be curious to know what kind of go-to specialties you'll be looking forward to cooking for either Christmas or New Year's Eve.
Reader: My Christmas specialty is a roast duck with a kumquat green peppercorn sauce along with crispy potato cubes sautéed in duck fat and Brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic glaze - then hit the gym the next day!
Craig: Stay an extra hour on that elliptical trainer - unless you're Gascon, that duck fat has staying power.
Reader: You cook your Christmas goose on the grill? It's got to be charcoal, right?
Craig: Oh, yeah. Big green egg. I brine it overnight with a bit of mulling spices - clove, cardamom, orange peel - then slow-cook it over the coals. Finish with a simple reduction of apple cider, and serve over freshly ground polenta.
Reader: It is not the holidays at my house, Craig, without a Pot of Greens. Doing collards this year. Of course, corn bread is a must for dipping. With the weather turning, I begin to crave Pho. You have a recipe for pho and also for soup dumplings?
Craig: Greens are good, and good for you, so I'm down with that. Also, just ordered my heirloom sea island red peas and Carolina gold rice from Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., so I can have an authentically lucky Hoppin' John on New Year's Day. As for pho and soup dumplings - favorite topics on the chat - I'm sending you to 12th and Washington to Pho 75 for you know what, and Sakura Mandarin at 11th and Race in Chinatown for the soup dumplings. Go for the crab ones - their broth is orange with rich crab goodness.
Reader: I'm looking forward to a special "seven fishes" dinner at Amis. Brad Spence is apparently at the helm. Have you heard any intelligence about what kinds of dishes I can expect?
Craig: No idea, but with Spence cooking, I'm sure it will be good. I can still savor some of the great seafood dishes he cooked during my 3-bell review - stuffed clams; octopus; fritto misto; baccala; rigatoni with swordfish and eggplant; seafood grill; tuna steak just to name a few. I saw Grub Street had a nice roundup of some nontraditional places to get the seven fishes dinner - Fish, Avalon, among others.
Reader: I drew my cousin for a Pollyanna present this year. She goes to Penn. If I'm getting a restaurant gift certificate, would I be better off with $25 to White Dog, Bobby's Burgers, or another local haunt? (I realize this is entirely subjective, but I guess it's a fancy way of asking what's the best University City place for a Penn student?)
Craig: My bet is that $25 is going to go a lot further at Bobby's Burger Palace. But if you're looking for the best restaurant in West Philly she might like, I'd say Distrito - fun for students and grown-ups, too. Then again, $25 might get her through a margarita and guacamole. So, since I'm in favor of restaurant gift certificates only when it can cover an entire meal, I think burgers are the ticket. On my last visit a couple months ago, Bobby's seemed to have improved from its bumpy opening months. For the price, I think it's a pretty good meal - as long as you don't have to stand in one of those ridiculous one-hour lines. She could even take a friend.
Reader: For what it's worth, the best brisket I've ever had is Pig Daddy's in Drexel Hill. Good luck finding it; blink and you'll miss it. It's a shopfront with a counter, and that's it, but the people are incredibly nice. (A friend of mine tried to get catfish there once, and they were out of it. They told her come back next week, and when she did, they gave it to her free of charge with a note apologizing for letting her down before.)
Craig: Now that's hospitality with a bbq smile. Nice to hear that even a little storefront knows the right way to treat a customer. I'm sure they'll be loyal forever.
Reader: What are a few of the best restaurants in Chester County? Does High Street Cafe make the list?
Craig: Birchrunville Store Cafe, Talula's Table, Sovana Bistro, Gilmore's, Avalon. But no, not High Street.