Craig LaBan:

Good afternoon, my hungry friends. ... What have you all been chomping on worth sharing? Right now, I’m thinking about a darn near perfect round of reblochon cheese I picked up this weekend over at DiBruno’s. Wow. Creamy and mushroomy, and just pungent enough that it perfumed my kitchen when I spread it this morning on warm country bread toast. Those French mountain folk really know how to make cheese. Of course, I'm not going to let you all get away without a Crumb Tracker quiz. Guess the three places I ate these dishes in order, and win a signed copy of my book: (1) pheasant salami with truffled chanterelles; (2) ashak (scallion dumplings with yogurt and meat sauce, sprinkled with mint); (3) "Cajun" sausage with red beans and rice. ... Ready, set ... start crumbing!

Carol Fritz:

Craig, am I hopelessly old-fashioned in thinking that courses should be served to a table at the same time? This small plates thing -- "You'll get your food as it comes out of the kitchen so you can share!” - strikes me as an excuse for a poorly run kitchen.

Craig:

Carol ... here's my thought. I agree with you in general, on the tricky art of timing, and the fact that this style is much easier for the kitchen to deal with, because it eliminates the rigors of pacing a meal by courses. But I think we've come a long way since the small plate thing began. I used to feel quite rushed when Stephen Starr's places started the whole sharing thing with their "family style" service at Buddakan/Tangerine, etc. You got what the kitchen wanted to bring you when they wanted to, and everyone dove in. Sometimes, so many dishes arrived at once there wasn't enough room on the table. That, in my opinion, was a service problem as well as a kitchen issue. The places that reallly know how to do the small plate format still give a logical pacing and portioning to the meal, then dose it out seamlessly. I'm thinking of Tinto right now, but there are others - Ansill, Apamate (recently had a great meal there).

amy:

I second you Carol. Besides, sometimes I don't want to share

Carol Fritz:

Amy, I hear you. It's as if the restaurant is dictating how we eat. They have no idea if the people at the table are intimates or strangers.

Craig:

Carol, you have a point if you're out doing business dining. But I think that most of the places that are doing small plates have a casual edge to them that isn't really appropriate for a first-time business lunch with bunch of strangers getting to know each other. In many ways, I think you should know as the diner if you're heading to a small plate restaurant that you should expect sharing. It can be a fun way to eat....

Adam:

In response to Carol. Wouldn't the world be incredibly boring if every restaurant was the same? I dare you to go to Barcelona and not fall in love with "the small plates thing."

Craig:

Yes, Adam, but of course, they know how to do small plates in Barcelona. And the folks there are different. How many Philadelphians do you know are heading out for dinner at 10:30 p.m.? My only point it that there is a learning curve to this kind of restaurant - both for the restaurateurs and the diners - and we're still getting there.

che:

I would have to disagree with Carol Fritz, the idea of food coming out as it’s ready with the small plates thing "tapas" is due to its traditional nature. Having been in Spain to have tapas, they are meant to be a social event for diners to share. That aspect adds to culture of it, as is done at Amada and Tinto.

Zoe:

...and if that's not your thing, don't visit those restaurants--no biggie!

Craig:

Always so polite, Zoe, you make your point well.

Carol Fritz:

Not all gatherings of strangers are business lunches. For instance, I'm getting together with a group of mature singles for dinner at a restaurant on Christmas Day. (P.S. Not easy to find one that is reasonably priced in this town!)

Craig:

I understand what you're saying, Carol. This is a rather new concept for most people, not just the "mature" generation. I suppose you could all just order your own little plates and refuse to share. As for Christmas Day, that is probably one of the hardest days of the year to eat out. Unlike the other holidays, most folks are just at home, and restaurants just don't have the life they usually have. Most of the open places are hotels, and you can't expect them to be cheap. Then again, there's always Chinatown!

Gaucho:

Are there any good, quiet restaurants where someone can take a slightly crazy, soon-to-be-out-of-work television news personality?

Craig:

Well, I think the Tank Bar at Friday Saturday Sunday might work just fine, for you, Gaucho. Everybody looks good in the black light up there.

Mary Rose:

Craig, in your opinion, what is the best "meat and potatoes" restaurant downtown? I'd like to give a gift card to a couple that enjoys just that. I was thinking Smith and Wollensky. I've never been there, but hear it's pretty good. BTW, I am HUGE fan of tapas. Amada is the best restaurant in town. Looking forward to my next visit. They, just as at Tinto, have timing down pat.

Craig:

Mary Rose, thanks for your question. Here's my steakhouse list: (1) Barclay Prime (the updated stylish steakhouse, with great meat and innovative dinners, but not for your steakhouse traditionalist); (2) Capital Grille - the best of the corporate steakchains; everything you expect in a predictable steakhouse, but done very, very well; (3) The Prime Rib - this is the place to send your elder relatives; it's like an old supper club, from the leopard print carpet to the live jazz combo - also, stick with the namesake, the prime rib is their best cut. I am not a fan of almost any other steak chain. (I'd say Fleming's and Sullivan's are probably the next best after that list.)

Tom:

Craig, I am interested in knowing, what is the best raw bar in Philly? Most places that I find are Japanese, but what about those of us who just want to eat oysters?

Craig:

Hi Tom, funny you should ask. I just had some wonderful raw oysters over at Oceanaire last week, and the selection was great. Also, I think Coquette and Sansom Street Oyster House (same owners) are a great bet for consistent, well-priced oysters - they're also one of the best locations if you want to try a local mollusk, the sweet, firm Cape May Salt. In addition, I think that XIX on top of the Bellevue has a very good raw bar. This is oyster season, of course, so get them while they're at their firmest, briniest, coldest.

Kooshan:

Craig, I loved your review of Shundeez. I really enjoyed their food my only time out there and completely agree that the ice cream is delicious!

Craig:

Hi, Kooshan, thanks for reading the review! Yes, I really enjoyed Shundeez. It's a nice example of authentic Persian cooking, served up by an enthusiastic owner (Mohsen Lavasani). I wish every restaurateur radiated as much genuine enthusiasm as that man. Of course, Shundeez is a modest place, really just a simple bistro. But the flavors come from a tradition of good home cooking, and that is worthwhile - especially if you live anywhere near Chestnut Hill. I'm getting a jones for some crunchy tadik rice crackers about right now...

Sophie Belle:

I was one of the first customers at Shundeez. I know this sounds corny but I taste the love they put into their food. It's simply delicious. Great review by the way

Craig:

Like I said, that's the taste of home cooking. You get that especially in some of the stews, the pomegranate-walnut sauce, the coo coo sabzi, which is sort of like a spinach fritatta (reminds me of my childhood fascination with Stouffer's spinach souffle).

Michelle:

Do you think a restaurant patron will receive worse service/food if they present a coupon or a Restaurant.com gift certificate at the beginning of the meal as many coupons/certificates request?

Craig:

Michelle, this would only happen at a bad restaurant. Any place that participates in something like a coupon program (or Restaurant Week, for that matter), should embrace it without strings, or not bother.

Mike:

Craig, my wife and I are regulars at several restaurants and bars in the area. Often a familiar waiter or bartender will give us a free round or drinks, dessert, etc. When they give it to us they usually say "X was on me." My question is if the servers or bartenders actually pay for the free item, or if it is just an expression?

Craig:

Mike, I'm sure this kind of thing drives restaurateurs crazy (if not out of business), but it is the technique a lot of bartenders use to cultivate a loyal clientele. And no, they don't pay for it. (Of course, once a place installs electronically dosed shots on their bottles, this might decline.) I was at an unnamed gastro-pub (actually more pub than gastro) and the bartender kept pouring shots of Beam throughout the meal - but mostly, I think, because he wanted an excuse to drink along with us. We didn't even drink much, in fact, but he was completely toasted by the end of our lunch. I'm sure this is more common than one would suspect, but I could understand why he boasted of such a loyal following.

Sarah:

What are the best crab shacks in Philly? You know, brown paper tablecloth places.

Craig:

Sarah, unfortunately, though we are just an hour north of the Maryland line, Philly is not a crabshack place. We've got Chickie's and Pete's, but it's just not the same. DiNardo's in Old City, the last time I was there, was pretty disappointing. There is Bonk's Bar in Port Richmond, as well as a Polish eating club whose name eludes me. But really, you'll need to just drive south for some real hardshell action. I was just at the Tap Room in Chesapeake City, though the local crabs won't be running again until next spring. I've also enjoyed the Howard House in Elkton, Md., as well as Price's in Havre de Grace. My colleague Rick Nichols is a fan of lots of the crab places on the Delaware Bay - Sambo's in Liepzig, among others.

Elliott:

Craig, as an addition to the quite correct answer you gave to Mike, some places actually have a comp check the server or bartender can use within reason for good clients.

Craig:

Thanks for that detail, Elliott. I didn't know that.

Carol Fritz:

Craig, you're so right about the giving away free drinks. There's a restaurant in DC where after the manager left cases of wine were missing. He had a very loyal following. I was surprised he wasn't charged with embezzlement.

Craig:

Carol, it's one thing to comp some regulars some drinks at the bar. Making away with cases of wine is simple thievery.

Kooshan:

Coming from a traditional Persian family, the food at Shundeez really made me miss my Mom's kabobs and fesenjoon.

Craig:

Kooshan, I'm glad to hear this. As a professional eater, you can get a sense of whether or not something is well cooked, but you can't always tell, unless you have real experience with that cuisine, whether or not it's truly authentic. Thanks for backing my kabobs!

Joe:

When you dine at a fine restaurant, do you ever think of the suffering of the animal that you are eating for pleasure?

Craig:

Honestly, Joe, not that often. But I have to say, I've just finished Michael Pollen's outstanding book,

The Omnivore's Dilemma

, and I think I understand the whole process of our country's food chain more than ever. I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares about where their food comes from.

Alex:

Michelle, as a server for ten years, let me just that you need to tip on the amount of the bill without the coupon. Sometimes a server can tell if the customer will not, and therefore will give poor service.

Craig:

Alex, I agree that diners should tip on the bill before any discounts, but really, how can you "tell" if a customer isn't going to? That kind of diner profiling - and the resulting bad service - may be a very good reason for your poor tip.

Joe:

Thanks for your honesty, Craig. It is amazing that you can understand the suffering that you perpetuate, and do it anyway. Some people would call that cruelty.

Jose Vargas:

to respond to joe’s comments, my family came from farms and if you raise the animals with care, you don't feel bad.

Alex:

Craig: Please let me clarify that I do not, however many colleagues of mine have.

amy:

joe, this is something I think about before every meal. Somehow, it makes the steak taste even better.

Craig:

Hey folks, this chat began late, so it's ending late, and I'd say it's just about cooked. Wanted to clarify again, that earlier deleted comment was from a chatter named "Bambi" (I'm sure that's what mama named him!), not me. Just a keyboard slip, is all. Anyway, we certainly ended with a heated flurry. Please save all that enthusiasm for after the holidays, when this chat returns on Tuesday, Jan. 8. Until then, may you all be well, happy holidays, and eat something worth bragging about!