June 18, 2007

An Update on the Chops v. LaBan Lawsuit

There have been two significant developments in the Chops v. LaBan lawsuit. The first is that The Philadelphia Inquirer and Craig LaBan have filed an answer, which strikes a serious blow at Plotkin’s claims. The second is that Plotkin’s attorneys took LaBan’s deposition…and videotaped it.

The Answer

The assertions in the Inquirer and LaBan’s answer—one of which Plotkin now admits is true—do not bode well for Plotkin.

LaBan denies that he was served a “steak sandwich without the bread,” as Plotkin alleged in the complaint. Rather, LaBan asserts that he was served “Steak Frites.” And LaBan has the receipt to prove it. LaBan further alleges that “[t]he waiter serving LaBan and his lunch companion described the steak served as ‘Steak Frites’ as a ‘strip steak.’” Presumably, LaBan dines with others so he can taste multiple dishes in one sitting. But the ancillary benefit of having done so here is that LaBan now has a corroborating witness, illustrating that this practice is something other food writers leery of libel suits would be wise to employ. Moreover, LaBan states that “the steak Chops served as ‘Steak Frites’ was sliced from the same piece of meat purchased by the restaurant for the strip steak it serves at dinner as strip steak.” It is not clear from the answer how LaBan knows this; however, it is important to note that this assertion does not start off with the phrase “Upon information and belief…”—a somewhat tepid predicate often used to hedge your bets when you’re not 100%.

Surprisingly, Plotkin has recanted his “steak sandwich without the bread” story and now admits that LaBan ordered and ate “Steak Frites,” a fact that probably should have been discovered before the complaint was filed given that it’s the basis of his lawsuit. Although Plotkin denies the rest of the above-mentioned assertions, this could signal the beginning of the end of his lawsuit. It appears from the pleadings that, at a minimum, LaBan believed that the meat he was eating was strip steak. And if that’s what LaBan believed, Plotkin will not be able to prove “actual malice”—the intent requirement in a libel claim asserted by a public figure, which is what Chops will most likely be held to be. Keep in mind that the “actual malice” standard is subjective, not objective. In other words, it doesn’t matter what a reasonable person would have believed; it only matters what LaBan actually believed. The hurdle for Plotkin is extremely high.

The Deposition

The second development in the case, however—which Steve Volk wrote about today online at Philadelphia Weekly—is a little more sensational. And it shows that this lawsuit may end up being less about truth than about strategy. Plotkin recently noticed LaBan’s deposition, which is a bit early in the case but not improper. But instead of seeking the more traditional type of deposition, where only the deponent’s words are stenographically recorded, Plotkin wanted the deposition to be videotaped.

The defendants sought a protective order to prevent it. “LaBan’s anonymity is important to the process by which he reviews restaurants,” the defendants argued to the court. “If a restaurant knew Mr. LaBan was in its dining room, it might put on a show for him that would not be provided to the general dining public.”

In opposing the defendants’ motion, Plotkin denied that LaBan’s identity was a secret by stating the following:

Defendant LaBan has not only appeared in public recently to promote a book he wrote on behalf of co-defendant The Philadelphia Inquirer, he even permitted another journalist on a widely-read Philadelphia restaurant review website to publicize a photograph of half his face. Anyone with an interest in the “trade secret” of his identity certainly would have attended his book signing, seen his face, listened to his voice, and studied the photo available online.

The journalist to whom Plotkin is referring is yours truly (at least I wasn’t called a “sham blogger”). The website to which he’s referring is this one. And the photograph to which he’s referring is the one LaBan allowed me to shoot at his book signing in December 2006 and post on my blog.

First, I was not happy to discover that I was referenced in a document filed in this lawsuit (though I appreciate that Plotkin and/or his attorneys extended the professional courtesy of not identifying me or my blog by name). Second, my photograph technically does not show half of LaBan’s face; it shows only his lips and his goatee. And to put it in context, my photograph shows less of LaBan’s face than you see in his recently-shot video, “Cheeseburger, I Hold,” or the screenshot accompanying his article about the making of the video (pictured above). Third, contrary to Plotkin’s assertion, the photograph actually demonstrates (as does the video) that LaBan and the Inquirer, in fact, do take great care to protect LaBan’s identity. LaBan showed up at the book signing wearing a hooded cape, a curly wig and a Zorro mask, and he wears the same wig and mask in the video. Wearing a disguise is exactly how you protect your identity, not how you reveal it.

The court technically granted the defendants’ request in part, but denied the most critical aspect of their motion. The judge’s order allows LaBan’s deposition to be videotaped. And although the video will be kept confidential until trial, the order does not prohibit the video from being played at the trial, which could threaten LaBan’s anonymity if the entire proceeding is left open to the public.

In Volk’s article, Plotkin’s attorney says that the videotaped deposition took place on June 5 and that they expect to use it at trial. Plotkin’s attorney claims that the case isn’t about LaBan’s anonymity (though it does play a key role in his complaint as LaBan’s alleged motive for his less than stellar review). Rather, Plotkin’s attorney claims their “interest is in what [LaBan] did wrong and in encouraging him not to do it again.”

However, to the trained or skeptical eye Plotkin’s insistence on videotaping LaBan’s deposition looks like a strategic move designed to leverage a settlement, especially given LaBan’s devastating answer. Videotaped depositions are not all that common, and the need for one in a case like this is questionable (there’s nothing to suggest, for example, that LaBan would be unavailable for trial). Plotkin knows that anonymity is a vulnerable spot for LaBan. So, it’s not surprising that Plotkin’s attorney is attempting to apply some pressure; it’s what lawyers do. But in light of the discussion above and Plotkin’s own admission in his complaint that he previously threatened (“jokingly,” of course) to reveal LaBan’s identity when he visited The Palm in 2002, Plotkin’s insistence on videotaping LaBan’s deposition just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

Actually, all of this is good news for LaBan. Plotkin’s whole lawsuit was based on LaBan having a steak sandwich without the bread. And LaBan chopped one of his legs off with two words: Steak Frites. If the rest of the above-mentioned assertions in LaBan’s answer are verified through discovery, the game is over for Plotkin. The fact that Plotkin had to play the video deposition card shows that he’s on the ropes. And although it’s troubling that the tape is out there, it’s unlikely that it will ever see the light of day.

Photo Credit: A still from the video of Craig LaBan recording "Cheeseburger, I Hold." Video shot by Chris Jolissaint.

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June 17, 2007

Neighborhoods, Chains and Outdoor Dining

Last Thursday City Paper came out with its 2007 Summer Dining Guide. This year it asked its writers to take its readers “on a culinary tour through some of the city’s most appetizing neighborhoods.” I wrote the piece on my neighborhood, the booming Washington Square West. I didn’t have room to talk about all of the restaurants in the area. So, if you have something to say about the ones I left out (or even the ones I did discuss), let me know here in the comments.

Last week I also wrote a piece for my WineCHOW column on ClassicWines.com about outdoor dining called Summer in the City. Most of the piece was composed while eating the juicy pork chop at 707 Restaurant & Bar I referred to in the above-mentioned City Paper piece. Ah, the beauty of multi-tasking.

Also, don’t forget to check out last week’s WineCHOW article called Disdain for the Chain, where I ask whether there's any upside to a chain moving into your neighborhood. Regardless of your view on chains, you have to read the story about my Italian relatives at the beginning of the article. It is 100% true.

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June 16, 2007

Stories From Reading Terminal Market – History In the Making

When Marisa first told me about her new blog project a few months ago, Stories From Reading Terminal Market, I was blown away by the concept. Marisa spends time at Reading Terminal Market collecting “stories, memories, recipes and fond recollections from the experiences of individuals.”

The idea of blogging one of Philadelphia’s most notable institutions is fascinating enough. But what’s interesting to me about the project is that it is the perfect combination of the past and the present. It preserves the history of the Terminal while making a present-day story out of the act of cataloguing that history. Add in Marisa’s engaging storytelling and the table is set. You’ll be asking for second helpings before you’re through with the first plate.

If there was any blog out there that screamed to be turned into a book, Stories From Reading Terminal Market is it. A word of advice to the literary agents reading this: don’t wait too long to get Marisa under contract. It’s only a matter of time before she’s making herself, and some publishing company, an obscene amount of money.

Photo by Marisa McClellan

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June 10, 2007



It felt like we were intruding on a private moment. It was 5:30 p.m. on a cold February evening when we walked into James for an early dinner. There was no music playing in the restaurant. No one was even humming a tune, at least none that we could hear. But Chef Jim Burke and his wife, Kristina, were slow dancing in the restaurant’s intimate lounge. Chef Burke deftly twirled Kristina in front of the crackling fireplace. They smiled and laughed playfully. A small crowd, mostly James employees, watched silently as a well-equipped photographer snapped pictures of our two dancers. But the enchanted couple barely seemed to notice as they glided through the room to their own ballad. After one final spin and a longing gaze, it was time to get back to work. Chef Burke headed to the kitchen and Kristina returned to the elegant dining room to check on preparations for the evening’s service.

Risotto alla Kristina

The restaurant had been open only two months when Chef Burke and Kristina danced to their silent music, but the song of James’s success was already starting to be written. The first note was the photographer that night. He was taking pictures for the June 2007 issue of Food & Wine magazine in which James’s signature dish was featured, Risotto alla Kristina—a scrumptiously soupy Venetian-style risotto made with Prosecco, orchid oil and raw oysters that are folded in at the end of the preparation to give them just a touch of warmth. Before the Food & Wine piece hit the streets, though, other influentials formed an inspirational chorus: Philadelphia Magazine, City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly, Philly Style Magazine, aroundphilly.com—each a unique voice, but all singing generally in tune. Then came Craig LaBan’s review. The deep, resonate tones of LaBan’s rarely-heard “three bells” and his lyrically penned prose made the symphony complete. Now, everyone can hear the tune that was guiding Jim and Kristina’s steps on that cold evening back in February. And the reservation book shows it; a thirty-two person wait list is not unheard of and the lounge is packed with diners clamoring to eat from the slightly abridged bar menu.

Porcini & Early Blueberry Stuffed Tortelloni, Thyme

Such high accolades may seem surprising given that this is their first restaurant venture, but this couple has paid their dues. Kristina’s management stints have included the recently-closed Pasion!, Striped Bass and Miel Patisserie. And Chef Burke’s pedigree includes Vivo Enoteca in Wayne and Stephen Starr’s short-lived Italian restaurant, Angelina.

Hand Cut Pappardelle with Duck Ragu, Shaved Chocolate & Orange

But the one restaurant on Chef Burke’s resume you could probably guess just by tasting his pasta is Vetri. Chef Marc Vetri is renowned for crafting authentic, homemade pasta. And it’s clear that Chef Vetri passed these artisan skills on to Chef Burke because the pasta at James is pitch perfect. Burke’s skills do not stop there; he’s also a virtuoso when it comes to combining flavors to strike creative culinary chords. The espresso, for example, he added to the winter menu’s savory Sweet Potato Ravioli with Oxtail Ragu gives the dish depth and allows the sweetness of both the filling and red wine sauce to emerge. Similarly, the delicate earthiness of the porcini mushrooms in this season’s Stuffed Tortelloni highlight the bright blueberry sauce. And, of course, the synergy between the mild orange and chocolate flakes shaved tableside in his popular hand-rolled Pappardelle with Duck Ragu makes this dish a masterpiece.

Cornish Hen

Burke’s meats, too, should not be overlooked. His secret is to select fresh, quality cuts of meat and not to overly prepare them. Last season’s pork loin, for example, was prepared by first gently searing it and then slowly cooking it on a low heat to concentrate the flavors and hold in the juices. This season’s Cornish Game Hen receives similar respect—delicately crisp on the outside while tender, juicy and flavorful on the inside. And the locally grown vegetables that were still in the ground only a few days earlier serve as the perfect complement to this hen.

Brown Ale Mousse, Almond Cake and Almond Toffee

The desserts at James trend toward the savory side, but they often incorporate citrus elements for a little sweetness and some refined contrast. The addictive Chocolate Terrine, which is made with bittersweet chocolate, sits on crisp olive oil fried bread and is topped with Fleur de Sel, is accompanied by some refreshing quince paste. Also, the rich Brown Ale Mousse, which sits on a pillowy almond cake and is topped with a crisp, toasty almond toffee, comes with sliced pears. Those with more of a sweet tooth can add a scoop of homemade gelato, which have included exciting flavors such as Cardamom and Black Walnut from Green Meadow Farms.

Chocolate Terrine

If there’s anything about James that could strike a challenging chord for some, it would be the portion size and price. The portions are not large; they’re elegantly sized, probably more in line with the amount of food we should be eating and not what we’ve been conditioned to believe is necessary. So, those looking for never-ending pasta bowls should eat elsewhere. That said, the meals I’ve had at James have been satisfying and I’ve never left hungry or wanting more. The prices at James are in line with what you’d expect to pay at other fine restaurants in Center City. And the stylish food and professional and attentive service at James are definitely worth the money. But the prices mirror the grace and sophistication of the couple’s creation, making James more of a special occasion destination than an everyday hangout.

Much like a poetic symphony from the Romantic era, James seems destined to become one of the classics. Center City will be singing and dancing to Jim and Kristina’s music for a long time to come.

824 S. 8th Street
(215) 629-4980

For more pics, check out the James set on my Flickr page.

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