September 30, 2007

John Mariani Profiles Philadelphia's Restaurants

Tinto's De Chorizo de Pamplona

It’s exciting when the Philadelphia restaurant scene receives national attention. National food and wine writers dine all over the globe, and so it’s always interesting to see how the depth and breadth of their palates inform their opinions of our little corner of the culinary world.

John Mariani is the latest to weigh-in on Philadelphia’s restaurant scene. He is one of the most seasoned and highly respected food and wine writers around. He is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion, Bloomberg News & Radio, and Restaurant Hospitality. He has also authored The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of American Food & Drink, and with his wife Galina, the award-winning new The Dictionary of Italian Food and DrinkItalian-American Cookbook.

Mariani also publishes a free weekly newsletter on his site, (free registration required for archives). In the September 23 issue, Mariani profiles Philadelphia restaurants and reviews some of his current favorites: Rae, 707, Tinto and Susanna Foo in Radnor.

Like other outsiders, one of the things Mariani bemoans generally about Philadelphia is the high mark-ups on wine. However, despite the constraints under which our restaurants must operate, Mariani is impressed with what he sees. He calls Ryan Davis’ wine list at Rae “first-rate,” he recognizes Tinto’s 100+ bottle wine list and says that 707’s wine list “carries some of the best bargains for good regional bottling you’ll find in Philadelphia.”

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September 26, 2007

In Tune With Fork

Grilled Striped Bass with Grape Leaves

Fork was the very first Center City restaurant in which I ever dined. So it’s fitting that Fork the first Center City restaurant in which I get to cook.

This year, Fork and owner Ellen Yin are celebrating a milestone few restaurants are fortunate enough to experience: a 10 year anniversary. To mark the occasion, Yin published Forklore: Recipes and Tales From an American Bistro (Temple University Press). Forklore is the history of Fork told through the recipes that have appeared over the years on Fork’s evolving Bistro-style menu.

For the City Paper article I was assigned to write, I came up with the idea of cooking one of the dishes with Yin in Fork’s kitchen. We made the Grilled Striped Bass in Grape Leaves with Vietnamese Rice-Paper Wraps and Coconut-Lime Dipping Sauce. The recipe actually calls for Red Snapper, but to find out why we used Striped Bass you’ll have to read the article, The Tines That Bind.

And for more pictures of the event, check out my Forklore set on Flickr.

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September 25, 2007

Philadelphia Restaurant Week Survival Guide

Center City Restaurant Week

It’s that time again, folks—time to celebrate something about our city that continues to draw national attention.

No, I’m not taking about our escalating murder rate; that’s certainly nothing to celebrate. I’m not even talking about Mayor Street’s recent decision to crack down on property tax scofflaws…like himself. (By the way, where did Mayor Street camp out last night for Halo 3?)

I’m talking, of course, about our restaurants. And, specifically, Center City Restaurant Week. You know the drill: 3 courses, $30, over 100 participating restaurants.

If you don’t have reservations by now, you’re probably more nervous than a senator in an airport bathroom stall. But don’t fret. There’s still hope.

Here are a few tips to help you make the best of Restaurant Week, even if you didn’t make reservations two months ago like you should have done:

Aim High. Not all restaurants participating in Restaurant Week are created equal. If the goal is to eat a $30 meal at the best possible restaurant (and, let’s face it folks, that is the goal), shoot for places like Le Bar Lyonnais or Amada over, say, CoCo's (no offense). By now, of course, seasoned veterans likely have seized most, if not all, of the reservations at Philly’s latest hot spots, so be prepared to lower your expectations somewhat. However, it never hurts to call some of these places to capitalize on any last minute cancellations. You should also scour Open Table for, what else: open tables. Better yet, let FooBooz do it for you. FooBooz has promised to post updates throughout the week letting you know which participating restaurants still have tables available.

Look for Places Serving Their Regular Menu. Restaurants approach Restaurant Week in one of two ways: (1) serve slightly smaller versions of items that appear on their regular menu; or (2) create new dishes to fit the $30 price point. In my travels, I’ve had better Restaurant Week experiences at places that do the former.

Eat at the Bar. Even if you can't get any reservations, you may still be able take advantage of Restaurant Week. Look for participating restaurants that have bars or counters, such as Washington Square and The Oceanaire, and eat from the Restaurant Week menu at the bar.

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Philadelphia Chefs for Choice Sponsor "Freedom Foie for Five"

Philadelphia Chefs for Choice

Philadelphia Chefs for Choice invites you to Freedom Foie for Five: a special celebration of foie gras. All next week, the week of October 1, both for lunch and dinner, you will be able to sample this deliciously controversial dish for only $5 at the 20 participating restaurants listed below.

According to the organization's press release, Philadelphia Chefs for Choice is a group of concerned chefs and restaurateurs who stand for freedom of choice—theirs and yours. They have organized as a response to the animal rights movement against foie gras, line caught fish, veal, lobster and eggs.

Here is the mission statement that these 20 chefs and restaurateurs have endorsed:

We, the chefs and restaurateurs of Philadelphia, listed below, believe in the freedom of choice, for ourselves and our clients.

As chefs, we believe in the humane and natural husbandry of animals, and are dedicated to using the highest quality ingredients. As business people, we want to be able to decide what to put on our menus.

We do not believe that a minority of animal rights zealots should determine the direction of our business. Nor do we want to be intimidated by them at our restaurants or homes. We want the City Council to know that these few do not represent the whole of Philadelphia.

In the city of Philadelphia, the birthplace of American liberty, we want to keep the right to serve foie gras.

Bistro 7—Michael H. O’Halloran
Brasserie Perrier—Chris Scarduzio
Caffé Casta Diva—Stephen Vassalluzzo
Caribou Café—Olivier de Saint Martin
Django—Ross Essner
Lacroix at the Rittenhouse—Matt Levin
Le Bec-Fin—Georges Perrier
Little Fish—Mike Stollenwerk
London Grill—Terry McNally
Matyson—Matt Spector
Osteria—Jeff Michaud
Rylei Restaurant—Jose Vargas
Salt and Pepper—Shawn Ford
Standard Tap—Paul Kimport
Studio Kitchen—Shola Olunloyo
Susanna Foo—Susanna Foo
Twenty21—Sue Mahoney
Vetri—Marc Vetri
Vintage—Jason & Delphine Evenchik
Zinc—Barbara de Saint Martin

UPDATE 9/29/07: Bistro 7, Django, Studio Kitchen and Osteria will not be participating in the Foie for Five event. And according to Food and Drinq, Stephen Vassalluzzo at Caffe Casta Diva is on the fence. But add N.3rd to the list of participating restaurants. I just confirmed directly with N. 3rd that Peter Dunmire has jumped on board and will be participating in the Foie for Five event.

More after the jump.

Matyson's Seared D'Artagnan Foie Gras

The list above consists of restaurants that have actually chosen a side in this debate. The list of restaurants Hugs for Puppies ("HFP") cites, by contrast, consists mostly of restaurants it bullied. In other words, pulling foie gras off the menu doesn’t necessarily mean the restaurant believes it’s cruel. Instead, it likely means that they’re just sick of the harassment. Do you seriously believe that David Ansill had some sort of epiphany and now believes foie gras is cruel? It's also interesting to note that HFP takes credit for 4 restaurants that closed, even though the closings had nothing to do with foie gras (Restaurant M, Deux Cheminées, Pif and Le Jardin) and all 11 Stephen Starr restaurants, many of which didn't even serve foie gras.

Moreover, the list of above reflects a completely different type and degree of commitment than most of the people or businesses who sign petitions opposing foie gras. The folks above have something at stake. As HFP proudly continues to prove, there is an inherent risk in serving foie gras in Philadelphia (and, apparently, there's a risk even if you don't serve it). Also, unlike many who oppose foie gras, the individuals above will be directly affected should the proposed ban be passed. Their courage, therefore, should be taken seriously.

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September 16, 2007

A Turbulent Flight of Wine

2006 Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Funtanaliras D.O.C.G.

My wife and I decided to picnic in Fairmount Park on Labor Day. She put together some delicious chicken pesto wraps for us to eat. To celebrate the symbolic end of summer, I wanted to bring along a special bottle of wine. As soon as I opened my cellar, I knew exactly which bottle to bring—the 2006 Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Funtanaliras D.O.C.G.

A gentle swirl released the subtle fragrance of apricots and mild flowers. On the palate, the tart apple and apricot flavors that introduced this wine were supported by a clean mineral texture and a slightly briney undercurrent. As these flavors began to fade, a playful arc of bitter almond breached the finish.

But what made this wine drink so well had nothing to do with its flavor profile or the fact that it paired well with the chicken pesto wraps. It had nothing to do with the vintage, the soil in which the grapes were grown, or even the fact that it was among the six bottles of wine that US Airways took from us in Rome. Rather, what made this Vermentino so special was that I kicked US Airways' ass to get it back.

Before we left for vacation in Italy, I knew we would be bringing home Italian wine. I also knew it was legal to do so. PA’s liquor laws are notoriously antiquated. It is illegal, for example, to bring wine across the border from New Jersey. However, strangely enough, it is completely legal to bring wine into PA from a foreign country—up to a gallon (a little over 5 bottles) per person. What’s even more surprising is that you don’t have to pay any taxes on it, not even the Johnstown Flood Tax. See 47 P.S. § 4-491(2).

Box of Wine

Knowing this, we brought with us to Italy a cardboard box that snugly held a two-piece Styrofoam container tailor made to cradle six bottles of wine (well under the PA limit for two people). This packaging is not novel. It is specifically designed to protect bottles during shipping and it’s used by wine merchants all over the world to ship wine safely to their customers.

L'Angolo Divino

In Rome, we befriended a wine purveyor named Massimo who owns an enoteca called L’Angolo Divino near Campo de’ Fiori. We asked him to fill the box with five bottles of wine, including some of the wine we enjoyed there the night before with relatives from Washington who were vacationing with us. The sixth slot would be used to carry the 1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins our relatives in Rome gave us.

1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins

When we arrived at the airport in Rome for our return trip, I placed the box on the counter to be checked in. When the US Airways clerk asked me what was in the box, I told the truth: wine. With that, she called over her manager, whom I’ll call “Mario” (not his real name). Mario took one look at the box and refused check it in. His initial reason for not checking the box was that the bottles would break. When I tried to explain the nature of the packaging, he cut me off and mindlessly repeated the bald conclusion that the bottles would break. Another clerk even joined in, shaking the box and mocking my explanation. It was insulting. And now I was fuming.

Mario then said two things: (1) there was a new policy prohibiting the wine from being checked unless it was in a wooden crate; and (2) FedEx would pick up our box at the airport and ship it to us in the states, which, he claimed, FedEx had done in the past for travelers like us.

Both of these statements, it turned out, were complete bullshit.

Within minutes of landing in Philadelphia, I was on the phone with US Airways. They confirmed that there was no “wooden crate” policy and that Mario had no right to prevent us from checking our wine. I also called FedEx. They don’t ship wine for consumers; you have to be a licensed distributor to enlist them to ship wine. The same is true of UPS.

Surprisingly, and to their credit, the US Airways folks I dealt with here in the states in the days that followed were sympathetic and proactive. For example, the representative at the Philly airport with whom I filed a claim report actually called Mario on the phone, told him he had no right to prevent us from checking the box and instructed him to put it on the next flight. Also, the representatives working the Central Baggage helpline sent Mario several messages telling him to ship the box. A manager from the baggage department’s corporate headquarters in Arizona kept me informed throughout the process.

But the problem wasn’t them. It was Mario. He stubbornly refused to return the wine. For example, although he told the US Airways representative at the Philly airport that he would put the wine on the next plane, he failed to do so. He then claimed that the instruction needed to come from Central Baggage. However, Central Baggage had already advised him several times to send the box.

I knew from the beginning that Mario would not budge unless one of his superiors here in the states called him on the carpet. It took ten days, but I made that happen. And we finally got our wine. Plus, as a result of this incident US Airways said they planned to have a sit down with the Rome office to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Now, a US Airways customer should be able to check wine at Rome’s airport without any problem. That’s what happens when you mess with a lawyer’s wine.

2003 Rosso di Montalcino Ridolfi

Given the fierce campaign I waged to get the box back, you would expect that it contained expensive, extraordinary wines from legendary vintages. But it didn’t. Aside from the 1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins, all of the wines in the box were modest and inexpensive. Yet, they have more meaning to me than some of the esoteric Bordeaux and Burgundies I have in my cellar.

Massimo Pours

Wine can be more than the sum of its parts. It has the ability to capture a moment—and you along with it—even if that moment is something as simple as a meal with family or good friends. For me, those bottles are worth fighting for.

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September 09, 2007

Exclusive Interview: Chef Guillermo Pernot Pours His ¡Pasión! Into Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre's Concept Chef Guillermo Pernot

Chef Guillermo Pernot is credited with introducing Nuevo Latino cuisine to Philadelphia. And when he opened ¡Pasión! eight and a half years ago, the upscale establishment soon became one of the most exciting destination spots in Philadelphia, earning an impressive three bells from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan.

But when ¡Pasión! closed suddenly this past June, Pernot was blamed.

Pernot left ¡Pasión! a year ago this September to become the Executive Concept Chef at Cuba Libre. When the Inquirer’s Michael Kline asked Michael Dombkoski, Pernot’s former partner at ¡Pasión!, why the restaurant was closing, Dombkoski partially blamed Pernot. “Everyone knew he wasn’t in his kitchen,” Dombkoski said. According to Klein’s article, Dombkoski also cited “a lack of convention business, heightened competition (including the city’s crop of BYOBs) and a burgeoning trend to more casual dining” as reasons for the closure.

Pernot has remained silent about why ¡Pasión! closed and why he joined forces with Cuba Libre. Now, Pernot finally speaks out.

Pernot acknowledges that business at ¡Pasión! was down. “There were good days, there were bad days,” Pernot recalls. “And business was very slow compared to what it should be, in previous years.”

But Pernot denies that he’s to blame for the restaurant’s demise. “I don’t think ¡Pasión! closed because I was not there,” Pernot said. “There were a lot of very talented people that I left in charge of the restaurant.” According to Pernot, Domkoski’s other explanations make more sense. “Michael also blamed the fact that restaurant closed on a lot of the BYOBs, and the fact that there were a lot less conventions coming into town,” Pernot said.

Teaming up with Cuba Libre is nothing new for Pernot. “I opened Cuba Libre six years ago,” Pernot noted. “I was a consultant chef then.” It seems only natural that Cuba Libre would turn once again to Pernot when it decided to expand the restaurant across the U.S., beyond Philadelphia and Atlantic City (Pernot was tight-lipped on the next location).

“They brought me back as the Executive Concept Chef because they needed something different,” Pernot said. “They needed somebody to take the ship by the wheel and steer them in the right direction.”

The timing was right for Pernot. “I needed to grow, to do something else,” Pernot said. Revitalizing the menu and standardizing the recipes for Cuba Libre’s future locations was just the challenge this two-time winner of The James Beard Award was looking for. “Cuba Libre gave me the opportunity to develop a new style of cooking,” Pernot said.

It’s tempting to conclude that a standardized menu would want for taste and spirit. That may be true of some menus, but not if it's one created by Pernot. When asked how he revised the menu, Pernot says he made it “more exciting” by adding “a lot more layers of flavor.”

Torta de Cangrejo

One of the new dishes Pernot cites to demonstrate his point is the Torta de Cangrejo (which I've had several times over the past couple of months). It's a jumbo lump crab cake over avocado slices in a refreshing gazpacho vinaigrette and topped with a fresh deconstructed gazpacho salad ($15 app/$29 entrée, tasting size pictured). Though crispy from being pan-seared, the crab cake inside is surprisingly light. Much of the richness, instead, comes from the avocado. And the acidity from the gazpacho vinaigrette makes the dish very well-balanced.

Vaca Frita

Pernot also says he introduced new cooking techniques to Cuba Libre’s kitchen. For example, Pernot added the Vaca Frita, an addictive and tender short rib steak (which I've also had several times) that is braised and crisped. It’s served with “Moros y Cristianos,” grilled red onion and pepper salad, and a dense and flavorful red wine sauce ($21, tasting size pictured).

But layering flavors and introducing different cooking techniques are only a means to Pernot’s true passion—satisfying his customers. “It’s what happens that day, that the guest is happy and that you are happy with what just went out,” Pernot said. “It’s all about that, at least for me.”

Cuba Libre
2nd and Market St., Philadelphia
(215) 627-0666

For pics of more items on Cube Libre’s new menu, check out my Cuba Libre set on Flickr.

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September 01, 2007

Philly Mag: Publishing LaBan's Picture Was a Mis-Steak

Philadelphia Magazine made some very tasteful choices in its September 2007 issue. For example, they hired Steve Volk (former senior writer for Philadelphia Weekly whose writing I’ve enjoyed since he worked for Pittsburgh Weekly back in the day), who wrote an engrossing feature about Alex Plotkin’s defamation lawsuit against Craig LaBan. In addition, to fill in for the departing Maria Gallagher they brought in Jason Wilson (spirits columnist for the Washington Post), who wrote two engaging restaurant reviews: Beyond Sushi and Mussel-ing In. Let’s hope they keep him on.

However, there was one decision in this issue that was in bad taste: publishing a picture of Craig LaBan’s face alongside Volk’s article.

To justify this decision, Larry Platt, the editor of Philly Mag, claims that LaBan’s anonymity is a gimmick and that everyone in the restaurant community already knows what he looks like. But the main reason for running the photo, according to Platt, is because he believes the debate about LaBan’s identity smacks of self-importance. “Listen, the guy eats meals and writes about them,” Platt says. “He’s not Valerie Plame, OK?”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that all of Platt’s assertions are true. Why out LaBan now? Platt admits that he had a long history of extending the Inquirer the courtesy of protecting LaBan’s identity. But Platt’s reasons for outing LaBan didn’t just recently become true; people have been making those same claims for years. In other words, those reasons weren’t enough to out LaBan back then. Why switch gears and end the courtesy now? What changed?

One theory is that the videotaped deposition LaBan was compelled to give in the lawsuit may have created the perception that his days of anonymity were all but over. But, in truth, LaBan’s identity was as protected as ever.

First, the videotaped deposition did not create a threat to LaBan’s anonymity that did not already exist the minute the lawsuit was filed. Plotkin’s lawyer has repeatedly said that he plans to use the video at trial, suggesting that the video is the only way the jury would ever get to see LaBan’s face. But the fact is that if the case were to go to trial, LaBan would be compelled to testify in person. Plotkin’s lawyer meant that he would use the video to impeach LaBan at trial if he says something inconsistent with his deposition. The video deposition was taken far too early in the case for it to be used as a substitute for direct or cross examination at trial.

Second, the judge ordered the videotaped deposition to be kept confidential until trial. When Plotkin noticed LaBan to appear for a videotaped deposition, LaBan moved for a protective order. Although the judge allowed the videotaped deposition to take place, he granted the most important part of LaBan’s motion: the judge ordered Plotkin to keep the videotaped deposition confidential to protect LaBan’s identity. In other words, the judge agreed that LaBan’s identity was worth protecting, despite the fact that Plotkin made arguments similar to the ones Platt is making.

Third, there is little chance that LaBan or that video will ever see the inside of a courtroom. Almost all of the defamation cases brought against restaurant critics were dismissed before trial. Of the few I know of that went to trial, they were either dismissed halfway through or the plaintiffs lost on appeal. Given those stats, if Plotkin’s case isn’t booted on summary judgment (and I predict it will be), it likely will settle before its March 2009 trial date. And if it were to go to trial a year and a half from now, LaBan’s lawyers likely would move to have the courtroom cleared the day LaBan testifies.

When you add it all up, there was no legitimate reason to out LaBan now. All of the reasons Platt gave in his editorial for publishing the picture certainly were true all the while Platt had been extending the courtesy of keeping LaBan’s identity secret. And although LaBan was compelled to give a videotaped deposition, it was clear that LaBan’s identity was as protected as ever and would remain so for the foreseeable future.

All told, though, the damage to LaBan may be minimal. Word on the street is that LaBan lost weight since that pic was taken, so it may not be much of a tell after all. Worst case scenario for LaBan is that he has to wear a disguise when he dines out a la Ruth Reichl.

And in a strange twist of fate, Platt’s transgression may actually help LaBan. In litigation, you identify your opponent’s vulnerabilities and apply pressure. LaBan’s was his anonymity. The videotaped deposition of LaBan was Plotkin’s leverage for settlement. Now that LaBan’s been outed, that leverage is gone.

LaBan knew anonymity wouldn’t last forever. But I’m sure he never thought he might lose it like this—being outed by a peer publication while in the middle of a lawsuit. Here’s hoping LaBan doesn’t hold a grudge.

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