December 23, 2007

Philly Uncorked

Corks has teamed up with The Wine School of Philadelphia to bring you Philly Uncorked—an informative and entertaining wine video program. The first episode is about Chianti. Wine School professionals Keith Wallace and Maria Valeta teach us about this region and the wine it produces, give us a range of winning picks and describe a perfect food pairing. Keith also shares a very technical term of art that’s used to describe unappealing wines. Watch the video here.

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December 10, 2007

Menu for Hope 4

Menu for Hope

Menu for Hope is an annual charity fundraiser organized by Pim Techamuanvivit, author of Chez Pim, the most respected food blog on the Internet. Five years ago, the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia inspired Pim to find a way to help, and the first Menu for Hope was born. The campaign has since become a yearly affair, raising funds to support worthy causes worldwide. In 2006, Menu for Hope raised $62,925 to help the UN World Food Programme feed the hungry. This year, the money will again go to the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

For two weeks every December, food bloggers from all over the world join the campaign by offering a delectable array of food-related prizes for the Menu for Hope raffle. Anyone can buy raffle tickets to bid on these prizes. For every $10 donated, entrants earn one virtual raffle ticket to bid on a prize of their choice. At the end of the two-week campaign, the raffle tickets are drawn and the results announced on Chez Pim.

To support this cause, I have submitted “Two Class Gift Certificate” to be used at The Wine School of Philadelphia, which was generously donated by the school. Valued at $100, this certificate is enough for two seats to most wine classes offered at the school. You can take two classes yourself, or you and a friend can attend one class together. Even better, you can use this gift certificate for anything that the school offers, including custom-made crystal glassware. The Prize Code for this gift certificate is UE42.

If you’re interested in bidding on this prize or any of the other prizes being offered, here’s what you need to do:

1. Choose a prize or prizes from the Menu for Hope at You can also visit Serious Eats, which is acting as the host for all of the prizes being offered in the East Coast region:

2. Go to the donation site at and follow the instructions to make a donation. Make sure to use the Prize Code of the item on which you’re bidding. If you’re bidding on the Wine School of Philadelphia gift certificate, the Prize Code is UE42.

3. Check back on Chez Pim on Wednesday, January 9, 2008 for the results of the raffle.

Good luck and thank you for your support.

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December 09, 2007

That's Professor "Wine Snob" to You, Pal

The Wine School of Philadelphia

In Taste, its 2007 dining guide, Philadelphia Weekly said I am “one of the biggest wine snobs you’ll ever meet, and you’ll be glad you found your way into his sommelier presence.”

Now, it will be easier for you to find your way into my “sommelier presence.” I am now an instructor at The Wine School of Philadelphia.

But those looking for snobbery will be disappointed. Much like the wine writing on my blog, the classes I’ll be teaching at the Wine School are designed to demystify wine and make it more accessible to the masses. The school offers classes at two locations: its main location at 2006 Fairmount Ave. and at its newly-opened satellite classroom at Pinot Boutique, located in Old City at 227 Market St. Sign up for a class here.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about a special opportunity to win a gift certificate good for two classes at the Wine School.

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December 06, 2007

What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander

The Ducks Drink

In his Inqlings column yesterday, Michael Klein reported that Hugs for Puppies (“HFP”) and Professionals Against Foie Gras are hosting a “No Foie Gras Gala” this Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square. HFP has become infamous for protesting restaurants that serve foie gras, and its tactics have been disturbing enough to convince courts to issue two injunctions against the group.

But, as Klein reported, this time the shoe is on the other foot. In a karmic twist of fate, a group of people who support foie gras plan to protest HFP's gala.

I learned that the pro-foie gras protest is being spearheaded by Terry McNally, co-owner of the London Grill—one of the few restaurants to stand up to HFP. McNally said that, unlike some of the people who protested her restaurant, she isn’t interested in acting crazy. “I don’t actually want to ‘protest’ as much as wanting to be there [to share] correct information,” McNally said via email. According to McNally, the protest begins at 5:30 p.m.

But McNally and her supporters may not be the only ones who will be there. Turns out that a film crew from France is in the country filming a documentary about foie gras for French TV. My source tells me that the film crew may make a detour to Philly on Saturday evening to film the gala protest.

And if that wasn’t enough foie gras redux (re-ducks?) for you, check out this article in the recent issue of Esquire by John Mariani called “The Truth About Foie Gras.” Mariani visited Hudson Valley Foie Gras recently and he came to the same conclusion I did.

UPDATE: I just confirmed directly with Lacroix that Chef Matthew Levin will be serving the pro-foie gras protestors free canapés, including medallions of foie gras. Sounds like the protestors may end up eating better fare than the gala attendees.

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November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Wine Pairings in a Pinch

We all celebrate Thanksgiving in different ways and with different foods. But the one thing that’s guaranteed to be on almost every table this holiday is wine.

The PLCB created a wine pairing chart to help with your wine selection.

PLCB Thanksgiving Wine Chart

Although the chart is helpful in identifying which varietals will work with your meal, it doesn’t recommend specific wines.

If you’re like most people, you’ve put off your Thanksgiving wine purchases until the last minute. And when you finally arrive at the PLCB store, you probably won’t have time to browse the aisles let alone decode a chart.

You need specific recommendations and you need them fast. Look no further.

The Standards: The three wines you can count on to go with your Thanksgiving meal are Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Beaujolais Nouveau. Here are some suggestions on what to pick, all of which are available at the 12th St. PLCB store:

Pierre Sparr Riesling and Gewurztraminer

2006 Pierre Sparr Riesling Reserve (PLCB No. 22105, $14.99). A well-balanced Riesling; not a cloyingly sweet sugar-bomb. Bone dry, as Alsatian Riesling should be. Apples, pears, steely acids and a hint of spice on the finish.

2005 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer (PLCB No. 21762, $12.99). Low acids and glycerol give this medium-bodied wine its characteristic sweetness. Lychee, grapefruit and dried apricots on the nose. Similar flavors on the palate, and a touch of spice at the end.

Beaujolais Nouveau

2007 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau (PLCB No. 5877, $11.99) and 2007 Leonard de St.-Aubin Beaujolais Nouveau (PLCB No. 8998, $11.99). You expect Beaujolais Nouveau to be fruit forward. This year’s crop is different. The fruit is incredibly subdued, which exposes more of the wine’s acidity. And that’s not necessarily a good thing in such a light-bodied red. You’re left with unripe sour cherry, tart cranberry, somewhat bitter undertones and an almost slightly medicinal aroma. This is true of both of the Beaujolais Nouveau. I’d pass on the Beaujolais Nouveau this year. But if you have to choose between the two, go with the Duboeuf over the St.-Aubin because the Duboeuf has a little more fruit to grab onto.

Branching Out: Tired of the standards? For a little more adventure, try these:

2004 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Zind

2004 Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Zind (PLCB No. 21229, $18.99). Consider this as an alternative to Riesling and Gewurztraminer. This white from Alsace is focused and expressive. It’s made with 70% Chardonnay and 30% Auxerrois, an Alsatian varietal that adds substance and nuance. Floral and citrus flavors decorate the palate. It has a rich mouthfeel but the finish is crisp and bright. Seductive honeysuckle notes linger for minutes.

Georges Duboeuf Morgon Jean Descombes (PLCB No. 5504, $15.99). Consider this wine instead of the Beaujolais Nouveau. Although Morgon is made with same grape used in Beaujolais Nouveau, the Gamay grape, it has a little more depth. Sweet cherries and mocha with mineral undertones.

2005 Simonnet-Febvre Pinot Noir Vin de Pays des Portes de la Méditerranée

2005 Simonnet-Febvre Pinot Noir Vin de Pays des Portes de la Méditerranée (PLCB No. 18853, $8.99). Burgundy and Old World-style Pinot Noir are stellar wines to pair with a roasted turkey because they deliver earth and fruit flavors that perfectly complement your typical Thanksgiving spread. However, the problem in PA is that (a) all of the Burgundy on the PLCB stores’ shelves is pretty pricey; and (b) most of the Pinot Noir is not only pricey, but it’s New World-style. To get a drinkable Pinot (New or Old World), you normally have to shell out at least $40. Then there’s the Simonnet-Febvre Pinot Noir, which clocks in at an almost laughably low $8.99. This isn’t an elegant Pinot Noir you’ll get misty about a la Sideways. But it does have the barebones framework of an Old World-style Pinot Noir. A shocking effort for the price.

2005 Lacrimarosa Campania Rosé Mastroberardino I.G.T.

2005 Lacrimarosa Campania Rosé Mastroberardino I.G.T. (PLCB No. 25333, $12.99). Made from the Aglianico grape, this Rosé displays delicate strawberry and raspberry fruit supported by an ashy minerality that's blended with a slight creaminess. Lime and citrus notes brighten the finish.

2003 Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva (PLCB No. 4560, $11.99). For those who are fans of Pulp Fiction, consider this the Winston Wolfe of wines: it solves problems. This red wine is not the most intuitive match for a Thanksgiving meal, I’ll admit. But it’s versatile enough to save the day. The fruit, tannins and acidity are well balanced, and it’s guaranteed to go with something on the table. A consistent crowd pleaser, and my current house wine.

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November 12, 2007


It’s tempting to make certain assumptions about a restaurant named Cochon (French for pig): (1) the menu will contain pork; and (2) the food will compel you to eat to the point of gluttony. Both of these assumptions, it turns out, are true of the new Queen Village French bistro helmed by chef Gene Giuffi and his wife Amy. But when this duo was mulling over names for their BYOB, they settled on Cochon for an entirely different reason.

Cochon is the latest crusader in the city’s French restaurant revolution—a liberating development in light of Philadelphia’s time-worn allegiance to the Italian BYOB. The bistro occupies the space that formerly housed Café Sud. During renovations, Gene and Amy discovered charming fixtures almost too good to be true—a well-heeled mosaic tile floor and original pressed tin wall panels that have been sanded and painted powder blue. The warm, expanded dining room now comfortably seats 44 at humble wooden tables. The gleaming new open kitchen is nestled into the corner. A large chalkboard decorates the wall to display daily specials.

Though young, Cochon already has a clear identity, all thanks to the pig. To chef Giuffi (formerly of Davio’s, Nan, La Boheme and ¡Pasión!), the pig represents the essence of rustic, farmhouse food. And he named his bistro after the uncultured sow to remove the pretense often associated with French fare. It’s a proud, unapologetic reminder—this is peasant food. But don’t let the rural theme fool you. Cochon’s food may be simple, but it’s not without sophistication.


Clean and tender escargot and Shitake mushrooms rest in a red wine sauce. Gently kissed with garlic Pernod butter, the deep, herbaceous sauce is ambrosial, making this one of the most memorable and satisfying appetizers on the menu.

Crispy Chicken Livers

Another must have is the crispy chicken livers appetizer—a Davio’s dish Giuffi updated. Tossed with balsamic, candied walnuts and raisins, the livers are soft, rich and pleasantly sweet.


The delicate tomato-leek saffron broth in which the mussels bathe could use a touch of heat. Still, you won’t be able to resist dredging the bowl with a spent shell to rescue the last drop of broth.

Free-Range Duck Breast

Entrées, too, are smart without losing their pastoral appeal. Beautifully prepared duck breast comes with a white bean ragout that includes crisped-up bacon and confit, a creative play on refried beans. Giuffi skillfully prepares a Prime cut of Belevedere strip steak for the steak frites, and the fries conceal a faint hint of heat that warms the back of your throat.

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder

Slow-cooked country staples receive the tender care they deserve. The pork shoulder marinates for almost 2 days and roasts for 8-10 hours. It’s a comforting prelude to winter, though the dish could use more of the roasted Brussels sprouts that are nesting in the hearty and flavorful lentils du Puy.

Braised, Free-Range Lamb Shank

But the braised, free-range lamb shank steals the show. The sweet, wild meat spills off the mammoth bone with the slightest brush from a fork. And the syrupy port reduction that hosts earthy rutabaga and fingerlings balances the lamb’s richness.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Bordeaux are ideal for Giuffi’s cuisine, though the selection of these wines at the nearby 5th street PLCB store is thin and/or expensive. In a pinch, the 2003 Chateau Greysac will do (PLCB No. 4453, $18.95), as will the 2003 Chateau Les Fief de Lagrange (PLCB No. 7991, $18.99). But those searching for a less expensive alternative may enjoy the 2005 Crios de Susana Balbo Mendoza (PLCB No. 29021, $11.99), a Syrah/Bonarda blend (think: Merlot with a personality).

Dinner Roll

Cochon’s key strength, ironically, highlights a small weakness. Giuffi’s signature sauces are intensely addictive and beg to be soaked up with a deep, never-ending basket of sliced baguette. But the single, elegant roll you receive instead doesn’t last long (especially with the delicious butter dressed with sea salt) and even seems a little too fussy for Cochon’s humble personality.

But Cochon’s only real blemish—one that’s common in Center City eateries—is the relatively high noise level. The angular dining space and tin panels are likely more to blame than the open kitchen.

Creme Brulée

Most desserts are currently being sourced from outside vendors. But the creme brulée, made in-house, is a flawless dream that should not be missed. Its hard, caramelized shell harbors a cool, satisfying custard.

With its warm environs and rustic country cuisine, Cochon’s a bistro the everyday Frenchman would call home.

801 E. Passyunk Ave.
Prices: $8-$23; Cash Only

For more pics, check out my Cochon set on Flickr.

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October 23, 2007

Taste of Philly

Taste of Philly

There’s still time to get tickets for Philadelphia Weekly’s “Taste of Philly” event, which takes place this Thursday, October 25, 2007 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at The Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

A mere $15 in advance (or $30 at the door) gets you all the food and drink you can consume from over 40 participating restaurants, including Brasserie Perrier, Eulogy, Fork, Nineteen and Victory Brewing Company.

The $15 advance tickets can be purchased through Philadelphia Weekly’s website: or directly at their offices at 1500 Sansom Street, Third Floor from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. tomorrow and up to 12:00 p.m. on the day of the event.

50% of ticket sales will benefit Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

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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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August 12, 2007

Street Carts, Duck Parts and New Blog Starts

Matyson's Roasted Spiced Duck Breast

My apologies that posting has been light here recently. That will change. Work has been hectic this summer and I’ve been busy writing for other publications. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been writing about elsewhere:

Frommers: The folks at recently wrote an article on the World’s Best Street Food. Philadelphia was one of the featured cities. I was quoted in the article and so was my friend Albert Yee of Messy & Picky.

City Paper: A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a Pocket Sommelier column on Matyson. I paired a Sauternes with a seared foie gras dish and a Burgundy with roasted duck breast (picture above). I know I’ve written a lot about foie gras recently. But the motivation for this piece was not the foie; it was the Sauternes. The PLCB does not carry a lot of Sauternes and what they do carry can be pricey. Because the PLCB is closing out the 1999 Chateau de Rayne-Vigneau 1er Cru—which normally retails for around $44—for a mere $29.99, I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write about this pairing. The Burgundy I paired with the duck breast is also a solid find at the Colombus Blvd. store. It’s virtually impossible to find any Old World Pinot Noir on the shelves at the PLCB stores, let alone a drinkable Pinot (Old or New World) under $30. That's why I was pleased to find the 2002 Louis Jadot Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre ($26). It doesn’t have all of the delicate finesse of a profound Burgundy, but at least it gets all of the fingerprints right.

WineCHOW: I’ve been quite busy writing the WineCHOW column at Recently, I’ve written about transfat bans, tips on tipping, celebrity chefs, taking photos of food in restaurants, what it takes to be a restaurant critic, and using cell phones in restaurants. My next WineCHOW column will address how to tell if a wine is corked and what to do if a restaurant serves you one.

Farm to Philly: Mac at pesky’apostrophy decided to host a group blog about finding and eating locally grown/produced food in Philadelphia, its surrounding suburbs and South Jersey. I jumped on board. It’s called Farm to Philly. I’ll be writing mostly about restaurants that source their ingredients from local farmers. Technically, the site has not yet gone live, but we’re already posting like gangbusters. We’ll be issuing a press release when it does go live, so keep your eyes peeled for that. In an upcoming Farm to Philly post, I'll make some kick ass pesto with locally sourced basil (that's right folks: I do cook). And if you're nice, I may even share the recipe with you.

Coming up soon on PhilaFoodie: I’ll profile the new menu at Cuba Libre and Concept Chef Guillermo Pernot finally speaks out on why ¡Pasión! closed. I’ll review Philly’s newest Indian restaurant. And I’ll also address the Rick’s Steaks v. Reading Terminal Market litigation.

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July 28, 2007

Philadelphia Magazine's Best of Philly 2007 - Food & Drink

It’s that time of year again, folks. The time when Philadelphia Magazine dishes on the things it loves the most about Philly. "Essential" and "authoritative," Phily Mag’s “Best Of ” issue is a Philadelphia institution. Editor Larry Platt says it best: "We don’t just try to reflect your world and tell you what you like; instead, we try to influence your world, by spending all year combing the region in order to tell you what you should like.” This year, Philly Mag returns to some of the more basic categories and gives you something extra—a handy little “black book” that you can tear out and take with you anywhere you go, making the 2007 Best Of issue a must read.

Without further ado, here are a few highlights from Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly 2007, Food & Drink:

Osteria's Wood Grilled Halibut with Marinated Fennel

Best New Restaurant, City: Osteria. Given the number of high caliber restaurants that opened this year, this choice could not have been easy for the folks at Philadelphia Magazine. Indeed, April White confesses there was “heated debate” over this category. But I could not agree more with this choice—Osteria captures the authenticity of the Italian dining experience by delivering high quality Italian food in a casual yet polished atmosphere. From the “fine handmade” pastas to the “ethereal” Polenta Budino, there is much to love about Osteria. Check out my Osteria review here.

Snackbar's Beef Gyoza

Best Chef: Jonathan McDonald. Philly Mag likes Snackbar's Johnny Mac for the same reason I do: He’s the MacGyver of the kitchen when it comes to successfully combining seemingly incompatible ingredients. The guy is fearless. Give McDonald any three random ingredients and you can guarantee he’ll rescue your palate from boredom. You can find my Snackbar review here.

James' Cornish Hen

Best Entrée: The Roast Chicken at James. I know what you’re thinking. Chicken? Believe me, I, too, would be scratching my head had I not eaten Chef Burke’s Cornish game hen myself and written about it here. Burke’s secret is to select high quality meats and to cook them slow and low to concentrate the flavors.

Best Indian: Tiffin Store. I’ve taken great pleasure in introducing my friends to Tiffin Store. The downside to having done that, of course, is that it now takes me longer to get my delivery because the place is busier than ever. Quality Indian food at reasonable prices, you say? You better believe it.

Best Food Trend: The Sequel. This year, Philly took a page from Hollywood’s playbook and adapted it to the restaurant scene. Daniel Stern’s “Empire Strikes Back” with Rae. Marc Vetri, Philly’s “Godfather” of Italian cuisine, “pulls [us] back in” with Osteria. And thanks to Tinto, Jose Garces now has “Two Towers” on the Philly tapas scene. Next year’s Best Food Trend? I’m thinking it could be The Trilogy. After a diversion to Chicago to open Mercat later this year (which will feature Barcelonan-style tapas and charcuterie), Garces will come back to Philly to open Chilango, a Mexico City-inspired taqueria that (I kid you not) will pay tribute to Mexican professional wrestlers. Though it sounds more like “Nacho Libre,” if the success of Amada and Tinto are any indication, Chilango will herald the “Return of the King.” Either way, I’m getting my ticket in advance.

Want to know who won the Best Cheesesteak, City category? How about Best New BYOB? Best Pizza? Pick up your own copy of the Best of Philly 2007 edition of Philadelphia Magazine. It hits newsstands on Monday.

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July 26, 2007

University City Dining Days Are Here

University City Dining Days are going on right now—from July 26, 2007 to August 2, 2007.

The University City District has taken the concept of a restaurant week to the next level. Instead of all restaurants offering three courses for one price, it’s three courses and three prices. Each participating restaurant is offering a three course meal at one of the following price levels—$30, $25 and $15. Check out for participating restaurants and to find out the price level at which each one is participating.

Also, Marigold Kitchen has extended its three-course $30 Dining Days menu to August 9. (h/t to FooBooz).

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July 24, 2007


Two of the topics that govern my life are law and food. The two don’t often intersect, but when they do, I’m in my glory.

That explains why I enjoyed Saira Rao's first book, Chaimbermaid. Rao is a lawyer who clerked for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals here in Philadelphia. After her clerkship and a stint at a large law firm in New York, she decided to risk it all to become an author. If Chaimbermaid is any indication, Rao made the right choice.

Chaimbermaid is a fictional account of a judicial clerk, Shelia Raj, and her experience at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals here in Philadelphia. A lot of the action takes place in Philadelphia restaurants, including such gems as Rouge, The Continental, Jones, Las Vegas Lounge and Ralph’s. It’s interesting to see the perspective of these restaurants from a character who is not a Philadelphia native. And Shelia’s objectivity is refreshing. For example, Shelia, who hails from New York, is annoyed by the velvet rope elitism practiced at Rouge and is not a fan of The Continental’s “Oriental Ginger Noodle Salad.” Yet, she’s grounded enough to appreciate the simple comforts of the mac-and-cheese and deviled eggs at Jones.

The book has received a lot of press due to its so-called scandalous, fly-on-the-wall perspective of what happens inside the chambers of a federal appeals court judge. This aspect of the book certainly is a draw, especially to us lawyer types, and does carry its share of the book’s humor. But the press’s reaction to all of this is a bit extreme.

Perhaps I have been around the block a few too many times or am thicker skinned than most, but—fiction or not—the colorful behind-the-scenes tales are more silly than scandalous, especially compared to the absurdity of law firm life as told by folks such as Opinionistas and Anonymous Lawyer. Moreover, Rao’s stories did not diminish my respect and reverence for the court. In the end, all judges are human beings. And Rao, in fact, demonstrates that it takes an exceptional kind of human being to be the effective judge that Judge Friedman is in Chambermaid.

In addition, there’s a lot more to Chambermaid than the gossipy goings-on behind chamber doors. For example, one of the key plot threads involves a high-profile death penalty case Shelia has been assigned. Death penalty jurisprudence can be complicated stuff (I know; I represented a death row inmate back in the day). But Rao not only manages to make death penalty jurisprudence approachable, she also makes it engaging.

Yet, Chambermaid is still an escape. Rao’s style is light, witty and entertaining. And her book is chock full of politics, love and other tumultuous happenings in the life of a young lawyer struggling for direction and identity. Chaimbermaid is the perfect beach read for anyone interested in a young professional’s perspective on law, Center City or the Philadelphia dining scene.

Join Saira Rao today (Tuesday) for a rare appearance here in Philadelphia. She will be reading exerpts from Chambermaid and signing books at Barnes & Noble (1805 Walnut St.) at 7:00 p.m. For more info, check out

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July 18, 2007

Cooney Responds in the "Nick of Time"

I had planned to sit down with Nick Cooney, the director of Hugs for Puppies, for my “Liver Let Die” article that was published in the July 5, 2007 issue of the City Paper. However, Cooney failed to show for the interview.

After the article went to print, Cooney contacted me to explain that he missed our meeting because he was in jail for failing to respond to a subpoena issued in a lawsuit related to animal testing protests, a charge Cooney says the judge dismissed.

I recently sat down with Cooney to get his take on London Grill co-owner Terry McNally’s characterization of Hugs for Puppies’ protesting tactics and my experience at Hudson Valley Foie Gras. Read my Q&A with Cooney called “Nick of Time” in this week’s City Paper.

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Philly Represents on Wine Spectator’s 2007 Restaurant Awards List

Every year Wine Spectator celebrates restaurants that “show passion and commitment when it comes to wine.” This year Wine Spectator awarded the Award of Excellence—an award recognizing lists that have a well-chosen selection of at least 100 wines by quality producers and a thematic match to the cuisine—to four additional Philadelphia restaurants: Flemings Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar (Radnor), Fogo de Chao (1337 Chestnut), Le Castagne (1920 Chestnut) and The Melting Pot (King of Prussia). A run-down of most of the past Philly winners can be found here.

But New Jersey seems to have kicked our cork. Seven additional New Jersey restaurants earned the Award of Excellence this year: Bacchus Chophouse & Wine Bar (Fairfield), Basil T’s Brewery & Italian Grill (Red Bank), Bobby Flay Steak (Borgata, Atlantic City), Buona Sera (Red Bank), Hunan Taste (Denville), and Mahogany Grille (Manasquan) and The Melting Pot (Westwood). Not only that, but two past New Jersey Award of Excellence winners—Chakra (Paramus) and Old Homestead (Borgata, Atlantic City)—were upgraded to “Best Award of Excellence,” which recognizes lists of 500 or more wines that show either vintage depth or excellent breadth spread over several winegrowing regions.

Hey, for what it's worth, at least we beat Delaware; they didn’t have any new additions or upgrades this year.

Congratulations to this year's winners.

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July 05, 2007

Foie Gras - A Bird's Eye View

I’ve spent a great deal of my spare time over the past year reading all of the scientific studies and articles regarding foie gras production I could get my hands on, including the studies found here, here and here. I did so because I wanted to inform myself before deciding whether the production of foie gras is inhumane.

Recently, I even toured Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, the largest of the three foie gras farms in the United States (pictures from the farm visit are available here). I wrote about my experience for the City Paper in an article called Liver Let Die that was published this week. I managed to snag a quote from famed restaurateur Danny Meyer for the article. I believe this is the first time he has ever taken a stance on foie gras in any publication, so this was a major scoop.

After reading all of these studies and articles and visiting the farm, the bottom line is this: the ducks are not being mistreated and the process by which they are fed (gavage) is not inhumane. Period.

Don’t take my word for it; read the studies and visit the farm yourself. And even if you still disagree, that’s ok. Just keep your opinion off my plate.

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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 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,—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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