by LEN LEAR
The first of two articles

The bar snacks at Jose Garces’ 7th Philly restaurant, the three-month-old JG Domestic, taste as good as they look. (Photo by Jason Varney)

The questions asked most frequently of restaurant writers are: “What is your favorite restaurant?” “Where do you get the most for your money?” and “What new restaurants have you gone to that are really good?” The answers to these questions and more will be contained in the following paragraphs, which encompass our favorite dining experiences from the year 2010. They are listed in random order, not in order of preference:

•Cin Cin, 7838 Germantown Ave. (215-242-8800; www.cincinrestaurant.com): Every year for the past 12 years myself, my wife, my brother and sister-in-law have experienced the “New Year’s Eve Grand Celebration Menu” at Cin Cin. Every year the restaurant is a virtual beehive at 7 p.m., when we arrive. The waiting area is packed with so many people, half of them almost have to inhale while the other half exhale. Every time the door opens and more people squeeze in, I’m afraid a bunch of us will fall out the door (as in the scene in “A Night at the Opera,” by the Marx Brothers).

And every year we insist the food could not get any better. And then it does. Cin Cin is unquestionably the best and most successful and creative restaurant in Chestnut Hill; most entrees are under $20, and we are very fortunate to have it here. I can’t even imagine the kind of beatific press it would get if it were in center city.

The four-course New Year’s Eve banquet, a bargain at $49.95 a person, contained one spectacular dish after another: truffle-oiled vegetable spring roll filled with shiitake, button and Portobello mushrooms and cabbage; potato-crusted crab cakes with fresh asparagus and sweet pepper sauce; wok-tossed Maine lobster with jumbo shrimp, shiitake, snow peas, shallots, scallions and ginger and a rice wine mushroom sauce; duck with fresh corn, Japanese pumpkin, zucchini and sweet rice in an orange Pinot Noir emulsion, and more.

•Zacharia’s Creek Side Cafe in the Center Point Shopping Center, 2960 Skippack Pike (Route 73) in Worcester, 20 to 30 minutes from Chestnut Hill (610-584-5650; www.zachariascreeksidecafe.com):

These days almost everyone is looking for bargains, and as I have said before in this space, one silver lining to the current economic cloud is that many upscale restaurants have lowered their prices or at least begun to offer lower-priced options in addition to their regular menus. Zacharia’s is an obvious case in point. Every Tuesday through Thursday, they offer a three-course, prix fixe menu for $29.99 that is a spectacular bargain. The quality and quantity of the food are so impressive (and it’s BYOB) that you can’t help but smile when the check comes. (And there’s a good chance you’ll have leftovers for a very enjoyable meal at home.) And as far as the food is concerned, there is not a joker in the deck.

Old Guard House Inn owner/chef Albert Breuers with long-time employee Beverly Roessner, definitely one of the area’s best servers. (Photo by Len Lear)

•Old Guard House Inn, 953 Youngsford Rd., Gladwyne (610-649-9708 or visit www.guardhouseinn.com): Albert Breuers, 67, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and for the last 31 years the owner/chef of Old Guard House Inn, instituted a $30-for-three-courses policy on non-weekends after the recession took hold. This is less than the price of some of the entrees alone if one orders from the regular menu. (It’s about two minutes from the Gladwyne exit off the Schuylkill Expressway.)

Old Guard House Inn has won every award imaginable from area newspapers and magazines in the past few years (“Best Crab Cakes,” “Best Lobster,” “Best Bartender,” “Best Restaurant Overall,” etc.), and Chestnut Hill restaurateur Paul Roller, who is notoriously hard to please, has often told me how much he admires Albert Breuers because “he does everything the way it should be done. He represents ‘Old School’ in the best possible way.”

Food-wise, I would give them more plugs than General Electric. And the rustic 200-plus-year-old log cabin-like building with low ceilings and walls of wood bark on slab pine has an atmosphere as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. Some of the items on the $30 menu have been appetizers such as goat cheese brulée with mixed greens and balsamic vinaigrette; and traditional Caesar salad; entrees such as baked monkfish with a mustard hollandaise; filet of beef pot pie with asparagus and mashed potatoes, and baked rainbow trout with lemon caper butter, accompanied by vegetables and potatoes. The portions are the same size as on the regular menu, and we always wind up taking significant leftovers home.

Italian restaurants come and go, but Portofino, which has been pleasing customers for 36 years at 1227 Walnut St., still is the Soup-er Bowl champ.

•Portofino, 1227 Walnut St. (215-923-8208 or www.portofino1227walnut.com): This is a classic Italian restaurant that has survived for 37 years because it is consistently great and because owner Ralph Berarducci is one of a kind. Since he is so modest, Ralph doesn’t want me to write about his almost unbelievable charitable activities on behalf of the most impoverished Philadelphians.

Therefore, I’ll just write about the restaurant itself. Portofino is like the most fashionable supper club of the 1930s and ‘40s. The sauces and daily specials are sublime, eliciting oohs and aahs at table after table, and on Sundays through Thursdays you can order a complete three-course dinner for just $29. (And Sundays and Mondays are BYOB nights.) There are lots of new Italian kids on the block, but Portofino is still at the head of the class. And the service is as impressive as the food.

•Shangri-La Inn, 138 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd (610-668-2100 or www.toshangrilainn.com): On April 2, 2003, a fire completely destroyed Shangri-La Inn. For many businesspeople, such a catastrophe might be the end of the story. But anyone who knows the Chau family, who own the restaurant, knows that their spines are unusually stiff.

Children in particular love to watch a teppenyaki chef prepare food right in front of their eyes, and some of the best teppenyaki chefs are at Shangri-La Inn, which serves both Japanese and Chinese cuisine. (Photo by Len Lear)

The patriarch, Dr. Song Chau, a medical doctor, brought his family here from Beijing two decades ago to escape Communist totalitarianism. In addition to Shangri-La Inn, the Chau family owns Samurai, a Japanese restaurant in Rosemont; and Sampan Inn, a Chinese and Japanese restaurant in Havertown.

When the family reopened Shangri-La Inn in July of 2004, it was not only twice as big, but it is also a Japanese restaurant as well as a Chinese restaurant. There are two new rooms strictly for teppanyaki, the Japanese form of theatrical tableside cooking, as well as a stunning circular bar, a new sushi bar, Italian tile floors, granite tables (at least I took them for granite), hand-carved windows, upholstered chairs and more.  As with all of their restaurants, both the Japanese and Chinese cuisine at Shangri-La Inn are outstanding, and the prices are ridiculously reasonable. If I had $10 for every person who has thanked me for recommending the Chau family’s restaurants down through the years, I’d be able to open my own restaurant.

•JG Domestic, 2929 Arch St. (215-222-2363 or www.jgdomestic.com): Jose Garces’ seventh restaurant opened in mid-October on the ground floor of the spectacular Cira Center, just yards from the 30th Street Train Station. And it is falling into the embrace of the cocktail crowd, boldface names and young professionals who once filled the Old City nightclubs that have since been hijacked by the bar hoppers, meatheads and Snooki wannabes.

Blandness is not on the menu at JG Domestic. For example, two of the  innovative items on the menu are the heirloom crimson popcorn ($5) and the Maine lobster “cappuccino” with a butternut squash dumpling ($14); and Garces really wanders into the culinary outfield with the Jidori chicken (lunch, $12; dinner, $16), fried-chicken coated in cornflakes and served over chicken liver gravy, etc.

A selection of domestic artisanal cheeses such as bleu cheese, triple cream and sheep’s/cow cheese from Vermont ($16) were yummy in the tummy. And it’s wicked hard to stop eating the large rectangle of wood oven flatbread — like a thin pizza crust with chanterelle mushrooms, shaved cheddar cheese, black truffle and egg yolks ($12).

After tasting the chilled heirloom baby beets (as opposed to grown up beets?) with whipped crème fraiche and molasses vinaigrette ($9), I was as excited as a Bedouin shepherd seeing his first whale. And a recent study revealed that the Kabocha squash with black kale, sheep milk cheese and candied squash seeds ($10) is a spectacularly original and savory dish. (The study was conducted by the University of My Taste Buds.) An entree of prawns had a New Orleans-style spiced tomato broth that could extend your life expectancy if you ate it every day ($20).

To be continued.