by Len Lear

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 would you recommend?” The answers to these questions and more will be contained in the following paragraphs, which encompass our favorite restaurants from the year 2012. They are listed in random order, not in order of preference:

 

Cin Cin co-owner Michael Wei points to a stunning marble statue made in Taiwan for another of his restaurants, Yangming, in Bryn Mawr, which was named the number one Chinese restaurant in the U.S. last year by a Chinese-American restaurant trade publication. (Photo by Len Lear)

Cin Cin: Let’s face it; Cin Cin (which means “delightful spring”), at 7838 Germantown Ave., is one of the two best restaurants in Chestnut Hill (see the next paragraph) — and the busiest. There is a reason why it is almost always packed, even on off-nights when most other restaurants are virtually empty. Ever since Dec. 31, 1999, we have had dinner at Cin Cin every New Year’s Eve, and it never ceases to thrill us. During the one two weeks ago, our party of four was in heaven from dishes such as the delicate steamed dumplings filled with pork, scallions and napa cabbage ($6.95), the divine wild mushroom and goat cheese strudel ($9.95) and the memorable “sizzling triple delight,” a combination of sautéed shrimp, chicken, beef and vegetables with a sublime sauce for the ridiculously low price of $16.95. And I have to plug Jackie and Lee Ann, who are both extraordinary servers. The prices at Cin Cin, with almost all entrees under $20, are a bargain for this kind of sophisticated fusion cuisine that uses only the finest ingredients. There is never a joker in the deck at Cin Cin. Call 215-242-8800 or visit www.cincinrestaurant.com

 

Art Institute of Philadelphia student intern Mae You is all smiles as she delivers a box of stinging nettles from chef Chip Roman of Mica restaurant to Heirloom Fine American Cookery chef Al Paris. Roman had too many of the wild greens, and Paris made a sauce with them. (Photo by Barbara L. Sherf)

• Heirloom: Al Paris is the peripatetic missile who opened Heirloom, a BYOB which has had very few empty seats since exploding on the scene in December, 2011, on top of the Hill (8705 Germantown Ave.), next to the Chestnut Hill State Store. Al is one innovative chef/owner who, unlike some, has never gotten onto the hamster wheel of jealousy and envy. As I mentioned last year, chef Paris may be walking out on the high wire with his innovative combinations of ingredients, but loyal customers are making sure he does not fall off. The flavors in his dishes invariably flow together into the taste equivalent of a Beethoven piano concerto. You just can’t go wrong with anything on the seasonal menus at Heirloom. It shares an exalted place with Cin Cin as the finest restaurants in Northwest Philadelphia. Customers leaving Heirloom are usually smiling like a teenager on the day before summer vacation starts. More information at 215-242-2700 or www.heirloomdining.com

The Walnut Street Supper Club: This restaurant at 1227 Walnut St. also opened in December of 2011, replacing Portofino, which had been there for 38 years. In addition to great Italian food and a stylish décor, this is the only restaurant in the city that also has servers, bartenders, hostesses and even busboys who, seven days a week, sing “The Great American Songbook,” i.e., classic pop songs originated by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, Judy Garland, Perry Como, etc. You simply cannot fail to have a good time here. Owner Ralph Berarducci (who also owned Portofino), in addition to his stellar reputation as a restaurateur, is one of the most generous and charitable businesspeople in the Delaware Valley. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas season, he feeds hundreds of homeless and impoverished people. For more information, call 215-923-8208 or visit www.walnutstreetsupperclub.com

 

Executive chef and co-owner Tae Yeon Kim, seen here with his wife, Kay, was previously a partner at a Korean restaurant in North Wales. Now they own and operate Surah, a wonderful new restaurant off Bethlehem Pike in Spring House. (Photo by Len Lear)

• Surah: This classy Japanese/Korean BYOB (Surah is a Korean word meaning “Feast for a King”), which opened last June in a strip mall off Bethlehem Pike in Spring House, 10 minutes from Chestnut Hill, should have a long and successful life. The seafood-centric menu at Surah leaves competitors flopping for air like a fish on dry land. It is obviously watered with love. Yellow tail carpaccio, for example, beautifully presented, like all the dishes, has a hint of jalapeno on the back of the palate while thinly sliced yellow tail dances on the tongue with its dance partners, cilantro and yuzu-soy. Prices are very reasonable. More information at 267-470-4310 or www.surahpa.com

 

Pino DiMeo, a Native of Naples, Italy, opened his first pizzeria in the Philadelphia area, Allegro Pizza, on City Line Avenue at Monument Road, 20 years ago. Last year he opened DiMeo’s, a super pizza restaurant in the Andorra Shopping Center in upper Roxborough.

DiMeo’s: Thanks to Pino and Lucia DiMeo, treasured Neapolitan imports to the Philadelphia area in the 1980s, we can all savor the finest gastronomic delights from Naples just a few minutes from Chestnut Hill, and we don’t even have to pay for parking. In April of last year, the DiMeo family, with their chiseled movie star looks and Old World charm, opened Pizzeria DiMeo’s in the Andorra Shopping Center location in upper Roxborough where Argento’s had previously been for many years. (This family should have their own TV reality show. They are a lot better looking than the Kardashians — and they have actual talent!) DiMeo’s could be called a “New Age Pizzeria” or a hybrid between a Stephen Starr or Marc Vetri pizza palace (Osteria and Stella, for example) and a fine dining Italian BYOB. The Margherita pizza is to live for! More information 215-621-6134 or www.pizzeriadimeos.com

Parc: Lots of restaurants these days have more speed bumps than a church parking lot, but Parc is like a well made choral composition, with voices entering and leaving, mixing and matching in contrapuntal harmony. Parc, the French bistro that opened with a tsunami of publicity on Bastille Day of 2008 at 227 S. 18th St., across the street from Rittenhouse Square, continues to hum like a new car engine despite its hefty prices. A cheese-welded crock of onion soup was a thoroughbred of a French classic ($11), as was the crusty macaroni and cheese, whose inhaled aroma and oozing warmth made this simple dish eloquent ($9). A tuna carpaccio appetizer, perfumed with the distilled essence of leek vinaigrette, was feather-light, exploding with magical flavor and as soft as a dove released from a box ($15.50). More information at 215-545-2262 or www.parc-restaurant.com

• Seasons 52: We have eaten at this upscale chain in the King of Prussia Mall three times and the one in Cherry Hill once, and it’s obvious to me that someone forgot to tell their customers that there is a recession going on. We were told that the one in K of P can seat 400 people on two floors, and both times we were there, you could barely squeeze a toothpick into the beehive of customers at the bar and dining rooms, at least on the first floor, which seats 265. It seems to me that Seasons 52 has found that dining sweet spot where culinary creativity, a stunning physical location, unalloyed charm and unpretentious service coalesce. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu (no dish, including entrees, is over 500 calories), and Amine Belahbib has to be one of the best servers in the Delaware Valley. More information at 610-992-1152 or www.seasons52.com

Rittenhouse Tavern: This impressive newcomer to the downtown dining scene opened last April in the spectacular Wetherill Mansion at 251 S. 18th St. on Rittenhouse Square. Executive chef Nicholas Elmi, who previously ran the kitchen at Le Bec Fin, refers to his menu creations as “approachable elegance,” not stuffy or overstated. Despite his background of classic haute cuisine, Nick has taken familiar American dishes and put a little twist on each one, for example, deviled eggs with dollops of crunchy pork scrapple; Anson Mills polenta soup with fresh ricotta that is poured at the table; or an entree of sea scallops with a rhubarb reduction, white asparagus and English peas. Prices are on a par with many fine dining restaurants in center city. More information at 215-732-2412 or www.rittenhousetavern.com

Old Guard House Inn: This 34-year-old classic at 953 Youngsford Rd., Gladwyne (about two minutes from the Gladwyne exit off the Schuylkill Expressway), has been a virtual second home for many Main Liners since the day it was opened by Albert Breuers, 70, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and one of the classiest owner/chefs on the east coast. Old Guard House Inn has won every award imaginable from area newspapers and magazines in recent years, 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.” 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. More information at 610-649-9708 or www.guardhouseinn.com

Vietnam: In 1984, the Lai family, who had escaped Communism in Vietnam, opened the 28-seat Vietnam restaurant at 221 N.11th St. in Chinatown. Since that time, this beloved “hole in the wall” has tripled in size; it now seats more than 100 and includes an upstairs lounge, and it is consistently rated by reviewers, critics and restaurant bloggers as the best Vietnamese restaurant in the Delaware Valley. The prices have always been affordable, and the food and service have always been consistently customer- friendly. More information at 215-592-1163 or www.eatatvietnam.com