by Len Lear
The end of the year is traditionally a time for newspaper columnists to sum up their selections for “best” books, movies, TV shows, etc., of the year, so here are my choices for our best restaurant experiences of 2011:
•Dandelion, an upscale British pub at 124 S. 18th St. (at Sansom): We’ve been in London, England, five times and visited numerous pubs, and believe me, they were as different from Dandelion as lightning bugs are from lightning. Dandelion is like a pub for the exclusive use of the royal family. There are wood-burning fireplaces, beautiful reclaimed banisters and bar-top globe lights, banquettes, sofas, Victoriana, cushions, chandeliers, rich mahogany, dog-themed memorabilia, etc.
The food and drinks are right up there with the elegance and charm of the Dandelion ambience, and the rustic flavors are just as authentic and inviting as the sounds of happy customers that fill the room. Risotto with porcini mushrooms and cipollini onions ($14), had a satiny, impeccably moist consistency. Soft and creamy, the center of each grain of rice retained the firm tooth that is the hallmark of an outstanding risotto.
And zephyr-light beer-battered, blushing codfish and chips ($19.50) was light years ahead of this staple that’s served at most English-style pubs. Cumberland sausages with a frisson of onion gravy and creamy mashed potatoes was also elevated above the standards of this ordinarily pedestrian dish ($15). Customers at Dandelion are cosseted by an armada of attentive servers (like Natalie, who waited on us) and runners. More information at 215-558-2500 or www.thedandelionpub.com
•Tequilas was opened 25 years ago by David Suro-Pinero at 1511 Locust St. and then moved to larger quarters at 1602 Locust St. 10 years ago. Tequilas does not get as much press as certain other upscale South-of-the border-cuisine restaurants despite its longevity, but its food, cocktails, ambience and service are unsurpassed by any other Latino-influenced restaurant in the Delaware Valley.
Among other things from chef Claudio Soto, my wife and I both felt the velvety guacamole and pristine black bean soup were the best we have ever tasted. An appetizer of queso fundido ($9.95) was impeccably moist, anointed with chorizo and inflected with poblano peppers in melted Chihuahua cheese. Salsa tequila’s is a classic entree orchestrated with tequila and fused with butter, garlic and lime juice, perfuming each other with their flavors, with either a whole red snapper, grouper fillet or jumbo shrimp ($21.95 to $$25.75). For more information, call 215-546-0181 or visit www.tequilasphilly.com
•Village Belle at 757 S. Front St., an American restaurant with Italian and Mediterranean influences in Queen Village, has been on an upward trajectory for its owners, South Philly brothers Lou and Joey Campanaro. Set in an unusual stand-alone building, the lively bistro offers a beautiful bar and casual dining room with wrap-around picture windows. Many of the dishes on the menu were first learned by Lou and Joey from their Italian grandmother during their childhood on Queen Street, just around the corner from the restaurant.
The brothers’ menu at Village Belle includes sausage ravioli with robiola, lemon and turnip tops; duck confit with mandarin, fennel and celery root; codfish with escarole, white beans and pancetta; and capellini with fruitti di mare and light saffron broth. The menu ranges in price from $8 to $14 for appetizers; all entrees are under $25, and there’s not a joker in the deck. Check any of the restaurant blogs, and you’ll see that customers are raving about this one-year-old treasure. More information at 215-551-2200 or www.thevillagebelle.com
•Vietnam Cafe, the large, airy, beautifully decorated gem that opened in November, 2009, at 816 S. 47th St. in West Philadelphia/University City, has one of the city’s best bargains in its signature barbecue platter. The menu lists the barbecue platter under “Specials,” but it is a permanent fixture of the menu, as it has been for many years at Vietnam, the Lai family’s other restaurant. Vietnam has been a Chinatown institution for 27 years at 221 N. 11th St.
The dish is a huge, colorful platter filled chockablock with several crispy spring rolls, 12 beef-stuffed grape leaves, a substantial quantity of char-grilled chicken, grilled “meat balls” (that are actually more cylindrical than round), fluffy rice vermicelli, lettuce, carrots, crushed peanuts and ramekins of two sauces that can all be mixed and matched and packed into thin-as-air rice paper to form sandwich wraps. The two of us could not come close to finishing the food ($26.95 for two) and had plenty to take home. The quantity and quality are truly memorable. More information at 215-592-1163 (Vietnam) or 215-729-0260 (Vietnam Cafe) or www.eatatvietnam.com
•Alisa Consorto is the owner/chef of Umbria, a charming thimble-sized storefront at 7131 Germantown Ave., which has survived for 22 years against overwhelming odds and is still the only Mt. Airy BYOB creating an upscale dining experience.
During our most recent dinner at Umbria, our dishes could have made a foodie’s heart glow in the dark. A spinach salad sparkled with nuggets of goat cheese and crunchy candied walnuts and was dressed with an orange vinaigrette that was so seductive, Alisa should sell it in quart bottles ($9.50). A filet of salmon special absolutely oozed with sweetness, amplified by a judicious bite of dijon mustard and an affectionate brush of horseradish glaze ($21). And I tell you most ‘sincereously’ that a sublime roasted haddock entree with roasted garlic and red peppers would satisfy the most discerning dinerati ($23).
Dessert lovers could have a hot ‘n’ heavy with peach cobbler (my wife, who grew up in Indiana, is a peach cobbler aficionado who declared the Umbria version “authentic and wonderful”) and an aphrodisiac of a caramel sundae with vanilla ice cream, sugar/salted almonds and a heavenly homemade caramel sauce ($7.50 each). The flavors melted together into the taste equivalent of a Beethoven piano concerto. More information 215-242-6470 or www.umbriarestaurantphilly.com.
•When you think of the term “Main Line,” you think of someone like Katherine Hepburn, a Bryn Mawr graduate who actually portrayed a Main Line maven in “The Philadelphia Story” — the quintessence of elegance, sophistication and so much money that there is no need to show it off.
This is the very definition of Paramour, which just opened in the fall in the iconic Wayne Hotel, 139 E. Lancaster Ave., after an ultra-extensive two-year renovation of the former Taquet property. One could easily rhapsodize about the exquisite bar, easily the most eye-OK on the Main Line, or the build-your-own Bloody Mary Bar or the urbane, cosmopolitan lobby-lounge area or the celestial cuisine from executive chef Michael Giampa, a classy Ambler native who has traveled the world developing concepts and opening restaurants for hotels, resorts and casinos.
Several dishes we tasted, from flatbreads to a crudo sampler to a seared snapper entree to a caramel chocolate parfait dessert, were positively ambrosial. The prices are also impressive — entrees from $24 to $34, for example — but this is the kind of place you will tell your friends about. For more information, call 610-977-0600 or visit www.paramourwayne.com
TO BE CONTINUED