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January 7, 2010

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Food columnist picks favorite    

First of two articles

Photo A: Maura Carney, general manager at Percy Street Barbecue, attended the University of Nebraska with a major in Fine Arts and then worked at Vetri and Marigold Kitchen before transitioning to Percy Street. (Photo by Len Lear).

Photo B: Irina Datsko, chef/owner of Langostini, left Ukraine with her daughter, Anita (seen here), a server at Langostini, when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989. They spent one year in a refugee camp near Rome, where Irina became a terrific Italian cook. (Photo by Len Lear).

It’s a journalistic convention (as opposed to a political convention) at the end of a year for reviewers to announce their personal lists of “Best Movies of the Year,” “Best TV Shows of the Year,” “Best Novels of the Year,” etc. Therefore, even though I am not, strictly speaking, a reviewer (this column is much more “featurish” than “reviewish”), enough people have twisted my arm about my personal “best” choices that I hereby offer for your consideration my favorite restaurant experiences over the past year.

•Cin Cin: Let’s face it; Cin Cin, at 7838 Germantown Ave., is the best restaurant in Chestnut Hill — 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 last week, our party of four was in heaven from dishes such as pan-fried dumplings filled with shrimp, Japanese pumpkin, asparagus and scallions; spicy truffle-oiled spring rolls filled with shiitake, button and portobello mushrooms and cabbage;heavenly roasted Chilean sea bass (huge portion) with a dill-pine nut-crusted, saffron-pine nut sauce; and filet mignon medallions wok-tossed with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, onion, sweet peppers and Chinese broccoli tips in a Chinese XO sauce. The four-course dinner was $49.95 per person, which was 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. Prices are higher than at most Chinese restaurants, but the food is well worth it. Call 215-242-8800 or visit www.cincinrestaurant.com

•Percy Street Barbecue, which opened in November at 9th and South Streets, is a fun, funky place and, I’m pretty sure, the only Texas-style barbecue joint in Philly. Other BBQs in the city tend to be more of the pulled pork variety (originating in North and South Carolina) or with a thick, sweet sauce (originating in Memphis and Kansas City) or blackened (New Orleans). Texas barbecue, on the other hand, is usually put in a “smoker” for several hours and sold by the pound and is generally so tender that the chef might be offended if you asked for a knife and fork.

Photo C: Vanessa and Rob Mullen, seen here with their first-born son, Bobby Moon Mullen (born September 6), took over Mary Campbell’s landmark restaurant in Chestnut Hill late in 2008. Campbell’s Place has undergone an impressive renovation and is now
celebrating 40 years in business. (Photo by Len Lear).

Photo D: Governor Ed Rendell is known for, among other things, his love for hoagies. Imagine the shock of onlookers, therefore, when Rendell was taken out by his wife recently at Cin Cin, which — to the best of our knowledge — does not have hoagies on the menu. The surprised restaurant customers applauded and cheered when the Governor, seen here with Cin Cin’s ubiquitous general manager, Henry Lee, came in for a hoagie-challenged dinner.

Photo E: Plymouth Meeting residents April Lisante, former food editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, and her husband, Christian Gatti, have earned rave reviews at their new restaurant, Avril, in Bala Cynwyd.

The moist brisket ($11/half-pound) really blew my blouse up, followed closely by the spare ribs ($12/half-pound), house-made sausage ($9/half pound) and chicken ($11/half chicken). The fabulous, slightly spicy homemade sauce really sealed the deal. Side dishes of German potato salad ($4) and macaroni and cheese ($8) were awesome. A slice of house-made pecan pie ($6) was sheer ambrosia. Two beers on tap — Yards Phila. Pale Ale ($5/pint) and a dark Porter ($6/pint) — were magic with the barbecue. The ambience at Percy Street is down home — menus on blackboards that came from a nearby school, wooden booths that look like church pews, a great-looking bar with TV overhead, bare lightbulbs hanging down from the ceiling, a handsome juke box that plays CDs, a big sign reading

“No Smoking, Please. We Have Enough,” etc. For more information, call 215-625-8510 or visit www.percystreet.com

•Langostini: There are probably more Italian restaurants per square yard in South Philly than in Rome; we’ve eaten at many, but none can top Langostini, a BYOB that opened in April of 2008 at Front and Morris Streets, just a few blocks from the I-95 Washington Avenue exit.. (There’s also plenty of free street parking just a few yards away, a rarity in South Philly, and you don’t have to navigate at turtle speed through clogged streets to get there.)

You are bound to love appetizers such as caprese with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, roasted peppers, basil and extra-virgin olive oil ($7.95); and the flavor-ific  funghi, baked portabello mushrooms with shrimp, crabmeat, garlic, pecorino cheese and herbs ($8.95). Two stratospheric pasta dishes were the tagliatelle with pancetta, peas and mushrooms in a sublime tomato cream sauce ($16.95) and homemade pillows of gnocchi in a sensuous gorgonzola cream sauce ($15.95).

For dessert you must have a slice of homemade triple chocolate “Amore” cake ($5.95) with mascarpone and cream — decadent! Langostini is open for dinner only Tuesday through Sunday. For more information or reservations, call 215-551-7709.

•Bistrot La Minette is a charming French twist at 623 S. 6th St. in Queen Village whose owner/chef Peter Woolsey, 32, survived a two-year obstacle course that would have challenged an Olympic steeplechase gold medalist. To cite just one example, the restaurant opened on Aug. 25, 2008, one month after the date Peter had trumpeted to friends, family and the culinary world because an electrician had faxed the necessary forms to the wrong phone number.

Bloggers and critics alike have raved about certain dishes such as the salmon tartare with lentils and a blood orange vinaigrette ($14). The rosy fish offered familiar flavors that sang in true harmony. And the picturesque presentation reminded me of a painting by Cezanne. An entree that we thought was sublime was the seared duck breast with white asparagus, lentils and a divine black currant sauce ($27). Desserts are Woolsey’s specialty since he started out as a pastry chef, and his zephyr-light caramelized puff pastry with vanilla pastry cream and fresh raspberries ($8) is an architectural marvel as well as a taste sensation.

In addition to its regular menu, Bistrot La Minette offers multi-course fixed-price menus, including one of the city’s best bargains. If you are seated by 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, you can get a complete three-course dinner — with choices for each course — for just $25 per person, and you can get wine pairings with each course for just $10 extra. For more information, call 215-925-8000 or visit www.bistrotlaminette.com

•Campbell’s Place: Believe it or not, it’s been 40 years since lifelong Chestnut Hiller Mary Campbell and her late husband, Jim, opened Campbell’s Place at 8837 Germantown Ave. (Before that it was Geppi’s Bar & Grille.) Mary had met Jim, a bartender at many Philly clubs and restaurants, in 1962 at the Grove Diner at the top of the Hill, a place that was so classy, some customers literally went there in evening clothes.

Campbell’s Place was the very definition of a neighborhood pub — friendly, casual, decent food at fair prices, everybody knew your name, etc. If you said “please,” Mary  might even come out of the kitchen and serenade guests with an aria from an Italian opera. (Mary, born 82 years ago at 8132 Ardleigh St., was one of six children whose parents had immigrated here from Sicily.)

Two years ago Mary finally took a well deserved retirement, and Campbell’s Place was reopened in November of 2008 by Vanessa Noonan Mullen, who grew up on Gravers Lane and graduated from Springside School (1990), and her husband, Rob. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Rob became known as the “Chef to the Stars” for going on tours to prepare the food for rock bands Phish and U2.

The food at Campbell’s Place is better than ever, and “everybody still knows your name.” Some of the dishes that just blew us away recently were the arugula salad with beets, goat cheese, sunflower seeds and lemon truffle vinaigrette ($8.50), a flatbread with barbecued turkey breast, chipotle and cranberries and a fabulous cheesecake ($5) made in the kitchen by Kelly Fischer. For more information, call 215-242-1818. The web site is www.campbellsplace.com, but there was nothing on it as of Monday but the address and phone number.

•Avril is an Italian/French BYOB that was opened Aug. 5 at 134 Bala Ave., directly across the street from the Bala movie theater in Bala Cynwyd by April Lisante and Christian Gatti, a handsome and talented couple who reside in Plymouth Meeting. (April was the food editor at the Philadelphia Daily News from 2001 to 2008.)

Many of the dishes are sheer perfection, such as the zephyr-light pistachio gnocchi ($20 as entree, but we had a half-portion as an appetizer), whose soft finish reverberated in waves of velvet for several seconds on my tongue. Also the beef brisket braised in red wine and sundried cherries and served in puff pastry ($22) and the amazing rice fritters appetizer ($12). Both desserts we tried, crème brulee and chocolate molten cake, were heavenly.

There are also bargain-fixed priced dinner options. For more information, call 610-667-2626 or visit www.avrilbyob.com.

Continued next week

 




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