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January 14, 2010

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Columnist’s ‘Best Restaurants’

(The restaurants and photos are listed randomly, not in any order of preference.)

Second of two articles

Photo A: Katie O’Conlan, at PTG restaurant, 6813 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough, is one of the most delightful and bubbly servers you will ever meet, and PTG is one of the best “unknown” restaurants in the city. (Photo by Len Lear)

Photo B: 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)

Photo C: 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.

Photo D: Paul Roller is nothing if not opinionated. On the issue of employees doing what they are supposed to do, you will disagree with Paul at your peril, especially if he is holding cooking implements at the time. (Photo by Jimmy J. Pack Jr.)

Photo E: Bedros Kayserlian and Mt. Airy native Theresa Jonas (nee Vendetti), of Ambler, are managing partners of Theresa’s BYOB, a super one-month-old restaurant in West Conshohocken, just seconds from the Conshohocken exit ramp off the Schuylkill Expressway. (Photo by Len Lear)

•Roller’s Flying Fish, 8142 Germantown Ave. (at Hartwell Lane). According to former employees I have spoken to over the years, Paul Roller is probably the most difficult merchant in Chestnut Hill to work for. When I asked him a while back about his reputation as a tyrant, he replied, “This is not a popularity contest. The customers have to get what they’re paying for, and I have to make all employees understand that.”

One thing few would challenge is that Roller is an awesome chef who consistently turns out a great product for a very reasonable price. In fact, for several months, in addition to his regular menu he has been offering a special three-course menu for $19.95, and you may even bring your own wine! Fabulous! This usually includes Paul’s crab cake, tilapia and pecan pie (and many other choices), which are among Paul’s signature dishes. Considering the quality of the food, there is no better deal in Chestnut Hill. (Cafette, which is BYOB, has another great recession fighter — three courses for $20 on Wednesday and Thursday nights.) For many years Roller has also supported many community organizations and events through generous donations of food, time and supplies. For more information, visit www.rollersrestaurants.com or call 215-247-0707.

•PTG Restaurant: While having dinner at the three-year-old PTG restaurant at 6813 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough, you simply cannot believe you’re in a rowhouse working class neighborhood, less than one block from a ShopRite supermarket. The pretty, upscale, linen tablecloth BYOB with 65 seats and fresh roses on the tables has “center city” written all over it, with its classy, knowledgeable servers and sophisticated menu prepared by a Le Bec Fin alumnus, Mamadou Baradji.

At PTG Baradji always offers fabulous daily specials like short rib raviolis with a porcini mushroom sauce and lobster raviolis with a shrimp cream sauce — two of each of these feather-light delicacies for $10. Or a peerless, subtly sauced eggplant rollatini for $8. Or an entree of heavenly pan-seared scallops with mascarpone risotto and drizzled with grapefruit chiffon for $27. (I had thought chiffon was only for dresses, but apparently not.) And there are ridiculously decadent desserts like chocolate crème brulee and banana and nut fudge cake suffused with Jim Beam whiskey for $7.

And like Roller’s Flying Fish and Cafette, PTG also offers one of the best bargains in the area. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, they have a four-course dinner for $30. There has always been a special menu for the prix fixe dinner, but owner Gilbert Chavez says that as of January 1, customers may now order anything from the regular menu. For more information, call 215-487-2293 or visit www.ptgrestaurantandcaterers.com

•Theresa’s BYOB: I am willing to bet that no one reading this is familiar yet with Theresa’s, which just opened last month at 140 Moorehead Ave. in West Conshohocken, just to the right of the ramp off the Conshohocken exit of the Schuylkill Expressway. Owner Adam Meadows is a long-time Wyndmoor resident, former owner of Thomas’ in Manayunk and partner with John Anderson of Solaris Grille in Tequila Joe’s in Oreland.

Theresa’s is named for Theresa Vendetti Jonas, one of the most delightful people you will ever meet in the restaurant business. Always on the premises, Theresa grew up in East Mt. Airy and now lives in Ambler. Her siblings, children and grandchildren still all live in the immediate area. “I recently visited the house I grew up in,” she said, “and I cried. I loved growing up there so much.”

The executive chef at Theresa’s is Grant Brown, formerly of the now-shuttered Blue Horse Tavern in Blue Bell, and his eclectic cooking — American, Mediterranean, Bulgarian, French, etc. — simply can do no wrong. It’s worth a visit to Theresa’s just for the sauteed Spanish shrimp ($12) and its ethereal sauce, a stock with butter, lemon, garlic, saffron and mostly heaven. For more information, call 484-368-3052 or visit www.theresasmedbyob.com (not online yet when this was written).

•Portofino, 1227 Walnut St.: This is a classic Italian restaurant that has survived for 36 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. For more information, call 215-923-8208 or visit www.portofino1227walnut.com

•Zahav (“gold,” in Hebrew), at 237 St. James Place in the Society Hill Towers, across the street from the Ritz movie theater complex, has a lot to live up to since Philadelphia magazine last year proclaimed it the number one restaurant in the Delaware Valley.

Chef/partner Michael Solomonov, a mere 29, was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Florida Culinary Institute, after which he apprenticed at Striped Bass and Avenue B in center city and was sous chef under the much-lionized Marc Vetri. After becoming executive chef at Marigold Kitchen in University City four years ago, Michael was named “Best New Chef in 2006” by Philadelphia magazine, one of the “Top 10 Chefs You Need to Know” by Philadelphia Style magazine and one of the country’s “Rising Star Chefs of 2007” by Restaurant Hospitality magazine.

“Everyone in my family is a good cook,” Michael told me, “including my father, who was born in Bulgaria, and my grandmother, who is a Sephardic Jew. She really inspired me.” Michael’s wife, Mary Armistead Solomonov, who grew up in Mt. Airy, now lives with her husband in South Philadelphia. “She’s an Episcopalian, which is close to Judaism,” joked Michael. “They just drink a little more.”

The media have called Zahav an “Israeli restaurant. However, the dishes and ingredients on the menu are not just Israeli but are from Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt and even from the Baltic states, the Balkans and Bulgaria, among others. “I have tried to create a truly melting pot cuisine,” said Solomonov.

If you want a really special, adventurous experience with some exotic dishes you’ve probably never had before, try Zahav. For more information, call 215-625-8800 or visit www.zahavrestaurant.com.

•Old Guard House Inn: Albert Breuers, 66, a native of Dusseldorf, Germany, and for the last 30 years the owner/chef of Old Guard House Inn, 1953 Youngsford Rd. in Gladwyne, last year instituted a $30-for-three-courses policy on non-weekends. 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.)

According to the Philadelphia Area Zagat Dining Guide of 2008, Old Guard House Inn, which 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.), has “consistently excellent German-influenced American fare and great service, but ... be prepared to drop big bucks.” (Obviously the last phrase no longer applies.)

Food-wise, there is rarely a joker in the deck in this rustic 200-plus-year-old log cabin-like building with low ceilings, walls of wood bark on slab pine and 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. For more information or reservations, call 610-649-9708 or visit www.guardhouseinn.com

 

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 215-242-2066. 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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