Standard reminder, since I’ve been asked this several times a day lately: The top 100 prospects package starts to roll out on Wednesday, February 10th, with the organizational rankings; the top 100 list itself follows on Thursday, with the org reports (including top tens) posting the following week.
I was both inspired and shamed by Philadelphia magazine’s latest list of the top 50 restaurants in Philly, since I live just 35 minutes away and had only been to three of the entries on the list: High Street on Market, Barbuzzo, and Osteria, which are all fantastic. I’m up to five now and would like to try to get to about half of the entries on the list by the end of 2016 (it’s down to 49 after Il Pittore closed in January), especially Laurel, Zahav, and Vedge, all nationally known establishments that are among Philly’s culinary stars.
Top Chef fans likely remember season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga – whose response to “You are Top Chef” was “I am?” – and his namesake restaurant, Sbraga, made the top 50. The menu is a $55 four-course prix fixe, very reasonable for the quality of food you’re getting, with plenty of options for each course to suit most diets. All meals start with a gruyère popover (outstanding) and foie gras soup (a little strongly flavored for my palate – the taste lingered for much of the meal). The menu changes frequently, but here’s what I had in my meal there at the end of January. For the first course, I got the hamachi crudo, served with thinly sliced honeydew, jicama, and coconut; the fish was as fresh as it gets, although I think it was a bit overpowered by the variety of other flavors on the plate. For the second course, which comprises pastas and a risotto, I went with the gnocchi with sunchokes, Brussels sprouts, and pine nuts, a dish that really worked when I could get every flavor in one bite – the sweetness of the sunchokes (a.k.a. Jerusalem artichokes), the faint bitterness of the sprouts, and the mixture of flavors in the well-browned gnocchi, although they could have been a little lighter in texture.
Course three is the proteins and this was where Sbraga kicked into high gear. I’m ridiculously picky about octopus – more than 90% of the times I’ve had octopus, it has been terrible, but I figured this was the kind of place that would do it justice. It’s cooked sous vide and finished on the grill, so the texture was perfect, and the restaurant’s version of piri piri – a chili pepper and lemon sauce that is kind of like a Portuguese chimichurri – was the ideal complement to the meaty but kind of neutral flavor of the octopus. The dessert option was a no-brainer – the mint cookie has a scoop of chocolate mousse sandwiched between two flat meringue cookies, topped with a quenelle of mint ice cream and a sprinkling of chocolate cookie crumbs. Both of the last two courses were memorable, the octopus for how it was cooked and the perfection of that sauce, the dessert because oh my God it’s like a Thin Mint on PEDs.
Late last week, my daughter and I went on a date to Brigantessa, a Southern Italian trattoria with wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas in the Passyunk neighborhood of Philly, and another entry on the top 50. The biggest hit of the meal was the cappellaci dei briganti – hat-shaped pasta pieces – made with arugula pasta dough and served with a wild boar ragù that was everything you want a slow-cooked meat sauce to be. My daughter ended up eating about half of my plate, so I shared her margherita pizza (her standard order), which was solid; they’re using really good San Marzano tomatoes, because the sauce was bright and sweet and just a little tangy. I loved my appetizer, charred beets with salsa salmoriglio (which really is just an Italian chimichurri, swapping oregano in for the cilantro), grilled treviso, and toasted pistachios; if I’m really nitpicking, I’d say it could have used a dollop of the sheep’s milk ricotta that was on my daughter’s starter plate. Hers had that ricotta, prosciutto, pepitas, and a roasted and caramelized winter squash puree, but the cheese and squash were underseasoned, probably to compensate for the prosciutto. Even when I tasted everything at once it didn’t quite click, and my daughter, who has never met a cheese she didn’t like, ended up just crushing the prosciutto. As traditional as much of the menu is, the dessert menu is rather untraditional – not bad, necessarily, but not what we had in mind, so we passed. They have a nice menu of Italian beers that you don’t see everywhere else, including beers from Birrificio Italiano, a brewery located north of Milan near Lake Como.
I only managed to take advantage of Philadelphia Restaurant Week once, since I was sick for most of it, meeting a friend for lunch at FARMiCiA, a farm-to-table spot located right across from Menagerie Coffee and around the corner from High Street on Market. Farmicia’s lunch menu (I’m not going to bother with the weird capitalization again) is very straightforward, like diner fare done right, with way better ingredients and attention to detail. The roasted beets and kale salad was calling my name, even with its “veggie ricotta;” I’m not sure what that was made of, but the dressing on the dish was so flavorful that I didn’t mind the intrusion of the soy or nut “cheese” or whatever it was. The turkey and avocado club was enormous and not over-mayonnaised. The fries are freshly cut and properly fried. The desserts appear to have been specials for restaurant week; both my friend and I ordered the apple tart, which was … a good apple tart, although I hate when the pastry chef sneaks raisins into a dish, because, as John Oliver said, “no one fucking wants them there.”
Since I haven’t done a recent Philly eats post, I’ll just mention some of my other favorites that aren’t cited above: Pizzeria Vetri is my go-to date place with my daughter – we went tonight, in fact – and while everything is good, I’m very partial to the sausage and fennel pizza because I’ve never had fennel that good. That’s our favorite pizza in Philly, and Pizzeria Stella is second; Stella has some pasta options if you’re going with some freak who doesn’t like pizza. I mentioned Menagerie Coffee, a very cool space that uses Dogwood Coffee’s Neon blend for its espresso and rotates in various micro-roasters for its pourovers. I also love the local roaster Re-Animator, now with one location near center city plus the original in Fishtown. High Street on Market is still my go-to spot for breakfast or lunch, especially when I want to impress someone; you can’t go wrong with their Forager breakfast sandwich, or just with anything involving their amazing breads. El Vez tries a little too hard to be hip, but I was impressed by their guacamoles, both the variety and the freshness. I’m sure there’s better Mexican to be had – everyone raves about Lolita, which is owned by the same team that runs Barbuzzo (get the gnocchi and the salted caramel budino), Jamonera, and Bud & Marilyn’s, but that’s still on my to-do list.
I haven’t done many brunch spots in Philly, but we all liked the Farmacy in West Philadelphia, which offers a build-your-own Benedict and a lot of crazy twists on breakfast classics. No trip to Philly is complete without a stop at the Reading Terminal Market and a pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone at Dinic’s. And for reasons I can’t quite explain, I liked the Big Gay Ice Cream shop down here better than the one I tried in Manhattan (which was the original location, I think). My daughter and I were in a bookstore in Philly recently, and I’d promised to take her to the BGIC afterwards, but she confused her favorite dish there with the name of the place and said in a fairly loud voice, “I wanna go to the Salty Pimp!”