Our friend who moved back to Philadelphia from the “restaurant wasteland” of the Upper West Side begs to differ with all the national food media hyping the wonders of her hometown. To her, too many of the restaurants are too much like so many that afflict Manhattan: not just overpriced but dishing up food that she, as a great cook, could make at home.
Given that she runs the Relais & Chateaux where my consort and I would be staying while he was starting shooting on his latest documentary, I was very glad to have arrived with a suggestion off the Twitter for where we should head for our first lunch. And I was even more glad when she was as impressed as we were. Cheu Noodle Bar could be just a Changstamp but puts its own imprint on the menu. As my Twitter pal predicted, I was thankful for the advice on ordering the brisket-matzo ball-kimchi option, with tender meat and unrubbery dough to absorb the spicy-vibrant broth. Joanne’s ramen with braised pork shoulder and egg was more Jin-like; although the broth was not as rich, the meat was sublime. But Bob’s soba with chorizo, queso fresco and snow peas was the simple winner; he’s usually Mr. Brodo but was more than happy with this dry bowl. We also split an appetizer of the special beef-sesame dumplings of the day, beautifully made and cooked. If not for that $9 addition, Joanne could have left a tip of less than $10.
Dinner that night was with her nephew and his girlfriend, whose yelling dog Bob had just filmed, and four of the six of us were all “whoa” on arriving at the restaurant in Old City and thinking we were heading into a gelateria in that “Jersey Shore”-overwhelmed neighborhood. But back in the back turned out to be a very Philadelphia dining room anchored by a glitzy wood pizza oven. Then the owner recognized her friend at our table and stopped to offer suggestions. Which is when I actually started to worry — what if everything sucked? How could I write about it?
That was ridiculous.
All three pizzas we chose were hard to fault, generous even sliced into sixths and with especially good crusts (I usually leave a pile of “bones” on my plate but kept on gnawing). The Ciro had lardo, the San Lorenzo smoked mozzarella and house-made sausage, the Vesuvius good heat (cameras should have a caption function). We also split a stellar “capra” salad of delicate arugula, goat cheese, pancetta and almonds, plus adequate arancini and amazing eggplant “meat”balls as well as a smartly chosen four-cheese and two-salumi board. We did not need the fourth pizza the owner comped us, but we all tucked into it: a margherita gussied up with pepperoni. With two bottles of a crisp and complementary verdicchio, the bill was $186 before the tip. For six of us. We should all be riding Amtrak.
Next day I steered us to the doughnut-famous Dizengoff for hummus: one plain, one topped with fried chickpeas and a third with “longhot hazelnut,” a very fiery green pepper minced with filberts. Each dainty plateful came with a salad of diced cucumber and red onion plus a little bowl of pickled cucumber and onion, as well as just-baked pita in a brown paper sleeve. You have to congratulate a business that can charge up to $13 for meatless meals. We lucked out with a table at that late hour; otherwise, it would have been great to take lunch to Rittenhouse Square a few blocks away.
Our second dinner was home-cooked at the H&J R&C and our last lunch was at a tiny, funky cafe called Lutecia, just a block or so away from my first apartment in Philadelphia. We could have been eating in 1978, too, and I mean that in the Commissary way: lentil soup with coconut milk and saffron; quiche Lorraine; croque monsieur; potato-leek soup paired with a half-sandwich of chicken and tomatoes on baguette. At about $10 a person, it was almost like paying in the Rizzo years.
We also fit in gelato (pistachio plus spicy Mexican chocolate) at Capofitto predecessor Capogiro on 13th Street, which was good if not the best in America as proclaimed by National Geographic. We split a superb little Jezabel’s beef empanada from Gavin’s while walking around once-dangerous Fitler Square. We bought addictive Monkey Crackers at the Reading Terminal Market for the cheese we’d brought down from Murray’s and the aged-two-years prosciutto we bought at Di Bruno Bros. And we had perfect espresso at Nook, where the “small-batch coffee, small-batch baking” sign lured us in.
Joanne may be right with her tepid take on the allegedly hot restaurant scene. But she can’t argue over the improvement on other levels, not least on the booze front. We turned her on to a new state store that is not up there with Astor but at least is centuries beyond the one Bob remembers, the one that had not shelves but a binder full of wines.