What Defines a Great Food City?
Chef Marc Vetri on Philadelphia
Two years ago, I called Philadelphia a boring food city. My reasoning went something like this: Philadelphia has a few stellar places, but it’s dominated by two restaurant styles—the enormously popular but essentially one-dimensional restaurants of Stephen Starr and the small, not-so-sophisticated mom-and-pop BYOBs.
It was an offhand comment made at a regional magazine conference that felt honest and not particularly significant. It was incredibly significant, though, to one person in the audience: Larry Platt, the editor of Philadelphia magazine. He’s a man who cares a whole lot about the Philly food scene. Says Larry, "There’s a dearth of celebrities here, so chefs are our celebrities." When he assigned food editor April White a story entitled "Fork in the Road" a year-and-a-half later, he still remembered that remark. April called to see if my opinion had changed.
I gave April what I thought was a well-reasoned response that included a list (all editors love lists) of seven things a city needs to be considered an amazing food destination. Here are my seven criteria:
1. Markets that make great ingredients accessible.
2. Artisan stores dedicated to singular perfection: bread, espresso, chocolate, ice cream.
3. An exciting wine scene and interesting sommeliers.
4. Sophisticated cocktail programs and bar chefs.
5. A new generation of young chefs with fresh ideas.
6. Destination restaurants.
7. Maverick chefs.
I thought the list was sort of clever because it could double as a series of steps or building blocks to culinary enlightenment. First, you’d start with accessible ingredients that could train the palate. Then, going down the list, you could begin exploring the restaurant scene by drinking (not yet committing to eating). Then you could graduate to trying the dishes of young chefs, accomplished chefs and then, after experiencing the pleasures of all these, you could attain the highest goal: an appreciation of maverick chefs.
I was quite pleased with this list. So pleased, in fact, that I decided I would use Philadelphia to test my newly developed City Culinary Scorecard, a.k.a. CCS. (Editors also like acronyms.) Philadelphia is only an hour-and-a-half away from where I live in Manhattan, easier to get to than some spots in New York City’s outer boroughs. I consulted with Larry, April, Craig LaBan (the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic) and expat Philly chefs like Christopher Lee (who left Stephen Starr’s vaunted Striped Bass for the top job at Gilt in New York), as well as a smattering of nonprofessional eaters-around-town, including my college roommate Laura Levitt, the director of Jewish studies at Temple University.
7. Maverick Chefs
The first thing everyone agreed upon: There are no maverick chefs in Philadelphia. No one is using lab equipment or chemicals like sodium alginate to create sci-fi-inspired foods. So I crossed that off immediately and began at the first point on my list.
What I found in terms of markets would hardly make Alice Waters take a second look. Di Bruno Bros. is the best of the bunch (or, as April said, "It has to be everything to all people. It’s all we’ve got"). Its big, splashy new store in Center City is stocked with the usual totems of gastronomic obsession: artisanal cheese, charcuterie, chocolate, pasta. They even have a butcher counter and a little fish shop. (I actually prefer the tiny, cramped, idiosyncratic location where the Di Bruno family got its start in 1939, in the Italian Market. Clearly it’s not as complete, but it’s got the kind of character that makes you want to shop and cook.)
When I went looking for artisans, I found a few exceptional talents. I stopped by Capogiro Gelato Artisans, a shop that sells 27 unusual flavors each day, and it was terrific. The fior di latte, made with milk from an Amish family’s herd of hormone-free, grass-fed cows in Lancaster County, perfectly reflects owners Stephanie and John Reitano’s mission of using seasonal ingredients sourced from neighboring farms. The cappuccino at La Colombe Torrefaction was quick-service performance art: My barista turned the cup as she poured in the milk froth to create a mocha-colored swirl. Fork:etc in Old City was another find—the wheat onion bread was exceptional. I brought some home and made the perfect grilled cheese.
3. Wine Scene
The Philly wine scene is hobbled by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which manages the state’s liquor-distribution system, both retail and wholesale. "It’s a Stalinist system, just gussied up a bit," said David Moore of Moore Brothers Wine Company in Pennsauken, New Jersey—where many Pennsylvanians shop. This has had two significant effects: First, the only wines for sale in Philadelphia are those made available by the PLCB (whose forward-thinking chairman, Jonathan Newman, recently resigned when a political crony was hired to be his new boss). Second, the retailer and the restaurant each pay the same price to the PLCB, so wine is incredibly expensive in restaurants (which, of course, explains the ubiquitous BYOBs). For the wine diehards, there are ways of working with the system. Some restaurants have mastered the game, and for consumers there’s even a class, taught at the wine school Tria Fermentation, that gives you tips (e.g., individual PLCB stores can put in specific requests, even for a single bottle, so get to know your local PLCB buyer). Still, Philadelphians are missing out on a lot of the excitement in the wine world.
4. Cocktail Scene
The Philly cocktail scene is a bit better than the wine scene, I was told—but not by much. "Don’t even bother looking," my team of informants said. "We just haven’t embraced that whole cocktail culture, where bar chefs go to the green market and buy seasonal ingredients to invent one-of-a-kind cocktails." What you can find are some elegantly made classics, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
5. A New Generation of Young Chefs
So far, Philadelphia was getting mixed grades as a food town. But then I started visiting new restaurants run by young chefs, and things took a radical turn for the better. I started with Amada, Jose Garces’s tapas bar. This man has a sense of humor: You’re greeted at the door by a sculpture of a black pig, representing, among other things, the world’s best ham. A little beyond is a raised platform used for flamenco dancing on Wednesday and Friday nights. The entertainment continues on the plate with a plump Spanish tortilla, served with saffron aioli in a small mortar. An alumnus of Starr’s Alma de Cuba and El Vez, Jose has a love of showman-ship that isn’t surprising. But his food is another thing: honest, authentic. My favorites were the plancha-grilled shrimp (head on!) and the remarkable warm fava-and-lima bean salad. Jose, whose family is from Ecuador, is intent on introducing more of the Spanish-speaking world’s cuisine to Philly: He just opened Tinto, a Basque wine bar, and Distrito, focusing on the foods of Mexico City. He’s a mini mogul a Chowhound devotee could love.
The next two restaurants I visited were both from first-time restaurateurs. James (open just two weeks when I visited) is simple and stylish; it’s owned by Jim Burke, who worked for two years under the stellar chef Marc Vetri of Vetri restaurant, and Jim’s wife, Kristina, who’d been a cook for eight years before crossing over to front-of-the-house. Kristina is ebullient and welcoming, explaining dishes like risotto alla Kristina (named after her) to all interested parties. The risotto, made with Prosecco and oysters, was so good—if a little mysterious—that I stopped trying to analyze it and just ate it. Another clever dish was the wild mushroom "cappuccino" with chestnuts and pine. It was the essence of the earth and woods in winter, with chestnuts shaved on top and a foam infused with pine (I did get a bit of pine needle in my mouth). Marc Vetri’s touch was in evidence, but the creativity was all Jim’s.
Xochitl (pronounced SO-cheet), a Pueblan restaurant from another Vetri veteran (open two weeks when I visited), was also high on everyone’s list of recommendations, at least in part because of the Mexican chef’s great American success story: Dionicio Jimenez had been in the United States for only two days when he was hired by Vetri to work as a dishwasher. Over the next eight years he held almost every position in Vetri’s kitchen, rising through the ranks to a spot as sous-chef.
Every dish we ate at Xochitl had a sense of fun, starting with the drinks. The jarrito includes a drink called a sangrita (a blend of pomegranate molasses, tomato juice and lime with picnic peppers), served in a tomato alongside a shot of tequila poured into a cucumber cup—we chose our tequila from a list of 51, which the waitress explained with patience and charm. The vuelve a la vida ("return to life") seviche was a combination of shrimp, octopus and oysters in a cocktail glass, with terrific, do-it-yourself mix-ins of onion, cilantro, jalapeño, tomato and avocado.
After succumbing to the seviche, we headed to Southwark, an old-fashioned brown barroom with pressed-tin ceilings, for the best cocktail in Philly: the Manhattan, shaken by the restaurant’s co-owner Kip Waide. April and Craig had told us to sit at the bar, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do on a crowded Saturday night at 8 o’clock. A regular fairly hissed with fury at Kip when he asked her to relinquish the seats she was saving so we could have them. Southwark loyalists on one side of us were eating sweetbreads seared by Kip’s wife, Sheri; on the other side, they were slurping up vermouth-and-chile butter broth with juicy clams. We ordered both dishes and got into a very New York City-style conversation about the food. These people were devoted. How they loved Kip and Sheri!
My insta-food pals at the bar were a bit dismissive of the next place on my list, Snackbar, since it’s a tad experimental, but on my next trip to Philadelphia, I stopped for an afternoon snack (apparently the best time to go, since the place is crazy-crowded at night and the service can be clueless). I tried a brothy Gruyère soup poured from a black teapot into a bowl with three fingerling potatoes, and the very popular (okay, addictive) caramel apples with miso and wasabi peas. Another time, I dropped into Ansill with Craig LaBan for a glass of wine (from one of the decent lists in town) and a rustic duck galantine. Did the options never end? With plenty of places left on my list, I had to move on to number six on the CCS: a destination restaurant.
6. Destination Restaurants
Vetri is probably the most revered place in Philly. Yes, there’s always Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, but it is less in the spotlight now (none of my experts suggested I eat there). The talk was all about Marc, an F&W Best New Chef 1999, and not just because he has so many protégés who’ve done well—including Jeffrey Michaud, Marc’s executive chef at the much-anticipated Osteria, which opened after my scouting trips ended. ("Vetri is like a teaching hospital," says its dapper and divine GM, Jeff Benjamin.) Everyone loves Marc’s food, hospitality and philosophy: It’s all about the cooks and the cooking. No pretension, just genius food. I was besotted with the lardo-draped savory beignet and would have had a second portion of the insanely rich and smoky foie gras pastrami if I hadn’t ordered the spectacular charcuterie platter and delicious turbot on a crispy potato pancake.
Before I wrapped up my Philly CCS experiment, I wanted to check out the types of restaurants that the city is known for—those Stephen Starr restaurants and BYOBs that had initially made me turn up my nose. At Starr’s steak house, Barclay Prime, I sat at the bar and ate sliders—perfect, indulgent finger food. I went to a BYOB called Marigold Kitchen and was amazed at the connection between co-owner Michael Solomonov (also ex-Vetri) and his customers. He got kisses of gratitude from old women, old men, young men…everyone, in fact. And then it dawned on me: The fantastic restaurants I’d visited had the pizzazz of a Starr production and the intimacy of a BYOB, with significantly more attention to the sophistication of the food and the professionalism of the staff.
These enormously satisfying, small new restaurants made me reconsider everything I’d thought about what makes a great food city. When I looked back at my seven criteria, I realized that Philly performed poorly in many categories, but it’s still an outstanding place to eat. The neighborhood restaurants, better than many of the top restaurants in smaller cities, allow you to have a good meal any day of the week—and to befriend the chef. Would the food scene be better if there were more fabulous destination restaurants? Perhaps. But birthdays and anniversaries come around only a few times a year. I love a city that inspires palates every day and brings a sense of fun to the adventure of eating out. Now, I’m planning to go back to Philadelphia for ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes, pecorino and leeks at Melograno and a wood-fired pizza at Osteria. And it occurred to me: There are now more places I want to try in Philadelphia than in New York.
Read the essay that kicked off Dana Cowin's reappraisal.
Updated July 2009