by Len Lear
The questions asked most frequently of restaurant writers are: “What is your favorite restaurant?” “Where do you get the most for your money?” and “What new restaurants have you gone to that are really good?” The answers to these questions and more will be contained in the following paragraphs, which encompass our favorite restaurants from the year 2013. They are listed in random order, not in order of preference:
• GREEN SOUL: This avatar for healthy, cost-conscious dining opened in October of 2013 in a stone building that shares a wall with the Farmers Market at 8229 Germantown Ave., behind the Chestnut Hill Hotel. It was previously home to Jonathan Best for two decades.
Executive chef Al Paris and partners Robert and Kim Bynum also own and operate Heirloom, an upscale BYOB that has been hugely successful, at 8705 Germantown Ave., next to the Chestnut Hill State Store.
For my money, Green Soul offers the best lunch options in Chestnut Hill with the most delicious, fresh choices for at-home prices. My absolute favorite dish for lunch is the portabella mushrooms and veggies with meaty portabella, tomato, roasted onions, kale, smoked gouda and collard green pesto in a wrap for $6.95. More information at 215-242-2300 or www.GreenSoulLiving.com.
• CIN CIN: There is a reason why Cin Cin, 7838 Germantown Ave., is filled almost every night and most other area restaurants have lots of empty seats. Owner Michael Wei, managing partner Henry Lee and their staff have maintained a consistently high level of food and service for 18 years.
There is a reason why some people (with reservations) waited an hour to be seated on New Year’s Eve and still insisted they will be back. The food has depth and elegance and flavors that resonate with the clarity of a Stradivarius violin. The sauces have more texture than a Braille phone book. There are no better servers anywhere than Lee Ann Ye or Jackie Chu, and the prices are very reasonable with lots of extraordinary entrees under $20. This is economy gastronomy. More information at www.cincinrestaurant.com or 215-242-8800.
• JYOTI: In January of last year, the family behind Jyoti Natural Foods, which are sold in major stores like Whole Foods and Weavers Way, opened their first restaurant, Jyoti Indian Bistro, at 7220 Germantown Ave. (at West Nippon) in Mt. Airy.
The menu at Jyoti includes traditional dishes like chicken curry, shrimp cooked in a coconut milk sauce; grilled ground beef with chickpea flour, onion, ginger and spices, etc. There are also many vegan and gluten-free options, and all platters — entree, two vegetable sides, rice, bread and salad — are no more than $8.50! All meals are prepared fresh at the restaurant using all natural ingredients. I have had takeout several times, and there has not been a joker in the deck. The food is every bit as good as at nearby Tiffin, but the prices are much lower. More information at 215-242-5139 or www.jyotibistro.com.
• OLD GUARD HOUSE INN: Reviewers who write about restaurants usually like to review new restaurants — and the newer and trendier, the better. After all, readers also want to know if they should spend their money and time on the new kid on the block that does not have a history in their mental calculus.
But isn’t there something to be said for those restaurateurs who have toiled for decades in their parlous business, mostly without any exposure in the media, just with word-of-mouth and repeat customers who enjoy the comfort of an old friend just as much as the flash of the latest meteor that may burn out and not be remembered a year later?
Case in point: the Old Guard House Inn at 953 Youngsford Rd. in Gladwyne, often referred to as the “Cheers” of the Main Line. I have not seen its name mentioned in any local publication for many years, but somehow it manages to fill up most of its seats (in three dining rooms) on any given evening. The fare is mostly old-fashioned comfort food, with lots of German specialties added by chef Albert Breuers, who has run the Guard House since opening it 35 years ago. The ambience is unique since it is like eating in a log cabin. I would urge any foodie to dine there this winter because I am afraid that Breuers may soon tire of working 70 hours a week at the age of 70-plus. More information or reservations at 610-649-9708 or www.guardhouseinn.com.
• CARMINES ACT 2: Chef, John Mims, a native of New Orleans, has been preparing authentic Cajun and Creole specialties for three decades that could get you arrested by the cholesterol police. But if you like spice and soul with your Dixieland comfort food, no one in the Delaware Valley delivers it like Mims.
In March of 2013, Mims opened Carmine’s Act 2, a BYOB, at 232 Woodbine Ave. in Narberth. The “Act 2” refers to the fact that from 2004 to 2006 John owned and operated Carmine’s Creole Café at this same location. Why he left and eventually came back is a long, long story that would be worthy of a TV soap opera. The only fact that really matters, though, is that Mims is back and is making Crescent City food conversions every night with his evangelical food. More information at 610-660-0160 or carminesacttwo.com.
• TWISTED TAIL: When it comes to the live music zeitgeist in Philly, you have a jazz club scene that is basically dead, and you have rock clubs that are rowdy, grungy, unpleasant or all of the above. Then you have the top of the line, which is The Twisted Tail at 509 S. 2nd St. in center city’s Headhouse Square. Not only do you hear soul-stirring harmonica blues from Mikey Junior, but also chef Leo Forneas creates each dish with the precision of a thread slipping through the eye of a needle. And there is free parking on Wednesday nights at all kiosks in the area (which reminds me of one of my favorite headlines, “City Officials Try to Curb Street Parking”). More information at 215-558-2471 or www.thetwistedtail.com.
• HEIRLOOM: This BYOB at the top of the Hill offers razor-thin petals of the leanest beef, seafood as silky as velour and an owner/chef, Al Paris, who radiates warmth as efficiently as a fire in the fireplace on a freezing January night. If he is not one of Philly’s most charming and talented chefs, then Wednesday ain’t trash day in Mt. Airy. And when it comes to taking big chances (as with Heirloom, Green Soul and the upcoming Paris Bistro next to the Chestnut Hill Hotel), I think that someday way off into the future, Al’s gravestone will read: “Here lies Al Paris under the only stone he ever left unturned.” The food, service and hospitality at Heirloom are consistent. They do not wax and wane like a radio signal in stormy weather. More information at 215-242-2700 or www.heirloomdining.com.
• POSITANO: Someone once said that in the kingdom of the blind, you can sell a lot of bad-looking pants. But one thing you cannot sell for 21 years is Italian food that is anything less than authentic, and Positano Ristorante at 21 W. Lancaster Ave. in Ardmore has been serving up archetypes of Italian classics with uncommon richness for that long. They will hum in your taste buds’ memory for days to come. Their Dover sole was the best I’ve ever had. It was presented as jewels of mild, buttery and sweet flatfish, radiating a toasty perfume of garlic and basil, complemented perfectly by cherry tomatoes and onions. More information at 610-896-8298 or www.positanoristorante.com.
• VIETNAM CAFÉ: A super-nice guy named Benny Lai, whose wife, Tammy, was the first Vietnamese student to ever graduate from Chestnut Hill College, owns Vietnam Cafe, the large, airy, beautifully decorated gem that opened in November, 2009, at 816 S. 47th St. in West Philadelphia/University City.
The menu lists a barbecue platter under “Specials,” and it certainly is, although unlike most restaurant specials, it is a permanent fixture of the menu, as it has been for many years at Vietnam, the Lai family’s other restaurant. Vietnam has been a Chinatown institution for 30 years at 221 N. 11th St. The dish is a huge, colorful platter filled chockablock with several crispy spring rolls, 12 beef-stuffed grape leaves, a substantial quantity of char-grilled chicken, grilled “meat balls” (that are actually more cylindrical than round), fluffy rice vermicelli, lettuce, carrots, crushed peanuts and ramekins of two sauces that can all be mixed and matched and packed into thin-as-air rice paper to form sandwich wraps. Or you can just eat each item in the $26.95 dinner-for-two individually. The quantity and quality are truly memorable, plumbing sublime flavors from seemingly simple combinations. More information at www.eatatvietnam.com, 215-592-1163 (Vietnam) or 215-729-0260 (Vietnam Cafe). There is a large, free municipal parking lot right in back of Vietnam Cafe.
• NEW CAFE, HOME-MADE CHOCOLATES: Chip Roman, chef/owner of Mica, 8609 Germantown Ave., which was named “One of the Top 10 New Restaurants in America” by GQ magazine in 2011, and Frederick Ortega, a well-known chocolatier, have just opened Tradestone Confections & Cafe, which sells expensive but outrageously sinful chocolates, at 117 Fayette St. in Conshohocken.
These are classic handmade truffles, turtles, barks, etc., for example, the raisins that are soaked in Caribbean rum and covered in dark chocolate ganache; or the crunchy pistachio that is married to white chocolate and a whisper of tart lemon. If you can spring for $30 for a box of 16, some giftee will be your friend for life. More info at www.tradestoneconfections.com.