by Len Lear
The end of the year is traditionally a time for newspaper columnists to sum up their selections for “best” books, movies, TV shows, etc., of the year, so here are my choices for our best restaurant experiences of 2014 in and near Chestnut Hill:
• Po Le Cucina, 821 N. Bethlehem Pike in Springhouse, about a mile east of Ambler. It is a BYOB in a strip mall, which was previously occupied by another Italian BYOB, Mina Cucina Rustica. This restaurant proves that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Although it is an Italian restaurant, the owner/chef is Phuoc “Po” Le, 53, who escaped from Vietnam by boat 33 years ago with nothing but the clothes on his back. He owned no belongings and spoke no other language but Vietnamese, so things were not exactly looking up for him.
Like so many other Asian immigrants, even some who were professional people in their native lands, Po Le could only get a most menial job — washing pots in a restaurant in 1982. It just so happened, however, that he was washing pots in La Grenouille in New York City, one of the country’s most expensive and highly rated French restaurants. But Po Le was determined to do much more than wash pots, so he assiduously watched the haute cuisine chefs prepare their dishes while asking countless questions of the “top toques.”
It sounds almost like a Hollywood movie, but in 1990 Po Le was named the pastry chef at La Grenouille, a job that traditionally went to chefs trained at the top culinary schools in France, but this was definitely no sympathy hire. In fact, not long after he began his new job with no previous professional training or experience, Gourmet magazine raved about Po Le’s “unwaveringly toasty, buttery and lightly crisp” fruit tarts.
Le later worked for several other upscale restaurants both in New York and the Philadelphia area, and in September of 2013, he opened Po Le Cucina. So why Italian food for this Asian chef with years of experience in French palaces of gastronomy? “Unless you’re Asian like me, you eat Chinese food maybe once a week,” he explained. “If you say pasta, you can eat it three or four times a week. When you open a business, you want to appeal to everyone. You want to be busy because then everything is always fresh; a busier restaurant is a better restaurant.”
We have gone to Po Le Cucina with good friends several times, and every one was a glorious evening. Regarding both the menu items and the daily specials, there is never a joker in the deck. Po Le is able to plumb sublime flavors from seemingly simple combinations with firecracker finesse. And the service and prices are nonpareil. More information at www.polecucina.com or 267-663-7204.
• Coyote Crossing: When Mexico City native Carlos Melendez was 28, he opened Coyote Crossing at 800 Spring Mill Rd. in Conshohocken in December of 1996, paying way more rent than he could afford. 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 18 years is Mexican food that is anything less than authentic, and Carlos has outlasted so many competitors by offering archetypes of Mexican classics with uncommon richness.
Coyote Crossing also has what is arguably the most beautiful patio in the area — filled with trees, plants, sparkling Tiki lights, water fountains and stylishly dressed customers. “We open the patio up in April because people in the area have cabin fever by then,” said Carlos, who usually keeps it open until mid-October.
Because Coyote Crossing was definitely beginning to show its age after 18 years, Carlos closed the restaurant in mid-October for a massive renovation. After seven weeks, including most of the work that Carlos did himself, Coyote Crossing reopened December 8. It looks like a completely new restaurant, with all new chairs, tables, fixtures, upholstery, banquettes and a gorgeous new Mezcal bar.
(Mezcal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant, a form of agave, native to Mexico.) The one major negative at Coyote Crossing for years was the unbearable indoor noise level, but that is no longer an issue, thanks to numerous huge new acoustic ceiling tiles.
A new chef, Jose Antonio Hidalgo, whom Melendez met while sitting at a bar in Mexico City (Hidalgo is also a lawyer) is making sure that the quality of the food does not wax and wane like a radio signal in stormy weather. More information at 610-825-3000 or www.coyotecrossing.com
• Cin Cin: I have been doing articles like this at the beginning of the year for 15 years, indicating my choices for the best restaurants we have eaten in over the past 12 months. I believe that every single year I included Cin Cin as one of my choices. This year, because certain individuals told me I had become way too predictable, I was going to leave Cin Cin out. I even said so much to a colleague in the last week of 2014.
However, we then had dinner at Cin Cin on New Year’s Eve, as we have done for the last 15 years, and since that was unquestionably one of the best dinners of the year, there is no way in good conscience that I cannot include Cin Cin. It just maintains the highest standards of culinary excellence year after year, which is why so many area residents just keep coming again and again.
Although the kitchen staff was working with the speed of a missile with every table in the restaurant occupied and a beehive-crowded group waiting to be seated, every morsel was divine. My brother insisted that both the angel hair pasta and shrimp with fresh basil, garlic and sesame sauce ($8.95) and the jumbo lump crabcakes with fresh basil in a white wine mustard sauce ($19.95) were “the best I have ever had.”
And the steamed dumplings (8) filled with pork, scallions and napa cabbage ($6.50) left us oohing and aahing in paroxysms of joy. And server Jackie Chu is as good at his craft as LeSean McCoy is at his. Cin Cin is Cin-ply amazing.
More information at 215-242-8800 or www.cincinrestaurant.com
• Trattoria Moma: Chef Bledar Istrefi, who previously got a rave review from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan when he was at Il Polpo in Northeast Philadelphia, opened Trattoria Moma, a BYOB, last August at 7131 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, taking over the storefront occupied for more than 20 years by Umbria.
Istrefi, who was also a chef at Bellini Grill in Center City, makes pasta dishes like the gnocchi that will hum in your taste buds’ memory for days to come. Istrefi, who is Albanian by birth but picked up the cuisine after immigrating to Italy, like many other Albanian chefs in Italian restaurants, also bakes his own bread and makes his own desserts. (When I asked an Albanian chef at Il Villaggio in Cherry Hill, NJ, why he did not open an Albanian restaurant instead of Italian, he said, “If I opened an Albanian restaurant, no one would come.”)
We have eaten at Trattoria Moma several times, and it has never been less than exceptional. And the servers are absolutely delightful.
More information at 267-437-3838 or www.trattoriamoma.com
• Barren Hill Tavern: In the fall of 2013, former waitress and bartender Erin Wallace jumped out of a plane without a parachute (so to speak), opening the Barren Hill Tavern at the site of the former General Lafayette Inn, which closed in the fall of 2010 in the 282-year-old building and had been (excuse the pun) barren ever since. The old bones definitely needed some rehab work, if not major surgery.
Erin and her team have maintained the original structure completely, keeping the steel and copper finishes intact while dramatically renovating the interior and exterior.
Erin made a real coup by hiring brewmaster Scott Morrison, who has a national reputation as a seven-time winner at the Great American Beer Festival. Formerly with Dock Street Brewing Company, the Belgian-influenced brewer oversees a system that turns out more than a dozen freshly made beers each week. Since there are 30 taps, some of them also turn out drafts from other local breweries.
In addition to a fabulous selection of fresh brews, some of chef Paul Trowbridge’s dishes literally gave us a frisson of excitement, such as the corn and cheese empanadas with chipotle mayo ($5), the spicy hummus with grilled pita and divine pickled veggies ($7) and phenomenal iceberg wedge with tomato wedges, crispy onions, bacon and blue cheese dressing ($8).
For more information, call 484-344-5438 or visit www.barrenhilltavern.com