by Len Lear
Continuing the list of our best restaurant experiences of 2011.
Read part one, here.
•Quite a few months ago I ran into Paul Roller on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill. Roller has been chef/owner of a catering firm and restaurants (currently Roller’s Express-O and Roller’s Flying Fish) in Chestnut Hill for three decades. He is known as a no-nonsense boss and a guy who hates pretension and restaurants that charge lots of money for flash and not substance. In the course of the conversation, he mentioned his choice for the city’s best bargain restaurant.
It was Modo Mio (“My Way”), a BYOB at 161 W. Girard Ave. on the edge of Northern Liberties, which is packed every night (despite its cash-only policy), largely because of its prix fixe menu —four courses for $34. Based on Roller’s strong recommendation, we checked out Modo Mio after reading rave after rave from customers on yelp.com, menu pages.com and urbanspoon.com.
The funny thing is that owner/chef/dining room entertainer Peter McAndrews (he goes around the dining room making customers laugh, as the late Gene Gosfield used to do at Under the Blue Moon in Chestnut Hill), who grew up in Southwest Philly, is not even Italian; he is Irish, but he spent a year studying traditional, rustic cooking in 1996 at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Torino, Italy, “because I wanted to learn real Italian cooking, not the bastardized version that you get at most Italian-American restaurants.” Whatever he learned is working. We can’t wait to go back. More information at 215-203-8707. (The website, www.modomiorestaurant.com, is currently out of order.)
•Albert Paris, a South Philly guy (born Albert Parisi) and one of Philly’s most peripatetic chefs (he has been a chef at Mantra, City Tap House, Public House, Guru, Rococo, Oberon, Circa, City Grille and others), opened Heirloom, a 50-seat BYOB, in the former Shundeez food market in mid-December at 8705 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, next door to a State Store (perfect for a BYOB). His partner is Robert Bynum, a Mt. Airy native who was Paris’ boss at Zanzibar Blue and Warmdaddy’s.
The transformation was impressive. Comfortable banquettes, hanging candles and greenery, reclaimed wood tables, caned chairs, bamboo flooring, vintage reproduction fabrics, soft music, etc., make for a cozy, romantic setting. And Paris’ regional New American Cuisine features all American ingredients, including many that are locally sourced. All baking, curing, smoking, preserving, etc., is done in-house. Appetizers are all in the $10 range with entrees mostly in the $20s.
Based on our “practice” dinner and comments I’ve heard from several customers, Heirloom has a very bright future in 2012. Some of the dishes that blew us away were the warm Carolina rolls, amazing cornbread, butternut squash bisque and roasted king salmon with bacon and pepper cream. More information at 215-242-2700 or www.heirloomdining.com
•Two years ago Philly’s nonpareil chef/entrepreneur/wunderkind, Jose Garces, who, according to one wag, “keeps proving that there is no limit to his talent for assimilation,” joined forces with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and opened Garces Trading Company, a cafe, wine shop and on-site bakery at 1111 Locust St. In addition to a full-service restaurant, customers can purchase top-quality cheeses, cold cuts, breads, baked goods and other gourmet foods that are sold under Garces’ label.
Garces’ competitors, none of whom are allowed to have a wine shop in their restaurants, are not too thrilled about the fact that you can buy a bottle of wine at the usual retail price at Garces Trading Company (instead of the usual 300 percent restaurant markup) and then drink it with your dinner. Quite a competitive advantage. Or you may even BYOB.
And you basically cannot go wrong with anything on the menu. Some dishes we loved during a recent visit were the funghi pizza with several different types of mushrooms ($16), the muscular Tuscan fusilli alla carbonara pasta ($13), the feather-light sauteed cod entree ($18) and the naughty chocolate mousse with chocolate pretzels and peanut butter center ($7). More information at 215-574-1099 or www.garcestradingcompany.com
•If Modo Mio has the city’s best bargain prices for top-quality dining, then the best bargain in the suburbs has to be the weeknight three-course-for-$33 option at the Old Guard House Inn, 953 Youngsford Rd. in Gladwyne. The price is amazing, considering the fact that some of the entrees on the regular menu are higher than $33.
“It (the $33 menu) serves a great purpose,” insists Albert Breuers, owner/chef for the last 33 years. “It fills in the seats on weekdays, and we don’t mind doing it because not everybody can afford these (regular menu) prices. Of course, every chef and restaurant owner wants to see as many people as possible enjoying his food, and not just on weekends. It’s also a great learning tool for some of our young chefs.”
At Old Guard House Inn, you can dine like millionaire Main Liners at rowhouse prices. More information at 610-649-9708 or www.guardhouseinn.com
•In late August of this year, Georges Perrier transformed Le Bar Lyonnais, for three decades a more casual alternative to the opulent Le Bec Fin upstairs at 1523 Walnut St., into Tryst (a meeting, often clandestine, of lovers). The bar area now has contemporary leather banquettes and small black-topped tables behind a wavy wall sculpture. Drink prices are serious at Tryst ($13 for cocktails, but there are some good wine selections for less than $10 a glass). If you do get a cocktail, try the Delicious Sour, sheer peach heaven. Food prices are quite reasonable, between $5 and $21. Dishes that completely blew us away were classic escargots with hazelnut and garlic butter ($16), a wig of moist, soft tagliatelle with dried chile and Italian cheeses ($12), toothsome mushroom ravioli draped with a subtle ivory sauce ($13) and sublime Burgundy short ribs ($17).
With the top-of-the-line food, drinks and staff at Tryst, it has turned into one of the hottest bars in the city. When we arrived at 7:20, the place was less than half-full, but by 9 p.m., it was so packed, one of us almost had to inhale while the other exhaled. More information at 215-567-1000 or http://trystlebar.com/.
•Currently celebrating its 10th anniversary at 10 S. 2nd St. in Old City, Cuba Libre is one of the most spectacular looking restaurants in the Delaware Valley. The prodigious two-level dining room resembles a movie set from the film noir period. (You can just imagine Humphrey Bogart at the next table whispering to Lauren Bacall, “Here’s to you, kid.”) There’s an indoor courtyard framed by three-dimensional facades of houses and balconies, stucco walls, thatched roofs, stained glass, wrought iron, salvaged doors, arched entranceways constructed from vintage materials and a ceiling of skylights and fans.
During our most recent visit, several dishes we adored were the crispy, tangy spring roll of chorizo and shrimp ($6), earthy, traditional black bean soup ($7.50), passion-on-a-plate mahi-mahi filet with silky lobster-flavored black rice and squid ($22.50) and sensuous caramel and mango ice cream ($6). More information at 215-567-7683 or www.cubalibrerestaurant.com