by Len Lear
The beginning 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 that just ended, so here are my choices for our best restaurant experiences of 2016 in and near Chestnut Hill:
- PO LE CUCINA is an Italian BYOB at 821 N. Bethlehem Pike in Springhouse, about one mile east of Ambler. Walter Pater, a brilliant analyst of the arts in Victorian England, wrote that the soul of an artist should “burn with a hard gem-like flame.”
Pater might have been writing about Phuoc “Po” Le, 55, who escaped from Vietnam by boat 35 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 French restaurant in New York in 1982.
It’s a long, long story that would be worthy of a Hollywood movie, but Po Le wound up becoming a brilliant chef who worked for several upscale restaurants in both 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 visit 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.
- MICA: In July of last year, owner/chef Chip Roman sold Mica, his small modern-American restaurant at 8609 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, to Yianni Arhontoulis, formerly the chef de cuisine at Blackfish, Roman’s much-praised restaurant in Conshohocken.
Arhontoulis reopened Mica in September as a BYOB, referring to his food as “tasty and technical.” Arhontoulis, 28, a native of Hopewell, N.J., graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2010 and prior to Blackfish was the chef at Glasbern Inn, a farm-to-table restaurant near Allentown.
Mica is still pricey, but the fact that it is BYOB helps assuage the pain to the wallet somewhat. Some of the dishes at Mica that blew us away on a Stag & Doe Night dinner in mid-December were the heart-smart, satiny Tuscan kale with buttermilk and sunflower seeds ($11), the robust, velvety white sweet potato soup with cranberry and hazelnuts ($12) and the drool-worthy, succulent textured crab beignets with old bay and mustard ($11). There is a glorious spirit of independence in this food that does not follow the crowd, although the one major disappointment was the albacore tuna tartar with smoked jalapeno and peanut ($15). I assume the jalapeno and peanut were blended in with the sauce, but we could barely detect them. The tuna was also quite bland.
More information at 267-335-3912 or micarestaurant.com
- BANJARA: Indian-born Manish Chopra and his wife opened Banjara Indian Bistro, a BYOB, at 8705 Germantown Ave., previously home to Heirloom, on Sept. 16 last year after experiencing success with their flagship restaurant, Cross Culture, in Haddonfield, NJ, over the past decade. The name “Banjara” is a poetic term that means “nomad.”
At Banjara, dishes are made to order, so patrons can control the spiciness and heat on a scale from one to 10. My wife and I found the flavors to be absolutely ambrosial but extremely hot and spicy! However, a few other locals I have talked to said that even the high numbers were quite bearable, so maybe my aged taste buds need to do some push-ups.
For more information about Banjara, call 215-247-5500 or visit http://banjarapa.com/
- Mi-LAH is a vegan restaurant at 40 W. Skippack Pike in Broad Axe (in a strip mall right behind the Broad Axe Tavern) that was opened in April, 2015, by Jason Lay, 33, who was born and raised in Cambodia but came to the U.S. 12 years ago. Even if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, you are bound to have a love affair with the food at MiLah.
The dishes we ate unfailingly showed the high quality of the ingredients and the impeccable preparation. The flavors are as delicately balanced as the wings of a hummingbird. For example, the edamame dumplings ($8), served with a creamy sunchoke puree, are as soft as down feathers, a mingling of flavors that sing in the mouth. An entree, grilled king mushrooms ($18), epitomized the depth and elegance of explosive, earthy flavors at Mi-Lah.
For reservations: 215-646-1808 or www.milahvegetarian.com
- CIN CIN: Henry Lee, the ubiquitous managing partner of this 20-year-old gem at 7838 Germantown Ave., makes sure that the quality of the food does not wax and wane like a radio signal in stormy weather.
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. This year, because certain individuals told me I had become way too predictable, I was going to leave Cin Cin out.
However, we then had dinner at Cin Cin on New Year’s Eve, as we have done for the last 17 years, and since that was unquestionably one of the best dinners of the year, there is no way in good conscience that I could omit Cin Cin. It just maintains the highest standards of culinary excellence year after year, which is why so many area residents keep coming again and again. 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, in August of 2014 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. (I think he will give out his bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.) We have eaten at Trattoria Moma many times, and it has never been less than exceptional. And every Tuesday and Wednesday from now until March 1, Istrefi is offering a four-course meal, including dessert, from the regular menu for just $35.
More information at 267-437-3838 or www.trattoriamoma.com