By Len Lear
The questions asked most frequently of restaurant buffs 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?” My own answers to these questions follow. They encompass our favorite local restaurants from 2017 and are listed in random order, not in order of preference:
MICA: 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 just as well have been writing about Yianni Arhontoulis, 29, former chef de cuisine at Blackfish in Conshohocken who took over as owner/chef of Mica, 8609 Germantown Ave., in September of 2016.
Yianni, the son of a Macedonian immigrant, is no flash in the saucepan. At the callow age of 24, he was already an executive chef at the Glasbern Inn near Allentown, arguably the best restaurant in the Lehigh Valley. Yianni is as reliable as a rooster at sunrise. His breads alone are wonderful. (I think he will give out his bread recipes on a knead-to-know basis.)
Our most recent dinner at Mica — during the final Stag and Doe evening last month — was our best of 2017. The dishes we ate unfailingly showed the high quality of the ingredients, which does not wax and wane like a radio signal in stormy weather, and the impeccable preparation. The flavors were as delicately balanced as the wings of a hummingbird. I can’t single out individual dishes in this brief space, but suffice it to say, everything was wonderful! And it’s BYOB! Reservations at micarestaurant.com or 267-335-3912.
TRATTORIA MOMA: This Italian jewel box at 7131 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy is another BYOB that we are fortunate to have in our area. It was opened in the summer of 2014 by Bledar Istrefi, 39, who was trained in fine-dining restaurants in Tuscany, Tirana (capital of Albania) and London, England, before immigrating to Philadelphia in 2005. He cooked in three Italian restaurants in the Delaware Valley before opening Trattoria Moma, and he is a human burning bush, afire with passion for cooking.
To paraphrase a friend from Texas, if Bledar Istrefi is not one of the finest Italian chefs in the area, then Wednesday ain’t trash pickup day. Nothing is out of his strike zone. We have eaten there numerous times, and it is always drool-worthy. It is small and can be jet plane noisy when crowded, but the food is high-end at ridiculously affordable prices. Service has always been pleasant and the courses well timed.
Istrefi’s true north is mining flavors that are natural and pure. His best dishes come with deft grace notes that are light yet vivid. Reservations at 267-437-3838 or visit www.trattoriamoma.com
SPRING HOUSE TAVERN: This historic property at 1032 N. Bethlehem Pike in Spring House was opened in 1719, mostly to accommodate stagecoach travelers from Philadelphia to Bethlehem and back, and is still operating as a restaurant after almost three centuries. Long-time owner James Burns passed away in January, 2015, and the business is now run by his daughters, Karleigh, 35, and Marissa, 31. You might say that its best ability is durability. “We do not change our signature dishes to follow trends,” said Karleigh recently.
Time has not laid a glove on the Spring House Tavern. We recently ate there a couple times with friends who had raved about their crab entrees. The crab imperial entrée was indeed a hero, with every element singing in harmony, especially the quality of the fish. Reservations at 215-646-1788 or www.springhousetavern.com
PO LE CUCINA: Yet another outstanding bargain-priced BYOB is Po Le Cucina at 821 N. Bethlehem Pike in Spring House, about a mile east of Ambler. It is in a strip mall property that was previously occupied by another Italian BYOB, Mina Cucina Rustica. Owner/chef Phuoc “Po” Le, now 55, who escaped from Vietnam by boat 35 years ago with nothing but the clothes on his back and spoke no other language but Vietnamese, would make the subject of a great movie.
Po Le’s story is one of unimaginable grit, determination and courage, not to mention talent. His restaurant specializes in fresh seafood specials with the highest quality ingredients that have attracted so many repeat customers that the room is almost always full. The noise can get supersonic at times, but no one provides more quality for the price. Reservations at www.polecucina.com or 267-663-7204.
BANJARA: Indian-born Manish Chopra opened Banjara Indian Bistro, a BYOB, at 8705 Germantown Ave., previously home to Heirloom, in September of 2016 after experiencing success with his flagship restaurant, Cross Culture, in Haddonfield, NJ, over the past decade. The name “Banjara” is a poetic term that means “nomad.”
Many westerners associate Indian cuisine with fiery heat, but Chopra insists Banjara is different. “A common misconception is that Indian food must always be fiery hot,” he said. “Indian food does not have to be hot or spicy. It can be as mild or as spicy as you want.” Patrons can control the spiciness and heat on a scale from one to 10. Banjara is a beautifully appointed room, and the variety of herbs and spices, particularly in the seafood and vegetarian dishes, is absolutely glorious! Reservations at 215-247-5500 or http://banjarapa.com
CARRABBA’S: On the third Tuesday of each month, Carrabba’s restaurant at 2575 Maryland Rd. in Willow Grove has a four-course dinner with a different wine with each course — and refills for the wine — for $40 a person. There is no way we can eat all the food, so we always have leftovers, usually enough for one more dinner. And quality-wise, there has not been a joker in the deck in the last eight that we attended.
A typical menu might include an antipasto plate with prosciutto, burrata cheese, arugula salad and roasted grape tomatoes with Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc; Tuscan wood-grilled sirloin and grilled shrimp brushed with spicy Calabrian butter and grilled vegetables with a full-bodied red wine, Pian di Nova. At $40, this has to be one of the best restaurant bargains anywhere. And the servers are all efficient and friendly. One, Alexa Weber, even found a pair of glasses that I had lost. Reservations at 215-659-3950 or www.carrabbas.com