by Len Lear
Those of us who love fine food and wine are very fortunate that we live in a city with so many great restaurants encompassing cuisines from all over the world. There are always new ones to try out and old faithfuls to return to. Here are out own admittedly subjective favorite local restaurants from 2018 listed in random order, not in order of preference:
• JANSEN: The building that once housed Cresheim Cottage Café and then Avenida, the Latino restaurant that closed in October, 2014, at 7402 Germantown Ave. (at Gowen Street) in Mt. Airy, was reopened in the spring of 2016 by David Jansen, 51, an area resident who previously worked as a chef de cuisine at the very upscale former Fountain Room at the Four Seasons Hotel. Jansen’s eponymous restaurant calls the white tablecloth establishment an “upscale American contemporary restaurant with world influences.”
For many people, Jansen would be considered a special occasion restaurant (I’m sure Jansen would disagree with that appellation) with its sophisticated dishes and center city prices, but there is definitely nothing like it in Northwest Philadelphia except for Mica. A couple dishes that really blew us away during our most recent visit were the extraordinarily divine pan-seared cod and the ridiculously healthful farro and baby kale salad.
Jansen is not BYOB, by the way, and the drinks are pricey. More information at 267-335-5041 or jansenmtairy.com
• ZAKE’S CAFÈ: This unassuming restaurant at 444 S Bethlehem Pike in Fort Washington, which is open seven days a week, is the culinary collaboration of Marlene Zakes and her brother, Joseph McFadden. Marlene began her career as a pastry chef in Philadelphia in the ’70s. In 1979, she opened Zakes Cakes in East Falls, and Joe joined her in the kitchen. The bakery, well known for its fabulous desserts and wedding cakes, gradually expanded and eventually began serving lunch.
But the business outgrew its limited space, and in 1995 the siblings relocated Zakes Cakes to an old Colonial stone house across from the Fort Washington train station. Zakes Cakes continued to turn out scrumptious cakes and pastries, and their lunch business exploded. It is one of the few area restaurants that always seem to be packed at lunchtime. In 2005, Marlene and Joe began serving breakfast and a few years later, dinner. Now, Zakes Café is open seven days a week serving breakfast and lunch, Sunday brunch and BYOB dinner Wednesday through Saturday.
On Wednesday and Thursday nights, Zakes offers one of the best dining values anywhere in the Delaware Valley — a full-course dinner for $28 per person that includes a sampling (four during out recent visit) of their awesome desserts. It is no wonder that you will read rave after rave from repeat customers on restaurant review websites.
More information at 215-654-7600 or zakescafe.com
• JOSEPH AMBLER INN: Richard Allman, a one-time quarterback for the Malvern Prep football team, in the 1970s and early ’80s owned and operated The Depot, a popular train-themed hangout for young adults in a building on the 8500 block of Germantown Avenue where a Starbucks is now located. The Depot was famous for the model train sets that ran around the inside of the upstairs and downstairs bars and underneath the floor of the upstairs, along with an actual caboose that patrons dined in. At the same time Allman’s late mother, Mary Fretz, owned and operated 21 West, which was by far the most upscale Chestnut Hill restaurant of that era.
In 1983, however, Allman purchased a bucolic 12acre horse farm at 1005 Horsham Rd. in North Wales, a few minutes past the end of the Route 309 Expressway in eastern Montgomery County. Since then the restaurant in the 1820s’ stone bank-barn with exposed stone walls and hardwood floors (there are also lots of rooms in nearby buildings for overnight guests) has been serving fine American contemporary cuisine.
A few weeks ago we had dinner there with a friend from high school and his wife, and the food was as impressive as it was during our first visit 30 years ago. They are not reinventing the wheel at the Joseph Ambler Inn, but they are making the wheel run smoothly and efficiently and arrive on time.
For more information, call 215-362-7500 or visit josephamblerinn.com
• BANK & BOURBON: This upscale restaurant in the Loews Hotel in the old PSFS building at 12th and Market Streets in center city is a tasty culinary investment. Bank & Bourbon opened in April of 2014, replacing SoleFood, which had been there for about a decade. B & B is a massive walnut and copper brasserie with 220 seats, subdued lighting, wood floors, leather chairs and a huge bar, usually peopled by lots of conventioneers, although we were told that about half of their customers are now Delaware Valley residents.
If you are a bourbon fancier, this is the place for you. Whiskeys abound with house barrel-aging giving the cocktails more depth and character. The “Secret Knock,” a cocktail with the house-aged whiskey, apples, spices, lemons and clarified milk, was at the sword’s tip of this restaurant’s zeitgeist. My heart melts like a setting sun just thinking about this grown-up beverage. Maybe they should change its name to “Frankenstein” because after a few sips, you really come alive.
Executive chef Tom Harkins is clockwork reliable, the real deal (or in the case of my seafood entree, the reel deal). Speaking of the seafood special, it was dorad, a very mild fish flaky on the inside, similar to mahimahi, that was served in a skillet with cherry tomatoes, broccolini and a subtle white wine sauce. You could say I was hooked on this fish. You can stay in the holiday spirit with Bank & Bourbon’s first Distiller Happy Hour on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
More information at 215-231-7300 or bankandbourbon.com
• 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. We have eaten there numerous times, and it is always drool-worthy. The only joker in the deck is that Moma can be jetplane noisy when crowded, but the food is high-end at ridiculously affordable prices. Service has always been pleasant and the courses well timed.
More information at 267-437-3838 or trattoriamoma.com
TO BE CONTINUED