"Buddakan?" boomed Pete through the phone. "I hear that's one of the best restaurants in the city. You'd better be buying!"
"For the pleasure of your company, I am buying," I replied to my longtime friend.
And that is how we ended up in the heart of Philadelphia's historic district, having an excellent lunch at an Asian fusion bistro rated among the city's top restaurants.
I have spent more than 30 years working and living in Philadelphia, and the dining scene has never been better, thanks to innovative restaurants that finally are challenging the three places long considered the best in town: Le Bec-Fin, Susanna Foo and the Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel.
My turn through the city this spring was part business and part pleasure, and it took me to about a dozen establishments. I skipped the aforementioned top three in favor of newcomers as well as old favorites that remain less known among visitors.
What emerged from the experience? Some fine meals — and a reminder that high ratings don't always translate into fine cuisine.
Buddakan is a trendy restaurant that has received consistently good reviews since it opened about five years ago, and many diners consider it among Philadelphia's best.
My experience did nothing to dispel the notion that Buddakan is a contender for the top tier. Although the bold décor is a little over the top (a huge gold Buddha statue backed in red velvet and bordered in black overlooks diners from one wall, and water cascades near the entrance), my meal with Pete was excellent — so good that I returned with another friend a couple of weeks later just to see whether a great experience could be duplicated.
On the first go-round, Pete and I tried the hot and sour soup, so flavorful and well balanced that it would be heresy to compare it to any other, including a good version at a French-influenced Chinese restaurant called CinCin in the Chestnut Hill section of town.
For the main course, Pete chose a $10 crispy duck salad. I considered the sesame-crusted tuna, lobster tempura and char-grilled aged beef before ordering the sea bass ($17). It arrived on a bed of green beans with butternut squash and maitake mushrooms, the filet lightly browned, moist and flavorful. I later learned in a phone call to executive chef Scott Swiderski that the sea bass filet had been marinated for 24 hours in sake lees, the material left over from the rice-wine fermentation process, mixed with miso and mirin.
But Pete's salad stole the show. It was chock-full of duck, in crispy and tender portions, and served with spinach, Belgian endive and a peanut dressing. Sprinkled throughout were plump, moist sun-dried cherries, fresh water chestnuts and five-spice peanuts.
"Taste it," Pete offered, and I did. It was so good that when I returned a few weeks ago with my buddy Don, I ordered it myself. Don had the teriyaki grilled salmon, which was accompanied by two sushi rolls filled with arugula, cream cheese and crunchy potato. The salmon was served on a bed of lightly sautéed Chinese long beans and glazed with a teriyaki sauce laced with scallions and garlic.
Our appetizer of potstickers came with goat cheese, arugula and pine nuts tucked inside. Dessert was chocolate bread pudding served hot and wrapped in a banana leaf, with a rum-based sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream.
This was not the best food we had ever eaten, but it was up there. We liked the service too: cheerful, attentive but by no means obsequious and, above all, knowledgeable.
Buddakan, in Old City at 325 Chestnut St.; (215) 574-9440, http://www.buddakan.com . Lunch entrees $12-$18, dinner entrees $15-$29.
My search for the ultimate meal brought me to 2-year-old Django, off funky South Street. I'd done just enough homework to know two things: The place was named for the Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who roamed Europe in the 1930s and '40s, and it was reputed to be turning out mighty fine grub described as "regional European."
My dining companions were my wife, Mary Jo, and our friend Peggy. For all three of us, this turned out to be the best meal in memory.
Django is in an old, narrow storefront that can seat 38 patrons, with the kitchen crammed in the back. The décor might be termed modest eclectic: one wall bared to the brick, a few posters and pieces of art, and chairs that don't match. The Fountain at the Four Seasons it's not, at least when it comes to the appointments. The acoustics were bad too; the place didn't buzz, it roared.
But then the food started arriving. We split two appetizers: goat cheese gnocchi with wild mushrooms, and prosciutto-and-smoked mozzarella crepes served with Belgian endive and onion marmalade. We rolled our eyes in amazement. We were onto something.
For a main course, Mary Jo decided on an aged strip steak wrapped with apple-smoked bacon and served with creamy Parmesan, small-grain risotto and cipolline onion sauce. Peggy picked the baked Chatham cod dusted with a Basque pimento powder and served with a salt cod potato cake and tomato fondue with fennel broth. I chose the seared striped bass, which came with chickpea "soufflés," crispy on the exterior with creamy centers.
This was exceptional food, with dynamic presentations and layers of distinctive flavors that left us marveling. The meal was consistently great, right down to the desserts: nut shortbread, vanilla bean crème brûlée accompanied by a crisp phyllo Napoleon with basted pineapple, and mandarin orange sorbet and ginger semifreddo.
The food was as good as it gets, and yes, we'll include Le Bec-Fin, Susanna Foo and the Fountain. I've dined at all three in recent years, and the meals were great, no doubt about it. But I don't remember them as exceptional. Django was exceptional, and my dining partners agreed.
How do chef-owner Bryan Sikora and his wife, Aimee Olexy, create such superb food? I called Sikora later to find out, and he said, "It's our food, the food of Django, the food we love, and things get very specific, right down to how thick the ravioli dough is, or how things look on the plate when it leaves the kitchen."
On another evening in the city, my friend Don and I headed for ¡Pasión!, a Latin fusion restaurant that has received enough accolades to be considered among the city's best tables. (Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan lists ¡Pasión! as one of the city's top five restaurants.)
Maybe it was an off night in the kitchen; maybe it was our selections. We found ¡Pasión! good but hardly great.
Three types of ceviche, a house specialty, made an interesting appetizer, flavorful and distinctive. But none of the three matched a fish and shrimp appetizer I'd had a few days earlier at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Los Catrines Restaurant and Tequila's Bar on Locust Street.
Don's appetizer, guacamole Cubano, included pineapple — an interesting idea that didn't work. When the waiter asked his opinion, Don kindly provided it. The waiter removed the dish from the table and from the bill.
Entrees were good but, again, not great. I chose the whole fish with fried yucca. The presentation was elaborate: The fish had been sautéed a crisp brown on both sides, then fileted and braced back up with its head still attached; sticks of yucca protruded from where the dorsal fin would have been. Served with a Creole garlic sauce and Nicaraguan vigarón salad, the fish looked better than it tasted.
Don chose the orange barbecue aged duck breast accompanied by burritos made of quesofresco, nopales (cactus paddles) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) and topped with a green sauce.
"It's very good," he said.
Did that mean exceptional?
"Very good," he repeated.
¡Pasión!, in Center City at 211 S. 15th St. (near Walnut Street's restaurant row); (215) 875-9895, http://www.pasionrestaurant.com . Dinner only, entrees $18-$33.
Georges Perrier, the owner of Le Bec-Fin, opened another downtown restaurant six years ago named Brasserie Perrier, which has won fairly wide acclaim. Critic LaBan rates it in his second tier, and respondents of the ubiquitous Zagat Survey rank its food among Philadelphia's top 25. (Confusing matters is a third Perrier restaurant, Le Bar Lyonnais, downstairs at Le Bec-Fin. In Zagat's rankings for food, Lyonnais tied Le Bec-Fin and the Fountain for first place.)
A friend who knows the city well and dines out frequently, though, swears that in totality — cuisine, service, ambience and value — Brasserie is the city's best restaurant. So, accompanied by a former co-worker, I had lunch there with high expectations. Jack and I were guided through the Art Deco interior to a leather booth, where we settled in to scan the fixed-price lunch. I choose seared lamb, Jack a strip steak and French fries.
Entrees, like the salads and desserts (crème brûlée and citron tart with mandarin sorbet), were on the mark. Good indeed, but not exceptional.
Brasserie Perrier, in Center City at 1619 Walnut St.; (215) 568-3000, http://www.georgesperriergroup.com . Fixed-price three-course lunch $28, à la carte lunch entrees $12-$20, dinner entrees $24-$37.
The top three: The restaurants traditionally considered Philadelphia's best are Le Bec-Fin, in Center City at 1523 Walnut St. (a block from its sister restaurant Brasserie Perrier), (215) 567-1000, http://www.georgesperriergroup.com, three-course lunch $45, six-course dinner $135; Susanna Foo, in Center City at 1512 Walnut St., (215) 545-2666, http://www.susannafoo.com, lunch entrees $12-$20, dinner entrees $26-$34; and the Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel, 1 Logan Square (on the Ben Franklin Parkway), (215) 963-1500, http://www.fourseasons.com/philadelphia/dining , lunch entrees $20-$29, dinner entrees $38-$56.
Striped Bass: You can't talk about seafood in Philadelphia without mentioning this restaurant, ranked not too far beneath the top three. It's an expensive place, and that may explain why I have dined there but twice in the last few years. The setting is lavish, the cuisine unlikely to disappoint. Its owner filed for bankruptcy protection this spring — a move blamed on the failed openings of sister restaurants — but Striped Bass is still going. Center City, 1500 Walnut St., (215) 732-4444, http://www.mealticket.org ; three-course lunch $26, dinner entrees $29-$48.
Vetri: Some critics put this pricey northern Italian place on par with Le Bec-Fin, the Fountain and Susanna Foo. For Friday or Saturday night reservations, call at least a few weeks in advance. 1312 Spruce St. (off Broad Street), (215) 732-3478, http://www.vetrirestaurant.com ; dinner only, entrees $18-$38.
Siam Cuisine: This restaurant, open more than 20 years, pioneered Thai food in Center City. Try the coconut soup with chicken or shrimp, or the Siam noodles. I've dined here at least a dozen times and have never been disappointed. Chinatown, 925 Arch St., (215) 922-7135, http://www.phillychinatown.com/siamcuisine.htm ; two-course lunch $10, dinner entrees $11-$19.
Vietnam Restaurant: A few blocks from Siam Cuisine is this place, long considered Philadelphia's top Vietnamese restaurant. It makes the best egg rolls in town — crispy, light and flavorful. My favorite dish, because it has a little fire to it: seafood spicy salt, which is lightly coated and fried shrimp, squid and scallops on a bed of crisp lettuce and other fresh vegetables. The soups are excellent. Chinatown, 221 N. 11th St., (215) 592-1163, http://www.eatatvietnam.com ; lunch and dinner entrees $7-$13.
Sansom Street Oyster House: This seafood house has helped define Philadelphia's dining scene during its 27 years. The raw bar is well stocked, the seafood fresh. Most of the dishes are simple and time honored, though I did notice that sesame-crusted tuna had crept onto the lunch menu along with the fried seafood combo and the broiled scallops, shrimp, oysters and bluefish. I had the fried oysters, four huge ones lightly coated and sautéed to preserve that briny flavor. Center City, 1516 Sansom St., (215) 567-7683; lunch entrees $8-$13, dinner entrees $14-$35.
Mike Shoup is a former travel editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Newark Star-Ledger.
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