Postcard From Tom: Philadelphia

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

With its abundance of BYOB restaurants, trailblazing chefs and thrilling interiors (Union Trust Steakhouse may be the most impressive meat market on the East Coast), Philadelphia rivals Washington when it comes to matters of taste. Indeed, at this month's James Beard Foundation Awards gala, Philadelphia talent Jose Garces was given the honor of Best Chef from the mid-Atlantic. Here are some highlights from a long weekend in the City of Brotherly Love:

CHIFA (707 Chestnut St.; 215-925-5555): Having enhanced the city's dining scene with a trio of popular restaurants inspired by Spanish, Basque and Mexican flavors, Garces extends his Midas touch with a hybrid kitchen: Chifa, launched this past winter, plays tribute to the style of cooking that evolved in Peru in the late 19th century, when Chinese workers poured into the country. As interpreted by Garces, that means vibrant ceviches, empanadas stuffed with crab and laced with sweet chili sauce, chewy saucer-size scallion pancakes, and steamed buns stuffed with the meat of the moment (grilled pork belly, of course). These seductive dishes come with a setting to match. Up front, handcrafted shutters, ceiling fans and floral fabric suggest you're eating outdoors; farther back, see-through wooden screens and dark red walls conjure China, save for the "views" of Machu Picchu from some of the pillow-strewn booths. We didn't think there was a way to improve on a classic pisco sour. But that was before we tried Chifa's version, spiked with fiery lemon grass and all too easy to drink throughout the night. Entrees, $9-$23.

FORK (306 Market St.; 215-625-9425): Before he came to this Old City gem in February, Terence Feury cooked at the late Striped Bass in Philadelphia and the revered Le Bernardin in New York. A diner can taste those credentials in much of his contemporary American cooking. Feury's delicate pasta, made with whole-wheat flour from a nearby mill, might be decorated with pearly shrimp, bright green fava beans and a whisper of fresh oregano. I know why the chef refers to his lamb-belly confit as a personal favorite: The crisp-soft cube, gilded with brined tongue and garnished with grilled artichokes, is sheer indulgence. The menu in this narrow, honey-lit bistro changes frequently. If you're lucky, you might find smoked pork loin flanked with two twists: bacon-wrapped potato terrine and an updated green bean casserole that subs julienned sugar-snap peas for the vegetable Mom used. Can't decide what to order for dessert? Fork comes to the rescue by offering sweets in two, three or four "small bites." Our favorite miniature is a Key lime pavlova with toasted coconut. Entrees, $19-$36.

PAESANO'S (152 W. Girard Ave.; 267-886-9556): Chef Peter McAndrews of Modo Mio says he opened this friendly shoebox across the street from his Italian restaurant in trendy Northern Liberties because he got tired of having to "readjust" the sandwiches he bought around town. We wouldn't change a thing about his signature Arista, built with broccoli rabe, hot peppers and roasted suckling pig that gets its succulence from a bath in anchovies, white wine, rosemary and garlic. Nor would we alter the delicious dance between sweet and sour in the Paesano, layered with pulled beef and red cabbage. Thank goodness for the carryout window; right now, the counter overlooking the stove seats a mere six customers, although the owner plans to turn his office upstairs into space for a dozen more chow hounds. Paesano's brief menu, written on a chalkboard, lists sodas for a buck (go for the locally made Hank's Root Beer) and "Schuylkill punch" free. The latter is an inside joke referring to the nearby river of dubious clarity. Sandwiches, $4-$8.

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