Postcard from Tom: Small Philadelphia restaurants offer big flavor

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; F02

Think small.

In a nutshell, that's the best restaurant advice I can give to anyone traveling to Philadelphia right now. The last year or so has witnessed a mini-explosion of intimate dining rooms, many of them designated BYOB (bring your own bottle) and celebrating the talents of young, first-time chef-owners.

In tough times, it's a win-win situation for everyone. BYOBs minimize start-up costs for restaurateurs and keep dinner tabs down for their customers.

While I had the great fortune this winter to eat high (the Italian-themed Vetri) and low (no cheesesteak in the city comes close to John's Roast Pork), the places in Philadelphia that stuck in my mind after I returned home, the meals I still recall weeks after enjoying them, were the casual but conscientious neighborhood spots gracing the middle of the scene. Small in size, they were all big on flavor. Here's where to find them:

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Aside from the golden glow of some votives and a few photographs of the owners at play, the dining room at Fond strikes a modest pose. Its closely set tables are bare, its wood floors are uncovered and fewer than 40 seats fill the narrow townhouse space. Chef Lee Styer figures that he and his two partners spent no more than $45,000 to open their place, which takes its name from the French culinary term for base or stock, in East Passyunk in August.

The three have their priorities in the right place. Who needs interior decoration when there's so much that's so good coming from behind a curtain in the back? The chill of a recent cold winter night was erased with a gratis shot of hot vichyssoise and a young waiter who seemed eager to share the small menu's charms.

If there's a theme here, it's this: "Food we like to eat," says the chef. Chances are, you've had raw tuna before. Styer, 25, makes the commonplace starter seem novel again, primping slices of rosy crudo with watermelon radishes, creamy yogurt, pomegranate gastrique and sweet-tart sumac for a Mediterranean spin. I've had foie gras a hundred ways over the years, but never as the star of a soup, as I did here. The first course shows up as a dumpling, swollen with caramelized onions and dates, which is joined in its bowl by a stream of pureed seared foie gras poured from a small pitcher at the table. The dumpling, enhanced with brandy, is pleasantly sweet; the soup, fortified with duck stock and Madeira, proves intense. In another success story, sweet scallops are embellished with sauteed celery, golden raisins sharpened with vinegar and celery root veloute. Lean in and you'll get a whiff of black truffles from the sauce.

As young as he is, the chef demonstrates a lot of maturity on the plate. He comes to Fond from the highly regarded Le Bec-Fin, which is also where his fiancee and pastry chef, Jessie Prawlucki, worked. She makes a very good malted chocolate ice cream, showered with glassy pieces of peanut brittle, and closes dinner with adorable meringue buttons, sometimes zipped up with star anise. A patron also has to appreciate a host, co-partner Tory Keomanivong, who responds to "Taxi?" by dashing into the street to hail a cab rather than picking up a phone.

1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-551-5000. Entrees $18-$26.

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Part of what makes four-month-old Koo Zee Doo so intriguing is its Portuguese accent: caldo verde -- a soothing swirl of potatoes, collards and chorizo -- and shrimp piri piri aren't exactly staples in Philadelphia (or a lot of U.S. cities, for that matter). The relative rarity of the food Koo Zee Doo offers probably isn't what keeps the restaurant's 40 seats filled, however. From the dense, yeast-raised corn bread (broa) that launches dinner to the sticky coconut-egg custard tart that brings the meal to a sweet conclusion, the kitchen slips the flavor of Lisbon onto every plate.

A sociology student in college, David Gilberg, 30, says he never went to cooking school and "I never had Portuguese food until I met Carla" Gonçalves, a native, in 2000. After they started dating, Gonçalves introduced him to the food she grew up with during Sunday visits to her parents' home, a short drive outside Philadelphia.

Gilberg's passion for his adopted cuisine pulses in that shrimp piri piri, head-on seafood charged with hot sauce made from tiny African bird's-eye chilies, as well as just about everything else -- turnovers that break open to reveal creamy tuna, octopus atop excellent mashed potatoes -- that flows from the small exposed kitchen he presides over in the front of his two-room restaurant. The standout among the entrees is winy pork shoulder paired with clams cooked in the meat's braising liquid and scattered with bites of fried potato. But that classic combination has serious competition in the form of a hearty rice casserole bolstered with both duck confit and duck breast. The rustic look of some dishes is improved by the way they're served: atop curved terra cotta tiles of the sort you find on roofs.

This lusty cooking is found in Northern Liberties, in a simple setting of brick walls and lacy curtains. Both the floor and the tabletops are paved with cork at Koo Zee Doo (that's "cooked" in Portuguese, and also the name of a boiled meat dish). Customers who want to see their meal made before their eyes know to reserve one of five stools at the kitchen counter.

Among the advantages of being a BYOB operator, says Gilberg: "Our entire focus is on the food." To that end, Gonçalves, now the chef's partner at home and at work, bakes the bread and desserts for the restaurant. She also coaches the staff in how to greet and thank customers in her native Portuguese, a nice touch in a restaurant that's full of them.

614 N. Second St., 215-923-8080. Entrees $17-$29.

* * *

To catch one of the biggest attractions at Mémé, a diner has to show up for lunch on a Thursday. That's the one day of the week when David Katz opens his sunny corner storefront for lunch, where the only thing he serves is fried chicken.

Sound simple? It is. But the dish -- which comes with a freshly baked biscuit, a pale-orange "secret sauce" and a Miller Lite (or iced tea or lemonade if you have to get back to work) -- is backed up by thought. Katz fries only the legs and thighs from yellow chickens, which are thicker-skinned and tastier than their white counterparts. Most of the pieces are cooked in advance and allowed to rest before serving; chicken plucked straight from the oil is too hot to appreciate, says the 33-year-old chef.

The result is lightly crunchy and super-moist, and it packs a serious punch from black pepper in the seasoning. The keys to the tender biscuits, meanwhile, include buttermilk and a light hand when kneading the dough. Katz, who lives above the shop and fries the signature himself, refuses to reveal what's in the dip, which is cool to the touch but fiery on the tongue. (A guessing game at my table raised the prospect of sriracha.)

Note to potential finger lickers: Katz buys only 50 birds, frying them up until they disappear or until 2:30 p.m. rolls around. So get to the 40-seat dining room early (it opens at 11:30 a.m.) if you want in on the fun in Fitler Square.

Looking up from my second order of chicken not long ago, I couldn't help wishing that I had time for dinner as well at Mémé, which is named for Katz's Morrocan grandmother (say MAY-may). Stretching above the front window, the big chalkboard menu is full of enticements: "sizzling" mussels, flatbreads, steak with horseradish-spiked hash browns and "a big ass" pork chop, which translates to a double-cut hunk of Berkshire pork for two. Mémé's neighborliness extends to a four-course dinner on Mondays for $38 and BYOB every Wednesday.

The light fixtures, with their fringe of dangling silverware, and a collection of food photographs (pigs have rarely looked so cute) reveal a chef with a sense of humor. So does the restroom. Its walls are papered with recipes from the pages of cookbooks by, among others, James Beard and Richard Olney. Cracks Katz: "You can learn how to make hollandaise on the throne!"

2201 Spruce St. 215-735-4900. Entrees $19-$25.

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