Great restaurants constantly evolve, spurred on by chefs and owners whose visions are as creative as they are thoughtful. Here are some of the best menus in town right now. Not all of these spots are new, but they do share one very important thing in common: They’re operating at an outstandingly high level.
1516 Tasker St. 267.687.1778. circlesthai.com
It had been more than two weeks since I returned from my trip to Thailand with Chef Alex Boonphaya—about which you’ll read more later—and I was suffering from the early stages of Authentic Thai Food Withdrawal Syndrome. (Symptoms include irritability, nervousness and nightmares about chronic lemongrass shortages.) Fortunately, the new late-summer menu at Circles cured me instantly. Inspired by the month he spent overseas, Chef Alex and his team of wizards are whipping up food that would charm even the most jaded street-food aficionado in Bangkok (or Phuket, or Chiang Mai, or anywhere, really).
Start with a snack of miang kham: betel leaves with peanuts, dried shrimp, ginger, roasted coconut, onions, lime, palm sugar sauce and chilies. Move on to impeccably fried mackerel with climbing wattle and fried eggplant, veggies and a game-changing Thai shrimp paste-chili dip (pla tuu tod and nam prik krapi). Revel in Chef Alex’s riff on kow soi, the great dish of Chiang Mai in the north of the country. Bring along a six-pack of Singha and a serious appetite: The best Thai food in the region, inspired by a culinary journey of breadth and intensity, has, incredibly, gotten even better.
440 S. Broad St. 215.735.1913. sbraga.com
Chef Kevin Sbraga and Nordic food may not be a combination you think of often—or ever. The Top Chef, after all, is better known for his creative riffs on classic American cuisine; I’m still dreaming about his take on fried chicken and waffles that I swooned over several months back. Still, it should come as no surprise that a chef of his caliber finds inspiration all over the world, so it only makes sense that his recent culinary journey to Norway has resulted in a new chef’s counter menu that pays homage to this increasingly referenced food tradition.
The journey on South Broad Street begins with shrimp toast, pickles and edible flowers (paired, perhaps inevitably, with a house-made aquavit shooter—this is a beverage program as accomplished as the culinary one). Move on to beetroot tartar with mackerel, wild leeks, turnips and dill. Make sure to save room for halibut steak, as well as salmon with black bread and horseradish. How about some pork belly with cabbage, mushrooms and sprouted beans? Or spruce-scented ice cream with wild berries and waffles? It’s all enough to make you want to renew your passport and book a flight to Oslo immediately—or, as you’ll be saying soon, umiddelbart.
121 S. 17th St. 215.563.5008. square1682.com
Theoretically, August—the proverbial dog days of summer—is when we all should be taking a step back, relaxing a bit more as we gear up for the freneticism of fall, and drinking an extra cocktail when the opportunity presents itself. Happily, the team at Square 1682 is more than happy to help facilitate that. This month only, they’re offering a three-course, $60 cocktail-pairing menu at dinner. I sampled it last week, and my only complaint is that I couldn’t in good professional conscience finish all of the phenomenal cocktails by lead bartender Chauncey Scates: Much as I wanted to, professional responsibility dictated that I only sip, the better to, you know, remember everything afterward. Good thing I did: The pairings, that magical intersection of food and drink, were wonderfully conceived and did real justice to the excellent food coming out of Chef de Cuisine Caitlin Mateo’s kitchen.
Tender, soulful Lancaster duck on delicate buttermilk toasts, all of it streaked with lingonberry mustard, matched gorgeously with the Rittenhouse Rye-based “Classic Blinker.” Skuna Bay salmon accompanied by charred fennel and red quinoa sang a lovely duet alongside the “Sister Boom Boom Punch,” an aromatically complex cocktail that brought together vodka, bitters and green tea into an exotic, refreshing glassful. Wonderful peach and blackberry cobbler was too much, at that point, for me to finish, but it’s the happiest problem I could have hoped to encounter. Maybe if I’d had more to drink I could have made more room in my belly. Next time, then: I’ll start doing my liver calisthenics right now in preparation. It’ll be more than worth it.
306 Market St. 215.625.9425. forkrestaurant.com
Fork has always been a deserving destination—owner Ellen Yin has for years been one of the city’s great food visionaries—but now, this kitchen, under the leadership of Chef Eli Kulp, is creating some of the most exciting, electric food in town. A few months back, I left Fork exhilarated by the chef’s tasting menu ($110 per person; wine pairing, if you choose, is an additional $50 or $75; the smaller house menu is $70; a la carte is also available). It was a journey that made stops in both the familiar and the wholly creative, all of it just remarkable. Even the bread service, an ingeniously composed plate, re-imagined what I thought I knew. Ordering a la carte also affords the opportunity for discovery: Smoked cioppino? Dry-aged guinea hen? Lavender gnudi? Yes, please: We’ll have more of that.
The wine list is extensive, the space re-conceived with care and detailed attention, the service as professional and friendly as ever, and the overall Fork-ness of the beloved classic both newly energized and exceptionally exciting. The team of Yin and Kulp is a winner by every metric.
Talula’s Daily and Talula’s Garden
Talula’s Daily, 208 W. Washington Square. 215.592.6555; Talula’s Garden, 210 W. Washinton Square. 215.592.7787. talulasgarden.com
The opening of Talula’s Daily, next door to Talula’s Garden, was one of the more hotly anticipated arrivals of the summer, the much-talked-about expansion of Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr’s wildly successful collaboration. With its creative and classic salads, entrees, sandwiches and sides, extensive selection of cheeses, some of the best baked goods in town, full coffee bar, and wine and beer available all day (disclosure: I consulted on the wine list), the Daily is off to quite a start. Later this month, look for the roll-out of a nightly supper menu, available by reservation only for 25 people (four courses, $50). It will be a collaboration between Chefs Scott Megill and Sean McPaul, and the August menu will include crispy Jersey squid with padron peppers, watermelon and a summer herb aioli, and simmered meatballs with hand-cut tagliatelle and a fresh heirloom tomato sauce, among others.
In the meantime, check out the stellar new additions to the menu at Talula’s Garden. I’m still thinking about the crispy, decadent PA lamb belly, perfumed with Indian spices and accompanied by a cucumber-yogurt raita, smoky baba ghannouj and lamb jus addictively aromatic with garam masala. With its immaculate balance buttressing electric flavors, it has stuck in my head like a great song lyric I don’t ever want to forget.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014