The Best Things 17 Philly Chefs Ate This Year

December 18, 2013
by Danya Henninger

As we we put together a list of our 10 best bites from 2013, we got to wondering what the people who make our food enjoyed eating. So we reached out to chefs around Philadelphia, and asked them to tip us off to their personal favorites from the past 12 months.

We got a wide variety of answers, from high-end tasting menus to down-market hideaways. There were also two restaurants that were each named by at least three of the chefs who replied - that’s a pretty big hint something good is going on. Read on for some insider tips from our top toques.

On occasion, chefs get a chance to travel to another city, and several people wanted to shout out plates outside of Philadelphia. If they did, we also asked them to choose a hometown favorite.

Eli Kulp (Fork, High Street on Market)

“In general it was the smoked potato with black garlic and ramp mayo at Bar Tartine in San Francisco - unbelievable depth of flavor. In Philly - the kalbi at Kim's Korean BBQ on Fifth Street in Northeast Philly. One of the last places to use real charcoal. Unbelievable and a true Korean BBQ experience. They absolutely crush you with fantastic sides and flavors.”

Lucio Palazzo (Taqueria Feliz)

“It was tough narrowing this to one dish, and I had some terrific bites in Oaxaca, NYC and Seattle. In Philadelphia, the winner is grilled carrots with green coriander, goat's milk yogurt and pickled spring onion from Fork. Sounds simple, but it’s an exciting dish texturally, with the earthy, pure essence of carefully cultivated carrot. This was one of the many times this year that I was blown away by innovative vegetable cooking, and many of these dishes came from Eli at Fork.

My honorable mentions:
- Tripe and mussels from Fond;
- An off-the-menu salad of culatello with shaved apple and fennel from Nick [Macri] at Southwark;
- Jorgito's torta ahogada at American Sardine Bar;
- Anything from Vernick;
- Pig's head, fluke crudo and the chilled dashi from Serpico;
- Heirloom tomatoes with matbucha from Zahav;
- The mushroom dish currently on the menu at High Street. F**king dope!”

We agree, hard to choose just one.

Rich Landau (Vedge)

“So much to choose from... but these come to mind:
- the smoked garlic flamenkuchen (Alsatian pizza) at Brauhaus Schmitz blew me away;
- the avocado and kimchi toast at Vernick;
- Eli Kulp’s house made miso and kimchi at Fork;
- the vegetable maki rolls at Kidari Sushi on South Street;
- the new Cubano sandwich at Blackbird Pizza;
- the marinara pie at Nomad Roman.”

It’s great when chefs are blown away by their colleagues’ high-end endeavors.

Peter Woolsey (Bistrot La Minette)

“Best thing I ate this year is easy: the chicken liver mousse with pumpernickel toast and red and yellow beets at Sbraga. It is not often I eat a dish that can hold its own against three-star Michelin dining but this chicken liver mousse was just that good. Kevin created a silky smooth mousse with little to no iron taste (which is all too prevalent in chicken livers) that played against the coffee and rye flavors in the toast, while the beets added a wonderful savory sweetness.”

Justin Swain (Rex 1516)

“I have one real answer and a one offbeat one. I would have to say the best thing I ate all year was the chef’s tasting at Zahav. I went with my sister for her birthday and we left the restaurant the most full I've ever been in my entire life. Everything was perfect from start to finish. But on a real note, Santucci’s sausage pizza is my favorite pizza in the city right now. I have frequently taken down a medium one of these by myself on my day off.”

Of course, chefs - like the rest of us - don’t always eat fancy, ultrarich foods.

Brad Spence (Amis, Alla Spina, Pizzeria Vetri)

“I take my kids to Sang Kee Duck House for Peking pork spare ribs. Fell in love with them this year.”

Tom McCusker (Honest Tom’s Taco Shop)

“That's a hard one, but I'm going to have to say the mushroom and onion pizza from Enjay's on 40th Street in between Locust and Walnut. It's a small pizza shop inside of Smokey Joe's bar. It's a side project from the Pitruco Pizza truck, and the pizza is kind of like a classic deck oven version of their wood-fired street pies.”

Even mundane pasta and noodles can really stand out, if they’re in the right hands.

Nicholas Elmi (Laurel, Top Chef)

“I've had so many things that blow my mind this past year but I keep going back to one dish that puts a smile on my face every time. The lemon fettuccine with bottarga from Zeppoli. Super simple, but easy to mess up if [chef] Joey Baldino isn't making it.”

Shannon Dougherty (Cedar Point Bar & Kitchen)

“My favorite dish I've had this year is definitely the pad cashew nut at Erawan. I get it vegetarian with brown rice and spice level: awakening. Liz [Petersen] and I have been going to Erawan since we first started dating many years ago. Our kids have grown up eating there and sometimes our car just ends up there. The pad cashew nut is spicy, flavorful and has great textures. It’s the ultimate comfort food.”

Are you glad Peter Serpico decided to come to Philadelphia? These chefs certainly are.

Marshall Green (Jerry’s Bar)

“The best thing I ate this year was a trout dish at Serpico. It was crispy trout over smoked butter potatoes, saffron-infused crab meat and trout roe. I also had an amazing surf clam crudo at Fork. Both were noteworthy dishes during as great year of dining.”

Jeremy Nolen (Brauhaus Schmitz, Wursthaus Schmitz)

“I'd have to say the Cope's corn ravioli at Serpico. It tastes awesome and I'm also surprised that someone outside of PA Dutch country besides myself knows of it and uses it! I love that stuff.”

Eli Collins (Pub & Kitchen)

“I really enjoyed my meals at Serpico this year. My favorite dish was a hand-torn pasta. There was this perfect balance between sweet and spicy garlic flavors. And while the dish was ultimately comfort food, the addition of snails and chicken made it so much more. 

“In addition I ate a lot of apples this year - all of them fantastic. One of the expeditors at Pub & Kitchen would brings in at least five different varieties every week that she would pick up at the Headhouse Farmers’ Market. I must have eaten 30-40 different types of apple this fall, all of them fantastic. It really shows how diverse and wonderful the produce is in this area.”

Scott Schroeder (South Philadelphia Tap Room, American Sardine Bar)

“The best thing I ate this year was the tomato and bean salad at Serpico. The first time I had it, it was heavy and had bean sprouts in it and I friggin loved it! I stole it and have been abusing bean sprouts ever since.”

Gregory Vernick seems to have tamed the maenads and distilled their magic into a single dish.

Jeffrey Michaud (Osteria, Alla Spina, Pizzeria Vetri)

“For me it would have to be the sea urchin and eggs at Vernick.”

Ben Puchowitz (Cheu Noodle Bar)

“Uni and scrambled eggs at Vernick.”

Sylva Senat (Senatrestaurants Consulting)

“The sea urchin (uni) with scrambled eggs at Vernick. At first it just sounds like a simple dish, but  when you start eating the refined presentation creates these very complex flavor interactions, one bite after another. Several times this year when I ate eggs I found myself craving sea urchin on top because of this dish.”

And though he didn’t choose a local dish, on the news that there’s a slim possibility we’ll see one of these in Philly, we’re just gonna leave this here.

John Strain (Valanni)

“Does it have to be in Philly? If not, Jose Andres’ Bazaar in Miami. Everything there was amazing. I pretty much had everything on the menu.”