Pan-fried skate with caulifl ower gratin, hazelnuts and grenobloise at Amuse
AMUSE | FRENCH
The amuse-bouches are specifically chosen for you based on what you’re drinking: That’s the level of attention to detail that guides a meal at Amuse, set inside the city’s latest hotel Le Meridien. Don’t let that fool you, though: This is no precious, pretentious restaurant, but rather a sophisticated bistro with the food and the accoutrements to become a real player here. The dining room is a stunner, with modern detailing set seamlessly inside a thoroughly historic setting. It’s the food, however—cuisine is rooted in the classics of bistro dining but with many dishes modern enough to be surprising— that makes it special. Three-onion, three-cheese French onion soup is stellar, the rich stock offset by the singing sweetness of Vidalia onion and the deep nutty tang of Gruyère, Emmenthaler and Compte. Roasted and marinated three-beet salad with beet-infused chèvre, Marcona almonds and microgreens crowning it all is a textural and aromatic tour de force. Steak frites is among the best in the city right now, the concentrated, glistening Bordelaise sauce a thoughtful touch. Pan-fried skate hits all the right notes and is accompanied perfectly by a decadent cauliflower gratin. And the bar snacks, priced absurdly low at $3, $5 and $7, are stellar. Pretzel bites with an ingenious combination of mustard and cream cheese on the side are inarguable winners. Cassoulet with Armagnac-duck sausage and beans is comforting and soulful and has style to spare—just like Amuse. 1421 Arch St.; lemeridienphiladelphia.com —BRIAN FREEDMAN
COOPERAGE | SOUTHERN BISTRO FARE
The Curtis Center has been long overdue for a restaurant that not only keeps the nine-to-five crowd here after work but lures passersby up its marble staircase with the promise of good times to be had. Enter Cooperage, a new pub with down-home cooking and whiskey aplenty. Signature dinner dishes include the “Hippie Chop,” a granola-crusted pork chop with leek bread pudding, and the catfish with black-eyed pea ragout. Unusual lunch offerings include “Breakfast at Muh’s,” a dish that features country ham, mascarpone cheese and hot pepper jelly over buttermilk biscuits. A slab of corn bread begins the meal, but that’s no reason to skip out on starters like hush puppies and blueberry jam or sweet potato tots with maple chutney—or the addictive bourbon-spiked chocolate beignets for dessert. On the spirits side of things, Cooperage boasts roughly 40 international whiskeys, which can be enjoyed mixed in a specialty cocktail, as well as a thoughtful roster of Philly brews. The resto’s industrial environs are tempered by soft accents like bronze tiles, low-hanging lamps and generous flower arrangements. Curtis Center at Seventh and Sansom Streets; cooperagephilly.com —KRISTIN DETTERLINE-MUNRO
EL REY | MEXICAN
With the sweet smell of gravy-stained success still lingering from Pizzeria Stella, Stephen Starr finds himself back in familiar territory with El Rey, a Mexican eatery housed in the former Midtown IV. For those who frequented the diner on late nights, plenty of telltale design details remain, from the exterior signage to the counter-turned-bar and opposing rows of booth seating just beyond; flea-market décor scavenged from California to Mexico adds to the down-anddirty roadside-bar motif. The themed surroundings would feel entirely kitschy without such solid fare to anchor the whole experience. Familiar dishes like enchiladas, quesadillas and tostadas make up the bulk of the menu and are worth sampling alongside other regional staples like chilaquiles, here served with either a fried egg or skirt steak, and chile en Nogada, consisting of roasted poblanos stuffed with ground beef, almonds and dried fruit. For dessert, mango jalapeño ice cream, whipped smooth like gelato, packs just a little heat and is a worthy alternative to doughy-sweet churros. After dinner duck down the alley off 20th Street to the Ranstead Room, where dusky lighting and titillating portraits set the scene for old-school cocktails and whispered conversations. 2013 Chestnut St.; elreyrestaurant.com —K.D.M.
HOOF + FIN | ARGENTINEAN
Hoof + Fin, for all its focus on quality ingredients and classic preparations, is about surprise more than anything else. You’ve had fried calamari before, but probably not with a smoked orange barbecue sauce, onions, tomatoes, corn salad and peppers. Same with the fluke carpaccio: The combination of peppers, cilantro, ruby grapefruit and a truffled citrus juice should have possessed all the dissonance of a middle-school marching band. Instead, it sang, the bass note of truffle throwing the citrus into sharper focus and adding heft to the fish. A special of soft-shell crab fried in a panko and cayenne batter with a strawberryrhubarb- ginger sauce with a strawberry-rhubarb-ginger sauce plumbed the depths of the unexpected without taking the focus off that beloved central component. As for short ribs, here they’re braised in sangria and served crowning a tortilla Española. It’s all draped with a poached egg, and when dragged through the creamy chimichurri, it’s gorgeous. If you’re here on a Wednesday, make sure to try the asado, an Argentinean plateful of grilled pork loin, chorizo sausage, skirt steak, bone-in short ribs, sweetbreads and an egg—bring a juicy red wine and a hefty appetite for this one. Simplicity and complexity rarely coexist as well as they do at Hoof + Fin, one of the most deeply satisfying new restaurants to come around in a long time. 617 S. Third St., 215-925-3070 —B.F.