Dining bargains

Small wonders:
Three dining bargains


    Food reviews tend to obsess about chefs and restaurants, but unless you’re married to one or live next door to the other, this focus is way too broad. What the real food lover wants to know is: What’s good to eat? We need to hear about folks who know how to cook and who pay intense, loving attention to their food so that we can mosey on over and moan and groan in ecstasy.

    So here is the first of a series of truly useful discoveries, pieces of hometown art that will delight food lovers and maybe even convert a few folks who aren’t in on the fun yet.

Matyson: The $45 tasting menu

    It’s no secret that small plates are in. It’s partly a reflection of the aging of the food-loving population and partly the salutary influence of Spanish eating and drinking customs. You get to enjoy more tastes even though your appetite may be smaller than it was a few years ago. Small plates may also be part of a health-conscious reaction to outsized American restaurant portions and their role in making us one of the fattest countries on earth.

    If you’ve been to one of the tapas bars that are sprouting around town, you may have delighted in the tiny portions but been surprised by the not-so-tiny check at the end. Something of the breezy informality of Iberian dining is lost when the tab creeps up toward $200 for a couple.

    Enter the geniuses at Matyson (Brian Lofink and Ben Puchowitz) with their weekday tasting menu, organized each week around a particular theme. The dinner consists of five small portions, each beautifully conceived and presented, with a complete absence of false steps or narcissistic eccentricity.

    A recent dinner included: roasted chestnut soup, foie gras croutons, pickled wild mushrooms— an exercise in balance— lemongrass poached lobster with quick kimchi (lighter and sharper than the traditional, slow-fermented one), mint and cilantro. The seafood continued with seared jumbo scallop. There was a brief detour into red meat land with a pistachio-crusted lamb loin dressed with toasted quinoa, currants and black olive tapenade. We ended with dulce de leche Napoleon with pecan caramel sauce. The portions are all in, well, proportion, so there’s plenty of flavor and you leave feeling content, but not stuffed.

    Matyson is BYO. Most of its tasting menus involve dishes that show best with a tart, acidic wine and some others that need ripe fruit and tannins. In fact, you’ll see many tables sporting one bottle of white and one of red. Service, under the watchful eye of Michael Wightman, ranges from excellent to flawless.

Matyson: 37 South 19th St.  (215) 564-2925 or www.matyson.com.

Vincenzo’s: The $6.95 lemon ricotta pancakes

    The next time I can’t get in to this friendly little 20-seat joint in South Philadelphia, I’ll regret telling you about it, but that’s the price of food writing. Vincenzo’s looks like a typical city luncheonette, and the menu— chicken cutlets, cheese steaks, broccoli rabe, pasta e fagiol’ and meatballs— seems just as typical. But two things set Vincenzo’s apart.

    The first is that these people— Sue Tavella and Michelle DiArenzo— really know how to cook. Really. A chicken cutlet is moist and flavorful with a crispy skin of breadcrumbs and served with a lemon. The cheese steak is simply the beefiest, tastiest cheese steak in town. And the meatballs tap into some hidden well of moist flavor that renders them unique.

    The second thing is that, although this is strictly a neighborhood place, everybody who walks in ends up feeling like a neighbor.

    The dish that should send you competing for space at the counter or in the tiny back room is the lemon ricotta pancakes. These are light in texture and dense in lemony, wheat batter flavor. The contrast between the ethereal texture and the emphatic flavors is a peculiar pleasure in itself. With or without the crowning fried egg, they are so elegant as to make the proffered syrup superfluous.

Vincenzo’s: 1626 S. Ninth St. (215) 463-6811.

Sansom Street Oyster House: Happy hour.

    Happy hour is a testimony to the 24-hour nature of rent. Here you are, a restaurateur paying rent on all these seats for 24 hours a day and you only get to fill them for, maybe, six hours. If only there were a way to add a few hours of butts-on-the-stools, cash-in-the-register. Reduced prices at slow times, like the free saloon lunch of the early 20th Century, is a way to sacrifice a part of your profit in the hope of gaining a little business and maybe picking up some loyal customers.

    Cary Neff’s Sansom Street Oyster House offers half a dozen blue point oysters for five bucks and a plate of little necks for $2.50 from 5 to 7 p.m. on weekday nights. There are drink specials too. Stick to the local super-premium beers from Victory, Yards and Philadelphia Brewing. The oysters are always top-quality and the service is responsive, but the best part is the feeling of having your fill of oysters without breaking the bank.

Sansom Street Oyster House. 1516 Sansom St. (215) 567-7683 or www.restaurant.com/microsite.asp?rid=65076&rpid=3406.

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