The best restaurant

I was asked in an interview the other day “What was the best restaurant you’ve ever been to, and what was the best dish you’ve had?”.

What kind of question is that? “Favorite” restaurant? “Best” dish? There are so many intangibles involved.

One of my favorites is Mama Maria’s, in South Philadelphia. Mama’s is prix fixe. For fifty five dollars she serves a six course meal, and complimentary wine, liqueurs, and espresso. Mama is warm and friendly, I used to have a patch of grey hair on my chin and she would greet me by walking up and stroking it. She has a cooking show on public television, and welcomes guests into the kitchen. It’s a small place, maybe six tables, last time I visited we were there for hours drinking espresso and home made limoncello.

Her food is wonderful, but with the level of service you probably wouldn’t notice if she served cardboard. Holiday meals, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, are spectacular. Thanksgiving she served a full Italian meal, then a traditional American Turkey dinner. Christmas she goes all out, the entire Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Another favorite restaurant is now closed. Deux Cheminees closed its doors in 2007 (My God, has it been that long?) and Chef Fritz Blank headed to Thailand. Deux Cheminees was a classic French restaurant, in an older home in Philadelphia. Dark, quiet, and comfortable, it was like walking into another universe when you closed the door to Locust street behind you. The menu was perfectly balanced by the wine list, and equally expensive. A bottle of Chateau Margaux at four hundred dollars went perfectly with a seven hundred dollar meal.

There is a rule I use when buying wine. “Can I honestly say that seventy dollar bottle is twice as good as a thirty five dollar bottle of wine?”. Yes, the four hundred dollar bottle was at least ten times as good as any forty dollar bottle of wine I ever had, and fit perfectly with the meal. The most expensive and very best meal I’ve ever had, worth every penny.

I had a wonderful evening at Moshulu one time, the decor and view were beautiful, and back then you could smoke cigars in the lounge. My girlfriend ended up doing a lounge singer bit with the pianist, it felt like a scene from a film.

The food at Ristorante Panorama is not spectacular, but the wine list is. It is, in fact, a wine list with a restaurant around it. With over eight hundred selections, one hundred and fifty of those available by the glass, Ristorante Panorama is in the Guinness book of World Records. My first date with Lieve started there, so it certainly qualifies as one of my favorite restaurants.

Lieve and I usually review a restaurant based on its Crème brûlée, in fact we have chosen restaurants solely because of their Crème brûlée. That is how we discovered Bann, a Korean restaurant in Manhattan, that serves a “Trio of brûlée” and some unusual Sakes. We chose The Frog And Peach for its Crème brûlée when we were in New Brunswick for a play. Well, that and because of the name, from a Peter Cook comedy sketch. Which, of course, underlines the point. This is supposed to be fun.

Sometimes the most fun comes from the exploring itself, or whatever brought you to the restaurant, or a quirky server, or a beautiful view. A wonderful experience can have as much to do with who you are with as anything else.

So after fifty something years of great restaurants, how am I supposed to pick a favorite?

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