With guests in town for the weekend, it was time for some serious eatin': two nights meant two very different restaurants going head to head. So, ladeeez and gentlemen, LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE!
In this corner, the reigning champion of the Steven Starr empire! Loved by fans from Cherry Hill to Bryn Mawr! Give it up for BUDDAKAN!!!
And in this corner, a scrappy upstart from the mean streets of the Italian Market! Weighing in at only about ten tables, lets hear it for the French Tickler PIF!!!
ROUND ONE: Buddakan led off with a furious assault of glamor, with an impressive display of falling water, jagnormous golden Buddha and assorted beautiful people all of which we enjoyed as we walked past them, up the stairs, round the back and were seated in a dark corner, next to the ladies restroom. Right behind the table with the two NJ car salesmen and their trophy wives. (Memo to self: next time I go to a Starr restaurant, take my supermodel girlfriend, not Mom and Dad.)
Pif dodged and weaved with a minimalist approach: small room, small tables, silverware evidently swiped from a college dining hall. But the edge goes to them with the quality of their servers: enthusiastic, knowledgable and willing to answer this customer's stupid and constant questions about how this or that was prepared. Contrast this with Buddakans waiter, who seemed more interested in getting us in and out in minimum time. (Plus, can I just say that I dont approve of their uniformsjeans and T-shirts? If Im gonna spend $75 or more, per person, on dinner, I want a waiter who'll dress the part.)
So, Round One goes to Pif. On to ROUND TWO: Buddakan, again, got the presentation right on the money. The calamari salad was a huge forest of frisee, with wonderfully crisp golden rounds lurking inside. The eel dice were a wonder of symmetry. The shrimp spring rolls were more noteworthy for their unusual shape (long and thin) than for their taste; like the chicken n ginger dumplings, Ive had better at an actual Chinese restaurant.
Pifs response was, again, simple and traditional. You want braised leeks? There they are! You want a beet and goat cheese salad? You got it! You want the famous escargot? Too badthey were out that night. BUT, the alternative, a foie gras terrine, more than made up for it. This was the star of the evening, Pifs roundhouse punch. Just a thick slab of goosy goodness, with some raisins, almond slivers and poached pear slices, lying there innocently on the plate. But my sweet lord, it just about put me down for the count: pure, buttery, melting, sweetness, set off by the sea salt dusted on top and the croutons. I almost went home right then, it was so good.
ROUND THREE: The Champ produced another batch of good-lookin dishes. Really, you should have seen the slices of duck, arrayed like a brigade on the march. Tender and just a little garlicky, they would have ruled the table, if it hadnt been for the sesame crusted tuna right next door. This did everything you could ask rare tuna to do. Unfortunately, other two entrees didnt live up. The Singapore noodles were boring, boring, boring, and the ponzu chicken with brown butter was, frankly, a little nasty.
The Challenger stuck to the basics in this round: lamb with lentils that I would have liked to try more of (Mom kept slapping my hand as I reached for her plate), an entrecote with herb butter that was pretty good (its a steak. You have to be a real idiot to screw up a steak.) I had the skate, which was sweet and flaky; pan-sauteed, which Id hoped would make it a little more crispy, but pretty darn good nonetheless. What was weird about it was its accompaniment: sauteed spinach (very good) and white rice Kind of bland, kind of boring, alas. All in all, Pifs take on basic French bistro food is satisfying: stings like a bee, and with their small, variable menu, will let them float like a butterfly, too.
THE JUDGES DECISION: after three rounds, a victory for Kid Pif! Clearly a contender, in any weight class.