Philadelphia: Don’t waste space on cheesesteaks

Deceivingly simple looking rabbit stew at Kanella in Philadelphia. When someone tells you he’s taking you to a Greek-Cypriot restaurant in Philadelphia, you expect rustic, hearty Mediterranean food—some grilled fish, melitzanosalata, baklava—right? Well Kanella is a Greek-Cypriot restaurant and that’s not what was served. OK, yes, those things are on the menu, but executed at another level from the Greek joint you normally go to. And after reading this Philadelphia Inquirer review, anyone would expect more.

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The quiet neighborhood lined with red-brick townhouses feels more Colonial American meat and potatoes than Cypriot roasted goat, but Kanella’s small space is transporting. Simply done up for a pared-down taverna feel, the restaurant is intimate, the staff flirtatious and knowledgable (disclosure: the chef’s sister-in-law was part of our party), and the food incredible.

Pacu

You can have pacu “ribs”—pacu is an fish that’s related to the piranha (above). The dish arrived simply prepared, the arcs of fish charred and lightly spiced, highlighting the silky white meat within. A plate of dips—white bean, green pepper and lamb liver pâté—vibrate with old-country flavor, and they are executed finely and presented cleanly. Lamb salad and braised pork cheeks have your dining companions poaching bites from your plate. The boureki’s crisp filo dough crunches and the feta and thyme within blend with the honey on top and you want to order another one.

Boureki

Chef-owner Konstantinos Pitsillides rails against fusion food (he’s as intense and focused as the flavors he creates), but he himself is a master of melding tradition with the contemporary and borrowing a few flavors from other cultures. The kouneli—long-braised rabbit leg (pictured above)—resonates long after you’ve left the restaurant and gets filed in that “one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten” drawer in the brain. It looks like a simple stew but is electric with flavor—fenugreek, ras al hanout (an Arabic blend of all the “c” spices—cardomum, cumin, cinammon, clove, coriander—and more), rosemary—that still manages to highlight the tender, fine-grained, mild rabbit.

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Free-range chicken arrives ultramoist with a potato and pasterma gratin that may be one of the best potato dishes ever made (above).

Pitsillades uses largely locally grown produce. He talked about how the tomatoes used on this one night were from an old Italian guy who pulled up in front of the restaurant in a Cadillac. He got 20 boxes for $6. “I love tomatoes,” he said.

Kanella, 1001 Spruce St, Philadelphia; 215-922-1773

This review is dedicated to Joel Tannenbaum. Thank you so much to you and your friends for introducing me to this incredible restaurant.

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