Len Lear’s choices for top Main Line restaurants in 2014
WRITTEN BY LEAN LEAR
For 21st Century Media
The beginning of the year is traditionally a time for columnists to sum up their selections for “best” books, movies, TV shows, etc., of the year, so here are my choices for our best restaurant experiences of 2014 on the Main Line:
•Yangming opened 25 years ago at Conestoga and Haverford roads in Bryn Mawr, replacing the Conestoga Mill Inn, which had been in decline for quite a while. You could probably have gotten great odds betting that an upscale Chinese restaurant would not be in business serving hundreds of “covers” every night a quarter-century later.
But Yangming has proven all doubters wrong. Four years ago they received a blizzard of publicity when Chinese Restaurant News, a national trade publication for Chinese restaurants, named Yangming the number one Chinese restaurant in the U.S. (The magazine estimates that there are about 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the country.)
“My idea was to have a new type of Asian restaurant,” owner Michael Wei told me when I asked him about the “number one” award. “It would have two kitchens, one Western and one Asian. I planned to infuse Western dishes with Asian seasonings, for example, and use a lot of wine in reduced sauces. And we are still doing it.”
The award has definitely not made Yangming complacent. We dine there often; they always have imaginative specials at modest prices and great service, and there is never a joker in the deck.
For more information, call (610) 527-3200 or visit http://yangmingrestaurant.com.
•Tango opened in late 2000 in the Bryn Mawr Train Station as an American bistro with influences from Asia, Europe and Latin America evident in several dishes. (The name Tango comes from the fact that the original plan was to make the restaurant an Argentine steakhouse, but that concept was discarded as being too parochial to fill 150 seats indoors as well as an outdoor deck.) The site was previously occupied by Central Bar & Grille, then Big River Fish Co. and then Lewis & Clark Grill and Bar.
Owner Joey Baldino, who has been at the reins since the beginning, has managed to maintain a consistency with the help of a kitchen staff that uses pots and pans with the skill that Pete Rose used a baseball bat.
The interior at Tango, created by Villanova designer Barbara Balongue, combines the sturdiness of exposed stone walls and wrought ironwork with the softness of plush banquettes, rust-colored fabric and a fireplace and vaulted ceiling in the dining room, as well as both track and recessed lighting. It’s like a marriage of antique farmhouse and velvet underground.
There are also three private room hideaways, closed off by curtains from the plebeians, as well as a 12-seat wood bar. (Getting a seat at the bar during Happy Hour is sometimes harder than answering every question on Jeopardy.)
We eat at Tango several times every year and are never disappointed. You really cannot go wrong with anything on the eclectic menu, and the prices are reasonable. And the service is always friendly and efficient. Our group still talks about a server named Allegra last summer whose personality was a burst of sunshine.
If you eat on a fairly regular basis at Tango, it’s a good idea to sign up for their members’ club. Based on your frequency of visits, you get certain discounts, such as a free entree on the week before or after your birthday with the purchase of a second entree. (We take advantage of it twice every year.)
For more information, call (610) 526-9500 or visit www.tastetango.com
•Chicken soup may indeed have therapeutic qualities, as Jewish mothers have believed for centuries, but it could be argued that Shangri-la Inn at 138 Montgomery Ave. in Bala Cynwyd is the only restaurant on the Main Line in which every item on the menu has been carefully selected and approved by a medical doctor, although you don’t need a prescription to eat there.
The M.D. is Song Zhou, the restaurant’s owner who was born and raised in Canton, China, where he was such a brilliant student that his community selected him to go to medical school. In the 1960s Zhou earned not one but two medical degrees, one from a traditional Chinese medical school for acupuncture, herbal treatments, etc., and the other from the Canton Province Medical School, a Western-style institution.
Song Zhou was a general practitioner for 16 years, but after living through the hell of the Cultural Revolution, where anyone with Western leanings was relentlessly persecuted, he longed for liberation from the chains of Communist orthodoxy. Since the Communist regime was eventually trying to curry favor with the U.S., Zhou and his family were ultimately able to leave for the U.S., although they went through five years of harassment before they finally had permission to leave.
The family arrived in our area in 1984 and eventually opened Garnian Wa in Paoli (no longer in business), Wabi-Sabi in Paoli (no longer owned by the family), Sampan Inn in Havertown, Samurai in Rosemont and Shangri-La Inn in Bala Cynwyd, which is a Japanese steakhouse, sushi bar and full-service Chinese restaurant all in one.
The teppenyaki dinners (the chef cooks the food in front of you) have become a magnet for kids’ birthday parties, and both the Chinese and Japanese choices never fail to satisfy. Prices are very affordable, and managing partner Wen Zhou, the owner’s son, could not be more charming and accommodating.
More information at (610) 668-2100 or www.toshangrilainn.com