Archive for the ‘restaurant’ Category

21
May

restaurant review – Schlesinger’s Deli

   Posted by: Livia

Just got back from a trip (which is what I meant my first post back to be about, but writing this instead), so I had a massage schedule because my back had been hurting and there was a long plane trip. Surely those would be disastrous together. Surprisingly, however, I’m doing pretty well, so the massage was just an extra bonus trailing end of vacation time.

Anyway, that put me walking to work from center city, which is rare for me. So I took the opportunity to try somewhere new for breakfast.

Schlesinger’s Deli
1521 Locust Street
Open 7-9 daily

I was looking for something light, but I have also completely run out of bagels… so the possibility of decent bagels won out.

I ordered salami & eggs (scrambled). They were cooked very firm and completely serviceable. The bagels were running low by 10am, but I scored an everything bagel. It had a crust, but not so much of one that it scratched my gums. The inside was bagel-y, instead of bready, but there was no stretch to the texture. Again, it was okay. The fruit cup side looked completely unimpressive, but was surprisingly good – they’d managed to ind canteloupes with flavor (still rare around here this time of year).

So I wasn’t wowwed but had nothing bad to say.

Except then I saw a patron come in and casually sexually harass one of the waitresses (“Can I get you anything?” “Come over on my lap and ask that again.”) and the waitress brushed it off and took it in stride, as she has to. But the manager was present and did nothing but welcome those patrons to the restaurant. So I was a bit disappointed.

And then that same manager publicly scolded one of the other waitresses for having been late to her shift and how dare she want to leave on time after that. She should stay the same amount late, since he has a restaurant to run and this is serious. And no matter how valid the critique, I should not be able to give you details of it, and it should not have happened right in front of the cash register.

So, no, I will not be going back there.

And, yes, I’d feel the same way even for the best bagel in New York.

24
Jan

review – Grill Fish (west philly)

   Posted by: Livia Tags:

I was very excited when I saw that the Lai family was opening up a new restaurant close to me. I was excited because it was named Grill Fish.

Now there were dreams and fantasies in my head about the coming restaurant. In my head, this would finally be a convenient local source of exquisitely fresh fish (which is rather rare to come by in Philadelphia). Possibly, it would even be affordable. But just the name – Grill Fish – evoked images of the freshest fish, being treated very minimally, grilled all luscious and healthy.

Honestly, there’s no way I was going to get my wish.

But City Paper reviewed their opening, and it sounded like things would possibly be pretty close to my dreams. So exciting!

So I went there this weekend. And I’ll say right now that the food was very good.

But my dreams were shattered. For one thing, the chalkboard with the fresh special of the day? Had not been changed in the five days since the review.

And I realized that I hadn’t read the menu closely enough, and while I thought that under each protein there was a list of 5 or 6 ways it could be prepared, instead they were all ingredients in one dish.

And the two dishes we ordered were fried, not grilled. And so, not showcasing the freshness of the fish.

Right, but how was what we ate? Excellent.

We started off with the Grilled Squid appetizer. And it was exactly what I wanted the rest of the restaurant to be. Tender, mild squid melted with no resistance – and there was a strong note of char from the superficial seared grill marks. The citrus sauce was excellent, and it was a delightful start.

I ordered the Tilapia, which came with a tomato sauce. My dining companion’s comment on the sauce was that this would make an excellent stew, and she was not wrong. Having the sauce over the fish, did soggy the bottom of the light breading, but the taste was excellent and the overall texture mixing crisp crumb coating with a thin layer of mild fish. As much as I enjoyed it, I loved the side of greens even more – but then, I’m a sucker for greens, and these were very tasty.

My dining companion ordered the fluke. Hers was presented with the sauce on the side, so she had a nice, crisp coating all the way through.

We skipped dessert – because I would have liked some of the Vietnamese desserts from their restaurant next door, and caked just seemed off. (and unpriced. If your desserts and daily fish aren’t going to have a price in the menu, then my opinion is that it should be on the board, too)

I should go back and order the whole grilled fish, but since it isn’t giving me the amazing freshness I wanted, then I’m not comfortable compromising on ecological impact (though I am willing to do so for amazingness near me that I can afford).

More about ecological impact.

Tilapia: From the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who publish seafood watch and provide seafood pocket guides:

Most tilapia [Glossary] consumed in the U.S. comes from China/Taiwan (frozen) or Central and South America (fresh). Less than 10 percent of tilapia consumed in the U.S. is farmed domestically.

And from the preparation, I’d guess this was frozen seafood… whose likeliest country practices are listed as avoid because of the high level of pollution and because their systems frequently lead to tilapia spreading to local ecosystems and becoming invasive.

Bronzino: is harder to find data on. It wasn’t listed on the websites for either the Monteray Bay Aquarium nor the Good Fish Guide of the Marine Conservation Society – and that was after I found the scientific name on the Food52 message boards, Dicentrarchus labrax. Having gained prominence starting in the 1990s, I had first heard of it as a fairly green fish. Apparently these fish are suited to wide-ranging aquaculture practices, and people have been trying to make them greener because standard practice isn’t all that good. As far as I can tell with 20 minutes on google…

To end on a happy note, I’ll leave you with a TED talk in which Dan Barber talks about falling in love with a fish. (note: I don’t necessarily agree with his objections to the counter-example’s feed)

3
Oct

Manakeesh

   Posted by: Livia

I’ve been remiss in writing, and I’ve been holding out on you. Some of the restaurants I visit most end up being the ones I never get around to reviewing.

But let me assure you that I was thrilled when a Lebanese bakery opened one block from my old apartment… right after I moved away. I’d been avidly watching the renovation of the abandoned building into something beautiful – with dark wood tables and colorful walls.

Manakeesh

Manakeesh = flatbreads with tasty stuff. Sometimes they are served flat, sometimes folded in half, and sometimes rolled. I haven’t yet figured out the pattern. But here are the ones I’ve tried so far:

  • Za’tar – Their za’tar blend is heavier on the thyme than the Penzey’s version. I highly recommend asking for a side of labneh and tearing off pieces of the bread and dipping it.
  • veggie – it kind of like ratatouille on a flat bread. I really want there to be one with loosely held together roasted vegetables, but it is not this one. Guaranteed to drip on your shirt at least once. Tasty, if you don’t have a pre-conceived craving.
  • spinach and cheese – Is taste for 3 minutes while the cheese is gooey. And then not tasty. And then – oddly – tasty once again when it is cold and you’re eating it for breakfast.
  • kishk – So one morning I was looking at the board and going, “Yeah, but what here is underappreciated that I should try?” And the owner pointed me toward this one. And, yes, it is delightful. It’s spicy and rich (and messy – I tried to eat it as street food while walking, but I quickly gave up and sat on a stoop to finish it). Not what I was expecting at all from the “cracked wheat and yogurt paste” description.
  • Kafta – a fine layer of ground beef and lamb folded around a surprise pickle. Well, the pickles were a surprise to me. And they went surprisingly well with the flavor, just a mild sharp note to balance the richness of the meat.
  • tawook – also a surprise pickle. Also working really well here. The chicken is incredibly tender and delightful.

Salads and Dishes

  • Baba Ghanouj – tasted as if it were generously mixed with tahini.
  • Fool – mixture of paste and identifiable beans, this is generously seasoned with lemon. Make sure they serve you the pita that comes with (for most of the others you have to order pita separately)
  • Tabbouleh – is excellent here! Lovely fresh parsley and very summery. Well, at least it has been through summer.

Sweets

  • Fried dough – skip the fried dough. It has hardly any taste, and it is coated with enough tough sugar to be able to withstand being out all day
  • Baklava – but a billion tasty varieties of attractive baklava. YAY!
  • Seriously, everything except the fried dough is delicious.
  • ma’moul – I love these! They are not so sweet, but they are stuffed (with dates, walnuts, or pistachio). This right here is a delicious breakfast.
  • “power bar” – nuts held together with syrup on top of an amazing short bread. This is incredibly filling and great with tea.

Beverages

  • Tea! There are two paths for tea appreciation here. TWO! (three if you count iced, but I don’t.) You can have traditional tea in an elegant pot (which will burn you, if you aren’t careful) poured into small glasses (which would burn you, but of course you are careful and place your fingertips around the rim above the pour line). It has a blend of teas and mint (with a mild mint taste that complements, rather than taking over). OR you can have non-traditional tea (for some reason they always look at me funny when I say that to order it). They stock Mighty Leaf, one of my favorite brands
  • coffee – they take their coffee seriously, and you can have traditional Turkish tea or a wide variety of sexy coffee beverages, but that is not my thing.
  • They do smoothies. Those are only okay – they come from a mix/

And they opened up outdoor seating! I love eating outside. During Ramadan they switched to evening hours and had specials each night. I didn’t get to take advantage of it this year, but next year I am totally stopping by after work (since I frequently work until 9pm).

So what has me thinking about them? This Saturday I was walking by, and they had a sign out advertising a new manakeesh – Cream Cheese! Have I mentioned my ongoing love affair with cream cheese? So I go in thinking it’s, you know, cream cheese on a flat bread, so I order it with some za’tar. But no, it has vegetables and olives and all kinds of stuff going on. (made for me!) So I order it with vegetables, but no olives – since I don’t like olives.

…and it comes with olives. But I liked it anyway! This one came rolled up, and it wanted to dribble out the end, but it was so sinfully good. Intensely favored, mellow and creamy, and just the right amount of filling.

So this sounds like the perfect place, right? Well, there are a couple things I don’t like. For one thing, if you were looking for the land of passive aggressive notes, this is the place for you. There are about 40 numbered signs pinned up (on the soda machine, by the trash, in the bathrooms, on the cash register, etc.) with helpful hints like, “Our customers are the best because they don’t use credit cards for checks under $10.”

And… well, actually that’s the main thing I don’t like.

The owner remembers your name (and will remember that you are capable of drinking quite a lot of tea), and the staff is delightful.

And some day I am going to remember the name of that orchid drink I fell in love with over the summer and ask the owner if he’d consider carrying it.

The plan was to meet up with RedWizz at 8:30am to go to the Italian market. I had made the mistake of admitting out loud that I considered that a buffer and the real start time more like 9am… so I ended up actually leaving the house at 9:30am.

And then we had breakfast at an Israeli cafe, which happened to be just about my platonic ideal of a coffee shop – loose leaf and bagged teas, exciting coffees, specialized pastries, a few hot dishes, eclectic comfy seating, sun streaming in the window, rich dark wall colors, many textures and dark wood, exposed brickwork, recycling. Pretty much all that was missing was a bin to compost the tea and coffee grounds.

And since it was Saturday, we had a Yemenite sabbath dish which seems to be served only in this cafe of all of Philadelphia Jachnoon(picture). It was dense and chewy, but rich and satisfying.

Italian market

We parked by a place selling exotic mushrooms and herbs; we snerked and decided to check it out on our way back.

Fiorella’s – spotted on the way to an ATM, this store is easy to miss because it’s not directly on 9th (it’s on Christian St). When we went in, it looked crowded, but that was only because there was a tour group inside and the Old Guy Behind the Counter(TM) was having a great time talking about the good old days with the tour guide while the group looked like they’d have been much happier to be able to sit down. I spotted some liver sausages and picked out 5 links that would be perfect to split 2 ways. The woman helping us, however, is apparently not qualified to separate sausage links, so we had to wait for OGBC to tie some off for us while still talking.

Spice Corner – I got ounces of ground thyme, an offer to split a bag of grains of paradise, and lovely south philly atmosphere as the proprietrix was telling someone asking advice about a spice (something that starts with T and tastes like cinnamon – no idea) that he should ask this guy she’s talking to right here, since he’s one of the best chefs in philly (no idea who he was, but he seemed pleased by the compliment).

Claudio’s – RedWizz was all full of nostalgia for the imported Italian foods of his youth. We also spent a while pondering the various truffle oils, salts, pates, and stuff. By the time we’d meandered (and it’s a cramped store) over to the refrigerated section and found the truffled chocolate spread, one of the guys at the counter had noticed us and popped over with little spoons to taste the chocolate. And, yeah, he ended up buying a jar. And then we were finally ready for the Gauntlet of Cheese! There was a huge group ahead of us doing the cheese tasting and discussion thing in a way that tied up traffic and resulted in them buying provalone… but I only judge a little. We two were eying up some of the blues, and I went home with an oozy, gooey blue. The guy right next to me, however, was totally going after my kind of cheeses – a bit funky, gooey in the center, and crumbly around the edges. We bonded, and I gut to hone in on his sampling action, too. I considered asking about the ricotta but felt like too much of a dork (and couldn’t think of a time soon when I could eat it fresh). We then squeezed down to the meats section, and I followed RedWizz’s lead and bought some bresaola of tasty.

DiBruno Brothers – but we weren’t done with cheese! I had asked my mother whether she had wanted anything, and she’d asked for some Stilton, so I knew that DiBruno’s was the next place we had to go. When my turn came, I called over that I wanted small slices (1/8 – 1/4 pound) of both Stilton and Stichelton. He obliged me by finding a Stilton of very similar character. Then one of the local blogs I read, Madame Fromage (who has since received contract work from DiBruno’s), has been doing a blue cheese invitational this month, so I also went for the Fourme d’Ambert featured by the author who gave me my 20qt soup pot. And then I was just about ready to quit, but the cheesemonger pouted and was all, “But you started off so well!” so I went and asked for a gooey/crumbly cheese he’d recommend… and he brought back (what he said was) his favorite in the entire store: ardrahan (more from Madame Fromage). And then he tried his second favorite – a semi-firm bright orange aged cheese with bright crystaline crunch of joy… but that was not really what I was looking for that day. So I bundled up what I had and was about to leave when I heard one of the other cheesemongers telling a customer, “I would love to introduce you to the best stinky cheese in the store!” So I turned to him and asked what it was, to which he replied, “Well… you’ve already bought it.” Win!

Talluto’s – had some lovely prepared foods, and RedWizz selected a sublime-sounding frozen filled pasta.

We cleverly skipped Fante’s, or I’d never have made it out with my wallet and schedule intact.

Esposito’s – One the way back up the other side of the street, I showed RedWizz my favorite of the butcher shops in the market. This one is large, with space to walk around; clean; and reasonably priced.

And then we stopped at a few vegetable stands, and I ended up with – blackberries, scallions, cauliflower, baby okra, about a dozen artichokes for $1, and some starters for collard greens.

Now that sounds like a full day, doesn’t it?

Well, right after I left to drive out to my parental home to celebrate my parents’ 44th anniversary (yes, they are very much aware that they married on Leonard Nimoy‘s birthday).

On the way, I stopped off at a nursery and ended up with some surprise strawberries and kale in my possession. La la la!

I spent some time hanging out with my parents. My father renewed his application for unemployment benefits. I filled out my taxes (though I’m apparently missing the paper with how much student loan interest I’ve paid this year – Gah!). My mother shopped the internet for office chairs.

I enticed my mother downstairs for her requested cheese tasting (part of her request was that I not leave her with so much cheese that trying to have it not spoil would weigh upon her mind, so the cheese was leaving with me in the evening). In comparing the Stilton and Stichelton, we came to almost exactly the opposite conclusions of Madame Fromage… and I think in our case the Stilton was the younger wheel, and that seemed to be the primary difference between the two. In out case, the Stilton won, but they were very similar and would need to be compared on the day of visit to buy again, since it’s all in the individual chunk.

The Saint Agur did not wow my mother, but I have devised plans to make it part of a pasta sauce of amazement. What could go wrong?

And then the Fourme d’Ambert was her favorite, and she kept a chunk of that one to nibble on in the future. The ardrahan was lovely, but it lacked spine in such company. I am looking forward to enjoying that one on its own some day soon.

And then we set out to my parents’ anniversary dinner at Harry’s

Harry’s Savoy Grill

Ever since they opened up their companion location on the Delaware Waterfront, they’ve been increasing the prominence of seafood on their menu. Sadly, this leaves their amazing Prime Rib in an easy to miss corner, and they clearly weren’t selling the quantity of beef they used to. (And we didn’t help much, since my parents can’t put away as much as they used to, and we went for multiple courses).

Both of my parents started with the French Onion Soup (dark musky broth that might even have been a little too dark; creamy onions, gooey cheese toasted just slightly too long), and I went with the asparagus and ham soup (cream of asparagus and chunks of ham… would have been more appealing with more texture of the asparagus, since that was the springly touch that hooked me to order it).

I ordered the foie gras mousse to share with my mother. It was rich and oily, but so light and aerated that it was hard to capture a flavor on the tongue. On the provided buttery toasts, you mostly tasted the bread. The stewed raisins were also a delicious accompaniment, but I’m still not entirely sure what foie gras tastes like. After we ran out of bread and the entrees came, I found that the mousse made an excellent condiment for french fries.

My parents both went with sandwiches for their entrees – my mother had the open-faced prime rib sandwich, and while she did send it back for being cold, the second time around it was as delightful as ever. Their prime rib is tender and flavorful (their secret is lots of rosemary in the fat layer and slow roasting it at 275F for hours), and the french fries with crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and salted perfectly. My father selected the rather clever debris sandwich – which scraps of the prime ribs cuts and shreds them in a peppery sauce. The sandwich is then piled on with pickles and coleslaw.

My choice was the seasonal salad – red oak, mâche, fried eggplant, french breakfast radish. It was a little oily, but delicious. You’d think the eggplant would come in pieced of strips to eat with the greens, but it was the base underneath with two large (1/2 cm thick) rounds of battered and fried eggplant (perfect for covering with sauce and mozzarella and making parmesan). Once I discovered them, however, it worked well to slice them up and gather together a little of everything in each bite – I don’t usually pay attention to the relative proportions of ingredients other than at a taste level, but it was very satisfying to have it just work out that everything lasted to the end.

But the biggest surprise was what a difference their new pastry chef, Jessi Allen, had made with their dessert selections. Harry’s desserts have always been good, but fairly standard. This time they were exceptional. Let me turn this into a long story. In 2003, I went to Seattle for a conference and found that one of my favorite desserts – crème brûlée – was better there than it had every been back home: richer, creamier, warmer, more delightful on my tongue. I ate crème brûlée everywhere I could there… and then have hardly ever had it since. No one’s quite as good at it on this coast. It’s usually cold from the refrigerator with a thick crust you chisel through, and the rich creaminess is just spoiled knowing that it ought to be even more so. Here it’s treated like a dish that’s easy to rack in storage and quick to pull out as something flashy – whereas in Seattle, it was treated like something you’d enjoy eating. It has been one of the big heartbreaks of expanding my food knowledge. But tonight! Tonight my mother ordered crème brûlée, and it was amazing. It was the crème brûlée of Seattle. It had a bit of wobble in its hips and a sashay on your tongue. It wasn’t too sweet and the caramelized crust was tissue thin.

I had the chocolate bombé: a decadent, breastlike mound of cake, mousse, and chocolate coating. It had pretzels for pizzaz and texture, and they were still crunchy, providing lovely sparkles of salt. The candied bacon did not fit the dish as well, but the pastry chef had them completely separate from the rest of the bombé – 4 pieces adorning the plate – so you weren’t tied to them. (While we’re talking decorating, the cake was, however, unfortunately held to the plate by one of those unfortunate chocolate smears that cause sly winces on the internet)

And my father had a simple bowl of berries and whipped cream, whether they were willing to provide even though it wasn’t on the menu.

11
Nov

City Tap House

   Posted by: Livia

I’ve been looking for an excuse to try City Tap House since Meal Ticket released pictures of the interior.

It looked like a perfect place to take my suburban parents for brunch, should they ever come into the city to visit. Well, I’m still waiting for that excuse, but I did have a friend looking to lunch today because she had a federal holiday.

It’s an intimidatingly big space with most of the seating near the kitchen and far from the door, so we grabbed menus and walked toward the back to meet the host. And then we wrangled for outdoor seating because it was a gorgeously sunny afternoon and the roof deck is beautiful. Sure, the green roof is pretty scraggly, but it’s still a lovely space. I want to come back at night just for the flaming pits of fire.

One of the reasons I had wanted to bring my mother here was that I was under the impression that in addition to having an impressive array of beers that they’d also had a good selection of bourbon/whisky/whiskey/scotch. I was wrong. Still – plenty of beer.

Neither of us opted for the beer, so I can’t speak to her beer knowledge, but our server was well versed with the food menu and quite helpful. Also, even though it was quite a walk for her, she was good at keeping our water glasses refilled (not an easy task for any waiter of mine).

I started with the chilli. It was made from actual pieces of meat, instead of ground beef, so it automatically levelled up in my standards. There were some kidney beans, but not so many as to seem cheap – just adding to the body. Actually, this chilli would have been very good cooked a little thicker and then put in a sandwich (like a sloppy joe, but even tastier). Decent marks, and it ended up being the highlight of the meal.

A coworker had recommended the wings, so we ordered them. The house ranch dip had chunks that made it look suspiciously like blue cheese dip, but the taste was mild and indeterminate. The wings, however, were plenty seasoned. They took a delicious mixture of spices and added quite a lot of sugar and salt to it – but mostly sugar. And I’m not talking a little brown sugar for caramelization, but it tasted more like spoonfuls of straight domino’s sugar.

My companion was excited about the bratwurst sandwich because it’s something that’s hard to cook at home properly when you aren’t getting out a grill and charcoal. Well, they weren’t getting it out, either. The philly-standard Amoroso roll (if it wasn’t, it was similar enough that they might as well) was lined with cheese. Who puts cheese on a bratwurst sandwich? They do. Only it’s not adding any flavor – we checked. It’s just sort of there to glue the sandwich in place. Both the sausage and the sauerkraut were bland, but oddly sweet (again). Or maybe they were sweet because the mustard sauce was sweet. We later asked for a dipping sauce, and this was suggested – only instead of tasting of mustard and a bit of honey, it was a syrup with some yellow-brown in it.

Right, so we had a choice of fries or salad to accompany the sandwich, and I asked the server for a recommendation as to which was best, and she enthusiastically recommended the sweet potato fries. And they were the right balance of crispy and tender, and even still warm by the time she’d walked them from the kitchen. They only came with plain ketchup, so we asked for another dipping sauce and ended up with the syrupy mustard. And while I believe that these are very exciting fries, they were also weirdly sweet. I’ve never before had fries that tasted like Halloween candy corn.

The whole meal was just too unrelentingly sweetened, but the experience was so lovely that we were sad to be disappointed by the food. I might yet come back to try their brunch, but it’s no longer at the top of the list.

Craig LeBan’s review in the Philadelphia Inquirer

new literature vs old literature

I read Hound of the Baskervilles when I was young, probably for school. And I promptly gave up on reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Because this is the one (and, yes, I’m about to spoil the ending for you) where you are going right along trying to figure out how these fantastic things are going to end up with perfectly rational explanations, and then Sherlock Holmes whips a dissertation on ash out of his ass. Really – no way to see that coming.

And I pretty much threw the book down right then. Because I hadn’t realized that this whole story was getting explained inside Sherlock Holmes’ head – and that I hadn’t been invited to the party! I had been reading along thinking that if I needed further data, it would be provided in the nooks and corners of the prose. But, no – a dissertation. On ash. Well why am I even reading, if I don’t get to be a party to the fun part of the figuring things out process?

So yeah.

And then years later, there came Neil Gaiman. And he’s this weird rockstar literary figure, and people make noise about him transcending genre and crossing over audiences and whatnots. But you know what his trickery really is? He makes the audience feel smug about being smart and in on the joke.

He pulls in enough far reaching references to obscure folklore than no matter what your youthful obsession, you find one of the nifty things, which you’d been nurturing close to your breast, put out there and explained as the lovely thing you think it is. And you get to accumulate other, new, nifty things and banter them about as if you’d been treasuring them all along. There’s a wink and a nod and an offer of complicity.

And after I read a few of his things, I sought out others.

new dining vs old dining

I was reading an article in Philadelphia Magazine about Georges Perrier, who is credited with premiering fine dining in Philadelphia and how he just had to close a restaurant, is having trouble filling seats despite great deals, and is being squeezed out by the younger chefs and their lack of respect for tradition.

So when I was little, my mother would talk about how we should some day eat a really fancy meal at Le Bec Fin, but we never did. And I was always fairly sure that it was a bit out of our price range.

But there was a sportier bistro opened up. And one day I had a friend from out of town visiting, and I figured it would be a good place near where she’d be to meet for dinner. So I called up to make a reservation for that evening. And I was told, quite plainly, that this was Brasserie Perrier, and one could not make a reservation any less than a week ahead.

Right.

So my friend had heard of another restaurant. It turned out to be right next door. And run by Stephen Starr, one of the older new chefs with too big britches. Alma de Cuba. And it turned out to be one of the more memorable dining experiences I’ve had (with tempura avocado salad!), so I had no complaints. It was expensive, but I’ve gone back a couple of times, with people, alone, and I even took my parents. They are still doing well, but Brasserie Perrier… well, it’s closed.

Stephen Starr, however, is a chef who gets a raised eyebrow from me, though, because his concepts don’t always impress me. On the other hand, let me talk about someone Georges Perrier cursed quite a bit in his interview – Jose Garces. This is the chef who championed tapas to the city. And in the article, Perrier compares the price of his prixe fixe with an incredibly expensive meal he had dining at on of these tapas restaurants. And you know what? Yes, I try not to ever go to a Garces restaurant starving. Because I can’t afford it. But I’m not committing to the starving person’s price. I only have to commit to a $9 plate. Or maybe 2 or 3 of them.

But what Garces really has going, at least at both of the initial two restaurants (not so much at the third, and I haven’t had time to get to the most recent two), is atmosphere. It’s just the right balance of dark and airy to be elegant without being overbearing. And it’s service. The first time I went to Amada (on a whim, before a movie), they were so full that there was only room for a single person at the bar. And I had the bartender come over and take the time to explain the menu and offer me a cocktail that would match what I was eating (and was this amazing pear thing with pear nectar she said she had infused herself, and I’ve never seen there since). The next time was restaurant week (a time when restaurants are crazy crowded) and I was sad that the whole week would go by without trying anything, and I’d called a couple of places to see if they had tables after I got out of work at 9pm (yeah!), and Amada not only was willing to seat me, but also had wonderful and attentive service, even late at night. And the food was every bit as tempting and delightful as the first time, even though it was the end of the night at the end of a grueling week.

I like being welcomed and encouraged to enjoy along with.

Saturday
I was late leaving for my grandmother’s because there was amazing weather this weekend. I love my back porch so much.

I spent some time cleaning out my refrigerator and pretending that counted as cleaning out my apartment. I’d pull together something out of bits and ends and then I’d eat it on the porch in the sunshine. Whee!

I finally left the house around 1pm. I got to my grandmother’s just in time for dinner. We ate. I tried to make conversation. I think her hearing it going. Then we came back to her apartment, and she sat for an hour or two nodding off before going to bed. I read a little, napped a little, watched the season 2 finale of Being Human, and then changed and went to sleep obscenely early.

Sunday
Going to sleep early meant that I was up at dawn-ish, so I grabbed a beach towel for some traction and did a wee little bit of yoga. Just enough to get circulation in my shoulders and to loosen up my lower back. Then I put the towel away and pretended to still be asleep.

My grandmother’s aide was late, but she was clean enough that I felt no guilt about just helping her select clothes and get dressed. And then we made it to breakfast a little late. You’d think the timing wouldn’t matter, but the dining room gets crowded and louder, and so conversation still didn’t so much happen. But we smiled at each other and had bonding time.

After breakfast, my grandmother fell asleep. I napped and read until noon, when I got her up to go downstairs for a cup of coffee. I tried to entice her into a quick walk around their garden area, but the sun didn’t quite reach into it and there was a breeze, so she begged off. And then, since she was going right back to sleep after coffee, I left around 2pm. But I didn’t go straight home because I’d heard rumor on Twitter about a DoctorWhoNY event involving an intimate (which just means limited to 100 people) Q&A with Russell Tovey, from Doctor Who/Torchwood and Being Human and stuff. And, hey, they scheduled for a day I’d already be in the city and it was only $20. So there.

But I had four or so hours to kill in New York City without wanting to spend too much money or acquire baggage. Eh, so I wandered a bit. I found a nice sunny ledge by Union Square and read there for an hour. And then I found a restaurant a couple blocks from the venue that didn’t seem to expensive. I walked around a little bit more to kill more time and to make sure I’d made the best restaurant choice, and then I circled around back.

Tamarind
So they don’t have their hours posted on the outside. At first I thought I’d heard that their dining room didn’t open until 4:30, but it turns out they actually said 5:30. No matter, because they have a tea room right next door. I tried a lovely, dark tea from southern India, Nilgiri, which is apparently also carried by Whole Foods (they would have told me a package of it but were out of stock). And despite appearances, their small teapots held three cups worth of tea. It came with cute little dishes with rough hewn sugar cubes (brown and white) and a small dish of honey, just wide enough that the spoon looked like it would not fit but did easily. And cream. This was a good visit for tea.

I also ordered a chaat. I was worried that it would spoil my appetite, but I forgot to account for NYC level of prices. It was just the perfect size for pre-dinner nibbling.

So 5:30 rolled over, and I bopped over to the main dining room. I think they figured I was interested in food as they seated my opposite their theater kitchen, which just serviced the tandoori ovens and a grill. I still have no idea how the different bread got made – one of them ended up rolled into a spiral… and then pressed flat? But it was nifty and pleasing to watch. I ordered a soup and dal makhani.

The cauliflower ginger soup… was a lovely idea, but off a bit. For one thing, it was an oddly large portion for the rest of the scale of the restaurant, but I guess that’s not a complaint. It was also perfectly smooth (as if the cauliflower had been pureed and then strained) with small grains of ginger (there were cumin seeds, but I think some of the chewy bits were also ginger). I think I would have rather also had some small pieces of cauliflower, too. I asked for a salt shaker, and that perked it up a little. But I think what it really needed was a sour note – possibly a lovely contrasting swirl of tamarind chutney.

Dal Makhani – So there’s a restaurant near me with amazing dishes with Makhani sauce, but there’s another with only a bland brown dal makhani. It seemed like a good way to judge the restaurant as well as being the cheapest thing on the menu. Now, I’ve had a few restaurants in London charge separately for rice and everything, but they were also noticeably cheaper pricepoints – at $12.50 for dal, I was surprised to be asked whether I also wanted to order rice. I didn’t – I went with a roti instead for more joy. And, yes, their makhani sauce was very like my favorite, rich and reddish. Very well done, and I would eat there again.

I did not order dessert because I managed to just perfectly hit the time I was aiming for.

So I walked the few blocks to Cafe 50 West. This also looked like a good place for dinner – with casserole dishes of macaroni and cheese or artichoke dip. Their soups looked delicious. I just ordered a hot tea, and that was pretty darn impressive. It was a british style tea (broken leaves, and a high ratio of tea to hot water – water added to tea bag at the right temperature), but they even thought to pre-warm the mug! \o/!

There was a cute Q&A with Russell Tovey, which was taped, wherein there managed to be lewd appreciation of his professional nudity while still respecting his craft. After all, he was the one who suggested that one of his dream roles was to play a rent boy (right after wishing to get to star in a remake of The Goonies, but nevermind that). I have a few more of his past roles I now want to find (it’s well overdue for me to watch The History Boys). There was a queue for his autograph. That went well, and I got to talk to a couple friendly people. And I was also reminded why I pick my fannish associations rather discriminatingly. Russell was friendly in line as well, and he seemed to be having a decent time.

He was mentioning that actors in the UK aspire to get to act on American shows because having the larger budgets and whole teams of writers sounds so glamorous. The audience of anglophiles was trying to dissuade him. The most cogent explanation was given by someone pointing to a specific character point for him where he was, as a protagonist, allowed to win the end of the episode’s plotline by becoming more morally ambiguous instead of less and how awesome British shows are for having the courage to do that. And the woman by me nodding her emphatic agreement was the same one who had earlier told me that she hadn’t watched the whole latest bit of Torchwood canon because she didn’t agree with what they’d done with the characters and she didn’t want her shows to be anything less than light and happy. And I’m sure she wasn’t the only one with no internal irony alert.

And after the autographs, there was a viewing of the first episode of the second season with Russell giving commentary. He said some obvious things. Mentioned that the later love interest for one of the other main characters was an ex of that actor. But in general it was pretty tame stuff, so I didn’t stay until the end of the episode.

I walked back to catch the Chinatown Bus home.

18
Dec

Bourbon Dinner at Terra, 12/15/2009

   Posted by: Livia

One of the very first food blogs I started reading was Mac and Cheese Review, so I perked up when she first mentioned that a Philadelphia restaurant would have a Bourbon dinner. Actually, I think she was just pointing out how very meat-oriented the menu was, since she’s vegetarian – but they caught her complaint and jumped to say that they would offer full vegetarian options. And then I was rather excited when she put out a call on Twitter for people to join in the excursion – yay, I wouldn’t have to feel like a stalker. ~g~

And, apparently, we’d met before and I’d talked to her, but I’d never quite put together the person at the food blogger pot lucks with the food blog author – go figure.

The scheduling ended up that it was just three days after the birthday party / scotch tasting, which has also been a few months in the planning. But, actually, the contrast was rather charming.

I’ve never really objected to bourbon, but it wasn’t until some random chance encounter at Positano Coast and a bartender taking pity on me and introducing me to Basil Hayden’s that I started to see it as a the kind of beverage worth sipping and discussing. Now mind you, I have a strict policy on alcohol, where I won’t drink something where I don’t like the taste. I’ll even sip tequila, if I’m going to be drinking it. If it’s going in my mouth, it has to be something I’m willing to enjoy. But there’s a step between enjoying something and savoring it and all. And here’s where that leap happened.

Right, so the small batch people at Beam got together with the people at Terra, the cozy restaurant underneath the Tavern on Camac, and they made a five course Bourbon Dinner, with beverage pairings for every course. So there!

Yeah, I ended up requesting time off work to attend because I work crazy late on weeknights, and the post was very specific about an early start time to the dinner.

So after a bit of negotiation, I made reservations and met up with Taylor and another friend for dinner. Here is her much more timely review with pictures (though I am backdating this post to fit the chronology better)

Ambiance – This was my first visit to Terra, and it was cozy with a lot of warm wood everywhere. It was mentioned that it seemed like a very masculine space, but I especially liked the benches around the edge of the room. It was just the place to curl up on a cold evening. I had, however, been to the Tavern on Camac above us before – a friend from high school used to bartend there, and there’ve been random parties there associated with the Philadelphia film festivals. The main floor is a traditional piano bar, with random outbursts of song, that speaks of another place and another era – but it’s good odds that the people there will be smiling and happy.

So the menu – because, really, that’s the important part.

amuse bouche
Steak Tartar
with Baker’s Bourbon Caviar
paired with
Baker’s Bourbon
served neat

Served in an asian soup spoon, the tartar had a clean, mild flavor of fresh beef mixed with a nice crunchy, tang of raw purple onions. Now I’ve been familiar with the theory of molecular gastronomy caviar for a while, but I hadn’t had the occasion to try it. And I must say that I always pictured it in my head as having that same taut burst as real caviar, but no – this was just tiny globules of mush. Another illusion dashed. It didn’t really harm the tartar, but it didn’t do anything to improve it, either.

The burbon, however, was quite tasty. It has a toasty, caramel flavor that was perfect for warming us and settling down.

first course
Arugula salad
Humbolt Fog cheese,
Jim Beam soaked Cranberries,
Roasted Parsnips, House Bacon
and a Ginger Bourbon Vinaigrette
paired with
Black Beauty
Jim Beam, Cranberry Juice
& DeKuyper Reach Schnapps

This salad was by far the most stellar dish of the evening, but I love salads. Every piece was delicious on its own, and they went together perfectly. My only sadness with the perfect union was that there was enough going on that I had no idea what the vinaigrette tasted like on its own, it blended in that seamlessly. The bacon was worth teasing the vegetarians over (but only a little), and the roasted parsnips were sinfully good. Humbolt Fog is one of my favorite cheeses, and it’s mellowness goes well with the arugula. And the Jim Beam soaked cranberries were just the right mix of natural tanginess with spicy smoke from the booze. I would eat this as an entree, if it made it to the regular menu.

Oh, and there was bread – caramelized onion brioche torpedoes that were hot and tasty, and I devoured mine before the salad even arrived. And Taylor, who swears bread isn’t usually worth a second bite, also praised it highly.

The drink? Well, it was the prized invention of one of the bourbon-mongers sherherding the event. It was a good premise, but it needed work. The peach schnapps made things a bit too sweet. But it was suggested (I forget by whom) that maybe adding more bourbon would improve the drink, and since we all still had some of the generous portion of Baker’s left, the experiment was attempted and met with success. It ended up going well with the fruitiness of the salad, even though I’m still not sure about it on its own.

second course
Smoked Pork Belly
Chestnut Bellini, Pickled Beets
and Maple Knob Creek Bourbon Foam
paired with
Knob Creek Manhattan
Knob Creek, Sweet Vermouth, Dry Vermouth,
Bitters & Fresh Lemon
with a Cherry garnish

I totally lucked out with eating meat here because the pork belly was delighful. I could have just basked in the smell… okay, that’s totally a lie because I enjoyed the toasty, smoky fatty joy of the pork. And my vegetarian companions had to made do with seitan that had not been particularly strongly seasoned to function the same way.

Also, the parts of the dish didn’t quite go together. The pork belly went best with the pickled beets, which were charmingly aggressively peppery in a way I plan to try at home. And the maple foam went well with the bellini, almost like breakfasting on buckwheat pancakes. But assembling all 4 together just seemed forced. And while I’m knocking the gastronomy, let me admit that I absolutely loved the foam. It was hard to corral, but it was very temping just to gather the last of it on a finger to make sure I didn’t miss any.

Sadly, I ended up trying to foist my beverage off on my dining companions because I just don’t enjoy bitters.

third course
Pan Seared Lamb Chops
Booker’s Bourbon Grits
and Szechwan Peppercorn jus
paired with
Booker’s Bourbon
served neat

Oh, man – so glad I eat meat. This was the best lamb chop I have ever had, and it took quite a lot of willpower not to completely melt about it because look at this contrast. They had perfectly seared the endge of fat around the tender, succulent meat. And the main place where the vegetarian option fell down was the not only did they have to substitute the meat, but they also couldn’t use the peppery jus, which was necessary to contrast the bulk of the bourbon grits.

Now, I’m not a fan of grits. I grew up with a mother from Mississippi, and I didn’t like her grits – and I wasn’t a fan of them either when there was a charmingly gentrified restaurant in Oxford, MS where the most expensive item on the lunch menu was fancipants grits. But these were rich and creamy and smooth, and I ended up eating every last grain. Without the flavorful sauce, however, the bourbon ended up adding an off whang that wasn’t pleasant at all. Probably would have been better without the bourbon.

The Booker’s bourbon was 127 proof, and it wouldn’t let you forget it. I believe the bourbon-monger said that it was aged 10-14 years in a single barrel, but it still felt like it was setting your nose hairs on fire. When it first hit the tip of my tongue, it was sweet, and then it washed over the mouth with heat. After only two sips, my lips were tingly and a little numb. Taylor had, despite the Black Beauties, saved some of her Baker’s for contrast… and, yes, the Baker’s was downright well behaved and mellow next to the Booker’s. The gentleman seated at the table besides ours ordered a glass of ice and proceeded to adulterate his until it was a bit more mellow.

dessert course
Black Forrest Gateaux
Coffee Granita
and Jim Beam Red Stag Creme Anglaise
paired with
Sleigh Ride
Jim Beam Red Stag, Hot Chocolate
& Whipped Cream
with a Cherry garnish

The dessert was not the best note on which to end the meal. I’m not fond of coffee, but luckily the granita was in an asian dessert spoon and easy to isolate from the rest of the dish (well played!). The creme anglaise was mild and not strongly flavored with the alcohol, but it couldn’t do anything to help the dense hockey puck of a cake. Nor did the abundant frosting and the reconsituted dried cherries in the frosting, which ended up so worked that they ended up chewy and a bit artificial tasting. Luckily, this isn’t a dessert even close to anything on their regular menu and must have been designed specifically for this event and need never be seen again.

I was also worried about the hot chocolate because Taylor had tried the Red Stag before and declared that it definitely tasted like cough syrup when plain. But the hot chocolate worked beautifully and the cherry booze just created a nice layer of flavor, instead of overpowering. It was lovely and warm and soothing – and a much better finish to the evening.

14
Dec

Sang Kee (University City)

   Posted by: Livia

Wow – I think I gained 5 pounds this weekend. And it was thoroughly deserved. I ate so much, that I’m going to have to write it up in multiple posts.

Just in case it takes a while to get to everything, I’m going to make a note of what’s to come –

Last Friday
Sang Kee’s grand opening
office Holiday Party (eh, probably doesn’t deserve a post. There was food.)
Food Blogger Pot Luck

Last Saturday
friend’s birthday party with a scotch tasting

Last Sunday
Yum Cha not in chinatown

Okay, so there I was a few years ago visiting friends at Bryn Mawr College, and they suggested (even though they are many excellent food options closer) to drive 20-30 minutes toward the city to show me Sang Kee in Wynnewood. And, yes, it was absolutely worth the drive – with many small plate options that are delightful and prepared perfectly and served in an relaxing, elegant setting. Of the larger plates, my favorite is their stuffed eggplant (shrimp & pork) in black bean sauce.

And then maybe a little over a year ago, I discovered the original location in Chinatown and gave them a whirl. I ordered familiar dishes and found them right in line with the other location (the stuffed eggplant slightly better, the garlicky greens slightly too salty) and plenty fresh, but the atmosphere was no where near as nice – crowded, loud, and I ended up dining in a weird auxiliary upstairs room that was bright and better suited to a corner cheesesteak joint. So I figured I’d stick with Wynnewood occasionally.

But! But now there’s a location in west philly! I first found out about it from Fries With That Shake, but I also heard that she was a bit underwhelmed. Undaunted, I hopped on over there for lunch right away.

Okay, so lunch was disappointing. Instead of trying my favorite dishes, which were on this same menu, I was seduced by the $9 lunch box special. The salad had real greens, instead of iceberg, but it was generic dressing and too much of that. The vegetarian dumplings would have been amazing if they had been served separately, but they had toughened up a bit from being served at the same time as the rest. The eggplant and beef was good, but not exceptional. They continue to be brilliant at buttery, delicious eggplant, but the sauce was too heave and the beef might as well not have been there for all the character it added to the dish. And I was intrigued by the stir fried rice noodle option, instead of getting the rice, which would have dealt better with the abundant sauce. They were tasty, but not the right thing for this lunch. So a solid meh. Still, I wish to go back and try the proper menu.

And then last Friday, I heard that they were having a grand opening event with free food! Wheee! So I dropped everything and hopped on over even though I had two other food events that same day. And you know how I mentioned that they excel at small dishes freshly prepared at their other location? Well that’s kind of the antithesis of feeding masses of people off of steam tables. So even though they put a lot of work into the day, it ended up coming off as no better than any other passable chinese restaurant. Seriously – large batch scallion pancakes? Those are best piping hot, not room temperature. So new good news yet, but I shall be going back again.

A few weeks ago, Heather poked me that Billy Boyd‘s band, Beecake, would be playing in Philadelphia. And so I decided to fulfill my fannish duties and jumped all over that and got us tickets and dinner reservations (because that’s the only way to get reserved seats at this location).

Glee!

And I took a full vacation day from work.

Despite being hella windy, it was a lovely day.

And so once Heather came up, we walked over to the UPenn museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (with a brief stop to appreciate the architecture in the Fine Arts library built by Furness), and I got to show off all of the amazing stuff they’d plundered back when that was how things were done. We started with Egypt (where I did not manage to convince her to fondle the Sphinx just a little), popped into a room for a bit of Islamic tile joy, and then fled from a bunch of students into China. A few southeast Asian countries later, we were popped through Jerusalem to get to Rome and the Etruscans. We almost managed to miss Greece, but we did manage to remember the vases and stele (and I gave my explanation of the mutilation of the Herms in 411). Woot! Then a brief visit through Polynesia, and we were out in the lovely weather again. (I mean, we were there for hours, but it went quickly)

Popped by Penn’s library for a (tiny) display of Jane Austen rare books (apparently, completely missing a copy of Pride and Prejudice), and I also showed off their digital media lab, a display of nifty book arts, and my office.

Out back for a cupcake and drinking chocolate at Naked Chocolate… which led to another mile walk (a little less, really) to show my favorite coffee shop and it’s excellent chocolate selection.

And then we took a bus.

Oh, and I called a friend for the location of the concert venue because I hadn’t bothered to write down the exact location. ~handwave~ (thanks, Kim)

Popped on the #40 bus because that one was the next one to show up. I knew that one went all the way to old city, but I had forgotten that it was also the one that dipped south and gave you the scenic route. Heather, however, had just been mentioning that she’d been disappointed that the last time she’d been in philly, they’d gone to South Street for cheesesteaks but hadn’t then taken the time to see South Street – and look, we got to go the whole length without even having to walk. ~grin~ And then we walked north on 3rd to Chestnut.

Even moving rather slowly, we ended up at the Tin Angel a little early for our reservation, but we decided there wasn’t really anything we’d rather be doing than sitting down right then (because that was a lot of walking!). Nice waiter. Very nice waiter. He only laughed at us a little for showing up an hour early, being only the second people in the joint, decided to do all appetizers, and then picking our first round of food as the Calamari and a side of mashed potatoes. Wot!

Food
vietnamese fried calamari tossed with pepper, onion & cilantro
chilis, sweet & spicy dipping sauce
– Very light and crunchy and not chewy at all. The bell peppers and onions were a nice addition, and I loved the dipping sauce. We were warned there were spicy rounds of jalapeno peppers in the mix but only found the little roasted whole peppers. I thought they were delightful, and my dining companion was able to avoid them easily.

mashed potatoes side dish – So the windy day and much walking had made me especially susceptible to pining after the mashed potatoes listed as accompanying one of the specials, and I could not resist ordering this. Fairly small bowl, but full of rich tastiness. It had a rich flavor that was not strongly buttery. Very comforting and served wonderfully hot.

potato pancakes special of the day – served with bacon and shrimp confit – Okay, so this was not latkes. Think instead of a crabcake made all of potato strings. Thinly shredded, in a patty that’s 2″ in diameter and 1″ tall — and then I think it wasn’t just topped with bacon, but also fried in bacon fat. At least partially. There was a light sauce on top, and there were baby greens underneath. With more greens, slightly wilted from the heat of the pancakes, this would have been a wonderful entree salad. No matter how odd, it was delicious. A good balance of greasy and vegetable.

warm goat cheese bruschetta strawberries, laura chenel chevre, carmelized shallot, fig balsamic, black pepper oil – this was not perfect. Instead of just having fanned strawberries on top, they had also processed strawberries in with the goat cheese. But that made it all a bit sweet instead of leaving you with contrasting sweet and tart/sour of the cheese. It really ended up being more of a dessert thing than a savory entree.

garlicky spinach side dish – was very good and tasty, but it was a little frustrating because it had a distinct asian seasoning that we couldn’t identify. It definitely wasn’t 5 spice, wasn’t ginger, and while there might have been some soy sauce that wasn’t primary. It almost tasted like sesame oil, but not quite. Still delicious.

blueberry plum crisp – served in a very shallow tart dish with an ice cream scoop of dense whipped cream on top. The whipped cream was not good, so I tumbled it to the side. The crisp, however, was delicious. The shallow dish made for a great ratio of oaty, crispy goodness to hot, sweet fruit.

As for the music? It was fun to listen to, but I was not sad to leave without an album. They like switching between ballad mood and hard rock mood in their songs, but their opening song also had a sort of swing mood thrown in the mix, too. And three totally different tempo thingies is too much. I put my foot down. Okay, so it was still fun, but still. So I questioned some of his aesthetic choices, and I questioned some of the messages in the songs. My favorite song of the lot was Rip It Up

And then we went back to my place and had tea, chocolate, and good times.