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.
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.