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restaurant review – Schlesinger’s Deli

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.

review – Grill Fish (west philly)

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)


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 = 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.

Italian Market + Harry’s Savoy Grill = The Expurgated Tales of from Saturday

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.

City Tap House

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