If we had done nothing but eat and drink on our $25-an-Amtrak-ticket getaway to Philadelphia, we would have had a splendiferous time. But as soon as Bob sprang for the fares, I went online to reserve tickets at the newly relocated Barnes Foundation. And then I read a rave review for the Prohibition exhibition, and then @atrios mentioned three Vietnamese supermarkets and @dgroff reminded me of his new favorite site/sight, the Piazza at Schmidts, and of the addition of the Rick Nichols room at the Reading Terminal Market. So we were fully committed even though we had no reservations for anything but the hotel, the second-newest Kimpton, just off Rittenhouse Square. (The bad news was that the great AIA bookstore had closed. The good news was that the Palomar had taken over the entire AIA building.)
Since Amtrak seductions beyond the lack of security kabuki now include rolling WiFi, I was able to poke around online on a ride that went faster than a trip to Flushing and turn up lunch potential, starting with Barbuzzo, which could not have made a more promising start to the long weekend. I expected the New York expected from a pizza/small plate menu, but this was exceptional. We split the $13 antipasti, with not one less-than-dazzling element among the seven on the plate, which included roasted Brussels sprouts, beets with (inspired) grapefruit, fresh mozzarella with tomato pesto and a farro salad and was accompanied by outstanding bread drizzled with Arbequina olive oil. Our cinghiale pizza was also way above average, with a just-blackened-enough crust and generous topping of San Marzano tomatoes, olives and broccoli rabe along with the wild boar sausage, but what made it worthy of 15 bells was the set of condiments the waitress delivered: dried oregano still on the stem and olive oil infused with Calabrian chilies.
Our second-best meal was at Vernick, where we were steered by a friend who comes from and is moving back to Philadelphia; she reported her sister and brother-in-law had been three times since it recently opened. No reservations were possible for Ms. Procrastinator, but @dgroff called and found we might be able to walk in and eat in the bar. Beyond the superb service, what was most gratifying was that four of us could actually hear each other talk while seated at a corner of said bar.
The chef is known for his “toasts,” so we split a special with creamy-tasting chicken livers, onion marmalade, dill and black pepper, plus one topped with the unlikely but sublime combination of eggplant and chanterelles and a third heaped with Maryland crab with just enough mayonnaise moisturizer. Only after he had helped Hoover the light and lively “dressed beets, Moliterno cheese” did @dgroff confess he hates beets. I’m no shrimp fan but was equally taken with the salad of frisee with avocado. All four of us were blown away by the pork blade steak laid over mustard greens despite the repeat of the onion marmalade as a garnish; the butchering and the cooking were exemplary. But into every meal a dud or two must apparently land, because the whole-wheat cavatelli with mushrooms and Meyer lemon seemed leaden and the butterscotch and smoked chocolate parfait was pretty much a mess, and not in the Eton sense.
As we’re wont to do, we went exploring the dining rooms we’d been shut out of, and one or another of the staff insisted we go back and see the kitchen, with its wood-fired oven. At the peak of Friday night service, the chef not only took the time to greet us but answered Bob’s plea for suggestions on where else to eat by writing three names on the back of a “fire nxt crse” slip.
One was for a sushi restaurant, the other for a place I had already checked on and been shut out of, so we made our way the next night to Le Virtu, deep in South Philadelphia. Our four-top for two turned out to be right next to the kitchen, which meant we got running commentary from the minority owner/slave (as he described himself) and advice on what to order from the Abruzzo-oriented menu. He talked up the palott cac’ e ove, AKA braised egg and cheese croquettes, which were cucina povera at its best, like meatless meatballs in a lively tomato sauce, and we also couldn’t pass up the n’duja, which came with sweet and sour carrots to cut the spicy richness of the “spreadable salami.” Finally the kitchen split an order of the pappardelle-like taccozelle with sausage, porcini, truffle and Italian saffron for us. Italian is not my favorite cuisine, because it tends to be more ingredients than cuisine, but this was that perfect hybrid of Abruzzo traditions and American tastes.
Our last dinner was maybe too American: good and plenty but just a little too much muchness. I hadn’t even bothered trying to reserve at Talulah’s Garden, assuming it would be impossible, but our friend who said it’s among the few restaurants she had gone back to repeatedly called Sunday afternoon and snared a table in time for us to duck in before dashing to the 7ish train. As she warned, the menu does tend to read like a shopping list. My duck breast came with crunchy bits of confit of the leg, pears, mustard greens, jus, lentils and “savory vanilla syrup;” Bob’s “exotic mushroom pate en croute” was teamed with speck, fried chicken wing (or wingette), quail egg, pickled mushrooms and shallots. Even the “little stinkers” cheese board we shared to start had so many accoutrements of the nut and fruit variety you could barely make your way to the main tastes. I didn’t try the torchon of foie gras and its many partners but agreed with @dgroff that the farro “risotto” with its six accompaniments did not deliver enough flavor bang for the 26 bucks. Bob, however, scored with lamb belly so beautifully cooked it was not overwhelmed by the pickled carrots and turnips, citrus and hummus. And the side of maple-glazed Brussels sprouts with leeks and ciders plus Alpine cheese was pretty great. The service was definitely personal, too. She knew we had a train to catch, but she had cheese to explain.
We didn’t do too well with our two breakfasts, although I was happy to find tantalizing-sounding places so close to the hotel. The menu at a.kitchen read well, but everything on it was cooked by kids (we sat at the counter, which was a mistake — like laying a magnifying glass on mistakes). Mushroom scrapple with cheese fondue sounded genius, but it was really just crisp polenta sticks flecked with bits of mushrooms over a schmear of cheese sauce, not what it should have been: a little cornmeal binding a mess of mushrooms in a puddle of hot richness. The mustard-oil fried egg did at least have a hint of flavor around the crisp edges. But the oyster mushrooms laid over the whole assemblage were stone cold, as was the “fondue,” and the sticks were chilling, too. Bob’s “crispy Parmesan strudel and scrambled eggs with fennel confit and olive salad” at least had perfectly done eggs and the acidity of the olives to compensate for the sad little packet of oily cheese in phyllo on top. We also got upsold on the house-made English muffin and jam, only to be penalized with a doughy chunk of dough with none of the stalactites and stalagmites that breakfast bread needs. At least our cappuccinos were perfect.
Both of us had poached eggs with hollandaise next morning at Marigold, which is one Starr-looking restaurant (with an English-pub theme), and both of us came to regret them, not least because they took just short of a week to arrive in a not-full restaurant. Mine came over smoked salmon on an English muffin, Bob’s over bubble and squeak. Suffice it to say they tasted fine but were unfilling, as in rentals. My cappuccino came in a coffee mug, which was also a bad idea. (If you want to serve tea, don’t offer the Italian caffeine.) We were also offered free flat or fizzy water and opted for the latter, only to have my glass contaminated by the waitress’s finger as she cleared my mug while we waited, and waited, for our food.
Having heard Vietnamese in Philadelphia is far better than in NYC, we also made our way to a late lunch Saturday at a restaurant we think was recommended by the daughter of Vietnamese restaurateurs in Frankfurt (funny how the world connects these days). I need to do a lot more research on what to order, but I will say the crispy spring rolls on my very fresh, very lively bun were like nothing I’ve ever eaten, and Bob said his pho was BTNYC if not up to what he remembered on the road recently in Virginia. WIGB? Yep, not least for the cashier who noted my last name on the credit card slip, said he had never encountered it before and wondered if it might be . . . English.
Other attractions: The Reading Terminal Market really does get better every trip; this time we spent a long time talking with people at the Fair Food Farmstand, which sells local products from produce to cheese. (Big discussion: Why is there no Edible Philadelphia, in a city so ripe for it?) The Italian Market seemed as vibrant as ever (the cookware store is a trip in itself). Rittenhouse Square, the park I walked through every day for two years on my way to work, now has a Saturday farmers’ market with pretty great offerings, including black walnuts. The Piazza at Schmidts, a cluster of apartments and shops up in Northern Liberties, is clearly a model of development that could not be more distant, conceptually at least, from Headhouse Square. DiBruno is one fabulous specialty market, where the samples on Saturday had us scooping up cheeses and salume.
Mostly, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” would be worth a journey all on its own. It’s a civics lesson and a history class, both timed perfectly, now that this country has dodged the cannonball of fringe kooks hijacking the national agenda yet again. And it’s fun.
We were also glad we made the trek to the Barnes Foundation despite trepidation since seeing “The Art of the Steal.” The collection is just as jaw-dropping as it looked the first time we saw it in the setting where its owner placed it; they have hung those Cezannes and Matisses with care among all the hardware gewgaws Barnes also perceived as art. But as you walk through, spinning in awe, you keep wondering: Does the end justify the means? Is a contract worth anything anymore if a dead man’s wishes can be overruled?
Also, too, the museum itself looks not much different from the jail you will pass on the train ride south. But we shared a pretty great peanut butter cookie and a smoking hot chai tea in the cafe. Friday nights the place stays open till 10 for a party, and it looked as if a lot of suburbanites had made the reverse journey.
As for the hotel, the location could not be better, or the (smallish) room more comfortable. Plus it has a free-wine happy hour every day, attended by dogs, which are also welcome as guests. It says everything that we didn’t even use the $10 check-in gift card for the minibar. Too much else was too close. Which could be Philadelphia’s tourism slogan.