Archive for April, 2015

Like, no WiFi, no Club Car

April 2015

Our friend who moved back to Philadelphia from the “restaurant wasteland” of the Upper West Side begs to differ with all the national food media hyping the wonders of her hometown. To her, too many of the restaurants are too much like so many that afflict Manhattan: not just overpriced but dishing up food that she, as a great cook, could make at home.

Given that she runs the Relais & Chateaux where my consort and I would be staying  while he was starting shooting on his latest documentary, I was very glad to have arrived with a suggestion off the Twitter for where we should head for our first lunch. And I was even more glad when she was as impressed as we were. Cheu Noodle Bar could be just a Changstamp but puts its own imprint on the menu. As my Twitter pal predicted, I was thankful for the advice on ordering the brisket-matzo ball-kimchi option, with tender meat and unrubbery dough to absorb the spicy-vibrant broth. Joanne’s ramen with braised pork shoulder and egg was more Jin-like; although the broth was not as rich, the meat was sublime. But Bob’s soba with chorizo, queso fresco and snow peas was the simple winner; he’s usually Mr. Brodo but was more than happy with this dry bowl. We also split an appetizer of the special beef-sesame dumplings of the day, beautifully made and cooked. If not for that $9 addition, Joanne could have left a tip of less than $10.

Dinner that night was with her nephew and his girlfriend, whose yelling dog Bob had just filmed, and four of the six of us were all “whoa” on arriving at the restaurant in Old City and thinking we were heading into a gelateria in that “Jersey Shore”-overwhelmed neighborhood. But back in the back turned out to be a very Philadelphia dining room anchored by a glitzy wood pizza oven. Then the owner recognized her friend at our table and stopped to offer suggestions. Which is when I actually started to worry — what if everything sucked? How could I write about it?

That was ridiculous.

All three pizzas we chose were hard to fault, generous even sliced into sixths and with especially good crusts (I usually leave a pile of “bones” on my plate but kept on gnawing). The Ciro had lardo, the San Lorenzo smoked mozzarella and house-made sausage, the Vesuvius good heat (cameras should have a caption function). We also split a stellar “capra” salad of delicate arugula, goat cheese, pancetta and almonds, plus adequate arancini and amazing eggplant “meat”balls as well as a smartly chosen four-cheese and two-salumi board. We did not need the fourth pizza the owner comped us, but we all tucked into it: a margherita gussied up with pepperoni. With two bottles of a crisp and complementary verdicchio, the bill was $186 before the tip. For six of us. We should all be riding Amtrak.

Next day I steered us to the doughnut-famous Dizengoff for hummus: one plain, one topped with fried chickpeas and a third with “longhot hazelnut,” a very fiery green pepper minced with filberts. Each dainty plateful came with a salad of diced cucumber and red onion plus a little bowl of pickled cucumber and onion, as well as just-baked pita in a brown paper sleeve. You have to congratulate a business that can charge up to $13 for meatless meals. We lucked out with a table at that late hour; otherwise, it would have been great to take lunch to Rittenhouse Square a few blocks away.

Our second dinner was home-cooked at the H&J R&C and our last lunch was at a tiny, funky cafe called Lutecia, just a block or so away from my first apartment in Philadelphia. We could have been eating in 1978, too, and I mean that in the  Commissary way: lentil soup with coconut milk and saffron; quiche Lorraine; croque monsieur; potato-leek soup paired with a half-sandwich of chicken and tomatoes on  baguette. At about $10 a person, it was almost like paying in the Rizzo years.

We also fit in gelato (pistachio plus spicy Mexican chocolate) at Capofitto predecessor Capogiro on 13th Street, which was good if not the best in America as proclaimed by National Geographic. We split a superb little Jezabel’s beef empanada from Gavin’s while walking around once-dangerous Fitler Square. We bought addictive Monkey Crackers at the Reading Terminal Market for the cheese we’d brought down from Murray’s and the aged-two-years prosciutto we bought at Di Bruno Bros. And we had perfect espresso at Nook, where the “small-batch coffee, small-batch baking” sign lured us in.

Joanne may be right with her tepid take on the allegedly hot restaurant scene. But she can’t argue over the improvement on other levels, not least on the booze front. We turned her on to a new state store that is not up there with Astor but at least is centuries beyond the one Bob remembers, the one that had not shelves but a binder full of wines.

Speak American, damn it

April 2015

Between the rigatoni and the “minced beef” (aka dogburgers) on homebound Turkish Airlines, I had plenty of time to chew over what a guide recounted in Istanbul on my second day: She once had to spend several weeks in New York and was just longing for the food of her birth country one day when she spotted a restaurant called Istanbul. She swore she got fine food there, and I’ll take her word for it. Mostly she got me thinking about why Americans never have to crave American food. Is it because you can find McBurgerShack anywhere you go? Or because there is no such thing as American food?

I’m going with the latter after considering a couple of eating experiences after landing. On the first night my also-jetlagged consort, just back from judging World Press Photo’s multimedia entries in Amsterdam, graciously suggested we meet somewhere near his post-school networking drink, and Mermaid Inn had no tables available before about 3  in the morning my time, so I suggested Maison Kayser, not least because we could economize by taking advantage of the BYOB policy, since the place has no liquor license but also no corkage fee. So we tucked right into food off a menu that felt like one we would be happy to find in a cafe in Paris on one of those nights when we had no energy to search out a real meal. I passed on the salade gourmandaise with foie gras, duck prosciutto, green beans etc. because (snob that I am) I have had it so many times in France. But I was thrilled to see duck rillettes, and something new: artichokes paired with burrata. Which were enticing enough to let me let Bob take the cassoulet.

Of the three, the cassoulet was the weakest link, but not by much. Once we shredded the duck confit and chopped the garlic sausage into the soupy beans, we had a credible version of the usually dense classic. The rillettes, all of $2 more than what I buy Hudson Valley Duck’s for, came with toasts and cornichons plus were so much better, with good chunks of meat among the shreds in white fat. And the artichoke assemblage was sublime, both then and next morning: puréed artichoke bottoms surrounded with bits of bottoms, dabs of pesto and a necklace of pitted black olives, all topped with a slab of melting burrata.

The setting was pretty dinery, even after the very charming waiter turned down the lights, and I had my suspicions about how one kitchen can turn out such a wide menu of so many choices, and so fast. Still, WIGB? Absolutely, but probably for a snack rather than a meal. Real diners have wine by the glass.

Overall, though, the meal felt very New York. As did, insane as it sounds, Saturday lunch with our Asian-eating/eating-Asian pals at a newish Sichuan restaurant in northern New Jersey. And not just because we ordered “hamburgers.”

The first sign we were a long way from either Mott Street or Main Street was the very look of the place: sleek, polished, elegant (the two-stall ladies room even had flowers in it rather than the usual grimy string mop). The second was the graceful dish filled with peanuts in one indentation, spicy pickled carrots and a mystery yellow vegetable in the other. The teapots were also china, not aluminum. And the food was uniformly sensational.

Pork wontons in hot chile oil were perfectly formed and cooked, so they held together to the last nibble. Duck soup had a delicate flavor but you could taste the ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. Dan-dan noodles had clean, beautifully balanced flavor. I skipped the ox tongue and tripe in peppery sauce while everyone else raved. I also skipped the fermented eggs with cucumbers but can vouch for the sauce and crunchy vegetable sauce. Fern root noodles with sliced chicken were fascinating, dark and chewy. Braised sea bass fillets in another spicy sauce were sensational, beautifully cooked, very fresh fillets, and all of $16.75 for a huge bowlful. Even dry-sautéed string beans with minced pork were exceptional. But the true “vaut le voyage” choices were the Sichuan “hamburger,” thin slices of well-spiced pork to be tucked into steamed buns, and the tea-smoked duck, easily the best we have ever had outside of Hong Kong — the fat was almost buttery, the meat almost rare but very tender. And when the check came, it amounted to all of $23 a person for the seven of us. WIGB? Despite the hourlong bus ride, absolutely. This is why we live in America, for freedom of choice on food.