Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

Beyond duck scrapple

July 2016

Pretty certain I’ll be late to my own funeral, so I shouldn’t be surprised I’m barely making it under the wire in confirming a Tweet by @Atrios, expert in the urban hellhole: “No one will listen, but plenty of good non-cheesesteak food in Philly.” The Dems in disarray and the reporters determined to portray them that way may have only a couple more days to listen to me, but at least I’m motivated to update on our last two trips. These are just some of the more representative local flavors to sample. Before or after experiencing the phenomenal “Creative Africa” show at the Rocky museum, of course.

Like the Double Knot, the Fat Ham is exceptional, not just the food and drink but the caring (we were cranky about our two bags taking up too much space in the tiny dining room and they comped us a great hummingbird cake in a Mason jar for the Amtrak ride home). A plate of smoked ribs and pulled pork with coleslaw; a brisket slider with white barbecue sauce, and pimento cheese served easy to eat on one slice of toast all wowed us, but the surprising standout was the cornbread, baked to order with tasso and molasses butter. It was $8 and worth even more. Unsurprisingly, the cocktail list is heavy on the bourbon.

ribs and pulled pork phila fat ham -0240

At the other extreme from that carnivorous overkill, V Street serves the most impressive vegan food either of us have ever encountered. Highest praise: If they didn’t label it, you wouldn’t know it. Everything had deep flavor and almost the mouth feel of meat, especially the charred and chewy carrot asado salad, with avocado, poblano and pumpkinseeds. Curried cauliflower nuggets came with whipped dal and mint chutney, so it was like eating in Kolkata. And the dan dan noodles were almost too filling, with five-spice mushrooms and zucchini in a spicy red chile sauce.

The Oyster House on Sansom felt like a bridge between classic Philadelphia and pushing-the-envelope Philadelphia. The servers are total (I guess I shouldn’t say old) pros, the modern room is get-’em-in-and-get-’em-out spare but attractive and the food simply makes you happy. My jumbo-lump crab cake at lunch sat atop “Chesapeake remoulade” and alongside an odd but addictive salad of broccoli, dates and almonds in a creamy dressing. Bob, however, scored with the softshell crab banh mi. Where has that idea been all our lives?

On the trip before that, for a wedding right after New Year’s, I was shocked to get four good meals within just a few blocks’ of our hosts’ dazzling townhouse in Graduate Hospital (which is a neighborhood, not anywhere to go get better). We couldn’t do that at home.

The tiny and charming Fitler Dining Room at lunch had great little pimento cheese fritters and amazingly light gnocchi Parisienne with cauliflower. I actually laughed when my consort’s “Waldorf Cobb” salad landed; it looked like deconstruction gone tiny-wrong. But the combination of grapes, spiced pecans, julienned apple and well-dressed greens added up. Southgate, a Momofuku knockoff, was a fun destination to meet up with our hosts and the newlyweds to share “fish and chips,” Korean tacos, bibimbop, sweet potato fritters, chicken wings and “Koreancini.” If it all had a one-noteness to it, and too much sweetness, that may have been thanks to our not-smart ordering. And the meal that is usually our least favorite, brunch, was perfect at Pub & Kitchen, including a massive and well-made cheeseburger with great fries and a spinach omelet. It’s a bar but a nice one I wish would move closer to us.

I was most thrilled with Blue Corn, a little farther away in the Italian Market, because it serves gorditas, which I developed an obsession with long ago in El Paso. These were obviously just fried, a plate of three filled with chicken, with pork and with cheese. Tacos were well-spiced, the queso fundido excellent. Red and green salsas with the (yes) blue corn chips were also superb. All I foggily remember of Mexican in Philadelphia from my three years there were the margaritas at some mill on Second Street. They were no more like Blue Corn’s than the menu was.

For the record, the letdowns on our most recent getaway included Distrito in University City, where we landed for lunch because it was close to the always-worth-the-trip Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn and because we had never tried a José Garces joint. We won’t be repeating that mistake. The food was one step up from Blockheads’: bland guacamole, dishwatery pork tacos, pallid queso fundido, the side of pico de gallo tasteless. Too bad you can’t eat decor. And I’m cutting Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in newly hip Fishtown a break because it had just opened when we had clumsy wine service and underwhelming food, including just-average double Margherita pizza with cold burrata and okay garganelli with duck. Dates stuffed with Gorgonzola and baked dry in speck earned a “worst date I ever had” from one friend. Asparagus salad with egg, pancetta and capers, however, was impressive if tricky to share. And maybe we would not have been so let down if the hamachi crudo with grapefruit and pistachios we started with had not been so impressive. The wine list was, as so many Philadelphia restaurants’ are, Gouge City. We also finally tried a Marc Vetri joint where the mortadella mousse was blow-away and the paccheri with swordfish and eggplant at least inventive. The dismissive waiter kept insisting the sausage of the day was chorizo, but it certainly looked and tasted Italian. Still, I think we would have liked the food more if we hadn’t had to walk out before they would give us a decent table in the deafening space. (“Those are reserved.” “Well, we reserved.”) At least a manager ran out and talked us back in. For a place named Amis it felt awfully like a club, one that would not admit us.

WIGB really doesn’t count in Philadelphia because we try not to repeat any resto on our eating expeditions to the town where we met. When or if we do it’s at a.Kitchen off Rittenhouse Square, where the smoked beet salad is extraordinary, and Barbuzzo, where the vibe and the pizzas etc. are so great, and Vernick, where the chef who comes up with such lively food was so generous in recommending other places, including Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, and finally Dizengoff, where the hummus platters are perfection. Even though we could now get one of those at the Chelsea Market it would not be as transporting.

80 minutes away, and not Flushing

June 2016

Word on the estreet that a great friend in Philadelphia was going to cash in his fairbandb gift card at the hottest spot in town on his birthday did the impossible: got me motivated to post here, on Double Knot, the latest from Michael Schulson, whose Buddakan background shows. With luck, he and his wife would be seated in the space my consort and I were, away from the where-do-they-get-the-money whippersnappers rousing it up in the next room in that subterranean wonderland, and would get the superb waitress we scored, the one who spent so much time talking us through the virtually noun-only menu.

She advised us to order six to eight dishes to share, and the prices made us both wonder if we shoulda doubled up. But the first little bowl to land, for all of $7, held four edamame dumplings,  scented with truffle in very tender skins. Tuna on a “rice cracker” for $8 proved to be even more sensational, the tartare set over what could have been fried risotto, not the lame-ass crackers we were anticipating. Of course we had to try the duck scrapple bao, and it was not just plural but exceptional, the meat sausagey but not scrapple-weird, the steamed buns just light enough to contain it. Pastrami bao was nearly as sensational (each order $7). “Enoki bacon” translated as those little outer-space mushrooms wrapped in pig belly and grilled on skewers, the one dish that did not hold up so well in the microwave in the fairbandb next a.m. (We could have gotten away with just one order of those at $4 apiece, too.) A heaping bowl of miso fried rice with black cod, for all of $9, made me rethink my Chiu Chow recipe from Hong Kong; fish chunks and ginger and scallions would definitely make it even better. But the real winner of this feast of small plates was our $7 order of gyoza, dumplings with savory filling fried into almost a cake.

As always, I wondered why more chefs don’t indulge their patrons by making food effortless to share. Bob is a knife whiz who can even get four portions out of a soft-shell crab already cut into thirds, but no one should have to work that hard.

Anyway, I had two glasses of (surprise) sauvignon blanc, a good pour for $11, but I’m amazed Bob managed even one of the Double Knot cocktails, made with bourbon, rye and two types of vermouth. The stairs were tricky going down; I wondered if he’d navigate back up. The presentation alone might make you high, though: That excellent waitress torched a little mound of spices on a barrel stave, laid the snifter over it to capture the smoke and then poured in the high-octane drink.

We couldn’t even finish all our food and pitied the two olds at the next table who had ordered 11 dishes between them. Shorter? Put the brakes on, Don. 120 South 13th Street, 215 631 3868.

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.

32 years from 20th & Spruce

December 2012

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.