Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year; it’s Restaurant Week. OK, it’s not all that wonderful. In fact, as I reflect on it, I have had disappointing or merely meh meals at places like Table 31 and Meritage during Restaurant Week, so perhaps I need to re-think the allure.
Anywho, we decided to try Square 1682 since it had received some good reviews and because when I walk by it almost weekly, it always seemed interesting inside. And, true that — I liked the interior (even if the lighting was too dim for my iPhone pictures to turn out) and the design touches, with squares everywhere and interior floor plans on mugs and bread plates, were well done.
I started with a very tasty signature cocktail, the Indian Summer, composed of Blue Coat Gin, Pimms (yay!), pineapple juice, cardamom, and nutmeg. The spices were barely noticeable, which I was fine with, but present enough that a seemingly summery cocktail had some autumnal underpinning.
I decided for my first course to fight the cold outside with the roasted squash soup with root vegetables and brown butter balsamic. Now, when I read root vegetables I thought they’d be thoroughly pureed like the squash: not so. Instead, the soup was an oddly chunky melange of soup with chunks of whatever root vegetables I think were lying around. There was also a layer of something on top that was a sodden, once-solid of undetermined origin that might have been a crouton or a matzo in a previous life. Again, I had no idea. The taste of the soup was fine, but the textural issues were jarring.
Second course was a pork chop with brussel sprouts and parsnip puree. Yes, it’s root vegetable season; I get it. Anyway, the pork itself was good though uneventful — not particularly seasoned interestingly, nor particularly juicy. The brussel sprouts were a disappointment: rather than leaving them whole, they were essentially shredded into unrecognizability and cooked to dry them into crispy wisps whose flavor resembled phyllo more than anything else. And the puree? Meh to the extreme, if that’s possible.
Dessert was the apple cider fritter with vanilla ice cream. Good. I had dreamed of an attempt at a dessert-y soup dumpling where the fritter would burst in one’s mouth with cider, but that didn’t happen (not that it needed to).
So, dinner was just fine. The food was disappointing perhaps just because of my expectations, but I don’t think they were necessarily out of bounds. My fellow diners seemed to enjoy their meals, which is good. Service was fine, though our waiter seemed nervous and that also didn’t provide me with much confidence in what would transpire. At their normal prices (especially their high drink and wine list prices), I don’t think I need to return to this place anytime soon.
Recently I hit some places I’ve been wanting to go to, both of which were Asian. I again have a bit of procrastination-induced amnesia, so I decided to combine the reviews.
First up is Jannie’s in nearby Limerick/Upper Providence/Whatever. Jannie’s is another of these Asian places that are attempting to do a sort of mid-level to fine dining price point and not quite accomplishing it. First, there is the room. Unlike nearby Jasmine’s which is intimate and appropriately styled, Jannie’s is an enormous cold room that has no intimacy and very little class. Second, there is the service; when I asked about an inscrutable dish called “Harmony Pork,” which was not described on the menu (seriously. that’s just lazy), it was obvious the server was guessing as to what was in it. The meal was otherwise fine service-wise, but that colored the rest of the experience for me. Third, there is the food, which was as underseasoned and oversauced as every other Chinese takeout place, though perhaps more nicely presented. The food wasn’t offensive, but it certainly wasn’t worth the price being asked. Susanna Foo demonstrated that you can do Asian at a high end; apparently though there’s only one Susanna Food (though I’m eager to try Han Dynasty to get some “real” Chinese food).
Next was Su Xing House in Philadelphia. It wears its vegetarianism on its sleeve, encouraging me and everyone else to embrace the healthy lifestyle behind its cuisine. If it generates food like this, then I’m on board. I started with scallion pancakes for the heck of it and was not disappointed. The pancakes were light and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and the scallion flavor was perfectly balanced: omnipresent without being overwhelming. Next up was a dish suggested by a review in Philadelphia Weekly: golden rings. These were lightly fried rings of tofu accompanied by a slightly gooey but lingering and tangy tomato sauce. The tofu emerged hot and almost cheese-like, but despite that slightly gross description, the consistency was good and different from most tofu preparations. The room is slightly strange, but the service was anything but: accommodating and efficient, it was a lovely service experience and a lovely dinner overall.
Lesson? Stick with Philadelphia Asian food for now, and stay away from attempts at high-end Chinese when it’s obvious it won’t work. I might as well go to PF Chang’s.
If there is one thing I have learned about blogging, it is that one must seize the day: the longer the time between the event and you blogging about the event, the less it stays with you, beyond the fact that you probably will never even publish the damn thing.
Such it is with my whirlwind culinary adventure with my dad and step-mother in November. We hit Parc, Vetri, and Tinto in the space of about 48 hours, and yet here it is February, and I still hadn’t talked about it. So, let’s do that, with apologies for the lack of specifics.
We hit Parc on a Friday night, and it was bustling and convivial, likely an evening representative of what Stephen Starr dreamed this place would be. On most levels it worked: the food was fun, fresh, and flavorful, the atmosphere theme-y but not quite kitschy, and the entire experience just entirely enjoyable. The service had its ups and downs, but that is likely more because of some demanding tables and perhaps a bit too high a customer:server ratio than incompetence. I’d love to go back here for any meal really, but I think I’d like to wait for a nice warm day when we can take advantage of the street scene.
The next night was Vetri, where we had the full on degustation menu. This menu began with a course featuring Sweet Onion Crepe, Pork Cheeks with Chestnut Crema, Venison Tartar with Focaccia, Nantucket Scallop Crudo with Blood Orange. I remember the tartar being highly flavorful and quite enjoying the scallop, despite my usual reservations when it comes to that particular animal. Next though came the best thing ever, or at least pretty damn close to it.
It’s a crap picture, but I was likely already in ecstasy that my hands couldn’t stop shaking. These effortless fluffs of pure spinach were so redolent of spinach yet holding together like a typical gnocchi that I had to ask what they were made out of: I was told that there was no pasta there — just spinach. Good lord. Amazing dish. Really worth the entire meal frankly. The other pastas didn’t really have a chance:
Ricotta Cavatelli with Goose Ragu
Through no fault of their own, these pastas didn’t shine like their green brother, but they were nonetheless quite tasty in their own way — the rigatoni brashly meaty while the ravioli creamily disdained her buff brother. The pasta course was incredibly balanced and kicked Mario Batali’s version all over the eastern seaboard. Restrained yet flavorful and creative.
Turning to the beef, we eschewed the baby goat for “oogly” reasons. We did get the other options:
Braised short rib with celery root and mushrooms
Fried cod with citrus mayonnaise
The cod was more pedestrian than the short rib for perhaps obvious reasons; the former had too many obvious references to fast food flavor profiles, while the latter benefitted from everyone on earth being unable to withstand anything being braised. Good course, but not amazing frankly. I’m still reeling from the pastas though when the dessert comes.
Apples, Apples, Apples
Yeah, I guess. I can’t remember everything that was there, but it was all delectable and I particularly enjoyed the whimsy of the candied apples, even if it was a bit of a hard nut to crack. The service was impressive: attentive without being meddlesome, it was there when we needed them and awfully knowledgeable, though Erin did sort of school the sommelier, who in turn produced a Tokay that I still want 18 cases of. It was an awfully enjoyable evening, though I don’t know if I’ll need to get the degustation again: I’ll just take 8 pounds of the gnocchi.
The next morning we headed to Tinto for brunch. All in all the meal was underwhelming. First, no one was there, which always makes for an odd experience. Second, and most importantly, the meal just was not all that impressive. I started with the tortilla espanola, which consisted of a few slices of serrano ham and a clunky tortilla stacked on a splash of saffron aioli. The aioli overpowered everything and nothing was all that interesting on its own. Next I had the padre e hijo, consisting of crispy duck confit, hash, fried duck egg, and escarole:
Sounds and looks interesting, huh? But can you predict what I will say?
It was sort of a mess, frankly. Textures and flavors were not clean, but instead commingled haphazardly. It tasted good, but wasn’t all that appetizing in a weird way, and was certainly not transformative. Perhaps brunch isn’t the meal for a Tinto experience.
It ended an amazing food weekend on something of a downer, but it wasn’t all that tragic: I could still think back to those tasty breads at Parc and my glorious gnocchi at Vetri, and I did end Tinto with a surprisingly tasty and refreshing grapefruit brulee that gave me enough of a good feeling that I forgave it all its disappointments.
I had to thank dad for the opportunity (and bank account) to try all of these places. Being a veteran of the restaurant business, he was impressed with the Philly food scene as represented by these three places (as well as the Italian Market and Continental, where we went for lunch on Saturday), and I think they did us pretty proud as well.
http://www.10arts.com/ (beware automatically playing music)
Thanks to some dogged efforts and wonderful connections and hospitality, the chorus was able to get an extension on the Restaurant Week menu for 10 Arts — and get a private audience with the one and only Jennifer Carroll, the best contestant on this Top Chef (and perhaps ever).
We had a private dining room for the around 30 of us, which was nice — especially since we can get pretty loud, even more so when you get some good juice into us.
I decided to start with a negroni, while Rick went for a cucumber-ific concoction with Hendricks and plenty o’ cucumber: I think I liked his better than he did.
Soon, the first course arrived. Bucking convention, Rick got the pork and beans instead of the salmon ceviche, while I opted for the heirloom corn chowder with creme fraiche.
The pork and beans (really braised pork belly and summer beans with a vinaigrette) was inspired: perfectly salty without being ridiculous, with nice smokiness and tart. My chowder was well-seasoned, though I would have preferred it to be less niblet-y: a few more of them could have been pureed for my liking. Still good though.
Next came the entrees, with Rick choosing the tagliatelle bolognese and me choosing the Pennsylvania brook trout with baby bok choy in a hazelnut brown butter sauce.
I think I speak correctly for Rick in saying that might have been the best bolognese I’ve ever had. There was a sweetness to it that was deep, rich, and intriguing; it was like a sophisticated cousin to Cincinnati chili and just as addictive. A hearty, well-executed dish. My trout was cooked perfectly; the bok choy did little for me beside provide some balance to the sauce, which was fabulous: slightly sweet but with the earthiness of the nuts to ground it, the sauce managed to stay perfect while I savored the meal, something I wouldn’t have expected given its density. It was a great entree.
We soon got our coffees and then the popular dessert of “frozen snickers,” consisting of peanut caramel, peanut butter, and honey ice creams:
However, before I could really dig into what turned out to be a scrumptious and surprisingly light dessert, I was interrupted by perhaps the loudest gay gasp I’d ever heard from my tablemate (and fellow second tenor) Avery: Jennifer had entered the room. Upon hearing the gasp, she headed our way, saying, “well, I guess I have to start over here!” Avery and I instantly hoarded her, fawning and interrogating. Soon, she had to make the rounds, but we later caught up with her for a pic in front of the room’s imposing fireplace.
Isn’t she just the sweetest? Before she left, Brotherly Love, our small group, serenaded her with “The Longest Time” and random people entered into our private room, which, part of me can understand, but also, um, PRIVATE ROOM. Interloper:
Anyway, we cornered Jennifer again before she left and I did my Ron impression, which she enjoyed. She was great — truly humbled by all of the attention and fawning, and she ended up spending around 30 minutes at least with the whole group. Oh, and she told me I had to go for the full 16-course degustation menu at Robuchon in December (so I guess I have to).
The dinner though? Very good. It’s obvious that she has a strong kitchen that is putting out good dishes (not one of the prix fixe options was panned, though if someone had said something like that, Avery and I might have drawn and quartered them), and that she herself has creative ideas and a great talent to execute them.
Go Jenn! You’ll always be Top Chef to us!
In my never-ending for pre-rehearsal dining, I wandered about the Sansom Street area. I contemplated Ladder 15, but it was too crowded; I then happened upon Giwa and thought it might be a nice venture, especially since I wanted to redeem Asian food from the recent bad experience at the Pad Thai Shack (just not good pad thai).
The space is tiny, with a handful of tables and a counter area. I scanned the options and chose the buckwheat noodle special, thinking I would be eating healthy since the little description said I would be doing so. I sat at the counter and read, and soon my food was up: a heaping mound of noodles and veggies with little accompaniments of what I think was kimchi and some nut-like things that were probably the cousin to a soy/edamame hybrid. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the noodles were great. They packed a spicy punch, but still had lots of flavor. The noodles also were cooked well, which can sometimes be a problem with buckwheat noodles (they tend to get sticky I find). Adding to the flavor of the meal was just a pleasant and friendly atmosphere: the service was speedy but lovely, so that I didn’t feel stressed but pleased to be there.
Certainly not a life-changing restaurant, but it appears to be dependable and efficient…and tasty and relatively cheap (I think I got out of there under $10). So, add it to the list of options.
Via Foobooz, I come to find out that the Philly Oceanaire has closed. Thanks to them, I also find that the Cincy outpost has closed as well. Not pertinent? Well, it is: that’s the only Oceanaire I visited and, of course, neglected to review. If the Philly version was anything like the Cincy one, I can sort of understand the closing. My experience at the Cincy one was decidedly unremarkable: the food was fine as was the service, but at the prices they were charging, it should have been a bit more than fine. The Cincy version had a decent enough atmosphere, though, again, not quite matching the prices they were charging. I think in these times, people are quite a bit more discerning with their dining dollar: less inclined to give something relatively expensive a second try when they were wowed (like me) or just not inclined in general to go to that price point with a chain restaurant with so many local joints serving quality food at good prices.
102 S. 13th St., Philadelphia, PA
Before seeing Rufus and Martha at Verizon Hall, we met some friends for drinks here, as I’d heard much about it, but hadn’t visited yet. We found the place fine, but our friends couldn’t do the same, as there’s no name anywhere to be found, just the iconic yet not immediately recognizable green cross indicating the place.
Inside is a standard Philly shape, of a long narrow box. At Apo (I think they had to change it from the original Apothecary for some reason), the front of the room features tables, a long banquette, and accompanying ottomans/chairs. The back of the room features the bar with lots of space behind, which no doubt gets very crowded. Apparently, the bar is the place to be, as our neighboring visitors moved from their table to the bar once space opened up to see the mixology at work.
Given the complexity of the drinks, I can completely understand. Rick had a plain old martini, but the rest of us tried a special drink from the menu. I had the Immunity Idol, a sweet little number made of Hendrick’s Gin, Elderflower liqueur, champagne, pineapple and orange juices, and a bunch of other mumbo jumbo. It was sweet without being sickly, and very refreshing. I don’t purport to have the palate to pick up the elderflower, but it was a very nice combination. Our friends had Sage Wisdom (rum, an orange liqueur, grapefruit, sage, etc.) and the Aviation (Tanqueray 10, maraschino, creme de violette, and lemon juice), both of which elicited raves. I’m particularly interested in the Aviation, which sounds yummy — like a plucky gin and tonic.
I sucked down my II in time for me to have Delirium Tremens on draft. In my top 5 of beers (the others, you ask? Harp on draft, Magic Hat #9, Iron Hill Raspberry Wheat, Victory Golden Monkey; that list may change though depending on level of inebriation), DT is a pure pleasure, and I think this is my first time every having it on draft. For that reason alone, Apo deserves another visit, besides it having a happy hour and other allures (good service! absinthe!). So, big thumbs-up for Apo, and I look forward to future visits.
2101 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA
http://www.elfuegoburritos.com/ (Still under construction)
I am forever in search of places to eat near chorus rehearsal, and I noticed this place last week while walking from the train. It appears they have another outposts on Walnut, but I was unfamiliar with them. So, always loving a Mexican option, I popped in this weekend for a quick lunch to go.
The space is attractive, if not a bit derivative of Chipotle with its industrial chic. Oh, and if you didn’t know, this is a place in the same vein as Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Qdoba, California Tortilla, et al.: El Fuego calls it California burritos (um, whatever), but it’s basically a lot of stuffed crammed in a tortilla according to your instructions. I’m down with that. However, it’s not some taqueria hole-in-the-wall that will change your life and give you hipster cred for knowing a place others do not.
Unlike Qdoba or Chipotle, the service was not at all surly, but quite helpful, genial, and fast. The food they produced was also pretty darn good. The carnitas were spiced nicely and had some actual flavor, compared to some I’ve had at those other chains. Likewise, the medium salsa was actually medium and not plain old lame: there was some kick and some flavor. The other ingredients were fresh and in good balance, no doubt adding to the ease with which I ate the thing (some burritos become unwieldy if crammed the wrong way). The chips were fresh, crispy, and nicely salted.
For $6.95, the burrito is a fair price, and given that the food is good and they serve alcohol, I have no doubt I will be back at some point.
1619 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA
We chose this for a pre-baseball lunch with Donna in July (I know…). This will be a mini-review, as my memory ain’t what it used to be.
We decided to sit near the window in the bar area up front because the back just seemed too depressing — not nearly full enough and slightly 80s-ish in decor. I know that Perrier has updated or is updating Le Bec-Fin, and perhaps afterwards he’ll turn his attention here because it was just sort of weird.
I will say this though: they can make some drinks here. The cucumber ale — Hendrick’s, ginger ale, and muddled cucumber and lemon — was perhaps the best summer drink I’ve ever had. God it was good. It was a brilliant turn on a Pimm’s Cup. Good work.
I also had a soup of the day which was nice (I believe it was a light corn chowdery kind of thing). My main course was the (in)famous BP Burger: ground prime sirloin, shredded beef short ribs, seared foie gras, and black truffle cheese. It was a mess: impossible to eat without handiwipes, I couldn’t really taste all the flavors, but could only really just taste fat. I mean, I’m down with that, but I thought it would just be a bit more dignified and not a slather-fest. I have a feeling that it could have been made better, but that it was slapped together for some reason. Or not.
Anyway, I have no real compulsion to head back again. Of course I want to do LBF, but having done Georges and now BP, I’m not sure Perrier can do a step below the finest of fine dining…
CFC has been seriously neglected. I have drafts in the hopper though and a quasi-wish list item to be checked off next week.
Brief review: we did the Lacroix Sunday brunch once more and it was fabulous once more, though perhaps not quite as transporting as previous visits. Highlights this time were the corned veal, the Philly pretzel panzanella, the lobster BLT, the capon breast with lobster jus, and the fried french toast with pomegranate syrup (apparently, there was also a wonderful mushroom dish, but I don’t do mushrooms). So, still a wonderful place and meal. May need to give it some time before the next visit so that my stomach can recover and I can really hunger for it.