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.
Since I completely fell down on the job last year, there are a few reviews that I just never got to because I’m a horrible person. Rather than mete them out in lame separate posts, I’m going to consolidate and beg your forgiveness.
I’m a fan of Stephen Starr, because the man knows how to combine showmanship with good food at completely reasonable prices. Stella continues his success. I loved pretty much everything about my experience: the decor is casually fun and appropriate and the service was spot on. And the food? Great. We had a lightly dressed (shut up!) romaine salad, made more interesting with the addition of mint. The star of the two pizzas we shared was the Tartufo, a bad-ass little number with truffles, parmesan and egg. Did I mention that Starr is a showman? The pizza arrives with the egg still in tact, but the server dramatically breaks the yolk and drizzles it all over the pizza. Yes, please. More. It was great. Now I have to go try the other “fancy” pizza places in town to see who’s winning.
We had a bit of a problem for our anniversary dinner. I had decided we’d go to 101 Bridge in Phoenixville to use a restaurant.com gift certificate only to find it closed. We walked across the street to Marly’s, and proceeded to wait at the host station for 5 minutes while no one bothered to check to see if anyone wanted to eat there. I get huffy about such things so we walked out. In the car, we perused Open Table and settled on Sullivan’s. Turns out it wasn’t much of a settle. The setting is classic steakhouse decor and the patrons fit the bill with seemingly tons of people on expense accounts; we were one of very few two-tops. The service was good and largely attentive, though not without its moments of “server shuffle” which so annoys me. The food was strong: the meat was flavorful and nicely cooked, and even the fish dish we got was well-seasoned and interesting. Do I need to go back anytime soon? No, but it was a good experience, somewhat surprisingly.
Once we heard the news that this landmark institution was closing, we knew we had to get there before we couldn’t (and, I do in fact feel a little betrayed but also glad that Perrier has reneged and will keep the place open). With two friends, we decided to go all in and do the grande degustation with the wine flight. Don’t mess. Would that I could remember (and taste) every morsel, but I will say that a highlight was the escargots cassolette with hazelnut and champagne garlic butter. I also will say that the service rivaled Joel Robuchon for its attentiveness, knowledge (the sommelier rocked), and unobtrusiveness, even as it had its own Philly flair. I look forward to returning soon at some point to take advantage of the ridiculous bargain of the 4-course, $40 40th anniversary menu. Great meal. Perhaps one of the best I’ve had. (I’ll have to take a look at my top 5 again).
Friend Mike and I headed here for a restaurant week dinner. We were one of very few diners, which I thought was strange, considering that the meal was very good, from what I remember. What I also remember though was the hateful way it ended, with the server deciding that his friends eating a few tables away were more important than us getting our check. It completely ruined what had been a good meal and made me not want to eat there again. Bad boy.
I am a coffee addict, so my hopes to have a coffeehouse within walking distance have been historically high. Several attempts have been made, all with disappointment. There are also resources within a short drive, including the great Green monster, as well as a handful of places in Phoenixville.
So, it was with great happiness that Blend opened last year almost literally in my backyard. I have since been a pretty regular customer, though perhaps not as often as Ryan would like since I tend to make my coffee at home to take to work with me.
I could perhaps post something on my ideal elements of a coffeehouse, but I will limit myself here to say that Ryan has done a good job of incorporating many of them. First, it must be comfortable, and Blend’s decor mixes first a great aesthetic, and then a variety of seating options — comfy chairs, tables that allow for work to be done, but also moved for groups of people. Second, it must have decent, largely unobtrusive music, and he has chosen a good Pandora station to supply him (today, “Transatlanticism” was on; need I say more?).
Third, and most importantly, it must have good coffee. Here, Blend also succeeds. Is it La Colombe? No, but not all of my wishes can come true. However, the drip coffee and espresso offerings earn a B+ at least, and that’s certainly serviceable.
Oh, this is a food blog, so the food? The bakery items are fine, and that’s about all I’ve had. Sorry.
Anyway, I wish Ryan the best, because Collegeville needs a coffeehouse, and definitely should have one. I only hope the community (better) supports him and he continues.
With a hat tip to ALOTT5MA, here are two sites related to restaurant websites that are dead on.
First, the humorous things that were “never said about restaurant websites,” my favorite being “A website taking forever to load because of too-big images and dopey animations is a status symbol and I’ll dine at an establishment with nothing less!”
Second, the more utilitarian “5 Ways to Fix Your Restaurant’s Website,” my favorite way being “Stop Using Flash,” because I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to look at a restaurant’s website on my iPhone, and ultimately being unable to find what I want because the Flash error is staring me in the face. Yes, we all know iPhone should use Flash, but it doesn’t: adapt.
Ultimately, what both of these websites are pointing out is the ways in which restaurateurs fundamentally misunderstand the point of a website these days: to communicate important information to customers. I want to know the answers to the basic questions: what (are you serving and for how much)? where (are you located)? when (are you open)? It astounds me how many websites bury answers to these questions, or simply ignore them. I think the reason for such wanton disregard goes back to the fact that many restaurateurs are simply not good businesspeople: they go into owning a restaurant because they love the idea of owning a restaurant, not because they have a good business background or plan.
Stop using Flash!
We recently returned from Italy; you can read my travelogue over here.
But, let’s get to the food. I was initially going to run through all of the meals, but I think I will just hit the highlights.
First, the coffee, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many single espressos in so short a time. It was all so civilized and ritualistic. And also so yummy that Rick may have come over to the dark side. One of the best cups we had was at the legendary Tasso d’Oro in Rome:
It was crazy crowded, and so slightly annoying, but also exciting and interesting. And a damn fine cup of coffee.
The first night was definitely a highlight at Da Bucatino near our hotel in Testaccio. In addition to the pleasing decor and atmosphere, the food was great: an outstanding amatriciana and a sick roast pork with potatoes. Erin and Rick also polished off many a grappa.
Up to Tuscany then. When we first arrived, our host Claudio had some wine and cheese waiting for us. The outstanding cheese here was a pecorino with truffles that was just amazing. I bought some before we left and plan on having it with football tomorrow:) I also brought home some of Claudio’s olive oil since it was unlike most olive oil — less oil than the lightest oil you’ve ever seen and so pungent with olive taste instead of just oil taste.
That night we also went to a local place in Vinci that was just an avalanche of amazing food. Another cheese stole the show: fresh gorgonzola that had the consistency of brie — something I had never had but was truly revelatory. It was a sweeter, smoother blue than any had ever had.
At this place, we also had two traditional Tuscan dishes — pappardelle cinghale (wild boar ragu) and steak florentine. Holy Moses these were amazing.
It was rich but not heavy, and wonderfully spiced — a perfect hearty winter dish.
The steak florentine was dramatically presented:
Just seared on one side, we seared it on the other once it came tableside. Yeah, it was good. Simply seasoned, but ridiculously tender and delicious.
Oh, and we drank some there:
We were also lucky to make it up to Pistoia to friend Alessandro hosted and fed us well at La BotteGaia. The standout dishes for me were a spinach flan and ravioli filled with mozzarella in a deeply satisfying sauce:
Look at those ravioli, my friends: obviously fresh pasta veritably bursting with the cheese. Nummers.
Speaking of pasta, I couldn’t let a trip to Italy go without getting gnocchi, and I luckily got some with a gorgonzola sauce in Volterra:
Not much to look at it, but gnocchi never is; you could tell though that this sauce was made with that fresh gorgonzola I mentioned above: not bitter, but just tangy, and so so so creamy.
Oh, and pizza, of course. Where we got the gnocchi, I had a good pizza with roasted vegetables. In Siena, I had what I think was my favorite pizza — a pizza carbonara, and you know what that means: egg baby!
Yeah, that’s bad-ass. At another place in Lamporecchia, we had a sausage and cream cheese pizza with the thinnest crust I’ve ever had — a mere wisp of a crust really.
So, let’s end with dessert. I didn’t go really insane with desserts until the last night walking around Rome. After we got our coffee, we came across a market in the Piazza Navona, where we sampled some treats, including basically pine nut brittle and freshly grilled jumbo doughnuts:
I’m a big sweet and savory fan, so the brittle hit the spot, but I of course also love doughnuts, so that was nice too — sort of homey. We also had gelato during the trip, but nothing was really transcendant, though very good.
Overall, it was a wonderful food trip, in part because I just love Italians’ relationship with food. It is something to be enjoyed and something with which one takes time to enjoy. There is also such a spirit of sharing. I mentioned above that I bought some cheese before leaving; it was at a delicatessen near Da Bucatino in Trestaccio. It was such a happy place, with the myriad workers offering sample upon sample and wanting you to enjoy what they obviously are proud of. It was just a great place that took much money from me, though I parted with it gladly. Oh and here’s a parting shot from that place — of that miraculous gorgonzola.
Corner Cafe 29 joins Hemingway’s as another attempt in Collegeville to re-tool an unsuccessful restaurant. In its space in a new strip mall was Ray’s Burgers and Fries. As I said when we tried Ray’s, there was nothing remarkable about the place, and I didn’t understand how a place that didn’t do really well what chains were doing just fine was going to survive. And, it didn’t.
It appears that the same owners are trying a different tack: the breakfast and lunch joint. As much as we need a diner like a whole in our head around here, I’m always up for another dependable place for a weekend breakfast. Luckily, Corner Cafe 29 delivered on this score. I went for the standard bacon and eggs to get a baseline judgment on the place, while Rick had a chicken florentine omelette:
Rick enjoyed his omelette, as well as the potato cake that came with it, which was interestingly spiced and a nice alternative to homefries. I was quite pleased with my homefries, which were, as you can see, abundant, but with a nice crisp to them. The eggs were cooked well, and though the bacon was a bit overdone, we were pleased with the food, as well as the service and the attempts made at redecorating what had been a cold space.
With a good variety of breakfast and lunch options, it would seem that Corner Cafe might be what the area needed: a little place that could, with dependable food and a homey atmosphere. The location shouldn’t hurt, as it gets a ton of traffic; while we ate, several people came by to get the menu, so there is certainly interest. And, I’m interested in returning to try some other options.
(A rant: for the life of me, I cannot understand how a new restaurant these days can open without a good-looking, functional website. The website for Hemingway’s is largely useless with no menu nor clear hours or even directions. The Corner Cafe 29 website has its menu, hours, and location, but unforgivably says it’s “under construction.” Seriously, no web site should say that these days when you can pop out a Yahoo- or Google-supported website in an afternoon even if you know nothing of web design. I mean, I’m not asking for Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, or any other “new media” integration: just don’t have a dumb website for starters. End rant.)
Hemingway’s is one of two attempts in Collegeville to make a successful restaurant where a previous one had not succeeded. In my time in Collegeville, the site where Hemingway’s is has been a brew pub and then Juno’s, a sports bar. To me, the brew pub should have succeeded: the cavernous space lent itself to a raucous, casual atmosphere. Likewise, a sports bar could have succeeded here, it seemed to me, but the food was average and the place suffered from never having a quorum of fans to make it a place where you wanted to go.
Now Hemingway’s is making a go of it here with a different concept. They are going high-end, with white table cloths, an emphasis on seafood with a raw bar, and a price point in the teens and twenties. However, the space is going against this concept. First, the tucked away location, which is likely the main reason why nothing has succeeded here, doesn’t help get word out that the place actually exists. Second, the makeover of the space is only half-hearted, with the exposed timber at odds with the white tablecloths, and the waitstaff in slightly sloppy polos and khakis doesn’t connote fine dining.
When we went on a weeknight, we were one of two occupied tables, the other oddly occupied by a family, when this place doesn’t really seem like a family place. We decided to go for an appetizer described as Dipping Fries, accompanied by dipping sauces flavored with jalapeno, paprika, and lemon pepper:
As you can see, the size of the sweet potatoes don’t really fit with “wedges” let alone “fries”: these were more like slabs. That being said, they were tasty, though the dipping sauces could not really be identified without knowing what they were. Further, there were just so many of them that we couldn’t get through more than half without fearing that we’d be full by the time our entrees came out. Finally, is this really a fine dining appetizer?
For my entree, I chose onion crisp chicken with sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes topped with onion crisps and a mushroom demi glace:
The plate was something of a mess. Onion strings cannot go wrong, nor can mashed potatoes, so those were tasty. Strangely, the chicken was the smallest component of the dish — barely a breast it seemed — and it was overcooked with little to no juiciness left. The spinach seemed an afterthought, with little to no flavor and cooked into a congealed blob.
Certainly, we didn’t opt for the seafood options, which it seems the restaurant wants to be known for, since the prices were far more than I wanted to spend, so I cannot speak to that part’s quality. I will also say that I don’t understand the Hemingway tie-in: there were no decorations that referred to the author, and I didn’t see how the food tied in (though I guess one can tie Key West to seafood, though one could tie almost any place on either coast with seafood).
By the time we left, a few more tables were occupied, but nowhere near enough to fill the space. As with any restaurant, I want Hemingway’s to succeed. However, to do so, it seems to me they have to find more coherence and a more appropriate price point, especially since so many options at that price point in Phoenixville and King of Prussia exist that do it well.