So far we’ve had Farm-to-Table themed restaurants do battle, we’ve had the Battle of 13th Street, what’s up next? For the next round of the OpenTable inspired Philadelphia Restaurant Week Round Up, we’ve got a heavyweight championship: Battle of the Fine Dining. These three contenders are each very popular restaurants in downtown Philadelphia, and are definitely more upscale than the regular ma and pa dining destination. They have very different styles of food, and they all want to win. I mean, I have no real prize to give them except for my dining dollars….and taste buds. But, I know that deep down they’re just dying to win this fight! First up, is Rittenhouse hotspot Abe Fisher.
1623 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA 19102
The first thing that I noticed as I walked through the door was the black and white diamond floor— very old school. It reminded me a fancy, art deco prewar building and went nicely with the restaurant theme—foods of the (Jewish) diaspora. It was retro but also cozy. The hip hop music playing as I came through the door contrasted well with the decor, and highlighted even more deeply to show that the restaurant is a modern twist on old world European classics. The menu is made up of small plates, and guests are encouraged to order multiple dishes from multiple categories and share. It’s great for groups and allows for a progressive meal.
On a side note, the whole block of Sansom Street between 16th and 17th Streets is dominated by the Cook n’ Solo team from Chef Michael Solomonov—Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, and Dizengoff. Federal Donuts serves fried chicken and donuts—go for the fancy donuts and spice-rubbed chicken and Dizengoff is a hummuseria that specializes in hummus and their daily, changing specials are advertised on Instagram. It’s named after the popular avenue in Tel Aviv. The art deco style in Abe Fisher harkens back to Tel Aviv style and so do the recycled wine bottles used for tap water as well.
The restaurant week’s menu is the same as usual, but it’s available for $35 instead of $39 per person and includes dessert. They also have a happy hour offering $5 mini sandwiches including beef cheek pastrami, foie gras mousse and $7 specials from the section “One” of the menu. I had been meaning to come to Abe Fisher for a long while, so I’m glad that I was able to try plenty of options on their menu. All I have to say is this—the food was so great that I had to come back a second time—the struggle haha. Ok, that’s not all I have to say, obviously, but onto the food!
A few minutes after sitting down, but before putting the order in, I was treated to an Amuse Bouche. An amuse bouche is an off the menu, small bite created by the chef for the night to—literally—whet the palate. It fit in so well with the theme. A malted vinegar potato chip—I assume housemade—garnished with a dollop of dill sour cream and brussel sprout pate. The briny acidity of the the vinegar, which I could both smell and taste, was a punch to the taste buds. The herbed sour cream helped balance out the sudden astringency, and the pate was super smooth and creamy. The brussel sprouts held their own and I didn’t miss the traditional meat of a pate—it would’ve made this bite too heavy, but the chef showed a deft hand with layering flavors, even in a simple amuse bouche.
Another special treat that’s served most nights with varying flavors are savory rugelach. Rugelach are traditional Jewish filled pastries that are often confused with a cookie, and is often served at Friday night Shabbat dinner tables. It is usually sweet and can come in a variety of flavors, such as chocolate, raspberry, vanilla and traditional cinnamon. When does right they’re absolutely delicious, and my grandmother always had some for a quick nosh at her kitchen table! At Abe Fisher, they are making savory rugelach daily which I love. The Aged Gouda and Black Pepper were very flaky, a bit sweet but still identifiable as a dinner item. They had a subtle spice from the black pepper and the pastry had a nutty, sharp flavor from the cheese. The Bacon, Date and Celery Seed ones looked even more like classically sweet rugelach, but they definitely were not. They were salty, with pieces of bacon studded throughout with the sweet date mellowing out the headiness of the bacon.
With all these rich dishes coming up, I knew that I’d need a drink of some sort, but wasn’t in the mood for a cocktail—I know, bllasphemy!—so I went with the Maple Caraway Rickey ($3), which was essentially a fancy soda flavored with caraway seeds, which are what give rye bread its distinctive flavor, a simple syrup made with maple syrup, and lime juice; the lime juice is what makes it a rickey and is a traditional ingredient for this kind of drink. It tasted like a sweet and tangy sparkling limeade. It had deep aftertaste from the caraway, which is in the carrot family and left an anise-licorice flavor on my tongue. It was very refreshing, and served as a good palate cleanser in between courses.
The second I saw that there was Chopped Liver on the menu, I knew that I was going to order it. I absolutely love chopped liver and can eat it by the spoonful. I’ve also been told that my recipe for it is delicious and I can get even the organ-phobic to imbibe this Lower East Side delicacy. Chopped liver is a little heavier than chicken liver mousse and considered a peasant version of its fancier French cousin. When it’s done right though, it coats your tongue, evokes memories of big family dinners, and will make sure you never dispose of those livers inside your bird ever again. This version was creamy, salty, smooth and meaty. The caramelized onions were finely chopped and chilled, but not super sweet. Perhaps they used sherry to deglaze the pan? The picked shallot garnish were cut into big pieces and I used them to make mini-sandwiches with the toasted bread—slabs of thick-cut rye bread toasted with schmaltz (Yiddish, traditional Jewish chicken fat), which was so much better than butter. A nontraditional, but fabulous rendition of an often humble spread.
It was my lucky night—the chef sent me an extra “One” plate—Hamachi Crudo. A crudo is a dish made from raw fish or seafood, and usually garnished with oil and some sort of acid. The hamachi was sashimi grade, cut into about 1/4 inch thick slices, presented beautifully with blood orange segments, and dressed simply with some herbs, good quality olive oil, and some smoked paprika—one of my favorite spices to cook with—that perfumed the fish and gave it a smoky flavor even though it was still raw. The garlicky almonds provided a nice crunch, and the blood orange lent a hint of sweetness, but didn’t overpower the fresh taste of the hamachi. This dish wouldn’t necessarily have been something that I’d order here. It didn’t initially strike me as very “diaspora”-esque—you could find this dish in a high end Japanese or seafood-driven restaurant, but the subtle smokiness helped me realize that it was probably inspired by the many smoked fish dishes consumed by Jews in the new world and Scandinavia.
One of the phenomenons of the modern diaspora was the rise of the Jewish deli, and corned beef or a Reuben sandwich is one of the most well known offerings that you could order in any delicatessen. Of course, Abe Fisher couldn’t just serve a boring, old Reuben and instead has the Corned Pork Belly Reuben—how bad could that be? This dish was so cute! It was cut into mini sandwiches, served open face, and garnished with picked green tomatoes. I loved that this dish really paid homage to the Jewish deli, but clearly a modern spin—“heymish treif” my grandfather would have said in Yiddish. The toast points had a wonderful aroma from being seasoned before toasting in the oven, the pork belly was super tender with all of its fat rendered—probably absorbed into the bread. Instead of sauerkraut, which sometimes gives you an unpleasant, funky hit they make a briny relish with onions that served a similar purpose to cut through the fattiness of the pork belly. The pork was excellently cooked and echoed so many similar flavors from corned beef that many people probably couldn’t tell the difference. My only critique for this sandwich? The cheese could have been more powerful, it could take it!
For the next course, and the best one yet, were the Veal Schnitzel Tacos, which were a perfect fusion of two very different cuisines. Clearly, these tacos were meant to emulate crispy fish tacos, and they definitely fit the bill. The tacos were served on thick flour tortillas and garnished with radishes, which I love on my fish tacos for their mild peppery flavor and great crunch factor. The veal was moist with a thick batter crust holding the braised and shredded meat together—not your mama’s veal cutlets! The crispy veal was covered with a lightly dressed slaw—or “health salad,” and the tacos were served with lemon wedges dusted with ground espelette, a variety of red chili pepper, so you could spice up the tacos as you squeezed the lemon juice over the top. When my mom made schnitzel growing up we always squeezed lemon onto the meat when it was still hot, so this was a good nostalgic touch. The anchovy mayo was nice, but ultimately unnecessary, though it did continue the theme. It was slightly sweet and played nicely with the spicy lemon-pepper garnish.
I had come to the part of the night that I was both most excited and most anxious for: dessert. I had been told that it was absolutely necessary to order the Bacon and Egg Cream, but I was scared—I had so many memories of traditional egg creams on Saturday mornings in my grandparents with a big jar of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup on the counter. Would this version ruin those memories for me? How could they even turn an egg cream into a dessert? And bacon—that doesn’t belong in this drink. I am now a changed man and have converted to the dark side of the bacon and egg cream, and may never go back. When this dessert was set down in front of me, I had to take a moment to appreciate the creativity and artistry that went into this dish. It was served in a tall glass, and almost overflowing like one of the famous Brooklyn Diner egg creams. A long spoon was included, but it wasn’t to stir it up; instead it was to eat—this was not a drink but a full-fledged, contemporary dessert that still incorporates the traditional flavors so I could understand the egg cream concept, but flipped on its head. The vanilla maple custard echoed the milk of cream utilized in old school egg creams, dark chocolate pudding turned into a light and airy foam using a nitro canister is at the same time very decadent and mimics the fuzz you would get from bubbly, seltzer water, and an Oreo bacon crumble to further enhance the chocolate flavor and remind you that this is a modern take on a classic and you better remember! The smoked maple syrup garnish on top—because why not?—was just enough to tie all of the flavors together. After inhaling this amazing concoction, I felt like a kid who’s been naughty for some reason; this was most certainly not the egg cream my grandfather used to make me, but in the best way possible. I could eat three of these…mmmm getting hungry!
As if I weren’t already stuffed enough full of deliciousness, the waiter brought out an extra dessert bite with the check. The mini Chocolate Espresso Blondie was a nice treat with a rich chocolate flavor brought out by the coffee. It wasn’t super soft, which was great, and had good chew from the cookie portion.
On my next sojourn to Abe Fisher, I felt it prudent to bring a friend so as to taste even more of the available dishes, and I’m glad I did. This time we got to sit at the chef’s table by the kitchen, and it was fun to interact a bit with the chefs. We also got to witness how hard the kitchen works to make all the plates look fabulous and push dishes out quickly to hungry diners—respect. Even better, we were treated to a new amuse bouche. This time the chef prepared a Pastrami Pate served atop everything spiced matzah. The matzoh is classic, old school Jewish—not just for Passover!—and tasted more like a flatbread cracker. The combination together was akin to a bagel with delicious chopped liver from a New York bagelry or having a salt beef bagel in London’s Brick Lane. Yum!
I knew that this would be another super decadent and heavy meal, so we decided to choose one of the dishes that looked sort of light, the Brussel Sprout Caesar. First of all, there were pumpernickel bread pudding croutons—um, yes! Where have you been all my life? Not only were the croutons delicious, but they also served as needed crunch. The salad turned out to be heavy and delicious. There was a bit too much dressing, but that’s like what you get from the cole slaw or deli salad at a delicatessen. The pecorino cheese provided a pungent bite that paired well with the sweetness of the grapes and the earthiness of the brussel sprouts.
The Potato Pancakes were not like my grandma’s latkes, though they definitely borrowed a bit from contemporary potato pancake flavor profiles. The avocado cream cheese was refreshing, and they interplay of temperatures was great—super crispy, hot pancakes with the cool, creamy avocado, and the smoked salmon provided the modern twist.
Another reason this place is great—another sample plate. This time the waiter brought us some Smoked Short Rib on Rye, which is incidentally one of the happy hour specials. Though these bites were mini, they weren’t mini on flavor. The meat was fall apart tender with a delicate smoky flavor paired up with creamy, sweet Russian dressing and bright, housemade pickles.
Up next in our feast was the Venison Carpaccio. The venison was moist and tender, and sliced super thin. The bitterballen or bitter melon was in name only; braised in beef stew, and then fried it was transformed. The horseradish went super well with the slightly metallic meat and fried balls, and gave the dish a nice zip. The fried melon balls were essential to bring some added richness to the lean venison. The textural and temperature contrast between the raw meat and the fried melon was also a nice touch.
For our seconds selection from the “Two” section, we went with another healthy-ish sounding choice: Spinach Kugel. Kugel is Eastern European in origin and is essentially a casserole and can be made with potato, egg noodles and cottage cheese for a traditional lukshen kugel, matzah fearful and apple for Passover, and many more varieties. This version was spinach kugel bumped up to another level. The cheddar gave the spinach a nutty flavor and played the part of supporting actor perfectly to highlight the spinach as the star. The green jalapeño puree was spicy, but it was a warm heat that didn’t overpower the vegetable. The pie crumble was essentially a deconstructed crust. What a tasty way to eat some spinach—Popeye would approve.
Of course, one of the cooks saw that we were eyeing the beautifully marbled brisket that he was slicing, so he fed us each a slice. The meat was very delicious, fatty in the best way, and the juices coated the roof of my mouth. Would’ve made the best sandwiches!
The veal schnitzel tacos had been so delicious and perfect portioned into two tacos that we ordered them again—and they were just as delicious as last time—but for our second “Three” dish we went with the Halibut En Croute, which translates to halibut with a bread crust. This dish was good, but not amazing. The fish was very meaty, and the crust was super crispy, but it was hard to pick up any aspects of the challah bread in it. The romanesco was salty as many Jewish dishes are and had a nice char. The leeks were meh, but how much can you really do with a leek?
Obviously, we ordered the bacon and egg cream as one of our dessert choices—you’re insane if you don’t—and went with the Babka Bread Pudding as dessert #2. This seemed to be one of the most popular desserts, perhaps only overtaken by the “egg cream,” and watched as it was plated all night, so we had to have it. Soft, flaky and buttery cake was flavored with cinnamon and cardamom that complemented each other nicely. It was served warm from a reheat in the oven in order to better absorb the flavors of the cardamom creme anglaise with an ooey, gooey middle that reminded me of the center of a fresh cinnamon roll. Garnished with tangy-sweet, candied orange peel and a crunchy hazelnut praline brittle this was another dish with a beautiful presentation. This dessert was so so good, and felt like an old-world hug.
Abe Fisher has amazing food. Period. Even if you don’t go for Restaurant Week, it’s still a good deal. They have great, prompt service, the staff is very knowledgable about the food, and talkative as well. They seem to really care about their diners, and it shows not only in the food, but also in the plating and service. You won’t leave hungry and that’s a guarantee!
Garces Trading Company
1111 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
For most of my restaurant week meals, I try to go to dinner since there is sometimes a more expansive menu and a greater hubbub in the dining room. I decided to venture to Garces Trading Company for lunch though, especially as I had a meeting a couple blocks away right beforehand. Jose Garces, of Iron Chef America fame, calls Philly home, and operates a mini-culinary empire of his own in the City of Brotherly Love: Garces Trading Company, Amada, Volver, Rosa Blanca, Village Whiskey, and Distrito to name a few. Garces Trading Company was one of Garces’ first restaurants and offers an eclectic European menu—from vichyssoise to sandwiches to mussels to macarons. Looking at the menu, it seemed like the restaurant couldn’t really decide what cuisine it wanted to be and decided to borrow from many.
The restaurant has big, tall windows letting in lots of natural light, and looks like a Paris bistro inside, with large barn doors leading to a wine room, and the dining room was made up of a mix of high tops, regular tables, and communal tables—like an upscale Le Pain Quotidien. In between the entrance and the dining room there are specialty products for sale such as roasted garlic dulce de leech, cranberry pear balsamic, or Sicilian lemon vinegar. If had more time—or money, ha!—I definitely would have bought some of these products.
Even at lunch there is sourdough bread and olive oil for the table. It was a cute bread box, though bread was a bit cold. I wonder if they bake it on the premises? Plus, everything here is branded, even the bottles of oil on the tables. I’m sure they are also available to purchase.
I was really torn between two of the appetizer selections, so I decided to get two and pay the extra few dollars for my extra choice. The apps took a bit of time to come out, but they were both very good. The House Made Mozzarella had a springy outer shell with a softer middle. It wasn’t served cold, but rather room temperature, which probably contributed to the softer center. It was garnished with cracked pepper, olive oil and sea salt. The mozzarella went well with some of the leftover bread, and had a similar texture to fresh mozzarella that you’d get at Di Bruno Bros. or other Italian specialty food store.
The Vichyssoise Chaud is a French version of a potato-leek soup. This one was very tasty. I could smell the drizzle of truffle oil as it came to the table. The soup itself was garnished with some chopped chives, creamy and perfect for a cold day. Sliced potatoes and cooked bacon added nice texture, but the flavor mostly came from the drizzle of truffle oil. Some of the ham in the soup was super flavorful and added a surprisingly pleasant salt bomb, but some of the ham was just bland. The leeks blended up nicely and the starch from the potato thickened the soup without making it over reduced.
I almost decided to go with the mussels for my main course, but at the last minute decided on the Croque Monsieur, which is one of my favorite dishes. A good croque monsieur is simple, yet elegant—as a jazzed up, French ham and cheese sandwich should be. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I was there on an off day, maybe I was a victim of the lunch rush, or it just isn’t a dish to order here—it was #disappointing. The sandwich itself made me wish it was a croque madame, since it was screaming for the creaminess of a fried egg on top. And don’t we all want an extra egg on top? When it came to the table, the cheese inside of the sandwich was not melted, and the ham was cold, which was weird because the bread was actually toasted nicely. Instead of that elegance, it felt like a sad version of Texas toast grilled cheese. So for round 2, they brought me a new sandwich after I asked them to reheat the first one. The cheese looked beautifully melted on top, and the cheese inside was mostly melted, but still a little cold in the center. Also, the cheese was okay, but I wish they had used a stronger cheese like a nutty Gruyere or sharp Swiss, and the ham was cut thick and reminded me a bit of breakfast ham. The sides really were the highlights of this dish. The side salad of spring greens was dressed with a simple, but delicious mustard vinaigrette, and the house made chips were great—super crunch and seasoned with citrus zest, paprika and seasoned salt. Overall, it would have been better to order the mussels for my entree—plus I was craving some good Dijon mustard.
So dessert turned out to be good, but it started out as looking bleak. They were out of the bouchons—petit chocolate cake— so I went with the macarons, because how bad can that be? Then they came back to me that they were out of those as well. Le sigh—very disappointing. How are you out of two desserts at lunch? They gave the excuse that they were out because of a big rush they had, but umm it’s weekday lunch….seemed a little crazy to me. Oh well. They offered a choice of choux puff as a substitute, but I’m not a big cream puff person, so they let me try the Seasonal Verinne panna cotta dessert from regular menu, which ended up being amazing! The panna cotta was perfectly set but not too stiff—creamy as you break in with a mild pistachio flavor. The next layer was some velvety and tangy marscapone that a nice break from the sweetness of the layers. The bottom was a layer of rich, decadent dark chocolate. The deep flavor of the dark chocolate played off the raspberry and candied pistachio garnish nicely, especially with the tartness of the raspberry and the slight saltiness of the nut. While the berries weren’t super juicy or ripe, they worked because the dish needed some acidity.
So here’s the truth—lunch at Garces Trading Place was just okay. It’s very much a place to take a client to lunch, but not so great for a bonafide foodie. Why? The food let me down. Even though the appetizers were lovely and the dessert was very tasty, I left the restaurant remembering my cold sandwich—and that’s never what you want. The service was great, and the staff was friendly, but I’ll need to give this place another visit and I’ll think twice before ordering another Croque Monsieur.
223 South Sydenham Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
So this place seemed pretty interesting. My research indicated that Vesper used to be a private dining club for Mummers during the Prohibition era, then an eatery frequented by the mob, and not it’s open to the public on the main level, but a password only, speakeasy downstairs. It seemed that the speakeasy aspect harks back to its former life and is really more of a draw for foodies nowadays. The way they’ve revamped it as a supper style club with dancing and paying homage to the Mad Men era of old school dining lounges does bring back some elegant flare to the Center City dining scene.
Okay, while the whole speakeasy, old-timey bar is a bit overplayed—though very hipster chic—the food is really what I came for.
As I walked through the door there was a mix of rockabilly and blues/folk music playing in the upstairs dining room, which fit in well with the speakeasy theme. They were actually partnered up with Jazz Up Philly later that night for some live jazz and blues music, which was a nice surprise. The place was a bit empty when I came in around 5:30ish though. I must have beat the pre-dinner rush. Mini rolls were brought to the table, which could’ve been a bit softer in the middle or warmed up, but the butter was great. It was studded with lots of lemony thyme and woody oregano that complemented the earthiness from the caraway baked onto the rolls.
I decided to deviate a bit from the Restaurant Week menu and order an extra a la carte appetizer—good thing I brought my eating pants! The Roasted Bone Marrow had a very dramatic presentation. At first I thought that the large bones would mean more marrow, and I was right with the second bone, though the first was meh with the filling. The grilled bread had a wonderful crunch to spread the marrow on. The apricot jam was almost on the verge of being cloyingly sweet, but went well with the fatty marrow and is very traditional. I wished there had been a bit more salt on it, but adding some of the table butter helped season the bite. This was a good dish, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.
I have three words for you that will make you have an instant foodgasm: Duck. Confit. Ravioli. Holy mother of yum! This dish had better live up to its name, and it did. The Duck Confit Ravioli featured fresh, homemade pasta that was very delicate, but firm and al dente enough to hold in the meat. The duck filling was amazing! The meat was fall apart tender, fatty and juicy from being cooked in its own fat. The Parmesan foam garnish was subtle in its pungency but also creamy, and added to the luxuriousness of this pasta dish. The spinach wasn’t too liquidy, which was surprising since it was practically a salt bomb—so good technique. (Usually when salt is added to greens, they release water. Spinach holds a lot of water) The salty spinach and creamy Parmesan foam worked together to form an almost deconstructed creamed spinach. Taking a bite of all the components together was wonderful. There was fat, salt, soft, chew, crunch from the mache (lettuce) garnish. It was just a delicious dish.
Another course where I flip-flopped on my order. I was all set to order the Quail Ragu, but changed my mind at the last minute and went with the Crispy Skate Wing. The duck confit filling probably resembled the ravioli filling from the appetizer, plus the hostess told me it was her favorite as it was very crispy. They seemed to be very into baby cache as it was used to garnish the plate again in this course. The fish was crispy, but I think not as crispy as it could have been because the filets were sitting on top of each other. The fish was firm and not overcooked, and reminded me a bit of a fishy version of a chicken fried steak. The kale was still green with a good crunch, but not super flavorful, and ironically, the fish was a bit on the salty side—I wish they had taken the extra salt from the fish and maybe a splash of lemon and added it to the kale. This was a heavy dish, and the sauce painted onto the plate was sweet and helped a bit to cut through the heaviness of the dish, though I wish there had been more of it.
By this point I was pretty full from such a heavy meal, and was hoping for something refreshing and maybe light? Were they saving the best for last? I don’t know what could top the duck ravioli. While the Passion Fruit Creme Brûlée wasn’t what I would call “light,” it was refreshing and delicious. First of all, the creme brûlée passed the all important “spoon test.” What is the spoon test, you ask? Using the back of your spoon, you should be able to give the caramelized top a thwack and hear it crack a bit. That’s ho you know that the brûlée is done right. The fruity and tangy taste to the creamy custard on top of the vanilla base was good contact, and the sauce was very, very tart and very refreshing and zippy from the passion fruit. The interplay of textures in this dessert was also great—crunchy top, creamy custard, flaky tart shell, slimy passion fruit sauce. This was the perfect mini tart—the shell held together but was broken easily with a spoon. It was buttery, but not too sweet, and had wonderful flavor. The blueberry garnish lent a certain earthiness next to the loud passionfruit. In addition, the checkerboard chocolate was an elegant touch, and enhanced the fine dining presentation. Of note: the baking and plating skills of the pastry chef were really on display in this dish, and a lot of thought went into this dessert. The chef chose to plate this dish as a tart as opposed to in a dish, which was brave—they needed to par bake a perfect tart shell, then cook the creme to a creamy consistency without doing a traditional water bath. Timing was key here. Bravo!
So I think we’ve established that I enjoyed the food at Vesper, but was it my favorite meal of this fine dining battle? I’m not sure. While Vesper had some of my favorite dishes, it also had a couple of plates that were a bit forgettable. Garces, unfortunately, is out of the running for 1st place—even though it came in as a major contender. Abe Fisher had some amazing bites, but was it fine dining enough for this category? I’m going to give this battle to Abe Fisher for its high marks across the board: great service, creative dishes and style of cooking, and a delicious meal (or two). Vesper earns a very respectable 2nd place and had one of my favorite plates of the year in its duck confit ravioli—please wrap me up five orders to go! Lol—and Garces Trading Company comes in 3rd, but deserves another trip. The dessert there was delicious and the apps were both good too, but I know I’ll be dreaming of the Bacon and Egg Cream and Duck Confit Ravioli for days. #HungryForMore!