BYO Battle (Philly Restaurant Week Round Up, Part 2)

For the next round of Philadelphia Restaurant Week, I’ve decided to pair up two of my favorites—Pumpkin and Russet. What do these two have in common? They’re both proponents of the farm-to-table movement and locally-sourced ingredients. So let the battle commence!

Photo Jan 17, 9 09 53 PMPumpkin
1713 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146

This is such a cute place! The first thing that struck me when I walked through the door was the size. Pumpkin is definitely cozy with about 24-26, but the mirrors on the wall allow for the illusion of more space. With about about 26 seats in the dining room, which has a rustic farmhouse meets contemporary chic feel with the rich wood tones, marble style tabletops and dim lighting—this would definitely be a good date place.

Photo Jan 17, 9 10 48 PMPumpkin opened in 2004 with a seasonally changing menu in the early days of the farm-to-table movement’s resurgence in American cuisine. In addition, they are also a BYOB restaurant, which is a wonderful feature of many eateries in the Philadelphia food scene. Both the waiter and runner here were extremely knowledgeable about the restaurant week menu and food in general. I was surprised, but probably should not have been.

The crusty bread a had a nice crispy chew, and the garlic infused oil was fruity and savory to really whet the appetite. With such good bread, I was very tempted to order the burrata appetizer. Plus, it sounded delicious: soft, creamy cheese, la Quercia ham—described as American prosciutto—treviso radicchio in place of escarole—lots of textures. Decisions, decisions…

Photo Jan 17, 9 26 22 PMPhoto Jan 17, 9 26 27 PMI stuck with my gut and went with the Garganelle Pasta appetizer. The garganelle was almost like penne but wider with a slight curve, and was just over the edge of al dente with a nice bite. The braised pork shoulder also had a good chew and wonderful umami falvor. The hearty and starchy white beans weren’t too buttery, and instead gave the dish some extra thickness. The kale was slightly crispy, but cooked down so it became more of a background note that was lost in the shuffle. The sauce—or broth really—was subtle and absorbed flavor from light dusting of pungent parmesan, and the acidic lemon zest helped cut through the richness of the pork and heaviness of the pasta. It was a great appetizer portion, and a wonderful way to start the meal.

20160120_222305Up next was the main event—the Long Island Duck. The duck was served over some dirty farro. To make a grain “dirty,” I learned, means to cook it with chicken livers!!—Yum! I am totally #TeamLiver or is it #TeamDirty? Anyway, the chicken liver makes the farro slightly sweet and lends it an unctuous meaty flavor. The sherry, caramelized pearl onions blended complimented the sweetness of the faro and had a slightly acidic, almost pickled flavor to them. They weren’t cooked to death as, unfortunately, many caramelized onion garnishes are, and the choice of pearl onions over traditional slices helped them stay together and provide a nice textural contrast with the slight chew of the farro. The star of the dish was the Long Island duck breast—cooked to a perfect medium rare temperature. It was super moist with crispy skin—though it would have been even crispier if the breast had not been sliced—texture vs. presentation? Either way, it was delicious. As I ate my way through this very luxurious course, there was a building heat that was perhaps form some cayenne in the faro or the braised collard greens underneath the duck, which was smart plating to have the greens absorb the running duck juices. The greens themselves, cooked down with the classic combination of bacon and hot sauce, made for a perfect bite with the duck—slight smoky, salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time. This dish was a wonderful blend of modern creativity and classic Americana, and as the chef is originally from North Carolina, he knows how to cook Southern!

Photo Jan 17, 9 54 09 PMFor dessert, I got the Pot de Creme, which is really just a fancy, French term for a thick pudding. Pumpkin’s version is pretty solid. The creme had a subtle malted milk flavor and took on flavors well, from the very rich chocolate caramel crumble .to the delicious and crunch praline crunch, which was necessary to add some change of texture to an otherwise soft bowl of dessert. The somewhat hidden caramel core in the middle of the cream was a nice secret discovery. #SweetTreat! Surprisingly, the pot de creme was refreshing, and a good way to end a heavy meal.

Photo Jan 17, 10 08 57 PMOverall, this menu seemed very well thought out, and a good winter meal. A hearty, hot appetizer, a play on a meat-and-grain stick to your ribs entree, and a sweet caramel and chocolate dessert. The to-go packet of pumpkin seeds was a nice touch. Pumpkin should definitely be on your list of places to eat at in Philly, especially for special occasions or for their Sunday night pre-fixe supper—though don’t forget to bring cash as it’s a cash only establishment. Totally worth a trip to the ATM on the way over!

Russet
1521 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Photo Jan 19, 7 47 20 PMThe first thing I did when me and my friend were seated at our table was to ask why the restaurant was named “Russet,” which I had imagined referred to the humble potato and would fit the theme of the farm-to-table and local food movement that the chef favors. I was wrong. The restaurant is actually named for the “Russet” apple…how quaint lol. I still appreciate that the name refers to a natural food, and who doesn’t love a good apple?

Russet is also a BYOB establishment—we should’ve brought some wine, but oh well. It is a small place, but while Pumpkin seemed to know how to utilize their space very well, here it looked very “cozy”—usually codeword for on top of each other, though it didn’t feel too crowded once we were sitting down. In the dining room, there are some great architectural touches such as an arch with columns, crown moulding, and a very eclectic feel. The house-baked semolina bread was tasty and the flavor was similar to rye bread. The sea salt bowl on the table was another eclectic touch, and helped highlight the flavor of the butter.

Photo Jan 19, 8 04 46 PMOne of the benefits of having fellow foodie friends is that they’ll come to a last minute dinner reservation to scope out a Restaurant Week menu. Plus, I get to try double the dishes as I would have been if I dined alone. Yay! I’m a big fan of pasta in any form, which should have already been obvious to you, so for our first appetizer, we got the Gorgonzola Dolce Ravioli. This was a very cerebral plate of pasta, with nuanced flavors that you wouldn’t necessary associate together, but they went very well in this dish. The ravioli were sitting in a delicate broth flavored from the garlic confit—cooked down slowly into a soft texture—and the garlic got sweet and aromatic. The gorgonzola cheese was not too sweet and also not super tangy—the gorgonzola dolce variety was the right choice with he sweet beets and salty parmesan garnish to complement the cheese. The sweet, soft chioggia beets almost “bled into” the pasta and gave some dark pink color to the (otherwise) beige plate, and the walnuts added a crunchy texture and bite to the dish. The pasta itself was cooked al dente, which was a nice touch as many places make ravioli too soft.

Photo Jan 19, 8 04 51 PMOur second first course dish was a Green Meadow Farm Duck and Pork Rillette. Lots of thought went into the presentation of this dish. There was lots of negative space on the plate, which I know is a thing, but I’m not always a fan. The frisee lettuce was lightly dressed, and provided some needed crunch and bitter notes to a very rich dish. The rillette was super smooth and lovely, while at the same time allowing the distinct tastes of the duck and pork to be tasted separately. The homemade cracker was a good vehicle for eating, and the mostarda really helped bring the gamy flavors to the forefront.

Photo Jan 19, 8 19 12 PMWe decided on two very different entrees for the main course. The Happy Valley Beef Shoulder and the Seared Branzino. The beef shoulder was expremely tender, but still maintained a level of chew so you still knew it was beef. The tomato fondue garnish acted almost as a chutney and coated the beef with an acidic sweetness. It was very rich, and almost certainly had copious amounts of butter—I approve! The charred cabbage made for nice plating. It was braised as well, but held together. The polenta underneath was very creamy, but also a little too salty. Otherwise, this was a delicious and super creative dish—it screamed to me as an elevated play on cabbage and beef.

Photo Jan 19, 8 18 52 PMThe Seared Branzino was also a very composed dish. One of the ingredients listed on the menu, “bintje potatoes” was a mystery to me, but they were really just normal potatoes in the end. The potatoes were cooked well—as they usually do—and tasted even better when eaten with the salsa verde that not only gave the dish some freshness, but also served as a seasoning. I especially loved all of the fresh herbs in the salsa! The skin on the fish was super crisp—perfectly executed!—and was a substantial portion size. The onions, though, were sort of lost in the shuffle. Although the dish was pretty simple, it was very delicious.

Photo Jan 19, 8 49 24 PMWe decided to forego the sorbet option, and ordered the Local Ginger Cake and the Preserved Apricot Tart. The cake was very petite, and surprisingly moist—many ginger or honey cakes are often dry and crumbly. The pastry chef here is certainly up to par, and the cider sabayon cream was a nice edition. While the sabayon was technically perfect, it didn’t have enough of a citrus flavor. The cider, especially, helped highlight the ginger flavor of the cake. The tuile was meh in taste, but good textural contrast and added some height for a classy presentation. The caramel apples provided some much needed sweetness and slight tartness, though I wish it had a stronger caramel flavor.

Photo Jan 19, 8 49 05 PMPhoto Jan 19, 8 49 01 PMThe Preserved Apricot Tart was our favorite dessert, hands down, though that’s not to say that the ginger cake wasn’t tasty as well. The tart’s crust was super flaky—again excellent baking technique—and the apricot filling was delicious! The frangipane was creamy, custardy and had great almond flavor; it wasn’t too sweet, and just tangy enough. In addition, the plating was extremely beautiful.

Another delicious meal that definitely utilized the bountiful produce characteristic of the farm-to-table movement. In fact, Russet publishes where they get many of their ingredients on the menu. You could taste the freshness of the ingredients and the passion in the food. Definitely on the list as well.

Is there a winner of this battle? The real question is if there is a loser. The answer is: no. Both Russet and Pumpkin provided great meals full of fresh ingredients, amazing culinary technique and a logical progression of flavors. If I had to choose, I would choose Pumpkin, but only because it’s closer! In fact, I’m going to go on OpenTable and make a reservation for dinner at both ASAP—and you should too!

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