Cooking Under Quarantine — Moroccan Chicken Tagine

For our next episode of Cooking Under Quarantine, we’ll be making one of my favorite Fall dishes — Moroccan Chicken Tagine. While my version of this classic Moroccan dish isn’t actually cooked inside of a tagine pot, but it echoes a lot of the flavors that I love when I ordering tagines at Moroccan restaurants — a little bit sweet, salty, sour, savory and the protein is always fall apart tender. It’s very comforting as the weather turns colder, and is also great to make in the slow cooker! So follow along with Chef Jon, and let us know how yours turns out.

Cooking Under Quarantine, Moroccan Chicken Tagine!

Ingredients:

  • 1 chicken cut into 8 pieces or 1-2 lb package of boneless chicken thighs
  • 5-6 carrots chopped into chunks
  • 2 medium onions, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup of pitted green olives
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 4-5 garlic cloves
  • Spices: smoked paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, Ras al Hanout (Moroccan spice blend)
  • 1-2 cups of chicken broth
  • 1/2-3/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 preserved lemons, chopped — Can buy preserved lemons at most specialty food stores, but can also substitute 2-3 regular lemons, juices and zest grated
  • Parsley or Cilantro (optional)
  1. Blend the spices and any other spices you like and add a couple tablespoons of olive oil — enough to form into a rub and coat the chicken on all sides with it, Let the chicken marinate for at least 15 minutes in the spice rub
  2. Sauté chicken in olive oil in a hot Dutch oven or deep pot on both sides until browned but not fully cooked through
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. You’ll come back to it later
  4. In same pot add garlic and onions and cook until starting to brown (approx 5 min)
  5. Add carrots and keep cooking
  6. If you have extra, season the veggies with more of the spice rub and heat until fragrant
  7. Add preserved lemon and olives to the pot
  8. Add broth and lemon juice to veggie pan to deglaze the pan, and make sure to scrape bottom of the pot for flavor bits — add just enough broth so that the liquid covers the ingredients
  9. Add aprocots to the pot and make sure to give everything a good mix!
  10. Add the chicken back in and stir all together — taste the liquid and adjust seasonings to your taste. Maybe add more lemon, salt, etc
  11. Heat on medium high for 5-10 minutes until the liquid begins to simmer, then cover and lower heat to medium low and simmer for about 45 min – 1 hour
  12. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro and/or parsley then spoon over couscous or serve in a bowl with sides of your choosing.

I love to serve this dish with some lemon couscous, herb roasted tomatoes and some crusty bread to mop up all the delicious sauce. It’s always a big hit and perfect for leftovers!

Summer Wedding Celebration!

My family is celebrating my brother’s upcoming marriage with a small, outdoor wedding. But, I wanted to share the recipes for what we’ll be eating with you, so that you can recreate those flavors at home! So follow along with Chef Jon in the video above (or on YouTube HERE) or by following the recipe below, as we make Pistachio-Coconut Crusted Salmon with an Arugula-Pistachio Pesto and Grilled Corn, Tomato and Avocado Salad. Perfect for a summer celebration!

Pistachio-Coconut Crusted Salmon 

Ingredients

  • Salmon fillets, skin on
  • Garlic, 3-4 cloves
  • 1/2 cup of shelled pistachios
  • 1/2 cup shredded coconut flakes, unsweetened
  • 1 tbsp of dijon mustard — can substitute mayo if desired
  • Olive oil
  • 2 tsp of salt
  • 1/2 tsp of black pepper
  • 2 lemons, halved and grilled cut side down (optional)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
  2. While the oven is preheating, let’s make the crust — in the bowl of a food processor, add the pistachios, garlic, coconut, 1 tsp of salt and pepper
  3. Pulse in the food processor until the mixture comes together and is similar in texture and size to sand — you can do this without a food processor by putting mixture into a plastic bag and taking your aggression out on it with a rolling pin!
  4. Pat the salmon dry with a towel, and then season with the remaining salt, and transfer it to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper — you can use tin foil, but parchment paper will make sure the salmon won’t stick. Plus, makes for super easy cleanup!
  5. Using a brush or a spoon, spread the dijon all over the flesh of the salmon — this is the glue the helps the crust stick
  6. Using your hands, cover the mustard-covered salmon with the crust mixture. Make sure to cover the fish evenly, so it will cook evenly, and cover it all over — we don’t want any parts uncovered
  7. Once the fish is covered, pour some olive oil over the top to help with browning the crust
  8. Bake the fish for 10-12 minutes then remove from oven and let the fish cool for at least 5 minutes
  9. Garnish with the Arugula-Pistachio pesto, grilled lemons and serve with Grilled Corn, Tomato and Avocado Salad. Yum!

Arugula-Pistachio Pesto

Ingredients

  • 1-2 cups of arugula or baby arugula
  • 1 cup of pistachios — you can substitute walnuts if you’ve used up all your pistachios on the fish
  • 1-2 tsps of lemon zest
  • 1-2 tbsps of lemon juice
  • Garlic, 4-5 cloves
  • 1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or Pecorino Romano or an aged, hard cheese
  • Olive oil

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a food processor (or mortar and pestle) add all of the ingredients except for the oil
  2. Pulse the mixture continuously while adding olive oil until it turns into a loose paste. I like mine a little coarse and chunky, but you can choose your own thickness
  3. If you find it too thick, add more olive oil or a bit more lemon juice. Make sure to taste it!
  4. Empty mixture into a bowl and let it sit at least 10-15 minutes before using — this pesto is also great as a pasta sauce. Just mix the cold or room temperature pesto into hot pasta. So good!

Grilled Corn, Tomato & Avocado Salad 

Ingredients

  • Corn, 4-5 ears
  • Cherry tomatoes, 1 pint, cut in half
  • Red onion, 1 medium or 1/2 large onion, diced
  • Avocados, 2 — make sure that your avocados are ripe, but not mushy, chopped in 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup of champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp of honey
  • 1 tbsp of dijon mustard
  • 2 tsps of dried mint
  • 1/4 cup of lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup of olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of fresh cilantro

Directions

  1. Heat your grill or grill-pan to medium heat — you want it hot, but not smoking
  2. While the grill is getting hot, clean your corn by removing both the husk and silk strands — you want corn to grill contact to happen
  3. Place the corn on the grill (and some lemon halves which make a great garnish) — don’t worry about turning the corn too too often since you want some of that char and grill color on the corn. You should probably give it a nudge every 3-5 minutes — it will only take about 10-15 minutes total to cook
  4. While the corn is grilling, dice your onion and chop the tomatoes in half and place in a large bowl big enough for mixing
  5. Once your corn has come off the grill and cooled for a few min, cut off the end of the corn so you have a straight edge, and balance the corn on its straight end
  6. Using a sharp, chef’s knife, starting at the top of the ear, cut of the corn kernels by cutting straight down, and rotate the corn once you get to the bottom and repeat until you’ve cut all of the corn off the cob. Repeat for all of the ears or corn. Add the corn to the tomatoes and onions
  7. Cut your avocados by running a sharp knife along the outside, around the pit until you’ve gone all the way around. Use your hands to twist the 2 halves apart
  8. Take your knife and thwack it into the avocado pit so it sticks into it, then twist to detach the pit from the avocado
  9. Use a spoon to scoop out the avocado meat and chop into 1/2 inch pieces
  10. Drizzle the avocado pieces in lemon juice to keep them bright green before you mix into the corn salad mixture.
  11. For the dressing: mix honey, champagne vinegar, olive oil, dijon, salt, pepper, cilantro and mint in a bowl and mix vigorously until the dressing is one homogeneous mixture — I like to use a mason jar.
  12. Pour the dressing over the corn-tomato mixture (reserving some dressing if needed later) and add the avocados
  13. Gently toss everything together until all of the ingredients have a little bit of dressing on them, and make sure to be delicate with the avocado so it doesn’t get mushed
  14. Garnish with more chopped cilantro, and erve with your favorite fish or chicken dish on a beautiful summer day — like for a wedding celebration perhaps. Bon appetit!

Cooking Under Quarantine — Cajun Comfort!

Cooking Under Quarantine is back! In this episode, we’re making Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya.

I ate Jambalaya for the first (and certainly not the last!) time while visiting New Orleans. New Orleans is the kind of city that foodie dreams are made of, and I love it. In the past, I’d visit about once a year with friends and we’d spend a long weekend eating delicious cajun food, drinking, spending time at the pool, then rinse and repeat.

So, when I thought of what to make next in this series, the choice was easy. Jambalaya is a hearty rice-based dish with meat and/or seafood, tomato, veggies and a little cajun kick. This comforting one-pot dish comes together in under an hour and is super versatile and adaptable for cooks of any level. So follow along with Chef Jon and let us know how yours turned out!

Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya

Ingredients:

  • Boneless chicken breast or thighs, 1-2lb
  • Andouille sausage (or another kind of smoked sausage), 4 links
  • Onions, 1 big or 2 small, chopped 
  • Carrots, 2, chopped 
  • Bell pepper, 2 chopped 
  • Scallions, 1 bunch
  • Can of crushed tomatoes, 28oz can
  • Tomato paste, small can
  • Cajun seasoning, 2-3tbsp
  • Gumbo file, 2 tsp (optional)
  • Rice, 1 cup
  • Chicken broth (or vegetable broth), 1-2 cups
  • Garlic, 5-6 cloves
  • Favorite brand of hot sauce

Directions:

  1. Heat olive oil frying pan with at least a 1 inch lip, and sauté sausage for at 7-10 min until browned but not 100% cooked through
  2. Remove sausage from pan and set aside for later.
  3. In the sausage fat, start to sauté your veggies. Season with salt and pepper 
  4. Add garlic once veggies are soft and sauté until starting to brown
  5. Make a well in middle of pan by pushing veggies to the sides, and add chicken
  6. Once chicken has browned, add 1-2 spoonfuls of tomato paste as well as Cajun seasoning
  7. Add rice to pan and toast for a couple of minutes
  8. Add crushed tomatoes and broth and give the pan a few big stirs so everything is mixed up well. Also add sausage back into the pan
  9. Cover and cook for 20-25 min depending on what kind of rice you’re using — stir pan every 5-10 min but don’t mess with it too much. Add extra liquid if needed
  10. Garnish with chopped scallions and add hot sauce

Enjoy y’all!

Let’s Talk Tuna — Tuna Pasta Puttanesca

While everything is going on, even a quick run to the grocery store has become a great feat. So, it seems like a great time to use up those items in your pantry. Something that I almost always have in my cabinet? Canned tuna.

Now, I too love a great tuna sandwich, but tuna salad gets boring after a while, amirite? Enter “Tuna Pasta Puttanesca” — this hearty, comforting pasta dish pulls double duty as not only a delicious dinner, but also uses up ingredients you might not have even remembered you had! Tomatoes, olives, capers, and our star ingredient, TUNA, make this easy meal a crowd pleaser and it’s packed with protein so will feed about 4 or 2-3 very hungry people!

Tuna Pasta Puttanesca

Ingredients:

  • 1lb of pasta (traditionally made with Spaghetti, but you can use any pasta)
  • 28oz can of crushed tomatoes or your favorite jar of tomato sauce
  • 1 tbsp dried basil
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp of minced garlic or 3-4 cloves finely chopped
  • 1 tin of anchovies in oil
  • 1 small jar of capers, halfway drained
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of olives — your favorite kind
  • 2-3 tbsp of tomato paste
  • 2 cans of tuna fish
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1-2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Directions:

  1. Put a pot of water (at least 6-8 cups) on medium-high heat to start heating up.
  2. In a flat sauté pan (with at least a 1/2 inch lip), add some olive oil and put over medium heat until the oil starts to shimmer.
  3. Add the anchovies 1-2 at a time to the oil, so they start to “melt.”
  4. Once the anchovies start breaking down, add the garlic and use the back of your spoon to spread out.
  5. Once the garlic starts to brown, add all the herbs and red pepper flakes until you begin to smell the aroma of the herbs coming off the pan.
  6. Add the tomato paste and break up with your spoon.
  7. After 3-4 minutes, add the capers and olives, including half of the caper brine.
  8. Let this cook for a few minutes until there is only a little bit of liquid left, and it is mostly solid and mixed in with the tomatoes.
  9. Add the can of crushed tomatoes and give this a big stir to blend everything.
  10.  Once this mixture comes to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low.
  11.  In the meantime, your water should have come to a boil — make sure it’s a rolling boil!
  12.  Add a big handful of salt to the water — this step is needed to not only season the pasta but also help the sauce come together later from the starch that comes off the pasta.
  13.  Add the pasta to the water and give it a swirl.
  14.  Add the tuna to the tomato mixture and mix it into the sauce.
  15.  Cook pasta for about 10 minutes, stirring every so often to separate strands/pieces.
  16.  Once pasta is al dente (still has a slight bite), add it directly to the saucepan along with a little bit of pasta water (make sure you reserve some more pasta water for later), and bring the heat to medium/medium-high.
  17.  Toss pasta in the sauce and heat through for a few minutes so the flavors can come together.
  18.  Serve yourself a big bowl of Tuna Pasta Puttanesca — you did it! Yum!

Cooking Under Quarantine

For the last couple of years, I’ve been heavily focused on my catering company, J2Food. While the current public health crisis is going on, there are less parties and events happening, but people have still got to eat, right?!? And since we’re all stuck inside, why don’t we cook together? Enter in our new cooking series — “Cooking Under Quarantine.” Each episode will feature delicious and easy-to-make recipes that you can make at home with accessible ingredients. Perfect for chefs of all levels!

For our first episode, we’re cooking up a classic chicken dish to celebrate Shabbat (Friday night). This delicious Chicken Marsala is an easy, one pot dish that comes together in under an hour! So, it’s also great for a weeknight dinner that you want to make a little more special. This recipe is also great for veal cutlets or even tofu or a meaty fish to make it vegetarian.

Have ideas for future recipes you’d like to see? Email us at jonsmoveablefeasts@gmail.com or info@jsquaredfood.com.

Bon Appetit from our kitchen to yours! Now, let’s get cooking! Follow along with the video below, or check out the recipe here.

Herb Roasted Asparagus

We could all use a little more green in our lives, right? But eating a salad can sometimes be a bit boring. Something I can never get tired of though–roasted vegetables. It’s amazing what a little heat and seasoning can do to ordinary veggies to make them spectacular.

Asparagus is one of my favorite vegetable side dishes. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a heavy meat dish, to complete a weeknight meal, or even to be the star of the dish. Try it topped with a poached egg and hollandaise for a healthier take on traditional eggs benedict. Yum! This recipe for Herb Roasted Asparagus is so easy and comes together in no time at all. Plus, asparagus just seems so elegant and impressive–no one needs to know how easy it was to make!

Ingredients

  • Asparagus, 1-2 bunches
  • Lemon
  • Herbs de Provence (can find in Trader Joe’s for a great deal)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil

Directions

  1. Preheat an oven to 425 degrees
  2. On a sheet pan, place a piece of parchment paper — while not necessary to cook, parchment paper prevents sticking and also makes for easy cleanup
  3. Cut or break off ends of asparagus spears — if using your hands, the fibrous ends will break off naturally. You won’t want to eat these since they’re very woody and tough, but they’re excellent for soups
  4. Toss the asparagus with enough olive oil to coat, a big pinch of salt, pepper and herbs de Provence — Remember to season aggressively!fullsizeoutput_4ba8
  5. Using a microplane or part of a box grater, add the zest of 1 lemon to the asparagusfullsizeoutput_4ba7
  6. Squeeze the juice from half of that lemon onto the asparagus as well 
  7. Roast the asparagus in the oven for 15-20 minutes until they’re tender and slightly crisp
  8. Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley, and a squeeze of lemon

 

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Cooking With Curry

I love coming up with new ways to cook with some of my favorite ingredients, especially comfort foods. To me, a big wok full of curry is super comforting and was one of the dishes I made all the time when I moved into my first solo apartment. It’s warm, earthy, spicy and makes me feel good all over. Plus, it’s amazing for leftovers! So, when Mama Lam’s, a local food vendor making and selling their own Malaysian Curry Paste that I had the pleasure of meeting at the annual Queens Taste, event contacted me about partnering up, I was excited. I couldn’t wait to try cooking with their homemade, Malaysian curry paste and curating a couple of dishes to use their product in.

Photo May 26, 7 48 44 PM (1)

I decided to create a curry themed meal featuring Mama Lam’s Curry Paste two ways—a Pistachio Crusted Curry Salmon and a Curry Noodles with Crispy Tofu. Check out the recipes below and also watch my YouTube cooking demo here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PCoQ8uLQYU.

Photo May 26, 7 48 59 PM (1)

Pistachio Crusted Curry Salmon

  • 4-6 salmon filets (skin on)Photo May 26, 4 41 17 PM
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped finelyPhoto May 26, 4 43 42 PM
  • 1/2 jar of Mama Lam’s curry paste
  • 1 tbsp Sambal Olek or another Southeast Asian chili sauce—Sriracha works fine.
    • I recommend not skipping this ingredient, even if you don’t like spicy food. The fish has a warming heat and it is very much tempered by the coconut milk and acidity of the lime juice
  • 1/2 can of coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of ginger, chopped
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass, cut into pieces–you can also use 1/2 tbsp of chopped lemongrass from a tube. You’ll find this near the fresh herbs in the marketPhoto May 26, 4 42 29 PM
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • 2 cups of roasted pistachios, shell removed
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1/2 tbsp of black pepper
  1. Create a marinade with the chili sauce, ginger, garlic, lime juice, coconut milk, lemongrass, oil, salt and pepperPhoto May 26, 4 48 24 PMPhoto May 26, 4 49 46 PM
  2. Marinade the salmon for at least an hour and up to 4 hours
  3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
  4. Crush the pistachios with either your hands or a mallet. A rolling pin works well too—this is very cathartic and a great way to take out your aggression. Ha!
  5. After the fish has soaked, dip the salmon into the pistachios and coat on sides and top with the nuts
  6. Place the salmon skin side down on a greased baking pan and bake for 20 minutes until the crust is set—The fish should be cooked through, but still a bit pink in the center and very moist. It will continue cooking for a few minutes once it comes out of the oven
  7. Garnish with fresh parsley or cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice over the topPhoto May 26, 7 48 29 PM (1)
  8. This fish is delicious served all on its own with a fresh salad or some roasted asparagus, but is even better with some Curry Noodles!

Curry Noodles with Crispy Tofu

  • 1 package of firm tofu, 14oz
  • 1 pound of broad rice noodles
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 eggplant—chopped into bite sized pieces. I love to use Japanese or graffiti eggplant for this dish not only because of the beautiful color, but also because it has less water in it than an Italian eggplant, so it’ll be sweeter and stay firmer when cooked downPhoto May 26, 5 04 02 PM
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp of fish sauce
  • 1/2 jar of Mama Lam’s curry paste
  • 1 tbsp of Sambal Olek chili sauce
  • 1 bunch of scallions, chopped (reserve some for garnish)—also called green onion or spring onion in some supermarkets
  • 1 can of coconut milk—do not use reduced fat as the texture and thickness of the sauce will be off. Plus, coconut milk is a healthy fat
  • Vegetable or peanut oil—any high heat oil will do such as canola, corn, grapeseed oil, etc.Photo May 26, 7 14 11 PMPhoto May 26, 5 02 58 PMPhoto May 26, 5 05 58 PM
  1. The first step of this dish is to make the crispy tofu—who doesn’t like their tofu crispy?

  1. Tofu has a lot of water, which is why it usually tastes bland. In fact, the biggest mistake that most cooks make when handling tofu is not getting rid of the excess water. This will never work! Even if you just want to marinade the tofu you’ll still  need to do this stepPhoto May 26, 4 40 18 PM
  2. Put the tofu between two paper towels and press. Repeat this process 2-3 times, and then let the tofu sit between the towels for at least 20 minutes to really draw out the moisture
  3. Heat up your wok until it starts to smoke a little, then add the oil. It’s important that you don’t add your oil before this as you don’t want it to bubble up and burn youPhoto May 26, 7 14 05 PM
  4. Add the tofu to the wok and spread it out in a single layer—you should hear it sizzle. If there’s no sizzle, then your wok isn’t hot enough and your tofu will steam instead of crisp up
  5. Let the tofu cook on one side for a couple min, then mix it up and repeat this process a few times until it’s crispy on all sides. This shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes or so
  6. Put your tofu on a plate and place aside for later on
  7. Heat your wok back up on the stove while you get the rest of your ingredients ready
  8. Add some more oil, then add the garlic, ginger and scallions—this is the holy trinity of Asian dishes!
  9. Let these sauté for a minute, then add the curry paste and heat through, followed by the onions, peppers and eggplant
  10. Let the veggies cook for a few minutes, then add the fish sauce, chili sauce and coconut milk and stir until it becomes a homogenized sauce
  11. Cook the curry for at least 10 minutes or longer depending on how thick you like your sauce—as it cooks the flavors of the salty fish sauce, spicy chilis, earthy curry and more will concentrate
  12. Meanwhile, drop the rice noodles into some salted boiling water—off the heat—and let soak for 5 minutes
  13. Add the par-cooked noodles to the curry and toss together in the wok
  14. Let the noodles and curry cook together as the noodles absorb the sauce and meld together into one cohesive dish
  15. Garnish with the crispy tofu, fresh cilantro, chopped scallions, and some chopped peanuts or pistachios if you’d like to tie the two dishes together even more
  16. Eat while still hot or add some sesame oil and have as a cold salad the next day for lunch. Yum!

Enjoy these dishes together with a Spicy Asian Cucumber Salad for a fabulous Southeast Asian inspired dinner at home.

Photo May 26, 7 48 50 PM (1).jpg

You can order Mama Lam’s delicious Curry Paste here: https://www.mamalams.com/shop-1/curry-sau

To watch the cooking demo for these recipes, click here or watch below.

Recipe: Morroccan Chicken Tagine

The other day, someone who I had met at a food festival asked me for the recipe for this Moroccan Chicken. They had eaten it at an event I had catered in Philadelphia a couple of months ago though my catering company, J2Food, and loved it. I don’t always give out some of my more secret recipes, but since she was so nice, I decided to write it up and post it here for all of you 🙂 This Moroccan Chicken dish isn’t actually cooked inside of a “tagine” pot, but it echoes a lot of the flavors that I love when I ordering tagines at Moroccan restaurants — a little bit sweet, salty, sour, savory and the protein is always fall apart tender. It’s very comforting in this winter weather, and is also great to make in the slow cooker! Let me know how yours turns out.

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of boneless chicken thighs
  • 1 large yellow or sweet onion
  • 5-6 carrots chopped into chunks
  • 2-3 medium onions chopped roughly
  • 1 cup of pitted green olives
  • 1 cup dried apricots
  • 3-4 garlic cloves
  • Spices: smoked paprika, turmeric, salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, coriander
  • Saffron, 2-3 threads
  • 3-4 cups of chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup lemon juicephoto-nov-20-6-45-21-pm
  • 2 preserved lemons, chopped — can substitute 2-3 regular lemons, juices and zest grated. Can buy preserved lemons at most specialty food stores
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro (optional)

Cooking Directions:

  1. Blend the spices and any other spices you like into a rub and divide in halfphoto-nov-20-5-52-19-pmphoto-nov-20-5-54-06-pm
  2. Mix one half of the rub with olive oil to form a loose paste and Coat the chicken on all sides with itphoto-nov-20-6-17-19-pm
  3. Sauté chicken in olive oil in a hot Dutch oven or deep pot on both sides until browned but not fully cooked throughphoto-nov-20-6-40-23-pm
  4. Remove chicken and set aside. You’ll come back to it
  5. In same pot add garlic and onions and cook until starting to brownphoto-nov-20-6-40-05-pm
  6. Add carrots and onions and keep cooking
  7. Add more of the same spice mixture to the pot with the vegetables and heat until fragrantphoto-nov-20-6-40-39-pm
  8. Add preserved lemon, lemon juice, saffron, (zest) and cook for a couple of minutesphoto-nov-20-6-45-06-pm
  9. Add broth and make sure to scrape bottom of the pot for flavor bits — add just enough broth so that the liquid covers the ingredientsphoto-nov-20-6-45-51-pm
  10. Add olives to the pot and make sure to give everything a good mix!photo-nov-20-6-56-01-pmphoto-nov-20-6-47-16-pm
  11. Add the chicken back in and stir all together — taste the liquid and adjust seasonings to your taste. Maybe add more lemon, salt etcphoto-nov-20-6-47-16-pm
  12. Heat on medium high for 5-10 minutes, then cover and lower heat to medium low and simmer for about 45 min – 1 hour
  13. Add parsley and simmer for another 5 minutes on high uncovered photo-nov-20-7-52-16-pm
  14. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro then spoon over couscous or serve in a bowl with sides of your choosing

I served this dish with some braised collard greens, herb roasted tomatoes and some crusty bread to mop up the sauce. It was a big hit!

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Searching for Pho-land-ia on the UES

Vietnaam88
1700 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10128

So I have a confession to make. My name is Jon, and I’m a pho-aholic. Yes, I am plagued with this unquenchable desire to find delicious bowls of pho across the land. I yearn for overnight beef broth with just the right touch of fatty content, the perfect slurpable bowl of noodles, and, of course, lots of meat. Sometimes I’ll have a great bowl of pho in a fancy restaurant in Hong Kong, sometimes I’ll find it in a small neighborhood noodle shop in the city, and sometimes it will be in a strip mall in a sketchy looking neighborhood. No matter—if it’s delicious, then it’s where I want to be.

Photo Nov 21, 8 16 48 PM

I actually found this place through another Vietnamese restaurant in another part of NYC. Up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood near Columbia University, there is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese eatery called Saiguette. At this joint, it’s taking tight quarters to a whole new meaning. There’s window counter seating for about four people—maybe 6 anorexic individuals, but the food is super legit. It is clearly meant to be a takeout and delivery hotspot, and it is. Their food is spicy, flavorful and feels very authentic. In fact, they were written up as a top pick for cheap eats and great Vietnamese food in NYC by Grub Street.

Photo Nov 21, 8 16 59 PM

While Saiguette is super small, with its own brand of fierceness, Vietnaam is their sister restaurant and basically Saiguette all grown up and rebranded for the Upper East Side. t resembles many Asian restaurants that can be found around New York City. There is a large dining room with many tables crowded together by a long booth, and other stand alone tables dotted around, with some sort of Asian inspired decoration to make it stand out. At Vietnaam, there is a beautiful bamboo divider wall between the kitchen and the dining room. It does make the restaurant feel unique, and also serves another purpose of separation of spaces. While the atmosphere might be different—and oh how I missed the squeeze necessity and precarious balance required for the small window stool of Saiguette, I got over that nostalgia quickly since I had a whole table to myself. What a luxury!

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Vietnaam offers a number of Vietnamese staples—from steaming bowls of pho to overflowing plates of vermicelli noodles to aromatic curry dishes or elevated banh mi sandwiches. Regrettably—actually totally not a hardship at all!—it requires multiple visits (or palates perhaps) to try everything that looks good on the menu. They help you out a bit with this by subtly (i.e. overtly) encouraging you to order extra food by making all food 10% off while dining in during lunch. Yesss! Don’t mind if I do, which I did.

Photo Nov 21, 7 11 09 PMThe Summer Rolls appetizer (Nem Chao on the menu), one of my favorites, were a solid choice. They were fresh and didn’t seem super cold, which was good. Often I’ll order some fresh or summer rolls and they are like ice—how long have you kept these in the refrigerator bro? Appetizer foul 😦 The summer rolls here, though, were fresh, with crunchy lettuce and a chewy and elastic rice paper wrapper. They were filled out nicely with a mix of veggies, vermicelli noodles, shrimp and lettuce—though I wish there was a bit more shrimp. The accompanying peanut hoisin sauce was delish; creamy, nutty, spicy and had a wonderful mouthfeel as it coated the roll. These also came with a second sauce—a more traditional nuoc cham sauce that was spicy and vinegary that highlighted the crisp lettuce and soaked deep into the roll’s filling. Wonderful way to start a meal.

Photo Nov 21, 7 18 02 PMIf going for the summer rolls and trying to be “healthy”-ish, then an order of Nem, or Vietnamese fried spring rolls, was absolutely necessary—if only to maintain proper food karma. The spring rolls were super crispy. As I broke through the crisp outer layer, the steaming hot filling of ground pork, shrimp, taro, glass noodles, mushroom and jicama that was both tender and firm filling filled my mouth. The skin was still chewy with a thick texture, and though they were fried the rolls didn’t feel too oily. They were served simply with some of the ubiquitous nuoc cham sauce to give them a fresh finish, though for a couple of extra dollars you could add some cucumber, lettuce and herbs to the dish. I love how it’s so no frills—more authentic that way I think. They also cut these up into bite sized pieces, so easy to eat, which was good since it was a generous portion.

Photo Nov 21, 8 14 22 PMAnother favorite starter from Vietnaam, is the Laksa. Laksa is a curry and coconut milk based soup that is not exactly Vietnamese in origin, but actually from Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. In the last few years, it has become much more well-known and popular all over Asia, as well as the rest of the world. One reason that this soup rocks is that it is so comforting when done right—they do it right here! It feels like a warm Southeast Asian hug, and will warm you up from the inside out. The broth is creamy and a bit frothy with some tang from the lime, warming heat from the curry, an aromatic aroma and a sharper heat from the accompanying chili sauce. The chicken was cooked perfectly, though they do a shrimp version as well  (or even vegetarian or tofu if need be). They’re all delicious and this makes for perfect leftovers. Not your grandma’s chicken noodle soup!

Photo Nov 21, 7 25 18 PMFor the main event, and what I judge every Vietnamese restaurant by, is the pho (pronounced “fuh”). Nowadays, you can find multiple varieties of pho—shrimp, veggie, chicken and even some fancy types such as one made with a Porcini mushroom or duck base. They’re almost always tasty, and if you’re looking for a unique spin on the classic bowl of pho, I highly recommend the Mushroom Pho at Stock in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia or the Pho Bo Satee at Nha Trang One in NYC’s Chinatown. The mushroom pho is as hearty and comforting as a beef based soup, but lighter at the same time. It’s also super earthy from the mushrooms and manages to make the tofu in it taste delicious—a great vegetarian or vegan option. The pho bo satee from Nha Trang One is spicy from an infusion of peanut sate sauce. The sate gives it a wonderful depth of flavor and thickness to the broth. It also has that wonderful peanutty note that many people love about Thai dishes—think a rice noodle soup version of a beef sate appetizer.  Back to Vietnaam….I ordered the Spicy Pho, which I usually don’t do since I like to spicy up the bowl myself. The pho was spicy but still mild—I added additional sriracha sauce to mine. The chili oil used to spice up the soup gave it a vibrant red color, and left a slow, lingering heat that made my lips tingle by the end of the bowl. The broth itself was clean tasting, which means they did their homework and skimmed the fat, but also had a lovely unctuousness to it that we all secretly crave. The bowl was filled with lots of noodles and meat—fatty brisket, firm, but not rubbery beef meatballs, and thinly sliced beef eye round that is placed into the piping hot bowl of soup raw and cooks on its way to the table. This was a big bowl of pho, so it was worth the hefty $12 Upper East Side price tag. I’ve returned for many more bowls of pho.

Vietnaam is a hip, fun place to eat at if you’re on the Upper East Side. They give generous portions, quick service, tasty dishes. Is it the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had? Hmmm…hard to say, but it was definitely some of the best in NYC. Only thing missing was perhaps that certain “je ne sais quoi” that its sister restaurant, Saiguette, has as a hole-in-the-wall joint. Come to Vietnam if you’re ready for a grown up bowl of pho and other Vietnamese favorites..

Battle of the Fine Dining (Philly Restaurant Week Round Up, Part 3)

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.

Abe Fisher
1623 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA 19102

Photo Jan 18, 8 06 24 PMThe 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.

Photo Jan 24, 7 56 47 PMOn 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.

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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.

Photo Jan 18, 6 50 19 PMAnother 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.

Photo Jan 18, 6 53 27 PMWith 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.

Photo Jan 18, 6 54 51 PMThe 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.

Photo Jan 18, 7 06 32 PMIt 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.

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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!

Photo Jan 18, 7 19 09 PMFor 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.

Photo Jan 18, 7 39 52 PMI 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 10 42 PMOn 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!

1.jpgI 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 14 30 PMThe 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 17 58 PMAnother 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 27 24 PMUp 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 31 51 PMFor 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 50 26 PMOf 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!

Photo Jan 24, 8 55 19 PMThe 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?

Photo Jan 24, 9 13 48 PMObviously, 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.

Photo Jan 24, 8 00 44 PMAbe 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

Photo Jan 18, 3 08 44 PMPhoto Jan 18, 3 08 41 PMFor 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.

Photo Jan 18, 1 38 52 PMPhoto Jan 18, 1 35 29 PMThe 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.

Photo Jan 18, 2 01 53 PMI 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.

Photo Jan 18, 2 01 49 PMThe 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.

Photo Jan 18, 2 27 12 PMPhoto Jan 18, 2 31 37 PMI 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.

Photo Jan 18, 2 49 59 PMSo 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.

Vesper
223 South Sydenham Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Photo Jan 26, 5 34 16 PMSo 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.

Photo Jan 26, 7 04 28 PMPhoto Jan 26, 7 04 03 PMAs 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.

Photo Jan 26, 5 54 31 PMI 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.

Photo Jan 26, 6 13 42 PMPhoto Jan 26, 6 13 47 PMI 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.

Photo Jan 26, 6 25 34 PMAnother 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.

Photo Jan 26, 6 39 25 PMBy 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!

Photo Jan 26, 5 35 49 PMSo 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!