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.

Photo Jan 18, 6 33 09 PM

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.

Photo Jan 18, 7 10 05 PM

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!

Recipe: Sesame Crusted Tuna with Peanut Noodles and Spicy Cucumber Salad

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Having eaten such fresh and delicious seafood in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, especially at Shucker’s, I was inspired to make my work fish dinner at home. Everything that comes out of kg kitchen has a twist though, so here’s my idea of a delicious fish dinner for company or family. Sushi grade tuna is marinated in a salty, spicy mix of soy, ginger and chili, then crusted in sesame and seared. To go with the tuna is a spicy cucumber salad, and peanut noodles that are so easy to make, you’ll be wondering why you’ve ordered them from takeout all these  years.

Sesame Crusted Tuna:

  • 1 tablespoon low sodium soy sauce—the fish sauce is already salty, so a lower sodium soy is better. A sweet soy sauce like tamari would work nicely too
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon of Sambal Olek—an Indonesian red chili paste flavored with salt and vinegar. It is very spicy, without the sweetness associated with sriracha sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of fresh ginger
  • 1/3 of bunch of scallions, sliced
  • 3-4 large sushi-grade tuna steaks–I recommend you splurge for the high end tuna. Trust me, you’ll taste the difference
  • 2 large bulbs of baby bok choy
  1. Combine soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, sambal, ginger, and scallions in a medium bowl
  2. Add the tuna to the marinade, and let the fish sit in the marinade for 1-2 hours to absorb the flavors of the sauceDSC00301
  3. Remove the fish from the marinade, and shake off excess liquidDSC00313
  4. While the fish is slightly wet, drip it into sesame seeds and crust both sides with sesame
  5. In a sauté pan, heat up some vegetable oil on medium heat, and get the tuna ready
  6. Cook the tuna steaks for about two minute per side—pay attention because it cooks fast, and higher quality tuna is best cooked rare
  7. Sauté some baby bok choy with garlic and excess fish marinadeDSC00317 DSC00319
  8. To serve: lay the bok chy on a big platter, and then set the sesame crusted tuna atop the bok choyDSC00327

Peanut Noodles:

  • 1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon of low sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
  • 3 heaping tablespoons of (crunchy) peanut butter
  • 1/2 cup of warm water
  • 1 box of angel hair pasta
  • 2/3 bunch of scallions, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon of white sesame seed
  1. Combine the first 6 ingredients and whisk together until it becomes a thick, homogeneous sauce—a blender or food processor works as well, but I like the texture that the nut pieces give to the sauce when it’s hand mixedDSC00303
  2. Chill the sauce for at least 20-30 minutesDSC00318
  3. Cook the pasta according to package directions, and drain wellDSC00320 DSC00321 DSC00322
  4. Toss the hot pasta with the sauce, sesame seeds and scallions
  5. Chill for 15 minutes in the refrigerator
  6. Serve in a big bowl, garnished with chopped scallions, and some chopsticksDSC00329

Spicy Cucumber Salad

  • 2 hot house cucumbers–also known as English or seedless cucumbers. I like this variety of cucumber since it’s longer and the skin is much thinner, so you can eat it easily. Plus is has much less seeds and comes prewashedDSC00307
  • 1 tablespoon of sambal olek
  • 1/2 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon of white sesame seeds, for garnish
  1. Chop the cucumbers—skin on—into half moon piecesDSC00304
  2. In a bowl, combine the sambal, sesame oil, soy sauce and vinegarDSC00312
  3. Toss the cucumbers with the sauce and let sit for at least 20 minutes—the longer it sits, the more the cucumbers will expel liquid, and absorb the flavors of the sauceDSC00315
  4. Serve garnished with sesame seeds over the top on a bright plateDSC00316

This is a wonderful meal to serve for dinner to your family–like I did–or use it to wow your dinner guests as you take them on a culinary tour of Asia. Leftovers from all three of these dishes will taste even better the next day!

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Recipe: Braised Lamb Shanks with Moroccan Lemon Couscous

I recently attended the 2015 International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, organized by Foodista. Until I actually got on the plane, I was waffling back and forth on whether to actually go. I kept thinking to myself—will they like me? Does my blog have a relevant and unique voice? Will I learn anything? As a matter of fact, I had an amazing time and learned so much. So much so, that you should expect to see a major uptick in the frequency of blog posts 🙂

2015-09-19 16.37.06One of my favorite sessions was all about lamb. We got to hear all about the versatility of lamb, the variety of cuts available, insider cooking and butchery tips, and even got to sample some delicious lamb pate, lamb’s cheese and cold smoked lamb loin. Yum! So, when I got home, I was inspired to put my own spin on a lamb dinner. While lamb chops and rack of lamb might be more prevalent, and often seen on your favorite steakhouse’s menu, lamb shanks are the unsung hero of the lamb family. All they need is a little TLC and time, and they become tender, succulent and out of this world delicious. My version of braised lamb shanks is great for entertaining guests at an elegant dinner party, impressing that special someone, or even cooking for your family—perfect for the slow cooker! I serve mine with Moroccan inspired, lemon couscous and homemade pita chips (see recipe here), but feel free to substitute mashed potatoes, creamy polenta or any number of sides. Enjoy!

DSC00271DSC00209Ingredients:

  • 4 medium to large lamb shanks—you should be able to find these in the meat section of your grocery store, but if not, then you could just ask your butcher. Short ribs could be a good substitute, but they won’t have the same presentation
  • 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of AP (all-purpose) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sliced onion—minced onion works fine too
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 6 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 bunch of fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 package of fresh mint
  • 2 large Spanish onions, chopped
  • 5-6 large carrots, cut into chunks
  • 5 medium garlic cloves (or 4 large cloves), chopped
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 lb. package of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups of red wine—use something you’d drink, since the flavor will end up concentrating as you cook out the alcohol
  • 4 1/2 cups of chicken, veal or beef stock—I only had chicken broth, but veal or beef is really the best to use in this recipe
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 teaspoon of paprika
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 2 cups of couscous
  • 1/4 cup of slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup of dried dates, halved or quartered

Lamb Shanks:

  1. Pat the lamb dry, this will help them stay moist when you cook itDSC00218
  2. Mix the flour, cinnamon, pepper, salt, turmeric, dried parsley, dried onion, cumin, and a teaspoon of chopped rosemary (about 1 sprig) in a medium-sized bowl
  3. Coat the lamb in the seasoned flour mixture—this will do double duty for you by helping make a crust on the lamb, and also thicken up the braising liquid into a sauce later on
  4. In a dutch oven or heavy bottom pot heat oil—use a neutral oil since you’ll require a very high cooking temperature to sear the outside of the meatDSC00220
  5. Add the lamb shanks—in batches if necessary—and brown for a few minutes on all sides. Contrary to popular belief, the sear does not “lock in the juices,” rather it helps make a great crust and caramelizes the spices on the outside of the meat DSC00223 DSC00224 DSC00225DSC00226
  6. Once the shanks have browned take them out and put aside on a plate—don’t clean out the pot. All of those delicious drippings and brown bits on the bottom of the pan = flavor!DSC00227 DSC00228DSC00229
  7. Add a bit more oil and add in the chopped carrots and sauté for another couple of minutes, then add the garlic and one onion to the potDSC00230
  8. Cook for a few more minutes, and then add the chickpeasDSC00232
  9. Once the veggies have started to brown, it’s time to deglaze the pan—deglazing means you add liquid (in this case tomatoes, wine and broth) in order to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pot
  10. Add the crushed tomatoes, and bring to a simmer
  11. Add about 1 1/2 cups of red wine and 1 cup of the stockDSC00239
  12. When it starts to bubble slightly, it’s time to add the lamb back in, and don’t forget the meat juices DSC00235Add the roasted tomatoes, as well as a few sprigs of rosemary and parsley to the pot and give it a big stir
  13. Let the pot simmer on medium for about 20-25 minutes uncovered—this helps cook out the taste of raw broth and wine. Give it another big stir and move the lamb and veggies all around the pot
  14. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to medium low and let it braise for at least 2 hours—you should stir the pot every 25-30 minutes, but don’t mess with it too much. This is important spa time for your meaDSC00263
  15. After a couple of hours, the meat will super tender and following off the bone—In fact, your shank bones should look like they’ve been frenched, which means the end of the bone is cleaned of meat so you can hold it like when you order rack of lamb at a fancy restaurant DSC00265
  16. Remove  the lamb shanks, and crank the heat back up to medium to medium high for another 5 minutes uncovered. The sauce will continue to thicken a bitDSC00267
  17. Plate the lamb shank with the bone prominently displayed, and smother the meat with the braising liquid that’s chock full of carrots, herbs, onion, garlic, chickpeas and meat that’s fallen off the boneDSC00269
  18. Garnish with the gremolata, and serve alongside some couscous and some homemade pita chip for dipping

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Gremolata:

  1. Mix together about 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon of chopped rosemary (about 2 sprigs), and zest of a lemonDSC00245 DSC00254
  2. Use as garnish for heavy dishes, and add when it’s still hot—the gremolata will not only help cut through the richness of the dish, but also perfume the plate as the heat slightly cooks the herbs and lemon peel

Couscous:

I like my couscous a little more moist and stuffing-esqe as opposed to many recipes that like each of the couscous pearls to be separate from each other. Try it my way, and if you don’t like it, then go back to the other way next timeDSC00255

  1. In a medium-sized pot, add some oil
  2. Add the remaining onion to the pot and start to sweat the onions
  3. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder and paprikaDSC00258
  4. Saute the onion until it starts to brown and caramelize
  5. At this point, add 3 1/2 cups of chicken stock and the juice of both lemons to the pot. Increase the heat to medium or medium-high
  6. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then add the couscous. Stir to make sure all of the couscous is covered, and not sticking together
  7. Turn the heat off and cover the couscous
  8. After 4 minutes, add the dates, slivered almonds, as well as the remaining parsley and mint
  9. If the couscous seems dry or not soft enough for you after 5 minutes, add some more stock or lemon juice, stir and cover again for a few minutesDSC00261 DSC00262
  10. Serve the couscous garnished with some lemon slices and a squeeze of lemon over the top

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Feasting on Chakra in Jerusalem (Part V: What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation)

Chakra
41 King George Street
Jerusalem, IsraelPhoto Jun 06, 1 47 52 PMAlthough Tel Aviv is certainly a very popular destination for visitors to Israel, and considered the cultural center of the country, it is actually Jerusalem that is the nation’s capital. One of the oldest cities in the world—central to three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—Jerusalem sits in the middle of the country between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea in the Judean Mountains. A city entrenched in history, the oldest area is surrounded by walls, but modern Jerusalem has developed far beyond the ancient walls of the Old City. Downtown Jerusalem has become a hub of hipster coffee shops, posh hotels, high-end shopping, and gourmet restaurants intermingled with outdoor markets, religious centers and government buildings.

IMG_3145In the middle of downtown Jerusalem is Chakra. Chakra is a hip restaurant located on the busy King George Street with a large indoor-outdoor space that was busy when we arrived. There was a pleasant hum in the air, and the restaurant buzzed with energy on Saturday night. What’s nice is that Chakra is open on Shabbat, while there are quite a few restaurants in Jerusalem that are closed on the Jewish Sabbath, until at least an hour after sundown.

IMG_3148.JPG IMG_3147We were a large group, so we did not get the chance to choose individual dishes, and instead were served multiple plates of a variety of dishes. Though, many of us also ordered individual cocktails, and we were served lots of wine, as well as water and lemonana—a mint-lemonade drink served throughout Israel. The first brought out was the stone oven focaccia, tomato and olive oil—the delicious flatbread was still hot from the oven! It was the perfect accompaniment for the coming appetizers, and soon after some olive oil and harif were brought to dip. Harif is a traditional Israeli condiment made from spicy peppers and is very acidic, but also earthy taste and grainy texture.

IMG_3149IMG_3151Next up was the first of the appetizers—chopped liver with fig jam. Though this seemed very Yiddish, as opposed to Israeli, it fit in well with Chakra’s international fusion inspired menu. The spread was super creamy and had a luxurious mouthfeel to it. The fig jam was sweet and perfectly complemented the saltiness and musty, headiness of the liver. This was a wonderfully gourmet version of a traditional Jewish dish. At the same time that the chopped liver came out, we were served zucchini carpaccio with feta and tapenade. The zucchini was sliced very thinly and became almost see-through, and was garnished with salty feta cheese, briny olives, and juicy tomato. It was a light salad and the zucchini was thin enough that it absorbed the subtle dressing.

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IMG_3150The lemon garlic cauliflower was simple, but delicious. The cauliflower was roasted and dressed in lemon juice and zest, as well as garlic. The florets had a slightly crisp exterior and didn’t become mushy like many cauliflower dishes. It was spicy and slightly smoky with a lemony bite. The open fire eggplant, sheep milk yogurt and tomatoes was good, but nothing special. The eggplant was roasted in its skin—a very common Israeli appetizer—and served with a yogurt sauce. Although the flesh was very creamy and the yogurt was tart and tangy, the dish was sort of bland.

IMG_3153FullSizeRender-5The next couple of dishes were my personal favorites—beef carpaccio, parmesan and rocket and spicy tuna bruschetta & aioli. The beef was paper-thin and seared on one side. It was dressed with a strongly acidic vinaigrette, and the deliciously fatty meat was so-so tender. I wish I had another plate all to myself! The shaved parmesan and rocket, or arugula, helped cut through the heavy meat and the arugula provided a peppery bite. The tuna was chopped roughly, and mixed with Asian spices, and maybe some wasabi. It was piled onto toast points and then artfully arranged on the plate. These two cold dishes were very refreshing and helped prepare for more to come.

FullSizeRender-1The first entrée of the night was tomato and mozzarella risotto. The arborio rice was cooked al dente, and maintained a slight bite to it, and a deep tomato flavor. The mozzarella melted into the risotto, and there was a light garnish of parmesan atop the rice. This was a truly excellent dish and satisfied a craving for creaminess I didn’t even realize I was feeling. We were also served some caesar salad that was good, but unremarkable.

FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender-3FullSizeRender-4The main course consisted of three meat dishes—kebab with grilled vegetables and tahini, soy and honey chicken breast, and lamb shank gnocchi. The beef kebab was smoky and the ground meat was moist. The tangy tahini played well with the spice level of the kebab’s crust. The chicken was bone-in, and had a wonderful crust from the grill. The soy and honey caramelized on the chicken skin and kept the meat juicy. The lamb was absolutely delicious. It was cooked down with peas, and super tender—very stew-like. The gnocchi were pillowy soft and soaked up the, in essence, lamb ragout.

Photo Jun 06, 1 02 47 PMThe girl sitting next to me was a vegetarian, and the restaurant was very accommodating and brought her a bonus dish—beet tortellini with Roquefort butter. The tortellini dough was very delicate and you could see the beautiful pink, beet filling through the pasta. The tortellini were extra-large, very filling, and not too sweet. The sweetness may have been tempted by the Roquefort butter sauce that imitated a cream sauce and made the dish rich and luxurious.

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Photo Jun 06, 1 30 56 PMEven though we didn’t have that much room left, after our veritable feast, we were then served dessert! The panna cotta was flavored with wild berries, which gave a nice sour flavor to the sauce. The panna cotta itself was formed from a vanilla custard, and perfectly set. There was also a chocolate cake a la mode. The cake was deliciously moist, chewy, fudge with a slightly crisp edge. The ice cream was just icing on the cake—pun intended! The final dessert was sorbet with cookie surprise. The sorbet was tangy with a lemon-like flavor and almost edged into ice milk or sherbet territory since it was so creamy. The cookie surprised was crumbled on top and added a nice textural contrast to the otherwise one-note dessert. This was a nice way to end a decadent meal on our last night in Jerusalem.

IMG_3146.JPGI might have been part of a large group, but this might have been one of my best meals on the trip! Chakra has an amazing atmosphere, fabulous food, lovely location, and wonderful waitstaff. I definitely will be returning on my next trip to Jerusalem—and it should be on your list as well.