Philadelphia Restaurant Week Round Up, Round 1

Battle of the 13th Street Corridor

There are so many places to eat in Philadelphia. From hole in the wall Vietnamese pho shops, to fancy high-brow steakhouses, to comfort food joints that just make fried chicken and donuts—moral of the story? You’ll never go hungry in the PHL. With that said, Center City Restaurant Week holds a special place in my hungry heart. “Why?” you ask—well it’s because the entire concept of Restaurant Week allows diners who might not have gotten a chance to eat at many of the city’s amazing restaurants to not only sample some of their signature flavors, but also have the full three course dining experience on a budget: appetizer, entree and dessert.  Lunch is $20 per person, and dinner is $35, though some places include optional supplements to the menu—usually high end proteins. Now, who wouldn’t want that?

Bravely, I’ve taken it upon myself to sample the dishes at a number of local restaurants and have compiled them into a Philadelphia Restaurant Week Round Up. To make my life easy, I’ve made super use of the globally expanding restaurant reservation platform, OpenTable. Now to make it even more interesting, I’m going to put my dining experiences up against each other in head to head battles—and to the tastiest go the spoils. And by spoils, I mean my pick for Top Pick for Center City District Restaurant Week of 2016. So, as they say on Iron Chef America—“Allez cuisine!” and let the battles begin!

IMG_6700Barbuzzo
110 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

I must have passed this place hundreds of times over the last few years, but—surprisingly—I’ve never been in. The only question I can ask now is…why have I denied myself? Barbuzzo is one of the six eateries co-owned by Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran that dominate the 13th Street corridor and helped revitalize the Midtown Village neighborhood in Center City. It is known for its Mediterranean plates, chic atmosphere and a traditional wood fire oven—naturally, I was ready for some delicious pizza. I was not disappointed.

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IMG_6686My reservation was for 1:45pm and I got there a few minutes early and immediately noticed that it was pretty busy even though it was only lunchtime. I’ve noticed in Philly that so many people go out for lunch, and places get even more crowded than during the dinner rush on some days. Although it wasn’t that busy for a Monday afternoon, it was noticeable—it might have also been due to the narrow, deep layout of the restaurant’s interior that is typical of many Philly food spots. The inside had a hip vibe with metal chairs, cozy table setups including square of old menu used as paper decoration for some of the plating, track lighting and lots of wood—maybe this was an homage to their eponymous wood oven? The interior did seem a bit on the dark side, but my table was near the large front window so there was tons lots of natural light.

IMG_6690The Sheep’s Milk Ricotta appetizer was plated beautifully. It almost seemed as if there were ricotta mountains and the balsamic vinegar acted as the valley or river running through. The ricotta was super creamy and smooth and whipped with fresh herbs, and garnished with good quality, fruity olive oil and acidic balsamic that brought out the natural sweetness of the ricotta. It was plated with some grilled bread that was hot and crisp on the outside, but chewy and not too hot in the middle—side note: I had visited a few places the week before (See next post!), and I had been waiting all week for someone to give me hot bread. Thank you Barbuzzo for anticipating my primordial desire for bread and fire. The cold ricotta spread on the warm toasty bread made for a good temperature contrast as well.

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IMG_6693Up next was the Salsiccia Pizza, which I have to admit I was the most excited for. I mean come on—how can you not order a pizza when there’s a wood burning oven?? As they brought the pizza to the table, the first thing I noticed was the smell of the fresh basil, and the herbs baked into the fennel sausage. The second thing I noticed was its size: it was huge! I can definitely eat a lot, but I ended up taking one of the generous quarters home (Hello midnight snack!). The crust was chewy with a slightly crisp at the edge, though I wish there was a little bit of char. It was definitely browned on the bottom though. The addition of the chili oil and fresh oregano garnish served table side was a nice touch and helped highlight the flavors of the pizza toppings. The taggiasca black olives were pungent salt bombs of flavor—you can tell these weren’t from a can—and the tomato sauce was still very acidic in a way that played well with the brininess of the olives. The salty pecorino cheese crumbles contrasted with the subtle meaty and earthy flavors of the sausage. The smoked mozzarella blanketed the whole pizza in cheesy goodness and was strong enough to stand up to the other flavors.

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IMG_6697For dessert, I honestly wasn’t sure what I was expecting. I have a friend who tells me that the Salted Caramel Budino is his favorite dessert in the entire city. High praise considering such confectionaries as Beiler’s Bakery, Franklin Fountain, Scoop DeVille, Magpie Artisan Pie Boutique, and more, are all within about a mile of 13th Street. However, I was still worried—what if dessert isn’t as good because it’s restaurant week? Maybe they’re just going to serve something unpopular or that they over-ordered. My worry was for naught—the Salted Caramel Budino was glorious. It’s served in this cute little mason jar, and it actually is a great way to prepare a lot of these bad boys ahead of service. The vanilla bean caramel is so good it’s honestly like crack—I could eat it by the jarful. The vanilla bean gave it a slight floral taste and the sea salt just took it over the top. The unsweetened whip cream is a good choice since the caramel is so sweet. The word “budino” actually translates to pudding, and while the pudding layer underneath was also tasty, but really just a vehicle to shovel more of the caramel into my mouth. The dark chocolate crust is sort of drowned out by the other layers, but still lends the dish a bit of crunch and texture—just enough to know its there, especially  towards the bottom. Plus, over time the chocolate layer absorbs some of the cream and softens up, allowing the flavors to intermingle. This dessert was amazing!

Overall, Barbuzzo really brought their A-game to this year’s culinary rumble. Great meal with delicious food and great service. I left feeling satisfied and having definitely gotten my money’s worth.

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Sampan
124 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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I had originally planned to have dinner with a friend at another restaurant this night, but she ended up canceling and I decided to visit a place that she wouldn’t really like. You see, she’s allergic to chilis and so we can never really have spicy food—very sad since I love spice and heat in my dishes. No joke, I must have about 6-7 kinds of hot sauce in my pantry. So, since I was “off the hook,” basically, I decided to be adventurous and head to Sampan. I’ve heard great things about this place and have wanted to eat here for a long time—especially after seeing Chef Travis Masar on Top Chef, Season 11 in New Orleans. Sampan is pretty big on the inside and comparatively huge in contrast to most Midtown Village dining destinations. The decorations were pretty funky with purple stenciled trees on the walls and more dark wood. Graffiti Bar is attached and has a small outdoor bar that’s a very different theme—think hipster chic; graffiti on the walls and have to walk through a narrow, mini alley to get there (though you could enter through the restaurant space). It has great drinks with a late night happy hour, featuring cocktail and food specials. The main restaurant has an open service kitchen, which was where I was seated. I was seated at “chef’s table,” which is always good and bad. You get a bird’s eye view to plating presentation, but I kind of wish I had a table of my own to stretch out, but often, big restaurants like this hate solo diners. I think they should embrace them—they’ll order more food, but oh well. My seat gave me a preview of the wonderful smells of garlic, scallions, chilies, and soy that permeated the air. There were 4-5 woks of noodles or rice working at each station, bamboo steamer baskets filled with buns, skewers of sate meats grilling, and a cacophony of sounds—bowls clanging, woks sizzling, but no yelling, which was good.

Of note, I was slightly confused how the restaurant week deal worked here. As a solo diner—even if I would have paid extra for the traditional Chef’s Tasting ($45)—I receive five plates instead of the usual seven. The restaurant week menu is similar as you get one side dish, one dish from each of the Small, Cold & Hot, and Satay categories, one dish from Fish or Meat and soft serve for dessert for $35. Though I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to try some other dishes as part of the deal, I was ready for some Asian flavor explosions.

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IMG_6711First up was the Pork Bao Bun as the Small course—point of fact: the starter dishes were really small and it was tortuous to just have small tastes as I sat there at the chef’s table seeing the food being prepared. The steamed bun had a nice chew and the thinly sliced shallot and fresh mint were visible as I folded it open. There was a substantial and thick slice of crispy, fried pork belly smothered in a sticky and sweet sauce. This tasted even better to me with a squirt of sriracha sauce. The flavors were traditional for a porn bun, but I only wish it came with more than one on the plate. The Satay course of Korean BBQ Beef arrived, and though it smelled great it too was small—really small. The kimchi topping was flavorful, if a bit sharp together with the ginger. The short rib meat was very tender and fatty with a heavy dose of Korean soy-based marinade. It was cooked rare and the marinade helped keep the beef moist. Very tasty, but again, I just wish there was more of it.

IMG_6712The Crispy Spicy Shrimp was more on the hot side of the Cold & Hot category—mostly in temperature. In actuality, I had hoped for an extra meat or fish dish in place of this category, but wasn’t allowed. A generous portion of rock shrimp were plated up in a bowl, which kept the dish hot, and also made for easy mixing of the shrimp with the garnishes and sauce. The chili aioli had a creamy taste and a little bit of spicy, but I like very spicy Asian food so added sriracha. The batter on the shrimp was nice and thick, and kept the shrimp, which were perfectly cooked, juicy.I loved the crisp edges of the fried shrimp. The picked radish garnish was a nice relief from the heavily battered protein and a needed acidic kick. Even though rock shrimp are not as meaty as say big jumbo shrimp, they were tasty and allowed the kitchen feel comfortable giving a bigger portion.

IMG_6724I have a confession to make; I am addicted to duck. I just love the deep red meat headiness in the guise of poultry. It bastes itself in its own fat, and has amazingly crispy skin when cooked right. So, when I saw Sampan’s version of Peking duck on the menu, you’ve got to know that I’d order it. Pekin Duck was presented with all of the classic fixings of a Peking duck meal—a small bamboo steamer filled with soft buns that had been heated over a grill, with Some of the buns even had char marks, which I love. A second plate contained the rest of the components: a good number of duck breast slices—crispy skin included—with all of the traditional garnishes. The thinly sliced scallion provided a bit of crunch, the duck was fatty and juicy, the hoisin sauce sweet and sour, and the julienned cucumber helped cut through the richness of the duck meat. This might have been the perfect dish for me. It was plated nicely, had a good amount of food, and was interactive in just the right to echo the classic Peking duck presentation.

IMG_6725Around the same time, the extra large Duck Fried Rice emerged from the kitchen. The other dishes might have been small, but the Duck Fried Rice was really big, though this shouldn’t have been surprising since rice is a cheap dish to make I saw them plating up the Pad Thai side too and it was equally as big. It had a decent amount of meat throughout the dish and went really well with the meat course. I ordered it with an egg on top because why not? Sunny side up eggs on rice dishes always make them better. Duh! The server mixed the egg into the rice for me—nice touch— and the yolk really helped bring everything together. The soft, fat coated rice—combination of the duck and yolk—thinly sliced and spicy chilis, and salty bite from the duck skin gave this dish some interesting layers of flavor and made it a very comforting bowl of food.

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I was not looking forward to the Soft Serve ice cream for dessert—I’ve had plenty of soft serve from Chinese buffets, and while they’re usually not terrible, they’re not great either. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a cute presentation of mini cones filled with Chocolate Oreo and Vanilla Strawberry flavors—though I have to ask, why has there been such a resurgence in oreos among chefs? The fruity and tart strawberry flavor in the vanilla strawberry flavors really comes through that the vanilla just seemed to be the base. Strawberry was the star here. The chocolate ice cream was particularly rich and chocolatey, and the two together provided a needed cool down after a spice filled meal. Overall, the ice cream was actually delicious, but it didn’t strike me as gourmet and I kind of wish they had thrown in a complimentary cocktail in place of dessert.

IMG_6719Most of the food at Sampan was tasty, but throughout the meal I noticed that there was not as much interaction as I would have thought. Even sitting at “chef’s table,” no real attention was paid to me. At other restaurants, the kitchen staff would interact and at least acknowledge, but here it’s almost like I was invisible. Reinforcing this belief was the fact that my waiter stopped by once—maybe twice for super short visits.  At one point, after the check had been dropped off, someone else was coming over and I thought, “hey, maybe he’s coming to talk to me, and see how the meal was, what I thought of the food, etc,” but I was wrong. He was just collecting the little sriracha squeeze bottles. Before leaving, the waiter gave me the spiel about thanks for stopping in, hope to see me again blah blah but that too was very rushed—I felt like an afterthought. The food here might taste good, but the service is just not that warm.

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Lolita
106 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

You might start noticing a theme from this battle—many of the eateries and shops along 13th Street belong to Chef Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran. So much so, in fact, that their blog is called We Love 13th Street. Lolita, which opened in 2004 was the first restaurant that Turney and Safran opened on 13th Street. It went through a facelift in 2014, and continues to dish out bold flavors inspired by Mexican street foods. The interior is similar in design to Barbuzzo with the long narrow space, big bar overlooking a semi-open kitchen, exposed brick and a general hip vibe. This seems to work for them as they are the reigning queens of 13th Street.

One weird thing that I noticed was the velvet curtain as you open the outer door to the restaurants. There was a curtain at a couple of other places on 13th Street as well—is this a Winter thing? What is this: Studio 54?

IMG_6742Strangely, Lolita was practically empty except for two people seated at the bar when I came in around 1:30-ish, but I was told that the big lunch rush had just left, which I can definitely believe since I’ve walked by around lunchtime and it’s been bustling—especially at the sidewalk cafe when it’s warm. I got to sit anywhere I want, thought, which was awesome, but I didn’t see my waiter much over the course of the meal. Sort of thought I’d have more one-on-one time with an empty dining room. Also, I was kind of hoping for some sort of non-alcoholic specialty drink, but the only aqua fresca they had was blood orange mint flavor, which was remarkably similar to the drink I had at Barbuzzo the day before. It was tasty the previous day, but I didn’t want a repeat, so kind of a creative disappointment. I wish that there were more flavors or maybe even something like a horchata or pineapple based drink. Just something nonalcoholic that I could sip on for a bit. Oh well, I was really here for the food anyway.

IMG_6732Lunch began with the Pork Carnitas Tostadas, which were great. The pork itself was a touch smoky and slightly sweet from the canela orange glaze. The pickled red onion might have been hidden on the plate, but emerged as I bit into the dish as a great counterpart to the fatty pork. The little bit of bark on the outside of the pig was very much appreciated as well—it really carries such a concentrated flavor bomb, and also heightened the already beautiful presentation. The crispy tostada on its own was flavorful and had a powerful crunchy factor that held up well under the heaping toppings. The orange and jicama in the salsa lent a fruity brightness, and not only helped highlight the natural sweetness of the pig, but also brought out the spices even more.

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IMG_6737The Morita Chile Rubbed Filet Tips came with a small mound of hot corn tortillas in wax paper, which seems very traditional but also playful to me. While the beef was cooked well, it wasn’t as tender as the pork. The poblano peppers, along with the chipotles in the salsa and the morita chiles in the rub gave off a soft, lingering heat that built as time went on. The tortillas and creme helped cool it down. The beans were super flavorful—meaty, salty, fatty, smoky—Yum! Some of those black beans in an enchiladas dish would’ve been delicious. The cheese was nice for presentation, but it I basically ate all of it in one of my tacos. I wish it was a little stronger in flavor, and the rice, while tasty, wasn’t super necessary on the plate.

IMG_6739After a very Mexican meal, I went with what sounded like the most authentic offering: the Coconut Tres Leches. As soon as this dish came to the table, I knew that a lot of thought had gone into not only the taste and flavors of this cake, but also the plating. The bowl almost resembled a cow’s skin, which can only be an homage to the tres leches or three milks. The cake itself was warm and sitting in additional sweetened milk, and had flecks of coconut throughout. Though it was moist in the middle. it wasn’t wet like I’ve come to expense from many tres leches cakes. The warm cake was able to absorb more liquid to prevent any drying out from the milk in the bowl—so many more cakes should be served warm, it just makes them better. It was garnished with some shredded coconut whipped cream and a chocolate pot de creme plated like a truffle atop the cake. The pot de creme was made with Mexican chocolate, which has a slight cinnamon flavor, and is not as sweet as milk chocolate so it complemented the super sweet cake. The texture of the coconut also provided a good change of pace from the soft chocolate and crumbly cake.

IMG_6730Lolita serves up delicious and modern takes on classic Mexican flavors in a chic urban setting. Great spot for lunch, but would’ve been even better at a time with more hustle and bustle.

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Jamonera
105 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

IMG_6798Opened in 2012, Jamonera is a Spanish restaurant and wine bar known for its tapas, charcuterie, shareable plates, and extensive selection of sherries in a cozy and intimate atmosphere. I had only dined here once before for brunch, and it was delicious, so it seemed the perfect place for a late night, midweek dinner.

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IMG_6778To start off the meal, Manchego and Marconas, White Bean Puree and Papa Frita were brought to the table for us to share. Even though these dishes were automatically included in the restaurant week special, the plating was done with just as much care as the rest of the dishes of the night. Marcona almonds are a frequent guest of many cheese boards, and manchego is the quintessential Spanish cheese—a classic combo. The almonds played off the nutty flavors and the quince paste garnish highlighted the fruitiness of the cheese—it all made for a classic combination that helped whet our appetites. The papa frita dish—literally translated as fried potato—is exactly as described. A more upscale, but at the same time rustic, version of the classic Spanish dish. The perfectly seasoned potato chunks are fried until the skin gets super crisp, while still maintaining a pillowy softness in the middle. The garlic aioli helps cool down the dish—temperature-wise—and the heat of the potatoes helps bloom the garlic flavor throughout the plate. The aioli was so tasty that I’d slather it on a turkey sandwich. Mmm yum! Our waitress also brought out some housemade hot sauce made with chile de arbol, ancho chiles, and a sherry vinegar base. The hot sauce was heavily acidic and delicious.  The final shared plate was the white bean puree, which was pretty special. The spread was a pretty white color and very smooth, almost hummus like in its consistency. It tasted great on the toasted bread, and had a salty background from anchovies maybe, smokiness from the pimenton (commonly known as paprika) and and earthiness from the fresh rosemary.

IMG_6780The Smoked Bacon Wrapped Medool Dates were a favorite of mine, though my friend didn’t like them as much, since she’s not a big fan of blue cheese—more for me, yay! The dates were stuffed with valdeon cheese, a tangy and pungent Spanish blue cheese, and wrapped in thick cut bacon that cooked up crispy, meaty and fatty. The bacon helped the date become sweet and syrupy without losing its structural integrity. The vinegary, acidic celery root salad was great a accompaniment to cut through the heavy, wrapped delights, and the spicy piquillo-almond sauce hidden underneath provided a a heated balance to the sweetness of the dates.

IMG_6782The Heirloom Pumpkin Croquetas were also great with smoky and bold flavors. The fried croquettes were crispy, spicy and cheesy—with cheese oozing out as you bit into the hot surface of the spheres. The julienned radish acted as a refreshing and peppery slaw, and the brussel sprout leaves added an additional level of crunch. The pumpkin seed puree was smooth and creamy, and the toasted pepitas (or pumpkin seeds) had a nice chew as well. This vegetarian dish definitely didn’t leave you missing the meat at all.

IMG_6783Next up was the Grilled Skirt Steak, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare. and then sliced. This dish completely identified as “meat” in the best sense of the word. The hazelnut-almond romesco sauce was very earthy and rich with pieces of chopped nuts throughout. There was a surprising pop of spice from the artichoke escabeche, which added a level of tang and freshness to the plate as well. All of the components worked well to create a well composed dish—it would’ve made for some delicious fajitas actually.

IMG_6787Along with the steak came the Albondigas, which were so, so tender. Almost every culture throughout the world has their own version of meatballs—the classic Italian meatball, Middle Eastern kofta, Polish pulpety, or even the classic IKEA Swedish meatball called köttbullar. Albondigas is the Spanish—both from Spain and Hispanic—contribution to the meatball milieu. Albondigas are sometimes referred to as “Grandma’s Meatballs,” and often served in a tomato-based sauce or stew. Jamonera offers up a modern twist on the traditional albondigas by stuffing the large meatballs with manchego cheese, and blending the meat with briny green olives, and smoky and salty serrano ham. They were floating in a bowl of a spicy, stew-like tomato sauce and garnished with some grilled bread for dipping. These meatballs were comforting and perfect for a cold Winter night dinner.

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IMG_6792Finally, for dessert we ordered the Warm Nocilla Bread Pudding and Calasparra Rice Pudding. Though they’re both puddings, they were very different desserts. The bread pudding was served warm—as all bread puddings should be—and reminded me of the inside of a British bun or cinnamon bun. It was slightly gooey from the Nocilla, which is Spain’s answer to the ubiquitous Nutella, and custard soaked into the bread. The accompanying ice cream was textbook perfect—creamy with a  strong vanilla flavor. There was just enough of the caramel to coat the ice cream, and spiced peanuts helped cut through he rich dessert. Very comforting and delicious, though didn’t strike me as super Spanish. The rice pudding was cold and refreshing with apple pieces running throughout. The toasted coconut might not be my dining companion’s favorite flavor, but I’m a big fan of the subtly sweet coconut flavor. The pudding was sweet and creamy with a warm cinnamon flavor from the Spanish canola and the caramelization on top.

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IMG_6801While I might not have planned this dinner far in advance, I’m so glad that we came here for out late night meal. The food was flavorful, the portions plentiful and the service sublime. I just wish we had more time and an extra stomach to truly enjoy another long, drawn out Spanish mealtime experience.

So, Round 1 of my Philly Restaurant Week Round Up was complete. The only thing left to do is to declare a winner of the Battle of 13th Street. This was a difficult decision, but I’m going to have to go with Barbuzzo. The combination of the delicious food, the attentive and quick service, and the large portions won me over. Plus, the salted caramel budino was absolutely amazing—it truly gave me a foodgasm. I’m currently drooling in fond remembrance. Honorable mention goes to Jamonera for best late night hot spot, and delectable delights of course. Stay tuned for more restaurant rumbles throughout Philadelphia and New York City, my OpenTable account will be getting a lot of exercise. Can’t wait to redeem dining points for a free dining reward!

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A Modern Twist on Old School French Fare

Loulay
600 Union Street
Seattle, WA 98101

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2015-09-19 19.06.27It was the final day of the 2015 International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, and I was tired and hungry. I had a chance to sample some of Chef Thierry Rautureau’s dishes the night before at the Culinary Tasting and Expo and they were all delicious. Luckily, this made my dilemma on where to eat on my final night in Seattle easy, since the restaurant is attached to the Sheraton hotel downtown. Chef Thierry Rautureau, or the “Chef in the Hat” as he’s known among the Seattle food scene, focuses Loulay on recipes and dishes from his French upbringing with a modern twist, and local, seasonal ingredients.2015-09-20 21.39.14

2015-09-20 21.25.19Before my started came to the table, the chef sent out an amuse bouche, which is a fancy French term to refer to a pre-appetizer. It usually consists of a single bite, and is meant to wake up the palette before the meal really begins. That night, the chef prepared an olive and jalapeño tapenade with harissa aioli on a crispy French bread crouton. Within that single bite, there was tanginess from the briny olive, bite from the spicy jalapeno, crunch from the crouton, as well as a warm heat from the harissa, and a textural contrast between the creamy aioli and course tapenade. It definitely woke up my tastebuds!

2015-09-20 21.30.172015-09-20 21.30.24The Smoked Pork Cheeks ($19) exemplified nose to tail cooking at some of its finest. While some may consider cheek to be a throwaway item, it can be some of the most succulent meat if cooked correctly and given a little love. The meat definitely had a certain level of smokiness, and was so tender without losing all of its chew—think of a perfectly cooked short rib. The sauce was super delicious and resembled a pork demiglace flavored with sweet onion and wine. The bread basket came in handy to sop up extra broth. The charred cauliflower side was not mushy at all and, in fact, had a subtle crust that contrasted nicely with the soft meat. The dish was garnished with some shaved scallion and watermelon radish that provided much needed color and a fresh, crunch factor to the heavy starter.

2015-09-20 21.41.262015-09-20 21.41.38Up next was one of the Chef in the Hat favorites, Seared Fois Gras ($21). The fois gras was perfectly browned and caramelized on the outside, while maintaining its fatty rareness inside. It was sinfully decadent, and served atop chewy, eggy brioche, and in a small bowl of a sweet apricot puree with pine nuts for texture, and a spiced honey glaze that played nicely with the crust on the fois gras.

2015-09-20 21.56.40The dishes at Loulay are somewhat small—as is the norm with many French restaurants—so I definitely had room for dessert. Thank god, since French cuisine has some of the best desserts on the planet! I had been considering the Caramelized Pineapple Turnover, but went with the advice of my server and tried the Portuguese Beignets ($10). While beignets are mainly known in the United States as a New Orleans delicacy of fried dough covered with powdered sugar, and eaten hot, they are actually a variation of a traditional French dish of deep-fried choux pastry. Choux pastry is the base for many well-known French desserts such as profiteroles, croquembouches, éclairs or cream puffs. These beignets were so light and airy that I could have eaten a whole box of them. They were lightly sweetened and sitting on a velvety creme anglaise flavored with vanilla. To complement the hot pastry was a funky blue cheese ice cream. The ice cream was a wonderful yoyo of sweet and salty bites, and made me think of a gorgonzola dolce flavor profile. Pears that were soft and sweet in contrast to the ice cream were lightly caramelized and helped cut through the richness of the dish.

2015-09-20 21.58.24To help wash down the beignets, was another chef in the hat favorite of the Chef’s Hot Chocolate ($5). Inspired by a recipe from his grandparents, the hot chocolate was unique in that it was not very sweet, but had a very forward cocoa flavor. Alongside the drink came brioche sticks to act as dippers and salty butter. The ideal bite was to smear some butter on the toasted brioche, dip in the hot chocolate, and eat. The hot chocolate not only was absorbed by the soft bread, but also melted the butter and it changed the whole texture of the dessert as they came together. The saltiness of the butter also tied in well with the blue cheese ice cream.

Overall, the food and atmosphere at Loulay were top notch and delicious! It was a great way to wind down a supremely foodie weekend. What was also very cool was being able to pay my bill through the new feature on OpenTable that allows you to pay for your meal through the app. How convenient is that?

Seafood Bounty in the Pacific Northwest 

Shucker’s Oyster Bar
411 University Street
Seattle, WA 98101 2015-09-17 20.29.11

2015-09-17 20.29.28The Pacific Northwest is known for some of the freshest seafood in the world—it’s a fish lover’s paradise. In fact, at the famous Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, many of the fish mongers will be happy to “throw the fish” for visitors, and I even got to sample some delicious and super fresh smoked salmon! Therefore, it was a no brainer on what kind of food I wanted on my first night of a foodie weekend in Seattle—seafood! At the same time, I wasn’t in the mood to walk very far and found Shucker’s, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and was only a 5 minute walk—I was sold.

2015-09-17 20.30.16Located inside of the landmark Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Shucker’s seemed like an old school seafood joint with a heavy focus on fresh fish. The aroma of some sort of baked seafood dish—maybe Oysters Rockefeller?—hit me as I walked in the door with an amazing garlic smell. It was sweet, salty, briny and so tantalizing. As I sat at the table, I had a good view of the chalkboard where that day’s market pics were listed—another nod to old school seafood houses—and got comfy on my side of the booth.

2015-09-17 20.47.282015-09-17 20.50.57The bread basket was bountiful, though not the best bread I’ve ever had. The white sourdough had a subtle tang, the whole wheat was nice and fluffy, and the cracker had a good amount of black pepper baked in. The butter was delicious though, and super creamy. The breads were great for dipping in my huge bowl of Creamy Clam Chowder ($12). Accompanying the soup was a mid-sized beer mug of oyster crackers, which I thought was a nice touch, albeit a little weird. The soup itself was creamy with a nice velvety texture, and uber-filled with fresh, chunky clams. I think a lot of the creaminess came from the starchiness of the potatoes, as opposed to a super amount of cream, which kept it from being too heavy. The whole bowl had an undertone of seafood flavor from the clam juice and it was a great way to ease into a seafood dinner. The waiter’s designation of it as a house specialty was spot on. It was very filling with such well cooked clams, but I soldiered on to the next courses.

2015-09-17 21.03.472015-09-17 21.04.10Up next was the Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Gratin ($17). This dish seemed a little different from the oft-ordered shrimp cocktail or crispy calamari that are so common at fish restaurants. Compared to the chowder, this appetizer was much more petite, but with a beautiful presentation. The gratin had big chunks of chunky crabmeat juxtaposed with the salty and tangy artichoke hearts. The top crisped up under the broiler and gave it some nice texture. It was garnished with a long, thin focaccia crisp, which was tasty but I wish was slightly chewier. It was a great vehicle for shoveling more crab and artichoke creaminess into my mouth though—so mission accomplished!

2015-09-17 21.23.072015-09-17 21.23.52Finally, was the main event that I had been waiting for—and salivating over—since I saw it on the menu: Shucker’s Seafood Paella ($41). Though it looks like a pretty steep price tag, there is so much seafood in this paella, and it was so delicious that it’s worth it. Plus, my waiter was so nice that he substituted a big scallop for me instead of clams in the paella, since I’m not a big fan of clams in their shell (plus already had clams in the soup). He didn’t even give me an up charge! To go through the long list of seafood in this dish, we can start with the huge quarter of a Dungeness crab atop the bowl, along with some crabmeat running throughout the rice. The crabmeat—after I used the seafood cracker to break the shell—was nice and sweet, and gave this dish such a level of elegance that many paella dishes are missing. The prawns and scallop were perfectly cooked—juicy and moist on the inside, with a slight acidic crust. The scallop specifically was gigantic with a wonderful, slightly acidic char on the outside. This dish also had plenty of meaty calamari flavor bombs and fresh, delicious mussels that absorbed flavor from the traditional saffron paella broth. The chorizo, chicken and andouille sausage were rendered down, and lent this dish a nice level of spice and bumped up the meatiness of the creamy rice. The saffron gave it not only a wonderful red-orange color but a depth of flavor that helped bridge the gap between the seafood and meats. Served in a mini-paella pan with a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the top, this dish was awesome, and such a great way to try a variety of fresh seafood in one dish.

2015-09-18 08.58.26Unfortunately, at the end of this deliciously decadent and unbelievably rich meal, there was absolutely no room left for dessert, though they sounded delicious. Regardless, this dinner was absolutely amazing, and the perfect gateway to the plethora of fresh seafood available in Seattle, and a wonderful “stick to your ribs” meal. I also have to mention that the servers at Shucker’s were very knowledgeable about the menu and attentive throughout the night. So, next time you visit Seattle and want to sample the bounty of the Pacific ocean, I recommend a pitstop at Shucker’s Oyster Bar! And, if you want to make your own fish dinner at home, check out my recipe for Sesame Crusted Tuna with Peanut Noodles 🙂

Vietnamese Fusion in Downtown Seattle

Stateside
300 East Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122

IMG_4796IMG_4786It was the end of my first official day at the International Food Bloggers’ Conference in Seattle, and I was too lazy to walk very far from the hotel or cab it to the international district, and needed a break from the rich and heavy seafood that Pacific Northwest is known for—though it was delicious! I found Stateside, which had great reviews on both OpenTable and Yelp and made a reservation for later that night. I was seated at a high top table with bench seating on one side and a view of the rest of the restaurant, and look out onto Pike Street through he large glass windows. The space was very hip with a great downtown location, and you would never know this was a Vietnamese restaurant without looking at the menu. Stateside is known for its unique and modern fusion approach to traditional Vietnamese flavors, while also incorporating bits and pieces from Chinese and French cuisines. You won’t find any pho here, but rather dishes like crispy duck or mushroom fresh rolls bursting with fresh herbs, chili cumin crusted pork ribs that melt in your mouth, heirloom tomato salad dressed with rice wine and black garlic, and more. The place was crowded and hopping, and I’m glad I thought to make a reservation ahead of time. The uphill walk built up my appetite, and the smells of fish sauce and lemongrass as I walked through the door made my mouth water.

IMG_4787I started out by ordering a cocktail because that’s just what I do on vacation. No judging! The Viet Milk Punch ($11), which had recently moved to the dessert instead of cocktail menu is a modern twist on the classic sweet iced coffee drink available at many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. It features cold brewed coffee—it’s Seattle, isn’t coffee appropriate?—condensed milk, egg white and dark rum. The condensed milk made the drink sweet, but not over the top, and the rum helped mellow our the sweetness and the egg white gives it a lovely frothiness. It was served in a pretty petite wine glass, and definitely fits on the dessert menu. Either way, it was delicious and a refreshing way to start the meal.

IMG_4789The Chili Cumin Pork Ribs ($13) seemed to be very popular on Yelp, and came highly recommended by the waiter, so made an appearance for the appetizer course. The ribs, of course, came with wet naps—how classy! lol—which just added to the charm of the place. Right away, the smell of chili came wafting from the ribs. The meat itself was practically falling off the bone, and had an intense smoky flavor from the almost whole cumin seeds. The slightly charred meat was garnished with scallions and herbs with a nice spice level—didn’t even have to ask for it to be spicier—and they were surprisingly meaty. These are not your mama’s spare ribs! Towards the bottom end of the rib is a fat cap that basted the rest of the meat—it made it so succulent and delicious.

IMG_4788Along with the ribs I had the Crispy Duck Fresh Rolls ($9)—a twisted mashup between a fresh summer roll and a crispy spring roll. The rolls were served with a mild dipping sauce made from a blend of oyster sauce, soy sauce and scallion oil. The rolls were filled with shiso leaves, Thai basil, spearmint, vermicelli noodles, and crispy duck. The roll is then flash-fried. As you bite into it you get the crunch of the duck skin, the chewiness of the fresh roll wrapper and noodles, the sweet herbaceousness of the basil, and the refreshing many flavor fo the shiso leaves. The sauce wasn’t too salty and balanced from the sweet oyster sauce and spicy scallion oil.

IMG_4792For the main event, I had my eye on one dish and with another recommendation of the waiter, I got the Bun Cha Hanoi ($19). This dish took a classic Vietnamese noodle bowl to the next level. It came in three separate bowls that I was encouraged to mix together and enjoy. Pork sausage patties that were super moist with great grill marks were served in a delicious broth made with caramelized fish sauce that flavored and tenderized the meat. The broth had an amazing umami flavor—I could drink it. Throughout the sauce there were small pieces of pork belly that provided a nice texture contrast with slight crisp on outside corners of the pork. The lemongrass shavings and palm sugar in the sauce also helped soak up fish sauce caramel so it wasn’t too salty, but there were plenty of “salt bombs” in the best way. The noodles were garnished with  scallion oil and a ton of fresh herbs that perfumed the whole dish. The third dish was a plate of pork and shrimp imperial rolls that were crispy on the outside and meaty inside. I tossed a couple of these with the sauce and noodles, and the rest I dipped into the broth. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the menu and very nice. He brought me a Fresno chili sauce (made from Fresno chili peppers, water, oil, vinegar, garlic, ginger, scallion and a bit of sugar) to go with the imperial rolls that really made them pop. This dish was not only filling, but also so creative. Yum yum!

IMG_4795After an already filling two courses, the question was this: dare I go for dessert? I was on vacation, so the answer was of course: yes. The Vanilla Goose Egg Custard ($8) had an aroma of Jackfruit when I lifted bowl to my nose, which might have come from the inner layer of the fruit inside the dessert. The top layer of the bowl was a tuile cookie in the shape of a Thai flower. A tuile is a thin, crispy wafer like cookie that’s originally from France and named after the shape of a tile. The cookie has a very slight sweetness to it that reminded me of a fortune cookie. I used my spoon to crack down through the crunchy layer and encountered a layer of Jackfruit, which is prevalent in Southeast Asia, and has a mild taste between a melon and a peach. Underneath the fruit was a layer of the goose egg custard, which was soft with an almost yogurt-like consistency, but slightly richer than everyday custard or pudding. It was nice to end the meal with a light dessert, since the rest of  it was so heavy. It actually reminded me of a breakfast parfait that I’d order with yogurt, fruit and vanilla. Some of the other desserts like the Vietnamese Coffee or Tea with Condensed Milk Creamsicles sounded delicious and uber-creative, but I had already had my Viet Milk Punch. Next time I’ll definitely try them though.

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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.

A Culinary Tour of Machane Yehuda Market (Part IV: What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation)

I would be very remiss if I were to only focus on restaurants in Israel. Throughout the small country, there are many, many outdoor markets or “the shuk.”

Photo Jun 04, 10 30 05One of the most well-known markets in Israel is Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem. The market has over 250 vendors and sells everything from fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, meat, fish, cheese, breads, pastries, and more. It’s a cornucopia of smells, textures, flavors, sights, and beautiful food scenery—food porn really.

Photo Jun 04, 11 25 51Photo Jun 04, 11 47 06Photo Jun 04, 11 20 13Photo Jun 04, 11 47 27My trip was lucky enough to go on a culinary tour of Machane Yehuda, and have a fabulous guide—or madrich in Hebrew. Residents of Jerusalem come to this market from all over the city in order to do their shopping for the week, and on Thursdays and Fridays it gets super crowded with all the people doing their shopping for Shabbat. In fact, on Friday afternoon there is a bugle that plays to signify the market is closing for the Jewish Sabbath. Our guide gave us a funny anecdote on the market as well: How do you know if a woman is married, has children, etc., in the market? On Wednesdays the grandmothers shop since they have lots of requests from their grandchildren for special treats, on Thursdays it’s the mothers since they cook all day Friday, Friday morning it’s the married women, so they can cook Friday afternoon, and Friday afternoon it’s the single women since they forget to cook until the last minute 😉

Photo Jun 04, 10 16 47 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 49 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 51 Photo Jun 04, 10 16 53To start off our culinary tour, our guide went into the market and brought out some traditional appetizers and snacks sold throughout the shuk. Kibbeh, also sometimes known as kubbeh are football-shaped croquettes made of bulgar wheat, stuffed with minced lamb or beef, and baked. It has a thick skin that keeps the meat inside moist and delicious. It is often served with tahini to dip, and a staple dish in many Middle Eastern countries. The next treat for us to sample were cigars, which are not tobacco, but get their inspiration from it—they somewhat resemble cigarettes and consist of ground meat or potatoes rolled inside phyllo dough that’s then deep-fried. Though it sounds very heavy, it’s actually light and delicious. They have a nice kick of spice as well. The final pre-tour sample was stuffed grape leaves. The grape leaves are a vegetarian option and are filled with a mediterranean rice mixed with herbs, lemon, garlic, and other spices. They have a briny quality, very acidic and has a wonderful cleansing quality for the palette.

Photo Jun 04, 10 32 24 Photo Jun 04, 10 34 15 Photo Jun 04, 10 35 44The next stop on our tour was for the #1 food of Israel—Hummus! Waiting for us at a small cafe across from one of the entrances to the market  was a table filled with a variety of hummus and hummus-themed dishes. One of the plates had sautéed mushrooms, one with fresh chickpeas, one studded with roasted garlic, a bowl of tahini and a plate of fresh, hot, crispy falafel and more. The falafel balls, especially, were fresh from the fryer and even though they burnt the roof of my mouth a bit, they were soft and pillowy on the inside and a crunch while biting into the outer coating.

Photo Jun 04, 10 58 22 Photo Jun 04, 10 58 23 Photo Jun 04, 10 58 56We next stopped at an Eastern European cafe further into the market area for some khachapuri. Khachapuri is a traditional Georgian (the country, not the state) snack of cheese filled bread. This dish is so popular among Georgian people that it is sometimes believed to be more popular than pizza, and is, at times, used to measure inflation—similar to the butter and guns model in Keynesian economics. The stuffed bread is cooked in a pizza/laffa oven, which makes it chewy, but also slightly charred with a nice crisp crust. We also sampled a khachapuri filled with beans as well. While not as popular as the cheese version, it was tasty as well.

Photo Jun 04, 11 16 42 Photo Jun 04, 11 22 07 Photo Jun 04, 11 23 13 Photo Jun 04, 11 23 18We then spent some more time walking around the market and had the opportunity to taste delicious, fresh juices and smoothies, homemade spice blends, zahtar flavored flatbread and also buy some fruit, cookies, and more gifts to take home.

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Photo Jun 04, 11 45 48 Photo Jun 04, 11 14 04Photo Jun 04, 11 38 22 Photo Jun 04, 11 38 31

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Photo Jun 04, 11 19 48One of the interesting place we passed towards one end of the market was Casino de Paris. It’s a new project that developed from an entrepreneur that already opened another coffee shop in the market and has been very successful in transforming parts of the market into modern, chic hotspots. Casino de Paris is open after the market closes, and there are other locations, including in London and Paris.

Photo Jun 04, 11 26 09 Photo Jun 04, 11 26 25 Photo Jun 04, 11 27 17 Photo Jun 04, 11 27 24 Photo Jun 04, 11 30 51 Photo Jun 04, 11 38 00The final stop on our gastronomic journey was at Kingdom of Halva or Mamlechet Ha’Halva in Hebrew. Kingdom of Halva has multiple stalls around the market and is known as the place to buy halva in Jerusalem. Halva is a traditional, Jewish dessert usually made with some sort of nut butter, and most Israeli halva is made from tahini or sesame paste. Kingdom of Halva makes all of its halva varieties homemade, and uses a blend of 90% sesame paste made from whole grain, Ethiopian sesame seeds and 10% sugar. They have over 100 flavors available including, but not limited to: pistachio, Belgian chocolate, pecan, coffee, nougat, piña colada, and more. The halva here is so delicious. It has a nutty taste from the sesame, a non-cloying sweetness, and a slightly grainy texture that melts in your mouth. Another great thing about halva is that it can be stored at room temperature for most of the year and last for months. Kingdom of Halva also makes many varieties of tahini that can be used to make delicious falafel or hummus, as a condiment on Mediterranean sandwiches, as a dip for bread, or even eaten on its own.

Photo Jun 04, 12 04 42 Photo Jun 04, 12 04 45Although our tour of the market was over, our guide surprised us with another treat to end the afternoon of Marzipan rugelach. Marzipan rugelach—as often assumed—do not actually have any marzipan in them, but rather are named since they were first made at the Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. These rugelach cookies differ from traditional rugelach, often flavored with cinnamon or raisins, with a flaky exterior, as they are filled with chocolate. In addition, marzipan rugelach are sticky, fudgy, intensely chocolatey, and have a cult following in Israel (and among many Jews around the world as well). They are super decadent with a wonderful richness, doughy and exceedingly sweet. They are almost like crack rugelach—they are that good and worth a trip to Jerusalem just to try these treats. What a perfect way to end our afternoon at Machane Yehuda market.

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Photo Jun 04, 11 54 41So I hope you’re inspired to go out and eat some tasty Israeli treats, or even take a trip to Jerusalem and visit the market yourselves! B’Teiavon and stay hungry!

An Italian Feast in Tel Aviv (What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation, Part III)

Piazza
Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar
99 Dizengoff Street
Tel Aviv, Israel

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FullSizeRender-5I have to admit, while I love trying new cuisines and sampling unique, ethnic flavors—I love me some comfort food! High up on that list of food that makes me feel good is Italian. Whether it’s a big bowl of pasta, a gooey, cheesy pizza, or a delicious fresh cannoli, I have a weakness for the heavy carbfest that comes from most Italian meals. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Piazza is one of my favorite restaurants in Tel Aviv, and a “must eat at” when I’m by Dizengoff Square.

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FullSizeRender-1Piazza is aptly named as it has a large outdoor dining area that is modeled after an Italian piazza—in fact there are trees and beautiful lights that only add to the magical trip to Italy that you’re taken on by the food. There is also an indoor seating area that is reminiscent of a trattoria or Italian bistro. The focal point of the indoor dining space is the large brick oven that has clearly been imported from Italy, as well as the Little Italy style white and red checkered table cloths—very “Lady and the Tramp.” There are English and Hebrew menus available, and the waiter brings a funky-looking bottle of cold tap water to the table as you sit down. Although I didn’t order one on my most recent trip, the Italian soda bar here is tasty and refreshing as well.

FullSizeRender-2I’ve eaten here a few times and have tried multiple dishes, but every time I come here I can’t resist ordering the Truffle Pizzetta (34 shekels, ~$9). The pizzetta is in actuality a mini pizza. The pizzetta is baked off in the brick oven so it maintains its crisp edges—even with toppings—as well as a wonderful chewiness only found from expert pizza makers. In fact, the crust reminds me of the one I’d get from a small, brick oven pizzeria in NYC. After it comes out of the oven, the crust is slathered with truffle cream, which is so important to this dish. The truffle spread is garlicky, pungent, earthy, creamy and oh so delicious. Then a soft-boiled egg—complete with slightly loose yolk—is cut into quarters and placed onto the pizzetta as well as a few thinly sliced radishes that are spicy and help cut through the richness of the dish. The cold egg and truffle cream atop the hot crust is makes for great temperature play, and the hot crust warms the cream and intensifies its unctuous truffle flavor. In addition, there is wonderful textural contrast between the crisp crust, the creamy egg yolk, velvety softness of the truffle spread, the crunch of the radish and the soft chewy egg white. Honestly, I could eat this everyday and be so happy. The dish is also playful and beautiful to look at. It comes with your own little pizza cutter so you can have it all to yourself—which I usually do—or divide among a few. The dish is garnished with some chives and micro basil before it hits the table, which is a classy touch and adds some freshness to an otherwise heavy starter.

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FullSizeRender-11For the main dish, I try to switch it up each time I come here. One of my favorite dishes, which is technically a special, but is served somewhat often, is the Seafood Linguine (64 shekels, ~$17.50), composed of shrimp, calamari and mussels in a crab and butter sauce. The shrimp was plump, perfectly cooked and moist, while the calamari was tender and not springy or chewy at all, and while most of the mussels had come out of the shells, they tasted good and looked very pretty and absorbed some of the spicy sauce. The linguine was cooked al dente so not mushy at all, and drank up the wonderful butter based sauce, and coated the noodles. The sauce was made with sweet green basil, rich butter, piquante raw garlic, and cherry tomatoes, which are a national specialty of Israel. In fact, Israel is known for their sweet cherry tomatoes since much of the water used to grow them is from the Dead Sea, which is so salty that it causes the tomatoes to become sweeter than usual—you could taste that sweetness in the dish, especially contrasted with the subtle heat in the sauce. There’s some sliced (almost) raw garlic, which perfumed the dish and enhanced the flavor of the pasta as well. The hot pasta tossed with the sweet tomatoes, some fruity olive oil, creamy butter, raw slivered garlic, earthy basil and plump, meaty seafood was a heavenly combination. This dish is so fresh tasting and the bounty of seafood is perfect for Tel Aviv, since it’s a beach city—makes you feel like you’re at the sea! I’d get a meal like this in a five-star Italian restaurant at home. Delizioso!

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Without chicken
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With chicken

Another great entrée choice is the Tripoline Carbonara (62 shekels, ~$16) or fettuccine carbonara, which I added grilled chicken to (7 shekels, ~$2). The chicken was grilled and had a nice crust develop on the outside of the flesh—probably from using flour in the coating of the chicken before it went into the pan. The result was some very moist meat that went well in the pasta.The fettuccine was cooked nicely and cooked softer than the linguine, but not chewy. The carbonara sauce clung to the noodles, and was creamy and thick. There was a nice kick of black pepper, and some saltines from the Parmesan and bacon, The bacon itself became soft and almost melted into the dish. This was a very decadent dish of pasta and very, very comforting.

FullSizeRender-10I’m usually so full by the time the waitress asks if I’d like to see the dessert menu, but I made it a point to have dessert on one of my visits here a couple of weeks ago. I’m a big fan of chocolate and was actually eying the appetizing Marscapone and Nutella Pizza, but ended up going with the Creme Brûlée (34 shekels, ~$9). The creme brûlée was cooked in a large, wide ramekin and had a perfectly bruleed top and a thin layer of custard underneath. The top itself was almost like stained glass and I performed the spoon tapping test and it passed with crunchy colors. As I ate this dessert, I sometimes got a little of a charred bitter flavor from the burnt sugar, which was wonderful in contrast to the sweetness of the custard. The custard was sweet, with a strong vanilla flavor, and velvety smooth. It had an almost pudding-like consistency but still very much set. The combination of the crunchy top and the creamy custard was also very playful. The ramekin was garnished with a sprig of mint—a lot of attention to detail was given to the dish’s presentation. Great way to end the meal.

FullSizeRender-5The dining experience at Piazza was and is always great. They have special discounted prices at lunchtime, and the service is always friendly and attentive. The food is delicious, and the portions super filling. Come eat here when you are in Tel Aviv, you won’t leave disappointed—or hungry!