Herb Roasted Asparagus

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

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

 

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Creamy Asparagus Risotto

Risotto is one of those dishes that sounds super fancy–and it definitely tastes luxurious!–but is actually far easier to make at home than most people think. In fact, it doesn’t even need cream or milk to make it creamy. You just need to buy the right kind of rice and give it a little love and attention and you’ll be whipping up some restaurant worthy risotto in no time. Flavor it with your favorite mix-ins like roasted asparagus, caramelized onions, roasted butternut squash or more. Bon appetito!

Ingredients

  • Arborio rice, 2 cups — you must use arborio rice for this dish. Arborio rice has a super high starch content and this is what makes your risotto creamy and delicious!
  • Garlic, 5-6 cloves chopped
  • White wine, 1 cup
  • Chicken stock (or vegetable stock if you want to keep it vegetarian/dairy), 4 cups — if you wanted to do a super rich and earthy mushroom risotto, you could make some mushroom broth by rehydrating dried porcini mushrooms for a truly luxurious risotto dish!
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan (or nondairy substitute such as nutritional yeast), optional but always worth it
  • 1 cup of Herb Roasted Asparagus (or your favorite mix-in)

Directions

  1. Heat the stock in a saucepan and add any flavorings you’d like to it such as herbs, lemon juice, spices etc.
  2. Sauté garlic in olive oil until fragrant and slightly brown. Season with salt and pepper
  3. Add rice and toss to coat. Sauté the rice so it gets nice and toasty. This will give it a wonderful and deep flavor later on
  4. Add about a cup of white wine of your choice — you can also use champagne, sparkling wine etc. Just make sure it’s something you like. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it! The flavor will just concentrate as it’s cooking
  5. Stir the rice, and once it’s absorbed the wine, start adding about a cup of broth to the rice and stir it around
  6. Every time the rice absorbs the liquid, it needs to be stirred. As it cooks and gets stirred, it will start to release its starches which creates the creaminess that is characteristic of risotto
  7. After about 18 minutes, you will have added several cups of liquid and the ride should be creamy and have expanded. Give it a quick taste for seasoning and to make sure the rice is al dente (should have a little bit of chew left)
  8. Now would be the time to add anything to the risotto like some roasted asparagus, maple roasted butternut squash if you wanted to go sweet, or anything you like
  9. Turn off the heat and add some nutritional yeast (if meat meal) to give it some umami or a cup of grated Parmesan cheese if a dairy meal and stir.
  10. Serve while still warm. To reheat, heat risotto into a saucepan with a 1/4 cup of water and stir until steamy and ready to inhale

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Chicken Marsala with Mushroom Sauce

So I’ve recently started offering small group cooking classes through my catering company, J2Food, and the theme for the first session was all about love. It was a few days before Valentine’s Day, and it was a couples-themed class, It’s a Date! And what can be more romantic than cooking for your loved one? Or, even better, cooking together. So as I was considering what we should make for the meal, I thought we should have all foods that not only taste delicious but also look amazing and can be made by any amateur chef (and easy to clean to boot!).

Chicken Marsala is one of my favorite dishes to make for guests and even crowds. It sounds and tastes very complex, but is actually very simple to make and very impressive in its presentation and flavors. It’s a recipe that I teach all of my cousins when they go to college so that they have at least one quality trick up their sleeve to throw down. This dish is also great for a quick weeknight meal. Serve it over some herbed egg noodles, with creamy garlic mashed potatoes or even with a fresh arugula salad. Enjoy and let me know how yours turns out!


Ingredients

  • Chicken breasts, boneless – while I often opt for the more forgiving chicken thighs, it’s very traditional to use chicken breast in this recipe for texture and size
  • Mushrooms, halved – I like Cremini (mini portobellos), but button mushrooms or any variety are good to use. Sometimes I like to use a mix of mushrooms…you can never have too many
  • Bottle of Marsala wine – I would definitely use real Marsala wine (usually found in the dessert wine section near the Madeira or sherry). Resist the urge to use Marsala cooking wine found in the grocery store since those are loaded with salt and MSG.
  • Chicken stock
  • Flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried herbs – whatever your favorite flavors are (we used rosemary, thyme, and oregano)
  • Fresh parsley, chopped
  • Garlic, 8-10 cloves chopped
  • Olive oil

Directions

  1. Pound the chicken breasts out to about 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. Doesn’t need to be super thin since these are getting twice-cooked
  2. Add enough olive oil to a heavy-bottomed sauté pan to coat and start to heat on medium
  3. Mix a heavy pinch of dried herbs, salt and pepper into about 1.5 cups of flour — you may need more later on, so don’t be skimpy now
  4. Dip the chicken pieces into the seasoned flour mixture one by one to coat then add to the hot pan — How hot should the pan be? You should hear a small sizzle or see some small bubbles form around the edge of the chicken 
  5. Cook the chicken pieces for 2-3 minutes per side so they both get a slight crisp and are golden to golden brown on each side
  6. Reserve partially cooked chicken for later to finish cooking
  7. In the same pan, add a heaping tablespoon of chopped garlic
  8. After the garlic has started to brown, add the mushrooms — it’s important that mushrooms have room to cook or they’ll steam instead of sautéing so don’t overcrowd the pan
  9. One the mushrooms have cooked, add a few spoonfuls of the flour mixture to the pan and stir to coat the mushrooms and so that all of the flour gets to cook off some
  10. After a couple of minutes, deglaze the pan with about half the bottle of Marsala — the pan should start to sizzle rapidly and this is the time for you to use your spatula/spoon to scrape up the good, crusty bits from the bottom of the pan. This is pure flavor…Yum!!!
  11. Add about 1 cup of chicken stock to the pan, and also season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Let the sauce mixture come up to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer and cook for a couple of minutes to get rid some of the sharpness from the wine and stock
  12. At this point, the floury mushrooms acted as our roux, and the sauce should be starting to thicken. Add the chicken back into the sauce and submerge.
  13. Cover the pan with a lid of tight aluminum foil and cook for another 20 minutes on simmer or medium-low heat. The chicken will get nice and tender and the sauce will thicken some more
  14. Once done, serve on a big platter with some risotto, egg noodles or mashed potatoes. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley

Bon appetit!

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Cooking With Curry

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

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

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Pistachio Crusted Curry Salmon

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

Curry Noodles with Crispy Tofu

  • 1 package of firm tofu, 14oz
  • 1 pound of broad rice noodles
  • 2 bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 yellow onions, chopped
  • 1 eggplant—chopped into bite sized pieces. I love to use Japanese or graffiti eggplant for this dish not only because of the beautiful color, but also because it has less water in it than an Italian eggplant, so it’ll be sweeter and stay firmer when cooked downPhoto May 26, 5 04 02 PM
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp of fish sauce
  • 1/2 jar of Mama Lam’s curry paste
  • 1 tbsp of Sambal Olek chili sauce
  • 1 bunch of scallions, chopped (reserve some for garnish)—also called green onion or spring onion in some supermarkets
  • 1 can of coconut milk—do not use reduced fat as the texture and thickness of the sauce will be off. Plus, coconut milk is a healthy fat
  • Vegetable or peanut oil—any high heat oil will do such as canola, corn, grapeseed oil, etc.Photo May 26, 7 14 11 PMPhoto May 26, 5 02 58 PMPhoto May 26, 5 05 58 PM
  1. The first step of this dish is to make the crispy tofu—who doesn’t like their tofu crispy?
  1. Tofu has a lot of water, which is why it usually tastes bland. In fact, the biggest mistake that most cooks make when handling tofu is not getting rid of the excess water. This will never work! Even if you just want to marinade the tofu you’ll still  need to do this stepPhoto May 26, 4 40 18 PM
  2. Put the tofu between two paper towels and press. Repeat this process 2-3 times, and then let the tofu sit between the towels for at least 20 minutes to really draw out the moisture
  3. Heat up your wok until it starts to smoke a little, then add the oil. It’s important that you don’t add your oil before this as you don’t want it to bubble up and burn youPhoto May 26, 7 14 05 PM
  4. Add the tofu to the wok and spread it out in a single layer—you should hear it sizzle. If there’s no sizzle, then your wok isn’t hot enough and your tofu will steam instead of crisp up
  5. Let the tofu cook on one side for a couple min, then mix it up and repeat this process a few times until it’s crispy on all sides. This shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes or so
  6. Put your tofu on a plate and place aside for later on
  7. Heat your wok back up on the stove while you get the rest of your ingredients ready
  8. Add some more oil, then add the garlic, ginger and scallions—this is the holy trinity of Asian dishes!
  9. Let these sauté for a minute, then add the curry paste and heat through, followed by the onions, peppers and eggplant
  10. Let the veggies cook for a few minutes, then add the fish sauce, chili sauce and coconut milk and stir until it becomes a homogenized sauce
  11. Cook the curry for at least 10 minutes or longer depending on how thick you like your sauce—as it cooks the flavors of the salty fish sauce, spicy chilis, earthy curry and more will concentrate
  12. Meanwhile, drop the rice noodles into some salted boiling water—off the heat—and let soak for 5 minutes
  13. Add the par-cooked noodles to the curry and toss together in the wok
  14. Let the noodles and curry cook together as the noodles absorb the sauce and meld together into one cohesive dish
  15. Garnish with the crispy tofu, fresh cilantro, chopped scallions, and some chopped peanuts or pistachios if you’d like to tie the two dishes together even more
  16. Eat while still hot or add some sesame oil and have as a cold salad the next day for lunch. Yum!

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

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

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

Recipe: Morroccan Chicken Tagine

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

Ingredients:

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

Cooking Directions:

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

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

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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!

Classic Comfort Food in Center City (Philly Burger Round Up – Week 4)

Photo May 20, 7 49 58 PMSmokin’ Betty’s
116 South 11th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

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Photo May 20, 7 49 46 PMIn the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there is an entry for comfort food. Comfort food, according to Webster, is defined as “food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.” There is nothing quite like dipping some ooey-gooey grilled cheese into some velvety tomato soup, or having a spoonful of creamy, decadent mac n’ cheese, or a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. Eating comfort food somehow taps into our sense of nostalgia and makes is us feel warm all over. Burgers—at least for me—are one of the biggest comforting foods around. So for the next stop on my Philly Burger Round Up, I’m heading to Smokin’ Betty’s located in Midtown. Smokin’ Betty’s is a haven for comforting sandwiches, saucy barbecue, meaty burgers with lots of delicious twists on classic American food.

Photo May 20, 6 56 29 PMLuckily we had gotten to the restaurant in time for the tail end of Happy Hour, so were able to have some cocktails for only $5. They also have some of their signature appetizers available for 1/2 price as well. The Berry Lemonade ($5) is available everyday at happy hour and was made with Citron vodka, and came in a decent sized tumbler. It wasn’t too sweet, but nice and tart. It had a good amount of alcohol so it had a bite and there was enough to know it was there in the background. It was delicious with the burger to come!

We started with the Black Angus Beef Cheesesteak Eggrolls ($9), served with smoked tomato jam. I mean, come on, this is Philly–what’s more comforting than a cheesesteak? Fried cheesesteak eggrolls! The sweet dipping sauce is a nice alternative to ketchup. The super crispy wrapper was tightly wrapped so the filling did not go all over the place, and it was easy to eat. The filling was not too heavy from the meat and had a slightly smoky taste inside—it was probably cooked near the BBQ meats. The portion size was a bit on the smaller side since there were only 4 of them, but it was a perfect size plate for two people to share.

Photo May 20, 7 18 59 PMI was feeling like a more traditional burger, and my dining partner wanted to try something a little more “out there,” so we each ordered a different dish. The Betty Burger ($13.95) is a classic burger, but made special from the delicious toppings and garnishes. The patty is made with 1/2 pound of quality ground sirloin. It’s then topped with some super tender confit pork belly—confit is just a fancy way of saying it’s cooked in fat, usually its own. Pork belly has a very, very high fat content, so as you cook it the fat cooks down and bastes the meat to keep it moist, chewy and melt in your mouth soft. Next up is some creamy avocado, sharp cheddar, crunchy lettuce, slightly acidic tomato, and a slightly runny sunny side up egg. The bun is slathered with a house made roasted garlic aioli to finish it off. The meat is cooked to temperature (medium-rare) and so juicy, and though the cheese was kind of lost in the shuffle, but the rest of the garnishes make up for it. As you bite into the burger you get that hit of meaty goodness, the pork belly is salty and chewy, the avocado is creamy, the lettuce and tomato give crunch and cooling effect, then egg yolk breaks open and coats your palette to add another level of richness to this burger. The juice starts to run down your hands and it’s basically an orgasmic experience. Yum!

Photo May 20, 7 18 44 PMThe Tur-Duck-En Burger ($12.95) is, on the other hand, unique from the get-go. The meat is smoky and slightly gamey with a nice crust. The poultry patty stayed moist, which might have been from the gravy—it was hard to pinpoint, but was definitely felt. The layer of stuffing was soft inside and crisp on the outside—my favorite part of thanksgiving. The cranberry sauce wasn’t too sweet, but had a nice tartness, and the sweet potato ribbons gave the sandwich a velvety softness. This burger basically is Thanksgiving on a plate, but much more handheld.

Photo May 20, 7 19 04 PMThough the burgers usually come with regular french fries, we decided to switch things up and order Sweet Potato Fries (extra $1) with our burgers, which were on point. The potatoes were rustically cut thick and clearly homemade. They were meaty on the inside, but also slightly crisp on the outside—probably from a double frying technique. The regular fries are great here as well, but this time the sweet potato were the right choice this time and played well with the other dishes. They complemented the slight sweetness of the cocktails, and definitely matched the holiday theme of the Tur-Duck-En burger. Plus, they serve you a jumbo sized portion of fries with your burger.

Photo May 20, 7 49 27 PMAfter our meal, I was definitely feeling comforted—and maybe a little stuffed lol. Everything on the menu at Smokin’ Betty’s tastes delicious, and the service is pretty great too. If you want a night of comfort food that’s going to make you reminisce about wonderful experiences in the past, or an amazing delicious weekend brunch, come eat here any day of the week!

Photo May 20, 7 19 07 PMBetty Burger: A
Tur-Duck-En Burger: A-