Searching for Pho-land-ia on the UES

Vietnaam88
1700 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10128

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

Scrumptious Italian Sandwiches in Astoria

Il Bambino
34-08 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11106

My brother recently moved to Astoria in Queens, NY. Being the awesome, amazing and caring big brother that I am, I was helping him move some things into his new apartment, until we got hungry for some lunch. I think Astoria is a great neighborhood, and it’s a super hotspot right now. While it might have once only been known for Greek restaurants—of which there are still many—it is now a haven for artists, musicians, foodies and hipsters. All over Astoria there are gourmet eateries ranging in cuisine from spicy Thai cook shops, to brick oven pizzerias, gourmet grilled cheese, barbecue smokehouses, big beer gardens, Japanese ramen shops, and many, many more.

Photo Jun 20, 1 28 07 PMOne of these unique restaurants is Il Bambino, which opened in 2006. It is a cute, little hole in the wall place on the 31st Avenue block, specializing in old-school panini, and other Italian fare, with a second location in the West Village as well. It has a casual atmosphere with a big selection of panini and crostini, as well as salads, antipasto, and a special brunch menu on the weekends. It has an open kitchen in the front where there are multiple panini presses working at once sending out creative meat, cheese and veggie combinations. They use ciabatta bread that is freshly baked daily, local produce and handmade condiments. There’s also a great meat a mind cheese glossary available for perusal of those that aren’t familiar with some of the selections.

Photo Jun 20, 1 06 03 PMWe got there during the weekend lunch rush and luckily were able to snag a small table near the front. Everything on the menu looked amazing, and even though I was somewhat distracted by the giant salad being eaten by the woman next to me, we decided to save time and each went with a panini.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 47 PMThe Bacon Butty ($12) has a powerful and pungent blue cheese flavor. There is a good amount of moist, chewy bacon—it had the perfect texture and amount of smokiness that have some oomph to the sandwich. The combination of avocado, scrambled eggs and blue cheese made for a great combo, and the creaminess from the spicy mayo added a certain level of unctuousness to the sandwich as well. The hot bread was nice and crusty, with a wonderful crunch as it was bitten into. It was also a pretty big panini—perfect for a filling brunch or lunch.

Photo Jun 20, 1 19 40 PMIn contrast to the Bacon Butty, which was slightly more traditional American, the Pass the Hash ($11) was very, very Italian. The eggs were cooked well and not dry at all. The garlic roasted potatoes provided some needed heft and the chorizo bumped up the meatiness of the panini. The whole sandwich had a great truffle flavor from the aioli that also perfumed the filling. The addition of Parmesan made the panini luxurious and really elevated the rather simple ingredients to something special, and tied it all together. The inside of the panini was creamy and contrasted with the crustiness of the grilled bread.Photo Jun 27, 1 27 15 PM

Photo Jun 27, 1 28 35 PMThose two panini were super filling and so delicious that a couple of weeks later we decided to pick up a panini to share as an afternoon snack—alright, I’ll admit…a big snack!—and it was the best takeout ever. The Porchetta ($11) panini was definitely made for the carnivorous at heart. Porchetta is a boneless pork loin that is stuffed with herbs, garlic, then rolled and roasted with the skin still on to keep then meat moist and delicious. In the Porchetta panini, the meaty pork loin was fatty with juice gushing out of the meat. It was topped with a fresh and spicy slaw that was definitely helpful in cutting through the rich, fatty meat. The pickle slaw were a nice surprise hidden in the middle of the panini, and the rosemary aioli also gave the sandwich a nice earthiness and deep woody flavor. The bread soaked up the pork juices and it was mouthwateringly delicious.

Photo Jun 20, 1 27 57 PMIl Bambino is the perfect spot for some lunch, brunch or anything in between. It has a ton of great Italian panini available and great beers and wines to pair with them. While the restaurant might be small in size, it makes up for it with big played and bold flavors. Buon Appetito!

Mouthwatering Mexican in the West Village

La Loteria
Cocina Mexicana Moderna
29 7th Ave South
New York, NY 10014

New York City is expensive—there’s no arguing with that. However, it is still possible to dine out at delicious restaurants while sticking to a budget. One of the best times of the year to sample the city’s plethora of eateries is NYC Restaurant Week. Over the course, in actuality, three weeks, over 300 restaurants throughout the boroughs create special three-course menus ($25 for lunch, $38 for dinner) in addition to their regular offerings. It’s a great way to try a new place or enjoy a high-end meal, for a more affordable price tag.

We ventured down to Bedford Street for some modern Mexican fare at La Loteria. The name of the restaurant is a play on the popular Mexican game, la loteria, which is similar to bingo. While the game might be based on luck, the food and service here are always a sure bet. Under the creative helm of co-owners, Executive Chef Julieta and Managing Partner/Owner Jaime Herrera, La Loteria has become a hotspot in the chic dining scene of the West Village.

Our night started fittingly with some classic Mexican cocktails—margaritas and sangria. The Margarita Tradicional Loteria came in a glass tumbler garnished with a salt rim. It was tart, with a good balance between the heavy tequila and sweet agave nectar, and super refreshing–really hit the spot. The red Sangria del Cantarito wasn’t too sweet and we appreciated that it didn’t come with a whole fruit basket as a garnish. It was no frills, but made with a good wine and tasty.

The Guacamole Tradicional was served in an authentically Tex-Mex stone bowl, which I love and came with a generous portion. It was chunky, so you could still taste the individual pieces of avocado, and mixed with hot chili peppers, juicy tomato chunks, highly acidic lime juice, and rough chopped cilantro that was still visible throughout the dip.

We also got a trio of salsas for the table. These salsas seriously heightened La Loteria from solid Mexican food in NYC to modern and gourmet. The tomatillo avocado salsa was sour from the fleshy tomatillos with a wonderfully bold flavor. It was pulpy from the tomatillos, and strongly acidic, with a nice bite, that was tempered by the creamy and rich avocado. The vibrant green color was also great. The peanut salsa was definitely funky and tasted like a Mexican version of an Asian sate sauce. The sauce was earthy, slightly spicy, nutty with some smoky notes to it, and garnished with chopped peanuts. Yum! The third of the trip was the more traditional chili de arbol salsa. The bright reddish-orange color contrasted beautifully with the green of the tomatillo salsa. It was also super creamy and unctuous, and had a background taste of roasted red peppers. The building heat from the red salsa played nicely with the hidden spiciness of the guacamole, and the mild taste of the peanut salsa.

To scoop up the guacamole and salsas, there were homemade corn tortilla chips. The chips were crunchy and still warm from the fryer, but not greasy. We ended up getting a second bowl of chips since they were so dippable.


The Ceviche de Pescado appetizer featured the catch of the day, which was sea bass, a meaty fish that has steadily been gaining popularity as an alternative to tuna or salmon. Sea bass was a great choice for the ceviche, since it can stand up to the strong flavors in the marinating liquid. The fish was mixed with tomatillo, avocado, and pickled cucumber. The base sauce was made with lime juice, but wasn’t too overpowering. The plate was garnished with mini corn tostadas, pea shoot tendrils and an edible flower—the flower seemed to be a theme, which is popular among many Mexican restaurants. It had a very rustic chic feel to it, and the freshness of the sea bass, almost sushi-grade in its texture, really heightened the flavors.

Ensalada de Betabel, translated to “beet salad,” was not super Mexican, but seemed very appropriate for a downtown Manhattan restaurant and tasty. The salad was a good mix of textures—the meaty grilled beets, soft goat cheese spread, creamy avocado, crunchy caramelized nuts, crunchy spinach leaves, and chewy radicchio. The beets were also the right temperature; often, kitchens serve beets that are ice-cold, which I think dilutes the sweet flavor of the beets, but here they were served room temperature.

The Quesos Flameados, or melted Chihuahua cheese baked casseroles, was also a great dish. This dish is hot in comparison to the others, and made for a nice change from the previously cold appetizers. The cheese was cooked in a cute little cast iron skillet along with some onions for both flavor and texture. The cheese ended up all melted and crusty along the outer edges. It was served with hand-pressed tortillas to scoop up the cheesy goodness, almost like a deconstructed cheese quesadilla.

The second course Enchiladas Callejeras—“street style” enchiladas—were stuffed with panela cheese that has a meaty texture and much higher melting temperature. Therefore, the cheese maintained its shape and very much stood up to the rest of the dish. The enchiladas were smothered in a mouth-watering mole sauce, and rested atop adobo fried potatoes. The mole was very earthy, with sweetness and a slight fruitiness that made it a nice contrast to the spicy, smoky potatoes. The potatoes on their own reminded me of a dish I had when I was in Spain called papas bravas, typically served as a tapas dish in Spanish restaurants that consists of fried potatoes garnished with a spicy tomato sauce or creamy aioli. We requested mushrooms instead of one of the meats available on the menu and they were cooked perfectly and formed a semi-permeable layer between the mole sauce and the enchiladas.

The fish tacos, Tacos de Pescada Baja Style, were also made with sea bass, and the dish was super crispy from the beer batter. There were three big tacos tightly wrapped with flour tortilla filled to the brim with hot fish and a crunchy, sweet and tangy jicama slaw. There was also a creamy and spicy aioli garnish that was tasty, but the taco was already so moist that it wasn’t even needed.

The meal’s final entree was Barbacoa de Arrachera. The barbacoa consisted of skirt steak braised with banana leaves, tequila, Mexican beer, oregano and salsa verde. Using skirt steak was an unusual, but smart choice–it’s a cheaper cut of meat, but the other ingredients elevate it to the fine dining level. The meat was smoky and slightly sweet from the banana leaves, moist from the beer, woodsy and deep flavors from the oregano and tequila, a nice pop of tanginess from the salsa, and fall apart tender. It was garnished with lime and a duo of sauces. The presentation was clean with the meat served in a big bowl along with some hand-pressed tortillas.


At this point, we were all pretty full, but who can say no to dessert? The Flan Napolitano was unbelievably creamy and the custard was set, with the spoon cutting through it like a panna cotta. It was sweet and tangy from the cream cheese, with a layer dulce de leche caramel and topped with some toasted walnuts flavored with cinnamon. The plate also had a raspberry garnish.

The Churros, which are always a personal favorite of mine, were fried perfectly–crispy on the outside and still eggy in the middle–and lightly dusted with cinnamon. The lack of sugar on the Churros was actually a welcome surprise, since the other desserts were uber sweet. They were served with dark chocolate and dulce de leche dipping sauces. Only thing I would change was I wish there was a little more sauce–I’d drink it from the container lol.

Last, but certainly not least, was the Pastel de Tres Leches (aka Tres Leches Cake). The cake was, as expected, super moist from the three kinds of milk–cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk–and the sponge was slightly grainy. It’s a classic Mexican dessert and this one was a great take on it, especially with the great presentation. The plate was garnished with a small cup of milk. Not only was the white milk in sharp contrast to the dark plate, but I also love when food is garnished with what’s in it! A quality I share with Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.

So if you’re in the mood for some delicious Mexican food in NYC, head downtown to La Loteria, but make sure you’re hungry! Everything is fresh and tasty, and it’s always service with a smile. Dustin, the manager, took such great care of us and really made the whole night special. Can’t wait to come back for Happy Hour and dinner again.

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!

Thai House of Deliciousness (or What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation, part II)

Thai House
8 Bograshov Street
Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is, in my opinion, an amazing cit. In some respects, it reminds me of mini-Barcelona with the beach and then a large downtown, and in some respects it reminds me of San Francisco with a slightly bohemian attitude. Either way, it has a killer food scene.

image1Continuing on my Israeli food journey, this stop was actually towards the end of my trip. After eating lots of local Israeli delights like hummus, pita, falafel, salads, roasted eggplant etc., I was craving something a bit different, so I decided on Thai food. When I asked around, and then looked online, Thai House off of Ben Yehuda Street near the beach was recommended over and over. After having eaten here, I wholeheartedly agree—this was definitely some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. This place gets super busy around dinner time, and all day on the weekends since it’s a block from the beach. There were a lot of locals eating here, as well as some American tourists in the mood for an authentic Thai meal. I was at one of two tables filled when I came in and the whole room was filled when I got the check.

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image3I sat in the dining room that had bamboo walls and roof, and it very much lived up to its name of “Thai house.” The menu was big with lots of choices, and all of the dishes can be made to your spice level. I wish I had 10 stomachs to eat with, especially with the incredible smells emanating from the table next to me—lime citrus, spicy chili, umami fish sauce, sweet Thai basil, garlic, and more—each one more tantalizing than the next. The table decorations were very simple—no frills—and it was clear that the food and authentic decor are the main events here. I do have to say that I regret not trying one of the cocktail specials that sounded refreshing.

image5The best part of my meal here was really the food though. It was hard to choose from all the selections, but I think I chose wisely. I started with the Yam Neua Beef (46 shekels, ~$12), or grilled rump beef served with a hot chili fish sauce. When the plate came to the table it was presented beautifully. The sticky rice came in its own sack, and I was encouraged to tear pieces of the rice off with my hands and eat it with the spicy beef. The beef was sliced thin and garnished with sliced onion on top, and sliced cucumber below that almost became pickled from the heavily acidic sauce coating the beef. The meat itself was so tender and had been marinated in lime juice, chilis and fish sauce, and some sugar to tenderize the beef. The choice to cook the beef at medium rare also kept it from being chewy. It made it not only super pungent and spicy, but also light and meaty, and the sticky rice was able to absorb excess sauce. The plate was also garnished with small pieces of chili—leftover from the marinade—as well as some mint leaves. The dish was just fun to eat, and the temperature contrast between the warm rice and the cool meat was a nice touch.

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For my entrée, I wanted some sort of noodle dish and went with the recommendation of the waiter—Yum! The Pahd Sen Lian with goose (72 shekels, ~$19) had egg noodles that tasted homemade, and not mushy at all, as well as three kinds of mushroom—button, shiitake and oyster—morning glory—sometimes known as Chinese broccoli—and scallions. I requested the dish spicy, which it was, but I also added some pickled chilis to the noodles from the tray of spice condiments that was brought to the table. The result was a building heat that complemented the slightly sweet sauce on the noodles.Although the ingredients were very refined, the presentation and composition was almost rustic, but in the best way possible. I could imagine myself eating this dish in some small village in Thailand. The goose was also amazing. Not only is it rare that I get to eat goose meat, but it was cooked very well and included a good amount of chunk, breast meat. The fat was cooked off, which just left the tender, moist meat. It was slightly gamier than duck, and very meaty—satisfied the carnivore in me.

image8My experience at Thai House was in one word: delectable. The food was delicious and thoughtfully composed, the decor was authentic and at the same time the perfect level of campiness, and the location was wonderful. It was a great break from the hustle and bustle of my time in Tel Aviv and a satisfied my need for a spicy Thai meal. #Nomnom!

What I Ate On My Israel Vacation

I recently returned from a visit to Israel. The trip was amazing and we did so many great activities – rafting in the Galilee River, riding ATV’s in Golan Heights near the Syrian border, partying and relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv and much more. However, my favorite part of the trip was the delicious food that we had. Everyday there was a big spread at breakfast of salads, breads, fish, cheeses, yogurts, bourekas, and juice. The large Israeli breakfast is well-known and filled me up for lots of activities throughout the day. Yet it wasn’t just the breakfast that filled me up. Israel has become hotspot for a growing food scene.

IMG_2689FullSizeRender-1Nowhere is the growing culinary movement more prevalent than in Tel Aviv—the cultural capital of Israel. Tel Aviv is part beach town, but also had a big downtown area that is reminiscent of San Francisco. Plenty of young chefs come there to cut their teeth and open some amazing restaurants.

FullSizeRender-12One such restaurant that I had the pleasure of dining in was Branja, in Tel Aviv’s super trendy Sarona complex—a blend of historic Tel Aviv architecture, modern urban green space, and a mix of stores, cute cafes, and hip restaurants right in the middle of the city. Even better, many of the restaurants, bars and cafes are open on Shabbat (Friday night/Saturday day). Branja is a Spanish-Mediterranean inspired restaurant, housed in a two-story Templar building that allows for a vibrant first floor restaurant, and a night bar and private dining space on the second floor. Since I was part of a big group, we had rented out the upstairs area, which was a treat—especially the wonderful terrace.

IMG_2692 IMG_2693 We started the night off with a wonderful happy hour—waiters offered flutes of effervescent champagne, glasses of spicy red wine, and mugs of crisp, cold beer. There was a cute lounge bar in the salon with drink refills and they were very accommodating for our large group size. The dining room had a very rustic chic feel to it, with large, rectangular wooden tables set simply with ceramic plates and glass cups. IMG_2700IMG_2701Our meal began with a simple salad of peppers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and cucumber in a light dressing made with fruity olive oil. Not only was the salad fresh and light, but also so pretty to look at with bold colors. There were also big baskets of freshly baked bread—white or wheat—served with creamy butter and house made schug, a traditional, spicy Israeli condiment made from hot peppers. The mix of the slightly sweet yet salty butter and the spicy schug spread on the bread made for a wonderful pop of flavors in my mouth. It was complemented nicely by some briny olives.

IMG_2702Next up was a plate of thinly sliced Sirloin Carpaccio. The beef was flavored with aged balsamic vinegar and pistachio to give it a nice punch of acidity, as well as an earthy flavor, and garnished with some peppery arugula that helped balance the richness of the meat.

IMG_2703IMG_2704To follow, we had some fried red mullet with a crispy coating, served with a Tzatziki and a tomato salsa reminiscent of a cocktail sauce. The fish was moist, and the bones were so small that you were able to bite right through them and eat the fish whole if you like. A plate with a large potato and cheese pancake arrived as well, which was tasty but didn’t strike me as super Mediterranean in nature.

FullSizeRender-4My favorite appetizer of the night were the lamb pierogies. The pierogi were pan-fried with a nice crust and a savory, slightly smoky lamb filling. They were garnished with a pan sauce and plated on a black plate which made them look even more enticing.

FullSizeRender-9We had finally arrived at the main course, and had a choice of gnocchi, chicken or ram–which many of us assumed was lamb at first. The gnocchi was served in a white butter sauce that was mild in flavor, but was nicely garnished with long pieces of Parmesan. The mini-dumplings were cooked al dente as to maintain a good bite without being mushy. They were also tossed with some asparagus that really woke the flavors up and helped cut through the richness of the sauce. My only complaint would be that I wish the potato in the gnocchi was incorporated a bit more.

FullSizeRender-6 FullSizeRender-8The second option available was for a chicken kabob, which was marinated in Middle Eastern spices, including cumin, garlic, za’atar, and harissa. The chicken was skewered and cooked perfectly. It was moist, and the chicken had a spice crust that helped seal the juices in the meat. It was plated with roasted eggplant and tahini. A popular cooking method for eggplants in Israel is to cut the vegetable in half lengthwise, then roast it until the flesh becomes super creamy and delicious. This eggplant was dressed with tahini sauce–made from sesame–and was a nice contrast in flavor to the bold poultry meat.

IMG_2714The final choice of entrees was ram steak on a stick. This was actually my first time eating ram, and, although we had to wait a little extra time for it to be prepared, it was very tasty! The meat wasn’t too chewy and had wonderful grill marks and was cooked somewhere between medium-rare and medium. It was plated with spicy, peppers, a generous amount of roasted potatoes, and demiglace.

FullSizeRender-13After our large meal we, of course, needed a delectable dessert, and Branja did not disappoint. We were presented with a trio of desserts. The creamy, mini cheesecake almost had a key lime pie flavor. It was not too tangy or sweet, and absolutely refreshing–especially following such a heavy meal. The lime crumbs on top were a nice touch. The plate also included some wonderful churros that were crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle. They emitted an amazing cinnamon aroma and were served with a bittersweet, dark chocolate dipping sauce. The final pastry of the trip was a dense chocolate cake square with nougat. The cake was intensely chocolatey, but not super sweet. It was delicious, but my favorite part was actually the house made whip cream.FullSizeRender

Overall, dinner at Branja was absolutely delicious and such a great taste of the local, Tel Aviv food scene. We followed up our meal with a wonderful wine tasting at Tasting Room, also in the Sarona complex, and went back to our hotel that night with our bellies full and having had a wonderful night. Check back for posts on “What I Ate On My Israeli Vacation.”

Branja
15 Rav Aluf David Elazar Street,
Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel