Philly Pho ‘Ph’est

Pho Cali 
1005 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

entrance

Once again, I am on the hunt for “pho”-tastic bowls of delicious pho from all over. What can I say? I’m a pho-colic. (#Copyright) One of my old reliable spots where I know I can go for a tasty, steaming bowl of pho anytime is at Pho Cali, located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

wall deco

interior

Pho Cali has very fast service, big portions and a revamped interior—very modern, but still typical layout for the neighborhood. While it’s not a huge place, there are about 50 seats and usually a seat available. Each of the tables is outfitted with its own condiment tray filled with traditional pickled jalapeños, Sriracha sauce, sambal olek—a Southeastern garlic and chili paste, among others, as well as packets of chopsticks, a squeeze bottle of hoisin sauce and Asian soup spoons. Very convenient. While this place might not be as cheap as some of the places on Washington Avenue in South Philly, but you’re also paying slightly extra for Center City location. Typically it’s about $6.50-$9.50 for a bowl of pho. Still cheaper than a lot of other places.

summer rolls

Pho is delicious. Fact. But it tastes even better when it follows some sort of tasty appetizer. Not only does the starter whet the palate, but it also stops me from inhaling the entire bowl of pho in like five point two seconds flat. Is that a world records? One of my favorite appetizers here is the Summer Rolls with Shrimp and Pork or Tom Cuon. The summer rolls are wrapped in a thick chewy wrapper of pliable, soft rice paper. It’s stuffed with big chunks of shrimp, though not a ton of pork, and lots of vermicelli noodles to help fill it up. The dipping sauce was pretty thin and a little bland on its own, but after adding a bit of the sambal, tithe flavors really popped. The heat made the earthy, peanut overtones of the sauce pop. Very fresh appetizer and at $3.95 for two rolls, it’s a pretty good deal.

pho

Up next is the pho. I usually go with the Deluxe House Combo (Dac Bet Xe Lua). For $9.50 you get a huge bowl of food. It might be more expensive than some Vietnamese restaurants, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. The broth is very clean and clear, and doesn’t feel greasy or heavy. At the same time, the soup gives you a blank canvas to work on—perfect to doctor up with some chili sauce, hoisin, lime, herbs, etc. There’s a good amount of noodles and meat—especially for the price—mostly brisket and flank steak. There are also scallions in the soup, which isn’t seen everywhere, but gives it a very mild onion flavor.

garnish

Pho Cali always provides a super fresh plate of traditional noodle soup garnishes including basil leaves, sliced jalapeños, bean sprouts, and lime wedges. The basil gives the soup a slight floral note as well as a sense of freshness, the bean sprouts help cool the soup down, the jalapeños give it s nice bite, and the lime helps cut through some of the fatty meat. I also add hoisin to sweeten it up a bit and chili sauce, which flavors the broth over time. The heat of the broth not only cooks some of the beef, but also helps release the spice from the chilis. By the end of the bowl, I’m ready to gulp down the leftover broth, which is deliciously full of concentrated flavors from all the add-ins.

Overall, is this the best pho house around? No. Is it always tasty and able to satisfy my pho-holic cravings? Oh yeah! Next time you’re in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and craving a meaty, comforting noodle soup, head on over to Pho Cali for your “ph”-illing of pho.

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

So far we’ve had Farm-to-Table themed restaurants do battle, we’ve had the Battle of 13th Street, what’s up next? For the next round of the OpenTable inspired Philadelphia Restaurant Week Round Up, we’ve got a heavyweight championship: Battle of the Fine Dining. These three contenders are each very popular restaurants in downtown Philadelphia, and are definitely more upscale than the regular ma and pa dining destination. They have very different styles of food, and they all want to win. I mean, I have no real prize to give them except for my dining dollars….and taste buds. But, I know that deep down they’re just dying to win this fight! First up, is Rittenhouse hotspot Abe Fisher.

Abe Fisher
1623 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA 19102

Photo Jan 18, 8 06 24 PMThe first thing that I noticed as I walked through the door was the black and white diamond floor— very old school. It reminded me a fancy, art deco prewar building and went nicely with the restaurant theme—foods of the (Jewish) diaspora. It was retro but also cozy. The hip hop music playing as I came through the door contrasted well with the decor, and highlighted even more deeply to show that the restaurant is a modern twist on old world European classics. The menu is made up of small plates, and guests are encouraged to order multiple dishes from multiple categories and share. It’s great for groups and allows for a progressive meal.

Photo Jan 24, 7 56 47 PMOn a side note, the whole block of Sansom Street between 16th and 17th Streets is dominated by the Cook n’ Solo team from Chef Michael Solomonov—Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, and Dizengoff. Federal Donuts serves fried chicken and donuts—go for the fancy donuts and spice-rubbed chicken and Dizengoff is a hummuseria that specializes in hummus and their daily, changing specials are advertised on Instagram. It’s named after the popular avenue in Tel Aviv. The art deco style in Abe Fisher harkens back to Tel Aviv style and so do the recycled wine bottles used for tap water as well.

Photo Jan 18, 6 33 09 PM

The restaurant week’s menu is the same as usual, but it’s available for $35 instead of $39 per person and includes dessert. They also have a happy hour offering $5 mini sandwiches including beef cheek pastrami, foie gras mousse and $7 specials from the section “One” of the menu. I had been meaning to come to Abe Fisher for a long while, so I’m glad that I was able to try plenty of options on their menu. All I have to say is this—the food was so great that I had to come back a second time—the struggle haha. Ok, that’s not all I have to say, obviously, but onto the food!

A few minutes after sitting down, but before putting the order in, I was treated to an  Amuse Bouche. An amuse bouche is an off the menu, small bite created by the chef for the night to—literally—whet the palate. It fit in so well with the theme. A malted vinegar potato chip—I assume housemade—garnished with a dollop of dill sour cream and brussel sprout pate. The briny acidity of the the vinegar, which I could both smell and taste, was a punch to the taste buds. The herbed sour cream helped balance out the sudden astringency, and the pate was super smooth and creamy. The brussel sprouts held their own and I didn’t miss the traditional meat of a pate—it would’ve made this bite too heavy, but the chef showed a deft hand with layering flavors, even in a simple amuse bouche.

Photo Jan 18, 6 50 19 PMAnother special treat that’s served most nights with varying flavors are savory rugelach. Rugelach are traditional Jewish filled pastries that are often confused with a cookie, and  is often served at Friday night Shabbat dinner tables. It is usually sweet and can come in a variety of flavors, such as chocolate, raspberry, vanilla and traditional cinnamon. When does right they’re absolutely delicious, and my grandmother always had some for a quick nosh at her kitchen table! At Abe Fisher, they are making savory rugelach daily which I love. The Aged Gouda and Black Pepper were very flaky, a bit sweet but still identifiable as a dinner item. They had a subtle spice from the black pepper and the pastry had a nutty, sharp flavor from the cheese. The Bacon, Date and Celery Seed ones looked even more like classically sweet rugelach, but they definitely were not. They were salty, with pieces of bacon studded throughout with the sweet date mellowing out the headiness of the bacon.

Photo Jan 18, 6 53 27 PMWith all these rich dishes coming up, I knew that I’d need a drink of some sort, but wasn’t in the mood for a cocktail—I know, bllasphemy!—so I went with the Maple Caraway Rickey ($3), which was essentially a fancy soda flavored with caraway seeds, which are what give rye bread its distinctive flavor, a simple syrup made with maple syrup, and lime juice; the lime juice is what makes it a rickey and is a traditional ingredient for this kind of drink. It tasted like a sweet and tangy sparkling limeade. It had deep aftertaste from the caraway, which is in the carrot family and left an anise-licorice flavor on my tongue. It was very refreshing, and served as a good palate cleanser in between courses.

Photo Jan 18, 6 54 51 PMThe second I saw that there was Chopped Liver on the menu, I knew that I was going to order it. I absolutely love chopped liver and can eat it by the spoonful. I’ve also been told that my recipe for it is delicious and I can get even the organ-phobic to imbibe this Lower East Side delicacy. Chopped liver is a little heavier than chicken liver mousse and considered a peasant version of its fancier French cousin. When it’s done right though, it coats your tongue, evokes memories of big family dinners, and will make sure you never dispose of those livers inside your bird ever again. This version was creamy, salty, smooth and meaty. The caramelized onions were finely chopped and chilled, but not super sweet. Perhaps they used sherry to deglaze the pan? The picked shallot garnish were cut into big pieces and I used them to make mini-sandwiches with the toasted bread—slabs of thick-cut rye bread toasted with schmaltz (Yiddish, traditional Jewish chicken fat), which was so much better than butter. A nontraditional, but fabulous rendition of an often humble spread.

Photo Jan 18, 7 06 32 PMIt was my lucky night—the chef sent me an extra “One” plate—Hamachi Crudo. A crudo is a dish made from raw fish or seafood, and usually garnished with oil and some sort of acid. The hamachi was sashimi grade, cut into about 1/4 inch thick slices, presented beautifully with blood orange segments, and dressed simply with some herbs, good quality olive oil, and some smoked paprika—one of my favorite spices to cook with—that perfumed the fish and gave it a smoky flavor even though it was still raw. The garlicky almonds provided a nice crunch, and the blood orange lent a hint of sweetness, but didn’t overpower the fresh taste of the hamachi. This dish wouldn’t necessarily have been something that I’d order here. It didn’t initially strike me as very “diaspora”-esque—you could find this dish in a high end Japanese or seafood-driven restaurant, but the subtle smokiness helped me realize that it was probably inspired by the many smoked fish dishes consumed by Jews in the new world and Scandinavia.

Photo Jan 18, 7 10 05 PM

One of the phenomenons of the modern diaspora was the rise of the Jewish deli, and corned beef or a Reuben sandwich is one of the most well known offerings that you could order in any delicatessen. Of course, Abe Fisher couldn’t just serve a boring, old Reuben and instead has the Corned Pork Belly Reuben—how bad could that be? This dish was so cute! It was cut into mini sandwiches, served open face, and garnished with picked green tomatoes. I loved that this dish really paid homage to the Jewish deli, but clearly a modern spin—“heymish treif” my grandfather would have said in Yiddish. The toast points had a wonderful aroma from being seasoned before toasting in the oven, the pork belly was super tender with all of its fat rendered—probably absorbed into the bread. Instead of sauerkraut, which sometimes gives you an unpleasant, funky hit they make a briny relish with onions that served a similar purpose to cut through the fattiness of the pork belly. The pork was excellently cooked and echoed so many similar flavors from corned beef that many people probably couldn’t tell the difference. My only critique for this sandwich? The cheese could have been more powerful, it could take it!

Photo Jan 18, 7 19 09 PMFor the next course, and the best one yet, were the Veal Schnitzel Tacos, which were a perfect fusion of two very different cuisines. Clearly, these tacos were meant to emulate crispy fish tacos, and they definitely fit the bill. The tacos were served on thick flour tortillas and garnished with radishes, which I love on my fish tacos for their mild peppery flavor and great crunch factor. The veal was moist with a thick batter crust holding the braised and shredded meat together—not your mama’s veal cutlets! The crispy veal was covered with a lightly dressed slaw—or “health salad,” and the tacos were served with lemon wedges dusted with ground espelette, a variety of red chili pepper, so you could spice up the tacos as you squeezed the lemon juice over the top. When my mom made schnitzel growing up we always squeezed lemon onto the meat when it was still hot, so this was a good nostalgic touch. The anchovy mayo was nice, but ultimately unnecessary, though it did continue the theme. It was slightly sweet and played nicely with the spicy lemon-pepper garnish.

Photo Jan 18, 7 39 52 PMI had come to the part of the night that I was both most excited and most anxious for: dessert. I had been told that it was absolutely necessary to order the Bacon and Egg Cream, but I was scared—I had so many memories of traditional egg creams on Saturday mornings in my grandparents with a big jar of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup on the counter. Would this version ruin those memories for me? How could they even turn an egg cream into a dessert? And bacon—that doesn’t belong in this drink. I am now a changed man and have converted to the dark side of the bacon and egg cream, and may never go back. When this dessert was set down in front of me, I had to take a moment to appreciate the creativity and artistry that went into this dish. It was served in a tall glass, and almost overflowing like one of the famous Brooklyn Diner egg creams. A long spoon was included, but it wasn’t to stir it up; instead it was to eat—this was not a drink but a full-fledged, contemporary dessert that still incorporates the traditional flavors so I could understand the egg cream concept, but flipped on its head. The vanilla maple custard echoed the milk of cream utilized in old school egg creams, dark chocolate pudding turned into a light and airy foam using a nitro canister is at the same time very decadent and mimics the fuzz you would get from bubbly, seltzer water, and an Oreo bacon crumble to further enhance the chocolate flavor and remind you that this is a modern take on a classic and you better remember! The smoked maple syrup garnish on top—because why not?—was just enough to tie all of the flavors together. After inhaling this amazing concoction, I felt like a kid who’s been naughty for some reason; this was most certainly not the egg cream my grandfather used to make me, but in the best way possible. I could eat three of these…mmmm getting hungry!

As if I weren’t already stuffed enough full of deliciousness, the waiter brought out an extra dessert bite with the check. The mini Chocolate Espresso Blondie was a nice treat with a rich chocolate flavor brought out by the coffee. It wasn’t super soft, which was great, and had good chew from the cookie portion.

Photo Jan 24, 8 10 42 PMOn my next sojourn to Abe Fisher, I felt it prudent to bring a friend so as to taste even more of the available dishes, and I’m glad I did. This time we got to sit at the chef’s table by the kitchen, and it was fun to interact a bit with the chefs. We also got to witness how hard the kitchen works to make all the plates look fabulous and push dishes out quickly to hungry diners—respect. Even better, we were treated to a new amuse bouche. This time the chef prepared a Pastrami Pate served atop everything spiced matzah. The matzoh is classic, old school Jewish—not just for Passover!—and tasted more like a flatbread cracker. The combination together was akin to a bagel with delicious chopped liver from a New York bagelry or having a salt beef bagel in London’s Brick Lane. Yum!

1.jpgI knew that this would be another super decadent and heavy meal, so we decided to choose one of the dishes that looked sort of light, the Brussel Sprout Caesar. First of all, there were pumpernickel bread pudding croutons—um, yes! Where have you been all my life? Not only were the croutons delicious, but they also served as needed crunch. The salad turned out to be heavy and delicious. There was a bit too much dressing, but that’s like what you get from the cole slaw or deli salad at a delicatessen. The pecorino cheese provided a pungent bite that paired well with the sweetness of the grapes and the earthiness of the brussel sprouts.

Photo Jan 24, 8 14 30 PMThe Potato Pancakes were not like my grandma’s latkes, though they definitely borrowed a bit from contemporary potato pancake flavor profiles. The avocado cream cheese was refreshing, and they interplay of temperatures was great—super crispy, hot pancakes with the cool, creamy avocado, and the smoked salmon provided the modern twist.

Photo Jan 24, 8 17 58 PMAnother reason this place is great—another sample plate. This time the waiter brought us some Smoked Short Rib on Rye, which is incidentally one of the happy hour specials. Though these bites were mini, they weren’t mini on flavor. The meat was fall apart tender with a delicate smoky flavor paired up with creamy, sweet Russian dressing and bright, housemade pickles.

Photo Jan 24, 8 27 24 PMUp next in our feast was the Venison Carpaccio. The venison was moist and tender, and sliced super thin. The bitterballen or bitter melon was in name only; braised in beef stew, and then fried it was transformed. The horseradish went super well with the slightly metallic meat and fried balls, and gave the dish a nice zip. The fried melon balls were essential to bring some added richness to the lean venison. The textural and temperature contrast between the raw meat and the fried melon was also a nice touch.

Photo Jan 24, 8 31 51 PMFor our seconds selection from the “Two” section, we went with another healthy-ish sounding choice: Spinach Kugel. Kugel is Eastern European in origin and is essentially a casserole and can be made with potato, egg noodles and cottage cheese for a traditional lukshen kugel, matzah fearful and apple for Passover, and many more varieties. This version was spinach kugel bumped up to another level. The cheddar gave the spinach a nutty flavor and played the part of supporting actor perfectly to highlight the spinach as the star. The green jalapeño puree was spicy, but it was a warm heat that didn’t overpower the vegetable. The pie crumble was essentially a deconstructed crust. What a tasty way to eat some spinach—Popeye would approve.

Photo Jan 24, 8 50 26 PMOf course, one of the cooks saw that we were eyeing the beautifully marbled brisket that he was slicing, so he fed us each a slice. The meat was very delicious, fatty in the best way, and the juices coated the roof of my mouth. Would’ve made the best sandwiches!

Photo Jan 24, 8 55 19 PMThe veal schnitzel tacos had been so delicious and perfect portioned into two tacos that we ordered them again—and they were just as delicious as last time—but for our second “Three” dish we went with the Halibut En Croute, which translates to halibut with a bread crust. This dish was good, but not amazing. The fish was very meaty, and the crust was super crispy, but it was hard to pick up any aspects of the challah bread in it. The romanesco was salty as many Jewish dishes are and had a nice char. The leeks were meh, but how much can you really do with a leek?

Photo Jan 24, 9 13 48 PMObviously, we ordered the bacon and egg cream as one of our dessert choices—you’re insane if you don’t—and went with the Babka Bread Pudding as dessert #2. This seemed to be one of the most popular desserts, perhaps only overtaken by the “egg cream,” and watched as it was plated all night, so we had to have it. Soft, flaky and buttery cake was flavored with cinnamon and cardamom that complemented each other nicely. It was served warm from a reheat in the oven in order to better absorb the flavors of the cardamom creme anglaise with an ooey, gooey middle that reminded me of the center of a fresh cinnamon roll. Garnished with tangy-sweet, candied orange peel and a crunchy hazelnut praline brittle this was another dish with a beautiful presentation. This dessert was so so good, and felt like an old-world hug.

Photo Jan 24, 8 00 44 PMAbe Fisher has amazing food. Period. Even if you don’t go for Restaurant Week, it’s still a good deal. They have great, prompt service, the staff is very knowledgable about the food, and talkative as well. They seem to really care about their diners, and it shows not only in the food, but also in the plating and service. You won’t leave hungry and that’s a guarantee!

Garces Trading Company
1111 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Photo Jan 18, 3 08 44 PMPhoto Jan 18, 3 08 41 PMFor most of my restaurant week meals, I try to go to dinner since there is sometimes a more expansive menu and a greater hubbub in the dining room. I decided to venture to Garces Trading Company for lunch though, especially as I had a meeting a couple blocks away right beforehand. Jose Garces, of Iron Chef America fame, calls Philly home, and operates a mini-culinary empire of his own in the City of Brotherly Love: Garces Trading Company, Amada, Volver, Rosa Blanca, Village Whiskey, and Distrito to name a few. Garces Trading Company was one of Garces’ first restaurants and offers an eclectic European menu—from vichyssoise to sandwiches to mussels to macarons. Looking at the menu, it seemed like the restaurant couldn’t really decide what cuisine it wanted to be and decided to borrow from many.

Photo Jan 18, 1 38 52 PMPhoto Jan 18, 1 35 29 PMThe restaurant has big, tall windows letting in lots of natural light, and looks like a Paris bistro inside, with large barn doors leading to a wine room, and the dining room was made up of a mix of high tops, regular tables, and communal tables—like an upscale Le Pain Quotidien. In between the entrance and the dining room there are specialty products for sale such as roasted garlic dulce de leech, cranberry pear balsamic, or Sicilian lemon vinegar. If had more time—or money, ha!—I definitely would have bought some of these products.

Even at lunch there is sourdough bread and olive oil for the table. It was a cute bread box, though bread was a bit cold. I wonder if they bake it on the premises? Plus, everything here is branded, even the bottles of oil on the tables. I’m sure they are also available to purchase.

Photo Jan 18, 2 01 53 PMI was really torn between two of the appetizer selections, so I decided to get two and pay the extra few dollars for my extra choice. The apps took a bit of time to come out, but they were both very good. The House Made Mozzarella had a springy outer shell with a softer middle. It wasn’t served cold, but rather room temperature, which probably contributed to the softer center. It was garnished with cracked pepper, olive oil and sea salt. The mozzarella went well with some of the leftover bread, and had a similar texture to fresh mozzarella that you’d get at Di Bruno Bros. or other Italian specialty food store.

Photo Jan 18, 2 01 49 PMThe Vichyssoise Chaud is a French version of a potato-leek soup. This one was very tasty. I could smell the drizzle of truffle oil as it came to the table. The soup itself was  garnished with some chopped chives, creamy and perfect for a cold day. Sliced potatoes and cooked bacon added nice texture, but the flavor mostly came from the drizzle of truffle oil. Some of the ham in the soup was super flavorful and added a surprisingly pleasant salt bomb, but some of the ham was just bland. The leeks blended up nicely and the starch from the potato thickened the soup without making it over reduced.

Photo Jan 18, 2 27 12 PMPhoto Jan 18, 2 31 37 PMI almost decided to go with the mussels for my main course, but at the last minute decided on the Croque Monsieur, which is one of my favorite dishes. A good croque monsieur is simple, yet elegant—as a jazzed up, French ham and cheese sandwich should be. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I was there on an off day, maybe I was a victim of the lunch rush, or it just isn’t a dish to order here—it was #disappointing. The sandwich itself made me wish it was a croque madame, since it was screaming for the creaminess of a fried egg on top. And don’t we all want an extra egg on top? When it came to the table, the cheese inside of the sandwich was not melted, and the ham was cold, which was weird because the bread was actually toasted nicely. Instead of that elegance, it felt like a sad version of Texas toast grilled cheese. So for round 2, they brought me a new sandwich after I asked them to reheat the first one. The cheese looked beautifully melted on top, and the cheese inside was mostly melted, but still a little cold in the center. Also, the cheese was okay, but I wish they had used a stronger cheese like a nutty Gruyere or sharp Swiss, and the ham was cut thick and reminded me a bit of breakfast ham. The sides really were the highlights of this dish. The side salad of spring greens was dressed with a simple, but delicious mustard vinaigrette, and the house made chips were great—super crunch and seasoned with citrus zest, paprika and seasoned salt. Overall, it would have been better to order the mussels for my entree—plus I was craving some good Dijon mustard.

Photo Jan 18, 2 49 59 PMSo dessert turned out to be good, but it started out as looking bleak. They were out of the bouchons—petit chocolate cake— so I went with the macarons, because how bad can that be? Then they came back to me that they were out of those as well. Le sigh—very disappointing. How are you out of two desserts at lunch? They gave the excuse that they were out because of a big rush they had, but umm it’s weekday lunch….seemed a little crazy to me. Oh well. They offered a choice of choux puff as a substitute, but I’m not a big cream puff person, so they let me try the Seasonal Verinne panna cotta dessert from regular menu, which ended up being amazing! The panna cotta was perfectly set but not too stiff—creamy as you break in with a mild pistachio flavor. The next layer was some velvety and tangy marscapone that a nice break from the sweetness of the layers. The bottom was a layer of rich, decadent dark chocolate. The deep flavor of the dark chocolate played off the raspberry and candied pistachio garnish nicely, especially with the tartness of the raspberry and the slight saltiness of the nut. While the berries weren’t super juicy or ripe, they worked because the dish needed some acidity.

So here’s the truth—lunch at Garces Trading Place was just okay. It’s very much a place to take a client to lunch, but not so great for a bonafide foodie. Why? The food let me down. Even though the appetizers were lovely and the dessert was very tasty, I left  the restaurant remembering my cold sandwich—and that’s never what you want. The service was great, and the staff was friendly, but I’ll need to give this place another visit and I’ll think twice before ordering another Croque Monsieur.

Vesper
223 South Sydenham Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Photo Jan 26, 5 34 16 PMSo this place seemed pretty interesting. My research indicated that Vesper used to be a private dining club for Mummers during the Prohibition era, then an eatery frequented by the mob, and not it’s open to the public on the main level, but a password only, speakeasy downstairs. It seemed that the speakeasy aspect harks back to its former life and is really more of a draw for foodies nowadays. The way they’ve revamped it as a supper style club with dancing and paying homage to the Mad Men era of old school dining lounges does bring back some elegant flare to the Center City dining scene.

Okay, while the whole speakeasy, old-timey bar is a bit overplayed—though very hipster chic—the food is really what I came for.

Photo Jan 26, 7 04 28 PMPhoto Jan 26, 7 04 03 PMAs I walked through the door there was a mix of rockabilly and blues/folk music playing in the upstairs dining room, which fit in well with the speakeasy theme. They were actually partnered up with Jazz Up Philly later that night for some live jazz and blues music, which was a nice surprise. The place was a bit empty when I came in around 5:30ish though. I must have beat the pre-dinner rush. Mini rolls were brought to the table, which could’ve been a bit softer in the middle or warmed up, but the butter was great. It was studded with lots of lemony thyme and woody oregano that complemented the earthiness from the caraway baked onto the rolls.

Photo Jan 26, 5 54 31 PMI decided to deviate a bit from the Restaurant Week menu and order an extra a la carte appetizer—good thing I brought my eating pants! The Roasted Bone Marrow had a very dramatic presentation. At first I thought that the large bones would mean more marrow, and I was right with the second bone, though the first was meh with the filling. The grilled bread had a wonderful crunch to spread the marrow on. The apricot jam was almost on the verge of being cloyingly sweet, but went well with the fatty marrow and is very traditional. I wished there had been a bit more salt on it, but adding some of the table butter helped season the bite. This was a good dish, but I probably wouldn’t order it again.

Photo Jan 26, 6 13 42 PMPhoto Jan 26, 6 13 47 PMI have three words for you that will make you have an instant foodgasm: Duck. Confit. Ravioli. Holy mother of yum! This dish had better live up to its name, and it did. The Duck Confit Ravioli featured fresh, homemade pasta that was very delicate, but firm and al dente enough to hold in the meat. The duck filling was amazing! The meat was fall apart tender, fatty and juicy from being cooked in its own fat. The Parmesan foam garnish was subtle in its pungency but also creamy, and added to the luxuriousness of this pasta dish. The spinach wasn’t too liquidy, which was surprising since it was practically a salt bomb—so good technique. (Usually when salt is added to greens, they release water. Spinach holds a lot of water) The salty spinach and creamy Parmesan foam worked together to form an almost deconstructed creamed spinach. Taking a bite of all the components together was wonderful. There was fat, salt, soft, chew, crunch from the mache (lettuce) garnish. It was just a delicious dish.

Photo Jan 26, 6 25 34 PMAnother course where I flip-flopped on my order. I was all set to order the Quail Ragu, but changed my mind at the last minute and went with the Crispy Skate Wing. The duck confit filling probably resembled the ravioli filling from the appetizer, plus the hostess told me it was her favorite as it was very crispy. They seemed to be very into baby cache as it was used to garnish the plate again in this course. The fish was crispy, but I think not as crispy as it could have been because the filets were sitting on top of each other. The fish was firm and not overcooked, and reminded me a bit of a fishy version of a chicken fried steak. The kale was still green with a good crunch, but not super flavorful, and ironically, the fish was a bit on the salty side—I wish they had taken the extra salt from the fish and maybe a splash of lemon and added it to the kale. This was a heavy dish, and the sauce painted onto the plate was sweet and helped a bit to cut through the heaviness of the dish, though I wish there had been more of it.

Photo Jan 26, 6 39 25 PMBy this point I was pretty full from such a heavy meal, and was hoping for something refreshing and maybe light? Were they saving the best for last? I don’t know what could top the duck ravioli. While the Passion Fruit Creme Brûlée wasn’t what I would call “light,” it was refreshing and delicious. First of all, the creme brûlée passed the all important “spoon test.” What is the spoon test, you ask? Using the back of your spoon, you should be able to give the caramelized top a thwack and hear it crack a bit. That’s ho you know that the brûlée is done right. The fruity and tangy taste to the creamy custard on top of the vanilla base was good contact, and the sauce was very, very tart and very refreshing and zippy from the passion fruit. The interplay of textures in this dessert was also great—crunchy top, creamy custard, flaky tart shell, slimy passion fruit sauce. This was the perfect mini tart—the shell held together but was broken easily with a spoon. It was buttery, but not too sweet, and had wonderful flavor. The blueberry garnish lent a certain earthiness next to the loud passionfruit. In addition, the checkerboard chocolate was an elegant touch, and enhanced the fine dining presentation. Of note: the baking and plating skills of the pastry chef were really on display in this dish, and a lot of thought went into this dessert. The chef chose to plate this dish as a tart as opposed to in a dish, which was brave—they needed to par bake a perfect tart shell, then cook the creme to a creamy consistency without doing a traditional water bath. Timing was key here. Bravo!

Photo Jan 26, 5 35 49 PMSo I think we’ve established that I enjoyed the food at Vesper, but was it my favorite meal of this fine dining battle? I’m not sure. While Vesper had some of my favorite dishes, it also had a couple of plates that were a bit forgettable. Garces, unfortunately, is out of the running for 1st place—even though it came in as a major contender. Abe Fisher had some amazing bites, but was it fine dining enough for this category? I’m going to give this battle to Abe Fisher for its high marks across the board: great service, creative dishes and style of cooking, and a delicious meal (or two). Vesper earns a very respectable 2nd place and had one of my favorite plates of the year in its duck confit ravioli—please wrap me up five orders to go! Lol—and Garces Trading Company comes in 3rd, but deserves another trip. The dessert there was delicious and the apps were both good too, but I know I’ll be dreaming of the Bacon and Egg Cream and Duck Confit Ravioli for days. #HungryForMore!

BYO Battle (Philly Restaurant Week Round Up, Part 2)

For the next round of Philadelphia Restaurant Week, I’ve decided to pair up two of my favorites—Pumpkin and Russet. What do these two have in common? They’re both proponents of the farm-to-table movement and locally-sourced ingredients. So let the battle commence!

Photo Jan 17, 9 09 53 PMPumpkin
1713 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19146

This is such a cute place! The first thing that struck me when I walked through the door was the size. Pumpkin is definitely cozy with about 24-26, but the mirrors on the wall allow for the illusion of more space. With about about 26 seats in the dining room, which has a rustic farmhouse meets contemporary chic feel with the rich wood tones, marble style tabletops and dim lighting—this would definitely be a good date place.

Photo Jan 17, 9 10 48 PMPumpkin opened in 2004 with a seasonally changing menu in the early days of the farm-to-table movement’s resurgence in American cuisine. In addition, they are also a BYOB restaurant, which is a wonderful feature of many eateries in the Philadelphia food scene. Both the waiter and runner here were extremely knowledgeable about the restaurant week menu and food in general. I was surprised, but probably should not have been.

The crusty bread a had a nice crispy chew, and the garlic infused oil was fruity and savory to really whet the appetite. With such good bread, I was very tempted to order the burrata appetizer. Plus, it sounded delicious: soft, creamy cheese, la Quercia ham—described as American prosciutto—treviso radicchio in place of escarole—lots of textures. Decisions, decisions…

Photo Jan 17, 9 26 22 PMPhoto Jan 17, 9 26 27 PMI stuck with my gut and went with the Garganelle Pasta appetizer. The garganelle was almost like penne but wider with a slight curve, and was just over the edge of al dente with a nice bite. The braised pork shoulder also had a good chew and wonderful umami falvor. The hearty and starchy white beans weren’t too buttery, and instead gave the dish some extra thickness. The kale was slightly crispy, but cooked down so it became more of a background note that was lost in the shuffle. The sauce—or broth really—was subtle and absorbed flavor from light dusting of pungent parmesan, and the acidic lemon zest helped cut through the richness of the pork and heaviness of the pasta. It was a great appetizer portion, and a wonderful way to start the meal.

20160120_222305Up next was the main event—the Long Island Duck. The duck was served over some dirty farro. To make a grain “dirty,” I learned, means to cook it with chicken livers!!—Yum! I am totally #TeamLiver or is it #TeamDirty? Anyway, the chicken liver makes the farro slightly sweet and lends it an unctuous meaty flavor. The sherry, caramelized pearl onions blended complimented the sweetness of the faro and had a slightly acidic, almost pickled flavor to them. They weren’t cooked to death as, unfortunately, many caramelized onion garnishes are, and the choice of pearl onions over traditional slices helped them stay together and provide a nice textural contrast with the slight chew of the farro. The star of the dish was the Long Island duck breast—cooked to a perfect medium rare temperature. It was super moist with crispy skin—though it would have been even crispier if the breast had not been sliced—texture vs. presentation? Either way, it was delicious. As I ate my way through this very luxurious course, there was a building heat that was perhaps form some cayenne in the faro or the braised collard greens underneath the duck, which was smart plating to have the greens absorb the running duck juices. The greens themselves, cooked down with the classic combination of bacon and hot sauce, made for a perfect bite with the duck—slight smoky, salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time. This dish was a wonderful blend of modern creativity and classic Americana, and as the chef is originally from North Carolina, he knows how to cook Southern!

Photo Jan 17, 9 54 09 PMFor dessert, I got the Pot de Creme, which is really just a fancy, French term for a thick pudding. Pumpkin’s version is pretty solid. The creme had a subtle malted milk flavor and took on flavors well, from the very rich chocolate caramel crumble .to the delicious and crunch praline crunch, which was necessary to add some change of texture to an otherwise soft bowl of dessert. The somewhat hidden caramel core in the middle of the cream was a nice secret discovery. #SweetTreat! Surprisingly, the pot de creme was refreshing, and a good way to end a heavy meal.

Photo Jan 17, 10 08 57 PMOverall, this menu seemed very well thought out, and a good winter meal. A hearty, hot appetizer, a play on a meat-and-grain stick to your ribs entree, and a sweet caramel and chocolate dessert. The to-go packet of pumpkin seeds was a nice touch. Pumpkin should definitely be on your list of places to eat at in Philly, especially for special occasions or for their Sunday night pre-fixe supper—though don’t forget to bring cash as it’s a cash only establishment. Totally worth a trip to the ATM on the way over!

Russet
1521 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

Photo Jan 19, 7 47 20 PMThe first thing I did when me and my friend were seated at our table was to ask why the restaurant was named “Russet,” which I had imagined referred to the humble potato and would fit the theme of the farm-to-table and local food movement that the chef favors. I was wrong. The restaurant is actually named for the “Russet” apple…how quaint lol. I still appreciate that the name refers to a natural food, and who doesn’t love a good apple?

Russet is also a BYOB establishment—we should’ve brought some wine, but oh well. It is a small place, but while Pumpkin seemed to know how to utilize their space very well, here it looked very “cozy”—usually codeword for on top of each other, though it didn’t feel too crowded once we were sitting down. In the dining room, there are some great architectural touches such as an arch with columns, crown moulding, and a very eclectic feel. The house-baked semolina bread was tasty and the flavor was similar to rye bread. The sea salt bowl on the table was another eclectic touch, and helped highlight the flavor of the butter.

Photo Jan 19, 8 04 46 PMOne of the benefits of having fellow foodie friends is that they’ll come to a last minute dinner reservation to scope out a Restaurant Week menu. Plus, I get to try double the dishes as I would have been if I dined alone. Yay! I’m a big fan of pasta in any form, which should have already been obvious to you, so for our first appetizer, we got the Gorgonzola Dolce Ravioli. This was a very cerebral plate of pasta, with nuanced flavors that you wouldn’t necessary associate together, but they went very well in this dish. The ravioli were sitting in a delicate broth flavored from the garlic confit—cooked down slowly into a soft texture—and the garlic got sweet and aromatic. The gorgonzola cheese was not too sweet and also not super tangy—the gorgonzola dolce variety was the right choice with he sweet beets and salty parmesan garnish to complement the cheese. The sweet, soft chioggia beets almost “bled into” the pasta and gave some dark pink color to the (otherwise) beige plate, and the walnuts added a crunchy texture and bite to the dish. The pasta itself was cooked al dente, which was a nice touch as many places make ravioli too soft.

Photo Jan 19, 8 04 51 PMOur second first course dish was a Green Meadow Farm Duck and Pork Rillette. Lots of thought went into the presentation of this dish. There was lots of negative space on the plate, which I know is a thing, but I’m not always a fan. The frisee lettuce was lightly dressed, and provided some needed crunch and bitter notes to a very rich dish. The rillette was super smooth and lovely, while at the same time allowing the distinct tastes of the duck and pork to be tasted separately. The homemade cracker was a good vehicle for eating, and the mostarda really helped bring the gamy flavors to the forefront.

Photo Jan 19, 8 19 12 PMWe decided on two very different entrees for the main course. The Happy Valley Beef Shoulder and the Seared Branzino. The beef shoulder was expremely tender, but still maintained a level of chew so you still knew it was beef. The tomato fondue garnish acted almost as a chutney and coated the beef with an acidic sweetness. It was very rich, and almost certainly had copious amounts of butter—I approve! The charred cabbage made for nice plating. It was braised as well, but held together. The polenta underneath was very creamy, but also a little too salty. Otherwise, this was a delicious and super creative dish—it screamed to me as an elevated play on cabbage and beef.

Photo Jan 19, 8 18 52 PMThe Seared Branzino was also a very composed dish. One of the ingredients listed on the menu, “bintje potatoes” was a mystery to me, but they were really just normal potatoes in the end. The potatoes were cooked well—as they usually do—and tasted even better when eaten with the salsa verde that not only gave the dish some freshness, but also served as a seasoning. I especially loved all of the fresh herbs in the salsa! The skin on the fish was super crisp—perfectly executed!—and was a substantial portion size. The onions, though, were sort of lost in the shuffle. Although the dish was pretty simple, it was very delicious.

Photo Jan 19, 8 49 24 PMWe decided to forego the sorbet option, and ordered the Local Ginger Cake and the Preserved Apricot Tart. The cake was very petite, and surprisingly moist—many ginger or honey cakes are often dry and crumbly. The pastry chef here is certainly up to par, and the cider sabayon cream was a nice edition. While the sabayon was technically perfect, it didn’t have enough of a citrus flavor. The cider, especially, helped highlight the ginger flavor of the cake. The tuile was meh in taste, but good textural contrast and added some height for a classy presentation. The caramel apples provided some much needed sweetness and slight tartness, though I wish it had a stronger caramel flavor.

Photo Jan 19, 8 49 05 PMPhoto Jan 19, 8 49 01 PMThe Preserved Apricot Tart was our favorite dessert, hands down, though that’s not to say that the ginger cake wasn’t tasty as well. The tart’s crust was super flaky—again excellent baking technique—and the apricot filling was delicious! The frangipane was creamy, custardy and had great almond flavor; it wasn’t too sweet, and just tangy enough. In addition, the plating was extremely beautiful.

Another delicious meal that definitely utilized the bountiful produce characteristic of the farm-to-table movement. In fact, Russet publishes where they get many of their ingredients on the menu. You could taste the freshness of the ingredients and the passion in the food. Definitely on the list as well.

Is there a winner of this battle? The real question is if there is a loser. The answer is: no. Both Russet and Pumpkin provided great meals full of fresh ingredients, amazing culinary technique and a logical progression of flavors. If I had to choose, I would choose Pumpkin, but only because it’s closer! In fact, I’m going to go on OpenTable and make a reservation for dinner at both ASAP—and you should too!

Lunchtime Gorging at Saffron Indian

Saffron Indian Cuisine
1214 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Growing up in New York City I was exposed to ethnic foods and international cuisines from a young age. While my mom might have cooked chili or burgers for us a lot, it was just as common for us to eat a bowl of pad Thai noodles, a shawarma sandwich, or even a plate of yummy chicken tikka masala. Indian food was very popular in our house, and I’ve loved it ever since. So when I’m hungry for a filling lunch and see an Indian lunch buffet for only $7.99, there’s no question that I’m going to check it out.

I walked into Saffron (formerly known as San Samosa) and was told I could sit anywhere I’d like. It was a weekday afternoon, so not that unusual for a good number of tables to be open, though there were unfortunately a few that were still dirty and hadn’t been turned over yet. The service seemed fine, with one person on the floor, and the interior was kind of dark. None of these things mattered though–I was there for the food! I did like the Indian Bollywood music playing in the background though.

To begin, the waitress brought over a fresh basket of naan bread to the table, which I appreciated since it hadn’t been sitting at the buffet for a while. The bread was nice and hot from the tandoori oven with a crisp exterior, a chewy and slightly doughy middle, and had an overall puffiness to it that characterizes naan. It was the perfect vehicle for mopping up extra sauce on the plate.

I first tried the Samosas, which are always my first pick. There’s something about fried foods that make me want to eat them first. The samosa was deep-fried with a crunchy, crispy exterior and the buffet offered an array of condiments such as mint chutney, onion chutney, tamarind sauce, hot sauce, raita, and even ranch dressing for some reason. I like to dress my samosas up with some tamarind sauce and mint chutney. The tamarind has a wonderful sweet and sour flavor that plays well against the somewhat smoky potato-based filling, and the chutney wakes up the flavors in the Indian fritter. The filling itself was tasty, though a little loose. I loved the whole peas throughout that still maintained a big of crunch.

The Aloo Cabbage isn’t something that I see on many Indian menus, but looked interesting. In fact, it was delicious. The cabbage was cooked down with tender potatoes, but still had a bit of a bite, so it wasn’t super mushy. The cabbage became almost braised in its texture, and it reminded me of an Indian play on Irish potatoes and cabbage. What really made this dish Indian were the traditional warming spices: smoky cumin, spicy curry, earthy garam masala—yum! The turmeric also lent some exotic flavor as well as a yellow-orange color.

The Chicken Biryani was cooked using authentic basmati rice—you can taste the difference—with big chunks of (not dry) chicken. The dish wasn’t too sweet or spicy, but had a slight tang to it. It wasn’t the best biryani I’ve ever had, but solid for a buffet and was a great alternative to plain rice. Some hot sauce and yogurt raita made it pop more.

Chicken Tikka Masala is a classic dish in almost every Indian restaurant in America, and is usually a staple of Indian lunch buffets—this version was special though. The sauce was super smooth, but not as heavy as many cream based sauces. You could tell that it had been cooking for a while and that the flavors had time to develop. The sauce was freakin’ delicious and I could’ve eaten it by the spoon…or naan-ful. There was a building heat from the toasted spices that make the base of many Indian dishes, and it had a wonderful velvety mouthfeel. There was a deep aromatic flavor that likely came from cooked down shallots or onion. The dish still had the identifying the flavor profile of tikka masala, but was almost reminiscent of a Malaysian chicken Rendang dish.

On a side note, most of the condiments were good, but pretty standard. The Onion Chutney, though, was excellent. It had a nice abrasive heat and bite to it, as well as some acidity. It helped cut through the richness and carb-fest of the meal. It also had a satisfying crunch, and the temperature contrast was nice with the (mostly) hot dishes.

The Tandoori Chicken was perfectly cooked—I had a drumsticks—with slightly crispy skin, and the meat was moist, and got juicier the closer I got to the bone. Often I feel the need to squeeze some lime over the chicken, but not this time. There was also a slight saltiness to the meat that probably came from a brine—smart cooking since it will prevent the chicken from drying out. The tandoori oven also gave the meat a bit of a smoky and charred flavor.

The final savory dish I sampled was the Veggie Kofta, which were torpedo-shaped kebabs of a vegetable and grain mixture. They were definitely sweeter than the other dishes, and had hints of cinnamon and cardamom. The kofta pieces were pretty meaty and held up well in the very large amount of sauce. Great dish for vegetarians as the patty mixture has a lot of protein rich ingredients.

Dessert offerings were average in the amount of offerings and tasted pretty good. The Mango Pudding definitely had a strong mango flavor and was very sweet. The pudding was very tangy, but tempered by the high amount of sugar. It was also very thick and set—no soupiness. This was a serious dessert, and the flavors helped curb my craving for a mango lassi with my lunch. The Kheer, or Indian rice pudding, is a much more common buffet dessert and every place has their own spin on the sweet treat. The rice was cooked and not mushy. It also wasn’t too sweet, which was nice in comparison to the cloyingly sweet mango pudding, though it got sweeter as you ate it. It was a no frills dessert, but tasty and classic. This dish too had background notes of cinnamon, cardamom and allspice. It was a nice way to end a heavy meal.

While the service isn’t the best around, the great Center City location and the tasty offerings at the lunch buffet—for only $7.99!—make this a great stop for lunch on any day of the week. Enjoy your Indian feast! अपने भोजन का आनंद लें!

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

Photo May 20, 7 49 30 PM

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-

Philly Food Fests

Sorry I’ve been a little MIA the last couple of weeks as I’ve been out of the country, but I have a special week’s worth of posts from my yep starting next week. In the meantime, I’m going to start the Summer season with some outdoor food market experiences. 

I am a big fan of food festivals since they’re a great way of trying out local vendors–especially with friends. Philadelphia has so many food events over the summer including Night Market and the Italian Market Festival. Night Market is a roving food market that moves to a new neighborhood once a month and has a ton of local food trucks,’carts and food artisans selling their products. From cupcakes, to cookies, to dumplings to sandwiches, there are so many foods to try. The Italian Market Festival is a once a year two day, weekend celebration of the Italian Market neighborhood of Philadelphia and features live music, local artists and artisans, and stalls for Italian market vendors. If you’re a fan of Italian food, this is one event to definitely pencil in! 

Although I couldn’t try everything, I think I got a good sampling of foods at both events. Night Market began in Philadelphia, in 2010, as an homage to outdoor Asian markets, and showcases hot Philly neighborhoods, and street foods. Each month it moves to a new area of the city such as Lancaster Ave, East Passyunk, Chinatown, Northern Liberties and more. 

 

  The Night Market season kicked off this year on South Street last month. The South Street area is funky, with a mix of cool restaurants, bars and shops. It’s a new area for the market–for me–to take place, but they were up to the challenge. 

  

We really started out the night Philly-style at the T & N Homemade Kitchen truck with Phried Hoagie ($6), which was exactly how it sounds. They took a quarter of an Italian hoagie, dipped it into a tempura batter made with Ginger Ale and deep-fried it. This dish was super messy, but in such a fun way. As you but into it there was a great thick crust that grew outward from the middle of the sandwich. It was thick, but still chewy. The meat on the inside stayed moist and semi-cold. The temperature play was a nice touch. The only real issue was the ratio of crust to filling — I wish there was a bit more meat. 

Next up we had a sample of some picked green beans from Brine Street Picklery, which were tart, sour, a little bit sweet, and so refreshing. 

Next up we stopped at Pbon’s Fresh Phood of Philly. Pbon sells sandwiches with an emphasis on crab. The Philly Melt ($8) with crab was calling our name. This sandwich was pretty unique. The crab cake was grilled and not fried, and the crabmeat was juicy and succulent. It was served on a chewy pretzel bun that absorbed a lot of the excess moisture. It was a perfect second course and was great to walk with.  

     

It was time for a drink, and luckily, Bistro Romano, in addition to selling food, were serving drinks. For $5 we each got a summertime cocktail – Limoncello Vodka Lemonade for me, and Vodka Watermelon Cooler for my friend. The drinks were light and perfect for the hot night air. There was a good amount of alcohol, and were more distinctive (and cheaper!) than a beer. The lemonade wasn’t too sweet and had a subtle lemony flavor.

   
  

  

 

After walking the length of the market, we had built up our appetite again and heeded to Mama’s Balls, a food truck that specializes in meatballs of multiple varieties. I’d been looking forward to trying this truck for a while and so we went with the 3 for $13 plate. The Rabe-Father meatball was made with ground turkey with a peppery spiciness from the broccoli rabe, which also kept the turkey moist. It was stuffed with asiago cheese that also helped keep it moist and garnished with pesto that helped elevate this meatball to deliciousness. The Spicy Sausage Ball had a nice kick from the hot Italian sausage and a nice cooling effect from the delicious marinara sauce that it was dressed in. The final meatball was the Blue Ball that was stuffed with blue cheese and bacon, and covered with a creamy blue cheese sauce. The meatballs were all served on mini, slider rolls which were easy to eat, but not always necessary. These meatballs were so moist and delicious, I wish I had like 20 of them. 

  

  

  

The Mac Mart Cart was (finally) calling our name. This truck specializes in everyone’s favorite comfort food, max ‘n cheese. We had to save this for towards the end since it’s so heavy, but also so delicious. It was the creamy noodle dish of my dreams. The Buffalo Mac and Cheese ($8) features their classic mac is topped with spicy buffalo chicken that is chopped into small pieces, tangy buffalo sauce, creamy Buttermilk Ranch sauce and a Parmesan-Panko crust. The portion itself was also huge and easily fed two people.      

 

At this point, we were ready for dessert. The first stop was Sugar Philly for some amazingly, appetizing French Macaron ($1.50 each). The strawberry was a bit tart and had a nice berry flavor that perfumes the cookie. The banana and chocolate chip flavor was a nice balance of sweetness from the chocolate and mellow banana flavor. The milk and honey macaron had the flavor of the best angel food cake, but sweeter. The final one was watermelon and mango and was awesome; it wasn’t too sweet but had a wonderful fruit flavor and a burst of summer in my mouth. All of the cookies had crisp edges with a wonderful chewy texture. The cream in the middle was just the right amount as to not overwhelm the delicate cookies. 

The macarons had only half satisfied out sweet tooth, so up next was The Baker’s Jar. Baker’s Jar specializes in miniature sized desserts of cakes, pies or puddings served in mason jars. They had a variety of flavors available at Night Market, but we went with the Carrot Cake and Dulce de Leche Brownie ($4 each). The carrot cake was moist and had a nice cinnamon aftertaste, with a good amount of cream cheese frosting. The frosting was velvety smooth and I could’ve eaten it by the spoonful. The brownie was intensely chocolatey with a deep cocoa flavor. The brownie was garnished with a thick caramel sauce, and was very fudge-y. The jars were small enough that I didn’t feel guilty eating two of them myself.

Next up was the Italian Market Festival the following weekend, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary, or Cent’anni, of the 9th Street Italian Market. As I walked towards South 9th Street, I was hit by the aroma of some sort of pastry in the air, which were cannoli shells maybe. I passed Twin Smoke Shoppe selling hand rolled cigars that gave off a heady musk, and there were food vendors going in both directions – pasta, pastries, meats, and more.

  

All the smells in the air was making me super hungry, so I started the afternoon off with a slice of Lorenzo’s Pizza ($2.50). The slice had a perfect cheese and sauce ratio, and became a blank canvas for the crushed red pepper flakes and garlic. The crust was doughy and chewy, and simply delicious to eat. Great way to start off the day. 

  

My next stop was at the Humpty’s Dumplings food truck for some Italian themed dumplings (3 for $5). I chose the sausage, spinach and pork. The pork dumpling went great with the tomato sauce and tasted almost like a mini-Stromboli. The spinach dumpling was super moist and reminded me of a spinach purse appetizer. I thought the pork dumpling would have ground pork, but turned out to be be stuffed with chopped up pork and spinach from a roast pork sandwich. It was my favorite of the three and super appropriate for Philly. The skin on the dumplings was not too crispy, and almost like puff pastry. They were good for walking and definitely unique. 

Villa di Roma Italian restaurant had samples of their homemade marinara sauce. The sauce was the same sauce they use in the restaurant and not sell by the jar. It was luxurious, thick but not too chunky. It was sweet and had a earthy Oregano taste. The other version was more basil heavy.  

 

I decided to take a small break from eating to explore some of the local market food vendors. Cardenas Oil and Vinegar Taproom is a specialty food store featuring various flavored extra virgin olive oils, vinegars and sea salts. There were flavors like lemongrass mint vinegar, basil oil, pink sea salts, and more. The Bordeaux cherry vinegar was dark in flavor and in color. There was an after note of spice–classic but modern. I wanted it to glaze my grilled salmon, but but also on a chicken liver crostini. It might even be good in a dessert! The garlic chili oil was also slight darker than a normal olive oil, and was spicy but not too hot. It had s building heat with a punch of garlic flavor. The sage onion oil was also tasty with a very strong sage flavor, appropriate for bold dishes . It would also be good for poultry dishes, especially a heavier bird like a turkey. The oil had an aromatic onion background flavor as well. I ended up buying the Grapefruit, White Balsamic Vinegar ($16). It was tangy, but not very acidic. It wasn’t too cloying, but had a perfumed sweetness and was syrupy thick. It would be delicious drizzled on a fresh mozzarella and tomato salad, or even used to make an Italian soda with some seltzer. 

My next eat wasn’t very Italian, but I couldn’t resist. There happen to be a few Latin shops in the Italian Market area, so I wasn’t that surprised to see the popular Mexican street corn ($4) being sold at a few stalls. The corn cob was slathered with mayonnaise and then covered with Mexican cotija cheese. The corn itself was so juicy, and every time I took a big bite, juice would go flying. The cheese wasn’t as salty as Feta, but gave each bite great texture. The mayo didn’t add much taste and mostly acted as the glue for the cheese and corn. The corn had that perfect amount of summer sweetness and was perfectly cooked, though it could’ve done with a bit more char for my taste. They were also selling some grilled, roasted mango in “mango flower,” so I took a sample. The mango was so sweet and delicious. It would have been perfect for salsa. 

No visit to the Italian Market is compete without a detour at Termini Bros Bakery ($5), a legendary Italian bakery making cookies, cakes, pastries and, of course, cannoli. Termini had a few stalls set up throughout the festival where they would pipe cannoli shells full of cream on the spot. So I had to get a cannoli for myself, and went with the classic filling with chocolate chips. Biting into a cannoli from Termini is heaven–the whipped ricotta was so amazingly light and creamy, but so filling. It’s not too sweet, and complements the crispy pastry shell nicely. There were chocolate chips hidden in the filing, but thy didn’t overwhelm the delicate ricotta. The shell was super crispy, and just big enough for scooping up extra filling with broken pieces as you bite into it. The filling to shell ratio was spot on. The slight dusting of powdered sugar wasn’t even needed. I needed a few moments alone with my cannoli. 

 

My final stop of the day was at the famous Talluto’s Authentic Italian Food that was selling their homemade pasta to long lines of hungry Philadelphians. It was hard to decide for me as to what I wanted, so I had a bit of a combo bowl ($8). The cheese ravioli were pillows of pasta surrounding a slightly grainy but creamy ricotta filling–much more savory and thinner than the cannoli filling. The ravioli presented a greater surface area for the tomato sauce which was very basil heavy, sweet snd chunky. The other half of my bowl was penne with vodka sauce, and the ridges on the penne allowed it to catch more of be sauce. The vodka sauce had a peppery bite that came off as spicy, but not hot. Overall the pastas were pretty saucy and pieces of the meatball would break off and incorporate into the sauce. It very much allowed for a cohesive eating experience. The meatballs were absolutely delicious. They have a generous portion of two big meatballs. They must have used a nest blend because not only could you see the different meats in the ball as it was split open, but the meatball stayed very moist and juicy. It didn’t suffer from the downfall of many meatballs where it dries out due to being in a larger piece of meat and sitting out. This pasta and meatball bowl was the perfect way to end my Italian Market experience and sent me home with a belly full of tasty Italian treats.

This was my first round of Philly food festivals this summer, look for Night Market – Callowhill coming up soon!

Paying it Forward….with Pizza!

Rosa’s Fresh Pizza
25 South 11th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

In March of 2013, Mason Wartman, the owner of Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, left his job on Wall Street in NYC, and returned to Philadelphia with an idea. He wanted to replicate the $1 pizza concept that had been popping up all over New York in Philly. So, in May 2013 he leased his current space on S 11th Street between Market and Chestnut, and on December 20, 2013 he opened for business. The first few months, he says, were a learning experience–and a transition from employee to employer–but business really began to take off when he introduced his “pay it forward” concept of entrepreneurship.

At Rosa’s, named for his mother, not only can you buy a tasty slice of pizza for just $1, but you can also purchase slice(s) of pizza for future customers—specifically, you can buy a slice or two, or however many you’d like, for a homeless person that would otherwise be unable to afford a piece of pizza, or even a meal in many cases. Everyday, it is estimated that Rosa’s provides between 40-60 slices of pizza to the homeless and food insecure people that come into the shop. While not a new concept, Rosa’s pay it forward concept became so popular that it was featured on the Ellen DeGeneres show in January, among other media coverage.

 I had the opportunity to attend a small event at Rosa’s earlier tonight and hear Mr. Wartman speak about the process of opening his pizza shop, evolving from a $1 slice concept to a $1 slice + pay it forward model, and of course, how he learned to make pizza—the secret is in the dough!

The pizza at Rosa’s epitomizes the classic Philly pizza slice—in the best way. The sauce is flavorful, but not too chunky. It provides a nice coating on the crust and is then covered by a nice amount of cheese. The slice isn’t too cheese—since the owner doesn’t like too much cheese—and therefore the cheese doesn’t overwhelm the tasty crust. The crust is chewy with a nice sweetness to it. I bet it would be delicious turned into bread for sandwiches! You also have the option of adding sausage, pepperoni or mushrooms for an additional 50¢ a slice. That means for $5, you can get two slices of cheese pizza, a soda and buy two slices for a homeless person. Doesn’t that sound like a good deal?

Everyone should check out Rosa’s Fresh Pizza not only for the pizza nourishment, but also for the nourishment for your soul, and come pay it forward with pizza!