Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Brauhaus Schmitz

Why is it that Germans have this reputation of being cold, unfriendly, and warlike?

[Watches the History Channel for 5 minutes.]

Oh. Well, there's all that. But everyone I talk to who's been to Germany raves about the warmth and good spirit of the people they encounter. Some say Germans even actually like to have fun! To investigate, we went to Philly's own outpost of all things Teutonic, the semi-recently-opened Brauhaus Schmitz, on the occasion of our half-German friend's birthday.

Not having ever been to an authentic German beer hall, I can't speak to the space's authenticity, but it certainly rings true enough. Simple, noisy, lots of wood, waitresses wearing dirndls (think St. Pauli Girl's getup). And as a nice touch, a large rendering of the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, hangs as a helpful reminder about what beer ought to be made of (barley, water, and hops – they weren't aware of yeast's existence back then in 1516).

Though a lot has changed in the almost 500 intervening years, the fact that "beer is good" has remained constant, and in this respect the Brauhaus does not disappoint. There are twenty selections on draught, most of them German (the house beer is Stoudt's Gold from right here in PA, which is at least German-style), and the menu provides very helpful descriptions to help you make your decision. What's more, there is an array of comical vessels out of which you may choose to drink your beer: the beer garden-style one-liter "giant glass mug"; the one-liter "boot", or the two-liter "giant boot". The boots are quite popular, so get there early if you want to make a fool of yourself, though be advised that according to our waitress, the two-liter boot is meant to be shared and passed around the table as a sort of drinking game. I went for a one-liter of the Warsteiner which proved adequate for the night's drinking needs.

Now, the food. The sense I get is that German beer-hall food is something that you need to deal with on its own terms. Don't expect a great deal of sophistication, subtlety, or culinary artistry. Do expect a giant slab of meat, which may or may not have been ground up and forced into a tube, served with a side of vegetables that have either been fried, pickled, made into some sort of dumpling, or all of the above.

In this context, the food at Brauhaus is quite good. Ingredients are fresh and preparations are well-executed. And portions certainly are ample, which justifies the hovering-around-$20 price for the entrees. This time out I had the cotoletta alla milanese Wiener Schnitzel, which of course is a veal cutlet, pounded flat, breaded and fried and served with a squeeze of lemon. The breading was nice and the cutlet was tasty, though I wish it had been pounded out a little more thoroughly and evenly, as there were some undercooked spots here and there. Lauren had the sauerbraten, the slow-cooked beef pot roast that's first marinated in vinegar. It was deliciously fall-aparty and flavorful from the marinade and sauce.

Our birthday friend ordered the star of the menu, in my opinion: the Schweinshaxe, which quite literally is the "swine hock" it would sound like it is. It's rotisserie-roasted until the meat is meltingly tender and the skin on the outside becomes gloriously crackly. And its size will present a challenge to even the most ardent pork-lover.

On a previous trip to the Brauhaus, I had tried a few of the sausages, which while tasty are not especially noteworthy. The Nürnberger Bratwurst is homemade, and the Bauernwurst is somewhat interesting as it is made of smoked beef and pork.

Not to be overlooked are the two sides that you get to choose to go along with your entree. The red cabbage is probably my favorite, sweet and tangy with vinegar and aromatic with spice. The Spätzle is quite good as well, as these little egg dumplings manage to be light even as they swim in melted butter. A taste of the sauerkraut was surprising in its smokey note and unlike anything you've ever put on a hot dog, and the fun-to-say Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) were better than any of the pre-fab monstrosities I've had at delis around here.

Good food, good beer, good friends – some combination of those valuable things and the relaxed atmosphere at the Brauhaus leads to having fun. Maybe part of it is the simplicity and honesty of the food; somehow not having to worry about high-precision, high-concept cooking results in a laid-back meal. Whatever the case, Brauhaus Schmitz is worth a shot.

Brauhaus Schmitz on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Foodbuzz Festival!

At the beginning of November, we attended the First Annual Food Blogger Festival in San Francisco, hosted by Foodbuzz.

Foodbuzz planned a great weekend for us and 248 of our fellow bloggers, starting with a cocktail party overlooking the city on Friday night. We were happy to sip cocktails and meet up with fellow Philly bloggers E from Foodaphilia and Jess from Fries With That Shake. Everyone headed over to the Ferry Building (which now houses an array of specialty food purveyors – think the Reading Terminal, on a slightly smaller scale) for a street food fair, featuring delicious, tiny Hog Island oysters, mini cupcakes from Mission Minis, and, best of all, fantastic, heavenly roast pork sandwiches from Roli Roti.

(Dissenting note on the pork sandwich from P: while the rotisserie pork was nicely cooked, and the crispy skin was excellent, the porky flavor was overwhelmed by the sweet onion marmalade and fussy micro-herb salad on the sandwich. It certainly didn't have that juicy, down and dirty feel of a South Philly-type roast pork sandwich, which I would take any day of the week.)

On Saturday mornings, the Ferry Building is surrounded by a huge and colorful farmers' market. Besides the fruits and veggies, there were all sorts of specialty vendors around, so L picked up some rose-flavored sugar while we waited for the morning session to begin.

Up on the second floor of the Ferry Building, overlooking the bustling stalls, Foodbuzz held a talk and tasting from Sue, one of the founders of Cowgirl Creamery. We learned a lot about the history of the cheesemakers as Sue walked us through a tasting of four cheeses, from a fresh and raw fromage blanc to an aged Asiago-like hard cheese that's under development. The "Inverness", a cylindrical soft cheese covered in a white rind, was our tasting favorite. We were told that the "Mount Tam" we tasted was meant to be in the style of a Saint Andre, but given the Tam's odd bouncy texture, for my money I'd opt for the creamy Saint Andre. Still, it was an interesting talk, and big props to the Cowgirls for helping to advance the cause of cheesemaking in the USA.

After the cheese talk, a short walk over to the Metreon took us to the Tasting Pavilion, which was set up more or less like a trade show. Purveyors of everything from wine to chocolate to popcorn to something called "Oregon Dukkah" were at their tables, handing out samples and bestowing us blog-smiths with piles of swag. The array of products represented was remarkable, even if a good number of them were the kinds of things you'd receive as a gift and stow away in your cupboard indefinitely.

Unfortunately, other plans got in the way, and that was the last event of the weekend we were able to attend. But thanks to Foodbuzz and everyone who participated for having us all out. It was a great chance to meet some new people, eat some new foods, and get lightly hammered on beer samples without paying a dime.

But you know, there is something overblown about all the local, sustainable, artisan, small-batch bombast of Bay Area food culture, where adjectives outnumber nouns on menus and store signs, and the last vestiges of the pioneering gold-rush spirit that founded the place have been lightly toasted and folded into a quinoa salad. Eating while respecting nature is doubtless a noble goal, but when purveyors beat you over the head with it, it comes off as little more than marketing hype, or worse yet, overcompensation for less-than-skillfully prepared products. I guess it's all a consequence of rediscovering traditional means of production through a twenty-first century lens. With the benefit of time, hopefully those that survive will attain the same state of effortless grace as those who have been doing it all along.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Honey's Sit N' Eat

My aversion to brunch has been well documented, so I'm not going to go into another thought-provoking, erudite and entertaining rant here. But no review of Honey's Stand 'n Wait Honey's Sit 'n Eat would be complete without a mention of the fact that our party of four spent somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour (including a trip to Silk City to see if the wait was any shorter) waiting for a table in the chilly November morn. So it had better be damn good.

Damn good? Well, good-ish. Our hopes were high at the outset because sitting down at a table was a relief, and the coffee was good (but $2.50 a cup? Come on. Way too much for a place like this, and "bottomless" is not a nicety, it's a basic human right at a place like this, so touting the cup's bottomlessness on the menu doesn't impress me. Anyway...). The fried green tomatoes we ordered to start were very promising: breaded with cayenne-spiked cornmeal, crisply fried and not greasy, served with a homemade ranch sauce that worked nicely with the flavors and textures of the tomato.

But then our mains arrived and the table was flooded in a sea of meh. The pastrami portion of my pastrami and eggs was pretty good, and I did enjoy the green-pepper-laden home fries, but the over-easy eggs were limp and watery, and the rye toast was barely toasted at all. The egg portion of our friend's omelette was overcooked, and the contraption suffered from the too-many-wet-ingredients syndrome that spells disaster for any egg dish. The "latkes" were some kind of weird, triangular, gray-in-the-middle potato mess that was not all that enjoyable. Lauren's "enfrijoladas" was a pseudo-Mexican pile of stuff with some very rubbery scrambled eggs at the center.

Brother, it just ain't worth it. Not the time, not the money (it was something like $70 for the four of us to have breakfast). Not the bearded beady-eyed hipsters, not the guy that calls out when your table is ready who acts like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. If you can switch your senses off and pretend that the experience is going to be everything you wanted it to be, you can enjoy it. Otherwise it's hard to justify when you can stay home and make yourself a nice omelette for a fraction of the cost and about 2% of the time.

On the plus side: once seated, our service was very friendly and pretty attentive. Otherwise there is not much to recommend this place over your typical diner-style breakfast joint. For not a hell of a lot more money, go have brunch at Parc and get food prepared with much more care, in a less hectic atmosphere, and be in and out by the time you would have been seated at a place like this. Until places like this can deliver and the word brunch is no longer spelled with the letters H-Y-P-E in this town, I am abstaining.

Honey's Sit 'n Eat on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 6, 2009

Review: Circles

Takeout menus. Usually they're for another interchangeable wings-steaks-pizza-or-Chinese place, and they're destined for a one-way trip to the recycle bin. But when the menu for Circles, a "contemporary Asian" restaurant down near 15th & Tasker in South Philly, arrived unsolicited in our mailbox, something made me give it a second look. First off, it didn't fit into the usual takeout genre, the Thai-style dishes on the menu looked pretty tasty, and the prices were almost downright cheap! So we decided to give it a chance for delivery, and we're glad we did.

One thing off the bat that Circles does right: when you order something fried that's supposed to be crispy, they cut notches in the corners of the container to keep it from becoming a soggy mess. This technique is employed with great success with the Thai Rolls, which are quite large and served cut in half lengthwise, allowing you a glimpse at their cross-section of succulent pork, vegetable and mushroom stuffing. Likewise, the Crab Rangoon arrives as five or six crisp, perfectly folded packages, stuffed with a curry cream cheese and crab filling. On the non-fried front, the summer rolls are a good version of the classic cold rice paper roll with shrimp.

The tom kha gai (coconut milk soup with chicken) was a fine way to start one of our orders; it was rich without being greasy, and had that kind of spiciness that builds up the more you eat of it.

Circles' Thai-style take on General Tso's Chicken is the humorously named General Thai Chicken, which differs from its counterpart by being much less deep-fried-tasting, and with pineapple to provide a nice sweet and sour note. Some surprisingly spicy peppers heat up the affair.

Finally, the dish that should be in the wheelhouse of any Thai-style restaurant, pad Thai, is a great rendition. Tasty sauce, not too sweet, not too greasy, just enough pea-nuttiness, and fresh, large shrimp. And at $9.95 for the shrimp version, considerably better than pad Thai I've had at some restaurants that charge $5 more for the same dish.

There's lots more on the menu that we've yet to try, including some interesting-looking desserts, and an $8.95 lunch special that includes soup, a spring roll, entree and dessert. From its first auspicious appearance in our mailbox, the Circles menu has gotten a well-deserved share of usage in our takeout rotation, and if you're nearby we highly recommend it for Asian food that's a little different from the usual.

Circles on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chocolate Pretzel Chunk Cookies

A week or so back, I was sitting at my desk eating pretzels and m and m's so I could get hit of that perfect combo of sweet and salty that is the chocolate covered pretzel. As I was munching away I had a brainstorm that this would be perfect as a cookie, so I ran home to whip some up. My mom was visiting me and I asked her to get me some pretzels while she was out and about- she brought back the unsalted kind. (just an aside- what is the point of unsalted pretzels? I mean really people). I had to thank her but point out that in these cookies you want the crunch of the pretzel, but you also need the salt- it's absolutely crucial to capturing the "essence" of pretzel in this cookie. We headed out to the corner deli to procure the salted pretzels, and were back on track. I didn't break the pretzels up too much, I was worried that the kitchen aid would pulverize them, but they maintained their shape well. If you try these, be sure to break them up to your liking before adding them to the batter.

Chocolate Pretzel Chunk Cookies

adapted from Martha Stewart

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt with a whisk; set aside. 2. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars until well combined; add the eggs and vanilla extract, and mix until well combined. Add the dry ingredients, 1/2 cup at a time, and mix until just incorporated. Do not overmix. Fold in the chocolate and pretzels with a wooden spoon. 3. With a small ice-cream scoop, place 1/4-cup balls of dough on a baking sheet lined with a baking mat or parchment paper. Arrange dough in rows of two lightly pressed balls to allow for spreading. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until puffed and cracked. Allow to cool on a baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

R2R: Soupe A L'Oignon

Back on the R2R train in time for this months challenge- Soupe a L'Oignon, or French Onion Soup. You've probably had it before- a deep, meaty broth made sweet by silky caramelized onions topped with cruton of crusty bread. All this goodness sits beneath an crunchy, oozey blanket of melted cheese. When made right, it is absolute heaven.

This month's host, Sara from I'm a Food Blog picked a winning rendition from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Cookbook. This soup is simple in concept, but does need a lot of babysitting while you s-l-o-w-l-y caramelize the onions over low heat, making sure not to brown or burn them. The onions put off a heavenly fragrance, and by the time you are ready to eat, the whole house smells delicious.

Onion Soup - Soupe A L'Oignon
Thomas Keller - Bouchon
makes 6 servings

2 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
6 large sprigs of thyme

8 pounds (about 8 large) yellow onions
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter
Kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons all purpose flour
3 1/2 quarts Beef Stock (recipe below)
Freshly ground black pepper
Sherry wine vinegar

1 baguette (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Kosher salt

6 to 12 slices (1/8 inch thick) aged Comte or Emmentaler cheese (at least 4 inches square)
1 1/2 cups grated aged Comte or Emmentaler cheeses, or a combination

FOR THE SACHET: Cut a piece of cheesecloth about 7 inches square. Place the bay leaves, peppercorns, and thyme in the center, bring up the edges, and tie with kitchen twine to form a sachet.

FOR THE SOUP: Cut off the tops and bottoms of the onions, then cut the onions lengthwise in half. Remove the peels and tough outer layers. Cut a V wedge in each one to remove the core and pull out any solid, flat pieces of onion running up from the core.

Lay an onion half cut side down on a cutting board with the root end toward you. Note that there are lines on the outside of the onion. Cutting on the lines (with the grain) rather than against them will help the onions soften. Holding the knife on an angle, almost parallel to the board, cut the onion lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices. Once you've cut past the center of the onion, the knife angle will become awkward: Flip the onion onto its side, toward the knife, and finish slicing it, again along the grain. Separate the slices of onion, trimming away any root sections that are still attached and holding the slices together. Repeat with the remaining onions. (You should have about 7 quarts of onions)

Melt the butter in a large heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions and 1 tablespoon salt, reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring every 15 minutes and regulating the heat to keep the mixture bubbling gently, for about 1 hour, or until the onions have wilted and released a lot of liquid. At this point, you can turn up the heat slightly to reduce the liquid, but it is important to continue to cook the onions slowly to develop maximum flavor and keep them from scorching. Continue to stir the onions every 15 minutes, being sure to scrape the bottom and get in the corners of the pot, for about 4 hours more, or until the onions are caramelized throughout and a rich deep brown. (my note - like a super deep brown, like way browner than you think they need to be. Think poop. Yes I said it.) Keep a closer eye on the onions toward the end of the cooking when the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat. (You will need 1 1/2 cups of onions for the soup; reserve any extra for another use. The onions can be made up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.)

Transfer the caramelized onions to a 5 quart pot (if they've been refrigerated, reheat until hot.) Sift in the flour and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beef stock and sachet, bring to a simmer, and simmer for about 1 hour, or until the liquid is reduced to 2 1/2 quarts. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a few drops of vinegar. Remove from the heat.

FOR THE CROUTONS: Preheat the broiler. Cut twelve 3/8 inch thick slices from the baguette (reserve the remainder for another use) and place on a baking sheet. Brush the bread lightly on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt. Place under the broiler and toast the first side until golden brown, then turn and brown the second side. Set aside and leave the broiler on.

TO COMPLETE: Return the soup to a simmer. Place six flameproof soup tureens, with about 1 1/2 cups capacity on a baking sheet to catch any spills (the soup will bubble up and over the tureens). Add the hot soup to the tureens, filling them within 1/2 inch of the tops. Top each serving with 2 croutons: Lay them on the surface - do not push them into the soup. Lay the slices of cheese over the croutons so that the cheese overlaps the edges of the tureens by about 1/2 inch, Scatter the grated cheese over the sliced cheese, filling in any areas where the sliced cheese is thiner, or it may melt into the soup rather than forming a crust.

Place the tureens under the broiler for a few minutes, until the cheese bubbles, browns, and forms a thick crust. Eat carefully, the soup and tureens will be very hot.