Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: Vedge

Honest. Unselfconscious. Maybe a little playful, with a sense of humor. These are great qualities in people, and maybe even better qualities in food. That's why I've never been a fan of vegetarian and vegan dishes that pretend to be something they're not: I'm of the belief that the best vegan food is simply good food that happens not to have any animal products in it.

Because of this, I never was the greatest fan of Horizons, the vegan spot formerly on Seventh Street, whose menu was a minefield of seitan, tofu and other protein pretenders. So I was pleased to learn that the new place from the folks behind Horizons was supposed to focus more on the real stars of the plant show: vegetables. We took a trip to Vedge to see if it lived up to this ideal.

The space on Locust Street is certainly larger than Horizons' second-floor perch was, and it's appointed in a fairly old-fashioned manner, if a bit spare. Comfortable enough; now a look at the menu.

Broken simply into "small bites" and "plates", there's no real indication of the various dishes' sizes, and I had to ask the waitress for some guidance (which otherwise didn't seem to be forthcoming). She suggested two or three "plates" per diner, with perhaps a few "bites" to share around. So it seems like they are going for a "small plates" paradigm, but we will discuss the problems with that later.

The bites we started with were the peel-and-eat lupini beans with piri piri, the mixed black olives, and the truffled fingerling fries with porcini salt. The lupini had that great unique piri piri flavor without being too spicy, if the beans themselves were on the hard side. The fingerlings, in a delightfully motley assortment of sizes and degrees of smashiness, sported a very delicate crispy skin, though not a whole lot of truffle or porcini flavor. The olives were pretty much just olives.

My first larger course was the honshimeji mushrooms "beach style". I'll be honest, I couldn't remember what a honshimeji was, but my surreptitious Googling told me it was a mushroom – though it could not tell me that I had unintentionally ordered a soup. Not what I expected from the description, and to be honest, the first several spoonfuls of the mushroom, celery leaf and red potato soup were awfully bland, but at some point the flavor kicked in and the dish coalesced into a steaming bowl of rich, umami-powered goodness.

Then, all our plates were cleared, new silverware was delivered (including oversized steak knives; these seemed to be trying to make some kind of statement), and we waited for quite a while.

Some time later, our second main selections arrived. Mine was the eggplant "braciole", a slice of smoked eggplant wrapped around some sort of finely-minced mixture which was apparently cauliflower, and swimming in a creamy, fresh garbanzo-studded sauce.

And it was in this course that a problem that existed even at Horizons manifested itself. It was salty. Very salty, and salty in a cumulative way that made the last bite taste exponentially saltier than the first. (My three lovely dining companions, including one who is a real salt fiend, all agreed.) By the end, I wasn't tasting vegetables at all; just a lingering, tongue-coating "sameness" on the salty-creamy axis that kept the veggies' natural flavor from shining through.

This was even evident on the two items we ordered off the "dirt list", an ever-changing sampling of today's "farm vegetables" (where else would they come from?). Though you would expect these preparations to highlight the natural character of the vegetables, the royal trumpet mushrooms were sliced very very thin and were served practically drowning in some sort of buttery-tasting white sauce, and the shaved and grilled brussels sprouts found themselves coated in a similar salty substance. In effect, this is precisely the opposite of what I expected and desired from these preparations. If there is effort being made to develop flavors in these vegetables through cooking technique, it is being overshadowed by the heavy-handedness of the seasoning.

Beyond the cooking foibles I found, I have to point out the unsuitability of the dishes for a "small plates" format. Very few things were readily shareable (being soups, or single large pieces), and the coursing was fairly rigid, so there wasn't the sort of rolling, convivial dining experience that you would expect from, say, a Jose Garces restaurant. Plus, the waitress's recommendation to order "two or three" large dishes would almost certainly result in you getting too much food.

So here is a restaurant named for and intended to celebrate the vegetable, which instead has a tendency to beat them into submission; a place where the potential for culinary discovery is derailed by a confused menu concept and clumsy service. I came to Vedge excited, with a completely open mind, leaving my Horizons experiences behind me. I left knowing that the potential exists for a vegan restaurant to stand on its own culinary merits, to put the full force of both centuries of tradition and cutting-edge modern technique behind exalting the roots, leaves and fungi that can be so varied and exciting. But for now, at least, this place is not it.

Vedge Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 28, 2011

Roasty Brussels Sprouts

So I think collectively as a culture, we've gotten over our revulsion to Brussels sprouts. If you haven't, maybe it's because you haven't had them prepared the right way – boiling into oblivion is no way to do this noble cruciferous veggie justice. Roasting allows the sprouts to attain a nice texture that's tender, but not too soft, and preparing these little guys with the right mix of flavors helps bring out their natural goodness.

The technique I used with these also works well with roasting or grilling other vegetables – basically, it entails making something like a vinaigrette, then tossing the veggies in it before cooking. Emulsifying everything helps ensure a more even coating than the old "dash on some oil and vinegar and pray" approach. In this case, I'm using bacon fat, because that savory smokiness really adds something to the dish; however feel free to substitute your favorite oil if you're not a bacon fan for whatever reason.

Ready for roasting

Roasty Brussels Sprouts
(all measurements approximate)
1 lb Brussels sprouts
1 tbsp bacon fat, melted (or oil of your choice)
1 tbsp maple syrup
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp coarse-grain prepared mustard
2 tbsp apple cider (if you have it)
Healthy pinch of salt
Few grinds black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp garlic powder (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425°. Wash the sprouts and DRAIN THOROUGHLY. Trim off the brown ends if present, then split each sprout down the middle top to bottom.

Whisk together the remaining ingredients in a large bowl until fully incorporated. Add the sprouts and toss to coat thoroughly. Dump everything out on a cookie sheet, making sure that the sprouts are flat side down and not touching each other. (If there's not enough room for the sprouts to spread out, do two batches or get a bigger pan, because they won't caramelize properly if they're all on top of each other.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until sprouts are brown around the edges.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Liquid Education: The Manhattan at Tryst

Sure, we tackled the Manhattan here at I'll Eat You with Project Manhattan, but when I learned about a class on the classic cocktail being offered at Tryst (the bar under Le Bec-Fin, formerly Le Bar Lyonnais), I knew it would be a must-visit. I must say my that Jonathan, my partner in whiskey appreciation, and I were not disappointed in the least, and I'd recommend the rest of the classes on the course schedule without hesitation.

The presentation was done by Erik Lombardo, bar manager and chief mixologist at Tryst. As someone who got started in the business by making cocktails at home, his passion and enthusiasm were palpable throughout the evening, and I had a feeling that if not for the scheduled end time, the event would have lasted all night. He started with some historical background about the rise of the cocktail in the nineteenth century, and shot down a few of the apocryphal stories of the Manhattan's origin (including the story that Winston Churchill's mother invented the drink – which would have been difficult, since she was giving birth to the future prime minister in England during the New York party where the drink was allegedly first served).

We then got into ingredients, and a little more historical information on the rise and fall of rye whiskey in the US. Once the liquor of choice in the North, Prohibition brought production to a halt, and even following the repeal, rye never regained its popularity. Now, with the renewed interest in old-timey mixology, rye is enjoying a comeback, and a newcomer is making a big impression on the scene. I've always liked Bulleit bourbon, but now the good folks who make that fine potable are producing a whiskey made with 95% rye. It's a little spicy, nicely oaked, and served as a great all-around base for the three cocktails we enjoyed.

The first was the classic Manhattan. Whiskey, vermouth, bitters. Stirred. The details, of course, make the difference. The relative amounts of whiskey and vermouth are very important, and this one was made with a 2:1 ratio. That sounds like a lot of vermouth, but when you're using good vermouth (this was Cinzano) and not something that's been rattling around the back of your liquor cabinet since the Clinton administration, you actually want to taste it – and a complex, spicy whiskey like the Bulleit Rye is more than a match for the vermouth's sweetness. With the addition of the angostura bitters, the balance is impeccable.

The other ingredient not mentioned is water (in the form of melted ice). Shockingly, water can end up being 25% of a cocktail, so it's important to use pure, dense ice, in pieces as large as possible to avoid excessive melting. And for God's sake, don't shake a Manhattan, stir it, because you don't want froth and chipped ice in your drink, you want velvety smoothness. Trust me. I think James Bond, with his "shaken, not stirred" tagline, did more damage to the proper preparation of cocktails than he did to his Cold War adversaries.

Next, we were served a little snack of seared veal tongue served with pea shoots and a citrus vinaigrette, delicious and as pure of flavor as anything else that comes out of Le Bec's kitchens.

The other two drinks shared the same "plot" as the Manhattan (as well as New York-related names), but it was striking how different they tasted. The Brooklyn, made with whiskey, Amer Picon, maraschino liqueur, and dry vermouth, had a citrusy zing, but I wasn't fond of the sharp herbal notes from the dry vermouth. The last cocktail was the Red Hook, which seems to be a recent invention (from the mid 2000s). Made with Punt e Mes (a red vermouth already spiked with bitters) and maraschino, it had an oxidized, "brown"flavor reminiscent of a Port, and I could see serving it as a welcome substitute to that dessert wine.

Maybe this write-up was a little long-winded, but I didn't even cover all of the information conveyed during the event. If the rest of this series is like this one, I really can't recommend them enough, and at $25 they're quite a steal considering that you're getting three half-drinks, a small appetizer and a dazzling amount of knowledge. Perhaps what I appreciated most, though, was that every detail of these drinks was fussed over with the utmost scrutiny and passion, and yet Erik openly rejected any pretentiousness about the whole topic. This stuff is supposed to be fun, right? So grab some rye and stir up a Manhattan, or come out to Tryst to enhance your beverage repertoire.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Delilah's Soul Food

So I know it's not super fair to review a place solely on one dish alone, however, this particular dish was so 1) overhyped and 2) disgusting, that it is imperative that I share my dissapointment.

Here's the backstory: a few years ago, Oprah Winfrey touted on her show that Delilah's Soul Food (at Philadelphia's own Reading Terminal) made the best macaroni and cheese in the country. Mac and cheese may be my favorite food in the world, but after reviewing the recipe that included a dozen eggs and velveeta cheese, I opted to pass.

Fast forward to today. Many of our loyal followers may not know that we're expecting a new addition to the I'll Eat You family. Next February, this little culinarian will be introduced to the world, but while she's still growing, I have to respond to her every epicurian desire. She seems to have inherited my taste for the stuff, because while sitting at my desk 3 blocks from Reading Terminal, this baby demanded some mac n cheese. While deciding where to procure the stuff, I decided that if there is ever a time to try the world's best mac n cheese, it might as well be while you're pregnant and have a little parasite in your body to help you burn the extra calories. So off to the terminal I went.

The offerings at Delilah's looked good overall, especially the fried chicken and collard greens, but I was there for one purpose only. I was a bit apalled to see that this stuff had gotten so much publicity that the price for a 5 oz cup was $5.00. Upon tasting it, I can confidently conclude that this was the WORST macaroni and cheese I have EVER eaten. And that includes KFC mac and cheese (have you tried that stuff? vile.) The overall appearance was oily, The sauce had separated and was grainy. Actually, it was chewy. The smooth and creamy element you expect in mac and cheese was missing. Well, unless you count the texture of overcooked pasta, but that's really more mushy. The cheese was sour-tasting, maybe due to the use of too much asiago, or maybe just because the whole dish is ill-conceived.

Please don't eat this. There are so many better food options at the terminal. You're much better off getting BBQ chicken from the Amish stand, Mexican from 12th st Cantina, or Cajun from Beck's Cajun Cafe. As for mac and cheese, you are better served by a container of Easy Mac from CVS then Delilah's.

Delilah's at the Terminal on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Zeppoli

Disclaimer: We dined at Zeppoli with a cousin of chef/owner Joey Baldino, so we were treated to free desserts.

So it's over the Walt Whitman to check out the new and much buzzed-about Zeppoli, a Sicilian BYOB helmed by Joey Baldino, who has worked with a roster of culinary greats like Marc Vetri, Alice Waters, and Georges Perrier. What we found was awesome Mediterranean cuisine showing a level of skill, refinement, and attention to quality ingredients befitting the chef's impressive resume. You're not necessarily going to taste anything you've never tasted before, but rarely do you come across it prepared so well.

The interior is simply appointed: assorted cacti and other succulents on one windowsill, vintage photographs of the old country on the beige walls that are embellished with wainscoting said to be donated by the chef of Mr. Martino's Trattoria in South Philly. Between the small size, all the hard surfaces, and the open kitchen, it can get a bit noisy, but the space is otherwise cozy and lively at the same time without being overly formal.

The menu is divided into thirds with salads and antipasti serving as starters, a column of pasta dishes that can be ordered in either appetizer or main-course portions, and traditional mains. All three of my dining companions started with the simple insalata verde, mixed greens with shaved fennel, topped with caciocavallo cheese. I had the Panzanella Catania, a take on the traditional bread and tomato salad topped with some very mild capers and fresh white anchovies. I think I'm so used to Lauren's delicious yet bread-heavy panzanella that this felt more like a "salad with croutons" than a full-fledged panzanella, but the tomatoes were ripe and flavorful, and I loved the subtle fishiness of the anchovies on top.

The agreement between Lauren and me was that we would go halfsies on the steak and the Sicilian Fisherman Stew, but Lauren became so enamored of the stew that it ended up as barely a case of quartersies. Clams, head-on shrimp, and mussels all cavorting in a saffron-spiked, silken (and perhaps buttery?) broth that also played host to some of the most completely tenderized calamari I've ever had. This, and coarse Moroccan couscous providing some additional texture.

As for the steak, the maybe half-inch-thick rib-eye had a fabulously flavorful and crunchy crust and just enough fat marbled throughout to make it a succulent experience without being too greasy. The arugula and tomato salad on the side, though a bit of a repeat from my panzanella, did a great job as a counterpoint to the savory beef.

We didn't taste our friends' pasta dishes, but the spinach and ricotta gnocchi (very large, almost veering into gnudi territory) in brown butter sauce looked like a must-try for our next visit.

Thanks to our family connection at the table, we were treated to an assortment of desserts: a very lemony lemon tart, a sampling of three house-made gelati (caramel, torrone, and another flavor we couldn't put our fingers on), and an impossibly light and delicious chocolate and almond torte. The standout may have been the namesake zeppoli, looking just like small hole-less donuts, dusted in sugar and served with a chocolate-caramel dipping sauce. They were amazingly light and irresistible - if they put a drive-thru window in and start selling them by the sack, they could give Dunkin' Donuts a run for their money, even in Jersey.

Service was very pleasant, though the staff may need a little more time to get settled (a bottle of wine opened and left unpoured; some who-ordered-what pointing necessary when the mains were served). This is a minor quibble, though, and did not detract from our experience. The one thing I will say that though I think the portion sizes are ideal (not too big), they may be a touch on the small side for the price. The apps are all reasonable, but $19 for what I think was five or six (admittedly large) gnocchi and $29 for my not-particularly-large steak seemed a little high. I'm really not complaining; more of an observation, because given how satisfied we were with the quality of the food, there was no buyer's remorse. Update: word is that portions sizes have been upped a little. Investigating this is as good of an excuse as any for a return trip!

So I gladly give Zeppoli my highest endorsement for Jersey restaurants, the "Worth the Trip" seal of approval. It is not a place for culinary fireworks, but it excels at creating winning flavor combinations and letting the high-quality ingredients do the talking. Like its lighter-than-air namesakes, Zeppoli could be headed into the higher strata of the area's fine-dining atmosphere.

Zeppoli on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's a Vegan Coconut Flan

I've arrived at the conclusion that making vegan desserts is like being stuck on Gilligan's Island: coconuts will save your ass every time. Thanks to its creamy texture and pleasing flavor, coconut milk makes a great stand-in for dairy, and its tropical nature makes it easy to pair it with a variety of fruits.

So the next time the Vegan Harlem Globetrotters drop by for dinner, or you're trying to smooth things over between Ginger and Mary Ann, try out this dessert based on a recipe by The Professor Dr. Andrew Weil. Compared to the original, I upped the coconut quotient by using coconut milk instead of generic non-dairy milk, and paired it with a little pineapple-lime-ginger mixture. Should be ready in less than three hours! I'll stop now.

To be fair, this is not a 100% convincing vegan dessert. You can, to some extent, taste its constituent ingredients. But overall, it has a nice taste and not a bad texture, and if your guests aren't paying attention they may not notice its vegan-ness. The only trouble I had with this was bubbles remaining trapped in the flan as it set. I'm not sure what to do about this, other than more gentle blending, perhaps.

5 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 package soft tofu
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon of syrup (above)
Coconut extract to taste (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon)
Pinch salt
1 can coconut milk, plus half a can's worth of water
1 1/2 tablespoons agar agar, or 3/4 teaspoons agar powder

Place tofu, sugar, coconut extract and salt in your blender. Make the syrup by combining the brown sugar, water and vanilla in a saucepan and heating over low heat until it boils. Boil for five minutes, then add one tablespoon of the syrup to the blender, and divide the remaining syrup among 6-10 cups or ramekins. Swirl the syrup around the ramekins to coat.

Add the coconut milk and agar to the same saucepan and boil over high heat for five minutes (if it foams up too much, take off the heat for a minute). Add this mixture to the blender and blend carefully until smooth. Pour the mixture into the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and cool in the fridge until set.

When it's time to serve, run a knife or small icing spatula around the inside of each ramekin, place a plate on top, invert, and pray that it comes out.

Serve as-is, or pair with something tropical, like diced pineapple with lime zest and ginger. Mango with ginger and maybe some black pepper would be interesting as well. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Road Trip: Montréal

It has recently come to our attention that places other than Philly have food, restaurants, and the like. To investigate, we headed north of the border (inevitably in the slowest customs line) to that little slice of Francophone Europe in North America: Quebec. Montreal, specifically. The only other time I'd been there was in the winter, and unless you like frostbite and getting your tongue stuck to telephone poles, a word of advice: DO NOT GO TO MONTREAL IN THE WINTER.

Anyway, being blessed with gorgeous weather, we arrived and paid a visit to one of Lauren's former co-workers who is a Montreal native and now lives smack in the middle of the very historical and somewhat touristy Vieux Montreal neighborhood. We lucked out because there was a fireworks show that night, and her roof was a great vantage point. A most gracious host, she told us the best places to get two of the more well-known Montreal delicacies. After the fireworks, and getting close to midnight, we went out in search of bagels.

One $10 cab ride later we arrived at Fairmount Bagels, one of the two 24-hour bakeries (along with St-Viateur) vying for Montreal bagel supremacy. Even at this late hour, workers behind the counter were using absurdly long paddles to shuffle the bagels in and out of the wood-fired oven, and the bready delights were piling up, presumably headed for shops all around the city.

We got a bagel each and a tub of cream cheese and sat down on the bench outside. Shortly after finishing those, we were back inside buying another half-dozen to take back to the room.

Montreal bagels are different in that the hole is much larger than the typical bagel. They're also boiled in honey water, which imparts a slight sweetness to them. Though the classic flavor is sesame, we both really liked the "tout garni", which is like an everything bagel but with even more everything on it: sesame, poppy, onion, cumin seed, caraway, and I'm not even sure what else. Perhaps more remarkable was the Liberté brand cream cheese, which has a much more distinct cultured "tang" to it than good ol' Philadelphia. It made a great match with the bagels.

The second tip we got from our Montreal insider was to head to Schwartz's for a viande fumée, or smoked meat, sandwich. I had heard about this place in the course of my pre-trip research, but I was skeptical of it being one of those tourist-oriented joints that coasts by on reputation. Luckily, this was not the case.

Since it was just a short walk from our room, I grabbed a sandwich for take-out. Just as well, because even at barely 5:00 on a Sunday, the place was packed. Lauren doesn't like mustard, so I wanted to get some on the side, but the (somewhat acerbic) counter person said that they don't do that. Oh well. A few minutes later I was walking out the door with a greasy paper bag in my hand and a smile on my face.

Man. Great stuff. Like pastrami, but better: spicer, savorier, more melt-in-the-mouth tender. Even without the mustard, one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. Go there. You may be tempted to take one of the whole briskets sitting in the front window home with you, though good luck driving home with that aroma wafting through your car.

If you're interested in DIY dining, the Atwater Market is a great place to visit. Outside, there are produce stalls and scores of flower vendors, making it a nice place to stroll along and see some of Canada's native wildlife.

The inside portion has bakers, cheesemongers, and butchers featuring some really awesome-looking stuff. We stopped by one morning to assemble a picnic for the afternoon: cantaloupe, some jambon cru from Cochons Toutes Rondes (a little salty), some nice looking tomatoes, a cheese that turned out to be somewhat unremarkable (just our bad luck), and of course a baguette.

Since it was strawberry season in Quebec and the berries were piled high, we also got this attractive display to take home.

Finally, there was one more thing that I knew I couldn't leave Montreal without trying: poutine. Though its etymology is disputed, one interpretation is that it means "mess", and this is an apt description. At its base, it's a pile of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. At the recommendation of a co-worker, we went to Resto La Banquise to give it a shot. I was surprised that La Banquise was a pleasant, upscale-diner-type spot, having expected such a maniacal creation to come from the depths of some dive bar or greasy spoon. So here it is, the Poutine Rachel, which has sauteed onions, peppers and mushrooms in addition to the rest of the mess:

This is something I just didn't quite "get". The fries were good, impressively non-greasy ... the cheese curds gave some textural interest, but not a lot of flavor ... and the gravy was just sort of bland. It wasn't at all unpleasant, but it wasn't as outrageously good as you'd expect the combo to be. Personally I would have loved a richer-tasting gravy on them, but I don't think that's how it's done. Oh well.

We had a great time up in Montreal, and if you're anywhere near the border, I'd recommend a trip. Aside from the food, there are some great sights to see, and it's a nice town with pockets of European flair – a nice escape from being American that doesn't require a plane ride. Now to arrange a FedEx smoked meat delivery ...

Fairmount Bagel on UrbanspoonSchwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen on UrbanspoonResto la Banquise on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Opa

As delicious as Greek food sounds, I must admit that I've never been to a Greek place that truly blew me away and made me eager to come back. I was hoping that Hellenic newcomer Opa on Sansom Street would buck this trend. Despite everything being pretty decent, I'm afraid the food ended up not being anything worth smashing plates about.

The interior of the place, situated right off the now-bustling 13th Street corridor, is neat and contemporary: a blue-painted ceiling with exposed ductwork, one wall covered in a decorative metal structure in the shape of hundreds of circles, and a modern bar in the middle. From this bar came the Portokali, a cocktail of vodka, blood orange and ouzo. Though the anisey flavor of the ouzo came through, it didn't dominate, and the cocktail had a nice balance, even if it could have been served a bit more chilled.

The menu is broken down into mezedes (smaller plates) and entrees. We decided to make a meal out of four of the mezedes. First to arrive was the Horiatiki, basically a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, olives and feta. The feta was the highlight – very creamy and not too crumbly or salty. The rest of the salad was fine, but a fairly deep puddle in the bottom of the dish told me it was way overdressed. Unfortunately much of the surplus dressing made it onto our plates, where it remained, since we didn't get our plates changed out following this drippy course (really the only misstep of the otherwise very nice service).

In contrast, the grilled octopus suffered from the opposite problem in my opinion: too dry. Though served with a "chickpea fondue" (really stewed chickpeas in tomato, studded with coriander seeds and other spices), the octopus itself just didn't have enough moisture to be truly enjoyable. The charred flavor was nice, but a drizzle of olive oil and/or a squeeze of lemon would have really made it more pleasurable to eat.

The "Spread Pikilia" was a trio of three dips: hummus, tzatziki, and tirokafteri, served with pita triangles, olives, and oddly enough, spears of raw zucchini for dipping. The very thick hummus was initially interesting thanks to the addition of some smoked paprika to the dip, but it quickly grew somewhat boring to eat. The tzatziki was fine, with a nice dill flavor, but I think the standout was the tirokafteri. Made with feta cheese, this thinner dip came on strong with a pronounced sharp, salty flavor, then revealed some red peppery sweetness and hot-pepper spiciness as it lingered in the mouth. I found this to be the most interesting thing we ate at Opa.

Lastly, three mini-gyros, presented wrapped in paper. The only thing to note about these is that the meat is grilled lamb and not the usual shaved-log-of-ground-meats.

We didn't have time for dessert, which is just as well because they were already out of baklava at around 7:15 on a Saturday night.

Though I'm not really eager to go back to Opa for dinner, it might be an interesting place to have a drink and a few bites. There were some other attractive cocktails on the menu, and their list of almost exclusively Greek wines, including the pine-scented Retsina, would make for unique drinking. Though it's not Greek, I'd have to say if you're looking for cuisine from that general part of the world, you'd be better off a few blocks southeast at Kanella, where a bit more passion comes through in the cooking.

Opa on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The With Love Beer Garden

The With Love Beer Garden furnished two beer tickets and a food ticket to this reviewer.

In case the throngs of suds-addled folks ambling down the street haven't tipped you off, it's Beer Week here in Philly. The problem I find with Beer Week is that it's all so overwhelming. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a place to take your mind off all this stress, a place where you could, well, relax and have a beer?

Thankfully, there is such a place now, and it's in the courtyard of just about the swankiest hotel in town, the Four Seasons. Nestled between the hotel and an office building just off of 18th Street, the With Love Beer Garden is a welcoming spot with cold brews, hot food, live music, and a friendly vibe. I had the chance to stop by on opening day to check it out.

A most pleasant scene

First things first: the beer. Monday's featured brewer was Victory. To be honest, their very hoppy, sometimes very alcoholic beers are not always to my taste, but luckily their lighter Summer Love Ale was available. Though it still packed a flavorful punch, it didn't overwhelm with too much alcohol or hoppage, so it was a nice thing to drink on a warm June day. For me, the highlights of the upcoming schedule seem to be Thursday and Friday, when the Garden will play host to Sly Fox and Yards/Stoudt's, respectively.

On the food side of things, there's a nice array of large-snack-size offerings, from a "Philly slider" (featuring a slice of Taylor pork roll) to wings and shrimp tacos. I tried the "Port Richmond Kielbasa", a substantial piece of grilled sausage served on a slightly bready roll with grilled onions and mustard.

Another treat was furnished by one of the fabulous Berley brothers of Franklin Fountain fame - a (local) strawberry ice cream further enriched by the addition of some of the unfermented wort from the Summer Love ale. Maybe it was because I had just had a few of the Summer Loves myself, but I didn't taste much beery flavor in the ice cream, though I will say it was delicious nonetheless (and free!).

Oh, and what's this? An appearance by the star of Beer Week, the Hammer of Glory itself. Some people posed for photos with it, but I didn't feel right disturbing it. Shhh!

So cute! ^_^

If you're in the area, the weather is cooperative, and you're looking for a relaxing place to enjoy an al fresco bite and a brew, check out the With Love Beer Garden. You can tell everyone you dined at the Four Seasons, but without the expense or the embarrassment when the waiter informs you that wings are not on the Fountain's regular menu, and could you please put away that beer cozy.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Cheese Experiment

UPDATE: Unfortunately, we're not going to be able to make it. But you should still go and check out the event and have a cheesy good time.

Attention, fans: we will be participating in this Sunday's Philadelphia edition of the Food Experiments. The theme is cheese, and we have been hard at work in the I'll Eat You kitchens trying to perfect our highly experimental recipe, which attempts to violate the Principles of Science Themselves. Will we taste the creamy yet sharp tang of victory, or will we wallow in the rubbery, bland Velveeta of defeat? Come on down to the World Cafe Live at noon and find out!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Adventures in Suspiciously Cheap Meat

Yes, we will freely admit it: we shop at Aldi.

Not for everything, but it's a great place to get a very good price on many staple items (like butter, eggs, tomato paste, and some decent oranges). For those who haven't been, Aldi is a deep-discount grocery store with no shelves and scarcely any cashiers. Pretty much everything is a store brand, only cash and debit cards are accepted, and you have to deposit a quarter to release a shopping cart. But, if dispensing with many of the niceties of other supermarkets means 37¢ yogurts and butter for $2.69 a pound, we'll live with it. We do have standards though, of course, and we try to steer clear of their heavily processed, corn-syrup-addled prepared foods, and we wouldn't really buy meat from there.


There is an item at Aldi so ridiculously cheap, so vexingly mis-priced, that I couldn't resist its allure anymore. It's the $1.79 bacon-wrapped filet mignon.

Individually sealed for your protection, this cylinder of bargain beef is augmented with a "solution" that I suppose is meant to lend a little extra flavor to the steak, though I suspect its presence has at least something to do with getting the weight of each package up to the billed five ounces.

Mmm, solution

I made sure to pat it dry before throwing it in a hot grill pan.

Fifteen minutes or so later, the bacon was reasonably cooked and the filet was a touch below medium rare. Doesn't look so bad, does it?

The parsley classes it up

With no small amount of apprehension, I dug in. Based on my dining evidence, here are my hypotheses on why this piece of steak cost so little:
  1. God only knows where it came from.
  2. "Solution."
  3. Though cunningly connived into a filet-like shape thanks to the bacon, my piece (at least) was not a solid cut of tenderloin, but rather two split pieces of tip or end that were bound together. At least I can be thankful they didn't use meat glue to hold it together.
It's two steaks in one!

So how did it taste? Well, the bacon wasn't bad. Baking rather than grill-panning would have crisped it up a bit more. The flavor of the meat, though, I can only describe as "bologna-like". This is no doubt attributable to the overzealous flavor stylings of the Solution: all the spice, while being pleasant enough in the "tasty food" sense, obscured the "delicious beef" flavor that a good steak has. And given the likely provenance of this beef, I'm not sure how much of that flavor would have been there to begin with.

While my curiosity was certainly satisfied by finally trying this item, I can't say that my desire for big steak flavor was. But at $1.79, cheaper per serving than, well, pretty much any other meat I can think of, it presents an interesting monetary value proposition.

Still, I think I'd have to pass on trying this again. If I want a steak, number one I'm not getting a filet, and number two I'm not going to mess around. Aside from the questionable taste, the ethical ramifications of meat this cheap make me a little queasy. So, my curiosity satisfied, I will leave the Cattlemen's Ranch in the refrigerator case and use all the money I save buying everything else at Aldi to save up for a real decent steak every now and then.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: The Farmer's Cabinet

Wood, barrels, slate, candles, more wood, jars, stuffed animal heads, benches. Darkness. Walking into The Farmer's Cabinet is almost like entering some kind of pre-industrial dining hall. You check your wallet and find only credit cards – will they even accept these, or are they expecting me to pay for my meal via bartering a gaggle of geese or a fine pelt or two?

For all its rustic charm, the Cabinet is modern in one way: with a beer list that is seriously impressive, verging on baffling. I honestly don't know how many drafts and bottles they have available, but I do know that I have maybe heard of about one in 20 of them before. Lots of beers from Italy, from Denmark, from countries you didn't even know made beer – where and how do they even get it? So if you're into beer, study the menu hard before you come, or have faith in either the recommendations of your server or Lady Luck that you'll find suds that tickle your fancy.

On our visit, seated at the long communal table that dominates the main dining area, we had a Scottish ale called Cock of the Walk (the current firkin offering) while contemplating our dining choices. Very similar to a Jose Garces restaurant, the Cabinet's menu is broken down into traditional appetizers/small plates, shared apps "for the table", some salads, cheeses and charcuterie, traditional mains, and some family-style options. Though there are a few veggie options among the main dishes, meat, and especially game, dominates the menu.

First, we had the fried sweetbreads with tuna crudo and caper aioli, a dish that evoked some sort of mayonnaise-sauced tuna sushi roll once you got past the tasty, tender fried sweetbreads. A somewhat exotic combination that worked well, although it probably didn't need the huge volume of aioli that streaked the plate. A cheese fondue was creamy and delicious, with a slight bitter edge.

The house-made charcuterie was hit-and-miss. The duck ham was pretty magnificent, supple and smokey, but the "lamb prosciutto" was rather more salty and gamey than I would have liked, and it was served not thinly sliced but practically hacked into chunky slabs.

Although they were planning on trying some of the sandwiches, our dining companions could not resist the "what's he having?" lure of the Flintstones-sized buffalo short rib that was set down at the party next to us, so they both ordered it as their mains. Topped with shredded horseradish and set on a copious mound of sunchoke puree, the meat was somewhat unremarkable in flavor, but one of our servers was good enough to wrap up the spent bones for our friends to take home to their dog.

I had the rabbit, which was served two ways: braised (giant) leg portions served over a Greek yogurt-enriched polenta with cherries, and a spice-rubbed loin served over a white chocolate and carrot puree. Though the leg meat was ample and tasty, the dish was not without its flaws: the loin was a bit tough; the carrot/white chocolate sauce was a bit too sweet; and the whole dish really could have been served hotter. Lauren's skate entree had similarly disappointing elements, with the floury taste of the dredging standing out too much against the flavor of the fish, and the green tomato "frites" not having a great deal of flavor.

Desserts were pretty decent: the highlight of the apple crisp was the home-made ice cream served on top of it (they thoughtfully brought more of it out beyond the original small amount that came with the giant crisp), and spiked cherries and chantilly cream lightened up a whiskey sour cake. Service was very capable and not at all rushed despite a packed house.

The Farmer's Cabinet is no doubt a welcome addition to Walnut Street, particularly when it comes to the drinking scene (I didn't even get into the cocktails), but my impression is that food-wise, the main courses don't offer anything worth coming back for. I'd love to make this a regular place for some interesting beer and perhaps a few apps, but the entrees seem to be a case of the executions not living up to the concepts. I would almost like to see the purees and sauces and smashes toned down a bit, perhaps honoring the rustic conceit more by really developing flavors in the source ingredients and making them shine more on their own.

Farmers' Cabinet on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Upside-Down Spinach and Feta Quiche with Potato Crust

Hot on the heels of Mother's Day last week, we had another brunch this Sunday to celebrate my mom's graduation from Penn. To make things a little easier on ourselves, we went with a quiche-heavy menu so that things could be prepared in advance ... but we didn't want to have our guests succumb to Pie Crust fatigue, so we came up with this alterna-tart using a Yukon Gold potato crust. For extra presentation points, we served it upside-down, almost like a stuffed version of Potatoes Anna.

It seemed to go over quite well, and the only difficult part about it is the mandoline-ing and arranging of the potatoes. I think next time, baking it a little less would result in a slightly more attractive dish, but the flavor was very nice. Here's how we made it:

2 large Yukon Gold potatoes
1 lb baby spinach, or perhaps a bag of frozen spinach
4 eggs
4 oz. feta cheese, crumbled
Cayenne pepper

If using fresh spinach, blanch the spinach in batches in salted water, shocking in an ice-water bath. If using frozen spinach, prepare per package directions. Either way, drain spinach very well by wringing in a towel. You may need to roughly chop the fresh spinach at this point.

Preheat oven to 375°. In the meantime, boil the potatoes for about ten minutes - they should still be firm, but with a bit of give on the outside. Allow to cool and then peel. Using a mandoline, or a knife and nerves of steel, cut very thin slices of the potato (cross-wise).

Lightly brush the inside of a pie plate with olive or vegetable oil. Starting from the center, arrange the slices of potato in an expanding spiral, overlapping them as necessary, and work them all the way up the sides of the plate. It should look something like this:

When complete, lightly brush the inside of the crust with oil, and place in the oven for about 15 minutes.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling by beating the four eggs and mixing with the crumbled feta. Add spices to taste and season with pepper and a little bit of salt (remember that the feta will be salty).

Remove the crust from the oven and scatter the spinach across the bottom. Top with the egg/feta mixture, then create the top crust by gently laying the remaining potato slices on top of the filling in a similar overlapping spiral pattern.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until potatoes are golden brown and filling has puffed up. Make sure the crust is free from the sides of the pan, then cover the pie plate with your serving plate, say a prayer, invert and serve.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Mother's Day 2011

Time for Mother's Day again, always the premier event on our culinary calendar. Here is what we whipped up this year:

Corn soup, shrimp/scallop mousse

We did a plated first course this time. The broth in the corn soup was made with the corn cobs, some lemon peel and a chunk of Locatelli. The seafood mousse was wrapped in plastic and steamed. The little pink things are hibiscus-infused jicama, which was probably unnecessary.

Speck and asparagus Benedict on brioche

This picture is not of the prettiest specimen, but the egg was an attempt at an onsen egg done in the rice cooker. I put the eggs (in shell) in the cooker, covered with water, then switched it on until the temperature reached about 65° C. Popped the cooker to "keep warm" mode and watched it for about an hour. The asparagus was mandolined; the original plan was to sort of basket-weave it with the speck but that proved too torturous and it was likely that the asparagus would make the speck soggy. The brioche rounds were griddled for some extra flavor and texture. Not pictured: the Hollandaise.

Fingerling potato and caramelized leek hash

Nothing fancy here; the leeks were caramelized beforehand in the Crock Pot. Served with smoked paprika sour cream (not pictured).

Also not pictured, some mixed exotic mushrooms roasted in truffle and porcini oil.

Slow-roasted carrots, parsnips, fennel

Again, pretty simple here. The vegetables were tossed in a dressing of coarse mustard, Armagnac, agave syrup and olive oil before roasting.

Mixed berry tart

A classic fruit tart with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries over vanilla bean pastry cream.

Hope all you moms out there had a great day! If anyone is interested in more preparation details, holler in the comments!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Flavors of the Avenue Sneak Peek

As mentioned before, Passyunk Avenue is a happenin' place these days. As so often happens when a neighborhood changes, there is a certain sense of sadness at the loss of some of the old traditional businesses that were on the strip, but the good news is that East Passyunk still maintains a lot of its old flavor from when I was a kid: if you're after religious articles, a nice wedge of Provolone, or just a really gaudy Communion dress, you can still find them there. But now you can also find awesome gelato, sushi, and one of the better BYOs in the city (Fond).

To draw attention to and celebrate the Passyunk Avenue dining scene, the Flavors of the Avenue festival was created, and it's being held on Saturday, April 30 this year. We were lucky enough to attend a sneak preview event at Urban Jungle, and among the houseplants and gardening supplies, we made some culinary discoveries that suggest that Flavors promises to be a delicious affair.

Some standouts included Fond's spring pea soup and delicious toasted-coconut-topped chocolate brownie squares; Salt and Pepper's beet salad with pineapple; penne with gorgonzola sauce from Mamma Maria; sneakily spicy tasso panini from Plenty; and a walnut-studded tzatziki from Albanian newcomer Mondial Cafe. Other restaurants participating in Flavors include Paradiso, Izumi, Le Virtu, Tre Scalini and Green Eggs Cafe.

For $30, which includes wine and beer, it would be a great way to spend a spring afternoon (if we didn't already have tons of other stuff going on that weekend!). Go check it out and see how the Avenue has changed over the past few years. But remember, it's still pronounced "pash-SHUNK".

Monday, March 28, 2011

Walk Against Hunger with I'll Eat You (Again)

The Walk Against Hunger is once again approaching! Please join us in supporting our area food banks by making a donation, or better yet, come walk with us on Saturday, April 9. It's a very pleasant stroll, and, I can't promise anything, but last year there were free bananas! Thanks for your support!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cauliflower and Chickpeas with Spiced Coconut Dressing and Candied Pistachios

When tasked with coming up with something to bring to a vegan Purim party, my thoughts went immediately to the partial can of coconut milk sitting in the fridge. It enabled a vegan re-imagining of a cauliflower and chickpea salad with yogurt dressing we sometimes make, an idea more or less stolen from one we had at Royal Tavern. The coconut milk inspired a much more Indian take on the dish, and I think the results were pretty tasty.

When it comes to Indian flavors, I sometimes feel like I know the words, but not the music: I know the spices and the basics of toasting them in oil to bring out their flavors, but I don't have confidence in my ability to make a cohesive dish whose flavors really ring true. Luckily this salad exhibited some nice depth of flavor from the spices, richness and body from the coconut, and a spicy kick from the chili, so even if it wasn't authentic, it was enjoyable. Some spiced candied pistachios, included on Lauren's suggestion, provided textural contrast and a slightly sweet counterpoint to the vegetables. Like the best vegetarian and vegan food, you never get the sensation that anything is missing, because it's a dish that lets its ingredients express themselves on their own terms. Here's how to make it:

For the vegetables:
1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets, rinsed and drained
1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
garam masala
ground cumin
kosher salt
vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350°. Place the prepared cauliflower in a large bowl, add about a tablespoon of oil, a generous pinch of salt, and a teaspoon or so of garam masala and toss to coat and combine. Spread the cauliflower out on a cookie sheet, in a single layer if possible, and roast in the oven until the cauliflower is tender, but not browned, stirring occasionally for about 20-25 minutes.

Take the cauliflower out and turn the oven up to 400°. Toss the chickpeas with a touch of oil, a sprinkle of salt, and generous shakes of the cumin and paprika. Spread on a cookie sheet and roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until the chickpeas are almost crisp on the outside, maybe 10-15 minutes.

In the meantime, make the "dressing":
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp whole black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
8-12 cardamom pods, gently crushed
1/2 tsp ground red chili, or to taste
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp ground dried ginger, or 1 tsp minced fresh ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 can coconut milk, or however much you have lying around
juice of 1/2 lemon

In a pan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the mustard seeds, cumin, cardamom and chili. Toast the spices, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 2-3 minutes. Add the onion, ginger and turmeric, reduce heat to low and cook until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil, then simmer and reduce until fairly thick, about 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice after cooking is complete. Remove the cardamom pods if you can, lest they get confused with pistachios once the whole dish is put together.

And while the dressing is reducing, you can make the pistachios:
1/3 C pistachios (shelled)
2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground cayenne
1/2 tsp ground cumin

Heat all ingredients together in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. As the sugar melts, toss the pan's contents around with a spatula to coat. Let cool and break apart any pistachios that have stuck together.

To serve, mix the cauliflower, chickpeas, and dressing in a bowl. Adjust seasoning to taste, then top with the pistachios and a chopped handful of cilantro. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's Alive! Sourdough Starter

You know, at this point in human history, we can travel hundreds of miles in an hour and carry gigabytes upon gigabytes of information in our pockets, but there are few things that really feel like "magic". Old-fashioned film photography was one: dipping a piece of paper in some nasty-smelling chemicals and an image suddenly appearing – that was like magic.

I humbly submit sourdough starter as another modern miracle. Well, not so much modern, because it's thousands of years old, but the idea that by simply mixing flour with water and letting it sit around a while, you can develop your own little ecosystem, teeming with life, all in a delicate balance that's ready to leaven and flavor your bread ... there's something wonderful and mysterious about that. Even if you understand the underlying microbiology, it's still amazing to see a seemingly inert mixture of ingredients spring to life before your eyes.

Making it is simple – I followed the directions in the Tartine Bread cookbook. Equal parts of whole wheat and bread flour are mixed to create a reserve of starter food. Some of this blend is then mixed with an equal part of water to make a thick batter, covered with a towel, and allowed to sit at room temperature for two to three days. The wild yeast and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on your hands will then start to munch on the flour and multiply, creating carbon dioxide bubbles and a host of funky smells that will eventually contribute lactic (sour milk-like) and acetic (vinegary) bites to the finished dough.

It might have been due to the low temperature in our kitchen, but it took a little longer than the prescribed two to three days to see much action on the starter. But by day four, it was bubbly and starting to smell pretty weird (which is good). I did have a problem with the water separating out from the flour, but quick stir remedied that and it didn't seem any worse for the wear.

Once you've gotten your starter started, you need to feed it regularly by discarding about 80% of it and then adding more water/flour mixture to make up the difference. As the day goes on, the fresh grains will fall victim to your teeming hordes of microorganisms and keep the process going. From what they say in the book, the starter is pretty hardy, so you can feed it on an every-other-day schedule (or less) ... you don't have to worry about arranging a sitter if you go out of town, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend packing it in your luggage to tend to while you're away.

Now that it's been about two weeks, it's time to try making some bread with this. Tartine Bread's recipe is many, many pages long, and I don't anticipate getting it right on the first try, but in any case it'll be neat to see how the special magic in the starter makes the bread unique. Check back soon!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Recipe Remix: Whole-Orange Bundt with Chocolate Ganache

Knowing my fondness for the nigh-unbeatable combination of chocolate and orange, for my birthday, Lauren made me this cake from Always Order Dessert. The hook with this recipe is that it uses two pureed oranges, peel, pith and all. The resulting cake had great flavor, but it was D-E-N-S-E ... almost like a pound cake, but with an even tighter structure and less "give" when your fork tries to go through it. This needed to be addressed.

So, I convened a blue-ribbon panel of leading food scientists, and an additional advisory commission consisting of various luminaries of the liberal arts, information technology, maritime law, and ladies haberdashery. After two weeks, they had failed to so much as decide on sparkling or still water for the boardroom table. Disappointed, but with newfound resolve, I set off to muck about with the recipe myself.

The adjustments: Less butter. Replacing a bit of the flour with cornstarch (thanks, King Arthur). Baking soda rather than baking powder. Mixing the batter with the cake method.

The result was a cake that was indeed much lighter, but maybe a bit TOO light. It wasn't threatening to float away anytime soon, but it was missing some of the appealing denseness of the original. Also, to me at least, it had an unfortunate baking soda-y aftertaste, maybe because I swapped the soda for powder at a 1:1 ratio. So presented below is a compromise that should produce a cake that is neither doorstoppish or antacidy.

2 whole oranges (seedless please; this time I used one navel and one blood orange)
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350° and spray/flour/Baker's Joy a Bundt pan.

With a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar together on medium speed. While that's going, cut oranges into manageable chunks (remember, don't peel them!) and puree in a food processor or blender. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking soda and salt.

After the butter and sugar are creamed nicely, add the eggs and vanilla. Switch mixer to low speed, then add one third of the flour mixture, then half of the orange puree, the second third of the flour, the other half of the puree, and finally the rest of the flour, pausing between each addition to allow everything to incorporate. Turn off the mixer and give the batter a final few folds with your spatula, then put the batter in the pan and pop in the oven. Depending on your oven, check for doneness around 45 minutes, though it may take up to an hour to bake. Cool in pan for 15 minutes or so, then invert onto a wire rack.

14 oz chopped chocolate, the darker the better
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp orange extract (optional)

Heat the cream in a saucepan until almost boiling, then pour over chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Allow to cool for 10 minutes or so, then pour over cake to glaze.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'll Scoop You: Indian Restaurant Open

Well here we are "reporting" again, but we just took a little walk on the 1600 block of South Street and noticed that the new Indian restaurant, called Indian Restaurant, is having its grand opening this evening. This spot at 1634 South is run by the good people from King of Tandoor up on Callowhill Street, and from initial impressions it looks like the menu and decor are very much in line with the other location. An exciting addition to the neighborhood to be sure, as we're fans of the original, and we were really pushing the boundaries of their delivery area when we've ordered from them in the past.

I'm wondering if the place being called Indian Restaurant is in some way SEO-related, so that when people Google "indian restaurant philadelphia" they're at the top of the list?

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Free Meal Report: Beck's Cajun Cafe

Disclosure: I'll Eat You dined at Beck's compliments of the chef/owner.

Maybe it was all the hours of watching the likes of Justin Wilson and Emeril when I was growing up, but I've always had a thing for New Orleans cuisine, so I was excited to have the opportunity to sample Chef Bill Beck's spin on the Cajun and Creole genres at his stall in the Reading Terminal. A native New Yorker (but we'll forgive him for that), Beck has been in Philly for the past twenty-plus years, but he drew his first culinary inspiration from the Big Easy. After putting in stints at the old Pompano Grille and catering for events like the Jambalaya Jam, he opened his spot in the Terminal over a year ago and is now finding great success with bringing NOLA cuisine to the Philly lunchtime crowd.

Beck's menu covers many of the New Orleans favorites like jambalaya, gumbo, muffalettas, red beans and rice, and po' boys. Many of the ingredients (like the alligator sausage and catfish) are imported from New Orleans and picked up at the airport by Bill himself, and everything's made from scratch right there in the market stall. You'll also find Zapp's potato chips, Community Coffee, and Abita Root Beer (sorry, no Turbo Dog).

Being a big fan of the sandwich, I had to try the oyster po' boy. There are two areas where Beck's rendition breaks with tradition: the roll is a chewy, dense French number from LeBus rather than the more typical baguette-like bread, and the oysters are breaded with panko instead of corn meal. Though I'm more a fan of the lighter touch in both of these areas, the sandwich was enjoyable, with great oyster flavor. (Bill says the denser rolls survive the day better than baguettes, which went stale quickly in testing, and that the panko-crusted oysters stay crunchy better when confronted with the lettuce, tomato, pickle and Creole mayo on the po' boy.)

The Train Wreck (photo courtesy Beck's Cajun Cafe)

The other sandwich I tried is decidedly not traditional: the Train Wreck, which I would describe as Beck's entry in the ongoing crazy-sandwich arms race. In a clear expression of Philly-meets-New Orleans, the Wreck is basically a cheesesteak with the addition of chopped-up andouille sausage and salami, served on the same French bread as the other po' boys. Though I would be hard-pressed to consume an entire one without clearing my schedule for a nap afterwards, the fact is that it is delicious, and the smoke and spice of the andouille and salami bring a new level of complexity to the Philly classic.

Bill was kind enough to send me home with a sample of the alligator gumbo to try later. Served over white rice, it's a bit on the thick side, but nicely spiced and deep in flavor. I'm going to have to make a return visit to try out the jambalaya and étoufée some time.

I also tried out a little bit of the bread pudding. Beck started with a recipe from the famed Commander's Palace and then tweaked it for several rounds, adding apples, raisins, and topping it with a very pronounced whiskey sauce. Despite all the cream, it's quite light and worth at least a sample. There are also beignets on Wednesday and Sunday, which I'll have to go back and try as well.

As if that weren't enough, Beck's also offers a variety of spice blends, and he sent me home with his Angel Dust and Devil Dust. A sprinkle of some of the finely-milled Devil Dust on some portobello burgers lent them a nice kick, and I'm looking forward to try the subtler Angel Dust on something. (Bill kindly requests that you refrain from saying "bam" when using these seasonings.)

I think the Train Wreck is a must-try for "extreme" sandwich fans and cheesesteak fiends, and if you've been looking for a place to get some alligator, well, now you know where to find it. Overall, Beck's is a welcome addition to the Terminal, and a pretty quick and authentic way to acquaint yourself with New Orleans flavors if they're new to you.

Beck's Cajun Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace

For those who don't know, the "Bobby" in Bobby's Burger Palace is none other than the chipotle-slinging, omnipresent darling of the Food Network, Bobby Flay, who makes Philly a legitimate three-Iron Chef town. Of course Bobby himself wasn't there for our visit, much to the dismay of my visiting mother-in-law, who also mused whether Bobby would show up to challenge himself to a Throwdown. The metaphysical ramifications of such an event would be truly staggering, but it's all beside the point if the guy doesn't put out a good burger. So, does he?

BBP is located on what's becoming a Penn Kid Restaurant Row, on the same block of Walnut Street as the likes of Capo Giro, City Tap House, and Hummus. The interior is very sleek and modern, with a thick multicolored-stripe theme throughout, and a broken-up, undulating counter that takes up the full depth of the restaurant. You'll get in line to order, have your order confirmed back to you (with a graphic description of what the various levels of doneness mean; no doubt a safeguard against tort-happy law students in the area looking for a quick buck), and then get a little numbered placard and put it at your seat. This is a pretty nice compromise between a traditional fast-food model and true table service.

The menu is pretty simple; burgers with various themes, available in beef, turkey, or chicken-breast-sandwich varieties. The Cuban, dressed up like a Cuban sandwich with ham and pickle and then pressed, sounded intriguing, but I was won over by the sound of the Burger of the Month, the "Louisiana Burger", with a blackened-style crust, tasso ham and remoulade. Any burger can also be "crunchified" with the addition of potato chips on top of the burger for no additional charge.

I think the end product is decent, if not spectacular. It seems like good-quality ground beef is used, and the soft, sesame seed-coated bun is a wise choice in that it's innocuous enough not to overwhelm its contents. The crust on the Louisiana burger was quite tasty, even if the burger's presentation was slightly unappetizing (with the top of the bun half-off, revealing the sloppy muddle of remoulade, ham and hot sauce underneath). The patty itself is juicy, but not terribly thick.

The "crunchburger", a standard patty topped with double American cheese and potato chips, is a good concept, but the laws of osmosis mean that your crunch isn't going to stay crunchy for long ... which is especially problematic when your burgers are sitting at the window waiting to be picked up for several minutes, as ours were. This might also be to blame for the fact that they arrived overcooked – our medium-rare orders turned out medium-well, with not a blush of pinkness in sight.

The fries are another mixed bag: they're available in standard and sweet potato varieties, and they're quite pleasant to eat given that they're not overly greasy, but they're also not too big on flavor. I was wondering why, until I looked at the bottom of the fries' cup and found a good bit of loose, coarse salt. I think coarse salt on fries is a non-starter to begin with because it tends not to stick the way you want it to, but the total lack of salt adhesion leads me to suspect that our fries weren't salted while fresh out of the fryer.

Still, for $7.50 a burger, it's not all that bad. I would liken the quality more to an upscale fast-food burger experience than something like a good gastropub burger. The sane portion size and non-greasy fries also means there's less post-lunch regret than you would get from a more hard-core burger.

If you're in the neighborhood and after a burger, it's worth a shot to try the place out, but I wouldn't see myself making a special trip. The concepts and flavors are good, but the execution is certainly not Iron Chef-worthy.

Bobby's Burger Palace on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review: JG Domestic

This is important, so I don't want to wait until later to say it: the front leg of rabbit at JG Domestic is easily one of the top three delicious things I've eaten in the past year. I'm not even entirely sure how it was prepared; it was almost like a confit, but not at all fatty, and it had the most sublimely, delicately crispy crust on the outside of each piece. Sharing a plate with a tiny rack of rabbit, some loin, and nicely braised back legs, it did justice to ol' Thumper.

And respect for ingredients is the organizing theme behind Garces's latest joint. You're hit over the head with it a little bit, from the farmstand-blackboard theme of the walls, to the page behind the menu telling you where seemingly every ingredient comes from, but it's in the well-edited concepts behind the dishes that you can sense the desire to get out of the way and really let the ingredients do the talking.

The wood-heavy, vegetation-surrounded space of JG Domestic is a vast improvement over the "I'm-sitting-in-the-lobby-of-an-office-building" ambience of Rae, the Cira Centre's former first floor restaurant tenant. The front space is welcoming and lively, though on this Valentine's weekend Sunday, we found ourselves seated in the somewhat more secluded and boring back room.

If you've eaten at any of Garces's other restaurants, the menu at JG will be no surprise: there are no explicitly-defined appetizers and mains; just an array of items to choose from, which get coursed out depending on what and how you order. There's also a $65 tasting menu, and on this night, a special passionfruit-themed Iron Chef tasting (based on dishes from Garces's recent televised annihilation of Michael Solomonov). The IC tasting was tempting, but it meant all three of us would have to get it, and there were too many appealing items on the menu to pass up ordering a la carte.

Aside from the rabbit mentioned above, there were a few other standouts. The lobster "cappuccino" was a rich and smooth soup, containing a butternut squash "dumpling" (more like a ravioli), but with a sage-y flavor that was almost reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing. A very simple sauteed black kale dotted with melon-ball-sized spheres of kabocha squash made for a lovely vegetable combination. Anyone who's had the setas at Amada knows that Garces has a way with a mushroom, and the maitakes were no exception: the brandy cream they were topped with really set off their earthy flavor, and the rich corny taste and texture of the polenta they were served with was very satisfying. We also tried the crosnes, which we had never even heard of before; they are a tiny seashell-looking, crunchy tuber, here served with potato dumplings and artichoke.

And the rabbit. Yes, the rabbit ... just dynamite. Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil were wholly justified in their pursuit of Bugs if he could be made to taste so delicious.

There were a few things that I felt came up a little short. The popcorn topped with cheddar and fresh grated horseradish was a bit greasy, and not in a flavorfully redeeming way like Royal Tavern's truffle and Parmesan popcorn. Though it was hard to resist, the cheese fondue was missing tanginess to offset its creaminess, and the breadsticks that came along with it lacked complexity. Finally, the chicken, roasted and served with cipollini, carrots and a pan gravy, fell a little short in the flavor and crispy-skin departments.

Desserts were very good: the beignets captured the spirit of Cafe du Monde's heavenly fried dough pillows, though with a great deal less powdered sugar to get on your shirt. They came with a very Bourbony dipping sauce that almost begged to be drunk as a shot. The golden crown of the maple soufflé was punctured tableside, allowing for the addition of nocello ice cream and crème anglaise, which all melted together into a concoction that was light, creamy, and not too sweet.

JG Domestic won me over for good when they presented us with some post-dessert treats: "hot chocolate" squares of dark chocolate and marshmallow, which were fine, but then my absolute favorite: pâte de fruit! Blood orange pâte de fruit!

I don't know why, but these sugar-coated morsels brought a dumb smile to my face. Maybe it's the simplicity behind it: taking a delicious flavor from nature, and concentrating it, refining it, recontextualizing it into a magnified expression of itself. From his other restaurants, we know that Garces has the technical chops to pull it off, but now freed from any constraints of cuisine or nationality, there's a new sense of purity that shines through. It's not perfect, but it's definitely on the right track.

JG Domestic on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'll Drink You (Finally): Regulus Brown Ale

Every time I walk down the street these days, this is all I hear: "Hey! You're the guy from 'I'll Eat That', aren't you? What's the deal with your beer? It's been months since you wrote about it and there haven't been any updates! I hate you." For God's sake, settle down. The beer came out just fine.

I chose the name Regulus because of its Christmasy association: Regulus was (supposedly) the star that the Three Wise Men followed on their way to Bethlehem. I liked this idea of seeking out and following the light, a way to elevate the spirit in the midst of the winter doldrums. Plus, as Lauren was quick to point out, there's a character in Harry Potter by that name. (Come to think of it, I should have called this Regulus Brown, just to play off of that some more.) Here's the label:

I was pleased with how the beer itself ended up. The level of hoppiness was nice, there was a faint touch of residual sweetness, and the spices I added towards the end of the boil (cinnamon and fenugreek) provided a sense of mystery without being overpowering. It also leaves behind some nice lacing as it's being drunk from your glass.

So this was a success, and my friends and family were happy with the bottles I gave away as gifts. If I can remember exactly what I did, I might even brew another batch next year (but I'll probably want to try something different). Next up is an English-style Extra Special Bitter that I just boiled up today, made all the more British by the addition of some Lyle's Golden Syrup. Come back in several months to find out how that goes, should I remember to write about it!