Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Blackbird

Here at I'll Eat You, we (rather generously, I think) acknowledge the right of vegans to exist. And we firmly believe that no person who is dairy-averse, whether through personal conviction or lactose intolerance, should be denied the glories of pizza. That's where Blackbird Pizzeria comes in, and at the urging of my lactose-intolerant and almost-vegan sister, we recently dialed up for some delivery.

As you might expect, our order came via bearded bicycle deliveryman. This affable velocipedist brought us one tomato pie, one pizza that was half "South Philly" (with seitan sausage, broccoli rabe and eggplant) and half "Fungi" (white with mushrooms and garlic butter), and a seitan cheesesteak. The tomato pie was fairly priced at $13, but the other pizzas are in the $17-19 range. This is presumably due to the high cost of the Daiya vegan cheese that is used on the pizzas. Some of the greatest bearded scientific minds of our generation are employed at the Daiya faux-cheesery, where they use cutting-edge technology to coax tapioca starch, various oils and "inactive yeast" into a shredded cheese-like substance that then cunningly pretends to melt atop these vegan pies.

So the cheese isn't real cheese. Not really even close. But, it's inoffensive enough, and I'm happy to report that it doesn't detract from the real star of the Blackbird pizza, which is the crust. Crisp but not crunchy, chewy but not doughy, it's one of the most satisfying crusts I've ever had on a pizza, vegan or otherwise. Brushed with a scrumptious garlic not-butter in the Fungi pizza, you are bound to eat at least one more slice than you intended to.

The tomato pie really let both the crust and bright, slightly sweet sauce shine. There's a real appealing freshness about the sauce.

I waived my usual "no fake meat" policy to try the South Philly – I can't say I was too enamored of the seitan sausage crumbles, but if you're used to that sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy it. Same with the seitan cheesesteak, which really lacked the savoriness of the real deal. But it's clear that there's a real focus on quality ingredients and careful preparation, and that earns my respect.

And now, a word about the boxes. This is something that I'm at least twice as impressed by as I really should be, but the pizza boxes are perforated and scored in such a way as to turn the top of the box into plates, and the bottom of the box into a wedge-shaped container to store your leftover pizza in. The people who were with me will attest to my cries of amazement when I figured these pizza-keeping wedges out. They're not perfect; to be honest they're shaped a little awkwardly and will probably slide out of your refrigerator at least once when you open the door, but it's a pretty clever trick in the "surprise and delight" vein.

So I urge everyone, regardless of dairy orientation, to give the Blackbird a try. I wonder if they can institute a bring-your-own-cheese policy, just so I can have some honest-to-goodness cheese on their magnificent crust ...

Blackbird Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 28, 2011

Review: Philadelphia Chutney Company

Under the guidance of superstar producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the Philadelphia Chutney Company ignited the late-70s soul scene with a string of hits, including "Masala Child" and "(You're My) Mango Lassi (Shake It Up)". Flying high on success, things took a sharp turn when ...

Wait, that's not right.

Philadelphia Chutney Company is actually a quick-serve Indian spot that opened up on Sansom Street between 16th and 17th, formerly home of the Remedy tea bar. As this is just a few blocks from my place of employment, I've been there several times now, and it's become quite popular in my office – even with my Indian co-worker who once resolutely insisted that there were no places to get good Indian food in Philadelphia.

Maybe because this is not your typical korma-and-tikka-masala joint: the main attraction at PCC is the dosa. The texture of this enormous pancake-like disc is somewhere between a crêpe and injera (the Ethiopian flatbread). Like a crêpe, it's thin and flecked with brown, but like injera, it has a bubbly texture, owing to the batter's fermentation (though unlike injera, it's not very chewy). Inside, you can get a wide variety of all-vegetarian fillings, then the whole thing is folded up into a tube that occupies most of the length of the cafeteria-style trays they're served on.

The bulk of the menu is comprised of Western combinations featuring things like goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, and various iterations of fake chicken. But for my money, you gotta stay authentic and go with one of the "masala" combinations. The simple spiced potato filling can be dressed up with various cheeses, and now is also available with a sprinkle of a dry rub-like spice mixture for a little extra kick. I've also tried the smoked paneer, jack, spinach and onion combo, but there was too little paneer to really taste what was going on. Just grab yourself a masala dosa, tear off pieces of the outside, scoop up the delicious filling, dip it in one of the available chutneys, and you're all set.

Also, if you like things spicy, don't miss the sambar. This lentil-based soup is an ideal winter warm-up food, and it's priced at a ridiculously low 93¢ for a good-sized cup. If you're dining with a friend, you might also consider trying an order of the medhu wada, an almost donut-shaped fried lentil cake that's crisp on the outside and surprisingly light on the inside.

Even people who are averse to the usual Indian fare should give this place a try for lunch. It's quick, relatively inexpensive and satisfying. Word is the owners intend to turn this into a mini-franchise with locations at area colleges, so get in on the ground floor of this groundbreaking soul quartet innovative South Asian newcomer.

Philadelphia Chutney Company on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: The Dandelion

In his continuing quest to recreate EPCOT's World Showcase pavilions in Center City, Stephen Starr has opened The Dandelion at 18th and Sansom. Now Parc, his simulacrum of a Parisian brasserie, has a British pub counterpart just a few blocks away – no Chunnel ride required between the two.

I'll confess I've never been to an actual pub in Great Britain, so I can't speak first-hand about the space's authenticity. However, it is a pretty enormous bar and restaurant, all told, spanning what used to be two separate properties (a shoe store and the late and unlamented Mantra/Amalfi space), segmented into I'm not sure how many different rooms, each styled like a cozy parlor in some sprawling mansion. Fireplaces, mounted animal heads, and English-seeming knick-knacks abound, and if you like tightly patterned wallpaper, there's plenty of that too. The place was fairly packed at 7:30 on this blustery Saturday night – you can try to pop in for a drink and a bite, but you're probably better off with a reservation.

The menu covers a lot of pub basics: shepherd's pie, sausages with onion gravy, fish and chips, prawn cocktail. On Sundays (and bank holidays), roasts are available with all the traditional trimmings. A few higher-class items dot the menu, like dressed crab, a chicken and duck liver pâté, and hake meunière. At first glance, this isn't a place where vegetarians are going to have a lot of options (even the macaroni and cheese comes with ham hock included).

We started by sharing the butter lettuce and shaved apple salad, dotted with pomegranate, crumbles of stilton, and some very spicy spiced walnuts. I would have loved to see a little more cheese on it, but on the whole it was well-composed with a sweet and tangy dressing and made for a nice starter.

For our mains, we did "halfsies" on a burger and the fish and chips. I can't say the burger was all that memorable. It was odd: the first bite was deliciously meaty and really let the house-blended ground beef stand out from the horseradish cheddar and sweet pepper relish it shared its bun with. After that, the patty almost seemed to get frightened and hide within its whole-wheat brioche bun.

Believe it or not, the standout on the fish and chips was the tartar sauce. Something in there really accentuated the fishiness of the crisp battered cod (I think it was the capers – and even renowned caper-hater Lauren agreed that the sauce was delicious). Rather than multiple smaller pieces, only one large piece of the fish was served. It was cooked well, if slightly greasy on the outside. The thrice-fried chips were thick-cut, crisp on the outside and yielding inside, and stayed warm throughout the meal in their pre-heated metal cup.

So on the whole, the food was decent, if nothing to really write home about. Now, here's the thing: the Dandelion may be pretty cheerful, but it sure ain't cheap. The burger was $14, which I can deal with, but the fish and chips was a somewhat staggering $21. An imperial (20 oz.) pint of Bombardier bitter was $9. Though as a Yankee I can't speak to what the nature of a true pub should be, the impression I get is that it's a more informal place, like a second living room, and not the kind of place where you should need to give a second fiscal thought before ordering. Maybe the prices were converted to pounds and back again, or maybe it's Starr's policy to charge as much as he thinks he can get away with. I'm not going to argue with his success, and I say more power to him, but on a value-for-money basis alone, I'm reluctant to return anytime soon.

The Dandelion on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review: A Full Plate Cafe

Located on Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties, A Full Plate Cafe is a friendly place for a meal. I ventured out for brunch with a vegan friend and found A Full Plate to have a menu full of options to please us both. The cafe is colorful with chalkboard paint on some walls and pillars so that the decor is ever-evolving. They played funky throwback music which compelled my friend and I to have an impromptu dance party while waiting to order. The menu had several intriguing items including green-tomato benedict, fried green tomatoes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise, a "french onion soup" omelette, and something called a "wafflewich" which someone near us ordered and looked like delicious belgian waffles sandwiching berries and whipped cream. Many non-breakfast items appear to have a bit of a southern twist (chicken and waffles, bbq ribs) and look quite appealing. My friend and I both went for the mexican breakfast pizza, mine with eggs and hers with tofu. We ordered, and we waited. and waited. there was only one other table with customers in the restaurant, so we were a little surprised at how long it took for us to get our food. When it arrived, the eggs/tofu were served on delightfully crisp flour tortillas, mixed with beans, peppers and onions and topped with salsa. Mine also came with cheese and sour cream. I found there to be too much egg, and they were a little too well done for my taste, but the flavors worked well together and the crunch of the tortilla set it off nicely. The tofu scramble was also flavorful, but very heavy on the turmeric, leaving my friend's mouth and lips yellow for a while after lunch. Despite these issues, I would return to A Full Plate, especially when dining with vegetarians. The menu is accommodating enough for everyone to eat without feeling left out, and this option does away with the anxiety of satisfying someone with a restricted diet.

A Full Plate Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 17, 2011

Caramelized Almond Tart

My best pal, Jen, took a vacation from work last fall to take a pastry class – so cool, right? She lives in Oakland, CA, and I was frankly too jealous to remember where she took the class, but she has been posting photo after photo of drool-worthy tarts on her Facebook page ever since. This is one of the recipes from her class, and it is dead easy. You mix sugar, cream, liquor, and nuts, and it goes from a liquidy-state to a caramel in the oven – no worrying about burning yourself making caramel on the stove top. This tart is made with almonds and flavored with amaretto and grand marnier, but it would be neat to mix up the nuts and flavors. Hazelnut and frangelico, anyone? Pecan with spiced rum, perhaps? Be sure to follow the direction to line your baking pan with foil: it WILL boil over and make a messy-mess, and foil makes for easy clean-up.

Caramelized Nut Tart
From Jen

Pate Sable (tart dough):

2 cups flour
2 Tbsp sugar
8 oz (2 sticks) room temperature butter
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. water (add more if needed but I've never needed to)

For the filling:

3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. Grand Marnier
1 Tbsp. Amaretto
1 cup sliced almonds (Trader Joe's has really cheap ones)

Place all the pate sable ingredients into the food processor. Pulse just until dough comes together in a ball. It should be smooth, but don't overmix. Press into 9" tart pan and chill until firm. You will have extra dough to make mini tarts as well. Bake in a 375 degree oven until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove, and patch any cracks. Raise oven temp to 450.

Then make the filling. In a saucepan add the heavy cream and sugar and liqueurs. Warm the mixture until the sugar melts, remove from heat. Then add the almonds. Pour the filling into the par-baked shell. Place on a foil-lined (IMPORTANT, it will spill onto pan and burn without it!) baking pan and bake for 20 minutes. Turn oven down to 400 degrees and bake for another 15. Make sure to rotate every so often so sugar caramelizes evenly to a deep brown.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'll Scoop You: Le Pain Quotidien on Walnut Street opening January 17 [or is it?]

Normally we're not newshounds here at I'll Eat You, but today I stumbled into a scoop. So, Item! The Philadelphia outpost of Le Pain Quotidien, the Belgian chain of ritzy bakeries, is slated to open next Monday, January 17. Pictured above is a pain au raisin that was scored by popping in during the training sessions that are currently happening in the spot on Walnut between Broad and 15th. We found it nice and flaky, with great flavor, though a slightly wetter texture than we would expect out of the iconic pastry. Still, this should be a fine addition to the neighborhood and I look forward to trying out the rest of their menu. Between this and the recently-opened Chipotle down the block, hey, if we're going to have chains in Center City, we might as well have some quality ones.

UPDATE [1/17 8:25 AM]: Looks like we might have gotten punked by the lady we talked to! Walked by just now and the "training in progress" sign is still up. There's still a chance it will open today, but according to Foobooz it could also be later this week.

UPDATE 2 [9:45 AM]: They are indeed open ... and everything is free! Just stopped in to check it out. The space is rustic and inviting, with lots of exposed brick behind the counters, a large main dining area, and a more secluded area off to the side with one large table and a few smaller ones. Scored a pain au chocolat, which had a dynamite texture and structure, even if it was a little sparse on the chocolate. Strangely, no straight almond croissants! Here are some pix:

UPDATE 3 [12:20 PM]: Show's over, Shakespeare ... LPQ has closed its doors for now and it looks like the big giveaway is over.