April 23, 2010

Earth Day Dinner at Square 1682

In our house, between the two of us, we have semi-constant food "battles." While we are twins and agree on almost everything, there are some things that we are continuously trying to convince the other. For J, it's vegetables. Yes, it may sound strange, but as I am the weekly meal planner and grocery shopping list-maker, she is always reminding me to incorporate vegetables into our meals and to add them to my grocery list (our produce bills are fairly outrageous). I also cook the majority of our dinners (although she has been "promoted" to cooking two nights a week) and I am always proud to serve a large quantity of vegetables, as I know it will fit her description of a balanced meal.

I, on the other hand, am continuously bugging her about different special restaurant meals that are always happening around the city. In any given week, there are usually two or three food events going on in Philly, ranging from multi-course meals revolving around a single ingredient (Iron Chef style!), new seasonal menus at any number of restaurants, collaborations between chefs, and fundraising events that feature dozens of foods. These events can get fairly pricey- for example, our Spinal Tapas dinner last week was $50/head and the 5th Annual Great Chefs Event in June- which raises money for Alex's Lemonade Stand and features Marc Vetri- is a whopping $250/ticket! (No, we're not planning on going...).

This week, we found an event that fit BOTH our criteria- veggie-rific AND a special multi-course seasonal menu. As April 22nd marked "Earth Day", a relatively new Philly restaurant located within Hotel Palomar was offering a six-course vegetarian meal to celebrate. Nearby our house and on "Hotel Row", Square 1682 has been on our radar for several months-- an upscale, intimate spot atypical of your normal hotel restaurant. Apparently chefs believe that diners don't want to pay a lot for vegetables, as the entire meal was offered for $40-- a total steal ($6.67 per course? We're in.). As soon as I saw the menu (on several Philly event sites, including Meal Ticket and Uwishunu), I simultaneously emailed J and made reservations (thanks, OpenTable!)

Our adventures to Square 1682 were admittedly very rocky to begin. Our hostess led us upstairs to the main dining room, and had to move our table to allow me to squeeze in to the bench-type seating. The dining room was nowhere near full- why she chose to seat us between two other parties is beyond me. The awkwardness of the seating arrangements was made worse by the fact that our table had a balance problem- something I pointed out to the waiter upon his greeting, but was never attended to (note to servers: a few napkins stuffed under the short leg usually does the trick). The normal dinner menu was already situated on the table, and our waiter made no signs of introducing the special Earth Day menu to us. However, as we had made plans just for this meal, we asked him about it. He seemed surprised, a bit bewildered, and stammered out an "I'll go get the menu for you" excuse. While we didn't really need to see it (I mean, that's why we made the reservations!), it gave him a moment to get with the program. Amusedly, we watched another dining twosome go through the EXACT SAME motions with our waiter just a few minutes later.

Thankfully, the chef was much more on top of his game than our waiter. The first course began as a Terrine of Asparagus and Petite Carrots. When we think terrine, it is definitely with a mind for pig parts and quite a bit of fat, but this dish was completely beyond our comprehension. We are still unsure what the components of this course were, but what we do know is that it was delicious! A small slice of veggie terrine was paired with a mini side salad composed of raw and pickled vegetables. The terrine was wrapped in what I swear was a marinated mushroom (although J never experienced this), and contained a creamy goat cheese, chunks of crispy asparagus and other various items (J pulled out a golden raisin although I didn't recall a single one!). The terrine was placed upon a pureed blend of sauces, which we loved but were again somewhat stumped by- the menu states it was a carrot and cardomom vinaigrette.

The second course was also very interesting, but ended up being our least favorite. A Spring Pea Soup, garnished with "bleeding radishes", cashew butter, and sauteed onion slivers (maybe...?) was served alongside an assortment of bread. While we characteristically like to receive the bread basket at the beginning of the meal, the late arrival was appreciated as it was a good match for the soup. It included a mix of sesame-seed coated crackers, delicious foccacia, and small flour-dusted ciabatta rolls. The soup was lukewarm- a bit surprising to us, as we assumed vegetable soup would be served cold. The flavors reminded J of stir fry and certainly didn't taste of peas. The cashew "butter" was more like small clumps of soggy nuts that fell apart in your mouth. Overall, while the soup wasn't bad, the flavors and textures just didn't meld together well. When our waiter prematurely removed our soup bowls (based on the mistimed arrival of the third course), we weren't particularly disappointed.

Our third plate was described as a "Petite Vegetable Medley," and although this name makes it sound fairly nondescript and boring, it was anything but. The plating was literally a piece of art and I was sad to disrupt it- but as soon as I did, I began to appreciate the dish as food. A thin layer of cream sauce coated the plate (with flavors reminding me of Thanksgiving- perhaps the nutmeg from creamed onions?) with dots of a red wine reduction adding additional sweetness. Baby vegetables were carefully strewn across this sauce: a mix of marinated, raw, and cooked vegetables offered a variety of textures and flavors, from a teeny baby carrot to a miniature zucchini blossom to an infantile raw sliced radish, all topped with curly strands of crispy green bean. To all of you non-vegetable-lovers, this may sound like a nightmare, but we were somewhat obsessed with both the cuteness of the baby plants and the delicious fresh tastes they offered us.

The last "savory" dish was perhaps the heaviest of them all- a mushroom tart that included a good deal of roasted root vegetables. When eating vegetarian (as we do at least 50% of the time), you learn to incorporate root vegetables as a fundamental filler- starchy and satisfying. This dish celebrated the turnip, including a large disc of it in the tart. The outer puff pastry was the perfect encasement for several varieties of mushroom stewed into a thick gravy-like sauce atop the turnip, which itself held a wonderful sour-sweet pickled flavor. The tart also apparently involved Brie (according to the menu), although it must have been lost in the other strong competing flavors. The plate also smelled strongly of earthy truffles, which (thankfully to J, who can't stand the smell or taste) was not apparent to our tastebuds. The tart was accompanied by several other "petite" vegetables, including a yellow beet and an additional chunk of turnip.

One of the reasons I was so drawn to this menu is the inclusion of not one, but TWO delightful desserts. Yes, we love dessert, and usually incorporate it into our diets after ever dinner (and sometimes lunch, and admittedly, occasionally breakfast). The first dessert of the meal was simultaneously light and satisfying- a Lemon Curd Napoleon served with a pomegranate sorbet. As the plates were placed before us, I couldn't help but again comment about the great deal we were getting- this dessert was definitely "full-sized" and I gladly would have paid $8-10 for it at a restaurant of similar calibur. The lemon curd was nestled into a puff pastry sandwich, along with an almond cream piped in with it. In our opinion, if a dessert does not include chocolate or peanut butter, it better be lemon or berry flavored- and the tang of the citrus fruit was perfectly complemented here by the sugar added in the curd, along with the berry reduction sauce and the sorbet.

At this point, our bellies were getting quite full (surprise- vegetables are filling!), and J remarked that the last course had better be small. Thankfully, the chef responded with a final course that was both perfectly portioned and completely flavorful- a half-moon of dark chocolate pate with a mound of coconut custard. Again, we were surprised at the "pate," as to us the word signifies a combination of meats and animal fats- much like terrine! However, the chef must have been anticipating our expectations, as he produced a creamy slice of chocolate, which appeared similar to the pate of our pasts. The texture was quite a bit softer- more like a melting ice cream, and it tasted of rich cocoa, particularly when swiped through the melted chocolate sauce underneath. The pairing with the coconut custard was interesting- they sat separated from one another on the plate and really could have been two different desserts. The custard (described as eggless on the menu- I guess they didn't want to offend the animal-loving vegans, although cheese played a role in two other dishes) had a very gelatinous texture and a faint coconut flavor, enriched by toasted coconut flakes sprinkled on top. These bites were also enhanced by the dark chocolate sauce- I mean, what dessert doesn't taste better covered in chocolate?

As we savored our last bites, we were quickly heading towards a food coma. Our waiter swiftly brought us the bill and allowed us to slip out exclaiming about the food experience we had just had- artfully plated, adventurous, creative food, but with a healthy twist, served in a classy atmosphere- all for a very reasonable price. While we were extremely hesitant about the restaurant at the beginning of the meal- and still believe the service still needs a bit of ironing- we were very happy that the chef decided to take on such a challenge, and that we were able to enjoy it. While we would probably not return to the restaurant for regular dinner service, if they offer a similar meal for a similar price, we will be back in a heartbeat!

Square 1682
121 South 17th Street

April 22, 2010

Iron Chef Does Burgers: Take 2

After postponing our trip to check out Bobby Flay's new Philly establishment, A & I decided to meet midweek after work- on Penn's campus, it was a bit of a hike for me, but I guess A makes the trip every day... We'd heard from several friends that the line can be quite long, so we figured it might be a bit quieter during the last week of undergrad classes. Fortunately, when we arrived at the neon-lit mecca that is Bobby's Burger Palace, the line wasn't out the door as it was on our last encounter. We actually timed the wait which started right at the door and snaked through the entrance area up to the cashier counter- 22 minutes, not TOO terrible.

As we waited, we perused the giant menu on the wall, which isn't all that extensive. Typical "fast-food" options: burgers, grilled cheese, fries, shakes, and drinks. The burger options are actually kind of fun, with plays on Cuban and pulled pork sandwiches. In order to maximize our coverage of the menu, we ordered the Palace Classic Burger as well as a more interesting option.

The setup of the restaurant is a little bit fast food joint, a little bit bistro, and a little bit 50's diner. Very bright lighting and paint colors with curving tables along the kitchen and a couple of long tables with attached seating (no squishing your group together by moving chairs around). You essentially just sit wherever there is an open spot, which didn't seem to be much of a problem as the single cashier system keeps the timing about right. However, there was one guy standing and eating next to his group of friends- obviously more difficult to seat a larger group together.

Almost as soon as we sat down, a friendly server came over with our Vanilla Bean milkshake ($5). Food comes out as it is prepared, so a group's entire order does not arrive simultaneously. The milkshake was on the small side, but it was fine for us to share just to get a taste. I'm a huge fan of anything that claims to contain vanilla beans, and this milkshake was chock full of them, giving it a taste on the "vanilla extract" side of the spectrum. It was very thin, like a cold vanilla milk drink, yet it was still served with a spoon which seemed a little awkward. I thoroughly enjoyed the flavor but I think they could increase the thickness considerably.

Another comment on the food delivery service- the small numbers that you are given at the cashier seemed difficult for servers to see- there was a lot of wandering around and peering over shoulders. I'm not sure how this could be improved but it seemed like a tedious job to do!

The rest of our food arrived at the same time (milkshake appetizer?) and definitely gave us a lot to comment on. A had ordered the Palace Classic ($7.50), no red onion, plus pickles, and Crunchified. This clever (and free) option adds a big pile of regular potato chips (Lay's?) to the sandwich. With this addition, the burger was a good 6 inches tall, held together with a toothpick. As I was snapping the pic, I realized that I couldn't even see the meat. NO meat?? Fortunately it was actually there, hiding under a slice of processed goodness (American cheese) and an abnormally large lettuce leaf. The bun was substantial without being overwhelming and was .completely covered in sesame seeds- literally no uncovered space on the top bun- quite an impressive feat. Thankfully the chips gave way to a good smooshing, but the height still required jaw-pain-inducing bites. Overall the burger was pretty good- the meat flavor held up against all those other toppings, and the crunchy chips were a good textural change to the usually soft meat/bun combo. Well cooked, if not a little more on the medium side than medium-rare (Craig LaBan had words to say about that), the cheese was melty and the toppings fresh. Definitely nowhere near the flavor explosion that is the Village Whiskey burger, but certainly a decent burger.

I opted for the Napa Valley Burger: fresh goat cheese, watercress, and a Meyer Lemon Honey Mustard. I was interested to see how these more "upscale" ingredients would be put into play. When the burger was placed in front of me, I literally started laughing. Expecting at LEAST a small tuft of greens, I instead was confronted with a tiny sprig. I picked it up and popped it in my mouth in one bite- not even worth having on the burger. And it's not like the kitchen was having some kind of Wednesday night watercress shortage- a friend also commented to me about the pathetic quantity of watercress that she encountered. The meat in my burger seemed closer to the medium-rare that I had requested, so perhaps the kitchen is getting more experienced in the meat cooking category (try it again LaBan!). Overall the highlight of the sandwich was the goat cheese- they somehow whipped it up in a fluffy creamy texture- SO GOOD. However, goat cheese has an insanely strong flavor, and I really don't recall any Meyer lemon or even regular mustard flavor coming through from the sauce. Again, besides the (somewhat serious) watercress issue, another solid burger.

We also ordered a side of sweet potato fries ($3). This was probably the only menu item appropriately priced- a large-ish metal canister filled to the brim with firm yet crispy slices of hot sweet potato. These fries managed to maintain their delicious sweet potato taste instead of turning into a grease flavored mush. I liked the cut- sort of a rectangular stick perfect for dipping. And dip we did- we tried all of the sauces that are available in squeeze bottles on all of the tables. The sauce served with the fries was exactly what it was called "horseradish honey mustard". Sounds good, right? Not really. The sweet of the honey mustard was almost cloying alongside the bite of the horseradish. Not a good combo, and not a good addition to the already perfect-all-on-their-own sweet-salty fries. The chipotle ketchup also tasted exactly like you might expect- but nothing special. The "burger sauce" was this dark brown substance that I sort of expected to taste meaty (like Worcestershire?) but was totally disgusting- a gritty molasses flavor mixed with concentrated brown sugar... way too sweet and just.. not good. There was also some sort of jalapeno sauce that had a decent flavor but was just really really thin. We stuck with the normal ketchup and yellow mustard- the Iron Chef REALLY dropped the ball in the sauce category.

The experience was an overall "so-so". It seemed overpriced, crowded with college students yapping about who-really-cares-what, and there were a lot of relatively large oversights in the execution. Service got 4 thumbs up though- everyone was so sweet and eager to please, unlike some fast food places where customer service is meaningless. If I was in the area and in the mood for some goat cheesy fluff covered meat, I might stop by, but otherwise there are better places to spend my money.. and time!

Bobby's Burger Palace
3925 Walnut Street

April 18, 2010

Spinal Tapas: Peruvian Edition

After the mega BBQ indulgence of the last event hosted by Spinal Tapas (some background info found here), A & I kept our eyes peeled (what a disturbing expression) for their next event. About a month ago, they announced the date and we promptly bought tickets ($50 this time, up from $40 for the last event) for the 8 PM seating, which was apparently sold out within 24 hours. This time, the Spinal Tapas crew teamed up with another couple - Brad & Angelique Jennings of Humble and the Rabbit catering- who have recently taken a several week long tour through Peru. Impressed with the cuisine of this area of South America, they were inspired to recreate some of the dishes that they had tasted throughout the different regions of the country. This was the starting point of this Peruvian themed edition of Spinal Tapas. Additionally, Peruvian cuisine has such a wide range of influences (African, Arab, Chinese and Japanese to name a few) and they use a number of ingredients and cooking techniques, all of which contribute to an interesting culinary experience.

I was glad to see that the very cramped Philly Kitchen Share space was used more efficiently this time, with multiple tables that allowed us a little more space than the previous single "cafeteria style" table- a little more "restaurant" and a little less "party". Our tablemates were friendly and surprisingly, none of them were actually from Philly, so it was great to see that the word has really gotten out throughout the region (NJ, Delaware and beyond).

While we waited for everyone to arrive, we munched on a bowl of chips served family style with three different dips highlighting different peppers from Peru. The chips were made from a variety of root vegetables- purple potatoes were the only ones that I could specifically identify, but there were probably some regular potatoes in there as well as something a little bigger (yucca?). The fact that the kitchen has an industrial sized fryer definitely needed to be taken advantage of, and these chips were delicious- very thinly sliced and perfectly crispy with a touch of salt. The sauces each had a unique flavor with a spectrum of colors and heats. It was a great intro to the meal- something crunchy to snack on and initiate the tasting process.

The first dish to come out also featured potatoes, which are apparently an important component of the diets of many hard-working Peruvians living in the more rugged mountainous regions. Called "causa", this popular Peruvian dish is essentially a cold potato puree (using a very yellow potato variety) topped with any number of meats. This was a "surf & turf" version, one with octopus and one with pork. The octopus was grilled, chilled, and then coated in a spicy mayonnaise-y aioli. With a firm texture without a hint of the rubbery-ness you sometimes get with calamari, the octopus was a great complement to the creamy smooth potato. Because I'm not a huge fan of mayonnaise, I would have loved the sauce to be a little lighter to get more of the fresh grilled seafood flavor, but it was still delicious. The other potato blob was topped with a pile of pork shoulder and a mini crunchy onion slaw-like topping. The ST guys have already proved their ability to make a delicious pulled pork, so I was excited to get another little taste of this. However, this version was a lot lighter, as it was of course lacking the tangy BBQ sauce and instead had more of a vinegary peppery taste. Again, a good textural complement to the potato, which reminded me a little of Thanksgiving leftovers (cold mashed potatoes?) Overall a totally new dish that made our mouths very happy and eager to move on to the next course.

Another very popular Peruvian dish is ceviche. Although this style of cooking seafood has been popularized in a variety of cultures, A & I have never been huge fans- partly because we prefer a good cut of fish served raw, partly because the citrus flavor usually tends to be totally overwhelming, and partly because it never turns out to be a good investment (too much $$ for too little enjoyment). The next course was a Chilean Sea Bass ceviche- "cooked" in lime juice and then smothered in one of the initial sauces we tried. However, the lime juice won again- it was the only thing I could taste. The texture of the fish was amazing- a huge meaty chunk that somehow seemed to melt in my mouth. But the lime juice! Not cool. The ceviche was served with a spoonful of a little bean salad with bits of ricotta salata and peppers tossed in a red wine vinaigrette- simple and refreshing.

While we ate, Brian cooked up the next course in big pans on the stove behind us- marinated hearts! Both whole chicken and slices of beef hearts were sauteed up in a little bit of their marinades and then skewered on cute little bamboo sticks and served with a thin herb-y yogurt-y sauce. You might be totally turned off by the idea of eating hearts, and A even was a little disturbed when I bit a chicken heart in half and pointed out the different ventricles and atria (the heart walls were surprisingly thick!). But really, the heart is a muscle. And therefore it is delicious. The two hearts were actually very very different- the beef pieces were sliced up (therefore eliminating any fibrous valves) and were a much darker color with a thicker chewier texture and richer flavor (my preference of the two)- perhaps a tiny bit like beef jerky? The chicken hearts were served whole and seemed a little softer and smoother, a little more like regular chicken (A's preference- she claims the chewiness of the beef just made her think of blood and then she started tasting blood... probably not enjoyable). Definitely the first time we'd tried this "delicacy"- something different and good! The accompanying sauce didn't do much for us- a little on the thin side without a whole lot of flavor to contribute to the juicy meat chunks. A actually used one of the sauces from the chips and it made for a tasty little bite.

Beef (L), chicken (R)

While a seemingly endless number of these were passed around the table, Tim worked on the entree- undoubtedly the highlight of the meal. Using the impressive grill in the kitchen (and testing the competence of the exhaust fans!), he grilled up the most amazing flank steak that I have ever had. Marinated for "at least 48 hours", the meat had beautiful dark grill marks on the outside while still maintaining the perfect amount of red in the middle. Incredibly tender and flavorful, the meat was served with a cherry tomato, yellow bell pepper and onion concoction over fluffy white rice and accompanied by what could only be called "potato puffs". Whipped potatoes rolled into perfect round bites and deep-fried to create a thin, smooth skin around the so-light potato. After I popped the first one in my mouth, my initial response was "I'm going to need 8 more of these!" French fries + mashed potatoes = delightful. The whole mess was topped with a spoonful of herbed butter and some Thai basil- a great flavor addition for the rice at the bottom. With so many amazing components, the dish came together perfectly in every category of flavor, texture, and presentation.

When I didn't think I could be any more impressed, dessert was served. Angelique was responsible for this dish, and her cooking skills did not disappoint. A thin slice of the richest densest chocolate cake you can imagine with the perfect hint of coffee- it was one of those things where one bite had your eyes rolling back in your head. It was served with a scoop of homemade passion fruit ice cream- so creamy, not too sweet, an exotic jungle-y fruit flavor... also so good. A & I kept taking a bite of one and then the other, we couldn't decide which one was better (what do you save for your last bite?!?!)- the thickness of the cake was cut by the cool melty-ness of the ice cream and the flavors really worked so well together.

Although there is really no way I can compare this with the last ST event, one good thing was the fact that I didn't have to roll myself home. The flavors and ingredients were top notch and not intended for mass consumption. Last time I was struggling to make room for the last couple courses which is not the funnest thing in the world and possibly detracted from overall enjoyment. This event was the perfect amount of food- not too much, but we both felt perfectly satisfied as we left.

The next event has already been scheduled and unfortunately is on a Friday in the midst of our month of craziness at school, but if you live in Philly, definitely keep the Philly Kitchen Share website on your "frequently checked" list to sign up when they open it up for tickets!

April 17, 2010

Food Reincarnation at Ladder 15

If you are anything like we are, you have fond memories of many a dish from dozens of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners past. These meals dance in your mind when the memory is sparked, your mouth begins to water, and you contemplate heading to whichever restaurant served that dish as soon as possible (or gathering the ingredients to make it, if it was one of your own). And sometimes, these dishes highly influence your decisions on what to order at a completely unrelated restaurant. Yes, I AM going somewhere with this.

J and I had plans to make an end-of-the-week visit to the recently opened Bobby's (Flay!) Burger Palace on Penn's campus, but with Spring Fling in full swing (haha!) and Penn kids out in full force, the out-the-door line dissuaded us as our stomachs were grumbling for some food sooner rather than later (don't worry, Iron Chef Burger Tour Part 2 has been rescheduled!). Instead, we headed back to our part of town to check out another restaurant on our list (yes, we do actually have a list).

Ladder 15 opened in the past year or two in a refurbished firehouse on Sansom Street. J and I checked it out right when it opened (I distinctly remember the smell of fresh paint still heavy in the air), and while we liked the food at the time, had heard bad reviews as the restaurant began to turn away from its emphasis on food and began to morph into a "fratty bar scene". With too many other good places to eat in the city, we were perfectly fine with not returning.

However, earlier this year, it was announced that a now-restaurantless David Ansill (formerly of Pif and Ansill) was being hired as chef at Ladder 15 to begin a clean-up of the menu and bring big name star power to help refocus the restaurant. While I've never been to either of his former restaurants, J experienced Ansill last summer and was a bit disappointed when it closed (Ansill blamed the economy).

The restaurant is a huge, open room, with super high ceilings, lots of dark wood and candles, and somewhat of an industrial feel. We were seated immediately (seating is reserved for those eating, while people coming to partake of the bar scene must stand), and attended by a competent but fairly non-interactive waiter. Upon reviewing the menu, we realized our interests lay more in the appetizer section than the entrees, so decided to order a variety of items to share. We also realized that the menu didn't offer much in the "health" category (minus a few very uninspired salads) so decided to enjoy a bit of a weekend splurge (as we often do).

We selected four items: Beer-Battered Rock Shrimp, Fried Cauliflower, Polenta Fries, and the Korean Tacos. Hmm, my arteries are clogging just typing that! The food didn't take long but was delivered in one giant rush, crowding our small table and making picture taking a bit of a feat. We know we ordered mostly appetizers (the Korean Tacos are considered an entree), but that doesn't mean we want to eat them in one swoop. For a group of people coming to enjoy some late-night munchies, fine, but we were there for dinner!

The rock shrimp ($9) were my own selection. Whenever I see the words "rock shrimp", I am instantly transported to another time and place (specifically 2006 and Morimoto) where I enjoyed one of my favorite seafood dishes to date- the rock shrimp tempura with spicy kochujan aioli (a whopping $18, but everything in that restaurant is outrageously expensive, although I argue that this dish is very well worth it). At Morimoto, the shrimp are lightly battered and then tossed in a spicy, mayonnaise based sauce and served steaming hot. They. Are. To. Die. For. In my Morimoto memory induced fog, I needed to try Ansill's version. I have to say, while they were good, this was just not anywhere close to what I was craving. Ladder 15's version is heavily battered- while the crispy fried shrimp shells were flavorful, they were a bit overwhelmingly greasy. The inner shrimp were large and firm enough to really bite into, but a bit on the "shrimpy" side, a sign of previously frozen or past-its-prime seafood. The redeeming element was the sauce served on the side- described as lobster roe mayo, but really more like the spicy sauce that I always order with sushi. Creamy, a hint of spicy heat, overall a good match for the shrimp.

Half-eaten plate of shrimpies.

We have experienced fried cauliflower on several occasions, but our favorite rendition was at Michael Solomonov's Zahav. This Israeli restaurant is fairly well-known for this dish, and we were big fans- small morsels of crisp cauliflower, not too greasy, laid out on a yogurt sauce spiced with chive, dill, mint, and garlic ($5 at Zahav). There is a reason why this was named one of the Best Restaurant Dishes of 2008 by Food & Wine magazine! Regardless, again, we were hoping to find an inspired reincarnation of this dish in the hands of Chef Ansill. Once again, our memories will still return to the former version. Ladder 15's take ($7) involved large chunks of the vegetable, fried a bit too heavily, and served with an olive-oil based sauce on the side. We are cauliflower fans, so minus the grease-factor, we enjoyed the warm, soft bits on their own. At Zahav, the sauce is critical for the dish to come together; at Ladder 15, the sauce went untouched. We found dipping an oily food into OIL was not going to do anything to increase its enjoyment. Overall, I'd be just as satisfied with plain steamed cauliflower made in my own microwave- plus, it would be way cheaper! Note to Ladder 15: we know cauliflower isn't expensive. Don't imitate a master, fail, and charge more.

Moving onto the polenta fries- yes, we are fans of polenta! (We hope you enjoyed our last post). We have discussed making polenta cakes in the past- as cooked polenta cools, it thickens and solidifies to the point where it can be sliced. These slices can then be pan-fried to a crisp. One of our favorite brunch memories involves just such "fries" at Sabrina's Cafe- they serve huge slices of the stuff with a lovely tomato sauce for dipping as an optional side to any dish ($4.29 as a side dish). The rendition served at Ladder 15 ($6) was just as enjoyable, or perhaps even more so! A stack of crispy polenta chunks is served atop a spicy tomato sauce and dusted with curls of fresh Parmesan cheese. This plating allows the sticks to soak up some of the tomato sauce, instead of having to awkwardly dunk them, and the cheese offers a salty, flavorful kick. The fries are cut a bit thinner than at Sabrina's, allowing them to have more rigidity. They were perfectly cooked, with a light skin of crispness encasing smooth, warm innards. Yum!

Our favorite dish of the night was J's pick- at Ansill, she had eaten the famed Korean tacos, and these were her main reason for disappointment at its closing. As this was the new chef's specialty, there was no reason for him to fail on this dish- his creation should be the same regardless of which kitchen they are prepared in. And surely, they lived up to our expectations. The "entree" is served with two tacos ($11), and no sides-- which surprised me. They would be well-paired with a cool coleslaw or fresh veggie mix, bulking up the plate and forming it into a real meal. However, the tacos are well worth their price tag alone. Both tacos are different but retain similar flavors- one is filled with pork belly, and the other braised short rib, then both are topped with kim chi (spicy pickled cabbage, Korean-style), scallions, and sesame seeds. They are served atop medium-sized grilled flour tortillas- warm, with heavy grill marks yet still soft and malleable. The two meats are rich and delicious, literally oozing flavor. The short rib is shredded, extremely moist and really, just perfectly flavored beef. The pork belly is somehow both crispy and soft (with its layer of fat clearly evident, but we couldn't care less after biting into it!) and exemplifies why this meat has exploded in popularity recently. Both meats are complemented by the spicy kim chi, and the soft tortillas do an excellent job of encasing all of this goodness, providing a soft bite without overwhelming the true gems of the tacos- the meat! Extremely well done... Ladder 15, you did a good thing by hiring David Ansill because of these tacos alone.

As our meal mainly consisted of appetizers, we were satisfied but not stuffed at the end of our meal, and we were also happy that it was relatively inexpensive (allowing us to reason ourselves into a more expensive dessert on our way home). Our plans may have been changed due to the popularity of burgers during Flingtime, but we were glad to experience the "new" Ladder 15. Each of our selected dishes were recreations of foods we have enjoyed in the past, and while they were not always spot-on with what we have previously eaten, we know we would be reaching just a bit to expect that. And who knows, perhaps my craving for tempura rock shrimp will just have to spur a trip to Morimoto!

Ladder 15
1528 Sansom Street

April 14, 2010

"And remember, a good meal is never more than 30 minutes away!"

Even though it seems like we eat at restaurants quite a bit (and we do- at least once a week!), we also do our fair share of cooking in our own kitchen. As you know, we preplan our dinners for the week before we go on our weekly shopping expedition. This helps immensely as a time saver when cooking every night. With our respective preliminary/comprehensive exams coming up (we're almost official PhD candidates!) things have been getting even busier, but we're not the types to resort to Chinese takeout or picking up a pizza on the way home. Instead, we work off some of our favorite foods as a starting point, and build quick, simple, yet still fresh and delicious meals from there.

This past week, A knew we had a couple of Trader Joe's Spicy Italian chicken sausages, as well as some totally amazing Natural Meadows farm free-range organic eggs from Maxx's ($5/dozen but I never knew a plain hard-boiled egg could be so insanely good). She decided to structure a "Breakfast Polenta" mixture around these ingredients, using this recipe (found on tastespotting.com, as per usual) as a rough sketch.

Delicious eggs- and multi-colored! So cute.

I got home a little early from the gym so I lent a helping hand- the multi-tasking of this meal was great for two people to make together. It took us less than a half hour to make from start to finish- perfect for a busy evening. A was already working on chopping the vegetables (which she prefers to do unassisted- my garlic chop is a little on the rough side...), so I started working on the polenta. I boiled 1.5 cups of water and 1.5 cups of chicken broth in our trusty saucepan while she sauteed a chopped green pepper and about half of a small head of broccoli with a few cloves of garlic.

Once my liquid was boiling, I slowly stirred in 1 cup of polenta (a gritty cornmeal if you've never had a run in with it) and turned the heat down to low. Cooking polenta takes a bit of attention, as it bubbles very thickly and needs to be stirred frequently. I also added a tablespoon of butter to add a little creaminess.

After the vegetables softened up a bit (about ten minutes), A added the chopped sausage to the mix. This gave us a few minutes to do some quick cleanup (don't forget about the polenta though!). When the sausage had a little brown around the edges, we added the veggies & meat to the polenta and gave it a good mix.

In the still-hot pan, A fried up another couple cloves of garlic and then tossed in an entire bag of baby spinach (my favorite!). These greens are super tender, so they were wilted in just a couple of minutes. To incorporate the eggs into the meal, she tried a technique that was new to us- cracking the eggs right on top of the spinach. She chose flat-ish, thinner areas of spinach so the eggs would hold together and be closer to the heat. Cover the pan with a lid (we used a big pot lid), and let the eggs cook through (about 5 minutes). You can tell they're done when all of the whites look, well, white! Give the pan a little jiggle to make sure they're solidifying nicely.

We added a little handful of a cheese blend to the polenta, gave it a quick stir to incorporate it in, and dinner was served! The polenta mixture was enough for three meals (leftovers for lunch are the best), especially with the addition of an egg and a pile of spinach.

As you can see, this meal was quick and simple- the only difficult thing here was timing the different components correctly, which can be said about any meal preparation. Not too many ingredients- just a good mix of vegetables, protein, fat, and a "typically-seen-on-a-breakfast-menu" cornmeal, which gave it some textural interest. The garlic in both parts of the dinner was a good melding flavor, and the slightly gooey egg was the "cherry on top!" Another great aspect of this meal is the variability and versatility- you can change just about everything about it to make something "new" or more fitting to your tastes. Use pre-cooked ground turkey or chopped ham as your meat, add zucchini, red peppers, onion or your favorite vegetable to the polenta, experiment with swiss chard or turnip greens instead of spinach, or mix in a Pepper Jack or Muenster cheese for a more significant flavor. Hopefully this inspires a few of you to experiment with something new!

April 11, 2010

Iron Chef Does Burgers: Take 1

With J out of town visiting her boyfriend, I spent the weekend enjoying some QT with my own. After a trip to Franklin Institute to see the Body Worlds exhibit (I've never seen it before-- I definitely recommend it! We were particularly interested in the blood vessel systems), we decided to give Village Whiskey a try for dinner. I've been there myself and had thoroughly enjoyed the burger, and knowing my dining companion's limited palate, knew he would like it as well. The restaurant also has a variety of other fun food items that I can enjoy, and it is conveniently located just a few blocks from the museum.

I warned him ahead of time that there could be a two hour wait (it's a very tiny, very popular restaurant), but was relieved to find out that we wouldn't have to wait at all! I was pretty shocked, as it was 7:30 on a Saturday evening, but perhaps the addition of some outdoor seating in the warmer weather helps to alleviate the crowd. Granted, our seats were somewhat less than desirable on first look- all the way at the back of the narrow restaurant, at a counter located immediately adjacent to the bathroom and the kitchen entrance. However, the lack of a view (the counter butts up to a wall), the tight space, and the side by side seating arrangement was actually quite enjoyable as we were much closer than we normally would be at a restaurant. It also helped the conversation as I seem to have completely lost my voice (allergies?) and didn't have to strain to shout over three feet of table space. One man's trash is another man's treasure, I suppose!

The restaurant is certainly very "bar-centric", with a list of whiskeys a mile long. However, as its owner is an Iron Chef (yes, this is another Jose Garces wonderland), many people come just for the food. But, the menu is sort of crafted to fit the environment, with lots of snacky type foods and a select few sandwiches and entree plates. We started the meal with a couple of appetizers. You can choose from a handful of "bar snacks" - classics like tator tots, soft pretzels, and cheese puffs. Of course, these are all crafted in house and are definitely several notches above your average bar food. There is also a choice of several "pickles", not including cucumbers, sadly. We chose one from each category- a "snack" of popcorn shrimp and an order of pickled baby carrots.

The shrimp ($6) were a hit with both of us - solid chunks of shrimp that are lightly breaded in a slightly spicy soft shell (say that five times fast). Normally popcorn shrimp is a ball of friedness that has a hint of seafood flavor, but thankfully that wasn't the case here. It definitely felt like I was eating shrimp! The little guys are served with a creamy, spicy sauce that reminded me of Thousand Island dressing. It was a little awkward dunking them with your fingers as they are definitely on the small side of popcorn, so at times a fork was necessary - eating fried food with a fork kind of defeats the purpose but I suppose this dish can get away with it.

The baby carrots ($6) took me in an entirely different direction - not something you find on the average menu. I'm glad the server brought these after we had devoured the shrimp as I wouldn't want to mix and match this combination of flavors and textures (yes, I can be THAT girl). At my previous trip to VW (you knew that acronym was coming), I had tried the pickled cherry tomatoes and the pickled beets and enjoyed both. I think however that after sampling THREE plates of pickles, there is something that bothers me about the presentation. All of the plates are served the same way: a small glass jar filled with the pickles, and sliced toasted baguette served with olive tapenade and whipped ricotta. Basically, the only change is what is in the "pickle jar." Don't get me wrong, I could eat that ricotta by the spoonful and I'll never say no to a good piece of bread but. Something tells me that the accompaniments could improve. In my opinion, I'd like to see 1) something unique on each plate and/or 2) something that actually can be paired with your pickle of choice. I'm not about to slap a beet or a carrot on a piece of bread, sorry.

Alright, enough complaining- the carrots themselves were quite good! Not your standard pre-cut "baby" carrot, but thin slices of actual small, tender carrots. The pickling process leaves them with a good vinegar flavor that's not too strong and doesn't remove all the fiber in the carrot. While they are on the soft side, they still hold themselves up - no sogginess or mush. I would gladly pay $4 or so just for the jar of carrots, and leave the bread for another time.

I had a hard time turning down the Chicken-Fried Steak (helllloo), but figured I probably shouldn't completely negate the spin class I got up early for.. so I ended up ordering the Veggie Burger, while the bf ordered the Village Burger (although I know he was eyeing the "Whiskey King"! If the $24 price tag wasn't mostly due to the foie gras topping that would be quite beyond his appreciation of food, I would have willingly gone along...). Personally, even the Village Burger is something I only need to experience once - completely delicious but overwhelmingly MUCH.

I've heard bad things about the Veggie Burger ($8), but decided to give it a try nonetheless. I think, while I will concur on many of the comments I have read about it, it was still well thought out and also well worth the somewhat meager price tag (in my Philadelphia-tainted opinion). The patty itself is composed of lentils and black beans, and is VERY mushy. Pieces of it were slipping out of the bun hardly before I started its consumption. However, since it is a massive amount of filling, it never seemed to make a difference. I have no idea how this patty is cooked but I can't imagine it is made with any high temps - I imagine even a patty of black bean soup would crisp up a bit if seared in a hot pan. It is served with guacamole and pickled red cabbage, and I threw on the tomato slice from my non-vegetable-eating boyfriend's burger, which I would highly recommend. The components of this burger are soft, softer, and softest, and the tomato slice at least gave my teeth something to sink into. The guacamole is delicious- Garces' Latin roots know how to combine the flavors of black beans and avocados. The pickled cabbage escaped me entirely, as it was completely outcompeted by the other existing flavors. I saved half of the burger for my next day's dinner and it was almost exactly the same after 24 hours (unlike many meaty dishes).

The Village Burger ($9) is quite.. impressive. It was ordered with a few additions of cheddar ($3 - but it's from an artisan cheesery? Did I just make up that word?) and smoked bacon ($2). Completely unnecessary additions, but men seem to have a need to add cheese and more meat to their meat. This burger- both bun and innards- are certainly meant for the hungry, although with the lack of any included side items (minus a huge pickle spear) it helps fill you up without needing to order additional sides (although we did...). J and I often discuss the "bun conundrum" when eating burgers- essentially, the way one half of the bun always seems to magically be consumed at a much faster rate than the other, leaving you with an open-faced sandwich as you make it towards the finish. This burger suffered from another (much better!) bun conundrum- it was simply too BIG for the meat patty. Buttt... I can appreciate an overly ambitious soft, seeded roll (seriously these buns are top notch - they have more of a pastry consistency than a bread feel). The patty itself oozes with fat- literally, a pool of it remained on the plate after the burger was gone. Is this why it tastes so darn good? Probably. Is it worth the clog to the arteries? Once in awhile :) The meat isn't packed very tightly, allowing it to retain a very soft feel in the mouth - the consumer commented that he hardly had to chew, it just swished around and then was swallowed. It's basically meat butter. Yum. Yes, I stole a bite.

On the side we split an order of Duck Fat French Fries ($5), which were fairly boring. No ducks in sight - the presentation is quite nice as they're served upright in a can ready for the grabbing, and they fit my fry requirements- long, not too skinny, and not too crunchy. However, I just didn't enjoy them. Perhaps it was because of the overload of other food but... we can ignore that fact. You can also order them with a side of cheese sauce or topped with shredded short ribs, but yeah. You have to draw the line somewhere!

It was a good meal - I appreciate the originality and special touches, even though the menu is fairly limited, and the boyfriend is always content with a good burger. Upon leaving out the side door, I saw a few large tables (for 8-10 people?) with heat lamps which would be great outdoor seating for a larger group. Otherwise, grab a friend or your significant other for one of the most decadent burgers in Philly and a solid date spot.

And as the title of the post may suggest, we may have more Iron Chef burger stories coming your way soon.

Village Whiskey
118 South 20th Street

April 5, 2010


The parental units are pretty key to our lives for many reasons, some of which involve food. They like to come up to Philly to visit on a fairly frequent basis, and besides the immeasurable joy we get from spending time with them, we also almost always end up with a fair number of tangible goods. Every time we get the email from Southwest announcing when their next trip up will be (sometimes it's a bit of a surprise), it triggers thoughts of all the expensive restaurants we can't don't want to pay for ourselves. Many of our most expensive eats have been on their account, which they don't seem to mind since Gainesville is filled with chain restaurants and generally ho-hum food.

On their annual Easter weekend visit, they decided to meet up with family friends who made the move from Florida to Pennsylvania around the same time that we did. Apparently Davio's is "meeting halfway" between Philly and Allentown- - but hey, we weren't complaining! Having never eaten at this fairly well-known "Northern Italian Steakhouse", we were excited about the prospect of checking another high-end restaurant off of our list without footing the bill.

The restaurant is on the second level of a building, and requires an elevator ride- very well marked, but still a little bit strange. It is adjacent to the Club Quarters Hotel, although I'm unsure of any general connection between the two. Upon our arrival, happy hour was apparently winding down, but still created a bit of a din as we walked in. Thankfully, the eating area is fairly well separated from the bar, and there weren't too many other diners. We were quickly recognized and led to our table, where the sudden appearance of four employees (one per person) stood behind our chairs ready to tuck us in. It was a little odd, but I suppose it's part of the quality service.

We were tended to by several waiters throughout the evening, but one was "in charge." He was a very loud, very Italian man who in my opinion was a bit overbearing, but again may be attributed to the emphasis on service (and the fact that he had served our friends on several occasions in the past). However, some of his actions were borderline awkward, such as when he read us the menu (after about ten minutes of perusing it ourselves), suggesting/forcing several of us to order more food than we originally intended, and knocking me in the back of the head with a plate towards the end of the meal.

The meal began with a bread basket, served with several small plates of olives, peppers, and olive tapenade. We always appreciate a bit of variety with the gratis food, and enjoyed all of these items. The peppers were roasted and well-oiled, but apparently several of them were towards the high end of the heat chart. The pepper I ate wasn't particularly spicy, but there were a few coughs and gulps of water around the table.

The menu is focused on meats and seafoods, and offers both individual servings (ie a la carte), or pre-fabricated meals labeled "Caserecci" (Googling this word produces pictures of pasta.. so I have no idea what this means)(Editor's note: It means "homemade" in Italian). J and I decided to split an "Antipasti", which makes me laugh as it is the least Italian food I could imagine. We chose the Philly Cheese Steak Spring Rolls ($12). Although we aren't fans of the classic Philly cheese steak (so shoot us)- we enjoy a good spring roll and were drawn towards the trademark symbol on the menu. If you've trademarked a menu item, it's probably going to be good.

The kitchen was kind enough to split the spring rolls on two plates, which made sharing SO much easier. We each got a whole spring roll, served with a little pile of crispy fried.. curly potato pieces? Sort of like shoestring potatoes, but curly. It also came with a few sauces, including a spicy ketchup and spicy mayo. The "fries" were good, but also good as carriers of these sauces into my mouth. The spring roll itself was also delicious, but definitely on the rich and greasy side (not sure what I expected). The inside of the roll was less cheesesteak and more liquified Beef Stroganoff- creamy and steaming hot. The outer spring roll shell was a superb contrast of textures, shattering at every bite. I'm glad we split this item- we probably could have shared it four ways.

As a main course, I ordered off the Caserecci portion of the menu, as it seemed like a slightly more economical way of trying several items. The pan-seared Branzino fillet, served with Puttanesca risotto, swiss chard, and parsley pesto ($35) sounded right up my alley. My dad also ordered the same thing, unknown to me at the time. The dish was well-proportioned, which I appreciated for the price. The fish had a great texture, but I can't comment too much on the flavor- it was well doused in ground spices (chili powder? I'm not totally sure). The risotto paralleled the fish- good on texture (which can be difficult in risotto, but expected at a high end restaurant), but definitely over-seasoned. The mixture of salt and olives accentuated the saltiness. My dad also pointed out that his was overly salty (I hope our respective cardiologists aren't reading this). The swiss chard was probably my favorite part of the dish- J and I sauteed swiss chard at least once a week throughout the winter- so much so that when J attempted to snag a bite, I warded her off with my fork. Overall the dish was OK- decent, but I could make it myself (with way less salt) for a fraction of the price.

J went an alternate route and combined the a la carte oven roasted salmon ($23) with the warm spinach salad ($9). The salad was huge! The spinach was lightly steamed and coated in a tart balsamic dressing, and then topped with sauteed mushrooms and peppers, big chunks of goat cheese and pancetta, and a sprinkling of pine nuts. It could have been an entree on its own. Paired with the salmon, it was good thinking on her part.

While we didn't necessarily order according to the specialities of the house, there were a couple of steaks at our table that looked well worth the price tags. The grilled "long-bone" ribeye was quite impressive, and does in fact, contain a very long bone. The consumer of this giant piece of meat threatened to pick it up by the bone and eat it caveman style, much to the delight of his wife (his threats never came to fruition). J and I don't often eat red meat, but when I am in the mood for a huge steak, I would probably return to Barclay Prime or Butcher & Singer before choosing Davio's - yes, I have fallen under the spell of Stephen Starr. The atmosphere of those restaurants is more original and exciting, the service is fantastic in a discrete way, and the food, while still priced ridiculously high, is worth every penny.

We enjoyed spending time with our family and friends, and hope to see them all more often in the future. I should mention that we were very appreciative of the meal in general, as we didn't pay for it ourselves-- thank you to our gracious "hosts"! It really speaks wonders about the Philly food scene that a classic upscale restaurant falls under par - located elsewhere, I may have been more impressed.

Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse
111 S. 17th Street