September 27, 2011

South Philadelphia Taproom

A year ago this past weekend, A & I set off for a fun exploration of uncharted territory- Passyunk Avenue in South Philly.  It was such a fun afternoon, and we've returned to South Philly more than once for a variety of delicious, casual food.  While the occasional fancy meal is a treat,  Philly has a ton of more laid-back restaurants with great reputations- and they're a bit easier on the wallet.  To commemorate the anniversary of our personal "discovery" of South Philly, we headed to South Philadelphia Taproom.  The kitchen is run by Scott Schroeder, whose history mixes experience in both gastropubs and fine dining restaurants- the result of which is a somewhat whimsical menu.  A couple years ago Adam Erace described the food as "down-to-earth, with a fine dining emphasis on doing things from scratch."  He knows what's up.

Barrel chairs and random French horn decoration.
Play on the LOVE statue.

With almost everything on the menu demanding to be ordered, plus a number of drool-inducing specials, we managed to pick out an eclectic variety of food to share (as always).  First up was the vegetable special of the day- elote ($4).  A popular Mexican street food whose name translates simply to "corn on the cob"- yet this was no standard summer treat.  Sweet yellow corn was grilled till the kernels soaked up some smoky flavor, wrinkled up a bit and loosened at their roots.  The corn was then skewered on a handy wooden stick, slathered with mayonnaise, dusted with parmesan, and finished with a sprinkling of cayenne and chili powder.  Knowing my distaste for mayo, A took one bite and said "I don't think you're going to like this..."  Fortunately, it's really just the slimy texture of mayo that gets to me, and between the grated Parm and a huge mouthful of sweet corn kernels, my mouth was too happy to register any slickness.  My favorite part was how far down to the core I could bite, thanks to the cooking process.

We also got a side order of pickles ($3) which were fun to snack on throughout the meal.  A mix of vegetables included the standard cukes and pepperoncini's as well as carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, and even celery!  I didn't love the "real" pickles that much- a little soggy and bland- but those pickled button mushrooms might be my new favorite thing.

Another daily special was something called "Mexican Construction Worker-Style Headcheese Tacos" ($1/each), which we clearly could not ignore.  We've never had headcheese before- a gelatinous block of meat bits held together by gelatin boiled out of the skull and other "leftover" animal parts- typically pig.  On its own it was a lot like a fatty, solidified Thanksgiving gravy (pretty weird) but became a fun snack when served on a crunchy mini corn tortilla and topped with raw onion, a slice of jalapeno, a sprig of cilantro, and a few drops of lime juice.  After all of THAT, the texture and flavor of the headcheese played more of a supporting role and we were glad to have tried something new.

The grilled haloumi salad ($10) was my favorite part of the meal.  Large chunks of juicy galia melon (a green-fleshed honeydew-canteloupe hybrid) and cubed cucumber made up the soft and crunchy bulk of the salad.  Lots of chopped fresh mint and a creamy jalapeno-tinted yogurt dressing gave a great contrasting flavor profile to match the contrasting melon/cuke textures.  Overall just very cool and refreshing, perfect for these last days of summer.  A large slab of salty, squeaky haloumi picked up some gorgeous grill marks and lots of grill flavor and paired well with the sweet melon.

We also ordered the vegan pizza ($9) from the appetizer portion of the menu.  Instead of going the Blackbird route, SPTR keeps it simple with a cheese-and-meat-less flatbread.  A thin pita-type bread is grilled till crispy, then topped with a roasted eggplant "sauce," spicy marinated cherry tomatoes, baby arugula, and a blended kalamata olive pesto.  I liked the ideas of incorporating vegetables with a puree- the eggplant was creamy and I thought I tasted a bit of avocado in the mix, while the olive puree gave a superb salty, savoriness to each crunchy bite.  While this is in no way "pizza", it was still really filling- we took home half.

Remember how I said the salad was my favorite? I lied.  After digesting for a bit and watching the beginning of the Florida-Kentucky game (+5 points for putting the game on after our request), we ordered dessert- an epic "Fried PB&J" ($6).  I can't remember where I read about this concept, but I recently became obsessed with the idea of a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I was pleasantly surprised to finally see it on a menu.  I love regular pb&j, so a fried version clearly had to be an extra delicious treat- and I was not disappointed.  This version was pan-fried with a brown sugar covered crust, making for a crunchy crispy exterior.  Slightly warmed sweet strawberry jam and creamy peanut butter oozed out of the center, but the thickly sliced bread was well-structured making it less messy than you might think.  Not really that dessert-y, but you can add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for $1.  Maybe next time?

Although it is a far hike coming from Center City, SPTR offered some good eats representative of the great gastropub scene going on in Philly.  We're so glad we've continued to visit South Philly!

South Philadelphia Taproom
1509 Mifflin Street

September 24, 2011

Jasmine Rice

We follow Philly restaurant news through a number of sources, which keep us up to date on openings, closings, special menus, and upcoming events.  Oftentimes J and I will discuss something posted on Foobooz or MealTicket, and many of our conversations eventually lead us to new spots to eat.  However, sometimes the little guys slip through the cracks, and we end up finding them on our own.  Just a few blocks away from us, on a mostly residential street, is a tiny restaurant space, formally inhabited by a long-standing Polish restaurant (which we visited several years ago with our part-Polish grandmother).  Recently it changed hands, and in the past week or two opened as a mini Thai BYOB.  Thai food isn't Philly's specialty, so we're always checking out the newest options.

Balloons for Grand Opening

Jasmine Rice draws in clientele by being a bright spot on an otherwise dark street.  While we haven't seen any mention in the press about its opening, nor any public advertisement, it brought in a steady stream of customers throughout the entire duration of our meal.  Available seating for just 40, groups of 2-4 are easily accommodated; I wouldn't come here with a big group.

Since the menu isn't online-- click for improved visibility.

The menu offers a good array of appetizers, soups, and salads, as well as a number of noodle dishes, curries, fried rice, etc- the typical items you would expect at a Thai restaurant.  Prices are all very reasonable- sometimes it seems that BYOB restaurants jack up the prices of food to recover lost income from alcohol, which annoys me.  The service was always sufficient- and efficient, considering there were only two waitresses for the whole room.  The table next to us seemed to deal with a few snafus- a mix up in the kitchen, a bit of a wait, but the waitstaff was very apologetic and compensated via a reduced bill.

We ordered two starters to split, the first being the Chao Phraya Express ($5.99).  Two rice paper wrappers were filled with carrots, lettuce, scallions, cucumber, cold noodles, basil and a butterflied shrimp and tightly rolled for easy dipping into the provided plum sauce.  The opposing textures of the crispy vegetables and soft wrapper played well together, and the salty sweet sauce gave a necessary flavor kick.

I had my eye on the Crab Nuggets ($6.99), which arrived as a number of fried dumpling-like bites, with a small pouch of crab and shrimp filling surrounded by a thin crispy shell.  The flavor of the seafood held its own, and the fried shell melted in my mouth.  The accompanying pickled ginger sauce tasted like honey, and soaked into the seafood and wonton wrapper, gave a unique sweetness.

J ordered the Jatujak Stir Fry, but must have miscommunicated the order to our waitress (I think pointing was necessary for that odd name), so ended up with the Ginger Garlic Stir Fry.  The mix-up wasn't a huge problem for us, as the garlicky sauce on this simple dish was flavorful and the huge pile of crisp stir-fried veggies was much appreciated.  The vegetarian version comes with tofu, and is the least expensive option at $11.99 (add a dollar or two and you can get chicken or shrimp).  Bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, carrots, and broccoli were combined with large triangles of pressed, pan-fried tofu and everything was tossed into the sauce.  The light soy based broth definitely lived up to its title- garlic and ginger were strong throughout, but a late heat in each bite gave it an extra pop of flavor.

I went with my favorite Thai dish of all- red curry, also choosing the vegetarian option ($11.99).  More of a soup-like dish, the red curry broth was rich, spicy, and heavy on the coconut milk- just how I like it.  Every bite of the bell peppers, bamboo shoots, and chunks of tofu left me with a pleasant burn, and the Thai basil added an extra zing.  Both dishes came with a side of rice, which was broken off in spoonfuls and left to soak in the curry for a few seconds- I really just want to drown all of my food in this sauce.  While J knows Thai food isn't her favorite cuisine, I called this dish "my happy food," and could easily eat it several times a week.

For under $40, this meal was an all-around winner- ample portions, interesting flavors and cooking styles, simple but adequate service, affordable, and located just steps from home.  While we don't often do repeat restaurant visits, I know Jasmine Rice will be at the top of my list for a casual dinner- it would also be great for visitors or date nights.  Plus, we still need to try that Jatujak Stir Fry!

Jasmine Rice
305 S. 16th Street

September 20, 2011

Zahav in Pictures

Zahav.  It's not a new restaurant.  We've been there before.  But it's run by a James Beard award winner.  And we love it.  So we returned.  

It's up on a hill.

Best start to a meal: chewy fresh laffa bread and a giant bowl of creamy, salty tahini hummus.

Salatim: Eight salads (shared by up to 4 people).  Pickled turnips and a simple carrot salad were our faves. 

My portion of laffa and about 1/3 of the salads I ate.  Funny that neither of my favorites show up on the plate- I ate them straight out of the bowls.  Oops.

Crispy haloumi with peaches and corn.  Salty fried cheese is always a winner.  The simple corn salad surprisingly held its own against the cheese- a little sweetness goes a long way.

Tomato soup with spiced lamb, pine nuts, and zucchini.  Way better than Campbell's and great for this cooler weather we've been having. 

Crispy veal sweetbreads with zucchini baba ganoush and corn vinaigrette.  The friedness on these was magically soft and crispy at the same time.  Tasted a little like fried oysters. 

House smoked sable on top of Texas toast  challah bread.  The flaky chunks of lightly smoked fish are hiding the fried egg embedded in the bread.  This would make a perfect breakfast.

Kofte.  Cumin-spiced ground beef + lamb meatballs atop sauteed carrots and peppers.

Hanger steak between eggplant puree and eggplant hash.  All I remember is the salt. So salty.

Crispy sea bream.  Cooked perfectly- crackly skin and flaky fish.  Black-eyed peas + green beans + tomatoes were spicy.

The inside space.  Semi-open kitchen, huge open room, minimal decor.  Ceiling lighting makes it feel like a movie set.

Almond-apricot rugelach with honey roasted apricot (great) and rosewater sorbet (great if you like eating soap). Almond paste inside the pastries kept them from being too light.

Kataifi.  Crispy, sugared shredded wheat encasing dark chocolate mousse.  Ultra thick labeneh ice cream was like a dense ball of cool yogurt.  A had to defend this from multiple attempted attacks by my spoon.
Solid dinner with friends, unique dining experience, good service considering it is Restaurant Week (this tasting menu is only $1 more during non-RW weeks).  Weird music, a lot of salt, and the fact that it was past my bedtime on a Sunday kept this from being a five-star meal.

Walnut Street between 2nd and 3rd

September 17, 2011

Charlottesville, Part 2

After our dinner at The Shebeen, A & I crashed pretty early, allowing us to get up early and do some exploring the best way we know how- on our own two feet. A weekend long run took us around the UVA campus and through lots of quaint neighborhoods.

As soon as we were back and showered, we took a quick trip around the corner to Great Harvest Charlottesville, a terrific bakery owned and operated by one of our favorite bloggers, Kath of Kath Eats Real Food. Although she wasn't at the bakery, we chatted with her husband Matt and perused the bread and other goodies, of which there are many. We ended up selecting a loaf of Cinnamon Chip and some seeded buns, with Matt throwing in a free Savannah Bar- a "must try" of the bakery. Thanks Matt!

 The Savannah bar was devoured almost immediately- a surprisingly dense, just sweet enough oat and berry bar- a perfect little treat for sinking your teeth into after a morning run. A cup of locally roasted coffee and we were ready to hit the farmer's market.

 During the warmer months, Cville has a huge market near the Downtown Mall, with goods ranging from herbs and spices, cheeses, baked goods, Japanese street food, and the best jam I've ever had. JAM according to daniel had a huge spread of all their seasonal jams, including a fig + lime that would be amazing on a thick piece of bread with a little brie. I'm strongly considering ordering a case of this online.


 The market was a great diversion while we waited for a table at The Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, a cozy, down-home place to get brunch. While the wait is no shorter than a solid hour on the weekend, we were really blown away by all of the dishes we tried. It was one of those meals where you just want to tuck in and enjoy and not even consider taking the time to chronicle the event. Thanks to our friend Mike for snapping a few quick pics, including one of the highlights- chocolate covered bacon!  It is really just something everyone needs to experience for themselves. Do yourself a favor and just go. And order off the weekend specials menu.

 Fortunately, we had another solid brunch experience the following morning at The Pigeon Hole, a funky little restaurant located in the "The Corner," a stretch of shops and restaurants popular with the students. Recommended to me by a couple of UVA grads, The Pigeon Hole was quite welcoming, with a great outdoor seating area extending off of a beautiful porch.

 A & I weren't all that hungry so we decided to split one "Belly Stuffer" item (all $7) and one "Nibbler" (all $4). The Huevos Rancheros certainly stuffed our bellies- a platter of slow cooked black beans, a couple fried eggs and a thick layer of melted cheddar layered with a pretty potent spicy red sauce. The hash browns accompanying the dish were cut on the smaller side and soft- not mushy, but I preferred the hearty chunks of crispy potatoes at Bluegrass. As for the huevos, Pigeon Hole keeps it simple, with the basic components playing well off one another. The beans were super thick and sludgy, making it easy to incorporate them into each bite.

 One of our friends dishes came with a side of grits- and I am not exaggerating when I say we had grits in some form in every single meal we ate that weekend- but he handed them off to A & I to split. Again, the chefs kept it extremely simple- just grits, salt, and perhaps a touch of butter. The stone-ground corn itself was grainier and grittier than some of the more milled versions, giving it a rustic texture that actually required chewing. Cooking them long and slow provided a super creamy texture without getting a whole lot of dairy involved.

We finished up with a nibbler- two small sticky buns. Gooey cinnamon-tinted bread drizzled with a caramel sauce and embedded with halved pecans... a sweet and sticky way to end the meal. Perfect for sharing (and satisfying the inevitable sweet tooth).

 Our weekend wrapped up with a barbecue at home, and then we sadly said goodbye to a beautiful southern college town that reminded us of home... though perhaps with better food! Don't worry Charlottesville... we'll be back!

The Pigeon Hole
Charlottesville, VA

September 13, 2011

The Shebeen

Another weekend, another quick trip- at least that's how I feel every time I travel! This time, we headed to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the beautiful University of Virginia (side note: J and I decided we wanted to go back in time and redo college here, it's that amazing). The goal was to visit a friend and explore the area, and of course we did that mostly by eating. We were sent a list of possible places well in advance, and like the OCD foodies we are, we scanned the websites and menus to narrow it down. We were looking for two things: not too expensive and unique to Cville. Almost as soon as we arrived, we headed out to dinner, at The Shebeen. A word of Irish origin (South African is a motley crew) meaning an under-the-legal-radar pub, it advertises itself as a South African restaurant "styled after the Cape wineries."

Walking in, I was struck by the space and the decor- a lovely outdoor patio shaded by leafy trees, cozy couches and armchairs near the bar area, a candle-lit dining room filled with African masks, dark wood, and paintings and rugs tinted with deep reds and oranges made me feel like.. well, I was at Animal Kingdom in Disney.  But, perhaps that is authentic.  Before we could finish perusing the menu, we were brought a basket of warm, fluffy rolls to ward off any effects of hanger (eating late had me hungry to the point of irritation).

The menu resembles a hodgepodge of international cuisines, featuring some classic American dishes with South African twists (think chicken wings coated in a peri-peri chili sauce instead of typical American buffalo style hot sauce), a few Indian-inspired dishes such as samosas and lamb curry, as well as some interesting I've-never-heard-of-THAT kind of things.  

J and I decided to split several items so we could try more of the menu, and started with a bowl of the Cape Malay Curried Corn Chowder ($5).  A thick, creamy base made with generous amounts of curry paste and coconut milk was filled with roasted corn and potatoes and bits of celery and onion, all of which gave it a heartiness that was surprisingly filling.

We also split a Stellenbosch Sampler (many of the dishes are named after South African towns) with the rest of our table, which included spiced beef and lamb samosas, spicy ginger-tinged chicken satay, and tempura-battered eggplant fries ($12).  The plate was full of flavor, some of it almost unfamiliar to my palate.  The three accompanying sauces- mango chutney, peanut sauce, and banana ketchup brought even more zing to the mix (the banana-based sauce was particularly odd).  The eggplant fries were our favorite, although they were oil-saturated, as eggplant tends to get.  The samosas had a heavily curried dark filling, which I would have loved to enjoy as a spread for bread- in its fried shell, it was a little overwhelmed.

Our table also split the Camps Bay Calamari (catching on to the trend, are we?) ($12), which was pretty run of the mill, but had us discussing our favorite variations of calamari for quite awhile.  Tossed in a spicy sauce before a quick tempura batter, the thick, chewy squid rings had the right texture but just too much oily breading.  Served with a few lettuce leaves and a side of Caesar dressing, it also seemed a little confused.

For our entree, we split a meat-based meal that was easily our favorite of the night.  As one of those words on the menu that confused us, we had to order the Sosatie ($20).  Wikipedia explains it as an Afrikaans word that describes a traditional South African dish involving skewers of meat- which is exactly what we got!  In this rendition, large chunks of lamb are marinated for 24 hours in a tamarind-spiced sauce, and then cooked to order (medium-rare, of course).  Skewered with soft dried apricots, the sweet spiciness of the sauce came through in each bite while still allowing the rich, meaty flavor to dominate.

The dish is traditionally served with yellow rice and samp+beans, but our waitress heard us giggling about one of the side options "Mealie Pap" and after she explained that they are cheese-tinged grits, we traded out the rice for the Pap.  Heh.  The two sides were both perfectly done, and had me scooping up a bite of one and then the other while forgetting about the centerpiece meat.  The grits were perfectly smooth with a rich flavor that can only come from generous spikes of the grit triumvirate: cheese, cream, and butter.  The samp and beans were even better though- a combination of white and kidney beans cooked to a creamy mush with samp- which I mistook for hominy.  Samp refers to corn kernels that have been cracked by hard pounding and stamping.  It was a lovely, unique addition to the beans, one that I would never come up with myself but now need to replicate.

The dishes we tried are a good reflection of the offerings of Shebeen- some of which are tried-and-true (samosas and calamari), and some of which are unique to South Africa, giving us an opportunity to expand our food knowledge as well as our palates.  The friendly, knowledgeable service, interesting decor and great company helped take this meal above and beyond the food alone, and together left us with fond memories and a strange desire to visit the tip of Africa.

Charlottesville, VA

September 11, 2011

Crepemaker: Eversave Giveaway

Not too long after the arrival of our first few blogger perks comes our first giveaway!  We're big fans of Groupon and LivingSocial, but who doesn't need another daily discount email?  A smaller system known as Eversave has started a Philly-centric site, offering deals on all the good stuff- spas, cleaning services, and the most important, restaurants.  This weekend (well, a three day event: Sunday-Tuesday), Eversave is featuring a fantastic food deal- $10 for a meal for two at Crepemaker.

We've never been to this particular spot, but actually had our first experience with crepes in Philly (during move-in at Penn as tiny freshmen!), so we find it rather fitting that this is our first giveaway.  The deal includes two crepes, a bag of chips, and a smoothie (a $20 value), and would make a perfect lunch for two.  Crepemaker's location within 30th Street Station makes it convenient for employees and students in the University City area, as well as commuters using the station.

We're giving away one "Save"-- to enter, just leave a comment telling us what the best Groupon/LivingSocial/etc deal is you've purchased (or if you haven't purchased one-- what would be a must-buy?).  We'll announce the winner by Monday evening, so feel free to enter until then!

If you're interested in Eversave's daily emails, sign up at their main Philly page.  You can also see details on deals on their Twitter and Facebook.  Simply signing up gets you an automatic $2 credit towards a future purchase, and they give great rewards when you refer friends and families to the site as well.

We're looking forward to hearing from you-- and excited about some crepes, of course!