April 27, 2011


I've visited Kanella several times since starting this blog, but have always had some hesitation about writing it up- almost for fear of breaking some kind of spell. I'm almost out of fingers to count the number of times I've eaten there, and that is saying A LOT. We don't frequent specific restaurants on principle. As you can imagine, Kanella holds a special place in my heart (and stomach) as my favorite place to eat. A & I debated on where to take the 'rents for dinner while they were here, and Kanella won without too much of a fight.

Snagging reservations only one day in advance had us eating at 6 PM. The place was packed the entire time, though notably, the owners parked their two kids at a four-top, taking up some prime real estate. The simple decor, with its striking Mediterranean sea blue color palette, exposed brick, and rustic wooden furniture, is comfortable and inviting; soothing in a familiar way. The service is impeccable, with well-trained staff members quick to play on a good sense of humor. The Cypriot chef, Constantinos Pitsillides, has a stern eye on every dish coming out of the kitchen. He also makes his presence known in the dining room- at one brunch even personally replacing a French press of coffee that he deemed incorrectly prepared.


Quite honestly I could describe the experience of eating at Kanella for days, but I'll move onto the food. First up is the bread- dense and chewy with a perfectly powdered crust- this is what my dreams are made of. A thin tahini dip adds another dimension to the already nutty flavor of the bread.

Since we were sharing apps, we went with a standard- the dips of the day ($8). I've had various renditions of this dish, but this time, we were served a trio with bases of eggplant, beets, and lentils. The beet dip was like a finely ground beet, but with an extremely concentrated flavor. The lentil was pretty plain, leaving the eggplant dip as the consensual favorite. Creamy with just the right amount of eggplant chunks (and no eggplant skin), the flavor was rich without being overwhelming. Though served with grilled pita, these could honestly be enjoyed by the spoonful or slathered on the delish bread.

We kept with the carb-heavy theme with the flatbread ($8)- a slightly thicker bowl shaped pita is spread with yogurt and chopped olives and then covered with slices of marinated eggplant and zuchhini as well as somewhat of a surprise ingredient- dried apricots. A sprinkle of goat cheese and fresh herbs tops it off. The whole thing was like a pita pizza- it was actually "glued" to the plate with a dab of yogurt to keep it from sliding around. It was a tad on the small side to share between the four of us, and because of the shape and size somewhat difficult to cut into quarters. The combo of flavors was nothing out of the ordinary, but there was a solid mix of sweet, salty, creamy, and savory.

My entree option was a no-brainer- after my Dad sent me some pictures from Greece last summer of stuffed calamari, I knew I needed to try this dish for myself ($24). Two squid bodies are stuffed full of an incredibly flavorful rice mixture- pine nuts, lemon zest, feta cheese and vinegar meld together to make a compact stuffing. The slippery calamari packages this up, adding a chewy wrapper- though it didn't have much flavor of its own, the heavy-handed citrus was a great complement oozing from within. Served on a bed of slow-cooked green peppers that look a bit like pickled jalapenos, fat capers, and huge chunks of garlic- overall, it was a good balance to the carb-heavy start to the meal.

A initially ordered the Hirino ($23), a pork loin kebab served on top of another pita with an assortment of sides. Our mom chose the Moshari ($23), a grilled veal flank steak dish. Upon serving, A noticed some serious food coveting and agreed to switch plates. The Moshari comes with a solid serving of veggies- sauteed green chard with thick-cut mushrooms and fresh beans in a rich mushroom broth. Cooked till just tender, the greens were fresh and vibrant. The meat was beautifully cooked as well- pounded thin and coated in a lemon-herb marinade. Simple yet so satisfying.


The final entree of the night was the whole fish ($28)- a dorado (aka mahi-mahi) is wrapped in a grape leaf, then spends a brief time on the grill before finishing in the oven. This definitely calls for some serious deconstruction, involving peeling chunks of the flaky white meat off and leaving behind a bare bones fish skeleton. Apparently, fish have really tasty cheeks- the waiter checked to ensure empty jowls as he cleared the plate. The fish was also served with a chard mixture, this time a cold, almost raw rainbow chard salad with peppers and onions. Light and refreshing.

Not wanting to end the meal, we stayed for dessert. We ordered a large French press of decaf Counter Culture ($10), incubated to make a thick, dark and roasty rich coffee. A dab of cream made for a heavenly cup of brew.

As our waiter was describing some of the desserts, Constantinos came out of the kitchen and simply pointed at one of the choices before moving on to check on another table. Of course, chef knows best, so we immediately ordered the pistachio and olive oil cake ($8). A somewhat crumbled piece was served with a scoop of ouzo ice cream. The texture of the cake is due to the pistachio flour that infuses the treat with a beautiful green color and nutty flavor. Olive oil provides a rich moisture- overall, the cake isn't terribly sweet but the flavor profile and crumbly cakiness make it a great choice. The ouzo ice cream follows in this note, serving as a cold and creamy spoonful with a hint of licorice.

We also made an excellent decision in choosing the sticky date and chocolate cake ($8). This is like some sort of crazy fusion of chocolate cake batter, a cinnamon roll sticky bun, and bread pudding. A caramel glaze is infused throughout, causing each bite to glue your teeth together and smother your tongue in a sweet and spicy dark chocolate mush. I'm not kidding. You must eat this IMMEDIATELY.

I don't think I can say enough good things about Kanella. Consistently outstanding food, perfect array of menu items, great atmosphere, five star service- our meal was perfectly paced, allowing us a solid two-and-a-half hours of amazing eats. Whenever I am asked for restaurant recommendations, this is at the top of my list, and for good reason.

1001 Spruce Street

April 24, 2011


We're lucky (really!) to have parents who- while they live quite far away- like to visit Philadelphia as much as possible. Here for an extended weekend on their annual Easter pilgrimage to the Northeast, we made a single request of them: join us on the west side of the Schuylkill for lunch during our workday. They tend to stick to Center City, so I was almost surprised when they agreed. I wanted to pick a spot in University City to minimize their long walk, and was trying to think of something good, inexpensive, and quick. Thankfully, the newest spot on Walnut Street, Sweetgreen, fit all the requirements. Located adjacent to Bobby's Burger Palace and Chipotle, it's also a little haven of health.

Arriving late in the lunch rush, the line was fairly lengthy. Thankfully, salads don't take all that long to make, and the line moved fairly quickly. The seating is a little tight (I assume they expect most of their customers to order and leave) but I was able to snag an open table while we waited. The line snakes between a long, narrow communal table and the large menu on the wall, giving you a chance to decide basically from the moment you step in.

The menu won't give you a lot of trouble- very simple, with just a handful of creative salad options (all of which can alternatively be stuffed into a wrap), or you can go the design-your-own route. There are two order stations, one for the salads and wraps, and one for the sweet side of Sweetgreen- tart frozen yogurt. Very handy, if you're just craving dessert. Behind the counter, racks of salad greens are either intimidating or inspiring- I haven't decided.

All four of us went with salads (surprise), which are served in huge wooden bowls (you can also purchase a reusable salad container for $5, which gives you $0.50 off on all future purchases). The sheer amount of greens you get almost makes the steep price worth it right off the bat. J chose the "Curry Gold" ($8.25), a mix of baby spinach, roasted chicken, cucumbers, beets, dried cranberries and toasted almonds, all mixed with a fat-free curry pineapple yogurt dressing. The combination of ingredients was much appreciated- the salad creators definitely know what's up- but she had some qualms about both the chicken and the dressing. For a restaurant focused on vegetables, they might want to consider limiting it to just that, as their chicken is cooked and shredded into tiny "woodchips," dry and tasteless. The dressing, which sounds fantastic in theory, was plain, and the lack of fat both added to this problem and hindered the overall satisfaction level. We would order this combination again-- just as a "do it yourself" version without chicken and with a different dressing.

When you order, each salad is custom made, and certain options are provided along the way- one of which is the amount of dressing you'd like. Instead of simply soaking each bowl in a gallon of liquid, you can specify light, medium, or heavy applications. Each salad also comes with the option of bread (included in the price), which I would never pass up. A dense slice of wheaty, chewy goodness comes without butter or oil- just bread, exactly the way we like it. It also adds a few bites of carbs, and broke up any chance of leafy green monotony.

I went with the "Chic P" salad (pronounced "sheek p" apparently, and on the cheaper side at $8), since it somewhat resembled the object of my salad obsession: the Greek salad. A mix of baby spinach and mesclun greens is topped with a generous number of baked falafel balls, chickpeas, cucumbers, red peppers, and pita chips, and then tossed with a lemon-tahini dressing. One of the vegan options on the menu, this creation was both filling and delicious. The falafel weren't your average fried ball of ground beans, but instead fluffy spheres of whole chickpeas, flour, and chopped veggies. The pita chips gave a lovely fried crunch to every bite, while the dressing (medium application!) kept everything nice and moist. A winner in my book, I'll probably try to recreate this in the near future (or just head back to order it again).

Another notable feature of Sweetgreen is their focus on sustainability. A lot of their produce is locally sourced, with the provider farms and their locations prominently displayed near the menus. They also use biodegradable cutlery, cups, and bowls (if you're taking it to go), and offer all-natural carbonated beverages instead of the usual Coke/Pepsi deal. While these issues aren't of utmost importance to us, it makes me slightly more willing to pay a few extra bucks for my giant bowl of greens, and is nice to see in a "fast food chain."

Before we left, I pretty much forced J to buy us a cup of the frozen yogurt to split-- I mean, for blog purposes, obviously. I'm not a huge fan of the tart yogurt offered at other locations around the city, but this really hit the spot. Made with Stonyfield plain, nonfat yogurt, the smooth, frozen concoction is slightly sweetened and comes with your choice of three toppings. Since a small rings in at $4, those toppings are much appreciated. J chose for us all, and came back with a largish cup topped with coconut, blueberries, and toasted almonds. It's a fairly generous serving, and I don't think any of us could have asked for a better ending to our lunch- nothing heavy, just fresh, good food.

Once again, I find myself jealous of current Penn undergrads- the number of new eating establishments that have arrived in the past 3 years is rather astonishing. However, I may stop complaining and venture across campus more frequently now, especially when I have a hankering for a healthy pick-me-up.

3925 Walnut Street

April 20, 2011

Ali Baba

This past weekend we met up with some family in Newark, DE for a meal postponed from the last time we ate in this cute little college town. Ali Baba Middle Eastern Cuisine came highly recommended from a foodie friend, so we had lofty expectations.

Arriving in the middle of a monsoon, we snagged a metered spot on the street- parking is somewhat spotty in the area. The front entrance to the restaurant is less than inviting- a somewhat tacky bright red and yellow plastic awning covers the front porch. However, the inside is gorgeous with intricate tapestries, inlaid tables, and plenty of comfy lounge-y low tables perfect for a long meal. We started out with mugs of hot mint tea. To me it was more like hot sweet tea with a touch of mint- tons of sugar. Good for my sweet tooth, but I can imagine many disliking the almost overwhelming syrupy flavor.

We quickly placed an order for a ton of appetizers- our group was large and we knew we could conquer the task ahead. Of course, hummus ($7) was a requirement, and came served in a large pool covering an oval plate. A drizzle of olive oil and a good dusting of paprika made the dish visually appealing. Super creamy and heavy on the tahini, the overall texture was a bit on the thin side. Light notes of garlic and lemon could have been a bit more bold, but spread on a triangle of pita, it was just right.

The pita came out in enormous quantities, and was great for scooping up bits of this or that. The almost paper thin quality made it acceptable to eat several square feet worth of bread. Another favorite pita topper was the Fattouch salad ($7). Otherwise known as Lebanese bread salad, the dish is comprised of huge chunks of tomato and cucumber, a bit of onion and parsley, and a really light dressing of oil and lemon juice. Crispy pita chips give the salad its name while creamy crumbly feta gave a punch of saltiness. Altogether the salad was just really bright and fresh and delish.

I'd say the fan favorite appetizer was the Moroccan carrot salad ($6). We ordered two plates of these, and they all disappeared. Huge chunks of carrots were pickled in vinegar alongside tons of spices (and LOTS of salt), garlic, onion, and parsley. They had that pickly crunch to them without the snap of raw carrots. The natural sweetness took the edge off the acidic vinegar. Definitely a very unique dish, and addicting! Our grandpa even ate a few which apparently is pretty much the first time in his life he's been seen eating carrots.

We also threw in a last second order for the Bastilla ($8), a baked pastry type appetizer. A few thin sheets of crispy pastry were layered with scrambled eggs, shredded chicken, and almonds, and the whole thing was topped with a thick dusting of powdered sugar and "grill marks" of cinnamon. Cut into wedges and eaten a bit like a pie, the sweet and savory dish certainly is a great concept. The nuts and chicken trapped between the flaky pastry and topped with a bit of sugar- seems a bit like a Middle Eastern Monte Cristo. However, the whole thing seemed a bit overdone- the pastry was thin and dry, the egg mixture was a bit rubbery, and the flavor from the filling was lost to the sweet and spicy topping. Good in theory, not great in (this version anyway) practice.

At this point in the meal there was a pretty big lull in terms of the food, but it gave us a nice time to sit and chat and sip fresh cups of tea. Our waiter slowly cleared the table to make room for the main courses. The table surface actually got extremely cluttered between utensils, glasses, cups and saucers, plates to eat off of, and then the serving platters. We definitely did our fair share of shifting dishes around and consolidating food.

At lunchtime there are a variety of of pita pizzas and wraps, but for dinner the options are a bit more limited. We started with three different types of kabob- shish (lamb), chicken, and kafta (ground beef)- ranging from $12 to $14. Each dish comes with your choice of spiced rice or hummus and tabbouli. The lamb and chicken were both amazing- huge chunks of juicy, salty meat with tons of smoky grilled flavor. Both were perfectly cooked and sandwiched between pieces of pepper and onion. A small cup of creamy garlic sauce was another highlight- just the right amount of kick and a great accompaniment to the meat.

The kafta kabob was... weird. Not that it was bad, it was just like a long meatball on a stick. Or a hamburger-y corndog. Well seasoned and a good chewy texture but... the concept was just strange and it was hard to eat.

We also order two half-chicken dishes, the Moroccan chicken ($14) and the Dajaj Mashwy ($12). The former was superb- falling off the bone meat without an ounce of dryness, slow-cooked with a spicy harisa cumin sauce, essentially spicy red peppers and mild green peppers cooked down to a flavorful salsa. You could probably pick this thing up and shake the meat off the bones. It was insane. It was odd then that the Dajaj Mashwy was almost the complete opposite. Very plain, sauceless chicken had a strange congealed appearance and relatively dry meat. Thankfully the raving about the Moroccan chicken largely outweighed the disappointment of its tasteless counterpart.

The last dish of the evening was a vegetarian platter ($10). Nothing too exciting- more hummus, baba ghanouj that lacked much of an eggplant flavor (A mistook it for more hummus) and a citrus-y tabouli (ie chopped parsley salad). Additionally, there were two adorably heart shaped falafel and two stuffed grape leaves. While they weren't outstanding or particularly memorable, they played a solid role as Middle Eastern staples.

Overall the meal was a real hit- we all got to taste a huge range of dishes on the menu (my favorite type of meal) as well as relax in the laid-back environment and enjoy the company. Sheltered from the thunderstorm outside, the beautifully decorated interior has us feeling tucked away in a little oasis. The whole ethnic experience makes for a fun meal- with great food to boot.

Ali Baba
175 E Main Street
Newark, DE

April 18, 2011

Marathon on the Square

Restaurants belonging to a chain sometimes benefit, sometimes suffer, from their association with the larger group. During our undergrad years, we frequented Marathon- a cornerstone to the northwest corner of campus and a good spot to get brunch, a "fancier" sit-down dinner, or a place to take your parents. Since then, we've tried to shed our college eating habits, and since Marathon is distinctly associated with those years, we tend to avoid it's other outposts. Somewhat unfortunately, a Marathon is the only restaurant that inhabits our block.


A few months ago, a fellow Philly blogger reported on some new changes to the Marathon menu, and they looked right up our alley-- shrinking the vast menu and focusing on fresh, simpler dishes using lots of local, seasonal ingredients. I've had the pleasure of dining at "our" neighborhood Marathon twice in the past several weeks, and was overall quite happy with how the "new" menu fit in with the comfortable "old" setting.

Both dinners have started with an order of Crispy Shrimp and Calamari ($10) for the table. Most of the appetizers are reasonably priced ($6-8), but the calamari seemed oddly expensive for what you receive. A little light to split among four hungry stomachs, a small bowl of cornmeal crusted baby shrimp and squid rings is served on a bed of lettuce, with a side of delightful smoked paprika aioli (perhaps my favorite part of the dish!). I sometimes judge restaurants based on their fried calamari- it's on seemingly every menu so it can serve as a sentinel dish- and Marathon scores somewhere in the middle of the pack.

The menu boasts several mouthwateringly complex salads, and I've sampled two of them. On my initial visit, I went with what anyone might argue is the healthiest choice on the menu- the Grilled Vegetable and Grain salad ($9.5). A monster bowl of mixed greens is topped with no fewer than eight items- grilled asparagus, chunky squash, portobellos, onions, and tomatoes (roasted, not grilled), as well as barley, couscous, and wheat berries. The grilled vegetables offer enough depth of flavor to cover the whole salad, but its also served with a creamy lemon dressing- bringing a bit of sharpness to the bottomless bowl of greens. Even the inner salad monster in me couldn't finish this beast. Great bang for your buck, too.

My second foray into the salad selection was definitely less healthy, but still fulfilled my need for an indulgent but nutritious dinner. The Crispy Chicken and Sesame Salad ($11.5) tried to bring a little Asian flair to the neighborhood. A similar base of mixed greens was tossed with shredded carrots, edamame, cucumber, radish and red onions, and then topped with a flattened, crispy battered chicken breast, huge chunks of fried wonton, sliced almonds and toasted sesame seeds. That's a lot of ingredients. Somehow, they all seemed slightly bland, even with the addition of a citrus-based sesame dressing. The winners were definitely the fried bits- the crunchy, greasy wonton chips and the spiced, juicy chicken.

J helped us branch out to try some non-vegetable options and ordered the 18-hour Braised Brisket Sandwich ($10.5). A perfectly round, toasted brioche bun is smothered in shredded brisket and sauce. Those 18 hours were much appreciated- the slow cooked meat was tender and very flavorful, and with melted Swiss, caramelized onions, and a barbecue glaze, was a delicious mix. The flavor reminded us somewhat of a classic sloppy Joe- a bit heavier on the tomato-based sauce than we would have liked.

Overall, I've had two solid meals here- and the distinct pleasure of meandering just a few steps down the block to get to it is priceless. Marathon's goal has always been to provide a neighborhood restaurant with a focus on local goods, but recently they've really emphasized this goal, going above and beyond by revamping their menu, keeping their prices quite reasonable, and even introducing an urban farm to the city (www.marathonfarm.com for details). I'm excited to see where the coming years take this team, and am definitely adding the Marathon spots to my "frequent often" list.

19th and Spruce (with other locations)

April 15, 2011

Challah Stuffed French Toast Waffles

Don't be frightened by the title of this recipe. It may sound super complex, but really, it's just a fancy name to impress your friends. Since we make pancakes on the regular, a rare late morning weekend brunch called for something a little different.

Step 1: Purchase a loaf of challah bread. Or make your own.

Step 2: Cut challah into thick slices, about 1.5 inches. Cut these slices in half as if you were making a sandwich.

Step 3: Carefully cut slits into the front "face" of the bread. Thicker slices will make this easier. Do not allow the slit to cut through to the edges. This is the hardest part of this recipe, which is why I delegated the task to A- her knife skills far surpass my own.

Step 4: Prepare your stuffing ingredients. We went with Trader Joe's peanut butter cream cheese and sliced banana. Get creative: chopped nuts, fruit of any kind, jam, peanut butter, Nutella- the possibilities are endless. I would definitely suggest one component that will "melt"- the cream cheese in our case.

Step 5: Place your ingredients into the "mouth" of your carefully sliced open bread. The softness of the fresh challah made this a little difficult; I definitely ripped one entirely into two pieces. I employed a little trick of "whipping" a dollop of cream cheese with my butterknife a few times to soften it up before spreading it. This doesn't have to be exact either- it will spread out during the cooking process. I used about a tablespoon of cream cheese and 3 to 4 pieces of banana in each half slice of bread.

Step 6: Prepare shallow bowl as a "dipping station" for the French Toast component.

Whisk together the following (for two servings- 6 half-slices - scale as necessary):
2 eggs
2 egg whites
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Gently but quickly dip a piece of bread into the egg mixture. The bread absorbs liquid very quickly and you don't want it to be super soggy. Plus, if you let it sit too long, you'll probably run out of liquid for the last few slices.

Step 7: As soon as the bread is dipped, place it onto a preheated waffle iron. Ours is pretty small, but we squished two pieces in to speed up the process. We used the iron's preset timer to determine when the "waffles" were cooked through.

Step 8: Plate and add toppings. I sprinkled mine with a few sliced almonds and considered maple syrup, but it didn't need it. Seriously, these are even better than you might imagine. The slightly sweet bread soaked in egg gets an evenly cooked crispness from the waffle iron, as well as textural interest with the waffle "holes." The inside is a melty, gooey delicious mess of peanut butter and banana but with an added creaminess from the cream cheese.

Step 9: Consume. Slowly. These are meant to be savored.

April 12, 2011

Meritage KFC Revisited

It's been nearly a year since J ventured to Meritage for their specialty dish- Korean Fried Chicken. It was a much hyped meal that lived up to its publicity, and we were definitely part of a larger group who was disappointed to see it taken off the menu. Apparently, we made such a big stink that chef Anne Coll realized she had to bring it back- but compromised with a two-night-a-week return. Word is that the kitchen at Meritage is too small to produce large quantities of a time- and space-intensive dish such as this.

I can't decide whether I'm proud or embarrassed to say we staked out our spot for the first evening of the KFC's re-unveiling. This time, I was trying it for the first time, and J was experiencing it in a different way- instead of a "meal for two" as it was served last year, it is now a "large plate" meant to serve one. Since we like to eat more than 1/2 a plate, we ordered some appetizers to build a full meal. Once our order was placed, bread service arrived- an adorable, fluffy round bun served with salted (literally) butter.

The dining room was pretty empty, and we enjoyed having a little peace and quiet for our (unusual and much appreciated) mid-week dinner out. We got a secret sneak peek of the KFC as the couple next to us ordered it as well-- and even snapped pictures of it with their iPhones. Blogger city?

Our first "snack" was the lentil fritters with mint chutney ($4). We were excited, since our last run-in with lentil fritters was pretty mind-blowing. Coll's rendition is definitely more complex than the donut-like fritters at Philadelphia Chutney Company, and more closely resemble falafel. Lentils and finely chopped vegetables are combined in a batter, then fried in perfect finger-food size, and served with a deliciously cool mint sauce.

We also ordered an item off of the "small plates" section of the menu- the avocado-crab salad ($13). I was expecting a bit more of a lettuce based salad, but instead we received a deconstructed snack consisting of a well-formed pile of pure crab meat, an avocado mousse, and fried wonton chips for scooping. The micro-greens gave a little crunch to the soft crab, and together the flavors provided light, spring-like bites, with the melt-in-your-mouth wontons adding a touch of Asian flair.

Our final appetizer was a special of the night- which we embraced, since we were there for THE special of the night. Plus, it helped stretch the Korean theme. The Korean Pork Belly Taco ($5) caught my eye as we passed a diner noshing on one at the bar, and once our waitress described it, I was all over that. Unfortunately, compared to other Korean taco-like items we've eaten before, this rendition was a little lacking. The pork belly was thinly sliced and thus became over-cooked and a bit dry, and the tortilla base was also slightly dry. The flavors of the sauce were fantastic though, and I used it to drown out the few mishaps.

After finishing our random "first course," we didn't have to wait long for our eagerly anticipated plate of KFC ($18). Although the chicken is intended to have an Asian inspiration, it is served with two classic down-home Southern sides- which I still haven't decided is brilliant or odd (it could be both). Nicely cooked, soft, meaty (in both a textural and flavor-profile way) collard greens gave us a good dose of veggies, while the macaroni and cheese transported us back to childhood. Elbow macaroni coated in a subtle cheese sauce was topped with a generous layer of panko bread crumbs and baked into crunchy, salty, smooth comfort.

The chicken is served in three easy-to-eat pieces, of which two had bones and one did not. The outer coating wasn't crispy as typical fried chicken is, mostly because of the heavy coating of sauce: that delicious, savory Korean barbecue sauce-- identical to that used in the taco. However, I appreciated this, since it didn't suffer from the crispy-skin-dry-meat problem that lots of fried chicken unfortunately falls victim to. It also may or may not be due to the extensive brining process the meat goes through before frying. The three pieces were well-portioned for our appetizer-heavy meal, but would also be plenty for a solo diner.

Although I was happily satisfied, as our waitress cleared our plates and asked about our KFC experience, J commented that it wasn't quite as good as her first time. I'm not sure if Coll changed the recipe or is just a little rusty, but I'd still highly recommend you schedule her KFC into your mid-week eating plan.

500 S. 20th Street
KFC served on Wednesdays and Thursdays only

April 9, 2011

Strip Mall Eats

We readily admit we're pretty spoiled with our access to so many ridiculously good restaurants in walking distance- a major perk of living in the middle of a city. Most of these places are built into the block or take up the ground floor of a larger building. Truly separate space for an eatery is pretty rare, and I have started thinking it is odd when I see a stand-alone restaurant. However, in the suburbs and rural areas, the only "built-in" restaurants are those found in shopping complexes. Craig LaBan recently reviewed a South Jersey restaurant located in a strip mall.. and gave it three bells. While you typically associate strip malls with greasy pizza and Chinese take-out, once in awhile you can find a real gem.

A long weekend trip home to Florida gave me the opportunity to spend some time with my parents doing what I like to do best: eating. While they still frequent the exact same restaurant every single Friday night, I'm proud to say they've branched out and tried some new places that they thought I might like to try. As you might suspect, both dinners out were eaten at a shopping plaza.

Not a five-star restaurant.

The first was found a few miles west of the city limit, conveniently located close to GH&FC (best gym ever) right next to a Publix (best grocery store ever). The casual Italian environment of O Sole Mio with its warm rustic-ly painted walls, tile work, upholstered booths, and plenty of brightly colored images of Italy, transports you from the vast parking lot right outside. The service was great, quickly preparing a booth, handing us giant menus and bringing a piping hot basket of garlic bread. And let me tell you.. this was not just any garlic bread. Dense, chewy, buttery knots of dough are cooked to just barely done to give an ever so slight crispness to the outside, then topped with a brush of herbed oil. Seriously, these were like the savory version of the best cinnamon roll you can imagine.

Since the menu is pretty expansive- antipasti, baked pastas, pizzas, calzones, meat dishes of every type, etc- I didn't have high expectations for my entree. However, out first was a choice of soup or salad. The salad was your standard chopped iceberg plus wedge of tomato, but with a decent house made Chianti and basil dressing. My mom was raving about their soups, so she chose to go with the chicken noodle. Huge chunks of zuchhini, carrots and juicy chicken swam together in a rich broth, along with some al dente spaghetti that I ignored. I'm not huge into soup, but this was far far better than the Campbell's variety that I was expecting.

I'm really not a pasta eater, so I rolled with a chicken dish- the Polla alla Sorrentino ($13.99), which of course, is served over spaghetti anyway. The meal consisted of two huge chicken breasts cooked to perfection, then layered with prosciutto, a thin slice of breaded eggplant, and a generous amount of mozzarella. The whole mess is broiled to combine all of the layers into a ridiculously delicious (and obviously completely unhealthy) dinner. My favorite part was a thick slice of tomato hiding under the melty cheese- a nice pop of fresh, crisp texture and flavor. The pasta underneath had a combination white wine/marinara sauce that was quite light- bright and citrusy. I actually joked that I wished my chicken was served on top of garlic rolls instead of pasta but that definitely would have been over the top.

Even though my mom and I both brought over half of our dinners home, we couldn't get out of there without taking advantage of their one cent pizza deal. Yes, you read that right. If you dine-in, you can take home a medium cheese pizza for a penny. I honestly thought this was a hoax and demanded to see the bill. Also, even though I was super full, a steaming hot cheese pizza was pretty tempting, and I had to try it out before putting it in the fridge. My mom even admitted to eating a slice in the car the first time they went. While the sauce was a little on the sweet side, the crust was the kind that is thick and chewy without a hint of crispness- my favorite. I pretty much just ate the crust and a few bites of the pizza, but still. I'm a fat kid at heart.

Overall I'd say O Sole Mio is a pretty stellar Italian eatery, especially considering its location (rural American strip mall). The service was great, the food came out quickly, and we took tons of food home. If you find yourself in Newberry, Florida, stop in here, at least for the garlic bread.

A couple nights later, I accompanied my parents on another strip mall adventure, this time to Garlic & Ginger, a Korean BBQ restaurant complete with outdoor patio for a true barbecue experience. In order to enjoy the Final Four games, we opted to sit inside where the multiple TVs showed both basketball and Korean game shows. Interestingly, we were in the racial minority, which always suggests that the food is relatively authentic.

Our meal started out with a few standard banchan (side dishes)- two types of kimchi, fish cakes, and a gelatinous cube that our waiter called "acorn jelly." The spicy kimchi was flavorful with a kick of ginger and chili, but the regular was a little boring. The surprise star was the acorn jelly- smooth and thick, almost custardy, with a very mild sesame flavor. Apparently this dish is relatively time consuming to make, requiring long soaks for the acorns in order to separate the starch (used for the jelly) from the fiber.

As I've already mentioned, I don't really enjoy "regular" white-flour pasta, preferring alternate renditions such as spaghetti squash or soba noodles. Therefore, I decided to try out the Jab Chae with beef ($13ish), which was described as a sweet potato noodle dish. When it was served, I was definitely surprised- the noodles are transparent. Stir-fried with cabbage, greens, bits of red pepper and tiny bits of beef (I almost thought they left out the meat), the overall flavor is true to the restaurants name- garlic, ginger, a touch of soy, and sesame all played a role in making a spicy, oily, slightly sweet dish. The noodles satisfied my interest in "atypical" pasta, with the crunchy veggies countering the chewy noodles.

We also ordered a side of shrimp and veggie tempura ($8ish), which actually came out after our entrees were served. My mom suggested this was done purposely, as the appetizer was a major fail. The batter was way too heavy and soaked up way too much grease, particularly around the water-heavy veggies like zucchini. The shrimp were alright, but a tad overcooked, and it was hard to taste the seafood through the funnel cake wrapped around each piece. At the end of the meal, the plate was covered in partially eaten pieces, resembling a piece of abstract art. I prefer seeing an empty plate.

While we watched VCU's championship dreams slip away in the last few minutes of the game, our waiter brought us each a small ceramic cup of a cold ginger drink. It tasted like heavily sugared rice milk with a hint of ginger- a sweet sip to soothe any latent lip burning (some of the dishes they serve are uber spicy). Both of my parents had some sort of weird papery substance at the bottom, like disintegrated rice particles. Thankfully, my cup was liquid throughout.

Considering Philly is majorly lacking in the Korean BBQ category (save for Miga), I'm pretty impressed that Gainesville has a decent option. While none of us tried any true Korean BBQ, each of our dishes was interesting and unique- truly authentic cuisine. I'm very glad that such a restaurant is thriving in my small town! Between the two dinners, I'd also suggest looking past the sketchy appearance of strip mall restaurants- you might just find something truly delicious wedged between your dry cleaner and grocery store.

O Sole Mio
Newberry, FL

Garlic & Ginger
Gainesville, FL (corner of Tower & Archer Roads)