February 26, 2012

What I Learned at COOK

We had the extremely good fortune of snagging tickets to one of COOK's February classes.  If you haven't heard of COOK, it's a "Collaborative Kitchen-Classroom," or in other words, a place where you spend an ungodly amount of money to spend a few hours chowing down with your favorite chef(s).  Co-sponsored by the one and only Foobooz, as well as Philadelphia Magazine, it really doesn't need their press.  The class we signed up for sold out in just hours, and we all laid down $145 a person for an event we really knew very little about.  Described as a neighborhood "pop-up," all we knew was we would be eating with a number of chefs representing restaurants from the Fishtown district.  Since it is considered a "classroom," we present to you: What I Learned at COOK.

1.  The flavors and personalities behind Loco Pez, Fishtown's new SoCal-style taco joint reinforced my desire to make it to the restaurant.  Operated by co-chefs "Big Joe" and "Little Joe," the key is a combination of simplicity and freshness.

2.  Yes, at COOK, they do sometimes cook for you while you watch.  Fresh guacamole was prepared for us as a pre-dinner snack.  Other items, such as the marinated and slow cooked short ribs used in one of the taco varieties, are prepared ahead of time.

3.  Four courses, each from a separate restaurant, will leave you stuffed beyond belief.  In this case, it's best just to go with it.  While none of the courses really meshed with the others, the timing of the evening was such that it was like consuming four mini meals.

4.  The chefs of the evening were wonderfully enthusiastic and great fun just to be around-- and that's without even taking their cooking skills into consideration.

L to R: Peter McAndrews (Paesano's Philly Style); "Little Joe" (Loco Pez); Zoe Lukas (Whipped Bakeshop); Daniela D'Ambrosia (The Pickled Heron); Daniela's sister/sous chef; Peter's sous chef

5. Sharing a bowl of chips and guac with the 15 strangers helps to break the ice.  They also have a formal icebreaker, in which chefs and patrons alike stated his/her name and last great meal in the city.

6. Loco Pez uses a marinade for their short ribs that includes sugar and soy sauce.  Not sounding particularly Mexican?  Apparently there is quite an Asian influence in both Mexican and SoCal cuisines- and although I have zero hard sources for that, the sweet and salty mix worked wonders for the often tough cut of meat.

7. The three tacos were worlds apart in terms of flavor and texture, but each was outstanding.  My favorite was the deep fried grouper taco (hello, white sauce), but J's favorite was the seitan- chewy, salty and.. almost meaty!  The accoutrements pumped up the flavor profile- a little cilantro here, some raw onion and a squeeze of lime there, and a dollop of housemade spicy green salsa on it all.

L to R: Fried Grouper Taco, Braised Short Rib Taco, Seitan Taco
8.  Loco Pez doesn't use housemade corn tortillas, but the little guys were just simple carriers for the good stuff on top.

9. On to our favorite course of the evening- "sandwiches" from Paesano's, made by Peter McAndrews himself.  He demonstrated the preparation of the roast pork (for the Porchetta Sandwich- also known as the Arista at the shop), but this huge hunk of meat was never ours, as we once again relied on a pre-made roast.

10. McAndrews uses whole cloves of garlic, lots of fresh herbs and his secret ingredient- anchovies- in his preparation of the roast.

11. What should you use if you don't have fresh herbs on hand?  Well, you should stab yourself in the leg.  And in the case of one who may not enjoy anchovies?  Might as well kill yourself.  Advice straight from the man himself.

12.  McAndrews loves to use sexual innuendos to help novice chefs understand the art of cooking.

Constructing the Porchetta Sandwiches
13. Jerry Blavet (also known as Geator with the Heator/Boss with the Hot Sauce) might make an impromptu appearance in the middle of a COOK class.  Seemingly welcomed off the street, he was greeting fans (ie the older members of the class) and sipping a drink for the duration of McAndrew's class time. 

14. Chicken livers, when doused in hot sauce and flash fried, are nothing to be scared of.

15.  Don't want an entire sandwich?  Need to make a plate of appetizers for a large group?  Construct your favorite sandwich open-faced style on slivers of toasted baguette.

Porchetta: Italian Long Hots, Sharp Provolone, Broccoli Rabe Pesto, and Roast Pork
16. Broccoli rabe pesto is delicious- a unique way to add the bitter greens to a dish without having to deal with their bulk.

17.  Next time I go to Paesano's, I'm getting the Liverace. One of the best sandwiches I've ever had-- a surprise hit with orange marmalade and chicken livers-- who would have thought?

Liverace: Roasted Tomatoes, Sweet Orange Marmalade, Provolone, Crispy Chicken Livers and Sriracha
18. I don't make homemade pasta, but I might get an attachment for my future KitchenAid mixer just for this.  Daniela makes it look like a breeze.

19.  The Pickled Heron- open just eight weeks at the time of our class- has been making a splash in the Philly dining scene.  OK, I didn't learn that at COOK.  But I DID learn why- this girl has talent.  Classic French food made by an Italian?  Somehow, it works.

20.  Homemade raviolis (well, made by a professional) to serve a crowd of fifteen take about twenty minutes from start to finish.  I'm impressed.

White Bean Raviolis with Shredded Osso Bucco, Brussels Sprouts and Fried Sage
21.  Some of the lone veggies of the night- pan roasted brussels sprouts and butternut squash- played a huge role as a topping for these white bean raviolis.  The rich, slow roasted, meaty shredded osso bucco didn't hurt either.

22. A lot of people in the food industry don't take a straight path to get there.  Zoe Lukas is an artist by training, but uses her design skills to make beautiful- but also incredibly tasty- baked goods.

23.  The Sasquatch Brownie is so named because it is simply legendary.  Zoe did note that some patrons of her shop are embarrassed to ask for it by name.  But don't be- it is hands down the best (and also most decadent) brownie in the city.  And now I have the recipe.

24.  Zoe used the microwave to melt the chocolate for the ganache- and swears its the best method.  George Perrier is the only other chef to use the microwave at COOK, at least so far.

Sasquatch Brownie: Nearly flourless, doused in salted caramel and chocolate ganache
25.  Our "favors" for the evening: almond sugar cookies with amazing icing designs (one depicted the storefront of Paesano's!).  Want something similar from the shop?  That'll be $4.75.

26.  Describing our experience at COOK is impossible- you just have to live it.  It'll be the most we pay for any food event this year, but it was 100% worth it to spend an evening getting to know the chefs of some of our past, current, and future favorite spots in the city- and indulge in a night of amazing eats, of course.

27. It wouldn't be possible without the people at COOK, the chefs and their sous chefs, or the men of Foobooz and Philadelphia Magazine.  For an endeavor I at first thought might be frivolous, they have turned it into a truly one-of-a-kind Philly food event.

Nominated for the Epikur Writer of the Year Award

253 S. 20th Street

Loco Pez
2401 E. Norris Street

Paesano's Philly Style
152 W. Girard Avenue/1017 S. 9th Street

The Pickled Heron
2218 Frankford Avenue

Whipped Bakeshop
636 Belgrade Street

February 22, 2012

Sketch Burger

One of A & I's favorite things to do is play hostess(es) to visitors- particularly ones not too familiar with Philadelphia.  It's so much fun to come up with a weekend itinerary of unique ways to see the city.  One of our cousins and her boyfriend came up for three days, and we decided to take them up to Fishtown for a fun Friday evening.  First stop: Sketch Burger.  This hole-in-the-wall burger joint makes up for its small size with a bright and playful atmosphere.  Painted neon green and decorated with Christmas lights on the outside, plastered with patrons (mostly burger oriented) artwork on the inside- complete with crayons, markers, and construction paper at each table.

While we admired the artwork, we also checked out the menu.  Staples include a variety of burgers (with your choice of toppings, sauces, and cheeses) and sandwiches (pulled pork and grilled chicken), as well as fries and shakes.  The specials menu added some variety to the mix.

My personal favorite artwork + the specials.
We started out with a couple orders of fries to split- the regular hand-cut belgian style ($3.50) and the special sweet potato fries ($4.00).  Each comes with a side of one sauce- our waitress suggested the chipotle and harissa aioli.  The fries came out relatively quickly, served in paper-lined cones with sauce "arms."  The sweet potato fries were definitely our favorites- huge chunks of crispy, ridged sweet potato which released a good deal of steam when the soft insides were exposed. Tossed in salt and pepper, these didn't need a sauce at all.  However, the harissa aioli was a HUGE hit at our table- creamy and spicy and highly addicting.

The belgian fries were a little less exciting- a smaller cut and subsequently a lot less crispy.  Good, but just get the sweet potato if they're offering them.

There was a pretty long wait at this point, which seemed weird since the place is so small and the menu is relatively straight-forward.  At the end of the meal I realized people were coming in pretty frequently to pick up to-go orders which made a little more sense.  While we waited, we created some masterpieces for the wall- I taped A's up next to where we were sitting.

When we finally did get our food, I dug into a standard sirloin beef burger ($6.95) with harissa aioli (free) and avocado ($1.50).  The egg-washed white bun was incredibly fluffy - easily squished to maximize a mouthful of all the components.  I really loved the shape of the burger itself - perfectly fitted to its bun, almost an inch tall, with a compactness that never threatened to crumble apart.

All burgers go to heaven?
Lettuce and tomato comes standard on the burger, but the avocado and aioli added a whole lot of creaminess- a perfect complement to the crispy meat.  The flavor combination was incredible- I don't eat burgers all that often so maybe I've just been deprived, but this thing hit the spot.  My one complaint was that the medium-rare was more like medium-well.  Fortunately it really had no bearing on the deliciousness of the sandwich as a whole.

I had to eat part of the half in order to hold it up.
A and I did our typical "trade 1/2 for 1/2" switcheroo, and I was excited to try out her pick- the special Thai red curry and coconut milk chicken burger with mango chutney ($7.95).  The extensive title made it sound a little more flavorful that it actually was.  The chicken patty itself was similar in density and size as its beefy counterpart- almost tricking me into thinking it was actually a whole piece of chicken.

The predominant flavor was a sweet chili sauce- not curry at all- as well as the double-sided slathering of a cloying fruit spread containing chunks of dried mango.  I personally didn't love the overly sweet flavor profile- especially after my umami bomb of a burger- but A loved it.

My cousin ordered the exact same thing as I did (a trend that continued over the course of the weekend.. we must be related!) but her boyfriend dressed up a burger with sauteed mushrooms and onions, a fried egg over medium, and American cheese.  This version tops out at $12- the toppings can add up quickly!  However, the thing was a beast and probably worth every cent.

Sketch has an extensive ice cream (regular and vegan) menu, but we were saving room for fire-roasted  s'mores at Frankford Hall and were plenty full from burgers and fries.  Classic American favorites done right.  Next time I'm ordering my burger super rare- with extra harissa aioli!

Sketch Burger
413 E. Girard Ave

February 19, 2012


It's not a rare event for us to review a brand-new restaurant.  It IS unusual for us to discuss our first time trip to a restaurant that is nearing its last days- but that is what this is.  Chef Daniel Stern's locally inspired University City spot will be closing on February 24th, and we almost allowed it to run its course without visiting.  One of our friends is a huge fan of the restaurant, and was looking for anyone who would join her for a meal before it closed.  Perhaps we shouldn't have visited, as now we know what we'll be missing, but we're glad we finally gave it a go.

The space is not in an ideal part of town for business- mostly university and office buildings surround it- but inside and out, it is unique and provides a feeling of funkiness and fun.
The menu has been cut down significantly from its original, probably because of decreased staff and just the gradual process of closing down.  However, we really just wanted an assortment of small plates, and many of these are still available.  First up- the bread service.  Our friend was pretty excited to introduce us to the flaky, buttery spiced biscuits, but later said they were different from the original.  Either way, we loved them- small enough that you won't fill up, and flavorful enough that you really don't need more than one.  They are salty and savory, with almost a Thanksgiving stuffing flavor (sage?).

We ordered a number of small plates to split, the first of which was the Pig Wings ($12).  A bit on the pricy side for an appetizer, but with a name like that, you can't skip them.  However, they're a bit misleading-- they aren't wings at all. Instead, they are small cubes of soft, fatty roasted pork, breaded, fried, and tossed in a rosewater-molasses sauce.  They were crunchy on the outside, but the inner texture was more like pork belly.  The thick sauce was a balance of sweetness and spice (and no apparent sickly rose flavor), and while the garlic buttermilk dipping sauce on the side was good, it was kind of overkill.  As weird as these little guys were on first bite, they were rather addicting.

The menu also has a bit of a Southern flair (starting with the biscuits!), and the inclusion of fried green tomatoes made us happy.  Their version comes served over a smoky mayo based spread, and is topped with a heap of arugula tossed in a light bacon vinaigrette ($8).  The tomatoes themselves were lightly breaded but overly fried, leaving limp, softened slices of tomato where we expected firm green tomatoes with a good bite.  Perhaps that's what we get from ordering tomatoes in February?

Our second tomato-based dish sounded great on the menu- a Smoked Tomato Fondue ($10).  A huge bowl of rich pureed tomatoes was topped with a hefty drizzle of a smoked basil pesto and a slice of melty goat cheese and a bit of oregano.  Toasted slices of baguette to scoop it all up made it almost like a deconstructed margherita pizza.  The bread to sauce ratio was way off though, and the cheese was really hard to scoop up with the rest of it.  Many bites just seemed like bread dipped in canned, stewed tomatoes-- it didn't taste bad but it was definitely our least favorite.

Our friend ordered her all-time favorite menu item, the house baked Warm Soft Pretzel ($9), and while it's now served with a side of mustard, she requested it served with the welsh rarebit fondue (which it used to always come with!).  The melty cheese stole the show, although the pretzel was perfect- crisp on the outside and doughy on the inside, with that perfect bite that defines a good soft pretzel.  Once the pieces of pretzel disappeared, however, we continued dipping everything ELSE on the table into the cheese.

At this point we were all stuffed, but we needed to try at least one of the larger menu items.  J and I decided to split the Roast Pork sandwich, a delicious twist on a Philly classic ($12).  The sandwich is served on a pretzel bun, which is essentially a larger version of the appetizer-- yay, more soft pretzel!  The shredded roast pork is super juicy and flavorful, almost as if cooked in a concentrated broth.  Bitter broccoli rabe and a huge smothering of smoked cheddar (hello, more cheese) made this one of the best pork sandwiches I've ever had-- but probably best eaten when enormously hungry, not after eating almost a half dozen small plates.  The skin-on fried potato wedges were a great alternative to fries, although their outer fried shell was thick as if cooked in oil that was not quite hot enough.  Crispy when they first arrived, as soon as they cooled to the touch, they became a bit soggy.

Overall, our meal was a lot of fun.  Stern originally aimed to serve twists on classic Pennsylvanian dishes, both of Philly and Amish styles- and while some of that is still apparent, it definitely has morphed over the few short years it has been open.  A few kitchen snafus and a ho-hum server (she seemed totally over it, and looked bored when we mentioned the impending closing) may have been a sign of the times, but it may also have contributed to the need to close up shop.  We've heard rumors that the space will be snatched up by an enormously famous Philly restauranteur (with the initials of SS?), but nothing solid has been reported yet.

MidAtlantic (since announcing the closing, the website is gone)
3711 Market Street

February 16, 2012

The Corner

Seems like we've been using a lot of Groupon type deals lately... they certainly help lure us to places we might not otherwise be inspired to try.  The Corner used to be a cocktail bar, but was reinvented as a sleek yet casual American restaurant serving up fun twists on classic comfort foods.  We actually tried to use a deal for The Corner a few weekends ago, but a sign saying "Temporarily Closed" and a giant pit in the street outside deterred us- apparently road work had caused some serious power and gas shortages to a few restaurants on busy 13th Street.

We ended up trying again about two weeks later for a week-night birthday dinner celebration, and the manager recognized us from our conversation with him during the power outage.  Apparently the heat still wasn't running, but space heaters and unseasonably warm weather made it tolerable.  The manager was completely gracious (especially for something that was not in any way the restaurant's fault) and we got extra special treatment for returning.

The culprit.
Even though we were dining during Restaurant Week, we were allowed to order a la carte, which was much appreciated (though their 4 course RW menu definitely seemed like a good deal- we just weren't in the mood for that much food!).  We started out with a "snack"- the fried pickles with spicy mayo ($3), a few chunks of soft pickles encased in a light tempura batter.  The lightness of the tempura allowed it to stay intact with the pickle inside, soaking up the salty brine. A side of mayo-based dip was thin and essentially a creamy version of Frank's Red Hot.  I actually forgot I was eating pickles at one point,  it tasted so much like wing sauce.

So many of the small plates sounded amazing- it was practically impossible to pick just one.  From the bay scallops & dumplings to the jalapeno grit cakes, the advertised "American cuisine" definitely has a good Southern influence.  However, we were most intrigued by the warm potato salad ($8).  A pile of perfectly al dente fingerling potatoes tossed in a light truffle oil-based dressing was layered with a few slices of extra salty, pale pink deli ham and roasted pearl onions.  A fat poached egg rested atop the haphazard layers.  We both really enjoyed the truffle flavor infused into the potatoes- subtle enough to allow the parsley and roasted onions to maintain their presence.  The one "miss" on this dish was the ham- it definitely had a weird texture.

A encouraged me to order the seafood hot dog ($12)- certainly a unique menu item.  Served on an extra-pillowy potato bun with a thick squirt of avocado mayonnaise, the dog itself is griddled to a crisp.  It had a snappy bite and an inner texture reflecting the scallop and shrimp within.  Definitely a fun alternative to the greasy version of who-knows-what kinds of animal parts.  A side of chips were paper thin and lacked any real flavor, but the coleslaw was crisp and fresh with a perfect balance of pepper-y spice and acidic vinegar.

A explored the only vegetarian option of the "larger plates"- the sweet potato turnip gratin ($14).  Crispy thin layers of the starchy vegetables were somehow arranged in a perfect circle and baked under a parmesan cheese crust.  A bed of soft beluga lentils were on the plain side, but added a necessary protein element that some restaurants seem to leave out of their veg options.  Overall a hearty winter entree that again displayed that perfect al dente texture through the layers of the gratin.

To complement the real lack of green vegetables in our meal, we ordered a side of our classic favorite- the brussels sprouts ($6).  Quartered with a good bit of stem, the large chunks of brussels were tossed in oil and oven-roasted to a nice crispy outer char.  Bits of thick-cut homemade Italian bacon gave a salty, chewy compliment to the softer sprouts.  A solid serving of veggies served up in a classic rendition that was full of flavor- not particularly inspired, but certainly satisfying.

The Corner has so many interesting choices across the board, so I was sort of surprised when we took a look at the dessert options- a brownie, pound cake, and a bread pudding.  The latter, made with banana bread and served with a cranberry sauce, was the only real original dessert- but not enough so to compel an order.  Maybe next time?

We're quite glad we circumvented the original deterrent and made it back to The Corner to see what John Taus had up his sleeve.  The restaurant has cycled though a few chefs, but we enjoyed this rendition of the menu and would recommend it to anyone looking for a casual dinner- a few degrees removed from classy Barbuzzo only a few doors down, but certainly offering a menu full of tasty and inventively-altered classic American dishes.

The Corner
102 South 13st Street

February 13, 2012

The Tomato Bistro

Many months ago, I casually mentioned to my Roxborough-dwelling significant other that he should purchase a Groupon for a multi-course meal for two at The Tomato Bistro.  The Manayunk eatery is the recent addition to the dual Tomato restaurants right off of Main Street.  While firstborn The Couch Tomato Cafe specializes in walk-up, laid-back American cuisine- think pizzas and sandwiches- the Tomato Bistro is its slightly upscale, full-service counterpart.  Opening last October, their November Groupon offer was assumedly a ploy to draw attention to the new space.

I later forgot about the Groupon until December, when I was surprised with it as a Christmas gift.  Since its expiration is approaching in March, I nailed down a night for us to use it.  Upon arrival, we were led up to the top floor, which features a balcony overlooking the larger second floor seating area.  It was fairly empty upon arrival, but it was packed by the time we left- looks like they have had no trouble bringing in business.

Second and third floors Source
Our Groupon provided us with a TON of food (for only $25!), and let us sample from every part of the menu.  While we were perusing the options, our waitress brought us each a tiny cup of- you guessed it- tomato soup.  I actually think this was a small serving of their "Pizza Soup," a combination of a thick, sweet tomato sauce flavored with basil and a splash of cream with a piece of well-toasted crostini soaking up the juices.  The bread was my favorite part- it crumbled like a dense shortbread cookie on every bite.  Plus, I'm always a sucker for a fun "amuse bouche."

Testing out his new iPhone camera
We then selected our options for the evening, which included three small plates (from about twenty options spanning seafood to mac n'cheese to bruschetta), a pizza, and a salad.  I immediately knew I wanted the Crispy Artichokes (typically $8.99), and I received a somewhat begrudging "Merry Christmas" for the choice.  Three baby artichoke halves were prepped and deep-fried, reminding me of my recent first exposure to deep-fried artichoke hearts at Varalli- now that I've tasted it, I can't ignore it.

Served over a bed of arugula and a small pool of lemon-scented aoili, it was kind of a mini-salad.  The frying process gave the 'chokes a super soft texture without ruining their subtle flavor- even my veggie-avoider enjoyed a piece.

His addition to the table was an order of the Kobe Sliders ($8.99), which come as two mini burgers, each with different toppings.  The mini grilled brioche buns and the melt-in-your mouth, buttery meat would have been beautiful all on their own, but they also paired well with both a grilled portobello + truffle oil combination as well as the guacamole + pepper jack topping.

Left: Guacamole  Right: Portobello
Our final appetizer was an order of mussels- something we can both always agree on.  With three options for cooking styles, we settled on the assumedly classic combo of White Wine and Garlic ($9.99).  The portion was perfect to split, and the mussels themselves were so big I'm still wondering how they fit in their shells.  My major complaint was the sauce- while it wasn't overpowering to the mollusks themselves, I wouldn't want it on its own- flavors of fennel and capers dominated, while the wine and garlic seemed to be missing.  Thankfully, the bread served alongside was one of my favorite parts of the meal- a hunk of wheaty, fluffy foccacia that I made sure steered clear of the remaining juices.

As our small plates were cleared, our waitress brought out the salad portion of the meal.  Their salads are meals in themselves, and even though I picked one of the lighter options, the Goat Cheese Salad, it was impossible to finish ($9.99).  A huge pile of spicy arugula (thankfully I love it, after the artichoke dish) was nestled in a bowl with a blanket of dried cranberries and huge bits of salty bacon, all of which was sprinkled with a brown butter-dijon dressing.  I usually hate typical restaurant heavy-handed dressing applications, but this was light enough in flavor to not drown the greens.  Three crunchy balls of fried goat cheese were obviously the highlight of the show-- goat cheese + deep fried shell = what's not to love?

Goat Cheese Salad + Unnecessary Breadstick
The Couch Tomato and the Tomato Bistro specialize in flat bread pizzas, so I was glad we were able to sample one.  They have a number of unique options, including Fig (with fig butter + pears), Duck & Apple, and Guacamole (Mexican flavors), but we went with Pulled Pork ($12.99).  We love pulled pork and we love pizza, so what could go wrong?  Their crust is thin and chewy, not the thick, doughy kind I prefer, but at this point of the meal, I wasn't gunning for a filling dish.  Large pieces of shredded, slow-cooked pork are combined with softened onions cooked in a chipotle sauce that had a hint of cinnamon sweetness- not my favorite, but it wasn't overwhelming as long as you didn't get a huge bite of onion.  Smoked gouda and mozzarella covered the whole mess, providing essentially an open-faced pulled pork sandwich.

The pizzas are well sized for two to split for dinner (salad + pizza for two would be perfect), or would be great split with a small group for a snack during a Main Street shopping trip- the Tomato Bistro is open at 11AM every day of the week.

Our final bite of the night was dessert.  We were given three options: creme brulee, flourless chocolate cake, or cheesecake.  It was a no-brainer since we both love cheesecake.  The rendition here seemed more or less homemade (it's sort of hard for me to tell!), with a dense graham cracker crust and a smooth, creamy filling.  The swirls of overly sweet chocolate syrup was a distraction at best, but easily avoided.

Overall, our meal at the Tomato Bistro was just what I wanted- a relaxed atmosphere, relatively quiet but with a fun vibe (I could see it getting a little crazier later at night), solid eats with plenty of menu variety for the picky to the adventurous.  Especially with our Groupon, it was incredibly well-priced.  On a future visit, I would definitely cut down the number of dishes, making it even more affordable as a date spot.

The Tomato Bistro
102 Rector Street