July 31, 2013

Pei Wei

Living in the suburbs*, I am more inclined to hit a chain or non-local restaurant.  Whether it's because I have less options or more accessibility, I'm totally fine with it.  I've been absolutely loving living within five minutes from a beautiful new Target (my bank account, however, is not as happy with this), which sits adjacent to a string of popular find-them-everywhere-but-they're-still-good-right? eateries.  It just feels so.. suburban!

The timing was just right for an invitation to sample some of Pei Wei's new menu items.  Pei Wei is essentially P.F. Chang's less busy, more casual little sister.  While we've only been to P.F.'s once in our lives, we can see the appeal- it's like an Asian Cheesecake Factory, with a pages-long menu and enormous, satisfying portions.  Pei Wei is much smaller, with fewer options, and a more basic street food and noodles menu (read: also cheaper!).  Order at the counter when you walk in and find a table to await your selections.

The decor makes an attempt at providing an authentic Asian experience, and the open kitchen is a nice touch.  You can tell the chefs aren't just microwaving your meal!  While we were invited specifically to try the lettuce wraps, we ordered a few items to supplement.  We brought along our chauffeur  my husband, who ordered the sweet and sour crispy chicken, served with your choice of white or brown rice ($8.35).  Just about what you'd expect for the dish, with large chunks of breaded and fried chicken, fresh vegetables, and pineapple tossed in a sweet glaze.  A bit better than a food cart or your corner Asian take-out restaurant- it just tasted fresher.

We also ordered the Dan Dan noodles, a huge portion meant for sharing served with the namesake spicy meat sauce, crispy cucumbers, and bean sprouts.  Decent flavor, but who are we kidding, we made a bad choice.  No Dan Dan's will ever live up to Mr. Han Chiang's, so obviously we were a little disappointed.

The lettuce wraps definitely fared much better.  Like the sweet and sour chicken, you could instantly recognize the freshness of the dish- look at those lettuce leaves!  Although iceberg lettuce isn't our first choice for salads, it's perfect for these wraps as the high water to flavor ratio gives you a crisp, crunchy, refreshing blanket for the spicy filling.  We ordered two versions, the Korean Steak wraps and the Thai Chicken, both relatively new on the menu.  The chicken was J's favorite, with a ton of Thai flavor from the chopped cilantro and mint, as well as a citrus-y sauce ($6.95).  I don't often think of Thai food as refreshing, but this definitely was!

I preferred the Korean Beef, since I'm minorly obsessed with the flavors of Korean BBQ ($7.75).  There's just something about that rich, dark, and spicy chile sauce, and it goes particularly well with red meat.  Both dishes also had a fair number of fresh veggies as well, including cucumbers, carrots, and bean sprouts to bulk up the dish while keeping it light.

The lettuce leaves were perfectly cut to make construction of the wraps super easy, although a few more pieces per plate would have being great-- it's dangerous to overstuff them!

While the flavors were way better than I expected, I also could have used slightly larger pieces of meat.  I can see the benefit to shredded meat in a wrap (the smaller everything is, the easier it is to roll up), but the tiny shreds of chicken and beef didn't hold as much flavor and moisture as larger chunks might.

If I was out shopping and stumbled upon a Pei Wei, I wouldn't hesitate to drop in for a quick meal- it's super inexpensive and I like knowing I'll get a freshly prepared meal.  The lettuce wraps are also a great healthier option- you still get the flavors you're craving without a huge bowl of noodles or rice.  Thanks to Pei Wei for inviting us to give it a try!

* I realize East Falls isn't technically a suburb...

Pei Wei
4040 City Ave (next to Target on Monument Rd)

July 25, 2013

Square 1682

Life has been hectic, and we've not only been neglecting the blog, we have barely even had time to get out and check out what's going on in Philly.  Thankfully, a lot of big-name restaurants have PR reps that kindly keep us in the loop with any fun events or major changes.  We were recently alerted to a menu makeover at Square 1682, the restaurant associated with Hotel Palomar.  We hadn't returned since our long-ago meal celebrating Earth Day; since then the restaurant has really changed its image, scaling back a bit and transitioning into more of a casual eating establishment with a focus on the bar.   Our mission was to find out whether this would reflect a change in the quality of the food. 

We settled into a spacious table complete with super cushy leather seats and a huge window ledge that I essentially moved into (ladies carry a lot of stuff in their purses).  We had two waiters taking care of us since one was still in "I'm new here" mode.  Together they were a tad overbearing but super sweet and great with timing.  When we told them we planned to share all of our dishes, they kindly split the "market seasonal soup" ($11) into two bowls.  Since last week was insanely hot, the kitchen made a smart choice in creating a cold pea soup.  The base of the soup definitely contained something extra starchy, providing a really thick texture and an undertone of starch flavor.  Whole peas, cubed canteloupe, fennel, and an impossibly thin and crispy piece of Serrano ham created lots of textural interest and hit that sweet spot of a salty-sweet balance.  We also really loved these ceramic lion bowls!

As we dug into our soup, one of our waiters popped by with a bowl o' carbs- a fun Middle Eastern-inspired crispy flatbread studded with black sesame seeds, a few pieces of herb dusted foccacia, and a crusty round roll.  It was fun to mix and match with the ultra-whipped butter and an olive oil dip.

The new menu kind of surprised us- we typically end up front-loading with interesting sounding appetizers and go light with the entrees.  However, all of the entrees at Square 1682 sound amazing- it was so hard to narrow it down!  The lamb short ribs ($18) were a great choice- these ribs were less meaty than traditional beef short ribs, but the meat was obviously treated with a lot of care. A slow roast encouraged the bones to shed their meat without argument, but there was still a noticeably crunchy exterior expertly painted with bourbon BBQ glaze.  The meat was served over fluffy Lancaster cheddar grits that really had more of a super-slow-cooked polenta texture as well as a fun summer corn succotash made with zucchini, red and yellow peppers, and a few microgreens.  The portion sizes here are generous, and the careful balance of meat, vegetables, and starch was achieved.

The side dishes are a little pricey (averaging $8+), but the "Bright Lights Swiss Chard" sounded far too good to turn down ($9).  The menu promised brie, beets, and strawberries- unfortunately our dish was lacking the beets, but the smoky, salty, earthy chard again reflected a knowledgeable chef who respects the quality of these ingredients and works magic to highlight their charms.  Creamy brie and sweet summer strawberries make pretty much any dish even that much better, amiright?

The other winning entree was the Skuna Bay salmon ($22), served with red lentils studded with crunchy bits of carrots and celery, charred fennel, and a citrus glaze.  The chunk of salmon was easily eight ounces or more, with crispy skin intact and providing forkfuls of brilliant orange-pink flaky meat.   Fennel is another one of those "can-do-no-wrong" ingredients in our book, and the char was just perfectly reflective of summer.  Again, it was nice to see some extra veggies packed in with the quinoa.

Although we were too full for dessert (thanks to an afternoon snack of a giant bag of chips + tub of guac for only $4 at Honest Tom's.. best deal ever but that's another story for another day), the peach and blackberry cobbler sounded like it would have been the perfect sweet ending to our meal.  Overall, we were really pleased with our second experience at Square 1682.  Compared with our meal three years ago, it seems that the food has gotten less "fussy" with more focus on balanced dishes made with quality ingredients and less focus on fancy cooking and plating techniques.  Fun fact: the restaurant is named after the year William Penn created Rittenhouse Square and its sister parks throughout the city.  I always thought it was the address... 

121 South 17th Street

July 2, 2013


We've heard of Marrakesh over the years-- it's very popular with the college kiddies since it's relatively inexpensive for huge quantities of food and BYO-- but never actually experienced it for ourselves.  During a discussion at a recent book club meeting regarding Marcus Samuelsson's African inspirations, someone brought up this little Philadelphian treasure.  So of course... we all had to go together!

When you arrive, get ready to be transported to another place and time.  The restaurant is literally located on a tiny alley that you never knew existed, yet it's just a half block off of a hoppin' stretch of South Street.  Ring the doorbell for access (there is no vestibule to stand in, so I assume this is for space saving, not for secrecy) and a man in Moroccan attire will lead you in.  The interior looks like a Middle Eastern living room, with fabrics and paintings on every surface in every color.

We were seated pn a round couch around a large metal table (you can see many of them above).  The waiter helped us wash our hands together (with rose water, so you may want to bring your own hand sanitizer), and then we all shared a towel to dry.  You will also receive a large bath sized towel for your lap- and you'll need it! One of the unique aspects of dinner at Marrakesh is that you eat almost every course with your hands.

There is no menu at Marrakesh, it is simply a multi-course fixed price meal, the same for everyone.  We're not sure if they even have a vegetarian option.  First up: a huge platter of vegetable salads.  The waiter also brought around the largest basket of pita bread I've ever seen, and suggested we take a handful.  These are to be used as utensils for the entire meal, so we tried to hang onto some for the later courses (trading of pita had to take place later in the meal for those who took too few!).

The three salads are a cold, garlicky carrot salad, a cucumber, pepper and tomato salad with a hint of vinegar, and a warm smashed eggplant dip.  All three of them were addicting, but the carrot salad was my personal favorite- perfect soft discs of salty, garlicky carrots.

The second course needs no pita for dipping- it has it's own puff pastry shell, surrounding a finely chopped mix of egg and ground chicken, all of which is topped with a heavy sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon.  This "B'stella" wasn't my favorite of the night, but it was still interesting and delicious- it reminded me of French toast with it's combination of eggs and sugar.  Since we didn't have utensils, we tore it into large chunks for better grabbage.

There are two options for the first meat course: a spicy roasted chicken, or a ... not spicy roast chicken.  Obviously we all unanimously chose the spicy option, but later agreed that it wasn't too spicy.  Apparently our group of six deserved a chicken and a half, which when plated appeared to be a mutant bird.  I don't know WHAT they did to this, but it was hands down some of the best chicken I've ever had- steaming hot (my hands of steel helped work off some of the larger bits to help it cool down), extraordinarily moist, with tons of flavor from the wet marinade.  Yes, you're picking meat off the bones with only your hands- that towel came in very handy here.

The second meat course was good in it's own right, but not nearly as flavorful and fun as the chicken, which is surprising since it was a much more interesting meat-- lamb!  You can also choose a beef kebab, but we again unanimously chose the lamb.  Huge chunks of lamb bone (mostly vertebrae?) held small pieces of meat, much less juicy so cleaner to eat, just significantly more boring. A sweet honey sauce was a surprisingly good match.

So.. at this point we were all getting full, which was good since the next two courses were much lighter.  First, a spiced couscous mix topped with softened vegetables (more carrots yay!), chickpeas and some shreds of meat.  A very Moroccan dish, but still very approachable to those wary of foreign cuisine.  The waiter brought a handful of spoons, which were critical for scooping the tiny grains of couscous.

The dessert course came with three items: a thin sticky sheet of baklava, a bowl of fresh fruit straight from the supermarket, and glasses of hot mint tea.  I was introduced to baklava at a very young age and have been obsessed ever since.. so therefore I can be a bit of a snob about it.  While I would never turn a baklava down, this one was really just so-so, with not nearly enough chopped nuts in the filling, and too few layers of pastry.

The bowl of fresh fruit primarily went into our purses for snacks later in the week (is that weird?), but the hot mint tea was enjoyed on the spot- probably about half sugar, it was a sweet way to end the meal.  I don't know how I went this long without experiencing the joys of consuming plate after plate of delicious Moroccan eats with my hands, but I'm glad I was indoctrinated with such a wonderful, fun group of girls.  And, at just $25 ($31.50 with tax and tip included), you'd be hard pressed to find a better deal.

517 S. Leithgow Street (between 4th and 5th; South and Lombard)