March 28, 2010

Sweet Treats of the Vegan Variety

Although A & I are in no way vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc etc etc, the majority of our food intake can be categorized under Michael Pollan's assertion: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." However, two things can cause us to sway from this policy: a good/interesting meal in a restaurant, or a delicious dessert. We've shown you all a few of our baking endeavors, and they aren't always the pinnacle of health. Sweets just seem so much better when they're chock full of refined sugars, bleached flours, and butter (or even better, Crisco...). However, we work hard to stay healthy and fit, so finding a good balance between doing so and enjoying good food is a primary goal. Therefore, the opening of Sweet Freedom Bakery on South Street piqued our interest when it opened a few months ago.

A vegan, gluten-free bakery, SFB actually markets itself to those who suffer from allergies (which, VERY fortunately, is not us) but also as a more health-conscious approach to sweets. We frequent the Brown Betty around the corner from our condo, so we knew this place was going to have a tough task in impressing us (at least in the cupcake category). We stopped by on a sunny weekend afternoon to find a good selection of fresh-baked goods available. Although the prices are a little on the steep side, we realize that it costs more to bake with alternative ingredients.

The shop is located between Broad St and 15th on South St, which is a little random for such a bright, sunny little bakery. There are a few seats inside to enjoy your selections on site, as well as a table or two on the sidewalk. The atmosphere is very cheery and fresh, and the women working the counters were extremely sweet. One group came in with a few questions including one about the inspiration behind the shop. One of the co-owners was on hand to answer this, and she pointed out that many vegan desserts are still "full of crappy fats and sugars." SFB takes the vegan approach but then goes the extra step (or multiple steps) in really finding a better way to bake.

I have a not-so-secret obsession with the oatmeal raisin cookie whoopie pie sandwich concoction found at Whole Foods, so I had no problem choosing the chocolate chip cookie sandwich as my treat. Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed this version even better. The cookie was soft and chewy, just how I like them. A little on the crumbly side, but not a hint of crunchy overcooked cookie, even at the edges. The vanilla frosting middle was sweet and creamy, and far less greasy than the WF version. It was a litle reminiscent of the Oatmeal Creme Pie (Little Debbie- Dad how did you let us eat those?!) that we grew up eating. But... no artificial ingredients, no butter overload, not at all heavy- the perfect portion size- and totally delicious to boot. I was really astounded by how a more natural approach to baking could really come out so well.

Of course we had to test out the cupcakes, so A ordered the banana chocolate chip with chocolate frosting. Though the cupcake lacked the airy fluffy texture that your average cupcake possesses, this cupcake was more up our alley as it was dense and extremely moist- more like a banana bread. Also, there was no awkward cupcake remnants left in the wrapper- it held together extremely well. The frosting was a good extra touch to add an additional chocolately component, but the cupcake would have stood well on its own. The chocolate chips gave it a little extra density- there were several in every little bite. Although its probably not fair to compare these with Brown Betty, SFB certainly holds its own in the cupcake category (or maybe we're just absolute suckers for dense cake bread muffin things).

Although we certainly will return to SFB, we also wanted to try our own hand at baking. Although this recipe contains nuts, which is a no-no at SFB, it is vegan, gluten-free, and also raw (another health food phenomenon). Basically raw=uncooked. Which in baking, is a little weird, but we'll let it slide, mostly because this recipe was SO EASY and SO DELICIOUS. Additionally, and probably more importantly, raw means that each of the ingredients is in its most natural, pure, and unprocessed form.

A & I had to take a special trip to Whole Foods to pick up the ingredients for this "Chocolate Cream Cake", but we never complain about this. And quite honestly, the walk to South Street and the total cost of the goods were the most difficult parts of this recipe.

This "cake" is really in no way cake, so I will refer to it as pie from now on. This is aided in the fact that instead of using a springform pan, we used a glass pie dish. The first step is making the "crust."

This involved throwing some nuts (1 cup raw unsalted pecans), dates (1/3 cup), coconut flakes (1 cup), a pinch of salt and a little vanilla extract (1 tsp) into our food processor and pressing the chop button. However, this recipe seems a little off on the ratio, as it came out really dry and crumbly. Our food processor is a little (ie a lot) on the small side, so it had a bit of difficulty chopping up the dates, which provide the gooeyness to the crust- what ends up holding it together. In the future I would hand chop the dates before putting them in the chopper, and probably increase the amount of dates to more of a 1:1 ratio with the nuts.

Pressing the crust into the pie dish was kind of awkward since it was so dry, plus the pie dish is shallow and I wanted to save room for the filling. Next time I'd probably also add more of the crust to try to get it to stay together better and provide more of a base to the pie. I ended up with a little baggie full of extra crust which has provided to be a delicious oatmeal topping.

The filling is made in three simple steps. First, add most of a jar of cashew butter (my personal favorite, though you can use any nut butter) to your blender. Add some agave (1/2 cup), some water (1/2 cup), and a little more vanilla (1 Tbsp) and press blend.

Then add the coconut oil (1/2 cup) which literally looks and feels like lard/hard Crisco/congealed bacon grease without the smell. Even though it is super high in saturated fat, it has been touted for its health properties and is used by many a health nut (Google it).

Blend this up, and then throw the cacao powder in, the main source of flavor in this recipe (3/4 cup) and blend that in as well. Pour/spoon the filling into the dish, smooth it out, cover it up and pop it in the freezer.

So easy (cleanup took longer than actual assembly), though I guess one downside was the wait- we let it freeze for about 3 hours before we broke into the goods. The filling is incredibly rich and thick, and as it is frozen, makes for a good firm bite. A little like frozen chocolate mousse, a little like rich dark chocolate ice cream, a lot delicious. Again, the crust was a little on the meager/crumbly side, but it gave a light hint of coconut and some little crunchy bits to mix up the smoothness of the filling.

Because it is so rich, you don't need to eat a whole lot, which means we have been eating this for dessert for several nights now and still have a solid chunk left. Next time I'd try to make it in a deeper square dish and pump up the crust a bit. There are tons of recipes like this out there, and they really just require a few special ingredients- NOTHING we couldn't get at Whole Foods, though we know everyone isn't as lucky as we are to have this store within walking distance. I'm sure any health food store would carry these goods as well, and even some mainstream grocery stores probably have most of these things (though still waiting for our ShopRite to carry cashew butter...) Happy baking!

Sweet Freedom Bakery
1424 South Street

March 27, 2010

Dim Sum at Ocean Harbor

One of the great things about Philly is its variety of neighborhoods. You might say that ALL cities have lots of neighborhoods, but the special thing about Philly is that you can walk from one neighborhood to another with ease. This morning we collected a few friends and walked from our Rittenhouse condo over to Chinatown to meet up with even more friends (and friends of friends) for a totally new eating experience: Dim Sum. A & I have never been brave enough to attempt to do this on our own, so we were glad to be in the company of experienced Dim Sum-ers, including a good friend who blogs about her eats in and out of Chinatown on i love pork bun.

We chose Ocean Harbor on the recommendation of a friend, and decided to meet at 11:30 as it is "common knowledge" that if you arrive at noon or later, you'll end up waiting. The restaurant contains only big round tables for large groups, and we snagged one of the last open tables, cramming in enough chairs for 11 people. As soon as we sat down, we were brought a steaming pot of tea, which was the only beverage offered to us throughout the meal (in the future I would bring my water bottle- everything is salty!!). The tea was pretty strong, with lots of loose leaves in the pot, and tasted vaguely like the smell of new running shoes. Interesting, but not really good, and certainly not refreshing.

There was no menu to be seen- as my friend declared, "this is a pick and point operation." There were several "waitresses" pushing carts around the restaurant, and through cryptic gestures and some semblance of communication, we started out with about 8 different dishes. Some of the waitresses were a little pushy, trying to unload their carts of dishes that were quickly becoming lukewarm, so we ended up with a few things that we didn't really want. However, each dish falls in the range of $3 to $4, so it wasn't too big of a deal.

The first dish was fried squid. Call it calamari, but it was quite different, as the pieces were whole and the breading light, making no real attempt to mask what we were eating. This dish was one of the less fresh items that we tried, but it was still pretty tasty. Kind of like cold calamari... nothing too exciting.

We also snagged several steamers, which each contained three pieces of various dumplings and other somewhat undescribable steamed balls of dough filled with meat (typically pork or shrimp) and spices. The texture was really dense and a little slimy, but in a good way. The different meats were chopped and mixed with a good amount of spices, and surrounded by a thick wrapping of rice flour dough. Some of them were pan-fried after steaming, which mixed up the texture and provided a little bit of crisp.

Another type of dumpling had a thinner, wetter, shiny rice wrapper- the only way I could really describe this is that is felt like one big giant wet rice sheet. These were filled with whole shrimp. However, with our less then stellar chopstick skills, picking up this type of dumpling caused it to promptly collapse and dump out its contents, which made them seem appropriately named. The softer wrapper was a good complement to the firmness of the shrimps. If you like rice and shrimp, this was your kind of dish- simple yet satisfying.

Perhaps the highlight of the meal was my insisting that we try chicken feet, as these too came recommended by a trusted source. I wish that they had been a little more disguised, because they really just looked like chicken feet, deep fried and covered in a savory-sweet sauce. I had to hold this like a chicken wing, eating the skin and tiny bits of soft tissue that surrounded what seemed like hundreds of tiny bones and tendons. Annoying to eat, messy, and I'm not a HUGE fan of chicken skin, but I'm glad I tried it. The sauce is probably what made it edible- a little tangy, like a really mild barbecue sauce. According to Wikipedia, who is greatly aiding in my ability to remember each dish, the sauce is typically a black bean sauce. I conquered one of the feet, leaving a small pile of bones, though my blogger friend declared them "too gnarly" after a few attempts to eat around the bones.

Another common Dim Sum dish is taro cake. Though this version was labelled as subpar by our dining mates, I thought the thick chewy texture was pleasing. It was likened to a thickened Cream of Wheat formed into a cake with tiny bits of pork and thickly sliced. Taro is a very starchy root vegetable, so it makes a doughy consistency that didn't particularly taste like anything, but was served with another dark, salty sweet sauce that improved it greatly.

There were also a variety of "buns", which A & I were quite excited about after our encounter with the Pork Bao Bun in Nashville. We requested steamed pork buns from several of the waitresses but were denied them with a wave of the hand and a "Later! Later!" Not sure why we weren't allowed to have limitless steamed pork buns- we were only given one dish of them to be shared with the whole table. A & I snagged our own (sorry guys!), but weren't overly impressed. The pork wasn't as BBQ-y as we would have liked, and the filling was a little on the meager side. The outer dough layer wasn't quite as puffy as our previous bun, and a little on the dry side. However, the sweet dough and saucey meat were still enjoyed.

Another bun that we loved was the sesame seed bun. This one was a rice dough that was deep fried, making it extremely heavy and greasy, coated in sesame seeds which provided a light nutty flavor, and filled with a creamy sweet bean paste. Only a few bites of these were necessary, because they were so incredibly rich, but definitely another highlight of the meal.

We also snagged some vegetables to go with all the meat and carbs. The Chinese broccoli rabe was a good, light interlude to all the salty greasy dishes. Crisp and fresh, with a good mix of crunchy stems and softer steamed leaves. The Chinese eggplant, on the other hand, was the opposite of light. Eggplant is so porous that it just soaks up every ounce of oil that its fried in. However, the super soft texture and sweet flavor were reminiscent of fried plantains... super delicious, but again, too rich to eat much of.

Another interesting dish was the lotus-steamed rice. A mound of very wet, sticky rice mixed with minced pork and steamed inside an enormous leaf that was florally sweet smelling. I'm glad I had guidance in this one- I would have tried to eat the leaf, but this part is simply discarded to leave a shareable portion of meaty rice.

The only "dessert" dish that was ordered were egg custard tarts. I ate this in the middle of the meal as it was ordered, and it was piping hot. A described it as an exploding egg yolk in her mouth. A little too hot for me to pass judgement on the taste, but the crust was extremely flaky, cupping the sweet gooey eggy inside with a light pastry finish.

We ordered many other dishes that I didn't snap pictures of or even try- a total of about thirty. Some of them looked good, some didn't, and some were just "freakin' Chinese food"- piles of vegetables and noodles that you might order at your local takeout place. At the end of the meal, we took our seemingly randomly marked bill up to the front and were given an equally random total of about $98 for our group of 11. We all pitched in ten bucks, which seemed ridiculous considering all of the dishes I tried. I expected to come out stuffed, but the food was really too rich and salty for my taste to overindulge, which is probably a good thing.

Overall, I'm very glad that we took this opportunity to experience Dim Sum- we now feel fully prepared to attempt it ourselves and can even show other friends the ropes in the future. There are also several other Dim Sum places that we could try to compare quality and variety within Philly's Chinatown.

Cute AND delicious! :)

Ocean Harbor
1023 Race Street

Cheap Eats: Hummus

As undergrads at Penn, J and I had our favorite cheap eats on or near campus, which we would go to on a fairly regular basis (and pretty much always order the same thing too). Qdoba, Greek Lady, New Delhi (our personal fave), Beijing and Pattaya received quite a bit of business from us throughout our four years. In the two years since we've graduated, the food scene on campus has changed substantially- several new restaurants and gourmet food trucks have popped up around the area. The additions began in the summer after our graduation, when a small "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant opened up nearby my at-the-time place of employment. I for some reason never tried it out (probably because I was working for $8/hr and hardly went out to eat).

Fast forward to this year, when I happened to score some free food at a lab function, and stumbled across the best pita bread I have ever tasted. I immediately searched out the restaurant responsible for this fluffy deliciousness, and was surprised to see that it originated from this tiny new place. Since then, I try to make any excuse I can to visit Hummus Restaurant (simple, but fitting name for a Middle Eastern spot), and I am certain that if it was around when I was in college, it would have been high on our go-to cheap dinner list. Even now, our bank account appreciates the dinners at Hummus as a much softer blow in between our big splurges.

The restaurant is extremely narrow, but long, with the kitchen located at the very back. It's an "order, wait for your food, then sit down" place -- I suppose it could be considered fast food but it is far too delicious for that title. The menu has a good variety of sandwiches, which can be made into a "platter" for an additional $2- $2.50, as well as a number of salads. Everything is Mediterranean style, lots of falafel and hummus and tabuli, etc. Each platter includes an enormous amount of food- the central item (falafel or a number of meat options), a huge scoop of hummus, fries (or rice), a big, fluffy pita and two side "salads." The salads are all really good, which makes it difficult to decide between marinated cucumbers, tabuli, fried eggplant (not really a salad, but still amazing), red cabbage, and beets. Anyways, yeah, like I said, a lot of food but each item is fantastic. They advertise themselves as healthy, and while some items are certainly quite healthy, I'm hesitant to label anything that goes into the deep fryer as such. At the very least, the food is extremely fresh and consists of only natural ingredients.

The necessities (in my opinion) are the falafel, the pita, and the hummus-- and as the pita and hummus are part of each platter, I usually go for the falafel platter ($7.45). It comes with a number of golf ball sized, crispy falafels, which Hummus notes are made of ground chickpeas but I believe are actually made from fava beans-- I mean, since when are chickpeas green? They are perfectly paired with a generous scooping of the hummus. The hummus itself is good enough to live up to the name of the restaurant- it's extremely creamy, a bit plain on flavor but matches the flavors and textures of the falafel and the pita quite well. Since the falafel are fairly small, the crispy outside holds it together really well- while it is a bit crumbly after first-bite, it won't fall apart in your hands. The fries- if I'm trying to lean a bit healthier, they allow me to sub a third salad for the fries- but on occasion, they are worth the caloric splurge. I'm not sure whether they fry them in the same oil with the falafel but they definitely have a hint of a special flavor. They're also on the softer end, which I'm a fan of.

The side salads really shouldn't be disregarded either- I could definitely order an entire plate of just these salads (if I didn't totally crave the pita and the hummus...). The beets are small and have a bit of a pickly flavor- yum, pickles (oh, Hummus also serves great pickle slices for free). The cabbage, cucumber, and tomato salads are a little on the plain side, but as veggies go, they're great on their own and don't need a lot of sprucing up- plus, they retain their fresh crispness which helps balance out the heavier fried items.

Freeee pickles!

I haven't had much experience with the meat items at Hummus, as I just find it somewhat unnecessary, but sometimes you need a little animal protein for dinner. The shawarma ($8.95)- marinated chicken thighs that are piled onto a long stick and slowly roasted on a spit- is shaved to small bits with some sort of device that truly looks like an iron. The bits of meat are good mixed into your plate of food- I discovered that a ball of falafel with a small pile of meat, all dipped in hummus makes a good mixed mouthful.. strange but true. J, on the other hand, wasn't a huge fan of the shawarma, as she decided the meat "tasted like hotdogs." It did have a slight kielbasa flavor once she mentioned it, but since I like pretty much any kind of sausage (TWSS?), I was fine with that. The chicken breast ($8.45) probably would have been more to her liking- chunks of white meat with great grilled flavor (but none of the hot-doginess).

J and I are pros at "saving the best for last" when we're consuming a meal, and I always save the pita for last- even when I'm extremely full from everything else, I have to consume the entire thing. You can get either white or whole wheat, both have the same texture and the whole wheat is a bit darker- but not a whole lot of flavor difference. It is much thicker than other pitas I've had- usually pitas are thin and crackly, and difficult to make sandwiches out of as they tend to burst easily. The pitas at Hummus are completely different- they look more like very fat pancakes. The restaurant uses them for their sandwiches, which are stuffed beyond belief and they seem to hold up well under the weight. They are seriously just.. pillowy delights. You can buy them five for $3 which to me seems like a great deal, but I've sadly never taken advantage of this for use at home.

Hummus also serves a few desserts- we have a quite long-lived special love for baklava- but I have never been remotely interested in dessert by the end of a meal here. I pretty much need to be rolled home... perhaps it is good that it requires a two mile walk afterwards. Spending under $20 for a gigantic meal for two: I can't ask for much more.

Hummus Restaurant
3931 Walnut Street

March 22, 2010

The Evolution of Brunch

Brunch is one of my favorite meals, although it does seem a bit "faddy" and possibly even ridiculous- the joining of two words has never been this well-integrated into the English language. However, it has been a special event since my childhood, when J and I, along with our older sister and two cousins, would petition for Sunday Brunch every year at our annual weekend visit to the Hyatt Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando. The all-you-can-eat meal in the Cascade Room seemed like such a grand event- complete with personal jars of jellies and jams, a floor-to-ceiling waterfall, a bathroom with white fluffy towels instead of paper, and sometimes even a live piano player. The buffet included pancakes and eggs and fruits and muffins but the highlight was certainly the donut station: freshly made donuts to be topped with chocolate syrup and M & M's and a slew of other childhood delights.

Since our times at the Grand Cypress have sadly come to an end, brunch has evolved, yet retained many of its same elements of awesomeness. Brunch in college was often eaten at the dining hall or at Triangle Diner (now extinct), and was a gossip-y event that lasted many hours and included far too many calories to count. Since those days, brunch has become slightly more civil and much more palatable. J and I occasionally treat ourselves to a weekend brunch, searching out some of the best breakfast-lunch fusions Philly has to offer. It is now made more luxurious as it either follows the very rare chance we sleep in late, or as a splurge "refuel" after an extended exercise session (I like to ensure J is fed very well after her ten mile runs). There is definitely something innately special about brunch, and I always thoroughly enjoy its tendency to consist of enough food to count for at least two meals.

I have had many fantastic brunches around the city which have unfortunately been consumed PB (Pre-Blog), as I would have loved to share them with you. Some of my favorites include the famous Stuffed French Toast at Sabrina's (the Art Museum location), the Cypriot Breakfast at Kanella, the hearty beans, thick cut grilled toast and eggs at Pub & Kitchen, and any of the goodies at Cafe Estelle. This past weekend I added another "favorite" (I have far too many) to the list: Supper. I find it somewhat odd that a restaurant named Supper would have such a great brunch; on the other hand, the other meals I have had there have been such perfection that I am not surprised at all.

This is somewhat more of a fine-dining brunch that the others I have mentioned, to the point that reservations are highly recommended. It was a perfect brunch day- the first beautiful spring weekend of the year here. Supper has two floors, but only uses its downstairs for brunch, making it quieter with more personal attention- there were probably 7 or 8 groups of diners at any given time with almost as many employees in the kitchen. We were seated close to the open kitchen, so we enjoyed watching the chefs at work, particularly in the late plating stages, along with viewing most of the dishes on the menu (if I can't eat them all, I at least want to see them!).

The menu presented with far too many options, which was not helped by our waitress announcing four special additions, including a baklava plate and a pulled rabbit BBQ sandwich. J and I decided to stick with the regular menu, and both ordered an "entree" and a side. The sides came out first, so they were really more like "appetizers", although we enjoyed them throughout the meal.

Both of our sides came fresh out of the deep fryer- cornbread hush puppies for J and banana beignets for myself. They were well portioned at four small spherical pieces each (perfect for sharing). The hush puppies ($4) were good- but not exactly what we were expecting. They weren't crunchy on the outside, crumbly in the middle as fried cornbread would be- instead, they were soft, very much like a fasnacht now that I think about it... a dense, savory fasnacht. We commented on its lack of cornmeal, instead having the thickness and starchiness of a potato batter. They were covered in freshly grated cheese (I watched the grating process from afar), and potentially rolled in a bit of salt (we couldn't decide on this fact). Overall, a decent start to brunch, but definitely left me wishing for my corn pancakes from the Pantry.

The banana beignets ($5) were sweet and light, a good complement to the hush puppies. A small chunk of banana was wrapped with a bit of dough, fried, and then coated in cinnamon sugar. The dough was thin and light enough to allow more oil absorption in the fryer- making for a more greasy bite. The banana was practically melted inside, and the cinnamon sugar sweetened the deal.

Beignet & hush puppy innards.

Our main dishes came out quickly- the work of all those kitchen guys came together fast. I ordered the Supper Frittata ($13), and chose housemade country sausage and sauteed greens as my two fillings. The frittata is made in a small cast iron skillet (reminded me of Founding Farmers cornbread), and is served with the caramelized onion hashbrowns and toast. I'm big on omelettes, so the frittata was a perfect choice. The serving was a bit large (surprising for Supper, famous for tiny plates), perhaps because it was such a hearty dish. The eggs were mixed with an excellent crumbled sausage- I would order this on the side on my next visit- and a few strands of spinach, and then cooked (baked?) to perfection- not runny nor dry in the least. The hash browns were a jumble of small cut, cubed potato and soft slices of onion, very flavorful and complementary to one another (I normally eat breakfast potatoes with ketchup and the thought didn't even cross my mind here). The toast is really just toast- until you combine it with a slather of butter and (homemade?) strawberry jam. I could have eaten many pieces.

J had the Country Pate & Eggs, a combination of many of the side dishes served together (which probably would have been more economical to order them all separate!). Two eggs (over easy, of course), toast, the same onion hash browns, and "scrapple-fried" country pate. We are not pate connoisseur's, but she didn't see the resemblance in this particular take on the dish. It was crispy on the outside, and not overwhelmingly flavorful (is this good, or bad? I'm still unsure). The creaminess that defines pate was replaced with a dry, crumbly, sausage-like consistency. The scrapple and country components were not immediately obvious to us. It was served with a whole-grain mustard and two slices of gelatinized apple, which had a somewhat potpourri flavor, interesting but not extremely enjoyable. I was glad that she had her own toast and hash browns so that I didn't have to share mine, but looking back we could have ordered differently to experience more of the menu.

Awkward plating?

Overall, Supper Brunch gets four thumbs up in terms of quality of ingredients, service, and originality, but somewhat wavering on execution. While I will probably not be back anytime soon (solely due to lack of time and the overabundance of good restaurants here), I would definitely recommend Supper for any meal.

928 South St.

March 21, 2010

Revisiting a West Philly Favorite

A & I didn't really get into the Philly food scene until the latter portion of our time as undergrads at Penn, which is unfortunate because there are so many fun restaurants in that area that are now a little too far away to walk to (our transportation mode of choice). However, my boyfriend's birthday required me to choose a dinner date location, and I knew I wanted to share a "tried and true" favorite with him that would also be a surprise. Because it was a special occasion, I figured I could splurge on bus fare for us to get to Rx, an adorable little place on 45th and Spruce.

A few blocks from Penn's campus, the neighborhood is much more quaint and quiet and seems very friendly and almost family oriented. The restaurant itself is relatively small, with a mishmosh of decorations consisting of pharmacy-related antiques and random artwork for sale. I had made reservations for later in the evening on a weeknight, but the place was almost entirely empty when we arrived, which was fine by me. Of course I want to see solid Philly restaurants doing good business, so I was also glad to see a few other couples and groups come in right after we did. Also, the relative quiet in the dining portion of the restaurant makes it very easy to hear every word that is spoken behind the thin divider that separates the kitchen area. Not a huge deal, but it sort of detracts from the atmosphere.

Rx has a great prix fixe option during the week. They're closed on Mondays, but Tuesday through Thursday you can order an appetizer, entree, and dessert for $30 (with one or two $25 & $35 options reflecting the cost of the entree). Another thing about the Rx menu is that it is seasonal- each month the menu is changed to reflect whats available. They also have information about all of their food suppliers (farms, etc) which shows the importance they place on getting ingredients from accountable sources. However, there are some things that I have seen on the menu a few times, so its not like they are totally revamping the menu every month.

I chose the calamari for my appetizer- not usually a terribly exciting dish, but Rx puts a little twist on it to make it a little more interesting. The calamari itself is lightly breaded and fried, a good mild salty flavor, a little peppery, not too chewy, not too greasy- it just seemed a lot lighter than other calamari I've had. It was a good sized portion- enough for two to share, easily. The "twist" comes in the form of an Asian influence seen in the spicy sweet dipping sauce, sort of like sweet & sour sauce, but kicked up a notch with some red pepper flakes. Additionally, the pile of spring greens that was served alongside had an extremely light, almost invisible soy-sauce-based dressing that was surprisingly flavorful. Overall, the three components meshed really well- salty, sweet, spicy... delicious.

The bf ordered the beet salad (yes, beets continue to play a prominent role on this blog). This consisted of a base of thinly sliced beets of the red, yellow, and pink varieties (pink was new for me...) which held a big fluff of arugula coated with a whole-grain mustard viniagrette. Some toasted pine nuts and a few chunks of blue cheese helped to complete the picture. The salad led us into a beet-related conversation- apparently neither of our mothers like beets, which makes me wonder if its a generational thing. Maybe beets are prepared in a different way now than they were a few decades ago? And although A & I both love beets, my boyfriend is decidedly more apathetic towards them- in his words "I've never gone out of my way for a beet but then again I've never had a beet I didn't like." The salad was light and fresh, leaving him with plenty of room in his stomach for all my leftover calamari.

On to the entrees... I ordered the whole trout, deboned (thankfully), with a single stuffed grape leaf inside, served over a big pile of chickpeas, onions, and olives. I don't have a problem with seeing a whole fish on my plate, but there were two other fish options on the menu for those who dislike seeing the head/tail/skin. Overall, the dish was pretty good. The fish came out perfectly cooked, flaky and steaming, though as it sat on my plate for awhile, the meat seemed to get a little on the mushy side. Again a portion big enough to share, two big meaty "fillets", served with what seemed like a whole jar of olives and a whole can of chickpeas. The onion chunks were soft and sweet, but the combination of feta cheese and the olives made the salt content a bit high for my liking. I liked the idea of the stuffed grape leaves inside the fish, but thought it a little odd that it was just one, and it was just another salty contribution to the dish.

My date ordered the pork belly, which came with broccoli rabe and macaroni and cheese. I'm not a huge fan of pork belly, mostly because it just seems so fatty (and it is!) but my boyfriend enjoys a good piece of fatty meat, so he was happy. I did try a (less fatty) bite at his request, and was pleasantly surprised with the range of textures and flavors in that single bite. The top and bottom had a tougher "crust" (skin?) that seemed difficult to cut through, but tasted like syrupy-sweet crispy bacon. The inner layers were softer, salty and smoky. I liked one bite, but I personally would not have liked to eat the whole big hunk of it. However, it did seem to be a popular item on the menu as someone at each of the three tables around us also ordered the plate- yes, I am THAT nosy restaurant-goer that not only listens to your conversations but I also analyze what you ordered. I was excited to try the macaroni and cheese, which was coated in a yellow cheesy layer, but it was a little on the bland side. I'm not a mac & cheese connoisseur, so I'm not sure what it needed, but it just seemed like it was missing something.

Dessert at Rx is ALWAYS a highlight (just going for dessert is a great date idea, it's worth the hike), so we excitedly perused the menu. The seasonal fruit cobbler is a personal favorite, and when informed that it was apple, I just couldn't say no. Sweet, soft, juicy chunks of apple in a thick sweet cinnamon-y sauce, covered in a buttery, crunchy, cobbler-y topping, and served with a big dollop of whipped cream and an even bigger scoop of vanilla bean-embedded ice cream... you really just can't beat that. You better believe I ate every single bite. I can never decide which component is my favorite, they just meld together in a giant conglomeration of amazing flavors and textures and temperatures. A was a little jealous of our trip to Rx and texted me a request to "open purse, insert cobbler" to bring home to her.

My boyfriend and I both have a big weakness for chocolate, so I was happy when he ordered the triple chocolate bread pudding so that I could sneak a bite (or two). The base was chocolate brioche from Metropolitan, which is a superb start. The bread was dense enough to encapsulate a solid chocolate flavor without being overly heavy. Chocolate chips and a rich chocolaty syrup hold the bread chunks together to make a chocolate-y explosion in your mouth. No complaints here.

Overall, a good repeat trip to a good little neighborhood restaurant. The place is actually more famous for its weekend brunch, which I've never had the chance to participate in. My boyfriend was happy with my choice, he was definitely surprised, and we both enjoyed our meals. I will certainly continue to recommend this place, especially for anyone who lives in the University City area.

March 17, 2010

Nashville Eats, Part Two

Although pancakes were a highlight of our trip, we also experienced a fantastic dinner in Nashville that we thought we'd share with you. You might think that the city only has Southern eateries to offer, but there are also a variety of restaurants that cater to other preferences of the palate. We checked out an Asian fusion place with the catchy and cute name "Suzy Wong's House of Yum." Located on Church Street a few blocks from the city center, the space is a good compromise between too big and too small. When we walked in with a group of 6, we immediately wanted the round table in the front, complete with squishy bun-shaped stools. However, we were treated to a big round booth in the back with high walls that gave a sense of "semi-private" dining. The lighting was good for the atmosphere, bad for picture taking.

The menu is split into "Shared Plates" that are more of a tapas style, or appetizers if you looked at it the way we did. There is also a selection of "Yum Bowls" which are described as "family style"- also good to share, but a larger portion.

Since we were dining with a larger group than we usually do, we got to try more dishes, which is always exciting to us. Another point of interest on the menu was the notation of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items which we love to see- it must be such a pain for any Celiac's out there constantly having to inquire about ingredients.

A & I started with vegetable tempura ($7), which is a classic dish (and personal fave) by which we can assess general food quality. Lucky for Suzy, the tempura was almost spot on. Not too fried, good amount of crisp, good variety of vegetables. The tempura string beans were unusual, but in a good way. The only downside was the tempura sweet potato- a bit too thick-cut, making for a mealy mouthful of dryness.

We also ordered Lump Crab Wontons with Bacon ($5) which seemed like mostly fried shell stuffed with a little canned crab and nonexistent bacon. Good, but not great. As one of our friends commented "These taste remarkably like a fish stick" and this was closer to the truth than we would have liked.

The highlight of the appetizers was undeniably the Steamed BBQ Pork Bao Bun ($3). We've somehow missed the boat on these steamed bun things, but HELLO we want 100 of them. A great use of Tennessee BBQ, the bun had a tender, smoky, meaty filling encased in a doughy puff of delicious sweet airy bread. If anyone has good recommendations on where to get great steamed buns in Philly, we will personally treat you to some. YUM.

Other shared plates at our table included Sesame Steak Yakitori Skewers ($7) which were surprisingly good. The meat was extremely flavorful without being fatty, easy to bite off the stick, and well complemented by the crispy sweet pieces of wonton and sticky sesame sauce.

The Spicy Tuna & Cucumber roll ($7) was served as a handroll and lived up to its name. The spicy sauce was incredibly spicy (much too spicy in my opinion), but the chunks of tuna were large and the cucumber pieces were of good size and crunch. I personally think this would be better served as a sushi roll in order to incorporate some rice and seaweed to balance the superspice of the sauce.

Our group also ordered a variety of the Yum Bowls. A & I split the Lemongrass Vegetable Tofu Stir-fry ($9) which has a pretty self-explanatory name. Could have been a little heavier on the lemongrass flavor, but otherwise a satisfying mix of vegetables (which we can never get enough of..) and firm tofu pieces with a good saucy coating. The other note about lemongrass is that this bowl had large pieces of it incorporated in, which we weren't sure whether we were supposed to eat. Felt a little like a horse... but they were actually kind of good.

Another bowl ordered was the Peppered Beef with Broccoli and Beans ($9). In this case, the beans were green beans, and this meal also had a good mix of veggies and meat- lots of green peppers and onion (I actually want to try to make this at home...)

The last bowl was a Garlic & Holy Basil Egg Noodle Lo Mein ($9). This bowl was mostly noodles, probably needed something else to offset the carb overload, but the noodles had a good texture, chewy but not gummy. Not sure what designates basil as holy but... it wasn't really memorable.

Too full for dessert (plus our hostess had made the most amazing Black Forest cake EVER) but we all agreed that they should sell dessert bao buns. Seriously, apple pie filling in a bun? Cherry pie filling in a bun? Pecan pie filling in a bun? The options are endless.

At the end of the meal, our friend jokingly informed our waiter that "This House of Yum is NOT Yum!" which elicited a horrified gasp. We were quick to tell him that it was quite the opposite. Our check was "served" to us on an adorable little $ sign plate. Prices were great, which was another plus. Overall, a superb dining experience. Hopefully we can visit the city again soon!

March 15, 2010

Two Eat Nashville: Pancake Edition

You may be thinking that we haven't published a thing about Philadelphia so far this month... perhaps we should change the name of our blog to "Traveling Twins" or something. After a weekend in DC and a weekend in Maryland, we hopped on a plane and headed to Nashville, TN for a long weekend self-imposed spring break. Our best friends from home now live in Tennessee, so after a few long months without them, we were more than ready to check out their new city. I could go on for quite some time about the loveliness of the entire weekend, but I will spare you and stick to the food-- well, some of the food. I could probably also write an entire separate post on the food that our host and hostess prepared for us throughout the weekend (Southern deliciousness and the best picnic lunch you could imagine) but pictures could not be taken due to the continuous hand-to-mouth motions every time we sat down to eat.

Our friends planned our weekend to maximize our fun and our explorations of the city. Having never been to Nashville, they wanted to let us in on an authentic taste. Of course, part of this involves classic Nashville eateries. Perhaps one of the most well known- the Pancake Pantry. J and I love pancakes and make them often, so this in combination with the potential for a run-in with a certain country star had us good and ready. We set out on Friday morning- which may have otherwise been a quiet morning at the PP (I love a good acronym) particularly because of the slight drizzle. However, with the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament going on in Nashville, we met a bit of a line (mostly wearing Kentucky get-ups) upon our arrival. Apparently a line is quite a common occurrence here, as the PP is not only a famous tourist spot but also very popular with the locals. Always a good sign- you know the food is good if locals will wait in line for it!

The wait took about half an hour, but was made infinitely better by the free self-serve coffee cart. Cream and sugar? No problem. Seriously, any restaurant that requires waiting should offer free drinks.

The restaurant is one big open square, mostly dotted with tables for four, with booths lining two walls. It has a bit of a Cracker Barrel feel to it, very open with friendly servers and down home decorations. The menu consists of over twenty variations of pancake (surprise!) ranging from fruit flavors, crepe-style pancakes, and both sweet and savory options. They also serve waffles, French toast, eggs, and other varieties of classic breakfast dishes. Lunch dishes (think salads, soups, and burgers) are also available, but I don't even remember seeing those items on the menu- we were there for the pancakes.

After some debate (it's hard to decide!) and lots of mouth watering, we gave our orders to our adorable waitress who I can only describe as a perfect replica of Amelia Bedelia, although about forty years older. J decided on the Smokey Mountain Buckwheat cakes- a "half" order. All of the pancakes come five to an order, but you can also get any of them in a smaller serving of three. Usually not the type to cut down from a normal serving size, we were hesitant to do this, but were glad we did- they were big! The buckwheat pancakes had a wonderful nutty flavor, but weren't heavy like whole wheat products can sometimes be. They went well with a smear of butter and a drizzle of syrup- apparently homemade. The house maple was great- not overly thick and sweet but on the thinner side. The buckwheats also went great with honey, which was our alternative syrup option.

Our lovely hostess chose the Old Fashioned Buttermilk Pancakes-- you can never go wrong with the classic, right? They were fluffy and literally, the best "regular" plain pancakes I have ever tasted. I swear, I don't understand- I know a good pancake from a bad pancake, but never thought there was a separate "heavenly" category. Both the flavor and the texture are unbeatable. I'm afraid there is some secret, very unhealthy ingredient... but a secret that I am fine with never knowing. The lightness of the cakes make them veritable sponges for syrup, just as they should be.

I ordered the Water Ground Cornmeal Pancakes- I grew up begging my dad to make corn pancakes every Sunday morning and am a cornbread connoisseur. These pancakes were a small bit of corn-y perfection- quite dense with a large grain that allowed for extra corn flavor in every almost-crunchy bite. They were somewhat steamed like tamales, and both melted and soaked up my pat of butter simultaneously. They went perfectly with the honey- after a small taste of maple, I never went back.

The three of us weren't very adventurous in our pancake choices (I mean, we could have had Apricot-Lemon Delights, or "Chocolate Sin"!) but I think we had a good taste of what the PP has to offer. Three completely different grains used to make three perfect stacks of cakes... I think the locals have definitely found and supported the real deal. And honestly, if (or rather, when) I go back, I will make the same choice- the sign of a very good meal.