July 31, 2010

Meritage Korean Fried Chicken

Since Meritage renovated and "reinvented" themselves about a year ago (?), they've been rolling out different specials, including a vegan tasting menu and Korean tacos (originated at Ansill. So good.). Although we've been to Meritage in the past, and certainly enjoyed the food, it wasn't exactly the kind of place we wanted to run back to (a little pricey for food that was solid but not stellar). However, they started another new special last week: Korean Fried Chicken. Highlighted on several blogs, including uwishunu, this chicken looked terrific. I needed this chicken. Lucky for me, the boyfriend was getting in to Philly on Thursday, and we needed dinner plans.

I was a little worried because I had taken a peek at the Meritage Twitter feed, and it looked like the chicken special had run out around 6:30 PM the previous Thursday. I know this has also been a problem at Resurrection Ale House. I kept my fingers crossed that they made extra this week so we could experience it- our reservations were for 8 PM.

When we got there, they told us our table wasn't ready, and had us sit at the bar for about 20 minutes, which never pleases me. However, the restaurant is small and it WAS very busy- all the tables were full when we were seated, including the tables on the sidewalk outside. This is another restaurant that has a very "homey" feel which I always enjoy- casual and comfortable. We immediately told our waiter that we wanted the chicken special, lest they serve the last one to someone else. My date did notice a few other things on the menu that he wanted to try, but I insisted that we get the chicken.

We opted to start with an appetizer, and I thought the tempura eggplant ($5) sounded like something that would go well with the Korean theme. Although this appetizer was good... it wasn't eggplant. Long strips of quartered zucchini were lightly fried and coated in a sesame sauce. The zucchini was soft and the batter gave it a little more texture and a salty flavor. The sauce had a bit of a spice to it but we didn't really notice it till we got to the bottom of the pile where it was a little thicker. Overall, a good snack to munch on while we waited for the highlight of the meal.

The chicken special is served with a coleslaw as well as some pickled vegetables ("Americanized kimchi" according to my boyfriend). There are 5 large pieces of chicken- plenty of food for two, all for $25. The chicken was even better than I had imagined. All white meat, with a crispy skin, a tangy, slightly sweet, slightly spicy sauce and some crunchy sesame seeds. There was one leg that I snagged for myself, but the rest of the meat seemed like chicken breasts- some of which had no bones, maximizing our juicy, perfectly cooked chicken consumption. The combination of the amazingly flavorful chicken with its sauce-soaked skin... we were incredibly impressed. The sides weren't noteworthy- a few slices of carrot and daikon as well as cauliflower and some steamed greens had a light pickled flavor with a touch of sesame. The coleslaw was very plain, crunchy with the primary flavor being cilantro, which neither of us enjoy. Not particularly wonderful.

Overall the meal was an amazing deal. We peeked at the dessert menu, but nothing seemed to snag our attention. Plus, we were still in a state of bliss from the incredible chicken. The first thing I did after we finished eating was text A and tell her how good the chicken was. We absolutely have to get this special again before its over at the end of the summer.. and you should too!

500 S. 20th Street

July 26, 2010

Farm to Fork

As proud participants in a CSA, we definitely think more about eating fresh/organic/in season/local. When finding recipes and meal inspiration to use our seemingly never-ending produce, I usually turn to other blogs (mostly through TasteSpotting, of course). I will occasionally "borrow" some recipes from old Cooking Light magazines at home, or from random copies of Food and Wine left in the lunchroom at work, or browse around the Food Network website, or just straight up Google an ingredient. I rarely use real cookbooks, mostly because I don't feel the need to pay money for recipes when there are so many available online. However, I do happily accept cookbooks as gifts.

Recently, a friend graciously gave us one of Emeril Lagassse's books, "Farm to Fork: Cooking Local, Cooking Fresh." Apparently Emeril (who happens to be my very first television chef obsession) has long been committed to the local food movement, and dedicates the book to the "farmers and fishermen who keep on keepin' on." It is actually a beautiful book, full of a variety of recipes- from the very simplest dishes to some more complicated and sophisticated recipes. I have read through the entire book about three or four times now, and continue to spot recipes that I am just dying to try. The book has also come in handy during our CSA start- it is broken up into food categories such as "Leafy Greens" and "Thistles, Stalks, and Pods" (that would be the okra and artichoke family). The beauty of the book is broken up a bit by the Emeril-isms sprinkled throughout, adding a touch of humor in his short intros to each recipe- for example, he starts the intro to "Curry Scented Roasted Cauliflower" with "Oh, babe." He also has extensive sections on meats and canning/pickling, which I have largely ignored.

I have now conquered three recipes from the book, Warm Potato Salad, Rustic Blackberry Cobbler, and Cheesy Creole Tomato Pie. The Warm Potato Salad frankly wasn't my favorite, but the other two were good enough to share. Any fruit cobbler is the perfect summer dessert, but blackberries bring back special childhood memories of running through the prickly plants that grew wild in our backyard, gathering far fewer berries than went into my mouth. I wish I had those plants now-- I halved Emeril's cobbler recipe and still ended up purchasing at least $10 worth of berries.

This creation was actually nice and simple. First, combine the blackberries (2 pints) with a little sugar, cornstarch, and lemon juice and allow them to soften in the oven for about 20 minutes. Note: you could also do the same with any other fruit of your choosing- just alter the cook time to ensure full softness. In the meantime, I made the pastry for the topping. A bit of sugar and a little less than a cup of whole wheat flour (for the half recipe) is combined with a few tablespoons of butter until a crumbly consistency is reached. Then, the good part- heavy cream and vanilla are added to finish off the dough. I rolled it out on the counter, and then cut five rounds from it while the berries finished up.

I gave the berries a little mix, topped them with the rounds of dough, and then topped these with a smear of cream and a sprinkle of sugar (large grain sugar would have been better, but not available from my pantry). A little more butter was added to the berries, and then back into the oven it went- 25 to 30 minutes is recommended. I actually split the baking time in two, as I knew I wouldn't be eating it immediately. This way, I could stick it back in the oven right before consumption to warm it up and finish the biscuits.

The cobbler was- just as I expected- a perfect summer treat. The berries still held some firmness, but were bathed in a thick juice. It wasn't overly sweet- I only used about 1/3 cup of sugar for the entire five servings. The nutritional stats for this have to be fairly decent overall, without that boring taste that accompanies most "healthy" desserts- another added bonus. My boyfriend said he wished it had a little more "cobb"- I think he meant more of the pastry topping in relation to the berries underneath. This could certainly be altered, but I thought it was just right.

Feeling confident and inspired, I turned to tackle the Cheesy Tomato Pie. The recipe is meant to contain Louisiana Creole tomatoes- apparently a very rich, delicious tomato that I clearly will not be getting here in Philadelphia. The tomatoes that came in our CSA box last week were a perfect substitute- vine-ripened, local, and fresh. This recipe requires quite a bit more time and a larger number of ingredients than the cobbler, sadly. The first step was to make the pie crust- which ended up to be a bit of a disaster. I combined flour, salt, and pepper and "cut" in a stick of butter. However, my butter (actually 50/50 Smart Balance Blend butter) was fresh from the grocery store, and not completely cold. I think this was my first problem... I never achieved that crumbly pastry consistency; the butter smeared into the dough instead of forming tiny balls. Then, I added a few tablespoons of cold water, all at once, instead of slowly as Emeril suggested... probably creating dough that was a little on the wet side. This must then refrigerate for "at least 1 hour," but I'm a little impatient.

As I tried to roll out the dough on my counter, I could tell I had a bit of a sticky mess. The dough stuck to the roller no matter how much flour I rolled it in, which made forming a large flat circle almost impossible. When this was finally achieved, the dough was pretty much stuck onto the countertop, forcing me to peel small chunks off and transfer them to the pie dish. Thankfully, my final product was usable- all of the pieces melded together on the plate well because of the high moisture content. This must then be refrigerated AGAIN for 30 minutes before baking. Yes, this crust must be baked prior to making the pie. I lined it with tin foil and filled the tin foil with my pie weight substitute- dry Israeli couscous. It worked pretty well, holding the crust in its proper shape as it baked. A few minutes without the weights finished it off. If I was to follow the recipe exactly, I would have then brushed the pie crust with egg whites and allowed it to cool completely- neither of which I had the patience to do.

Finally, pie construction time had arrived. First, I sprinkled plain, dry breadcrumbs along the bottom. Then, I topped it with slices of juicy tomato, seasoned with salt and pepper. Atop these, I placed rings of sweet Vidalia onion- a few overlapping layers of slices. The next "layer" consisted of a mixture of mayonnaise and an egg yolk (I thought that's what mayonnaise was!). My mixture was pretty thick, so I thinned it with a little water to make it more spreadable- still not "drizzle"-able as Emeril instructs, but perhaps smearable. A sprinkle of chopped fresh basil and oregano, and then a handful of cheese- both products of my unwillingness to follow recipes exactly. The recipe calls for basil, thyme, Fontina, and mozzarella, but I bought a prepackaged bunch of herbs, which did not contain thyme, and a package of pre-shredded cheese that did not contain Fontina. Shortcuts, people.

After the cheese went on, I began the layering over again, starting with breadcrumbs and ending with cheese. A final sprinkle of breadcrumbs, a small drizzle of olive oil, and the pie was ready to bake- another hour in the oven. Yes, this recipe took many hours of my precious weekend time. On top of this, Emeril suggests serving the pie at room temperature or cold- I think it would simply be a disaster to cut if it was hot. I waited until it was slightly warm, and then dove in (cutting was very doable at this point). The flavors came together just right, with the tomatoes and onions still maintaining some fresh firmness, the cheese melting over everything, and the herbs and olive oil flavors popping up in each bite. The breadcrumbs and the mayonnaise mixture helped hold everything together, and helped add both textural interest and a touch of creaminess, respectively. Yum! All of that work was well worth it, and I had no regrets using my fresh tomatoes in a cooked dish. It wasn't exactly a mirror of health, but using it as a main dinner course helped to balance this- a seemingly simple vegetarian dish (but as you can see, not terribly simple to make!)

To make this a little easier, I would recommend buying a premade pie crust. The crust was really not the highlight of the dish at all; frankly, the flavors of the filling were enough to make me happy. If you have a crust available, the dish would only take an hour- a quick construction of the filling, and then baking time. Using top quality tomatoes and a sweet onion are critical, but beyond that you can also make substitutions and changes as you see fit. As Emeril points out throughout the book, local foods and fresh ingredients can make a world of difference. To our CSA farmers- many thanks for making our summer eats so delicious!

July 24, 2010

Marigold Kitchen

After A & I's earlier experience with the UC Dining Days, we decided to try one of the higher end restaurants- even at $30, some of these places are a fantastic deal. We chose Marigold Kitchen, out in West Philly at 45th and Baltimore. A has previously dined at this adorable neighborhood restaurant, which is built into the end unit of a series of rowhomes. However, there has been a major change in the kitchen since she was last there, with Erin O'Shea leaving to establish Percy Street.

The latest reservation we were able to get on OpenTable was for 6:15, but the dining room was pretty quiet when we arrived. We were seated in the middle of a row of two-seaters, having the area to ourselves until the very end of the meal, which was nice. The decorations are simple but charming, and the white-linened tables were completed by cute bud vases. The water glasses were satisfyingly heavy and the service was superb. Lighting was a little on the low side (bad picture alert!) but made for a cooler atmosphere- a much appreciated respite from the 90+ degree heat outside. Now onto the food...

The meal started with a spoonful of cucumber granita- a refreshing start to the meal- a sort of amuse bouche. A dab of creamy cilantro-tinted yogurt sauce with some crumbly cucumber flavored ice, perfectly seasoned and providing a great contrast of temperatures and textures. This was an appreciated upscale touch to the meal.

The Dining Days menu was respectably broad- they seemed to serve a good majority of their normal menu, with a few "new" items for the first course selection. I started with one of these atypical offerings, choosing the Champagne Braised Escargot. I don't have a lot of experience with escargot, but this was one of the best appetizers I have had in a long time. Each escargot was about the size of a mussel and actually tasted a bit like mussels (A claimed they were "the best mussels I've ever had"), with an excellent smooth texture and garlic-y taste. There were a significant number of them (maybe 8 or 9) mixed with mushrooms in a lightly creamy sauce heavy on the garlic. At the bottom of the dish there was a crispy round of polenta- this polenta was very airy and seemed more like cornbread. It was also incredibly salty which was the only downside to this dish. The whole concoction was topped with "champagne bubbles" which didn't add much- it actually tasted like a foamy version of the sauce- but the chef LOVES the bubbles- there was a foam topping to many of the dishes we saw coming out of the kitchen.

A started with the Peekytoe Crab. This seems to be a popular ingredient for menus around the city this summer- a soft shell crab from Maryland, as overheard from our waitress. Served in a layered fashion atop a diced mango salsa, the crab was chopped and mixed with cucumber and bits of peppers, making it more of a crab salad. The crab itself wasn't all that flavorful, so it could have used a little something to boost the flavors and balance the sweet mango. This was topped with crispy fried shallots, and served alongside a couple of interesting accompaniments. A chunk of heart of palm was cored and filled with a small bundle of bitter watercress, making a cute little bouquet on the plate. There was also a white powdered substance in a pile which A could not identify, though she said it "tasted familiar"... taking a peek back at the menu makes us think it may have been crushed sesame seeds. Random? Yes.

The first course was followed by another little spoonful of a palate cleanser. A simple bite of sorbet with vibrant flavors- I had lychee and A had guava- we also saw another diner receive the purple carrot variety. Pretty to look at and very sweet to taste- not exactly a palate cleanser but we enjoyed it.

I had a hankering for some red meat, so for the second course I opted for the Hanger Steak. The steak was cut into a generous log-shape, diagonally sliced in half to reveal a medium-rare center. Crispy and salty on the outside with a general hearty flavor, the meat was a little tough but satisfied my need for meat. It was served with braised collard greens which are often oversalted but this was fortunately not the case here. A few bits of bacon gave it the perfect amount of flavor. There was also a brown butter sauce with plump golden raisins at the bottom of the dish- the raisins went well with the greens but I couldn't really taste the sauce. This was actually a recurring theme with these dishes- my escargots also had a red pepper sauce on the plate, but it was just too meager to even attempt to taste. I would have liked a little more of the sauces to make an impact. A highlight of the steak dish was a fried oyster (yay!) which was ENORMOUS- a lightly flavored cornmeal crust around the puffy mollusk helped soak up the flavor of the sea that oozed out. Seriously, biggest oyster ever.

A ordered the salmon entree which was completed by another huge ball of foam- this time of the red wine variety. The fish was somehow incredibly airy- not dense and flaky like typical salmon but much lighter and "wet"- just really, really juicy, providing for an interesting "mouthfeel" upon every bite. This was served with a potato croquette- almost liquefied potato encased in a lightly fried outer shell. Certainly a unique approach to serving potatoes, and well complemented by the sauteed mushrooms along the top. There were also a few steamed brussel sprouts, one of which almost rolled off the table when A attempted to cut it in half. The "pickled cherries" were weird- vinegary and soft, we prefer our cherries right off the tree. However, it showed another twist of kitchen experimentation, which we can appreciate. Overall, another solid entree.

We were getting pretty full at this point, but of course, we always have room for dessert. I chose the Chocolate Ganache Torte, which was absolutely heavenly. It was the type of dessert that most people think is so rich they can only have a bite or two, but I was able to work my way through most of it. Incredibly dense, with that almost bitter taste of dark chocolate that I love. Again, I wish they had been a bit more generous with the "Blueberry Port" sauce, but the torte was absolutely perfect as a stand-alone flavor. A rich ending to a rich meal; I definitely felt incredibly indulgent.

A's dessert was a bit on the lighter side- a lemon curd "martini" with a variety of berries. Creamy and lightly sweet, it was the perfect summer dessert. What more can I say?

Overall we were incredibly pleased with our dinner and the entire experience. There was a man eating alone near us who apparently requested a candle in his dessert- it was his birthday. The waitress accommodated his request and then purchased his dessert for him- she felt bad that he was eating alone (we think he was traveling, as he had a foreign accent). She also highfived another diner after discovering they were from the same hometown. Interesting and memorable happenings that gave a happy vibe to the dinner- with very little to complain about, this was a standout meal well worth the $30/person price tag. Each of our meals would have been $40+ without the Dining Days deal. I wish Marigold was a little closer to us, but then again, it would probably lose the local, neighborhood "I'm eating in someone's house" feel.

Marigold Kitchen
501 S. 45th Street

July 22, 2010

Sang Kee Noodle House

Every time a new restaurant opens on Penn's campus, I cry a little inside. It seems completely unfair that we couldn't have all of these culinary delights during the four years that we were stuck there. Brattiness aside, University City is really developing it's restaurant scene; one of the more recent additions is Sang Kee Noodle House. Located within the Sheraton Hotel, Sang Kee is actually one of a number of restaurants owned by the same group, including one in Chinatown and one in Wynnewood. These restaurants have been recipients of a number of awards, leaving us curious about the newest addition to the family.

The start of University City Dining Days gave us just the impetus we needed to check it out. Much like the oh-so-popular Center City Restaurant Week (which we blogged about here), participating restaurants offer three course dinners for a set price for two weeks- conveniently coinciding with the deadest days of summer. Unlike Restaurant Week, Dining Days has three price points, $15, $25, and $30 (all less than RW's $35 cost). Additionally, Restaurant Week does not include any restaurants west of the Schuylkill (they aren't considered "Center City"), so Dining Days helps make up for this fault. Basically, Dining Days >> Restaurant Week.

Sang Kee falls on the cheapest end of the spectrum, allowing us each three courses for just $15- perfect for our very rare mid-week meals out. Arriving right after work (ie quite early), we were surprised that the space was so full. However, we were seated quickly in the light, bright, open dining room. The service throughout the meal was typical of many Asian restaurants- simple and efficient without a lot of personality (really, a smile wouldn't hurt you!). The real restaurant menu is extensive, offering dozens of popular Chinese dishes, as well as big noodle bowls, soups, rice bowls, etc. The Dining Days menu was much more limited- giving us the option of four appetizers, five main dishes, and two desserts.

I started with the Peking Duck roll. Sang Kee's restaurant in Chinatown is named "Sang Kee Peking Duck House," so I assumed that these people knew what they were doing here. While it wasn't the most gourmet start to my meal, it was quite enjoyable. An Asian "pancake" (you know, that thing they serve with Moo Shu that is nothing like a pancake, and absolutely identical to a tortilla?) was expertly wrapped tightly around a filling of shredded duck and a light, tangy sauce (almost barbecue-like). The duck was both crispy and a little greasy, but it IS dark meat. The roll didn't seem to be cooked in any way, unlike an egg roll or a spring roll, and was served with a little dish of oyster sauce- not very original, but a good accompaniment. The tortilla was thick and chewy and not simply an afterthought to the duck flavor and texture.

J rolled with the scallion pancake. A generous serving of multiple wedges was served with a thin, sweet sauce, completely unnecessary but a bit addicting. Scallion pancakes are essentially flour, small bits of green onion, and some sort of fat, rolled and smashed together to incorporate the scallions throughout the dough. These are then pan fried, and end up with multiple crispy pastry layers, somewhat like a puff pastry. I may or may not have exchanged several of these wedges for a single bite of my duck roll.

For the entree, I chose the Beef with Pineapple in Black Bean Sauce. In my days at Beijing (the original Chinese eatery on campus), I always chose a dish with rice, vegetables, and meat- no need for anything fancy. This dish seemed to be my closest option. I've never had black bean sauce, so I wasn't sure what to expect- beans to me aren't necessarily an Asian specialty. Beef bits (J compared them to cheesesteak meat) were tossed with a variety of vegetables and pineapple chunks in a dark sauce which contained a few black beans here and there. The sauce was not very flavorful- I would have preferred upping the amperage in both the garlic and heat categories. However, the beef somewhat made up for it- tender and a bit fatty, somewhat like ribeye. The mushrooms were also a hit- whole, soft, but with a little bite left. The chunks of bell pepper weren't quite as good- they were completely raw. I like vegetables, but I would rather the peppers have spent a little time in the pan. The pineapple almost seemed like the odd man out. I liked the sweet addition, and was happy to see that it wasn't canned (at least to my knowledge), but still a little strange. The side of brown rice was hardly mentionable (plus I have a really hard time with rice and chopsticks).

As the restaurant is called Sang Kee NOODLE HOUSE, J ordered the Shrimp Phat Thai in order to experience what this place should really be known for- the noodles. Apparently "Pad" in Chinese is "Phat"- way to totally steal the most well-known Thai dish. After one bite of these noodles though, we couldn't care less. The plate was huge- "more noodles than I eat in a year" according to J, intermixed with a few veggies, some pressed tofu and shrimp, and topped with crumbled peanuts. This appeared to be one of those dishes that you could easily grow tired of after just a few bites, but thankfully, this wasn't the case here. Both the flavor of the sauce and the texture of the noodles were more than we could have asked for- creamy, peanutty, and spicy all at once, with no sign of gumminess or dryness from the noodle base. I was glad she couldn't finish the plate and offered me the leftovers for a later lunch (I think it was almost better the next day!).

Our dessert options were a bit meager, so obviously we each chose one of the two options and (sort of) split them. The ice cream bowl contained three scoops of ice cream, each of a different flavor- coconut, green tea, and vanilla. The coconut was the stand out, as it was very rich and flavorful and contained shreds of sweetened coconut. The green tea was pretty bland- it took me a few bites to even get a hint of tea flavor, while the vanilla was just a classic. It reminded me of the sundae we shared at Doma, but a very weak version of it.

The other dessert option was the Red Bean Coconut Pudding- somewhat more "authentic." Since I have a thing for red beans, I probably enjoyed this more than the average person. The pudding was somewhere between the textures of Jello, pudding, and custard- creamy but also a bit jiggly. It didn't seem to have as much coconut flavor or texture as the coconut ice cream, but was still enjoyable as a sweet end to the meal. The red beans were gathered at the bottom of the cup, and still held a considerable bite- more so than expected. I liked the fact that you could scoop the beans away from the pudding and eat them alone, but again, I'm not sure what the average person would think.

Lots of other diners around us were not sticking to the Dining Days menu, and offered me lots of reasons to come back- everything looked delicious. The portions are huge and the prices are low, something I can certainly appreciate. I'm not sure I would go running back, but I am sure that if it had been established on campus when I was an undergrad, I would have been a frequent diner. But, for $15, we definitely received our money's worth (including leftovers!). For those of you close to campus, definitely give Dining Days a shot- it runs until July 29th and offers a huge number of restaurant options.

Sang Kee Noodle House
3549 Chestnut Street

July 17, 2010


Although we're still not totally sure how to pronounce the name of this place, we've had our eye on Matthew Levin's new creation for quite some time now. When it finally opened this week, a good friend of ours sent out a fortuitous email asking if we'd like to check it out during it's opening week. We didn't exactly need to be asked twice...

We headed down to 5th and Bainbridge to find a rather busy restaurant at 7 PM. Since they don't take reservations for parties smaller than 6, we were lucky that they squeezed an extra chair onto an open four top to fit our group. The place is adorable- falling into the self-described "neighborhood bistro" category in terms of size and atmosphere. Lots of windows- the lighting was fantastic even as the sun started to set- and a very open feel to the whole place, even if the tables were rather close together. It's decorated with books, chalkboards, test tubes, and terrariums, and with the tables coming from an old science classroom, it definitely has a 7th grade biology class feel to it... in a good way. Apparently a few of the tables even have authentic inscriptions such as "This class sucks!"

The service was a tiny bit on the slow side, but we'll let it slide as the staff is still trying to get the hang of things. Also, it seemed like Levin was personally checking the quality of each dish coming out of the kitchen. A & I had been perusing the menu ahead of time, and with a fantastic review of her first visit, our dining mate helped us make our decisions. We decided that ordering, and sharing, the majority of our dishes from the small plates category would allow us to try out a bit more of the menu.

I started with the poutine ($15). This is something I've definitely never seen on a menu in Philly. A Canadian dish (who knew Canada actually had something to offer besides maple syrup and Celine Dion)(I kid..), it typically consists of a bowl of french fries topped with a thin brown gravy and dollops of cheese curds. As this would never qualify as a $15 dish in our book, Levin also topped this decadent treat with foie gras, and lots of it. As my first taste of Adsum, I was totally blown away. The fries themselves were perfectly cooked and salted, somehow providing a delicious potato flavor while maintaining a great outer crispiness, inner softness, all at the perfect temperature for eating. The gravy was also rich but not overly so. The cheese curds gave a smooth, cool texture, though I can't put my finger on exactly what the taste was- very subtle. Definitely a delicious combination to begin with, but with the addition of melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, this dish was over the top. In order to keep it from really becoming overwhelming, we cut the foie gras up into tiny pieces to accompany a gravy soaked fry. I'm so glad I finally got to try this dish, and I'm looking forward to having "real Canadian" poutine in Toronto in October!

A started out with the fried oysters ($12). Fried oysters are definitely on our "obsession" list, and these hit the spot. The oysters themselves were quite large, ensconced in a thick peppery batter that was spot on. Not greasy at all, though the oysters themselves dripped a salty oystery juice upon eating. Underneath the oysters was a thin relish of mild pickles and onions in a thin juice that was easily soaked up by the batter giving another dimension of flavor. The crispy outside with the chewier oyster inside made for a little texture sandwich that was incredibly satisfying.

I ordered the skate ($17) as our only "main", and it sadly was the only disappointment of the meal. The skate itself was on the thin side and the texture was incredibly stringy, to the point of making it slightly difficult to cut. It was also a little bland, and there wasn't quite enough of the apricot sauce to make me happy. The apricots themselves were delicious- stewed in a white wine reduction, they were soft and sweet. However, the few pieces of fried broccoli were underwhelming and didn't really mesh well with the rest of the meal. A is more of a skate fan than I am and she seemed to enjoy it a bit more but I was definitely left wishing I had ordered something else.

A had another "first course" for her entree- a huge Bibb lettuce salad ($10), complete with huge chunks of creamy blue cheese and thin slices of crispy pears. The dressing was heavy on the sesame oil giving it somewhat of an Asian inspired taste and, though a little on the unexpected side, somehow worked. The lettuce was definitely the star of the show- some of the freshest and most flavorful Bibb I've ever had. It certainly would make for a good starting dish, but with the extravagance of our own starting dishes, it was a good balancer.

The other diners at our table enjoyed the Kool-Aid pickled watermelon (think Kool-Aid in a solid form), the Gouda cheese plate, and the Adsum burger. I think I would order this in the future because it was the best burger EVER. Not that I'm a burger connoisseur in any way, shape, or form, but this burger got our table discussing the best burger in Philly, for which this was a clear contender. The meat itself was incredibly thick, providing an amazing medium-rare temperature throughout. With the slightly sweet bun and a side of those perfectly cut fries, this is also the most economical choice on the menu, at $12. Plus, it's certainly big enough to share.

Although there were a few options on the dessert menu, we opted to save room, as we were invited to our newly married friends' place for an amazing dessert spread. As fellow bloggers (and also following the A&J initial trend) and foodies, our host and hostess baked up a totally delicious peach pie complete with lattice crust. This was served up with a homemade apricot sorbet which we will definitely be making in the future, as well as an enormous fruit salad and brownies (chocolate has to make an appearance somewhere!). Many thanks to our friends for a perfectly sweet ending to a great meal!

We came home very satisfied after some great food with great friends. Adsum is a solid restaurant and is definitely on our "we want to return!" list. We were a little disappointed to see that the menu was a condensed version of the originally posted one on Meal Ticket, but we also realize that you can't be overly ambitious, particularly in your first week of business. The concept is fabulous and we were definitely impressed, coming away with an overall very positive feeling about the food.

700 S. 5th Street

July 12, 2010

A(nother) Weekend in Nashville

We've just returned from summer vacation #1, another weekend trip to Nashville, Tennessee. We had so much fun on our last trip that we almost immediately began making plans for another visit. There are too many great things about "Nashvegas" to count, but one of the things we love the most is exploring the city through food. Our friends there have really done an excellent job of visiting the huge variety of restaurants in and around the city, and keeping tabs on which ones we would love. On our last visit, we sampled the Pancake Pantry and Suzy Wong's House of Yum- both restaurants unique to Nashville. For our second visit, our friends asked if we had any requests of our own, and combined those with their own "must eats."

We arrived early Friday morning (thank you one hour time difference!), and our first meal was lunch. J & I both read a number of "healthy eating" blogs, and one such blogger is based in Nashville. She wrote about one of her lunchtime favorites, and the title of the post itself ("The BEST Fish Tacos") made me need to check out Baja Burrito. Our friends had never been, but said they've been wanting to, so I didn't feel bad forcing the issue.

The restaurant is really cute with funky decorations and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. At first glance the menu seems fairly typical- tacos, burritos, taco salads, chips and salsa, etc. However, the options are actually fairly extensive- lots of free toppings, tons of different salsa options (all homemade, as are all of their salad dressings), a variety of meat options including brisket and barbacoa (most of which are locally sourced), and unique drinks and desserts such as horchata and Las Paletas popsicles, respectively. Whew!

I had to get a fish taco ($2.45), of course, but decided to sample their veggie taco as well ($2.20). I chose a corn tortilla base, which comes doubled up to prevent tortilla splittage/spillage. The tortillas are filled with beans, rice, and grilled onions and peppers, and then topped with pica de gallo, shredded cheese, guacamole, pickled jalapenos, and cucumbers. Amazing flavor and texture combination. I would have been perfectly content with six more... if I hadn't also tried the fish taco. They really ARE the best fish tacos- perfectly battered and fried white fish cut into generous chunks, mixed with some white cabbage, a white creamy sauce, and some cilantro and raw onion sprinkled on top. Amazing.

J chose the taco salad ($6.25), topped with barbacoa- a Mexican version of pulled pork. Very finely shredded and tossed in a spicy tomato-based sauce, it was a good addition to the pile of greens, tortilla chips, beans, rice, and other assorted veggie toppings. The chips and salsa were also superb- their thick corn tortillas freshly fried and served with a "salsa bar" where you can pick and choose from a bunch of flavors. The spicy pineapple salsa was one of my favorites- sweet and smoky. We also helped ourselves to a free sample of horchata on our way out (we hope they didn't mind!). It is kind of like cinnamon-y melted rice ice cream... hard to describe. While Baja Burrito is a "one of a kind" independent restaurant, they do have a mini version at the airport- and even though our flight out was relatively early on Monday morning, you know we hit that up.

On our last visit, our friends made the most amazingly delicious pulled pork, and as "payback" for coming to visit them again (just kidding- we owe them bigtime!) we nicely asked pretty much ordered them to make it again. For the record, I tried replicating this dish awhile back, and it sadly came out nothing like their version (I'm blaming the CrockPot). The recipe is actually fairly easy- a 3-6 lb bone-in pork shoulder/butt, a bottle of barbecue sauce (preferably Sonny's), and a white onion. Layer half of the white onion, chopped, at the bottom of a slow cooker, and cover it with sauce. Place the pork butt fat-side-up on top, and again cover with sauce. Sprinkle the remainder of the onion onto the pork, and let it simmer away for 6-7 hours (first 1-2 hours on high, and then adjusted to low). The sauce should be boiling for most of this time, and basting is optional. When you're ready to eat, simply remove the meat from the sauce and "pull it", removing any fatty regions if necessary. The meat literally just falls apart, and is extremely moist- perfect atop a buttered, toasted piece of fresh bread. Bonus points for having lovely house smells all day as it cooks!

The following day we were joined by our other favorite couple, and we celebrated our reunion at a "Nashville Original." This is a group of restaurants "dedicated to sustaining the independent restaurant as a fixture of Nashville's culture and community." It is quite a varied list, ranging from dive bars to 5 star spots. We picked something in the middle- we were aiming for fun atmosphere, a large variety of food (to suit everyone's tastes), with relatively moderate prices. After much debate and lots of menu perusing, we settled on rumba (no, it is not capitalized). The restaurant describes itself as a "rum bar and satay grill", but I'm not sure that's quite an accurate description. The satays themselves aren't heavily emphasized, and the menu strays from its somewhat Latin roots frequently.

I think both J and I stared at the menu for at least fifteen minutes, agonizing over what to order. We wanted to try a variety of small plates, but the sandwiches and entrees kept calling our names as well. I probably put together three or four different combinations of dishes in my mind, before finally settling on my order. To start, I tried the "Montaditos"- which were essentially tapas built on a bread base. rumba's take on this included three small bites: shrimp ceviche on a tortilla chip, a chorizo mole, and a vegetarian tomato-succotash slice ($4). They were good, a well proportioned start to the meal with a variety of flavors. Worth the $4, but not a highlight of the meal.

Then, I moved onto the Barros Luco sandwich ($10), apparently a popular Chilean dish consisting of thinly sliced steak, Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocado, and a spicy bean-like sauce. It was also served with pico de gallo and mixed greens, which I attempted to shove into the already full sandwich. The steak reminded me of cheesesteak meat (in a good way), and the cheese and avocado were perfect accompaniments. The highlights were definitely the bun- thick, dense, Brioche-y type bread, not something I would imagine making a meat sandwich with, but it worked well- and the sauce- thick and spicy, with chunks of hot peppers. The sandwich typically comes with fries, but I traded them out for the couve, a Latin kale dish made by quickly sauteeing the greens with tomato, garlic, onions and lemon juice. Perfectly chopped and cooked, the kale was much more interesting and enjoyable then a pile of fried potatoes.

J started with the stuffed peppadews ($4), highly recommended by our waiter, and as it involved goat cheese, she was all over it. Two skewers of peppadews (some sort of small red African pepper) are stuffed with goat cheese and then grilled, with a final dash of chorizo bits (kind of like bacon bits?) sprinkled on top. The peppers were on the spicy side, but this was mellowed out by the cheese. The soft goatiness was heated close to its melting point, maximizing the creaminess. She also couldn't turn down the sandwich options, choosing the Ahi tuna, a thick cut of tuna marinated in jerk spices, topped with an avocado tomato relish. Thankfully, she had the same bun that I did (yum), but the tuna was a little on the bland side- although it was cooked super rare as requested. She ate it openfaced, to prevent the thick bread from detracting from the sandwich innards. She also made a veggie substitution, switching out the fries for the chile-seared broccoli. A huge stem of broccoli was panfried in what must have been chile infused oil, cooked to a soft bite, and then topped with sriracha and crushed peanuts. The double hit of peppers definitely made it quite spicy- again, a quality side substitution.

The rest of our dining mates also liked their dishes, and it was impressive to see so much variety on the menu all done well. J and I commented that the atmosphere of the restaurant was a little off- half of it is booths/tables while the other half is more lounge-ish, with couches and low tables. Our waiter, while very helpful and enthusiastic, loved to pop out of nowhere which was a little creepy- I prefer more subtle service. For a somewhat demanding party of 6 though, we were glad to have him.

The following day, our hosts took us to the Loveless Cafe, another famous Nashville tradition. At this point, I remembered that I was in the South- and took full advantage. Nowhere in or near Philly can you find food like this- real, down-home, ridiculously artery-clogging, dripping with oil and butter and lots of love, delicious treats. The Cafe has quite a history, and has turned into somewhat of a production. However, the food remains the same. The menu is full of classic Southern dishes- fried catfish, fried okra, fried chicken livers, barbeque, country ham, creamed corn, mac n' cheese, grits, you name it. Our table started with a couple of baskets of biscuits- small and squarish, and quite notorious. The recipe has been kept secret over the years, and the biscuits have been featured on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. They are denser than the average biscuit, but super fresh and perfect with a little smear of butter and some honey, or one of their homemade jams (I only tried strawberry but it was delish)(Editor's note: the blackberry was also solid). I probably could have had four, but it's a good thing I didn't- my fried chicken lunch was enough food to feed at least two hungry people.

The "supper" meal ($11.50) consisted of a quarter of a chicken (breast and leg) and two sides- I chose coleslaw and macaroni and cheese. J ended up ordering the same thing, with green beans instead of coleslaw. Oh man. I probably gained two pounds from this meal, but it was overwhelmingly worth it. The chicken was steaming hot, fresh out of the deep fryer. The coating wasn't too thick or crunchy, just a thin casing to the meat beneath. Crispy, greasy, and the right way to start a lazy Sunday. The macaroni and cheese was super soft and creamy, but I couldn't make it beyond more than a few bites. The coleslaw, on the other hand, was completely dominated- just the right amount of mayo and tang, chopped to fine bits, making it easy to grab large bites. The green beans were cooked down with a bit of bacon and ham, just as Southern beans should be. I also sampled a hush puppy- I swore I just wanted a bite, but then ended up stealing an entire ball of fried cornmeal dough from my very generous friend across the table. They were super dense and moist- most hush puppies end up a little dry. Overall, the most satisfactory Southern brunch I could have asked for- totally worth the short wait.

Our first trip to Nashville in March was so much fun I thought we surely couldn't beat it- but I think this weekend may have. Many, many thanks to our wonderful friends and hosts, and we are already looking forward to our next visit.

July 7, 2010

Southern Cookin'

The title of this post is a little misleading because the food we made involved very little actual cooking. After perusing the Saturday morning Rittenhouse farmer's market a few weekends ago, we saw a few items that inspired us: green tomatoes and cucumber pickles. Fried green tomatoes are considered somewhat of a "Southern delicacy" and it's relatively hard to find them in this city- our best success with them was actually in DC.

As you know, when A & I were growing up, our Dad was the cook in the family. However, there were certain times of the year when he would get home late and making dinner would fall into the hands of our Mom. She also worked late into the day, so she would sometimes pick up "dinner" at a produce stand near the interstate. But this wasn't just any produce stand... they also sold boiled peanuts, another purely Southern treat. A giant Styrofoam cup full of the salty, softened peanuts (still in the shell) paired with perfectly ripened red tomatoes and a banana, and we were happy campers.

Another kind of food we (OK, mostly me...) are obsessed with is pickles. I've loved pickles ever since I was a little kid and have a lot of memories associated with them from my childhood. And it's not just pickled cucumbers- pickled okra? Pickled beets? Pickled banana peppers? That last one has my mouth watering... Unfortunately, pickles are a little on the expensive side, and as a non-necessity, we rarely buy them. But seeing a quart of pickled cucumbers at the market for $3 got us thinking... why can't we try to make our own?

The long holiday weekend gave us a little extra time to spend in the kitchen, so we decided to tackle all three of these items at once. The farmer's market had perfect green tomatoes (picked that morning!) for $2.50/lb, and I was instructed to store them in the fridge to keep them from ripening- a helpful hint considering you should NEVER refrigerate ripened tomatoes. I also picked up a pound of raw peanuts in the shell ($1.50 at Nuts to You on 13th and Walnut) and an oversize quart of the cukes- lots of food for less than $10.

A took charge of the peanuts: Place peanuts in pot. Add 1/2 cup kosher salt and enough water to cover the peanuts. Turn on the heat until the water begins to boil, then let them simmer/slight boil for a long time. Not hard. Keep an eye on the level of the water as it can boil off pretty quickly- keep adding water as necessary. The recipe A used suggested boiling for three hours, but we probably would have liked them to go for longer- this really depends on your softness preference. We're more on the mushy side of the spectrum, while these turned out firm (but still delicious!). They are definitely on the salty side so perhaps next time we'll tone that down a bit. These are a great summertime snack and can be eaten either hot or cold. Add some spices to the water to make a Cajun version (a crab boil spice packet would work well). You can store them in the refrigerator for a few days as well (a pound of in-the-shell-peanuts is more than you might think...).

Eat the peanuts just like you would a roasted one at a ball game. Crack open the shell (though this is more of a mushing/prying type maneuver), and pluck out the nuts. They have a consistency similar to that of a cooked bean.

Because pickles are more my forte, I was responsible for making them. Wash the cukes well and place them in a large jar or sealable container. Add a few pinches of dill, some sliced garlic, and a white vinegar to water ratio of 3:2 until the pickles are covered. For each 1.5 cups of vinegar, add 2 T of sugar and 1.5 T of salt (I know that requires some math... sorry...). Seal the jar and shake everything well. Pop them in the fridge for at least 24 hours, though again, I think they require more time. We're going on two days now and the pickles are at "half-sour" status. Very crunchy, totally fresh, garlic-y and dill-y.. and homemade! Again, a super easy snack that can keep in your fridge for awhile, I think a couple of weeks, but only time will tell. Until then, you know what they say: A pickle a day keeps.. me very happy!

The fried green tomatoes took a little more effort. We like the slices to be super thick to get some good crunch action- green tomatoes have a totally different texture than ripened tomatoes (duh). We rubbed our tomato slices in a little whole-wheat flour then dredged them in egg-whites and a cornmeal/panko mixture. Heat a good bit of canola oil in a frying pan (enough to cover the pan well) and cook the slices for about 5 minutes on each side. A made an accompanying "dip" made from plain Greek Yogurt and some red pepper spread from Trader Joe's. The tomatoes were unbelievably good- crispy, crunchy, cornmealy, a little bit of fried flavor yet still maintaining the tangy, almost-sour taste of the tomato. The cool and creamy yogurt spread was the perfect addition.

With a big bowl of fresh fruit salad, these made a rather eclectic yet delicious Southern meal- a good way to celebrate the 4th of July. Although some of it took awhile, none of it was difficult- and we certainly have enough peanuts and pickles to last us awhile.