April 30, 2012

Burger Club PHL- Perch Pub

After being initiated into the Burger Club last month, we were pumped for the next meeting.  The Club does a great job of keeping our excitement up, as blog posts and tweets frequently update us on upcoming events, news and even short reviews of burgers around town.  The next month's meeting place is usually announced at/around the time of the current month's meeting, so we've known for some time that we were headed for Perch Pub.  Located above the long-standing Italian-focused Varalli, we've never really considered Perch as a place to grab some eats- we're glad we've been properly introduced now!  For the meeting, the folks at Perch graciously offered all members a $5 discount on any of their burgers.

The restaurant is perfectly situated for great views of Broad Street, and is displaced a bit from the busy bar at the other end of the room, giving us plenty of breathing space. The waitress serving us was a little spacy, and while others commented on the great service they received from other servers, I thought she could have stepped it up a notch.  Too much time elapsed between drink orders/bringing drinks/taking food orders– and considering we were all there for a burger, we really didn’t need much time to ponder the menu.

Their burger selection, in our opinion, is great– lots of interesting toppings as well as a rotating special.  Four everyday options include the French (Gruyere/onions/arugula), the Wake and Bacon (fried egg/cheddar/bacon jam), the California Cobb (avocado/blue cheese/bacon), and the Vino (pesto/onions/goat cheese, all prepared in wine).  The special of the day was topped wtih roasted red peppers and pancetta, again representing a creative mix of gourmet options.  You can also construct your own with any of the above toppings of your choice.

A LOT of members chose the Wake and Bacon ($11)- probably the most popular choice.  However, there were definitely mixed opinions on it.  It should be noted that all of their burgers are generously portioned, with 8 ounces of quality beef (apparently a LaFrieda mix?) stacked high with toppings and served on a soft, fluffy sesame-studded brioche LeBus bun- making both of the most important components just right.

Wake and Bacon
Thus, the burger experience came down to the toppings.  The Wake and Bacon was a mess to eat, which was completely expected and actually kind of enjoyable.  Put a fried egg on anything and you’ve pretty much got us sold- the rich egg yolk soaked into the meat and the bun was our favorite part.  Unfortunately, the apple-smoked bacon jam, which sounds great in theory, was extremely salty and in my opinion, also too sweet, overwhelming the other flavors.  There was also a layer of wilted lettuce at the bottom of the burger, which I thought for sure was an error in the kitchen, but apparently it’s not!

The Money Shot
Two things common to all of the burgers stood out to us– the bun and the side salad.  The bun was perfect- brioche and beef are really meant for each other.  For our second burger, the bun wasn’t quite big enough to contain all of the toppings, but many of the other burgers around us seemed better proportioned.  The salad is a nice little mix of greens, carrots, tomatoes, and onions, which acts as a light balance to the burger.  A small cup of sweet-and-sour pickle chips was also a fun addition, although the bread-and-butter variety is personally my least favorite.

And, our second burger choice was... the California Cobb ($12)!  My first ever burger ordered rare (eek!) came out perfectly cooked– plenty of pink (the waitress also stopped by to ensure each of our burgers was cooked to our preference-- I think she was concerned about my love for raw beef).  The meat is well-packed and obviously of good quality, but was a bit underseasoned.  The combination of flavors and textures on the Cobb were superb- a blue cheese dressing, pecan-smoked bacon (so fancy!), spicy arugula, a thick slice of fresh tomato, and the best part, huge chunks of soft avocado.  Again, put avocado on anything and I will eat it– Perch Pub certainly knows how to reel you in with all your favorite comfort foods… on a burger.

The California Cobb

For an additional $1.50, you can add a side of fries or onion rings.  I kind of have a weird love for onion rings, but didn't sample the goods here.  Some commented that they were cut a bit thick (too much onion, not enough breading), but looked good to us!

Overall, we’d return to Perch just for the burgers, let alone the nice views and prime location.  Plus, burgers only make up a small portion of their menu- they seem to have a good range of gastropub type eats.  Some commented that the prices were a little high (the special of the day topped out the burger price list at $13), but we felt the quality and quantity made the price point reasonable.  Certainly, the $5 discount didn’t hurt.  Our second Burger Club meeting definitely has us even more excited to finally be a part of such a great group!

1345 Locust Street

Note: A similar post has been posted to the Burger Club blog.  Yes, we wrote it too!
Times "burger" appears in this post: 21

April 25, 2012

Sushi Planet

It's been almost a year since I read Mac & Cheese's review of Sushi Planet, but the name- and her review- kept it in the back of my mind all this time.  When a Groupon promoting the little sushi spot popped into my email, I couldn't resist.  Self-advertised as serving the "best budget sushi in Philadelphia," one might be skeptical of its quality.  And, as Taylor pointed out, the name is laughable, and definitely sells itself short- no serious sushi could come out of such a ridiculously titled restaurant, right?  Thankfully this first impression isn't quite accurate.

In order to use the Groupon on a weekend, reservations are required, but they weren't hard to score even a day or two in advance.  The restaurant hosts about a dozen tables along with a long sushi bar and a couple outdoor spots, and has... interesting, cheap-y decor.  The servers were all friendly and efficient, and the kitchen works quick- our entire meal only took about an hour.

The kitchen starts you with a little bowl of sweet pickles- thin slices of cucumber in a rice vinegar soup.  Crunchy and a little salty, I really need to make these at home.

In typical ordering style, we did a little pick-and-choose between the different menu categories.  The menu reads almost like a diner menu, with foods from all types of Asian cuisines, lots of noodle dishes, hot entrees, salads, and of course, a wide range of sushi (both rolls and sashimi).  We started with the Kanni salad, just because I liked the list of ingredients: cucumber, crabstick, avocado, and massago (smelt roe) with a housemade aioli ($6).  The salad was drenched in this mildly spicy mayo-based sauce, which was on the verge of being overwhelming, but the light cucumber sticks and (faux?) crabmeat helped even it out.  The avocado and roe seemed like an afterthought-- they aren't well incorporated into the salad, but I love both of these items so can't complain.

Based on our wonderful experience with Japanese-style eggplant at Sagami, we had to put in an order here as well ($6).  Served in a different manner, but still just as wonderfully buttery and soft as we remembered.  Sushi Planet's version comes with a sweet honey-miso sauce and a tiny sprinkle of sesame seeds for texture, and the lack of any hard-to-cut skin as well as the bite-size chunks make it great for sharing.

Our third starter was our least favorite bite of the night- the Pork Buns ($7).  We probably should have realized that a Japanese restaurant won't do a Chinese dish justice, but the thought of fluffy meat-filled buns had us hopeful.  The buns are generously portioned, with a large taco-shaped outer "bun" and thick shreds of hoisin-soaked smoked pork.  The hoisin sauce was dominating, leaving a dish of many ingredients quite one-note.  The bun was thick and sticky, and lacked both the flavor and textures we love about classic pork buns.  Oh well, lesson learned!

The meal truly began with the arrival of our sushi.  All sushi and sashimi orders come served together on massive platters- the table next to us ordered a bit more and their platter hardly fit on the small two-top.  Looking for a mix of flavors and styles, we ordered three contrasting rolls.

Alllll the rolls.

Since Mac & Cheese did a great job of reviewing Sushi Planet's vegetarian options, we had to try one veggie-filled roll, and chose the Mixed Veggie Roll ($6).  We also requested that our Veggie Roll be made with brown rice, but ended up receiving brown rice on all three rolls ($0.50/roll).  The brown rice, while more flavorful and certainly a bit better on the health front, reminded me a LOT of the brown rice used in some of the rolls at... well, Trader Joe's.  While I enjoy TJ's sushi, I'm not sure this comparison is fully a compliment.  That said, I give my full compliment's to the chefs for their perfect construction- we didn't have even a grain of rice crumble off, let alone an entire piece fall apart.

The mix of fillings was a fun way get in some veggies- crispy crunch from the carrot and cucumber (pickled, not raw), and creaminess from the avocado.  A little wasabi and soy sauce and you're good to go.

For a bit of spice, we ordered the On Fire Roll, containing eel and avocado and topped with spicy tuna ($10).   Weirdly, this roll was on the opposite side of the spectrum from spicy-- drizzled with a thick, sweet honey-based sauce, there wasn't even a hint of heat.  Some frizzled scallions, bits of crumbled tempura (yum!) and a bit of roe added crunch, but otherwise this roll was pretty tame.  Either the name needs to be changed, or there was a serious mix-up at the sushi counter; it was a decent roll but one that just left us puzzled.

Our final choice was another of Sushi Planet's "House Specials," the Pumpkin Roll ($13.50).  On the higher end of the price scale, this roll is packed with a million ingredients that honestly, I was a little skeptical of.  Avocado, crabstick, and pumpkin tempura fill the middle, while smoked salmon, cinnamon (?!?), "Japanese spices," and pumpkin seeds coat the top.  Thankfully, the flavor combination wasn't over the top (I didn't get even a sniff of cinnamon) and was my favorite of the three we tried.  The smoked salmon and the spicy sauce played a large role (no pun intended), because unfortunately the star ingredient (pumpkin) kind of fell flat.  Pumpkin doesn't have a strong flavor, but the heavy tempura coating was thick and chewy, making each bite texturally unpleasant.

In terms of the sushi, Sushi Planet does a decent job.  The fish is fresh, the rolls are well constructed, and the specialty rolls are certainly different.  However, once again, we remain mostly unimpressed with the sushi in Philly (minus our favorite, Vic's).  Prices were more "mid-range" than "budget," but the availability of seating and its BYO status make this more of a restaurant experience than the standard take-out spot (good for a cheap date).  Also of note, it seemed that almost everyone dining there had a Groupon or other internet-deal, so if you really want the most bang for your buck, keep an eye out for one of these.

Sushi Planet
624 S. 3rd Street (just off of South Street)

April 20, 2012

The Urban Cafe

Pretty much every single time we are planning a meal out we tick off a short (or sometimes long) list of criteria. Good for groups? Takes reservations? Offers healthy options? Close to home/a coinciding event/a subway stop?  We hope this isn't just us-- it is sometimes super difficult to find a place that fits all our needs (particularly when we're trying to find something new to blog too!).  Planning for a brunch after a Sunday morning race, we needed: someplace near Manayunk/Roxborough, affordable, and without a long wait. Some perusal of Yelp brought up The Urban Cafe- almost immediately adjacent to the Wissahickon train station- and after a year of using this station regularly, I still had never heard of it.

The Urban Cafe is open daily for dinner, but also serves Sunday brunch.  It's almost secret location above T. Hogan's Pub (literally, you walk into a bar and then head up to the restaurant) has kept this somewhat of a hidden gem, at least at brunchtime.  The space is split in two by a low dividing wall, with couches, chairs, and a big group table on one side, and a half dozen smaller dining tables on the other.  The furniture screamed "recycled, outdated hotel conference room" to me, but we weren't there for the atmosphere-- just the food!

The majority of the work was being done by a single waiter, who was clearing tables, taking orders, printing out checks, acting as host AND bringing out the food.. rather impressive, even though there were only eleven guests eating while we were there (including us).  He brought us menus and the specials board for our own personal viewing- an interesting mix of options, with good coverage of both sweet and savory, all with a touch of Southern influence.

After a long, hard race I was craving something big and salty, so the Urban Cafe Grits seemed like the best option ($8.75).  An enormous bowl filled with some of the creamiest grits I've ever had couldn't have hit the spot better- so incredibly cheesy, and studded with bits of shrimp, bacon, and finely chopped jalapenos.  The peppers brought some heat, but I asked for some hot sauce to kick it up a notch.  "Milder" green jalapeno based Tabasco was brought my way- a little disappointed it wasn't Frank's, but it was the perfect spicy-salty match.

Obviously one dish wasn't going to cut it, so I also ordered a side of Urban Cafe Potatoes (apparently I needed to order all of their namesake dishes) ($2).  A small plate of soft yet crispy cubes, with bits of toasted skin was intended for the table to split, but I think I demolished these solo.

The specials menu called to the other two in the group, and with a bit of prompting from me, J ordered the Crab Cakes Benedict ($11.75).  Two generous crab cakes were topped with perfectly runny poached eggs and a pour of hollandaise sauce.  A literal sheet of crispy bacon hid beneath the eggs, lending a salty touch in every bite.  We really enjoyed the non-traditional take on a classic dish, using the crab cakes instead of a typical English muffin.  The cakes still soaked up the egg yolk as the muffin would, but gave a great punch of flavor and textural interest where a muffin would not.

The hollandaise was also creamy perfection- not too runny but a little drippier than normal, which allowed for an even spread.  Overall, a perfectly executed dish.

I think I once mentioned that my fiance lives on pulled pork sandwiches and burgers, but I failed to mention that he does throw pancakes into the mix for breakfast.  The blueberry pancake special couldn't escape him, and it should be at the top of any pancake connoisseur's list (those exist, right?).  Three enormous fluffy cakes filled with fresh blueberries are cooked so that they're slightly crisp on the outside but soft and airy on the inside ($10.50).  A bottom view of these 'cakes would show at least 50% blueberry coverage.  A side of meat is included, and options vary from various sausages, bacon, and even two versions of scrapple.  The bacon strips seemed measly in comparison to the monstrous pancakes, but you can't argue with free.

The quiet atmosphere, the sunlight streaming in, and our friendly server made the experience enjoyable even beyond the delicious food.  I'm kind of itching to check it out for dinner, too.  The prices are extremely reasonable, particularly for the quality of the food and the size of the portions- it's kind of like a quiet, no-wait Sabrina's.  If you're a Center City dweller without a car, the ride out to Manayunk couldn't be easier (just hop on the Norristown-bound train), and you'll be just steps away from a new go-to brunch spot!

The Urban Cafe
1509 Rochelle Avenue
Manayunk, PA

April 17, 2012

Handmade Orecchiette

All long distance runners share one thing in common- they eat pasta the night before a race.  It's practically a requirement to even register for the race (sometimes I eat pizza, don't tell anyone...).  We adjusted this ritual a bit after I learned how to make my own pasta, experimenting with different types of flour and shapes.  Each pre-race evening was spent in the kitchen making pasta- and then eating it, of course!  This time I decided to try my hand at a bit more of a free-form pasta: orecchiette.  Italian for "small ear," these little scoops of pasta are known for clinging to bits of sauce.

I loosely followed a few recipes online, but ended up mostly winging it with the ratios.  Here's what worked for me (makes 3-4 servings).

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup spelt flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon of salt

Mix everything together in a bowl, then turn the dough out onto a clean, flat surface and knead it until it comes together to form a smooth, slightly stretchy dough blob (I kneaded for about 8 minutes).

I wrapped up the dough in plastic wrap and let it "rest" on the counter for 20 minutes.  Then I split it into three pieces and rolled each piece out on a floured Silpat into a long, thin rope.  The diameter of the ropes will help determine the size of the end product- mine were about an inch thick.  I snipped off the tapered ends to make uniform rolls.

The next size-determining step is cutting these dough logs into individual pieces.  A few recipes suggested 1/2 inch thickness so I went with that.  The great thing about this pasta shape is you don't have to do any extensive rolling to flatten out the dough- it saves a ton of time.

The pieces got a little squished under the pressure of the knife, but it didn't end up mattering.  To form the final shape, press a piece of dough into one palm with the opposite thumb, twisting slightly to form a little well.  The picture below shows the pressed product next to a pre-pressed piece.  You can see it spreads and grows in size quite a bit- next time I would slice the dough a bit thinner, closer to 1/4 inch in order to make smaller "ears."

Place each pressed piece onto a clean cloth.  Mine sat on the counter for about half an hour before I cooked them- drying out a bit is not an issue.

My life cooking partner was in charge of the sauce.  We used a few recipes for inspiration, but again combined them all into one delicious dish.  There are four parts to this sauce: a ricotta base, pan-roasted chicken sausage, oven-roasted brussels sprouts, and lightly toasted tomatoes... but ultimately, your grocery list will be pretty short.

6 oz. grape tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, separated in two
3 tsp. olive oil, divided
2/3 c. ricotta cheese (the whole fat kind!)
5 large fresh basil leaves
2 chicken sausages
12 oz. brussels sprouts, quartered
salt + pepper

First up, the brussels sprouts.  Roast them.  Toss the quarters with a splash of olive oil, salt, and pepper and throw them in a 425 degree oven for thirty minutes- easy.

Next, focus on the ricotta base.  A finely chopped clove of garlic was simmered in a touch of olive oil until lightly browned, and then added to the ricotta in a small bowl.  The fresh basil should also be added to the mix, and can either be finely chopped or chiffonade...d (is this a word?).  A simple technique for a chiffonade:

1. Stack leaves (largest to smallest helps)
2. Roll leaves into a tight bundle
3. Cut vertically through the bundle at 1/8" intervals
4. Admire your perfectly evenly sized strips of basil
5. Sprinkle over dish of choice.. or mix them into your bowl of ricotta

In a separate bowl, combine halved, deseeded (just lightly squeeze after slicing) tomatoes and the other clove of garlic.  Let sit for 15-20 minutes to allow the flavors to settle a bit.  Depending on the state of your chicken sausage, cook, crumble, and/or slice.  We used a precooked version that needed to be heated, so pan roasted them until slightly crispy.  In the last couple minutes, toss in the tomatoes- just enough heat to take an edge off the garlic and start to melt the tomatoes, but not enough to make them mushy.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and add a few pinches of salt (don't be stingy).  Add the pasta in batches so that they don't crowd each other- I split this quantity into three batches.  The pasta will begin to float after about a minute, but keep them boiling for 7-9 minutes (also dependent on thickness & size, so check a piece after 5 minutes).

The cooking process puffs up the dough further, so my resultant scoops of carbs were a little bigger than I wanted (ALWAYS my problem when I make pasta- it can never be thin/small enough!).  However, they maintained their scoop shape quite well.

In a big bowl, combine everything.  Your ricotta mix, the tomatoes and sausage, as well as your roasted brussels sprouts and of course, the pasta.  A splash of pasta water will help to mix things together, but you don't have to be overly cautious- these little ears of pasta are super sturdy and stand up to a good tossing.

Sprinkle with a bit of Parmesan for an extra salty kick (I don't carb load, I salt load), and eat up.  The ricotta gives such a creaminess that it seems super indulgent, but works out to a reasonable amount of fat and calories (ie the good stuff) per serving.  Lots of veggies bulk it up, and the pasta shines- you can absolutely tell the difference between fresh and dried.  Plus, getting your hands dirty- literally- makes this dish extra special.

April 13, 2012

Jar Bar

Philadelphia's resident vegan blogger-guru, Kelly over at Living on the Vedge, recently reported back after checking out the newest addition to the healthy food scene, Jar Bar.  While we're far from maintaining vegan status, it's nice to have the option to grab a quick and tasty snack while out and about... without consuming a ton of added sugar and, well, crap.  About a year ago, while in the mood for a green juice (a great way to get an extra hit of nutrients), we stopped in at FUEL and walked out with a $4 cup of apple juice with a few spinach leaves blended in.  As you might imagine, we were eager to check out what (hopefully improvements) Jar Bar had to offer.

Jar Bar is actually the store-front for a juice cleanse program, Catalyst Cleanse, with a small juice and raw foods to-go counter up front.  We were the only customers in the huge space, which is awkwardly empty save for the reverberating sounds of employees working behind the scenes.  A large shelf stocked with veggies, a refrigerated case with a few solid food selections... and a whole lot of empty space.  Perhaps they're planning on expanding?

The majority of the menu is made up by juices and "elixirs"- code word for a chilled smoothie type concoction.  You have the option of choosing a from a list of predetermined ingredient combinations or getting a little crazy and inventing your own drink.  And they aren't cheap- juices start at $5.50 and elixirs top out at almost $10.  Want a little kick of ginger? That'll be 75 cents extra.

However, I think the price reflects the quality of the ingredients, and certainly in the case of the juices, the quantity.  I ordered the "special" juice of the day- a green apple base with collards, parsley, lemon, cucumber, and kale ($6).  The... juice barista?... picked up a large basket and started filling it with ingredients from the shelves of produce.  Apparently in order to make 16 ounces of juice, you need a TON of fruits and veggies.

The process of extracting all of the juicy goodness requires a super fancy juicer (more $$).  Juices are made to order, so they're room temp, but you're getting the freshest product possible.  The dark green product had a good inch of frothy foam- a by-product of a serious trip through the juicer.  The tartness from the green apple was the first thing I noticed- barely sweet at all, which I appreciated.  Acidity from the lemon balances the earthy "green" flavors from the leafy ingredients.  Overall I thought it was quite refreshing.

We also had our eye on one of the elixir's- the mint chocolate chip ($6.75).  Great as an ice cream flavor, great in a cookie (hello, Thin Mints), but great in the form of a healthy smoothie?  You bet.  A combination of hemp milk, raw cacao nibs (think unprocessed, unsweetened chocolate chips), vegan vanilla protein powder, hemp seeds, and mint extract.  No frozen ingredients, but the combination of chilled milk and the texture provided by the high-protein seeds and powder provides a rich, milkshake thickness, although as a warning, don't expect sugary milkshake flavor.  Bits of bitter cacao nibs require a little chewing, adding to the enjoyment.

Yes, prices are steep, but try buying these ingredients at your local Whole Foods.  They're expensive.  So in lieu of stocking up on everything you need to make this at home, treat yourself to a refreshing beverage- served up raw and healthy.

Jar Bar
113 S. 12th Street

April 10, 2012


Last time we were down in Queen Village, chowing down on pork-every-way at Cochon, its newest neighbor, Ulivo, was about to open up shop.  Craig LaBan quickly gave the Italian BYO his seal of approval, particularly noting its great value (read: great food for less $$).  A free Saturday evening with promise of great weather gave us a good excuse to walk down and check it out for ourselves.

We had early reservations, so the place was quiet when we arrived.  Rows of full-length windows meant tons of sun pouring in, making it challenging for our waitress to seat us in a glare-free area.  We appreciated the spacing between the tables- they aren't trying to pack diners in like sardines.  Our waitress was cheerful and friendly, and the dishes came out of the kitchen in a timely manner.  Out first were a few pieces of warm, fluffy focaccia served with a bit of olive oil for dipping.  A sprinkle of coarse salt and the characteristic dimpled surface- a reflection of the reserved sophistication that the rest of our meal embodied.  Am I gushing already??

The list of appetizers is succinct but contains the usual suspects- a soup, a couple of salads, cheese & meat plates.  The grilled octopus was an eye-catcher, though at $14 is as pricey as a pasta dish.  Thankfully, Ulivo  lived up to its reputation- the dish was well worth the money.  Tender chunks of buttery white meat bore the purple-tentacled surface that makes this protein such a textural treat.  Firm brown borlotti beans (new to me but similar to a pinto bean), crunchy pickled red peppers and slivers of onions, a few leaves of spicy arugula, and a light citrus-y olive oil dressing were the perfect companions to the octopus- nothing to steal the spotlight.

Our waitress informed us that any pasta dish could be served as a half-order, making our decision making process a bit easier.  A picked out the ricotta gnocchi ($9.50), a dish that LaBan had raved about.  We enjoy making our own gnocchi, so its easy to appreciate the time and effort that goes into creating the little dough-y pillows.  In this case, the gnocchi gave the impression that they were made entirely from cheese- the definition of melt-in-your-mouth.  A pool of black truffle butter and thin curls of salty Pecorino only heightened the luxurious experience, and caused an almost immediate declaration that these were the best gnocchi we had ever consumed.  

I opted to try the tonnarelli- a more rustic pasta dish served simply with bits of guanciale, spring garlic, and calabrian chilis ($8).  Similar to spaghetti, the al dente noodles were lightly tossed in olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper.  I made the mistake of trying to transfer some of the dish to my "sharing plate"- most of the slippery strands ended up on the table.  I resorted to picking out bits of salty guanciale and the shaved garlic (similar to ramps?) to eat alongside a twirl of the slightly chewy pasta.  I was hoping for a bit more spice from the chilis, but overall it was a light dish perfect for spring, simple and fresh.

Although the salmon with cara-cara oranges sounded terrific, A insisted we try the braised chicken ($19) as it is served with fried artichokes- apparently her latest obsession. Crispy brown skin hid a meaty leg and thigh oozing plenty of salty (brined?) dark meat flavor.  Thanks to the braise, the meat easily fell away from the bone, making it effortless to fork off pieces and scoop up a bit of a thick, herb-heavy salsa verde.  A pile of grainy polenta soaked up juice from the chicken and coated the crispy fried artichokes.  The 'chokes themselves didn't have a significant flavor contribution- they really needed to be eaten alone in order to be fully appreciated.  A little salad of raw fennel and arugula kept things light- sort of a jumble of ingredients, but a joy to eat.

We appeased the veggie police with a side order of roasted cauliflower ($6).  We're a big fan of roasting anything cruciferous- reducing any harshness and providing a softer texture.  This version introduced a salty component in the form of mashed kalamata olives- a fun replacement for the usual sprinkle of sea salt.  A solid side dish.

I clearly haven't said a single negative thing about our dining experience- it was simply a flawless meal.  We declined dessert (the horror!) as we had plans for later that evening, but it gives us a good excuse to return sooner rather than later.  Other reviewers mentioned issues with long waits and noise levels, but we avoided both by dining a bit earlier.  For those who live near the intersection of Catharine and Passyunk, I am now twice as jealous of the two fantastic restaurants you have right outside your door.

521 Catharine St.

April 7, 2012

The Stanton Social

Our trip to New York now seems like almost a distant memory, even though it was just a few weeks ago.  The 36 hours we spent in the city had us eating everywhere (including Mario Batali's Eataly, if you missed it!), but the one planned-well-in-advance meal was at The Stanton Social, billed as "New York's Sexiest Restaurant."  J and I were both excited to see how a popular, full-service NY restaurant would compare to what we have here in Philly.

Located in the Lower East Side just south of Houston Street, it actually consists of a tri-level space, with the main dining room occupying the lower level and the mezzanine and top floor housing more of a lounge.  Eating later on a Sunday allowed us some breathing room, but it was still busy, considering.

The menu offers fun riffs on comfort foods from around the world, most of which are served tapas style.  The waitress suggested we each order 2-3 dishes for the table to share, but we were all leaning towards ordering just for ourselves instead (something she seemed surprised to hear-- what, not allowed?).  It was hard to pick just a few, especially with options like their famous French Onion Soup Dumplings and Duck Confit Empanadas (like I said, influence from lots of cultures!).

The chef started us out with a small amuse bouche, served in the classic tapas style, emphasizing the group experience.  A small crumbly cracker was topped with a white bean mousse with hints of rosemary, topped with a spray of parmesan curls.  I love a little gratis bite to start the meal, and thought this helped get us excited for the array of flavors and textures we would experience much better than a simple piece of bread would have.

Both sides of the table had to have an order of the Red Snapper Tacos ($10), a combination of chopped flaky fish, jalapeno, mango, and a smear of avocado, all served in a crunchy shell.  Each taco sat in it's own compartment of the dish, atop a pool of a spicy, creamy mayo-based sauce, thick enough to bind to the shell without making it a soggy mess, and giving this dish even more of a "sushi in a taco shell" feel.  A squeeze of lime could also be added, if desired.  This dish was my favorite of the night- a great combination of flavors, although a bit difficult to share between two people.

After a day of nonstop eating, I added an order of the Baby Spinach Salad to ensure we ate at least one vegetable ($9).  This salad isn't necessarily super healthy, but it was a great combination of ingredients I would never think to combine on my own.  Soft spinach leaves, spiced cashew crumbles, small clumps of goat cheese and tiny kernels of roasted corn were tossed in a barely-there balsamic-based vinaigrette and a shower of grated Parmesan.  I was definitely scraping up the last bits of balsamic-coated nuts at the bottom of the plate when we were done.

Our table also received two orders of the Chicken Arepas, a miniature version of the Latin dish, each with three perfect tiny bites ($10).  A soft cornmeal cake, a squeeze of avocado mousse, carefully arranged shreds of hand-pulled braised chicken, and a miniature pile of deconstructed salsa perched on top combined every necessary ingredient with ease.

When a menu has pickled ANYTHING on it, I have to order it-- so of course, a bowl of "Essex Street Pickles" had to be done ($4).  I was a little disappointed with them though, as they didn't quite satisfy my cravings for something salty, crunchy, and fresh.  The grape tomatoes were a nice touch, but would have been much better if also pickled.

Our final dish needed some prompting of our waitress- I don't know whether the kitchen forgot or whether she never got it on the ticket, but we're glad we made the second effort to try the Artichoke Fritters ($7).  I have no idea how something with such a high water content gets made into a tiny ball of fried dough, but they worked their magic and made it happen, with delicious results- light and tangy, with a combination of the sweet artichokes and a hit of fresh lemon.

Dessert was a must, as Stanton Social has a mouthwatering list of options.  I'm a sticky toffee pudding fiend, so convinced J to split Stanton's Irish-inspired version, which is spiked with Guinness, adding even more chocolate-y flavor, and topped with an irish cream gelato (think extra-extra-vanilla) ($8).  The caramel sauce, the key to the "sticky," was addicting- overall, a fun but relatively standard version of one of my favorite desserts.

Our friends ordered their famous Warm Doughnuts, a pile of fluffy, sugar-coated, slightly-larger-than-hole-sized doughnuts served with three super sauces- salted caramel, raspberry, and dark chocolate ($9).  Give me these three sauces on some plain vanilla ice cream any day- doughnuts aren't my thing- but no bite went uneaten.

Spending dinner with two of our favorite people in a city we're all experiencing together is priceless, and Stanton Social didn't disappoint in terms of food.  I'm really not sure what makes the restaurant sexy, let alone the sexiest, so I was a bit disappointed in the general atmosphere- it seemed like just a regular restaurant to me.  On any other day, this would be nothing to think twice about, but I do think Stanton tries to sell themselves as something they might not be.  A fun place to eat some fun food, sure, but if this is what New York wants to pride themselves on, Philly is keeping pace without breaking a sweat.

Stanton Social
New York City, NY