March 27, 2013

Philly Seafood Roundup

Since we've been investigating a lot of seafood restaurants in the city recently, we though we'd share a little side-by-side comparison of each.  Philadelphia has such a great variety of restaurants, and we think these four seafood spots represent this diversity.  Here's what you need to know:

Oyster House
Neighborhood: Center City West, on Sansom Street near many popular night spots and restaurants
Atmosphere: Large central bar (with oysters!), loud, younger crowd
Best for: Small groups, couples (not a first date or an anniversary)
Need to know: Avoid late night buck-a-shuck, make reservations far in advance

Menu highlights: Dump Dinner (New England Style Clam Bake, $25/per person)
Not-to-miss dishes: Bluefish Salad ($14), Lobster Roll ($26)

Oyster House Lobster Roll

Route 6
Neighborhood: North Broad, in a budding restaurant district in the midst of an otherwise industrial and residential neighborhood
Atmosphere: "Down on the Cape," spacious yet lively
Best for: Any size group (including 20+), casual celebrations, date night
Need to know: Easy to drive to with plenty of nearby street parking, huge menu good for even picky eaters

Menu highlights: Seafood based bar snacks, affordable simply prepared fresh seafood
Not-to-miss dishes: Surprisingly good (huge!) no-frills mussels, salmon tartare (on special)

Route 6 Mussels

Little Fish
Neighborhood: Queen Village, quiet residential street
Atmosphere: Tiny, bare bones decor
Best for: Small groups, dinner with your parents
Need to know: No longer cash only, BYO, arrive on time for Sunday seatings and don't expect to linger over dessert

Menu highlights: Small variety of upscale dishes, prepared with flair (read: $$$)
Not-to-miss dishes: We're biased since we haven't tried the regular menu, but the four course Sunday tasting menu offers a near perfect meal and experience ($33)

Little Fish Tuna Tartare

Doc Magrogan's Oyster House
Neighborhood: University City, wedged onto narrow Sansom Street across from Penn Law School
Atmosphere: Enormous rambling building with multiple, well appointed dining rooms
Best for: Literally any occasion- very multi-purpose, including business dinners, dates, celebrations, or a random post-work snack at the bar
Need to know: Can get pretty busy, even on weeknights, but easy to score a reservation on OpenTable.  Monday night offers buck-a-shucks on over a dozen oyster varieties, at the bar or in the dining room.

Menu highlights: Menu reads like a smaller seafood-inspired Cheesecake Factory menu- options at every price point, a variety of ethnic flavor influences, plus many non-seafood choices
Not-to-miss dishes: Enormous buck-a-shucks (on Monday nights, obviously!), seafood Cobb salad

Doc Magrogan's Grilled Seafood Cobb Salad

March 22, 2013

Reads and Eats: Yes, Chef

We recently met with our book club for another fantastic meeting, sponsored by our friend's place of employment: her company regularly sends clients a list of suggested books and even provides copies.  Yes, Chef, a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, was on the list, and she was able to grab a handful of books for our club.

I devoured the book in a weekend, totally enchanted by Chef Samuelsson's path from Ethiopia to Sweden to numerous European nations and finally here to America.  His incredible work ethic helped develop him into the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star rating from The New York Times. Reading this book taught me so much about the education process and hierarchy of chefs, but it also included numerous personal details about Marcus's own journey.

Unfortunately, the book didn't include any recipes, which we depend on for our potluck-style meetings. However, a quick Google search brought up a number of choices, so almost everyone in the group made a "Marcus recipe," as we called them.  Since he has such a diverse background, many of his recipes have mixed influences, which means lots of creativity!  I opted to follow this recipe for corn pancakes (with a Southwestern flavor profile- Marcus touts Chef Bobby Flay as an inspiration), paired with dill creme fraiche and smoked salmon (a nod to Sweden).  The crunchy green onion and whole corn kernels made a great textural contrast to the smooth lox. Interesting pairing, but quite delicious!

A went an even more traditional route with Swedish meatballs, which she complained were "so ugly!" compared to the rest of the dishes.  Honey in the meatballs as well as a spoonful of cranberries in the sauce (subbed for lingonberries) gave the meatballs a sweet element that was addicting. Paired with crunchy, salty "quick pickles"... I'd like to celebrate Christmas Swedish-style every day.

We always aim to make a variety of dishes, so this super amazing salad helped fill our plates with veggies.  Though the name implies "cool and crunchy" it should really be "hot and crunchy"- this salad really packs a punch!  Created with a Vietnamese inspiration, bok choy, cilantro, Thai basil (subbed mint which I highly recommend!), and some fresh jalapeno, this was definitely one of the best salads I've had in some time.  Shrimp was a better protein option than the chicken of the original recipe, really holding onto the spice rub and kicking up that heat factor another level (add peanuts too- this recipe inspires creativity!).

To round out the savory options, we had a chickpea and tomato "salad" that is much more like a stew and perfect for filling warm pitas alongside crunchy romaine, fresh parsley, and cucumber.  This dish had more of an Indian/African influence- I loved that we covered so many different cuisines and it really goes to show the breadth of Chef Samuelsson's cooking capacity.

I got a little overambitious with what I could fit in my pita, but it still tasted great- lots of lemon, a great match for the stewed tomatoes.

All of the food fueled us through a lengthy discussion of the book (and a number of side, tangential conversations), and we all went back for seconds.  This was one of my favorite books that we've read, and also one of the best assortments of food that we've produced!

Thankfully, we (sort of) saved room for dessert, which was an Emeril Lagasse-inspired chocolate pecan bourbon pie.  We initially planned to make dishes from the recipe collections of our favorite chefs (since the book is all about what it takes to be a great chef!), and I'm glad our resident baker didn't sway from her original selection.  She was gracious enough to share the recipe which I'm tempted to recreate- stay tuned!


Marcus refers often to Ruth Reichl, former food critic at The New York Times, which made a great transition to our next book selection- Mrs. Reichl's own memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires.  Looking forward to reading stories from another important part of the food industry.

March 18, 2013

Nam Phuong

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I have a hard time stepping outside my comfort zone. While I love eating food of all cultures, it's intimidating to go to a place where you're completely lost in terms of language and ingredients.  Thus, I often rely on friends of different ethnicities to help me through my first time at a new restaurant- once I go, I feel confident enough to return on my own.  However, I sadly don't have any Vietnamese foodie friends in the city, and so have avoided most of the many Vietnamese offerings here.  However, it's hard to ignore the huge signs and interesting aromas surrounding 11th and Washington.  A tip from our realtor (yep, our place is for sale if anyone is interested in a 2/2.5 in Rittenhouse...) had me putting out some feelers on Twitter-- many helpful friends agreed Nam Phuong was worth the trip.
The space is enormous and great for groups, but has a bit of a strip mall feel on both the exterior and interior- very plain, and in need of a little updating.  However, the service is excellent and our waiter made us feel right at home.  The specials of the day may not change often, but they add a number of dishes to an already extensive menu- kind of like a Vietnamese diner menu. Thankfully everything is translated into English, and although the descriptions are minimal, it's easy enough to navigate your way through the menu.

I'll cut to the chase and say there are two great things about Nam Phuong: it is ridiculously delicious food, and it is insanely cheap.  I have no idea where else you can get a two course meal for $10, but it's hard to spend MORE than that here.  I started my meal with an order of the summer rolls, stuffed with shrimp, shaved pork, vermicelli noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs ($3).  

The stretchy rice paper wrapped rolls are always my favorite- even in the dead of winter.  While the ingredients were fresh, the peanut dipping sauce added some much needed flavor.

We also had an order of a similar roll, the grilled pork rolls- or Thit Nuong Cuon ($3.25).  Oddly, these had a completely different flavor profile with just a single different ingredient.  

The grilled pork was way meatier than the shaved pork in the regular summer roll, and was well worth the extra quarter.

Since each menu item is described simply, with just the basic ingredients and maybe a note on cooking style, a request to the waiter for "the spiciest dish on the menu" gave an instant reply of "#273."  Yep, the menu is numbered for everyone's convenience.  #273: Chicken sauteed with lemongrass, curry, and coconut sauce- definitely wouldn't peg this for a mouth burner.  Unfortunately, it actually wasn't- the curry had great flavor but only mild heat.  It was still a winner though, since it was an enormous pile of chicken, as well as plenty of broccoli for some greens and a bowl of steamed white rice on the side... for only $8.50.

Another great thing about Nam Phuong's menu is that it literally has something for everyone.  While you can definitely get adventurous here, my husband stuck with something familiar, the Chicken Fried Rice ($6.95).  Served on a dinner platter rather than a regular plate, the plate had all the necessities of the classic Chinese comfort food- shredded chicken, scrambled egg, the requisite peas and carrots, and plenty of sesame oil to add crispness and flavor.

I was more interested in the strictly Vietnamese offerings, which of course include noodle soups.  Pho takes up an entire section of the menu, with different variations on meat choices.  J took the aforementioned adventurous route and ordered a bowl with eye-round steak and beef tripe.  It's hard to accurately describe how large these servings are-- I could easily face plant into my soup bowl with room to spare.  It's also really hard to describe the flavors of the soup- there are probably dozens of ingredients that went into making the broth.

Flat pieces of softened beef and strips of chewy tripe float with a few chopped onions and herbs above a huge pile of chewy noodles.  A side platter offers bean sprouts, basil and jalapenos to add as you please- the more the better, in my opinion.  A tray of condiments is also present on each table, and gives you even more flavor options for your meal- the thick chili garlic sauce and the sriracha being my personal picks.

The restaurant provides options from pretty much all the Asian cuisines, including Thailand.  One of the specials of the day was a spicy Pad Thai (~$8).  It's always interesting to see how different restaurants prepare a super classic dish.  I have to say Nam Phuong surprised me with this one- I liked that the noodles are a little thicker and chewier, and there was plenty of sauce, chicken, and shrimp to go around.  Red chili pepper, crushed peanuts, and a squeeze of lime juice built those familiar Pad Thai flavors, but with more intensity- it was spicy!

A small serving from the enormous platter
The soup I chose was definitely my favorite dish of the night- Bun Bo Hue ($5.95).  I definitely credit Yelp for my decision, since otherwise this soup doesn't stand out on the menu.  The name comes from the two basic ingredients: bun, or rice vermicelli, and bo, or beef.  In many senses, it is a similar soup to the pho, but the flavor profiles were drastically different.  Wikipedia actually describes it as having "spicy, sour, salty and sweet flavors" which is pretty accurate- it's pretty much everything you would want, wrapped up in a single bowl.  The noodle to meat ratio is pretty large, but that was fine by me- plenty of noodles to take home for lunch later in the week.

I'm kind of sad it took me so long to venture over here- although it was a no-frills experience, the kitchen knows what they're doing and prepares a huge variety of authentic Asian staples- including tons of dishes I've never tried.  I also love that the size of the restaurant allows you to wander in on your own schedule without reservations- chance is they'll have a table for you.  If not, the food is served incredibly fast, so table turnover is high and you'll be seated shortly.  Now that I'm addicted to Bun Bo Hue, I definitely see lots of future trips for some great cheap soup!

Nam Phuong
1100 Washington Avenue (entrance on 11th Street)

March 13, 2013

Oyster House

Yep, we're still on that seafood kick.  A parental visit required a nice dinner out to celebrate a number of things (birthdays, manuscript publications, a new condo purchase), and we decided on a late meal at Oyster House.  Unfortunately, our visit got off to a VERY bad start- we came close to canceling our reservation.  Despite said reservation, the front of the restaurant was absolutely packed with people waiting for tables- and we were told it could be awhile before we would be seated (by a very flustered and not very polite hostess).  The noise level was out of control, and there was simply no place to wait without being constantly jostled by other diners, food runners, and wait staff.  Not my idea of a good time.

Source. Not what it looked like when we were there!

After about fifteen minutes, we finally fought the crowds to our table, which was in a slightly quieter (but still loud) space in the back (the bar up front is the major noise culprit).  Our waitress was very sweet and attentive despite her heavy workload.  

Our dad started out with a bowl of Manhattan Clam Chowder ($6.50), served in a shallow bowl and spinkled with a little parsley garnish. The classic tomato-based soup was on the thinner side- all the veggies and pieces of clam were chopped very small.  I personally prefer a heartier soup, but the seasonings were well-balanced- a bright (and light!) soup to start the meal.

The little touches in the restaurant are nice- the decor is rustic but still upscale, with walls covered in dozens of different oyster plates and the bars topped with marble.  A very large goblet full of enormous oyster crackers made for a nice crunchy snack (and soup accompaniment), though I think the jar of horseradish went untouched.

Two of us also started with the smoked bluefish salad ($7). The lettuce was entirely frisee (not indicated on the menu), but the slightly bitter green was subdued by a smoky, creamy dressing.  The dressing was not overly heavy, but had a very rich, salty flavor that was well-matched to the small chunks of smoked bluefish.  Radishes and asparagus were appropriate vegetable additions- definitely not your run-of-the-mill salad.

I wasn't super hungry, so I chose the snapper turtle soup ($7) as an "entree."  I've never had snapper turtle, so it was a new experience!  The broth was significantly thicker than that of the Manhattan chowder, though it was packed with similar components: carrots, peppers, onions, celery, and of course, slightly chewy little bits of turtle.  I added a bit of sherry vinegar provided alongside the soup, which gave the already well-rounded dish an extra dimension of sweet tartness.

While the snapper was a classic (and delicious!), I had pretty major food envy for A's choice: the Fisherman's Stew ($21).  This soup was packed full of all the best seafood: shrimp, calamari, lobster, mussels, clams, and a chunk of swordfish.  A spicy broth took a lot of flavor from the fresh parsley garnish as well as a saffron rouille: breadcrumbs mixed with spices (chili powder!), garlic, olive oil, and a whole lot of saffron- the flavor was bold without being overwhelming.  A few slices of grilled sourdough smeared with a rich buttery cheese spread added some much-needed chewy carbs to the meal.

Once again, our resident burger eater "took one for the team"- the OH burger ($14) is a beast.  A hand-formed grass-fed beef patty is smothered with blue cheese and topped with a cornmeal-crusted fried oyster.  Pretty perfect burger, in my opinion.  Fries and a few bread-and-butter pickles completed the plate- just right for the meat-and-potatoes kind of guy (or girl!) with the added seafood twist of the fried oyster.

The more decadent choice in sandwich comes in the form of a lobster roll ($26).  Offered chilled or warmed, the split roll is absolutely stuffed with lightly seasoned and sauced lobster meat.  Oyster House does a good job of taking a high-quality product (super fresh lobster maintained in really large pieces) and letting it speak for itself.  Sweet and salty, with an authentic brioche split roll vehicle- just lots of lobster, no bib required.

I also decided to add a few more vegetables to my meal with a side of cauliflower ($5).  The texture said "steamed" but the florets were also lightly browned, indicative of a quick trip to the oven as well.  Unfortunately, the cauliflower had a really odd flavor- I'm not sure what they were dressed in, but it did not taste right at all.  I know cauliflower has that potent cruciferous smell, but this seemed like an amplified flavor version of that smell. Hard to describe, hard to eat.

My mom also tried the BBQ oysters ($12)- grilled and served on the half-shell on a plate of salt.  The addition of fresh herbs, butter, and a little hot sauce give the oyster some extra flavor, and they had a strong fresh-off-the-barbecue scent.  If you're looking for fully cooked oysters, avoid these- they're cooked lightly to maintain the super-delicious natural flavor of the raw oyster.  This dish ended up being "forgotten" when the rest of the plates were served to the table, so our waitress took the oysters off our bill... something not a lot of restaurants do anymore!  $12 for 4 oysters seemed pretty steep anyway, but oysters from the raw bar range from $2.25 to $3 a piece, so no real surprise.

The food at Oyster House was solid, but our main take-away memory of the meal was the super annoying hassle before any idea of food was even introduced.  I'd definitely stay away from Oyster House in the later evenings of the weekends.  Several of our other recent seafood eats can provide the same fresh eats with a more relaxed, less stressful atmosphere-- we'll post a recap of all of them soon!

Oyster House
1516 Sansom St

March 7, 2013

Burger Club: Ela

February's Burger Club meeting seemed to come up extra fast due to the short month- something we certainly weren't going to complain about since we were looking forward to our first encounter with Ela.  While we may have semi-stalked Chef Jason Cichonski, resident kitchen hottie at Ela, at last summer's FEASTIVAL event, we hadn't yet had a chance to try his restaurant.  A bit different than our typical Burger Club meeting spots (which tend to be large, bar-centric spots since these can fit a large group and usually have a solid burger), Ela is more upscale and gourmet.

Located in prime real estate right off of South Street in Queen Village, the restaurant is actually much larger than I imagined.  The regular menu has a concise list of appetizers and entrees, which doesn't include the burger.  Actually, the burger is a special item on the bar menu, and is produced in a very limited quantity each night.  Nothing like making your burger a bit exclusive to drum up some attention.  However, Ela agreed to produce more burgers just for us.  Or, more than the typical ten, at least.

Unfortunately, the hostess and waiters didn't seem thrilled to have us for the evening, and relegated us to either the back room (with only four tables) or the bar area.  Since they knew we would have 30+ attendees, it seemed a bit odd.  Even worse, once our group reached 29 (yes, 29), the hostess refused to allow any more burger-seekers.  She would "allow" us to eat from the regular menu in the dining room, but obviously that's not what we wanted.  We were sad to see several small groups turned away.

The waitresses were slow to take drink orders and even slower to ask our meat temperature preference. But, the wait for the kitchen was almost unbearable.  We typically meet at 7PM and are wrapping up by 8PM- it's just a bunch of burgers.  However, we waited until almost 8PM just to be served- by which time I think there was a good deal of hanger abounding.

Apologies for the pictures- I accidentally grabbed the macro lens.
 On arrival the burger looked great- a decent sized patty, an adorable bun and some good melty cheese.  However, there were a LOT of grumbles about the "tots" served on the side- averaging about ten fried potato cubes.  Didn't matter much to me- I'm there for the burger not the sides- but many in our group weren't thrilled.  I actually can't even comment on their tastiness as I donated all to my sad hungry husband.

Now, on to the burger critique.  A housemade black sesame bun was wonderful- soft on the inside but a crispy exterior, with a smooth, shiny (eggwash?) glaze.  It was really perfect in containing the meat, holding up well to the thick patty.  The accompaniments include a small pile of watercress, some melty sharp Cabot cheddar, a few sauteed shiitakes, and "sauce."  Yup, just sauce.  According to Cichonski, it's made with "like, 400,000 ingredients."  We can tell you one thing- it has a very Asian profile.

The meat-- I can only say I'm still stumped about both the color and the texture.  Half of our group was panicking because of the color-- almost bright red, regardless of what the cooking temperature request.  The rawer the better, in my opinion, but some of us are scared of raw ground beef (for good reason), and weren't up for eating a patty of beef tartare.  However, apparently the "sauce" is mixed into the house ground beef, providing this coloring that doesn't disappear with more time on the grill.

After eating half the burger, I finally put my finger on the patty texture.  Hot dogs.  Chopped up hot dogs.  Sort of chewy.. with a slight rubberiness.  After proclaiming this to my table, I think I ruined their next few bites.  Sorry!  It didn't necessarily detract from the overall experience, but it was just weird.  Should this burger be on everyone's must eat list?  No.  Was it different from anything else we've had?  Definitely.  However, our overall experience with the staff at Ela, along with the sad limit of 29 burgers, has most of us hesitant to return to try the regular menu.

627 S. 3rd Street

March 4, 2013

Doc Magrogan's Oyster House

Yes, we're on a seafood kick.  No, we're not sorry.  All day buck-a-shuck's drew us to Doc Magrogan's Oyster House in University City, a surprisingly sprawling restaurant with cushy dining rooms and bars tucked in and around every corner.  Online reviews lowered my expectations for service, but our super sweet waitress gave us top-notch attention- if only the kitchen hadn't been noticeably slow with our entrees.

We started out with a basket of hot (and oddly flat) rolls, which absorbed a smear of butter like a sponge.  Requisite oyster crackers and horseradish were also supplied- love those crunchy little biscuits.

I was really there for $1 oysters, so I placed an order for six and let our waitress choose for me.  Doc's offers a rotating variety- on this particular night there were 13 types, each listed with their originating location, size, and general tasting notes.  I'm no oyster connoisseur, but I enjoyed trying and comparing as many as I could.  My favorite were the Stingrays, a medium-sized sweet and salty oyster from the Chesapeake Bay.  A little splash of mignonette and a squeeze of lemon brightened the flavors of a few, but these were good enough to eat plain.  My one complaint was a little bit of grit in two or three of the oysters.

A also started with 6 oysters, choosing three Cape May Salts and three of another large, salty variety.  Apparently she prefers size over flavor- but since not everyone enjoys a mouthful of slimy bivalves, it's great that Doc's provides a substantial selection.

We also split an appetizer of orange sesame shrimp (~$11- estimating prices here).  Small, lightly battered shrimp are tossed in a citrus-y, sweet and sour glaze- great texture, great bite, and bright flavors.  The "Asian slaw" underneath was questionable- a little more sauce would have made it into a mini-salad, but without, it was almost a garnish.  Crispy wonton strips added some crunch.

I was coming off a weekend at home eating all my favorite foods, so I opted to go light for my entree- the Ahi Tuna salad ($17).  This was a play on a Nicoise, with cold red bliss potatoes, raw green beans, chopped roasted red peppers, and some kalamata olives.  The tuna itself couldn't have totaled more than three or four ounces and honestly didn't have much flavor, seeming almost completely unseasoned.  A light lemon-herb vinaigrette was also hardly noticeable.  While I appreciated the concept of this salad, it just didn't meld into anything special- maybe because I actually had to mix the components together myself.  I told A later that I would have enjoyed 17 more oysters much, much more.

The brother-in-law is our designated burger try-er (always seeking out new Burger Club meeting places!). Doc's Old Bay Burger (~$15) is served with a melty layer of Monterey Jack cheese, a small pile of corn-and-crab salsa, and two enormous "crispy crab chips."  The burger clearly can not be eaten with the chips (unless you have an unhingeable jaw), but the chips were a fun touch- super crunchy with a discernible seafood flavor.  The thin patty  is seasoned with Old Bay and wood-grilled, providing a super flavorful exterior that masked the more delicate crab.  A toasted sesame bun earned top scores, but the fries were nothing special.

A made a much better decision with the Grilled Seafood Cobb Salad ($18).  Mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, and hard-boiled egg formed the quintessential Cobb base, but the addition of shrimp, scallops, a chunk of salmon, and an ounce or two of crabmeat actually reflected the high price tag.  Creamy lemon-herb dressing on the side was only needed sparingly.

Another salad rounded out the entrees- our friend has been to Doc's before and has developed a love for their Salmon & Baby Spinach salad ($16).  I was the fortunate recipient of her goat cheese (which helped save my own salad), but the simple mix of spinach, pickled onions, and dried cherries are a great match for grilled Atlantic salmon.

I really wanted to love Doc's- our waitress was great, the space is cozy and fun, and oysters for a dollar are always a plus in my book.  However, I definitely agree with the general consensus that it is over-priced and the wait was questionably long for a few salads and a burger.  But really, I always need more oysters in my life, so I'm sure I'll be back for those!

Doc Magrogan's Oyster House
3432 Sansom Street