Philadining Home

Monday, March 31, 2008

Everyday Good House

We'd read that Craig Laban was going to review this place in The Inquirer, so we decided to slip-in before the rush and check it out on the friday before the review was published. We figured it was a safe bet that if Laban was bothering to review it, it must be pretty good, and indeed it was true. We didn't have the benefit of his review to guide us, but interestingly, we ended up ordering many of the same things he did, and are in agreement that it was all very good, in fact we might have been even more enthusiastic about it than he was. We had no language problems at all. It's true enough that there's no English on the outside of the building, I'm not sure I would have even guessed that it's a restaurant at all from the street. But once inside, there's English on the menus, and most of the service staff we encountered spoke at least a little English, several sounded like they grew up in Philly. So don't let the language barrier dissuade you, it's not an issue.

As is our custom, we ordered entirely too much food, but we wanted to try as wide a range of things as four people could in one trip. As we sat down, the little plates of banchan started arriving, and there was a very nice selection, all of them quite good. We especially liked the tangy shredded greens which worked as a stand alone salad, and as a great condiment for barbecue. The slices of sausages were slightly odd, in that they were not at all odd: they could have been Hickory Farms Beefstick! Not that there's anything wrong with that...

There was good napa cabbage kimchee, some noodles, marinated beansprouts, some greens, some cubes of root vegetables, lots of good things I didn't manage to get in-focus photos of.

I find it very hard to start a Korean meal without a Haemul Pajeon, the seafood pancake that is often a little disappointing. Not so here, in fact I think it might have been the best Pajeon I've ever had: light, crispy with just barely enough batter to hold it together.

But the real draw here is the barbecue, and I was really happy to see real charcoal in the in-table grill.

We opted for their special spiced Kalbi (beef short rib) and some Pork Shoulder.

Both were excellent, but I especially liked the Kalbi. It wasn't goopy with marinade, yet had a great extra flavor, not merely grilled meat. That said, plain-old grilled meat was just fine on the pork side: it had plenty of flavor from the charcoal, the very high heat giving a really nice sear on the outsides. The staff was really nice about checking-in on the heat source, and changing out the grilling surface a couple of times, so it didn't get too gunked-up and smoky. This was really delicious barbecue, I'm eager to head back for more of that Kalni in particular, but I also want to try their Bulgoki, which Laban seemed to like.

We're also suckers for a Dolsot Bi Bim Bap, a rice-with-stuff dish served in a hot bowl, which creates a beautiful crust on the rice. Here's ours just before dosing it with hot sauce and giving it a stir:

I'm not sure what it was about it, perhaps just the high-quality fresh ingredients, but this was the best Bi Bim Bap I've had.

We also got a Sundubu Jiigae (soft tofu stew) which was assertively spicy, yet delicate, and very tasty.

Along with it we got some of the most beautiful rice I've ever seen. It happened to be quite delicious too.

We also couldn't resist something called a "giant Eggroll" or some such thing, even though we had no idea of what it would be. As it turns out, it was a large scallion omelet, and very tasty, especially with the suggested condiment of ketchup!

The also very kindly let us sample some rice cakes in spicy sauce, and even though we were about to explode from overeating, the chewy noodles were quite good, and the sauce had quite a kick, a nice way to finish up the meal!

Service was very friendly. If we had any complaints, it was something that was our own fault. We had a huge pile of food on our table in rapid succession, I think next time we'll stagger the ordering a bit. All of the food was delicious, I'd say the best I've had yet in Philly, including some other places up in the Northeast. And prices were quite reasonable, partly because the portions were reasonable: not huge platters of meat for $30, these were better sizes for better prices, making it easier to try a few different things on the grill, or leave space for other dishes. Or both.

So, don't let the nondescript exterior intimidate you, inside it's quite pleasant and the staff is welcoming. Most importantly, the food is worth any inconvenience.

Everyday Good House
(Chez Tae Yun)
5501 N. Front St. (at Olney)
Philadelphia, PA 19120

We went back a short time later, and again had some great food, although not quite as universal as the first visit. The Haemul Pajeon was once again spectacular, it's absolutely required eating when visiting this place. We had to order the spiced Kalbi again too, and it remains a favorite. I'm really not sure how they do it, it doesn't seem to have much of a marinade on it, nor a spice rub, but it definitely has more flavor than most of the shortribs I've gotten at Korean Barbecue restaurants.

This time we also tried the Samkyupsal (pork belly) on the barbecue and we've come to the conclusion that, as much as we love pork belly, this is not the way we like to cook it. We've tried it at a few places now and we're always underwhelmed, it just doesn't have that much flavor, and the quick, hot grilling doesn't enhance the luxuriousness of the fat, instead it gets a little hard and chewy pretty quickly after the raw stage. So now we know, we'll go with the shoulder/butt when here, and the spicy pork at places like Kim's, but save the pork belly for slow-cooked preparations.

We also got a couple of casserole/stew things, and both times, got some raised eyebrows from the waitress. She was a little surprised that we actually wanted these dishes, and in once case she might have been right... We weren't especially fond of the Pork Bone Soup, even after jazzing it up with the coarse salt and tangy sauce they provided. It just didn't taste like much, although the bits of meat in it were fairly tasty.

We had much better luck with the Oxtail Stew, although again, our waitress seemed a little surprised that we wanted it. It was a little hard to eat: the meat was still pretty firmly attached to the jagged bones, and those were packed pretty tightly into the bowl. But it was worth some wrestling to get at the flavorful meat and spicy, rich broth. We're only guessing but we think those might be mustard seeds dusting the top of this dish - whatever they are, they lend a great layer of flavor to the already intense concoction underneath.

So, we didn't love the pork belly nor the pork bone soup, but everything else was quite good. We liked the banchan, especially the shredded salad, although the variety is a little greater at Seo Ra Bol. And the meats are a little more saucy and flavored at some of the other barbecue places, such as SRB or Kim's or Pan Dol Re. Still, that spiced Kalbi is a winner, the pajeon is unmatched, and the bi bim bap is hard to beat, so we'll be going back to Everyday Awesome House before long, I'm sure!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tai Lake - Fresh food is the best food.

I am fortunate to have friends on the right email lists, and recently managed to wedge myself in (literally, the seating were pretty tight!) at a special meal at Tai Lake in Chinatown.

Many thanks to Ross for putting this together, and selecting the menu. The concept was "Fresh food is the best food" and therefore, we'd be eating things that were so fresh that they were alive until just before preparation. There are many places in Chinatown with tanks of live fish and shellfish, but Tai Lake has one of the widest selections, and offered some exotic ingredients that are a hard to find anywhere else.

Snake Soup

OK, the snake was not alive and wriggling in the restaurant, so this was one of the few exceptions to the rule, but the unusual ingredient still seemed to fit in with the rest of the menu. The soup was quite good, although not all that exotic-tasting. You know the old cliché about everything tasting like chicken? Well, it's kind of true with snake... Still a very enjoyable soup, and even better with a little splash of red vinegar, and the fried crunchies that were suggested as condiments.

Steamed Oyster with ginger and scallion

Tender, yet meaty oysters from Tai Lake's tanks were huge, I'd say about 5 inches in length. I've come to be fonder of smaller oysters, especially for eating raw, but in this cooked preparation, the larger ones worked quite well, even if it took a few bites to finish them.

Geoduck sashimi

This large clam from the Pacific Northwest, sometimes called an Elephant, or Elephant trunk Clam on Chinese menus, due to its long, large siphon. You may see it called mirugai in Japanese sushi bars. That siphon was thinly sliced, and served as sashimi, the belly of the clam was served later in crispy salt-baked style. The sashimi was very subtly sweet, with a pleasing resilient texture. (The geoduck is the whitish thin slice, the pink stuff is ginger.)

Broiled Eel

One of my favorite dishes of the night, the eel was a little crispy on the outside, but meltingly tender inside.

Dungeness Crab with XO sauce

The crab was light and sweet, picking up a little spice from the seasonings on the shell, and some salty, fatty richness from the porky XO sauce. Even large crabs like these are a lot of work, but the reward was sufficient to justify the cracking and prying and sucking.

Salt & Pepper Frog and Geoduck Clam Belly

This version of the clam was almost as good as the sashimi course, putting to shame the classic New England fried clam platter! The frog was tasty too, but after having this a couple of times now, I've decided that it's just too bony for me. The flavor is good, and it has a delightful crisp exterior, but those little frog nuggets are loaded with small, sharp bones, and eating around those, and inevitably picking some out of my mouth just detracts too much from the enjoyment.

Sautéed Snow Pea Greens

This was the other exception to the freshness rule: it probably was not still growing moments before the dinner, as most everything else was, but it was still pretty recently-picked, I'm sure, it was so sweet and vividly-flavored. I'm really happy to see these greens widely available now, it used to be hard to find them, or at least required making a special request.

All in all, a very interesting, and enjoyable meal. It introduced me to a few new dishes, and reminded me that Tai Lake offers some different and exciting possibilities. There are tanks in several other places around town, and one can often spot eels, frogs, and other things beyond the typical fish, so next time, try one!

Thanks again to Ross, and our other dining companions, many of whom were from the local Slow Food crowd.

Tai Lake
134 N 10th St
Philadelphia, PA 19107-2309
Phone: (215) 922-0698

Monday, March 24, 2008


Yeah, yeah, I know there are plenty of good restaurants in South Jersey, just barely across the bridge from downtown Philadelphia. But there's something about the roads over there: I don't know if it's the traffic circles, the jughandles, the route numbers, some sort of magnetic disturbance that interrupts my normally decent sense of direction... whatever it is, I get totally disoriented in New Jersey, and as a result, have ignored many places over there that have been recommended by friends I trust.

At various times I've enlisted a guide and actually made it over the bridge and back. Blackbird Dining Establishment, Oh Yoko! and Water Lily have all been good. Yet, I rarely head over there on my own, as soon as I get across the bridge, I get a little dizzy...

The most tragic omission from my dining habits has been Matt Ito's Fuji. Many of my dining friends, actually most of them, have chastised me over the years for not frequenting this spot, which many regard as serving the best Japanese food in the area, and perhaps some of the best food of any kind.

Thanks to some organized peer-pressure, and a small GPS navigation device, I finally made it there. As expected, the experience did indeed make me regret waiting this long. It was a very fine dinner, perhaps not quite as life-changing as some have reported, but very exciting, surprising, varied, and most importantly, delicious throughout. I'm eager to go back and try more. Chef Ito is obviously very talented, and I enjoy his combination of classic skills and modern ideas.

On this visit, we opted for an "omakase" meal, basically turning ourselves over to Chef Ito, and having him serve whatever he felt was best. I was with some frequent customers, so I'm sure the chef's knowledge of their tastes and preferences had some influence on the specifics of the items. I'd expect that on any given day, it would be different. In fact a few friends went only a couple of days later and had a similar, but definitely not identical experience.

We started with what seems to be a frequent opener at Fuji:
Kumamoto Oysters

Lovely, sweet, perfect oysters were served in this case with a classic mignonette, but I've seen reports of other accompaniments. It's a great way to start: simple, clean, delicious.

Another signature Fuji dish (along with plenty of other modern Japanese restaurants) is Tuna Tartare with Caviar and Wasabi cream.

As with the oysters, when a dish is this good, it's very hard to complain about it being fairly common these days. It's a great idea, and executed well here.

Not at all common was the next course of sashimi with various sauces. Unfortunately I didn't hear any descriptions of the components, if any were given, and chef Ito was busy prepping another course back in the kitchen while we were eating this, so we didn't have a chance to ask questions.

On the left was a piece of monkfish liver; next, an amazing combination of salmon and bright citrus; next to that, a slice of mackerel, or a similar fish, it's always a little hard to say under a sauce - in this case an egg-yolk-based concoction similar to a Hollandaise; and finally some mild white fish in a ponzu sauce. I'm normally a little obsessive about knowing what everything is, but in this case I just gave myself over to the bold and vibrant flavors, and stopped intellectualizing it. This was one of my favorite courses in an excellent meal.

Foie Gras, Seared Tuna, Field Greens

The bright vinegary bite of the salad dressing provided a perfect counterweight to the richness of both the foie and the tuna. This was especially good when all elements were sampled together.

Sesame Chicken Wings

This wasn't really supposed to be part of the omakase, but my dining companions had heard that Chef Ito made great fried chicken, so we asked if he could include some at some point. And indeed, these were excellent wings, very crispy on the outside, without a thick breading, while remaining juicy on the inside. They reminded us a bit of the great Korean chicken wings that have become available a few places around Philly, such as at Soho in the Northeast.

Then we started on the more traditional sushi courses. While these were mostly classic forms of nigiri and maki, that's not to say they were pedestrian in any way. The quality of the fish, the flavor and texture of the rice, the careful assembly, made for some of the best sushi I've had. The chef often included a dab of fresh wasabi or other spicing, adding a slight shading to the flavors, but letting the inherent qualities of the fish shine through.




Cured Salmon

Hamachi Belly
(there were two pieces of this, like the others, but I lost control and ate one before photographing...)

Spicy Tuna

Chu-Toro (seared and raw)

Uni and Unagi



Spider Roll (soft shell crab)

Kohada and Uni

This was a lot of food, and all of it good. If I have any complaints, it was that it seemed to be coming pretty fast, and I occasionally felt like I was tossing nigiri in my mouth mostly to make room for the next pieces coming down the line, a little like the classic I Love Lucy skit, with Lucy and Ethel on the candy production line.

I think this resulted partly from me wasting time taking pictures, and party from the two fastest eaters being seated closest to the chef, so it was probably paced perfectly for them. I tend to be a slower eater in general, so in a perfect world, I would have backed the pace down a little bit, but I completely understand why the courses were being served as they were.

We were sitting at the sushi bar, which is generally considered the best way to eat at Fuji. This is a good rule at any sushi-ya: that close communication with the Itamae will almost always enhance the experience. Friends tell me that this is especially true at Fuji, they say that sitting at a table is dramatically different. It's not that the service is bad at the tables, it's the food itself, that one step of distance somehow impacts the entire meal. I haven't eaten at a table, but I think I would regret not being able to chat with Matt and his son Jesse, and I'm sure that interaction impacts the food too.

We'd had a very large meal, nonetheless, a little something sweet sounded right. Jesse Ito has been making many of the desserts, including a very good Chocolate Creme Brulée.

I think the Chocolate Fudge Cake is brought in from a nearby bakery, but it's nonetheless quite delicious.

I opted for some fresh pineapple, which may not require any advanced cooking skills, but it was so tasty that I'll give them credit for knowing how to choose a good fruit.

Fuji changed locations in the last year or so, moving from a grungy commercial strip to an upscale retail area. There was apparently a bumpy transition, with new sushi chefs not quite maintaining the previous high standards. But by all accounts it's back to its former glory, with Chef Ito behind the sushi bar most nights. I'm certainly looking forward to making up lost time and making many more visits. I'll agree with my friends who count it as one of the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

116 East Kings Highway
Haddonfield, NJ

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Underground Cassoulet Parties

I'm not sure that this has quite risen to the status of a widespread trend, but it ought to...

A year ago I managed to wangle an invite to an annual tradition maintained by a couple of Francophiles here in Philly. Each winter, they'd invite friends over to share a few pots of traditional French Cassoulet, built partly on authentic ingredients smuggled back from trips to France. The requisite Tarbais beans are hard to find around here, as are various components of accompanying dishes. But the magic comes not from clandestine ingredients, but from the love and skill of the chefs/hosts, who've perfected the ideal cold-weather dish.

So I was thrilled to be invited back this year, and this time the attendees pitched-in a bit more, bringing a prepared dish, or bread, or greens for the salad, or cheese, or dessert. I think everyone brought wine, and we drank most of it... We even deviated a bit from the theme of country French food, but everything we had was so good, nobody seemed to care.

The ranks swelled past 20 this year, requiring the addition of some satellite tables and borrowed chairs, so I'm not sure I can give readers too much hope of joining-in next year, but you never know... or better yet, use this as an inspiration to start your own secret cassoulet party, soon it could indeed be a burgeoning fad!

As we were arriving we nibbled on Indian crunchies called Sarya:

Andrew made Duck Prosciutto, which was so good that we don't believe him when he says it was pretty simple.

Sam made Blini, which we weren't exactly sure what to do with, I think one of us was going to bring caviar... maybe it was me... yikes! But they were pretty good under a piece of duck prosciutto, or dipped in some baba ghanoush.

There was a little confusion about bread.

Pedro had already volunteered to bring Sarcone's, but as much as I love that bread, I felt an overwhelming need for something a little more Gallic. Plus we had 20 people, we'd need a lot of bread. I think between the two of us, we over-did it.

I figured I'd use this as an excuse to make a field trip up to Souderton to check out a bakery I'd heard good things about. So I got 6 baguettes and a couple of Epis from Bakers on Broad.

The bread was pretty good, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to justify the drive all the way out there. I actually enjoyed the croissant and the olive roll that I got quite a lot, so maybe I'm just not completely blown-away by the baguettes. They're not bad, but I think I still prefer Artisan Boulanger Patissier down at 12th and Passayunk.

Speaking of South Philly, the Sarcone's bread was fantastic.

We made another little cultural detour before plunging into the cassoulet. Percy had volunteered to bring a traditional Parsi dish, consisting of fish steamed with herbs in a banana leaf.

We have learned to never turn down Percy's cooking if he's doing Parsi specialties. Actually, it doesn't really matter what he's cooking, we never refuse Percy's food. This was so ridiculously delicious that we don't believe him when he says it's pretty simple.

So, you know the routine? If Percy offers to cook for you, don't ask questions, just say yes.

And then, at last, the main event: Cassoulet! I don't think chef Sam made any claims of this being simple, we know it takes several days and many steps to prepare the multiple types of beans, the pork bellies, the lamb shanks, the various sausages, and 18 (!) duck legs, cured and preserved in classic confit style. Finally, everything is carefully assembled, then baked in two huge Le Creuset "French Ovens." And we sincerely thank him for the effort, it was warming, comforting, delicious food done perfectly. The beans were tender but not mushy, the meats tender too, and rich without being fatty. Each element had a characteristic flavor, yet all had baked together, each essence amplifying the other.

Earlier in the evening, when we first arrived, it smelled amazing, I'm surprised there weren't passers-by banging on the doors, begging for a plate of whatever it was they were smelling. Inside, it was even better.

After all that richness, a salad was just the thing. Dave brought some pristine frisée, which Sam dosed with a light dressing: mostly good walnut oil and a little mustard.

We were all pretty insanely stuffed by this time, but there is a second main even at these dinners: Sam's Tarte Tatin:

Well, to be accurate, there were three of them, but shockingly enough, we only made it through two.

I have no doubt that there's more in his repertoire, but the fact that Sam has so thoroughly mastered both cassoulet and tarte tatin is pretty impressive.

So it didn't occur to any of us to refuse, regardless of how full we were. Somehow each of us found room for a slice of this upside-down apple pie. It was worth risking exploding from overeating, the bright apple flavor, accented by just the right amount of caramelization, atop a short pastry crust was just the right ending for this meal.

Oh, right, except we weren't quite done... Karen, Carl and Diann had brought cheese.

A Cheddar-Bleu and Telford Tomme from Hendrick's Farm along with a Comte and Brie from Downtown Cheese were barely touched, but most of us did sample a tiny bit. The unusual cheddar-bleu seemed to be the hit.

Along the way there was a rather scandalous amount of wine consumed, and a few postprandial eaux-de-vie were sampled as well.

So, if you happen to know a couple of Francophiles that have seemed suspiciously over-full lately, you really should try to wangle an invite from them. For thier own protection, I'll refrain from identifying them TOO clearly here! If you happen to be wandering the streets of Philly about this time next year, and smell something amazing wafting from a kitchen exhaust, you might just want to knock on the door, see if you can guess the password to the cassoulet speakeasy.

Or you could just arrange your own, but if you do, word to the wise: keep it secret, or the guest list can get out of hand pretty quickly!

Major thanks to our clandestine hosts, I hope we can do it all again next year!