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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Red Kings - Diverse regional Chinese

OK, I'll admit it, it was the soup dumplings that drew us in.

Although we still have Dim Sum Garden and Sakura Mandarin providing Xiao Long Bao here in Philly, there can never be too many sources for these delicate dumplings filled with broth.

Restaurants rarely call them soup dumplings, more often they're listed on menus as steamed juicy buns or just Xiao Long Bao. Here, they're called Steamed Shanghai Juicy Dumplings. And they're good - our batch was delicate, tasty, and none stuck to the steamer or fell apart as we tried to eat them. I don't know for sure that these are made in-house, but, no matter, they're prepared carefully, and served with the requisite ginger-soy sauce.
There are a few other Shanghainese specialties on the menu, but the most interesting thing about Red Kings is that there are offerings from many regions and traditions of Chinese cooking: Shanghai, Sichuan, Fuzhou  -  there are even Thai items.  This normally worries me - a kitchen that tries to do too many things usually fails at all of them.  But from an initial sampling (admittedly, we didn't try the Thai) this place seems to be able to produce credible versions of several styles.  

That's not so unique in Philly's Chinatown: both Four Rivers and Sakura Mandarin feature  Shanghainese and Sichuan dishes and more, and do them pretty well, and now Red Kings joins that club.

If I'm seriously craving full-on Sichuan, I'll still head to Han Dynasty, but if I'm in the mood to try a variety of styles at one meal, this place will be a strong contender. 

We're always in the mood for some spicy dishes from Sichuan, so we tried their Wontons with Chili Soy. These were fairly small, and didn't include much filling, but the noodles were nicely tender, and the sauce had a subtle, but very pleasing, chili kick. They were good, I'd get them again, but if one is specifically craving this dish, the other Sichuan places in town all have solid versions.  Han Dynasty is my favorite (yes I know I need to try Yu Kee...) , but they're actually very  enjoyable at Four Rivers and Szechuan tasty House too. 

Staying in that Sichuan zone, we sampled the Lamb with Cumin. This is not as hot, or as fully-encrusted with spices as most versions I've had,  but that subtlety allowed the lamb flavor to shine through in a more pronounced way. The meat was very tender and juicy, all in all a more subtle and elegant version than we're used to, but a nice variation.
Heading back to the Shanghai influence, we also ordered the Rice Cakes with Pork and Pickled. We're not sure whether that last word was supposed to be pickles, or if they left-off the word  vegetables from the name, but in fact it was a stir-fry of the chewy, noodle-like rice cakes, with plenty of shredded pork and a bit of sour vegetable.  I could have gone for a little more of the sour, crunchy note, but I often think that with rice cake dishes. 

While surveying Shanghai eating, one really ought to try the Dong Po Rou. It's been a challenge to get this dish in Philly restaurants: it involves a complicated and time-consuming preparation, and often requires ordering ahead, if a place even makes it at all. But Red Kings has it on their regular menu, and they seem to have an ample supply of the rich pork belly, slowly braised in a sweet sauce. It's served with steamed buns, allowing one to make pork belly sandwiches that have origins that stretch much further back than the current craze.  For some reason they only brought us two buns, but I suspect we could have asked for more. It's a delicious dish, but a fatty one, so you might want to split this between a few people (although we witnessed a middle aged Chinese gentleman come in and order one for himself... )


Despite that pile of food, we had a craving for ribs, so we asked our waiter which ones were the best (there are about 4 different preparations on their menu.)  He recommended the Wu Xi ribs, which were in fact very delicious, but a little too similar to the Dong Po Rou. In the future I'd get one or the other at any one dinner, but they're both quite good.

We barely scratched the surface of their very large menu, so we're looking forward to heading back and trying more.  Stay tuned for updates!  And yes, we'll even try the Thai food, even though I remain very skeptical about that...

They keep fairly late hours: they open at 11am  every day, and don't close until 11pm weeknights;  midnight on Friday and Saturday, 10pm on Sunday.

Service was very friendly and helpful, and the place itself, although small, is attractive and well-maintained.

Red Kings
933 Race Street

Facebook page>>

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Frog Burger - Backyard grilled flavors and wretched excess

Despite good reviews in the summer of 2010, Frog Burger did not return in 2011, so the project is looking dead...  I'll update if it returns as the weather warms up in 2012... 

I'm not sure what triggered it, but all of a sudden, Philadelphia is awash in burger joints. Steven Starr's burger stand in Franklin Square has started its second season with a surprising lack of buzz,  a Rouge splinter-group started 500 Degrees with plenty of PR hoopla, and Bobby Flay opened a chain spot out in University City with lots of fanfare,  widespread derision, and almost certain success...

Apparently the burger zeitgeist was strong enough  Stephen Poses, of Frög/Commissary fame, would be lured out of catering mode to create a burger stand. They say they're going for a backyard-grilling vibe, and in some ways they've hit that target right in the middle, if your recollections of neighborhood barbecues includes the guy manning the Weber having some culinary chops.  The burgers themselves are plump, juicy and overall better quality than you'll find at your average holiday party.  They're grilled to order on charcoal, to an accurate medium, unless otherwise instructed, and despite lacking an assertive char on the outside, they have good flavor and rather amazing juiciness.

One can have a basic burger, or dress it up with good cheese or bacon, or, go to ridiculous extremes with the "LOVE Burger" (pictured above and to the right.) It's the signature burger, slathered with "special sauce" and  presented between two grilled cheese sandwiches. It sounded just crazy enough to be good, but in reality, struck me as too much of a good thing. Too much bread, too much cheese, too much grease, too much sauce, just too much.

I did enjoy the burger itself, so I might very well go back and just get the more conventional version, served on a Martin's potato roll. Good pickles, relish, pepper relish, and the expected condiments are provided, so one can customize pretty extensively.  Because the burgers are thick, and grilled to order, they take a few minutes, this is NOT a fast food experience.  But it's always worth the wait for something made fresh.

I don't think this new place threatens the burgers at Good Dog, The Royal Tavern or Standard Tap for the top rankings, but its location, outside, on the front lawn of the Franklin Institute, should make it a very popular destination for tourists this summer. It's probably a little more expensive and slower than many might expect, but at least the quality is high.
And perhaps most important, it also offers more than just burgers. The hot dogs are pretty straightforward Hebrew National beef dogs on Martin Potato rolls, nothing exotic, but they're split and  grilled to order, which happens to be my favorite way to have them.
The Crab Roll isn't going to give anybody's Lobster Roll any real competition, it's just a basic, decent crab salad: crab, mayo, some veggies, lettuce, on a grilled roll.  Fine if you want something cool, or just don't care for burgers or dogs, but not worth a special trip.  There are also some unexpected and appealing menu items, like gazpacho, fried green tomatoes, and sangria.  Oh, and beer.
Perhaps the most exciting part about this stand is that they sell slices of their famous carrot cake, as well as the appropriately-named Killer Cake, which is one of the original, and best, chocolate-overload desserts.  They'll also mix either of those cakes into a milkshake, but I have to be honest, I don't get the appeal of chunky, cakey milkshakes, so I'll opt for a straight piece of cake.  Maybe a milkshake, made with Bassett's Ice Cream, on the side.

Is it a dramatic advance in the burger scene? Probably not, but it's a good idea to have something to eat right there, and especially nice that it's actually good, interesting, and well-executed. It's also trying to be environmentally-friendly, at least as much as possible when using as many disposables as they do.  Certainly worth checking out if you're in the area, or have a powerful jones for carrot cake, but perhaps not worth a long detour just for a burger.

Frög Burger
222 N. 20th St. (at the Parkway)
Outside of the Franklin Institute

Monday, May 03, 2010

Awesomeness Alert: Mexican Hot Dog

They're all the rage in Los Angeles, although the health department keeps shutting-down the carts that sell them - something about the bacon, I think. Every time I read about the Mexican Hot Dog I develop a powerful craving for one: a hot dog, wrapped in bacon, grilled, doused with mayo, sprinkled with cotija cheese, maybe a couple of slices of jalapeño, plopped in a roll.
And finally, I found one! It was on the specials board at Cantina Dos Segundos.  I'm not sure how regularly they're available, or if they're at the South Philly Cantina Los Caballitos, but I sure hope they're at both places all the time. They're delicious.

Full disclosure: I happen to know the owners of the Cantinas (and am a little shocked that they didn't tell me about these!) but that fact has not affected my assessment of how awesome this snack is!  

Mexican Hot Dog:  $3
Cantina Dos Segundos
931 N 2nd St, Philadelphia

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Passover at Zahav

For a year,  I've been hearing about how great the Passover dinner at Zahav was, in particular, the superlative brisket. Finally, the calendar has flipped around, and I had the chance to try it for myself.  It didn't take too much to convince me, I've had several very good meals at Zahav, so I trusted that chef Michael Solomonov would deliver, even if traditional Passover food is often more about symbolism than it is about culinary fireworks.

Solomonov has found an ideal middle ground by observing the cultural conventions (or referring to them, sometimes with a wink) but not being constrained by them. Zahav is not a kosher restaurant, but this meal follows the traditions of a Passover Seder, incorporating the expected elements, often with a twist, or update.

We started with good house-made Matzah, their always excellent Hummus, and a tower of various salads.  We especially liked the okra, the beets with tehina and walnuts, the harissa-laced eggplant, and the cuminy carrots.

Next was a soup featuring roasted Matzah Balls in an intense, dark, double-strength chicken stock, enriched even further by black garlic and a bit of dill. OK, it's not much to look at, but wow, it was delicious.
Next were slices of white tuna, accompanied by beets, with a touch of horseradish. Alongside was a platter of asparagus with a mustard dressing and walnuts, accompanied by a delicately boiled egg.
But I couldn't be bothered with those right away, because we were also presented with Leek Fritters with Charoset. These were ethereally light, yet creamy, yet crunchy - like an ideal latke that somehow didn't involve potatoes.  I'm going to be dreaming about these...
Of course, we had been starting to get full midway through the salad course,  so it was with some trepidation that we anticipated the arrival of the Coffee-Braised Brisket, with Schmaltzy Potatoes. 
I can't explain why, but all three of us went right around the meat and immediately speared a potato.  They were amazing: tender, crusty, and pleasingly unctuous from being slowly confited in fat.  Our server confided that it was actually fat from the brisket, not chicken schmaltz, that gave them that wonderful flavor and texture, but regardless of the origin of the cooking medium, they did indeed taste schmaltzy, in the best way.

But enough being coy - we dug into the brisket, and had surprising reactions. It was falling-apart tender, and strongly beefy, but not as exotic-tasting as we'd expected. But then a funny thing happened: as we ate more, the complexities revealed themselves, and new flavors began to emerge. Before long, it started tasting smoky, and earthy, with  hints of coffee, and the already intense meaty flavor was concentrating.  By a few bites in, we were  solidly addicted, and somehow forgot that we were about to explode from eating too much. I felt that it lived-up to the hype that my friend had generated, and I look forward to having it again - maybe next year, or, maybe later this week...

And just as we were feeling quite happy and satisfied, if over-stuffed, dessert arrived.  How had we forgotten about dessert?!? It was a riff on Matzoh Brei, softened matzoh fried with eggs. This version made a stuffed french toast from the matzoh, and topped it with red wine spiced ice cream. It was satisfyingly crunchy and fruity, evoking a classic crumble or cobbler.

On of our party couldn't have the ice cream, so they were kind enough to send out a couple of alternate desserts, one a baklava adorned with rhubarb, the other a dense pistachio cake, also accompanied by rhubarb, which made us very happy, as we all happen to like rhubarb quite a lot. I especially liked the baklava, and I suspect that might be on the regular dessert menu, there is usually a version or two of this flaky, crispy dessert.

All in all, it was a delicious meal, and a bargain at $42 per person.  This special menu is only running during Passover, so you've only got until Tuesday, April 6 (2010) to get there.  I'd highly recommend visiting Zahav any time, but this special meal is quite interesting, and delicious, so it's worth making an effort to go right now. You don't need a long memory of Passover Seders, or to be Jewish, to appreciate this food (although either might help to explain some of the culinary references.) It's just delicious food, with extra cultural significance, but perfectly enjoyable as an abstract dining experience.

Our server was excellent - very friendly, helpful and informed. Chef Solomonov was nice enough to drop by and chat, and generously sent out some extra dishes for us to try, which made the evening all the more enjoyable (and filling...)  We were all swooning over the Jerusalem Grill, which features grilled duck hearts on dirty rice. Thankfully, that's on the regular menu, so we can go get that any time.  And we will, as this visit reminded us that Zahav is operating at a very high level, among the very best restaurants in Philadelphia, while remaining approachable.

So, go to Zahav, but more urgently, go now for the excellent Passover meal. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for this special menu.

Menu>> (thanks to Foobooz)

237 St. James Place (near 2nd and Walnut Streets)
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Friday, March 12, 2010

Doma - Modern Japanese/Korean in Franklintown

Complaining about sushi in Philly is a favorite pastime of local foodies, but a bigger shortcoming is the city's sparsity of Japanese cooked food. Most restaurants offer some non-sushi items, but that section of the menu is rarely the focus. This really doesn't make any sense: in Japan, there are restaurants that specialize in many types of food, and Japanese people eat all kinds of food in restaurants, not simply slices of fish. So we were excited to see the menu for Doma, a new restaurant near 18th and Callowhill streets that featured many cooked items from Japan and Korea.

That said, Doma also has a sushi bar and features many raw-fish items, so it's not so different from other places around town, but the number of interesting items from the kitchen is much larger. The owners of this place have run Shiroi Hana in Center City for many years, so the sushi component is a pretty obvious thing to export, and that restaurant offers more cooked items than many places do, but it's a pleasant surprise to see some modern dishes from both Japan and Korea available at Doma.

We've finally been seeing lots of Steamed Pork Buns (pictured above) around town, and not a minute too soon.  This version is one of the best we've had in Philly, featuring delicate bread, and satisfyingly meaty, crusty pork. The menu says it's braised pork belly, but it seemed more like roasted pork shoulder - still plenty of fat for richness, but substantial, and nicely caramelized.  I could have used a touch more of the sweet sauce, or even a dollop of Kewpie Mayo, but even as-is, these are pretty high in the ranking of pork buns in town. There's even a version with mushroom, rather than pork, for the vegetarians.

For more rich porkiness, there's a Bo-Ssam appetizer that serves that braised pork shoulder in lettuce leaves for wrapping, and you can toss-on a raw oyster for more extravagance. I preferred the the buns, but these were good too...

There's not a lot of Okonomiyaki being served around town, so we were pleased to find it here, and this version of the savory pancake, enlivened with bacon, drizzled with sweet sauce and mayo and bristling with bonito shavings was hearty and satisfying.
Hamachi Kama was a simple broiled fish neck, but was nicely moist, with a good char flavor.
White tuna, wrapped in wonton skins and quickly fried were a pleasant special appetizer called Tuna Lolipops. Nothing too thrilling, but nicely crunchy and light.
Another special that night - deep-fried Soft-Shell Crabs were very nicely executed, with a light, tempura batter.

We also sampled some cold appetizers, starting with an elegant Hamachi Crudo.  It's kind of funny to see the Italian term "crudo" in a Japanese restaurant, and this isn't too different from a new-style sashimi, with a tart marinade and a dose of chili spice. But whatever they choose to call it, it was tasty...

Ironically, the sushi platter that one of our party ordered failed to impress. It had good variety, and decent quality fish, but overall just seemed blah.  In all fairness, this visit was on one of the first days they were open, so they may not have been fully up-to-speed, they were not very busy yet, and perhaps they hadn't fully-stocked the sushi area.  We'll certainly give them another shot. a degree, we don't even care...  We are more interested in the other parts of the menu anyway.  Of course one always hopes that everything on the menu is good, but in this circumstance, we're perfectly happy to eat other things here.

Like the Ankimo, a monkfish liver mousse of sorts.  This one, served with wasabi-cured roe and a sweet ponzu sauce, was quite nice.

The Uni Trio featured three presentations of fresh sea-urchin, one atop shredded daikon, another atop firm tofu, and a shooter that featured a raw quail egg and sake. The uni itself was good, although I'm not sure these particular contexts improved it much, they didn't ruin it either...  The exact components of the trio are likely to change day to day.

We'd filled-up enough on starters that we didn't even make it to the dinner entrées, but we couldn't leave without a Hot Stone Bibimbop. This traditional Korean rice dish had good ingredients, but didn't crust-up all that much, one of the best parts, so maybe the bowl wasn't quite as hot as it could be. This version isn't going to give the traditional places up on north 5th street any real competition, but it was still very tasty, especially after being dosed with spicy gochuchang pepper sauce.

There are several more appealing-looking large dishes, like Kalbi, Tonkatsu, Salmon Shioyaki, and even dinner bento boxes with a variety of items.

So we have plenty of motivation to return, to try things we didn't, and also to get more of those pork buns!

1822 Callowhill St.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ro-Zu - New sushi in Queen Village

Update: sadly, it appears that chef Todd Kulper left Ro-Zu in late May. The main appeal of the restaurant was the unique work this chef was doing, so it's hard to imagine what Ro-Zu will be without him...  

RoZu continued-on for a short while with a new Sushi Chef. Trey Popp gave it a mixed review in the City Paper, but closed shortly thereafter.  There's another sushi joint in that location.  Todd Kulper is working on the much-anticipated Khyber Izakaya, stay tuned...

It's become cliché in Philadelphia foodie circles to complain about the sushi. Sure, there's Morimoto, but it costs a fortune, the sushi bar experience is quashed by Starr restaurant service quirks, and the place seems to concentrate more on the other parts of the menu, rather than on sushi and sashimi. And yes, one can make the drive to New Jersey for excellent fish at Matt Ito's Fuji, but it's not even a sure thing that Matt will be your itamae on any given evening, which is what elevates a meal there to its loftiest heights. And OK, there are a few other places around town where one can get decent sushi on any given night, but not really anyone doing anything extraordinary, beyond trying to distinguish themselves with the latest crazyspicycrunchyinsideoutroll.

Of course it's too early to say whether Ro-Zu changes this situation, they've only been open a few days, but an early taste has given us hope that there's something interesting happening here. They've certainly set themselves on a difficult path: their tiny space at 7th and Bainbridge barely seats 20 people, and they're not selling drinks, so they better keep those spots full!

Chef Todd Dae Kulper just might be able to do that, with a combination of good quality fish, and creative, modern touches that stop short of the silliness of the crazy-roll trend. Interesting accompaniments abound, but stop short of overshadowing the fish.

We asked the chef to serve us whatever he felt like, and we got a very interesting and varied progression of flavors and textures. From a tiny Kumamoto Oyster accented with a delicate, yet spicy, tomato salsa, through live scallop dressed with compressed pomelo and Thai chili pepper, to more traditional nigiri, most courses had some extra twist that gave the fish an extra spark.

Delicate slices of fluke were dressed with a citrusy gremolata. Tuna tataki bathed in a pool of ginger ponzu. A piece of snapper nigiri was enlivened by a shiso leaf layered between the fish and rice. A piece of bluefin tuna was slicked to a high gloss with a brush of seasoned soy. Those touches of seasoning by the chef made each piece complete, I didn't think once to dip anything in additional soy, or dab it with wasabi.

A piece of house-cured salmon tingled with a hint of citrus, and displayed a slightly firmed-up texture, but tasted mostly of fresh fish, not of sauce and seasonings. Hamachi Belly, Orange Clam, Horse Mackerel and Uni were left more on their own, perhaps a touch of ginger or chili, but never enough to distract from the main ingredient.
It's not all perfect yet, the rice had a few small textural issues, and the pacing was a touch uneven, but it's early days, one needs to let a place get into a groove before being too judgmental about every little thing.

The lights are a little too bright, the large TV mounted on the wall is out of place with the feel of a restaurant like this, the black plates don't show off the sushi as well as they could - they get smeared and hazy with residue that is not visually appealing. But these are minor things that may all flex as the place adjusts to the real rhythms and strains of serving a variety of diners.

We're certainly looking forward to following the developments, they're certainly off to a good start. Those of you looking for quality, creative sushi - just be sure to leave me a spot at the bar, OK?

7th and Bainbridge Sts

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Awesomeness Alert: King Crab at Ken's Seafood

We've been fans of the fresh fish at Ken's Seafood in Chinatown since their opening night almost two years ago. We always scan the tanks at the front of the restaurant on our way in, and also ask Ken if there's anything especially good. We've often enjoyed the fresh, vivid taste of live scallops, shrimp, finned fish, eels, geoduck clams and Dungeness crabs. There's always variation in what's available on any given day, but on a recent visit, we saw something we'd never seen there before: a huge King Crab, looking like it might push its way out out of its tank. They don't regularly have these creatures, but someone had requested one for a special dinner, and Ken got two, just in case. So this one happened to be available. We decided it was a sign.

We happened to be marking a significant event, which made it seem doubly appropriate, so we seized the moment and asked Ken to cook it up for us. It weighed about 7 pounds, a little intimidating-looking, with spiny, spindly legs, but luckily, not very large claws, and was not especially happy about being removed from its tank. If you're looking for fresh crabs, I suppose they're going to fight back a little...

We left it up to Ken about how to prepare it. He told us he'd do it in two courses, but we were left to wonder what those would be, but we knew from previous experience that it would be fairly straightforward, highlighting the super-fresh ingredients.

The first course was the legs, quickly wok-roasted with just a little bit of an XO-sauce-like accent of minced garlic, shallot and other mysterious spices crusting the shells. The legs are so large that it was easy to extract large pieces of pure, sweet, unadulterated crab meat, with just a hint of spicing picked up in the process.

Just a we were thinking that these crab legs were the most delicious things we'd ever eaten, the second course arrived. It was the body of the crab, cracked open and steamed with garlic, served over fresh noodles, and might have been even more tasty.
OK, sure, the odds of stumbling across an unclaimed live King Crab in a tank in Chinatown are pretty small. And it's not cheap - this one was about $120 (a bargain compared to the more common price of $25-30 per pound, if you can even get it) but there's a lot to eat on a crab this size, so we felt like it was actually a good value, not just an extravagant indulgence.

It's good to know that it's possible to get a crab like this, in season, and that the chef at Ken's knows how to cook them perfectly. We might not rely completely on luck in the future, if we have some special occasion to mark, we just might need to see if Ken can order one for us.

Ken's Seafood Restaurant
1004 Race St
Philadelphia, PA

Other Ken's Posts: New Highlight , Duck Tongues

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Meritage - Meritorious Fusion

Two words lured us into Meritage recently, and they weren't the two that have been getting all the attention around town. The restaurant has gotten significant buzz for serving Korean Tacos, a culinary meme that has evolved from a lunch truck fad in Los Angeles to an almost required menu item at an edgy restaurant in 2010. And don't get me wrong - the Korean Shortrib Tacos are delicious - its a great concept, and well-executed here, but it was another evocative phrase that motivated me to finally visit this restaurant that's been receiving excellent notices since a recent shift in kitchen staff:

Chinese Sausage.

I've long wondered why Chinese sausage hasn't dominated the contemporary food scene like bacon has. It has the same appeal: it's porky, fatty and sweet. In fact most popular versions are sweet enough to outshine the hedonistic appeal of bacon, its candied meat character serves as a wonderful accent to many dishes. There was even a restaurant in University City in the mid-1980s that put it on pizza. But one rarely sees it used as an ingredient, even in Chinatown. It might pop up as one of the ingredients in sticky rice, or occasionally in a steamed bun (oh, how I miss Lakeside) or as an accompaniment to Chinese Broccoli, but it's got huge potential outside of traditional Chinese dishes.

Imagine our excitement when we see a description of a Roast Chicken dish at Meritage that reads: "Brined and Roasted Giannone Chicken with parsnip puree, sauteed brussel sprouts, chinese sausage and a star anise chicken jus." That was just enough of a prod to get me, and a few friends, to finally visit Meritage.

The irony is that the Chinese Sausage is a minor bit-player in this dish: a few slivers flavor the brussels sprouts. Regardless, all of us swore we could detect a certain sausagey perfume permeating the bird. That was probably all an artifact of our preconceptions, and ultimately it didn't matter - the chicken was delicious, as were the sides of parsnip purée and the sprouts studded with sausage.

We were pleased to discover that most everything else was too. There's an extensive selection of snacks and small plates, so we decided to get several of those, along with the special tuesday "date-night" version of the chicken, basically a special-priced whole chicken, which constitutes a double-order of the entrée that's on the regular menu.

Chef Anne Coll has invigorated this place with exciting Asian-fusion touches that avoid the pitfalls of this sometimes tired idea. Instead of vague references to Chinese and Japanese flavors or perfunctory drizzles of oyster sauce, soy and ginger, Meritage's menu features creative updates and twists on traditional Eastern ideas.

Of course, there are her famed Korean Shortrib Tacos, which first got attention when she made them at the restaurant Ansill in its later days, and they stand up to all the hype. I would probably have liked a tiny bit more filling (or smaller tortillas) but the flavors were in perfect balance - the slightly smoky charred meat, the sour, spicy bite of kimchee, the sweet spice of the sauce. For some crazy reason, in the future these will apparently not be available every day, perhaps offered once a week. This is ridiculous: they're fantastic, and fit-in perfectly with the modern Asian-fusion tilt of the menu, so I certainly hope they come to their senses and just offer these every day. Perhaps we could start a petition...

Before the Korean Taco, the previous big Asian culinary fad was the pork bun, usually a slice or two of fatty pork belly in an airy steamed bun. That idea has finally proliferated around Philadelphia, but most versions we've encountered have come up a little shy of the ones we've had at Momofuku in NY. Meritage has their own take on them, using a beautifully lean and tender piece of pork tenderloin. It's a good interpretation, and while not quite as rich and indulgent as the more common pork belly, we liked them a lot.

But then they might have been overshadowed by the grilled grape leaves, stuffed with Kobe beef, or the pan-fried Foie Gras dumplings, or the plate of lightly-pickled vegetables, or the bowl of sweet, fresh mussels bathing in a coconut curry sauce. It's a testament to the vibrancy of those dishes that we yawned a bit at the lamb chops. The meat was actually quite delicious, perfectly grilled, juicy and tender, and would probably have been quite a hit in another context, but beside these other dishes we couldn't help wishing for a little more something.

Salads, one with beets, another with mixed greens, were nicely done as well, with meticulously fresh ingredients.

We tried a couple of desserts, which were fine, but we were really too full to give them a proper assessment.

Service was very friendly and attentive, and by the end of the meal we were already making plans to return. If we had any criticism of the restaurant, it would be that the decor, while quite lovely, feels out-of-sync with the menu. The rooms are whispering cozy French countryside, while the food on the plates is yelling modern urban multiculti chic. It's not going to dissuade us from going back, but we couldn't help thinking that the kitchen and the dining room belonged in two different restaurants.

Next time I'll just keep my eyes on the food, and quietly start that petition for universal access to Korean Tacos.

500 S. 20th Street (at Lombard)
Philadelphia PA 19103

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Awesomeness Alert: Duck Fat Potato Chips at the Franklin

Update: the food has changed at the Franklin, now supervised by the folks at Supper, there's a wider variety, but sadly, no more duck fat chips... 

We tend to shorthand the real name of this place, just calling it The Franklin, but just to be clear: no, we don't mean the Franklin Fountain ice cream parlor, we're talking about the cocktail bar named the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company.

You could be excused for confusing the retro design of both places, and the and fashion sense of their respective employees, but their products are pretty different. Although... I wouldn't be opposed to seeing what would happen if they joined forces...

The real reason to come to the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company is for the cocktails. In what has become a pleasingly creative cocktail scene here in Philly, The Franklin can probably still be considered the top spot in town, although spirited competition is being provided by Village Whiskey, Chick's, Southwark and APO, as well as the bars at Noble, Oyster House and a few others.

All of these places have strong points, and I might prefer any of them at any given moment, but the Franklin has the largest original cocktail list, an impressive collection of spirits, and consistent talent behind the stick. Not only are the bartenders extremely knowledgeable, but the servers are too: in fact most times your servers are the bartenders, they tend to cycle out from behind the bar onto the floor, so you can get the same advice and personal attention out at a table as you can sitting at the tiny bar. There are many very interesting cocktails on the menu, but even better, this crew has a seemingly limitless repertoire of recipes old and new, so don't be reluctant to have them make you something not on the list. They're good with the classics, and perhaps even better coming up with something surprising and new based on your likes and dislikes, maybe even your mood at the moment.

Strangely, the excellent cocktails aren't the reason I'm posting an Awesomeness Alert. When the bar first opened, we were chronically longing for salty snacks, in fact there was no food at all. There's still not much, but now you can actually get a respectable cheese plate, some crazy-spicy nuts, or the subject of this alert: Duck-fat fried potato chips.

Potatoes, salt, duck fat. What could be bad about that? Oh, right, the duck fat french fries a couple blocks west at Whiskey Village are weirdly disappointing, unless buried under shortribs and cheese. But I'm happy to report that these potato chips are everything you wished WV's french fries were: perfectly crisp, assertively salty, and shrouded with a mysterious cloud of duck-fueled richness. They're also dangerously addictive. So, I'm sorry for telling you about them: your fat and salt intake levels are very likely going to spike in the near future.

$5 for a few ounces of chips might seem extreme, but you'll think it's worth it, and probably order another bowl, even though your cardiologist would probably recommend stopping at one. They're pretty great on their own, and somehow they make the drinks taste even better. Not that we really needed any encouragement to drink more at the Franklin...

The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company
112 South 18th St (between Sansom and Chestnut)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kabobeesh - Pakistani Kebabs

University City used to be the gravitational center of Indian food in Philadelphia. Within a few blocks of the intersection of 40th and Chestnut, there was a large array of choices. Sure, they were mostly pretty similar in style and toned-down in that student-discount-buffet kind of way, but there was some good food lurking among the lukewarm curries. A few of those places remain, but the recent buzz about Indian food has been focused further east, surrounding places like Tiffin, Ektar, and King of Tandoor. But the West Philly spots should not be ignored, especially the somewhat anomalous Kabobeesh.

Although it's been in business in the former American Diner at the corner of 42nd and Chestnut for several years, it's not one of the old school West Philly places. It's newer than most of those, and it's Pakistani, rather than North Indian as most of the spots in the neighborhood are. There's no buffet, no predictable menu of the usual North Indian dishes. As the name implies, this place specializes in kabobs, and grilled meats. The meat is halal, and it's the centerpiece here. Sure, there are appetizers such as samosas, some vegetable dishes, and a few curries that you might find elsewhere, but the real reason to come here is for the kabobs.

One of the real surprises is that this place makes amazing chicken wings! They're profoundly juicy, and smoky from the grill. There's no breading, and no sauce to speak of, yet they're among the most flavorful wings I've ever encountered, with just a touch of spice.

Service here is very casual: you seat yourself, you order and pick-up at the counter, the food is served on styrofoam plates. Correspondingly, the prices are low - amazingly low for the quality of food that is being served - the kabobs are $10.50 or less.

Most dishes are served with rice, naan, salad, and a vegetable side from the steamtable. The accompaniments are all pretty good, so just pick whatever looks appealing. For the meats themselves, it's hard to go wrong. The lamb chops (pictured at top) are tender and juicy. The cubes of lamb are almost as good. The diced beef formed into sausage-like Resham Kebabs is not quite as luxurious, but still tasty.

Tandoori Chicken is among the best I've ever had - I'm not even sure they use a tandoor, I suspect they may simply grill it along with the skewers, but the marinade and spicing results in a traditional flavor, and impressive moistness.

They offer a special long-cooked Chicken or Mutton Karahi, but they require 25 minutes for the chicken dish, an hour for the mutton, and I've never had the patience to wait... yet...

It's easy to eat entirely too much delicious grilled meat for less than $20 per person here, or if one wanted something lighter, there are "snacks" such as a kebab rolled in naan, or single skewers of meat for as little as $5.50. But at least for me, the appeal of the place is not the affordability, it's the quality of the food. It's not a fancy place, but the flavors are operating on a much more sophisticated level than the setting would suggest.

4201 Chestnut Street