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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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zavino - Artisan pizza in Midtown Village

Wow, is this toasty feeling evidence of Philly's pizza wars heating-up? Oh, wait... it's just that we're sitting a little too close to the 900 degree oven in Zavino, the latest contender in the long-overdue craft-pizza trend that's finally hitting Philadelphia. Osteria got us going a couple of years ago with its finely-crafted Roman-style pizzas, and Steven Starr recently opened Pizzaria Stella, exploring a vaguely Neapolitan path. Now Zavino joins the scene, and if one visit can be any indication, they're off to a great start.

They have a serious oven, in this case it's gas-fired, as opposed to traditional wood ovens, but its design allows it to get hot enough to cook a pizza to a satisfying crisp in a few short minutes, the airy dough forming beautiful charred bubbles. Owner/chef Steve Gonzalez helped open renowned Sullivan St. baker Jim Lahey's pizza place Co. up in NY, and it shows in the quality of the dough, which strikes a delicate balance of lightness, softness, and crispness. More important, it has great flavor, it's not merely a platform for toppings.

The toppings are generally applied sparingly here, which is crucial for avoiding a soggy crust. I probably could have used a tiny bit more mozzarella on the Sopressata Pizza, but I really didn't need it, overall it was quite delicious. The intense flavors of the salami, olives and pickled onions work very well in measured doses, enhancing the fresh-tasting tomato sauce. This particular pizza has abruptly shot up to the very top of my favorites in the city, challenging even the fabled Lombarda at Osteria.

The Polpettini (pictured at the top) has tiny veal meatballs showered with shreds of provolone, over a tomato sauce base. The meatballs themselves are relatively mildly-flavored, so this one was comparatively subtle, but had a luxurious texture.

The Fratello features a larger dose of smoked mozzarella over a bechamel sauce base, broccoli florets studding the top. This would have been an incredibly boring pizza most places, but the good cheese and excellent crust elevated it to being pretty tasty. Not my favorite of the night, but not bad...

There's a basic Margherita, with just tomato, mozzarella and basil; a Rosa with no cheese at all, just sauce, garlic and oregano; a mushrooom-laden pie with bechamel; and one that simulates a cheesesteak with provolone, onions and the air-cured beef called bresaola. We've read about an artichoke pizza in the days leading up to the opening, let's hope that shows up before long! We're planning on just working our way down the list - We've often been surprised by pizzas that don't look that great on a menu, but turn out to be delicious.

Although it's a tiny space, Zavino manages to serve more than pizza. There's a selection of cheeses and cured meats, and a few antipasti, salads and small vegetable dishes. We tried all three of the meats: prosciutto, mortadella, and the oddly-named "Baby Jesus" salami. All three were quite good, but we really loved the Baby Jesus.

We also sampled the Roots and Greens with Bagna Cauda. This featured a tangle of frisée, a few leaves of mixed greens, thin slices of parsnip and radish, along with their tender tips, all lightly dressed with an intense, funky, garlic and anchovy infused oil. It's delicious, but it's going to stay with you for a little while, so make sure your dining partner has some too if you're going to be sharing airspace, or more, later...

The simple Roasted Cauliflower did not have the toasted Pine Nuts that should accompany the golden raisins as an enhancement, but was still pretty satisfying.

I believe the plan is for there to be a few non-pizza specials each day as well, but I have a hard time imagining getting anything but a pizza and a few of the small plates. But you never know, the flavors were assured enough on our first visit that we'd be willing to take a chance on whatever the chef is making.

The liquor license is not in effect yet, so I can't comment on the wine list, but if the free glass or two that they kindly offered is any indication, they should have some simple, satisfying, pizza-friendly selections.

Zavino is a welcome addition to Philadelphia's pizza scene, mostly because of the excellent crust, but also some more mundane reasons: it's conveniently located, and open late (Sun-Wed 5pm-11pm, Thr-Sat 5pm-2am.) The biggest downside is that it's pretty tiny, and as good as it is, I predict that it's going to be very hard to find a seat here. So I'll resign myself to off-hours, but unless there's a line out the door at all times, you can be sure that I'll be going back often.

112 S. 13th St (at Sansom)

Spinal Tapas - jokey name, serious food.

Having picked a name like Spinal Tapas, the organizers of this ongoing series of group dinners probably shouldn't be surprised that people aren't sure whether to take them seriously or not. Even looking beyond the moniker, it's natural enough to be skeptical about a couple of guys who aren't professional chefs hosting dinners in a rented space. Sure, it could be kind of charming to eat food made by some talented amateurs, but can it be better than a decent dinner party? It turns out that yes, it can. Thankfully, unlike their name, their cooking is not a joke.

The situation is helped by the fact that the two music writers at the center of this project, Tim McGinnis and Brian McManus, have culinary training, and have worked in professional kitchens. So they're not just those neighbors you know that can cook pretty well, and everyone keeps telling them they should have a restaurant. These two are cooks that could probably be working in conventional restaurants if they wanted to, but instead are exploring some other models for serving dinners, outside the bricks and mortar of a conventional restaurant. As it stands right now, the Spinal Tapas dinners are held in the rental kitchen space called Philly Kitchen Share. Most people who rent this space are small-scale commercial cooks or bakers, perhaps they're selling cookies or candies or sauces, and only need a commercially-outfitted kitchen from time to time, or need it to meet health codes.

The Spinal Tapas folks make the space do double-duty: not only do they cook the food there, but it serves as a dining room too. Work tables are pushed together, dressed with tablecloths, and become a long communal table for 16 in the middle of the kitchen. It's not especially elegant, but many foodies, myself included, enjoy sitting in the middle of the action, watching the normally behind-the-scenes process.

Of course, by the time the diners are assembled it's mostly just final turn-out and plating, it's not like one gets a cooking lesson, but diners do get to chat with the chefs and perhaps gain a little insight into how things were done.

This most recent dinner had a Texas Barbecue theme. There were dishes representative of several regions of the state. Brian McManus lived in Texas for many years, and while that does not automatically confer barbecuing credentials, it at least means that he might have learned what the authentic food of the area was like.
I haven't spent enough time in Texas to make any pronouncements about authenticity, but the food did remind me of flavors I've experienced on visits to Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. And more importantly, it was delicious.

The night started with a mug of beer and/or some spiked Ice Tea. Then, a "Bowl of Red," an excellent chili made with Arbol chili peppers and chunks of beef. The was assertively spicy, but in a full-flavored way, not as a heat-for-heat's-sake stunt.


Next was pulled pork, accompanied by jalapeno cornbread muffins, and three different barbecue sauces. The meat itself was largely un-sauced, but had a sweet glaze that accented the flavors of pork and smoke. I quite enjoyed this with no accoutrements at all, just the plain pork, perhaps piled on a chunk of cornbread.

Pulled Pork
Then Brisket, and the large, thick slices were nicely juicy and tender. There was a pile of shredded brisket too, which was rather severely dry, even a good dose of sauce was not enough to resuscitate it. One of my dining partners was clever enough to ask if there were any burnt ends available, and although many of those edge pieces had been chopped and added to beans, there were indeed a few sizeable ends available, and they happily brought them over to us. Those burnt ends were luxuriously fatty and moist, not as crisp as some we've had, but still nicely crusty, and highly spiced from the rub. Surprisingly neither the ends nor the slices of brisket exhibited a strong smoke flavor, but each had an intense beefyness, and the wonderful texture that can only derive from a long, low smoke.


These meats aren't necessarily going to strike fear in the hearts of competition barbecue guys that have been honing their techniques for decades, but in the context of the evening, everything was pretty great.

Collard Greens and Frijoles a la Charra accompanied the meats, and both of those were very good too, due partly to each being spiked with meat.

Collard Greens

The final savory course was goat tacos. Tender shreds of cabrito were served in delicious corn tortillas, apparently purchased in south philly, but bearing a rustic feel that made them seem homemade. Excellent guacamole and pickled onions made perfect accompaniments for the strongly-flavored meat.

Goat tacos
This was a ton of food, served on platters, family-style, and it arrived in incessant waves! Before we knew it, we discovered that we were stuffed. And then dessert was delivered. We probably would have loved something light, after all that meat, but this was a traditional Kolache: a ball of dough, baked, then topped with apple compote. A delicious caramel sauce complimented the fruit flavors. It was tasty, but dense!


And then, we were done. It felt like it went by in a flash. They were doing two seatings that night, and it's a rental space, so their pace might have been a little more urgent than your average restaurant, but overall the service was quite friendly and efficient.

The long, thin tables don't make it easy to chat with folks too far away from you, but there still is something of a communal feel, as you pass platters of food around. And the chefs and servers couldn't have been more friendly, giving the whole event a very relaxed mood. Overall, it was a very enjoyable evening. They're planning on a Peruvian theme for the next dinner. I don't remember exactly when it will be, and I'm not even sure I want to tell you - at least not until I book my seats! I'll be very interested to see how they do with this very different cuisine - of course it's possible that they just happen to be good with barbecue... I did not attend their first dinner, at which they surveyed some of Philly's must-eat dishes, so I can't speak to the quality of those, but this barbecue dinner was good enough that I'm looking forward to whatever they do next.

Not much info at:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Han Dynasty Center City - Authentic Sichuan on Chestnut St.

Over the last few years, residents of Philly's western suburbs have had the pleasure of experiencing delicious authentic Chinese food at two Han Dynasty restaurants, in Exton and Royersford. But these spots are difficult to reach for Center City Philadelphia residents, making it impractical for people without cars to enjoy these places. It just got easier for city dwellers: the third Han Dynasty opened in late December at 108 Chestnut Street, in Old City. Like the others, this latest branch concentrates on authentic Chinese dishes, especially those from Sichuan province.

Philly's Chinatown has two restaurants that feature dishes from that region: Szechuan Tasty House and Four Rivers but after eating Han Dynasty food, even the hottest flavors that Chinatown has to offer have been leaving me cold. If you like that unique combination of chili heat and sichuan peppercorn tingle, Han Dynasty can bring it, in a package that's complex and satisfying, not bluntly spicy.

Over the course of many dinners in the various locations, we've become friendly with Han Chiang, the man behind these restaurants, and he's recommended many great dishes we would have never thought to order.Luckily, it doesn't require a long history to get that kind of treatment, that's the way Han prefers to work: even on your first visit he'll ask about what you like and don't like, and steer you toward something that you'll enjoy. In his other restaurants, Han developed a reputation for showing disdain for the Americanized dishes on the menu, trying to convince people to try something more traditional Chinese. It's a good point - there's no shortage of places where you can get beef and broccoli or General Tso's Chicken, if you're in a restaurant that can make you something more interesting, seize the opportunity! At this latest restaurant, there aren't any of those cliché not-really-Chinese dishes on the menu. Instead there are categories of traditional styles of preparation, with options for specific ingredients. Many of these dishes are quite spicy, but not all of them are, there are still interesting options for those who don't care for serious heat. The different styles are marked on the menu according to relative heat level, but also, ask your server (who is very likely to be Han himself) if you want to keep the spice under control.

Rather than trying to work our way through the menu over the course of many visits, some friends and I decided to jump-start the process by getting a dozen of us together and asking Han to feed us whatever he wanted to. We gave him a few days' notice, so he was able to come up with a few special dishes, but we were equally happy with the selections from the regular menu. All of it was quite tasty and very different from what you'll get at most Chinese restaurants in Philly.

He started us with an array of cold appetizers. This is a particular strong point of this kitchen, so we recommend that everyone try something from that section of the menu. We then had a Sichuan Hot Pot, something the restaurant does not regularly offer (although they may do so in the future.) A vast array of main dishes followed, and even a dessert soup. There were varying opinions around the table about favorites, but there wasn't a bad dish all night!

Pickled Carrots
(served cold)
We've decided that all meals should start with pickled something...

Pork Belly in Chili Oil
(served cold)

Rich, fatty, a little sweet, a little hot: that's a good combination!

Fu Qi Fei Pian
(Sliced Tripe, Tongue and Beef in hot sauce)
(served cold)

Even if you don't think you like organ meats, you might just enjoy this classic dish. The textures are varied and interesting, and the flavor is vivid with sichuan peppercorn and hot chili pepper.

Rabbit with Peanuts
(served cold)

This is quite delicious, but beware: there's a significant chili spice to this, and the rabbit has many tiny bones, so eating this requires careful chewing, artful bone avoidance, and an ability to pull little bones out of your mouth with a modicum of tableside decorum...

Wontons in Chili Oil
(served warm)

These are great, even better if you stir them around and let them soak in the spicy oil.

Dan Dan Noodles
(served warm)

This also needs to be stirred-up before eating it, but with a little tossing, the hot spices, sesame paste and ground pork cling to the noodles beautifully.

Sichuan Hot Pot

Our group was too big to just put the burner in the middle of the table and have us cook things ourselves, so Han was kind enough to do it for us. There are two types of broth in the pot, one spice the other mild. Then various thinly-sliced ingredients are put in the broth to cook. At the end, noodles are added, and one has soup.

The ingredients cooked in the spicy side of the pot picked up some intense flavors from that broth. The milder side predictably yielded a mellower result. And in the end, it's boiled food, which can only be so exciting. Regardless of the technique, a few of these items came out tasting pretty great, especially the spicy tripe, fish and mushrooms.

After the hotpot, it was time for the main dishes:

Ma Po Tofu

Dry Fried Green Beans
Frog in Dry Pot
Lamb with Cumin
Beef in Hot Sauce
Whole Fish in Spicy Bean Sauce
Taiwanese Sausage

Most of these can be found on the regular menu, although he does not regularly have Frog in Dry Pot. I've had other meats in the dry pot there though, and they're are among my favorite things there. And if you really want frogs, give Han a few days notice, and he might be able to arrange it.

That whole fish was very delicious too, especially as it soaked up that vibrant sauce. Lamb with Cumin is one of our old favorites, the meat is literally encrusted in ground cumin, and smells as good as it tastes - but you'd better be a fan of that spice! The dry-fried string beans may not look all that special, but there's some magic going on in the kitchen to make the salty preserved vegetables and ground pork adhere to the beans, which themselves are just the right balance of crisp and wilted.

The classic dish Ma Po Tofu was made with an unusually light, soft tofu. There was some debate about whether a firmer tofu matches better with the ground pork and bold flavors, but this certainly had an elegant texture. Beef in Hot Sauce featured (mostly) meltingly tender slices of beef, coated in an uncharacteristically thick, delicious sauce. Most versions I've had of this have been much hotter, and in a thinner, oilier sauce, but I enjoyed this variation.

The Taiwanese sausage was a special request, it's just a favorite of our crew, usually as an appetizer at the beginning of the meal, but it works pretty well as dessert too. Once they get a liquor license, I shudder to think how much time I could spend at the bar, drinking beer and snacking on sausage...

I liked every dish that we got, but I was especially taken with the Fu Qi Fei Pian, the Wontons in Chili Oil (once they bathed in the liquid a bit) the Dan Dan Noodles, the Frog in Dry Pot, the green beans, and the fish, even the simple carrots at the beginning. But I look forward to revisiting all of what we had, I'd happily order any of it again.

To finish the dinner, there was a sweet soup. Because we had a large group, Han decided we needed to play a game: one bowl had a red tapioca pearl in it, and that person was the "winner."

Of course, along with being the "winner" came a compulsion to do something difficult, or humiliating, or painful. Someone in our group suggested doing a shot of chili oil. So be very afraid if Han suggests playing a game... Although, it got us thinking about special cocktails for when he gets a liquor license. Maybe a Chili Oil Bomb?

The aftermath...

Somehow we manged to eat just about everything, there were very few leftovers at the end. We accompanied this with, as you can see, more than a little beer and wine. Lighter, crisp white wines, not too dry, seem to work very well with this style of food. as do beers. Interestingly, sweet, dry, hoppy, malty brews all worked in different ways. I liked beers that were all over the map: sweet Lindemann's Peche Lambic, a fruity Kasteel Rouge, a dry Ephemere Apple Ale from Unibroue, and a Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA. We also sampled one of Dogfish Head's historical reconstructions, Jiahu, based on an archeological find in China. Not our favorite beer of the night, but interesting,and certainly drinkable, and its slight sweetness went pretty well with the food. So... is good. Or heck, some elegant off-dry Champagne isn't bad either!

All in all, a very enjoyable evening, with delicious food and good companionship. Thanks to all my dining friends, old and new, who made it possible, big thanks to Han for getting it all together, and rushing around to accommodate us, while tending a few other tables at the same time. And major props to the chefs, who put out some amazing food.

Don't wait to assemble a dozen of your closest friends - the restaurant is just as enjoyable in smaller groups - you'll just have to make a few more visits to survey the menu. That's not such a bad fate...

Han Dynasty

108 Chestnut St