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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