Philadining Home

Monday, December 03, 2007

Anthony Bourdain in Philly

I don't think I was quite ready for the size of the turn-out to see Anthony Bourdain speak at the Free Library on Saturday, December 1. But apparently the Library was, so they had additional seating set-up upstairs with a video feed from the auditorium downstairs. We were lucky enough to get into the main auditorium, but near the back, despite getting there almost an hour early.

Bourdain was quite entertaining, and had some interesting things to say. The shots at how crass and vapid the Food Network has become were to be expected, as was the inevitable bashing of Rachel Ray and Paula Deen, and despite them being pretty easy targets, the insults were fairly amusing...

Before his arrival, the City Paper featured an interview that included his admission that he just doesn't know much about the Philly food scene, thinking it was all Steven Starr and Georges Perrier, and wasn't sure there was much of interest.

The City Paper followed up with their list of must-visit spots which isn't bad, but some friends and I had already been thinking the same thing, and came up with a list of our own:

  • Osteria for a pizza and some pasta.
  • Hardena for a plate of whatever Ena recommends.
  • John's Roast Pork (and/or DiNic's) for the real Philly sandwich.
  • Taquitos de Puebla for the spit-roasted al Pastor tacos
  • Sarcone's for the quintissential hoagie.
  • StudioKitchen - we're thinking we might be able to talk Shola into re-activating SK for a Bourdain dinner!
  • Carman's Country Kitchen, just because we want to see what happens when you put Anthony and Carmen together.

There are certainly more places that offer good food that he might like, but we were thinking that these places have a good chance of giving him something that's not quite like he can get all the time. Sure, he's had Indonesian food in Indonesia, and tacos in Mexico, and Pizza in Naples, etc, but these are some distinctive places that offer foods that are not too easy to find in most American cities, and most importantly, are really good, in a solid straightforward way.

What did we miss?

Ong's in Chinatown

UPDATE: Ong's closed in January 2009 -Although we don't have any replacement for the Chiu-Chow style of food that they served, its replacement, Sakura Mandarin, is a good restaurant, serving specialties from Shanghai, including Xiao Long Bao, so it's not a total loss..

We were reminded of this restaurant by a recent article in the Inquirer by Rick Nichols. Located on the corner of 11th and Race, we always forget about it, except when driving into Chinatown, thinking "oh, right, let's check that place out!" then forgetting about it again...

We finally got around to it on saturday, and Im sure we'll be heading back. According to the Nichols piece, they specialize in "Chou-Jou" style cuisine, often referred to as "Chiu-Chow." It's a specific regional style of Cantonese, but the menu is also heavy with Vietnamese offerings. Apparently the cook's family is ethnically Chinese, but had emigrated to Vietnam, so both styles are represented.

We started with a Beef Satay soup. The diner can choose from a variety of noodles in the soups, we went with the rice noodles that were suggested. The broth was fresh and clean, and a little spicy, but we were expecting a little more intensity. The beef was impossibly tender and flavorful, despite being in slices much thicker than one might see in a Pho. And the noodles were terrific, so the whole thing added up to a very enjoyable soup, just right on a chilly day.

From the Vietnamese side, we got Fried Spring Rolls, which had a hearty pork filling, and perfectly crispy wrappers. We also got a dish of Pork with Caramel and Black Pepper. They did a great job with this Vietnamese classic: the pork was tender, pleasingly still a little bit fatty, and the sauce had a sweet edge, but was not tooth-rottingly sugary, offset by the subtle heat of the black pepper.

In the interest of being at least passingly healthy, we also got some Chinese Broccoli with garlic. This was very nicely done, and served as a great compliment to our other dishes, offering some crunch and bitterness alongside the sweetness and spice.

The place itself is much fancier than I had perceived from the outside. The decor, furniture and dishes are a step-up from the average Chinatown place, as are the prices, although they're not bad at all. But this is not a cheap, basic, $5 noodle soup joint. Service was quite good.

I'm looking forward to going back and trying to explore more of the Chou-Jou offerings, if only because it's not all that common, although the Vietnamese stuff is quite tempting too!

1038 Race St.
Menupages Listing

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Dumpling House in Philadelphia's Chinatown

UPDATE: Sadly, this place lasted about two and a half minutes... it was rarely open, then closed for good shortly after this report, so no cheap dumplings for Philly. Happily it's bee replaced by Zhi Wei Guan, serving really good Hangzou cuisine, including really good dumplings, so perhaps it's worked out for the best...


I've always thought that Philadelphia's Chinatown had remarkable variety and quality for its relatively small area, but one thing it's been lacking is a place focused on dumplings. But finally Dumpling House has opened on Race Street, between 9th and 10th. It's a great spot for inexpensive boiled and fried dumplings, and more importantly, sesame pancakes stuffed with various fillings.

This crispy disc was about 5 inches in diameter, stuffed in this case with roast pork and pickled vegetables. There are beef versions, vegetable-only versions, and plan unstuffed pancakes as well. The pickled vegetables had a sweet-and-sour tang that balanced the richness of the pork and doughiness of the bread, and contributed a nice crunch as well. The best news: it's only $2.50.

There are several varieties of dumplings, available boiled or fried. We tried the pan-fried chive and pork dumplings, and found them to have pleasingly juicy fillings, and a great texture to the wrappers. The were crisp on one side, still tender on the other, in the style of a classic pot-sticker, a dumpling that's surprisingly rare in Philly. 8 dumplings for $2.50, an excellent value for good dumplings. Are they they greatest dumplings ever? Maybe not, but pretty good...

They have steamed buns as well, but they had run out the day we were there, so we'll have to check up on those another time. There are a couple of soups, and a few other things, but this place is really all about the dumplings, and the sesame pancakes.

I'm really happy to see this, along with a few new customize-your-noodle-soup places joining the mix in Chinatown, providing quick, cheap lunches and snacks. i just wish these places were open late at night!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tasting Menus at snackbar

Update: Snackbar has closed.  Chef Jonathan Adams is currently helming the stoves at Pub and Kitchen a few blocks south.

On the first monday of every month, snackbar is doing special tasting menus, often featuring guest chefs.

For November, the Guest Chef was Sholo Olunloyo, of StudioKitchen fame, working with snackbar's Jonathan Mcdonald. Desserts were by Bobby Truitt. (We were psyched to see former M chef David Katz helping out as well.) It was a terrific meal, exciting and unusual in the ways we expect from these chefs. (Full disclosure: Olunloyo, Mcdonald and Katz all know me, but especially in this context of everyone eating the same tasting menu, there was clearly no special treatment.)

Carrot Ginger Soup . Coconut Froth. Peanut Praline

I especially liked this soup. The interplay of sweet carrot, rich coconut, spicy ginger, sweet and salty peanut provided one area of stimulation, while the smooth soup, the airy foam and the crunchy peanut tickled the palate on a textural level.

Scallop . "Choucroute" of Fennel and Apple . Yuzu-Miso Glaze

The scallop was not too unusual, yet delicious. The sweet and salty yuzu-miso glaze paired with the acidic "choucroute" gave a needed bright edge to the perfectly-seared scallop.

Skate Wing Torchon . Nicoise Flavors

I did not love this dish - there was nothing wrong with it, and interactions of the bold elements were sometimes quite pleasing, but I just found it overall a bit blah, despite the salty capers, the concentrated tomatoes, and other strongly-flavored elements on the plate.

Kobe Beef Culotte . Oxtail Gyoza . Parsnips and Chanterelles

This oxtail gyoza had everyone enraptured, clearly the star of the evening. The extremely tender steak, clearly cooked sous-vide to an ideal medium rare, then seared for a flavorful crust, was quite tasty as well, but the intensity of that shredded oxtail in the dumpling overshadowed everything, even the soothing parsnip purée.

Chalancay Epoisses . Fennel Mostarda . Pumpernickel . Shitake Soil

A not-too-stinky epoisses was complimented by the sweet preserved fennel, the crunchy pumpernickel, and the earthy "soil."

Apple in Forms . Black Sesame Streusel . White Chocolate

This dessert really knocked us out, with clear, clean, bright flavors, balancing in unexpected ways. Some French Chartreuse paired with the green apple sorbet, the white chocolate appeared in a lighter-than-air zabaglione, the black sesame chimed in perfectly, almost tasting chocolately. Truly one of the better desserts we've had in a while.

Caju-Lime Marshmallow. Fried Chocolate

As I started photographing this, I literally heard gasps and moans behind me, as people tossed that airy marshmallow in their mouths, and it instantly dissolved, leaving sweetness and citrus in its wake. And then the crunchy sphere that emitted intense molten chocolate - there was talk of storming the kitchen to confiscate any leftovers, but we realized they had knives back there to defend themselves.

Overall a very good meal, and we're looking forward to more in the future. We hear Michael Solomonov from Marigold, and Marc Vetri are slated to guest-chef soon.

253 South 20th St
Philadelphia, PA

Full snackbar review at>>

Monday, October 29, 2007

Return to Osteria

After a rather unforgivable absence from Osteria (hey, there are lots of places to try!) we finally made it back after a couple of months. The one benefit of doing this is that the menu has changed a bit, and a few old faves have returned with the cooler weather. Most specifically, the Candele with Wild Boar Ragu is back, as rib-stickingly, heart-warmingly delicious as ever.

There are a couple of new new pizzas: we tried the Cotto, with house-cured ham, gruyere cheese and spinach, enclosed in a double crust. It didn't actually taste much like a pizza, more like a calzone, and rather French... but hey, it was very tasty, so I'm not complaining.

Got the old favorite octopus antipasto: perfect as usual.

We also sampled a pork-filled ravioli that was tissue-thin, as usual, and flavorful in its butter sauce. Roast Duck was perfectly done, with crispy skin and moist meat, a not-too-sweet grape sauce underneath. Loved it.

Honey, Spice, and Pistachio Gelato (one scoop of each - all really good, especially the spice) to finish.

The folks behind the bar offered a very warm welcome, remarking that it had been too long since we'd been in, which this meal reinforced as being true! Thew were very kind to comp us each a glass of wine, which was much appreciated.

But even before seeing the bill, we were commenting on how great the food was, and how it was one of our favorite spots in the city, of any style or price-range. I'll be back soon, try a few more of the new offerings, and to get that duck again...

I'll try to remember the camera next time!

full Osteria write-up at >>

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Taiwanese in the 'burbs

We were thrilled to find good Taiwanese food at Empress Garden in Philly's Chinatown, but we had already found a good source, in an unlikely location. Han Dynasty in Exton, PA is not an exclusively Taiwanese place, but features several specialties, and does them really well.

There's excellent Sichuan food there (the Chef was formerly at Tifco's China Bistro in its heyday, then opened Chung King Garden in Philly's Chinatown, before returning to the suburbs) but Han, one of the main players in the restaurant, is from Taiwan, and brought some of his favorites with him.

I'll post more about the other things one can get there, but for now, let's examine some of the Taiwanese dishes we like.

Taiwanese Sausage

This is dangerously addictive, perhaps the perfect beer snack. Take a slice of this sweet, salty, fatty sausage, top it with a thin slice of raw garlic, take a bite, have a swig of beer... It's really hard to stop!

Lions Head Meatballs

These are amazingly light and airy, yet hearty and porky.

Three Cup Chicken

This is a real crowd-pleaser: a little sweet, a little boozy from rice wine, with a good hit of ginger and garlic, what's not to like? I can't figure out how this hasn't taken over the world.

Porkchop Rice

Self-explanatory, simple, but delicious. The porkchop itself was juicy and a little smoky, and the whole plate adds the tartness of pickled vegetables, the tanginess of a fermented egg, and the sweet saltiness of the ground pork drizzled over the rice.

Sausage Fried Rice

Because it's always a good idea to have more of that sweet sausage insinuating itself into whatever it can...

There's lot's more traditional food to be had at Han Dynasty, much of it Sichuan and blazingly spicy. Do yourself a favor and try some of the unusual dishes, there's an opportunity for some real thrills here. If Han's there, just ask him for advice, he'll guide you through the best offerings on the menu, or perhaps something that's not even on it.

Han Dynasty
Exton Plaza
260 North Pottstown Pike
(in the plaza with the McDonalds)

Mon-thurs 11am-10pm
Fri & Sat 11am-10:30 pm
Sun 11:30am-9:30 pm

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Taiwanese in Philly's Chinatown

Although I think Philly's Chinatown has some really great food, it's still a little tricky to find authentic regional specialties, outside of the common Cantonese norm. Szechuan Tasty House and Chung King Garden offer some serious Sichuan cooking, and Four Rivers offers some Sichuan and a few Shanghainese dishes too, and there are dishes lurking on other menus, even if the restaurant as a whole doesn't declare itself as devoted to a specific regional cuisine.

We'd heard rumors of Taiwanese food, but only recently tracked it down at Empress Garden on 10th street in Chinatown (NOT Golden Empress Garden on 5th street). The restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside, and the menu is filled with the routine Chinatown clichés. But in the back of the menu, in Chinese characters, there are more traditional offerings, including classics from Taiwan.

Most likely due to both geography and politics, there are some Taiwanese specialties that other regions claim as their own, and I'm not going to worry too much about who had what first. If someone wants to serve me a Lions Head Meatball, I'm unconcerned about whether it's supposedly from Shanghai or Taiwan.

With help from a few friends, we managed to get a few Taiwanese classics from Empress Garden. I was lucky enough to have a Mandarin speaker with me, who was familiar with many of these dishes, but I suspect that even flailing away in English, we could have managed to get many of these by just explaining that we wanted traditional Taiwanese food. The staff was very friendly and offered suggestions once they realized what we were looking for.

A few of the specialties we had were:

Beef Noodle Soup, with thick, chewy noodles, large cubes of tender, braised beef, and a slightly spicy broth.

Three-Cup Chicken, a little sweet, a little boozy, tingling with garlic and ginger. Apparently the name comes from the simple recipe, based around a cup of rice wine, a cup of sesame oil, and a cup of soy sauce.

Fried Pork Chops, with a light, crispy coating, almost like a tempura, over very juicy, small chops.

Pork and Pressed Tofu, featuring thin julienne of firm tofu, bamboo shoot and pork.

Lion's Head Meatballs, large tender ground pork, in a thick gravy, over celophane noodles and onions.

We also had a few more conventional dishes that complimented all the rich, porky things we ordered! Sautéed snow pea leaves were quite good, as were some other greens I forget the name of, and some dry-fried green beans with ground pork. A scallion pancake was especially well-executed, nicely crisp and not too greasy.

I'm eager to try some more, or even to just go back for some of these same dishes. The three cup chicken and the pork chops were especially thrilling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pif night at Ansill

Update: Ansill has closed.  It has been replaced by Ela. 

There was much gnashing of teeth when chef David Ansill closed his tiny BYOB called Pif. It had been a reliable source of hearty, un-fussy French food, from garlicky escargots to pigs trotters to an inexplicably delicious steak.

The chef had opened a second place, Ansill at 3rd and Bainbridge streets, and chose to concentrate on that location, offering creative small-plates as well as a full bar. But responding to the almost immediate nostalgia for Pif, he's found a good compromise: Pif nights on sundays. He offers a traditional Pif menu, and even allows BYOB with no corkage.

We went recently and had:
Steamed Mussels

Escargots "au pif"

Pumpkin Ginger Soup

Mixed greens with Duck Leg Confit

Pork Chops with White Bean Ragu

Quail with Port

Sweetbreads with Truffle Coulis

Chocolate Fondant


Chestnut Mousse

So, was it just like the old days? Not quite... The food was pretty good, we'd probably be impressed with it at any other place, but it didn't quite capture the intensity and transcendence of the food at Pif. The escargots were well-prepared, but the sauce was not as vividly flavored. Porkchops had good flavor, but seemed somehow pedestrian. I had a bit of sweetbreads that was quite nice, but another diner at our table was not pleased. My quails were a little overcooked, but were actually nonetheless quite delicious. In a nice twist at the end, all the desserts were excellent.

So, not bad but the dinner didn't quite capture that Pif magic. That said, we'll try again, and we'll encourage others to, it was close...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cochon - Queen Village Bistro

We've dropped-by Cochon twice, and so far, are very excited about this new BYOB at the corner of Passyunk and Christian in Queen Village. We were there opening night, and a again a few days later, so we're going to withhold final judgment, but so far, it's lookign really good as a place for homey, hearty, casual French-style food.

Here are a few photos from the second night:

<Seared Scallops with Frisée, Lardons, Roasted Peppers, Fingerlings, Lemon-Thyme Vinaigrette.

<Haricots Verts Salad w toasted Almonds, Shallots, Tomato, Mustard-Vinaigrette

<Mussels w Tomato-Leek Saffron Broth, Grilled Baguette

<Escargots w Shitake Mushrooms, Tomato Concassé, Pernod Garic Butter Sauce

<Onion Soup

<Crispy Chicken Livers w Balsamic Vinegar, Candied Walnuts, Raisins

Duck Breast w White Bean Ragoût, Hericots Verts

Steak Frites w Red Wine Sauce and Aoli.

Japanese Black Bass over Sweet Pea Risotto, Saffron Buerre Blanc

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder over Lentils du Puy, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Poached Egg

Braised Lamb Shank with Ritabaga, Fingerlings, Crimini Mushrooms

Grilled Pork Chop w Celery Root - Fennel Hash, Juniper Oil

Crême Brulée

We're looking forward to heading back to try some specials, and a tasting menu that has been mentioned for sometime in the future. Our favorite dishes so far are the Seared Scallops, the Sea Bass, the Pork Shoulder and the Lamb Shank, but everything has been good. More updates soon, I hope!

Starting fresh, Fall 2007

For the last couple of years, I've been concentrating on posting on, enjoying the greater energy and interaction of a group forum. But people have complained to me that opinions of specific restaurants are too hard to find, easily lost among the chatter, and that the missed the focused collection of reviews here.

So, between this blog for quick posts and pix, and the main site for more in-depth summaries, I'm going to try to post everything on my own sites as well as eG.

Thanks for visiting, comments are welcome!