Philadining Home

Monday, November 03, 2008

Awesomeness Alert: Mini Beignets

We usually go to Chick's for Katie Loeb's creative cocktails, but it's worth remembering that chef Jim Piano makes food worth checking out as well (the Wild Boar Burger is excellent) and pastry chef Kristin Weber has been quietly making some of the best desserts I've come across in a while. Recently, I did a double-take at the mere mention of one of them: French Quarter Mini Beignets, with Nutella and Raspberry Dipping sauces.

I'm a sucker for a Café du Monde-style beignet of any dimension, and for some reason the idea of a miniature version sounded very appealing. I'm happy to report that the tiny squares of fried dough live up to the promise of their concept: they're airy, crunchy - yet pillowy soft, and not greasy at all. They're delicious as delivered, simply dusted with powdered sugar, but the chocolatey and fruity dips are both welcome accompaniments.

So sure, Chick's is still best-known as a good spot for an interesting beer, a glass of wine or a Best-of-Philly inventive cocktail (you smartphone-addicted Prince fans might want to try the new Blackberry Beret) but don't overlook the food, and whatever you do, don't skip dessert.

Chick's Café and Wine Bar
614 S.7th Street (at Kater)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mémé - Comforting Food from Chef David Katz

Chef David Katz, who made a splash at the short-lived restaurant M, then had a fleetingly brief stint at the reborn Silk City, then was this close to opening a place in Filter Square about a year ago, has finally surfaced in a restaurant of his own.

, named for his grandmother, is in the space that formerly housed Melograno, at 22nd and Spruce. Those of you who have eaten in that space know it's pretty small, and a bit noisy, but it's an appealing location, with large windows onto the street, sidewalk seating in good weather, and an open kitchen that lends energy to the room. The interior doesn't look dramatically different from Melograno, but the feel is not the same at all, it's brighter, somehow a little more relaxed-feeling.

(And BTW, Melograno fans, don't despair, they've moved just a few blocks away to 2oth and Sansom, to a larger space, so the changes may have worked-out well for all parties.)

The food at M tended toward the delicate and refined, showcasing innovative techniques and unusual flavor combinations. Katz did that very well, and I miss that aspect of his cooking, but that's not what Mémé is all about. There's a blackboard menu, which tends toward straightforward, classic fare. It's not tongue-in-cheek retro, it's not self-consciously homey, it's just classic good food.

Early press has been unable to resist deploying vivid metaphors about Katz's cooking being as gonzo as the restaurant's Ralph Steadman logo, or as brash and in-your-face as the chef's persona. I can't say I perceived either thing from our meal in the early days after opening. What I experienced was very tasty food, neither weird nor badass, just delicious.

This direction may turn out to be remarkably prescient: in these days of economic turmoil, well-made, comforting food at a reasonable price is likely to be much more popular than fussy upscale cutting-edge cuisine. On one hand, I'm sad that the Philadelphia dining scene hasn't tended to support innovative chefs pushing the boundaries, on the other, I'm happy to have those chefs using their considerable talents to make excellent versions of more familiar dishes.

I'm not sure what to label this trend, so I won't. It's tempting to resort to the cliché of "comfort food" but my grandma didn't make foie gras tarts or steak tartare, didn't seek out artisanal ingredients and didn't roast shitakes with her chicken. I'm open to suggestions for terminology...

The menu is broken up in to three basic sections: "smallish," "larger" and "for two." The first two are roughly equivalent to appetizers and main courses, but I like the opportunity to be more freeform in constructing a meal - some days an array of smaller plates would be just the thing, another time a couple might split three larger plates. The "for two" plates are obviously meant to be shared, we found them a nice size to split amongst a larger group.

The menu is sure to change often, so these specific things might not be available at any given time, but our party of six made a good dent in the opening menu, so we can offer a broad overview of the kinds of things that you're likely to find.

Mixed Chicories, Roquefort, Walnut, Pear.

Sizzling Mussels, Lemon Olive Oil, Herbs

Cherry Tomatoes, Ricotta Salata, Grilled Bread, Balsamic

Scallops, Butternut Squash, Bacon, Brown Butter

Foie Gras Tart, Sweet Onions, Apples, Maple-Sherry Glaze

Beef Tartare, Salty Chips, Quail Egg

"For Two"
Whole Chicken, Roasted Shiitakes, Sweet Onion Grits, Madiera

Roasted Lamb Leg, Ratatouille, Potatoes, Lamb Sauce

Swordfish, Olives Preserved Lemon

Sautéed Skate, Slow Cooked Tomatoes, Tapenade

Wagyu Skirt Steak, Mushrooms, Fingerlings, Brandy-peppercorn sauce

Duck Breast, Chard, Beet, Onions, Port

(there's a fettuccini with truffles, and flatbread with goat cheese, figs and prosciutto that we skipped)


Chocolate Ganache cake, Mint Ice Cream

Espresso Pots de Creme, Orange Confit

Brown Butter Cake, Banana Gelato

Everything was very good, but my favorites were: the (very) lemony mussels; the simple, but perfectly-seared scallops; the incongruously luxurious foie gras tart; the curry-spiked beef tartare; the intensely flavorful wagyu steak; the juicy roasted chicken; and all the ice creams on the desserts. I'm told the duck was delicious, but that plate didn't quite make it all the way around our table of six!

There were no big culinary surprises here, just expert execution of good recipes. It's interesting that at a table of jaded diners, the simple roast chicken was frequently mentioned as a favorite. The juiciness of the meat, the intensity of the sauce, the roasted crackle of the skin, all made for a rare treat. Why is it so unusual to find good chicken? Similarly the steak was a piece of excellent quality meat, cooked carefully, with only a subtle buff-up from a good sauce. Good ingredients cooked well - it's hard to find fault with that.

If anything gives me pause, it would just be the greater culinary trend toward simple, straightforward preparations: will this kind of food keep me interested? Time will tell. It might. I'm sure there will be some menu changes and variations, specials and seasonal tweaks. And even if the menu stayed static, I think I could eat that chicken a few times a week...

It's an interesting trend: many of our cutting-edge younger chefs are stepping back from modern techniques and presentations, returning to the basics. I imagine that insights gained from the experimental side might quietly inform even classic preparations, but those influences are much less overt. I'll be very interested to see how Mémé's menu will evolve. Apparently many people are urging Katz to slip in a few family recipes, perhaps from his Mémé, that reflect his Moroccan heritage. Whether Katz integrates those flavors, or if we just witness the natural flow of a creative cook, I'm sure the food will change, and I'll look forward to seeing how.

To be journalistically responsible, I should mention that chef Katz knows me, and did come by the table to say hello at the end of the meal. But even though it's a small restaurant with an open kitchen, we were seated at the furthest table from the line, and I don't think that we were recognized before or during the meal. I don't think we received any special treatment, so I think the photos and descriptions are a fair representation of what anyone would get. Tables are spaced close enough that it was pretty easy to see that others were getting dishes that looked the same as ours.

Melograno tended to have long lines most nights, and I have little doubt Mémé will too, they're serving very satisfying food in a densely populated area. A percentage of the seats are held for walk-ins, but they do take reservations, so it should be less of a hassle to check this place out than it often was for Melograno. And I do recommend checking it out.

You may not be as surprised or challenged by the food as you were at M, but you'll almost certainly be pleased by the warm familiarity of classic dishes, by good ingredients cooked skillfully, by the obvious care with which everything is made. And that's no small thing to find in a restaurant: tasty food made carefully. I may yearn for innovation, but I'll take good flavors any day.

2201 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Phone: 215-735-4900

hours (as of October 2008)
Mon, Wed, Thur, 5:30 - 10:30
Friday, Saturday, 5:30 - 11:00
Sunday Brunch 11:00 - 2:30...Dinner 5:00 - 9:00
Closed Tuesdays

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catching up...

It's been a crazy Fall, with various projects, travels and general business interfering with the blogging... But I've managed to squeeze a little eating in around the margins, and will try to catch up with some new posts.

But right before we get there, a few of the distractions. I had about 24 hours to myself after a conference near Chicago, on days when many restaurants were closed, so I wandered and grazed.

That's a Char Cheddar Dog from Gold Coast Dogs in Chicago. Chicago-style hot dogs are not routinely char-grilled, but Gold Coast offers them, and I like them much better grilled. The real appeal is the totality of the package: the florescent-green relish, chopped onion, "sport" peppers, slice of tomato, pickle spear, a dusting of celery salt, all on a soft poppy-seed roll. It's a bit of a mess, and I think I'll skip the fake cheeze next time (I mostly just liked the sound of a "Char Cheddar Dog") but the collage of flavors, textures and temperatures really works. I'm a fan.

Another Chicago specialty is the Italian Beef sandwich, and "Al's Italian Beef" seems to be a favorite. It's thinly-sliced hot roast beef on an Italian roll, wet with an herby jus, usually dressed with giardiniera, or sautéed peppers. Just as I was about to order a straight-up sandwich, I noticed a variation that seemed like sheer genius: Italian beef on top of an Italian sausage!

Indeed, it was pretty delicious. I was actually not all that impressed by the beef itself, it just didn't seem to have a whole lot of flavor, especially when compared to a Philadelphian Roast Pork sandwich. But the combination of the juicy beef and crusty grilled sausage was very nice, I think it's a great idea. The roll was OK, but not sturdy enough to withstand the juicy meat, so it fell apart before I was half-way through. So, I enjoyed it, but did not find it to be a perfect sandwich. I think Philadelphians could really run with this concept...

I tried to squeeze in a meal at the newly-opened Publican, a gastropub-ish project from the folks behind Avec and Blackbird. But I was jinxed - I went twice, but each time managed to miss the times when they were serving the main menu. Looks like a great place, with many things I was eager to taste, but this time, I had to console myself with a good local beer (a Goose Island "Matilda") and a plate of exotic ham.

That's Spanish Iberico down front, Benton's country ham to the left, and La Quercia Rossa to the right. Very good rustic bread and goat butter accompanied. I liked the opportunity to taste these three hams next to one another, although I suppose it would have been better to have someone to share this plate with! The Iberico was a clear winner for me, with a deep nutty flavor, silky texture, and mild salinity. The Benton's is great, but almost violently salty, and much drier compared to the other two. It was excellent placed on a slice of bread with some butter, though! The La Quercia, aged using traditional prosciutto-making techniques with domestic pork here in the states, was delicate and refined, but didn't have much flavor compared to the other two. It would be lovely when not overshadowed by other hams.

The highlight of my Chicago visit was spending a few hours at The Violet Hour, for some cocktails that were every bit as interesting and delicious as anything I've had at renowned bars in New York. I was lucky enough to get there right at opening, and have the bar to myself for a few minutes, and so was able to chat with the bartender a bit, and zero-in on the right drinks. I really enjoyed the smoky, prickly Autumn Old Fashioned; the Woolworth's Manahattan, spiked with rootbeer bitters; and an improvisation by my bartender Henry, involving tequila, strawberry, hot pepper and bitters. All three were fascinating, and more importantly, delicious. This place will be my first stop next time I get to town, probably on my way in from the airport!

I'm eager to get back to Chicago, and hope to set aside a little time to do more than snacking. But then, the quick bites I managed to grab were pretty great. Chicago is rightly known for some high-end innovative restaurants, but the everyday food is pretty enjoyable too. I got a deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnatti's last time I was there, and I haven't felt the need to do that again, but next trip, I'll certainly get a char-dog, maybe an Italian beef, with giardiniera. Hopefully Frontera Grill will be open on the days I'm there, and maybe I can track down some of the city's fabled Thai food.

Oh, and cocktails at the Violet Hour for sure...

Monday, September 08, 2008

Apothecary: Midtown Mixology

Update: Apothecary changed its name to APO, and then closed...  Bartender Nick Jarrett can be found behind some great bars in Brooklyn, such as Dram and the Bushwick Country Club.   Southwark is still a great spot for cocktails from Kip and Paul, although you can find George Costa up at Pub and Kitchen more often these days.  Katie Loeb has left Chicks, and is currently around the corner at Tapestry.

Until recently, my feelings about Apothecary, much like their drinks, had been mixed. After a few rocky experiences early on, I'm happy to report that I think I finally have figured out how best to approach this place.

As with many serious drinking destinations, it's ideal to sit at the bar, and put yourself in the hands of the bartenders. Second-best at this place is to score a seat on the lovely roof deck on a warm evening, and order classic cocktails. A distant third is to sit at a table, and order from the drink menu. In fact that third is so distant that I don't think I'll do that any more, but I'll look forward to sitting at the bar here any time there's an open stool.

It had been suggested that the opening of this new-ish bar on 13th street marked the arrival of modern cocktail culture in Philadelphia. Of course there have always been talented bartenders in Philly, and some of them have been championing the cause of the cocktail arts, but the city didn't have a bar completely devoted to mixology. That buzzword is meant to signify an approach to bartending that treats making drinks more like the work of a chef: use of fine, sometimes obscure ingredients; employing creative new recipes and techniques, perhaps involving homemade extracts, syrups and tinctures; devotion to fresh citrus and good ice; mastering the classic cocktails, and knowing their history. New York City has its Pegu Club, PDT, Death and Company and others, but Philly had nothing quite like that.

Southwark has been our closest contender. They've long championed the cause of the classic cocktail, and Kip and George's devotion to crafting fine drinks is admirable. But they're traditionalists, and don't get into the edgy, experimental, cutting-edge stuff. That's perfectly fine, they do what they do so well I'd never want them to change. For what it's worth, they won a Best of Philly Award this year for "Best Traditional Cocktails."

This year's Best of Philly for "Inventive Cocktails" went to Chick's Café, with particular mention of bartender Katie Loeb. In addition to being a personal friend of mine, Katie is a serious cocktail artist, creating new drink recipes, concocting her own ginger beer and lemon cordial and rhubarb purée, or whatever it takes to make some intriguing new libation. There are also a few good cocktail lists around town, the Garces empire in particular (Amada, Tinto and Distrito) has some very interesting drinks at the bars, but Philly had no places devoted explicitly to the art of the cocktail.

I've been to Pegu Club, PDT and a few of the other cocktail destinations in NY, and had thought that concept would work in Philly. So I was very excited when Apothecary was announced.

So I stopped in with some friends shortly after they opened, and my first impression was good: my Corpse Reviver #2 was just right, the citrus and gin in perfect balance, a whiff of anise adding depth. Sadly, my friend's Aviation was out of whack, overly bitter and medicinal. But we presumed that was an aberration, and decided to sample a few more drinks from the menu. Unfortunately, our experiences leaned more toward the Aviation than the Corpse Reviver. Running through the cocktail menu, we found interesting, but over-complicated drinks, each comprised of a dizzying array of ingredients, many of which were bitter, or strongly herbal, or harsh in some way. Another visit a few weeks later with a completely different crowd elicited the same reactions. The looks on everyone's faces were more of bewilderment than of enjoyment, not what one hopes for when enjoying a drink.

But people I trust had told me good things about their experiences, so I felt sure that there must be charms I hadn't found yet. On a third visit, we went off-menu and just ordered classics: A Sazerac, a Ramos Gin Fizz, a Pimm's Cup. And these drinks were all quite good, executed with obvious care.

A fourth visit was mixed. The classic cocktail tactic worked again, but a request for a single serving of something resembling one of their "bottled cocktails" resulted in a strange, muddy, bipolar drink, one that would be happy and engaging one minute, then suffer a moodswing and lash-out with acrid spice and contradictory arguments the next.

So it was with some trepidation that I returned yet again. But this time I was with the above-mentioned Katie Loeb, and we vowed to only sit at the bar. She's friendly with both Nick (the bar manager) and Christian (bartender) and they of course know that she's a good audience for their mixological skills. That said, observing the experiences of the customers sitting on either side of us, I'm not sure we got much special treatment, everyone at the bar that night was getting a great deal of personal attention, resulting in drinks customized to their particular taste, along with exhaustive explanations of both recipes and individual ingredients.

This experience was a delight, unquestionably the equal of any I'd had at the storied bars in NY. All the drinks were amazingly balanced, nuanced and complex, without any of the harsh weirdness I'd experienced on previous visits. In fact the drinks were so good that I'm still having a hard time understanding how both extremes emanate from the same bar. It's common to witness the bartenders doing a quick dip of a straw to double-check the balance of a drink before it goes out, often followed by a small adjustment, so I can't imagine how we had previously gotten drinks that nobody in our group enjoyed.

The easiest explanation is that I simply don't care for the drinks on their menu. I do think that's most of my problem with them, I find most of their signature cocktails to be overly-busy, with too many elements competing for attention. I tend to like bitter flavors, yet I find most of their original drinks to be unpleasantly acrid. Asking Nick to mix up something off-menu elicited the exact opposite result: an assertive, bold drink, that was intriguing rather than off-putting.

At this latest visit, I was amused by a bottle of Kaiser Kummel Caraway Liqueur that Nick had shown us, so I asked him what he'd make with that. With no hesitation, he suggested a "Weeper's Joy" which combined that cordial with Vermouth and Absinthe. He apparently tweaked the proportions from the traditional recipe, to good effect, because this drink was perfectly balanced. I'm eager get this again, except that it might be even more amusing to see what other recipes involving caraway liqueur Nick has filed in that encyclopedic memory of his...

A little later, the Réveillon came up in conversation, so I asked for one of those, and this one nearly knocked me off my stool. It's an amazingly complex drink, full of spices and smoke, perfectly evoking a fall day, or as the originators intended, a Christmas celebration. But I'll take one any time, despite the evocation of autumn leaves and pie spice, I could drink this year-round.

This experience just confuses me further about why the menu drinks annoy me. Both of these cocktails are aggressively bitter, herbacious and complicated, yet I found them delightful, seductive and inviting. So why do I find the Tippling Bros. Magical Pain Extractor, The Sage Wisdom, the Two Sheikks "Al Ikseer" so off-putting?

My understanding is that these drinks were created by, or at least with, the Tippling Brothers, well-known itinerant drink consultants. So perhaps I simply don't share their aesthetic preferences, or maybe the bartenders just use a slightly heavy hand with the edgy components of those particular drinks. Whatever the explanation, I don't think I'll bother with the menu any more, I'm convinced that the best tactic at this bar is to avail yourself of the knowledge and skill of the bartenders, and have them make something customized for you.

That's not to say that you can't have a good traditional cocktail here, I've had a few excellent Sazeracs here, and while Kip and George at Southwark remain the masters of that particular cocktail, the Apothecary version was not far behind. Simple drinks, even straight-up liquor, can be a good choice simply because they stock such a deep collection of fine, often hard-to-find bottles. They're a little light on Scotch, but otherwise have an impressive array of liquors from around the world.

Absinthe has been coming back in vogue recently, both as an ingredient, and as a drink by itself. Apothecary is a good place to sample it, if you're a fan, or even simply curious. They have traditional fountains, and a wide selection of Absinthes, so with a little patience, you can experience this drink as you should. The equipment aids the development of a milky, swirly louche, a result of the slow drip of water through sugar. And don't hurry, a bit more water even after the sugar has dissolved seems to create an even more velvety mouthfeel. The process is half the fun, so relax, write some tragically sad poetry or something...

This reminds me of my remaining quibble with the place. As enamored as I am now with the bar, and with the delightful roof deck, it's overall not an especially inviting space. It's loud, the spare, hard surfaces making for an echoey clatter. The green lighting is not especially flattering, and the front part of the first floor has all the charm of an office cafeteria. The tables are too high, the chairs too straight. The second floor feels better, but is still too green.

Regardless, I'll put up with it, because finally, I'm a fan of this place, and look forward to many more visits. I'm glad I gave it a few chances, it took a while for its charms to appear, at least to me. Sadly, I think I may have to only go on slow nights when I have a chance to sit at the main bar.

There's no need to be intimidated by the arcane trappings of the Mixology movement, it's not all that complicated. Just tell your bartender what you like, and take it from there. Bars like Apothecary, Southwark and Chick's are not about creating the next cutely-named sugary drink that will become a sensation with the masses, they're about building on a long tradition, making delicious, complex, balanced libations based on quality ingredients. Go in with an open mind, and either order something from their cocktail list, or ask for your old favorite, just don't be offended if the bartender tries to gently steer you toward something else. In the same way that getting a burger at a four-star restaurant might be squandering an opportunity, ordering a vodka tonic is wasting the skills of the bar staff at places like these. So try something new, you may be pleasantly surprised.

102 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(215) 735-7500

701 S 4th St (at Bainbridge)
Philadelphia, PA 19147-3101
(215) 238-1888

614 S 7th St (at Kater)
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 625-3700

Friday, August 29, 2008

Awesomeness Alert: Espresso Granita

Yeah, sure, in a way this whole blog is meant to be an awesomeness alert, but every once in a while, something in particular jumps out. Therefore, the awesomeness alert.

Today's alert: Espresso Granita from Capogiro.

It's kind of like a water ice, kind of like sorbet, kind of perfect on a hot day. Not at all bad on a cold one. The default preparation is with whipped cream layered-in and on top (and my apologies to Capogiro, that's a prettier one for a photo) but although it's pretty good, after trying both, I much prefer the straight, clean, icy mouthfeel of the unadorned granita.

The Philadining advisory panel came up with an excellent idea though: topping this with a scoop of gelato. In particular, Dulce de Leche, or Burnt Sugar, or Flan flavors... We're imagining a Vietnamese coffee slushy thing! We're definitely trying it, and will report back.

So far, we've only found this at the 20th street Capogiro, no sign of it at 13th street. They sometimes have other flavors of granita, but espresso seems pretty consistently available.

Even better, it's only $3.50, a bargain at Capogiro.


The grapefruit is almost as awesome...

The Orange flavor was also very good, but the espresso and grapefruit are especially intense.

117 South 20th Street (at Sansom)
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cajun Kate's, on the Boothwyn Bayou

The weekend of August 23rd marked the second anniversary of the opening of Cajun Kate's, the tiny New Orleans-style restaurant wedged into the Booth's Corner Farmer's Market, in Boothwyn. I'm embarrassed to say that I've only learned they were there recently, first noticing a fleeting mention by Craig Laban in one of his weekly on-line chats, then a more formal "or try this" in the sidebar to his review of Les Bons Temps in downtown Philly. Major thanks to him for pointing the place out, I'm already regretting all the great gumbo and po-boys I've missed over the last two years! I'm trying to make-up for lost time, and have been squeezing in as many visits as is practical. This is no small challenge. First, Boothwyn is a bit remote from, well, everywhere except Boothwyn. Second, the market is only open two days a week: Fridays 9am-9pm and Saturdays 9am-8pm.

Despite the obscure location (actually not all that far off of rt 95, near the border of PA and DE) plenty of folks have found them over the last two years. Judging from the crowds I've encountered, Cajun Kate's really needs a bigger space! That's not a particularly deep insight: right now they have about six seats: stools placed along the front counter of a market stall, a tiny kitchen directly behind. The three guys behind the counter are certainly keeping busy, and need to stay alert to avoid crashing into one another. Both Kate and her husband Don honed some serious Louisiana cooking chops during a few years in New Orleans, and that experience shows. Whether it's from their jobs in famous kitchens or just from living in the city and eating the food, their offerings strike me as more authentically Louisiana-flavored than any others I've sampled in the Philadelphia area. Despite the name, you'll see Don more than Kate, and most of the savory side of the menu is his work.

From this very modest space he somehow manages to cook everything for the two-day rush, which consists of a steady turnover at the counter stools, and many more folks dropping by for take-out. They have jambalaya, gumbo, soups, and red beans and rice, packaged up in the fridge and ready to take home, or you can get it hot to eat right away. Most everything else is available for take-out too, although some of the deep fried things are probably best experienced on the spot.

You also really need to eat a Po Boy right there. Don't get it to go, that sandwich might be even more fragile than Philadelphia's Cheesesteak: a composition in perfect balance right after it's made, a soggy mess only a few minutes later. This is especially true of a few fillings I've tried at Cajun Kate's. Their Oyster Po Boy is a thing of delicate beauty. The restaurant gets oysters shipped fresh from Louisiana the Gulf, breads them and fries them to order, then cradles them an airy, crusty long roll, remarkably like a Leidenheimer's from New Orleans. You really should have it "fully dressed," the lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and pickles provide an excellent counterpoint. The hot, crispy oysters, contrasted with the cool, creamy accoutrements make for a sandwich that is best enjoyed immediately. Which is not to say it wouldn't be tasty later, just that it's at its best milliseconds after being dressed.

They always have a Shrimp Po Boy, a Catfish Po boy, and a Gator Sausage Po Boy, another type is usually offered as a special. The oyster was excellent, but the truly revelatory one is the Smoked Brisket Po Boy. The meat is cooked long and slow, until falling into shreds, "debris-style." It's then piled onto that fine roll, a thick gravy and juices soaking onto the bread. They offer it with provolone cheese, which might be gilding the lily, but it's not a bad addition. I'm not sure why hot gravy-soaked beef, lettuce and mayo all go together, but mysteriously they do, so I recommend getting even this po boy fully-dressed. Tasting this flashed me back to a delicious Roast Beef Po Boy I had at Parasol's in New Orleans not long ago. That's not something I expected to taste again until I got back down there. The Cajun Kate's version is smokier, but similarly sloppily decadent.

Fighting for favor as the best sandwich here, and indeed one of the best pork sandwiches in the area, is the Cochon de Lait Po Boy. Pork is roasted long and slow until it's falling-apart tender and deeply flavored. It's great in a gumbo, which shows up with some regularity, and even better as a Po Boy.

Kate's also makes a very authentic Muffuletta, that particularly New Orleanian version of an Italian hoagie. A large round, seeded roll is filled with Italian cold cuts, and dressed with the olive salad that makes this sandwich so tasty.
This version is very similar to what one would see at the Central Grocery, the originator and most famous purveyor of this sandwich. Even though it's pretty true to the original, I think it could use more filling, and the roll doesn't thrill me (it's a little too sesame seed-y.). The olive salad makes this much more interesting than the average ham, salami and cheese on a roll, but in the end, it's not that distinctive. It's a good sandwich, but with all the other great things to eat here, I'm not sure how many more of these I'll order.

UPDATE: I've had a change of heart on the muffuletta. I got one to go, and decided to warm it up in the oven for a few minutes and WOW! That's an awesome sandwich. It turns out I'm just a fan of warm, toasted muffulettas. That's a controversial topic in New Orleans: the Central Grocery serves them cold, but there are plenty of other places around town that warm them up, and that combination of toasty bread, slightly melty cheese and oily olives has won me over. I'm not sure they have enough oven space at Kate's for them to toast them up for you there, but if you get it to go, tossing it in an oven for a few minutes is a great way to revive the bread a little, and I think it improves the sandwich overall. Try it.

For yet another twist, try their homemade pesto smeared on the muffuletta. It's an unconventional combination, but a delicious one! Ask for a "Muffapesto," it's not on the menu, but they'll know what you mean...

Kate's does not have a very large menu, nor does it pretend to be a fancy creole dining room. It's more of a neighborhood joint for quick and casual food. But it's not merely a sandwich shop either. The menu always includes a Chicken, Shrimp and Sausage Jambalaya, which I risked tasking a small taste of recently, and I loved it, the andouille gives it an assertive, smoky spice. I can testify that the Red Beans and Rice is quite good, perhaps partly because it too is spiked with sausage.

The real test of any place like this is its Gumbo. This stew of meats and/or seafood, thickened with roux, enlivened with peppers, onions and celery, can be found all over the south, but Louisiana makes especially good ones. The specific contents of Don's gumbo changes each week, and can vary from the standard shrimp and chicken, to the more exotic Smoked Duck and Wild Mushroom they prepared for the second anniversary celebration. Expect a seafood gumbo around the holidays in December. These special preparations tend to sell-out early, so be sure to reserve yourself a quart or two to take home if there's one that is especially appealing.

I'm certainly glad I got on the list for the Smoked Duck and Wild Mushroom Gumbo. The duck had cooked down to tender shreds, mingling with chunks of dark mushrooms in a deep brown sauce. It's an excellent gumbo, and I'm already eagerly awaiting its next appearance, whenever that might be... I've been loving the Smoked Brisket Gumbo, and Cochon de Lait gumbo that have been in frequent rotation lately.

The Chicken and Sausage Gumbo pictured above was rich and thick, with a smoky edge from the sausage, and a complex, toasty background from the very dark roux. It was very good as-is, and even better with a dash or two of hot sauce. I'm looking forward to trying all the varieties that I can, it's hard to find a truly satisfying gumbo around Philadelphia. The type of gumbo for the week is listed on their website, as is the po boy, and any other specials of the week, so keep an eye out for varieties that appeal to you. Kate's also makes a very tasty Tomato Parmesan Soup. It's thick and creamy, and enhanced by a dollop of pesto.

I finally had a chance to try the huge cubes of Deep-Fried Mac and Cheese. It's often studded with crabmeat and Tasso ham, but other flavorings are sometimes available as specials. We were lucky to get one with Sweet Onions and Andouille. The Creamy Mac and Cheese with interesting additions would probably be pretty awesome on its own, but they then bread it, deep-fry it to a crispy brown, and then drizzle it with a sweet/spicy tomato glaze. The resultant collision of crispy/creamy, sweet/hot, tender/chewy is pretty mind-blowing. It's huge, and delicious, and I'm totally getting whatever flavor they have, every time.

There are a few more Cajun bites on the menu: Crawfish Pie (pictured above) which features light, flaky puff pastry filled with crawfish tails and a a creamy sauce; Gator on a Stick (actually a medium-spicy alligator sausage); Catfish Fingers, and more... but I'm going to have a hard time diverting my attention from a bowl of gumbo and whatever po boy is on special that week. And Fried Mac and Cheese.

The namesake Kate is responsible for the desserts here, and the Pralines, Bananas Foster Bread Pudding (pictured) and Pain Perdu certainly say New Orleans. But perhaps even more so, Beignets are an iconic sweet of the city, eaten either as a breakfast or as a finisher to a meal. These square donuts, fried to order and dusted with powdered sugar aren't quite as light and ethereal as those at Cafe du Monde, but that's asking a lot! Kate's version is plenty indulgent, and a nice way to start, or end a meal, especially accompanied by a cup of chicory blend Cafe au Lait.

In a perfect world, Cajun Kate's would be open more often, and be more easily accessible from downtown Philly, but on the other hand, they've got a pretty nice thing going. It's a quirky little niche, but they seem to be keeping busy preparing enough food for the two-day rush, and serving it up in their cozy little space. I'd hate for them to lose the magic of this odd little spot, it seems to be just the right size for them to make food the way they want to, so maybe we shouldn't wish for any changes at all.

But both Kate and Don Applebaum have worked in fast-paced, higher volume restaurants, and could probably scale it up to a larger capacity without sacrificing quality. I hope to see that someday, but until then, I'll make the trek down to Boothwyn, and squeeze in on one of the stools, and watch the entertaining tornado of action behind the counter.

And for now, Happy 2nd Anniversary to the whole crew at Cajun Kates!

Cajun Kate's
Booth's Corner Farmer's Market
Routes 491 and 261
Naaman's Creek Road and Foulk Road
Boothwyn, PA

Fridays 9am-9pm
Saturdays 9am-8pm
Closed Sunday-Thursday

Porturuvian Explorations pt 2: Pollo a la Brasa

We made an earlier trip to El Balconcito in the Northeast in search of Pollo a la Brasa, the fabled Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken, but discovered that it needed to be ordered in advance. Due to a profound inability to plan ahead, and a lack of confidence in our abilities to order chickens over the phone in Spanish, it took us a little while to make it back. We are now in the process of kicking ourselves for waiting so long. With the help of two somewhat Spanglophonic friends, we managed to pre-order a few chickens, then descended on the place to partake of this famed delicacy. The ordering seemed to go pretty smoothly, but be warned that even with advance notice, they have a finite number of chickens, and perhaps a limited roasting capacity, so if your heart is set on this particular thing, you might want to go on a slow night, and resign yourself to a bird or two.

Even after successfully completing the process, we're a little unclear about the final deadline for ordering-ahead. We reserved two chickens the night before or reservation, but then called about noon the next day and added two more, and it seemed OK. So maybe, call the day before if you can, but early the same day might be OK, if they have enough chickens. The procedure requires a few hours to marinade properly, so plan ahead.

We ordered four, and we got the sense that we were approaching their limit, at least for that day. We were a party of 9 people, and even though the chickens were of a good size, we could have easily polished them off if we had even an ounce of self-control, and had resisted ordering about a hundred other things... Upon the first bites sampled, we immediately thought we were going to have a crisis, because the chicken is incredibly delicious. We were picturing ugly fights among close friends over that last wing or leg, crazed gluttony overpowering our sense of courtesy and civility. Yes, it's that good.

This style of rotisserie chicken involves a tangy, complex marinade that results in a deep flavor and a crispy, dark-hued skin. The marinade seems to involve chile paste, the mysterious herb huacatay (sometimes called "black mint") some citrus, and we think there might be some sugar. The long marination accounts for both a delicious outer coating, and for juicy, tender meat.

To make things worse, the chickens are accompanied by excellent french fries: crisp, light, tender, and somehow staying that way for a long time. Some sort of Peruvian magic potatoes, we surmise...

Just in the nick of time, fusillades of Croquettas de Bacalao were fired at the roiling mob, and moments later a couple of flaming sausages were lobbed-in, distracting them from the birds. With the addition of a few more dishes we actually ended up with some chicken left-over, even though one of our party was a young man who arrived straight from football practice, and promptly consumed three times his body weight in french fries alone!

In addition to the chickens, we ordered several things that we'd liked from out first visit. One of the things we really love about this place is that it's got both Peruvian AND Portuguese menus. While there may not be any particular logic to combining the two cuisines, we can't resist ordering from both sides.

From the Portuguese side, the Croquettas de Bacalao were even better than we'd remembered, their perfectly cripsy coating containing a light, airy filling with more salty cod flavor than before. Chorizo was packed a bit looser and was less spicy than last time, but was still quite tasty, especially with its crispy exterior from exposure to an open flame.

Clams in Garlic were simple, but perfect, the intense broth complementing the tender clams. We tossed a handful of fries from the chicken platter into this pot, and the garlic-infusion sent them to french fry nirvana. We had more bivalves in the Clam and Pork Stew, which met with approval from our Portuguese ex-pat authenticity inspector. He was a bit surprised by the presence amount of pickled vegetables atop the clams, pork and fried potatoes, but did not seem especially disturbed. I had a very hard time refraining from eating that stew, especially once the dark brown sauce, a mixture of clam juices and pork gravy, became more accessible.

Tostones, pressed into cup-shapes then filled with seafood, were suggested by the waitress, and seemed to go over well-enough, but I don't think they were anyone's favorite dish of the night. Also from the Peruvian side, we had a Ceviche Pescado, a huge plate of marinated white fish, served with boiled potato and sweet potato. And we can never resist Lomo Saltado, the classic Peruvian dish of beef strips and french fries, stir-fried with soy sauce and gravy, to create a dish that wouldn't be too alien in an American diner, like gravy-fries studded with beef and onion.

All-in-all an amazingly delicious meal. All of it was quite good, but we're most enthusiastic about the Pollo a la Brasa, the most delicious roasted chicken I've had in some time. Peruvian Rotisserie Chicken is a bit of a phenomenon in some cities, it's much easier to find in NY and LA, and is more of a gourmet fast-food, not requiring any calling-ahead. I certainly hope the trend catches on in Philly, and we can drop in somewhere for a delicious marinated roast chicken in this style. But until that craze gets underway, you'll find me up here at El Balconcito, reveling in the chicken, and also in the other specialties of Peru and Portugal.

El Balconcito
658 E Godfrey Ave (at Tabor Rd)
Philadelphia, PA 19120
(215) 342-2340

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Things you didn't know you wanted to eat pt. 1 - Duck Tongues

We've learned to trust Ken at Ken's Seafood, and often don't even bother with a menu there, we just tell him the kind of thing we're in the mood for, and ask for suggestions.

Recently, we told him we were in the mood for something batter-dipped and deep-fried, and I have to admit that we were all surprised when he said "Duck Tongue." I'd seen them on the cold appetizer cart at Chung King Garden, but hadn't gotten around to trying them, nor had ever heard of them prepared this way, so this was going to be a new experience.

As it turns out, we liked them a lot. There's not a whole lot of meat on a duck tongue, and what there is has a slightly fatty, gelatinous texture, but when it's encased in perfectly-fried batter, the combo is very pleasing. To be fair, I think our table was evenly split about how good they were, but two of us really loved them. Someone likened them to the very tip of a chicken wing, where there's just a little bit of meat, more fat and skin and crunchy coating. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective.

There is a weird thing about duck tongues: they have a piece of cartilage going right down the middle that's inedible, so the crunchy treat needs to be eaten with a little care, and that little boney spine needs to be gingerly extracted from one's mouth, so this might not be a great food on the occasions that pulling bones from one's mouth wouldn't be considered polite.

On our previous visit, the same request resulted in a plate of frog. We were remembering the amazing Geoduck Clam bellies that he recommended a while back, and how good they were, especially how great the batter was. But we didn't feel like going big and getting the Geoduck sashimi this time, so we asked for something else. The frog is actually quite tasty, but each little nugget is filled with a bunch of tiny bones, making it a little tedious to eat. I'm sure one can get used to it, but we couldn't help feeling that the payoff just wasn't worth all that effort. And I couldn't get the Monty Python skit out of my mind - sure, they were talking about chocolates, but the line "Well, if we took the bones out, it wouldn't be crunchy, would it?" kept echoing in my head. So although it was in fact pretty good, we might not be revisiting the deep-fried frog for a while... at least not the chopped-up bodies. Legs?, we'll eat frog legs any day.

Any disappointment in the frog was quickly overshadowed by the vegetable we ordered. Back when Ken worked at Xiao Guan he'd recommended a dish of Chinese Broccoli with Sausage, and we decided we needed that again. This version was even more decadently pork-filled, seemingly half its volume was sweet, salty Chinese sausage. There's a great interplay between the bitter greens and the sweet fattiness of the sausage, it's a perfect combination. And, oh, OK, we're suckers for anything with Chinese Sausage...

The fresh seafood is just outstanding here at Ken's, we love the whole steamed fish, the eel in XO sauce, the fresh scallops with garlic, or XO, or black bean sauce. My dining companions go pretty crazy for the live shrimp, salt-baked is apparently the way to go when they're small. But it's funny, at this seafood-centric restaurant, we end up ordering plenty of things from the land, and are rarely disappointed.

(read earlier review>>)

Ken's Seafood Restaurant
1004 Race St
Philadelphia, PA

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Zhi Wei Guan - The Tao of Dough - Hangzhou Cuisine in Chinatown

Update: Sadly, this address has been bad luck for a series of restaurants. Zhi Wei Guan closed, and at least for now, I know of no place to find Hangzhou cuisine in the Philly area. They're missed...

The storefront that housed the Dumpling House (for about a minute and a half) has been the site of a lot of restaurants that have come and gone quickly. Let's hope Zhi Wei Guan stays around a lot longer!

They are a welcome addition to Chinatown, adding to the increasing diversity of regional cuisines we're seeing lately. For many years, and even today, most of the restaurants in Chinatown have served an Americanized version of Cantonese cuisine. That food is often unrecognizable as "Chinese food" to people from China.

In some of the better places, there is serious traditional Cantonese food to be found, but you have to know how to find it. Sometimes it's right on the main menu, sometimes it's relegated to a Chinese-language menu, sometimes it's only specials on the wall, sometimes you just have to ask. And when it's done in a traditional way by a skilled chef, real Cantonese food bears little resemblance to the sweet, gooey, saucey, American style food most places serve.

But Cantonese is only one of many regional styles of Chinese cooking. because of the large number of immigrants from Guangzhou, it became the dominant style in restaurants in the US, but it's by no means the only kind of food one finds in China.

Despite the prevalence of homogenized American style food, we're fortunate to have a few alternatives in Philly's Chinatown. Some places have featured these other cuisines for quite a while, often just as a small section of a more mainstream Americanized menu. Empress Garden has Shanghainese food (if you know where to look.) Four Rivers, Chung King Garden and Szechuan Tasty House purvey the numbing spice of Sichuan province. Dim Sum Garden trades in the comforting noodles and buns of Shanghai. Ong's offers Chiu Chow cooking. Pot Luck Café serves Fujian and other styles. If you want to venture out to the suburbs, Han Dynasty has great Sichuan and Taiwanese.

And importantly, Zhi Wei Guan serves Hangzhou cuisine, noted for delicate, light flavors. They've started out modestly, hoping to build up to a larger, more elaborate menu. They've decided to start by concentrating on noodles and other dough-based foods, leading to the slightly quirky sign in the front window proclaiming "Magic Kingdom of Dough." There's actually more on the menu beyond dumplings, noodles and other dough-based snacks, but the focus is on the starchy stuff.

The best news is that they make very good Xiao Long Bao, the "steamed juicy buns" or "soup dumplings" that are so popular in nearby Shanghai. It wasn't long ago that we would bemoan the lack of good Xiao Long Bao in Philly, a few places had them, but they seemed to be pre-made, probably frozen, or even if not, they were lacking the delicacy of the truly great juicy buns.

Now we have Dim Sum Garden, making very good ones, and Zhi Wei Guan which might be making my favorites right now. The first time I tried them, back in the spring, I thought the wrappers were too thick, and there wasn't enough broth inside. I liked the flavor, but the overall texture and balance seemed off. In the intervening months, the chef had intensive training with a master chef visiting from China, and he told us they spent a whole day just on Xiao Long Bao technique. And I think it shows, the ones I had most recently were excellent, with delicate wrappers and a perfect soup-to-dough ratio.

We also tried their wontons, ethereally silky noodles encasing a small ball of pork, in a light broth. This really showed off the elegance of their dough, clearly made freshly, and with great care.

One note about the menu: it's not always completely clear what will be served in a soup, so ask if you're not sure, if you care. I've usually just ordered stuff and seen what shows up. Sometimes I get something with a sauce over noodles that I thought would be a soup, other times it's a soup that I thought would be dry. I never really care, it's always tasty.

But if one is not careful, it's possible to order a lot of similar things without realizing it, so pay attention, and make sure you don't order 7 variations on the same thing. Eventually, they hope to expand the menu even further, so I suspect it will be less likely to order a whole dinner of noodles...

We're encouraging them to offer some of the classics of Hangzhou, Like Dong Po Rou and West Lake Fish, and they may do that if traffic increases enough to justify keeping those expensive ingredients around. So, for completely selfish reasons, GO HERE NOW!!! I want to see what else they can do, and that's going to require some more customers!

As the magic kingdom of dough, it makes sense that they'd have breads too, and this combination of steamed bread and fried bread is a good intro. They're fairly plain, but dipped into the condensed milk served alongside, both styles make a nice snack. I much preferred the fried version, which seemed a bit like a nice fresh donut, and they tell me you could ask for just fried if you want. I'd imagine these breads might be nice alongside other savory dishes as well.

They do an nice version of a few classic noodle dishes as well. The Zha Jiang Mian had a delicious ground pork topping. The sauce on the sesame noodles was light and subtle, but very tasty. Basic fried dumplings and shu mai were well-made, if not especially distinctive from other versions we've had.

We really loved the Hangzou Duck on noodles (pictured at top). We got it another time as just duck, and while it was every bit as delicious, we really missed the opportunity to soak up that deep, dark, concentrated sauce with the noodles.

It could get a little tedious if everything were based on dough, so I'm glad to report that there are a few vegetable and meat dishes that even someone on Atkins could get excited about. Our favorites are the double-cooked pork dishes. They're currently running a Spicy Double-Cooked Pork Belly that places the braised, then stir-fried, slices of pork in a slightly spicy sauce. The preparation technique renders the pork very tender, and not too fatty. The flavors reminded us a little of a Sa Cha sauce, but with a more delicate touch. The fresh bell peppers gave the dish a welcome lightness.

We'd had another version of this with a lighter sauce that was almost as seductive, but this spicy sauce is something special, I'm eager to get back and have that again. As is often the case in traditional Chinese restaurants, it's worth taking care to make sure you're getting pork belly, if that's what you want, and not pork stomach, which is sometimes offered as well. We tried the pork stomach here, and it was not bad, with a texture and flavor similar to tripe, but it's not nearly as luxuriously meaty or fatty as the belly. It's worth asking if it's bacon, or fatty pork, or streaky pork, or 5-layer pork, those terms usually mean pork belly.

On an early visit we ordered the Pork Tongue in Herb Sauce. We found the meat to have a delightful soft texture, the reddish "herb sauce" to have a mysterious sweetness with a touch of anise. This may only be listed on the menu as a noodle dish now, but we liked it better plain, the flavors were more intense. Although having it on noodles is not so bad either...

Amidst all this dough and meat, it's nice to have some vegetables, and I'm happy to report that they do a nice job with some basic greens.

Baby Bok Choi is prepared in a fairly typical way, with lots of garlic, but it's worth noting that they do it just right: the tiny vegetables are tender and sweet, artfully cooked to just the right point, strongly garlicky, but not overwhelming.

We've also had excellent snow pea greens, prepared similarly. We just ask what greens they have, and go with whatever they recommend.

Zhi Wei Guan may not have the largest menu in Chinatown, but they have lots of interesting options, and most importantly, they provide a welcome alternative to the same-old menus around town. Hangzou cuisine offers some excitingly different flavors and textures from the Americanized Chinese food that 's so pervasive, and even other authentic regional Chinese cooking we're more likely to find in the US.

You'll find a few familiar things on the menu, perhaps prepared in a different style than you're used to, and plenty of things you won't find anywhere else. I hope we can support this elegant style of cooking, and continue to see more authentic regional specialties of all kinds.

Zhi Wei Guan
925 Race St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107