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Monday, January 28, 2008

Ugly American Brunch

Update: Chefs David and Carla Gilberg left the Ugly American and opened their own excellent restaurant called Koo Zee Doo, in Northern Liberties.  The Ugly American is still in business, but seems to have scaled-back the food side of their operation.

Several comments on the earlier post here about the Ugly American raved about brunch. I'm just cynical enough to wonder about the sincerity of anonymous posts, so I felt the need to check it out for myself. I think brunch can be summed-up by the photo at the left. Which is to say, banging. The biscuits with sausage gravy were absolutely fantastic. The sausage itself was a little untraditional, more of a sweet Italian style than a rustic country one, but that's of little consequence because the whole package worked beautifully. The creamy sauce was rich, but not too thick, which too often bogs-down unskilled versions of this dish. The eggs were poached perfectly, still a little soft and runny. The biscuit was first-rate: a little sweet, almost cakey, but substantial enough to hold up to the hearty topping. The portion was very generous. Looking at the following photos, I'm not sure that the portion size communicates very well, they're pretty big plates, and the serving sizes were pretty satisfying all around.

We also sampled a Lobster Omelet, which was very well-executed, with fluffy eggs surrounding a creamy, cheesey sauce with lumps of lobster. Roasted potatoes were good too.

French Toast was good, if not especially outstanding. It was executed well, and was served with good maple syrup, the bananas went well with it. I think we're spoiled by the crazy versions at Carman's, and so, expect French Toast to be a riot on the plate. Still, there's something to be said for a basic rendition.

There's also much to recommend basic ham and eggs, when the ham is this good, and the eggs are properly cooked, and especially when it comes with one of those biscuits.

Coffee cups were a little small, but they came around with refills often enough that it wasn't an issue. The space was mysteriously not packed, in fact almost empty, although we were there on the late end of brunch service, which ends at 3pm. I'm confident there were still long waits at Sabrina's and Morning Glory at that time. Seize the moment, get in here before the word gets out and it becomes totally jammed. The menu's not huge, but the food's very good. And no matter what you do, don't miss the biscuits.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stolovaya: Russian comfort food in Northeast Philly

I've long known that there's a large Russian population out in Northeast Philly, and was vaguely aware of there being interesting food/nightlife associated with that community, but somehow had missed-out on partaking of any of it. I often get myself profoundly lost in NE Philly, so I may have been subconsciously avoiding the whole area... But thanks to a timely invite (and a GPS unit) I finally trekked out Bustleton Avenue, and wondered what took me so long!

Stolovaya is not one of the big, glittery nightclubs that are sometimes mentioned as offering a "real" Russian experience in the area. It's a modest restaurant, with a small menu of simple, comforting foods. But looks can be deceiving, and although the one-page laminated menu appears pretty basic, the food coming out of the kitchen was delicious, prepared with care from good ingredients. Service was very warm and friendly, our waiter gave us good advice, and put-up with our indecisiveness with great patience.

There a several different types of Pierogies, all remarkably light and delicate, easily the best I've ever had. Those stuffed with potato, and served with onions (pictured above) were my favorites, but they were all terrific. We had a few other variations on the theme, which is to say dumpling-ish things filled with various interesting things.

These Mantu were filled with chopped lamb, and had thicker, more rustic wrappers, but were every bit as delicious as their more delicate cousins.

These crêpes were filled with an ethereal ground meat, I think it was chicken, but I'm not sure, it just said "ground meat" on the menu. We were expecting lamb, but were pleasantly surprised by whatever it was.

We also had a special the waiter referred to as "meat in jelly," which featured shredded meats of some sort, in aspic. It was fairly mild, and gelatinous, as you'd imagine, but was actually quite good, especially with the mustard or the red horseradish, which our waiter jokingly called "wasabi."

The smoked fish platter had been attacked pretty savagely by the time I got my hands on it, so I won't post a photo of the shredded remains. It was lovely when it arrived! It featured generous portions of salmon and a couple of white fish, all of which met with raves. The Herring with Potatoes was a big hit too. I'm not even that much of a herring fan, at least I wasn't until I tried this, but I found it quite addictive. The simple boiled potatoes sprinkled with dill were an excellent accompaniment.

Borsch was just right on this chilly evening, even better with some sour cream stirred-in, extra-good with the special buns that accompany the soup!They were so good, we got extra buns, even though there was excellent bread on the table already.

Sadly, I forgot the name of this, it's one of the two specials at the bottom of the appetizer side of the menu. It's a noodle soup with ground lamb, lots of vegetables, and a healthy dose of cumin.

We also quite liked the Solyanka, a tangy soup with chopped smoked sausages, pickles and vegetables.

We'd eaten so many starters that we really could have done without anything from the entrée side of the menu, but we felt the need to investigate. I didn't think it would be right to leave without sampling the stroganoff.Tender strips of beef were bathed in a sour cream sauce: simple and delicious. The main dishes come with a choice of sides, our waiter recommended the buckwheat, and he was right, it was surprisingly light and tender, and especially good soaking up some sauce.

A special of Leg of Lamb was not especially unique, but it was very nicely done, tasty, and a crazy-huge portion for the price, which was around $12. Maybe $15. In fact all of the food was an almost unbelievable bargain, most if the starters hovering around $5, many mains under $10.

The highlight of the night barely got eaten, we were all so full by this time: a special Pork Sirloin was incredibly juicy and flavorful, perked up by its accompanying tkemali sauce. I think we amused them by raving about the tkemali - it's a fairly pedestrian Georgian condiment, made from sour plums. I suppose we'd be entertained if some foreign visitors got really excited about A-1 sauce, or ketchup, but I swear this stuff is really remarkable. It was absolutely perfect with the pork, and we suspect, on most anything.

We were much too full to get dessert, but we're eager to get back up there again, and now that we know, maybe show a little self-discipline with the starters.

The place is not too hard to find, it's in a little strip-mall on Bustleton Ave, in between a bingo parlor and a small Russian market. The one down-side is that they don't stay open too late, they really want to close-up by 10pm, so get there early. It's BYOV (yes, I mean V!) and I'm pretty sure cash-only, but don't worry too much, it's such a bargain! It's excellent, hearty, well-made food, well-worth a trip off the beaten-path.

Stolovaya, 9846 Bustleton Ave 215-698-2584

Monday, January 14, 2008

Dim Sum Garden

We've been frustrated by the lack of good Shanghainese Xiao Long Bao, (often called "Soup Dumplings") here in Philly. They're pretty rare in general, and the few versions we've found weren't very good. Until now! An unassuming little restaurant on 11th street caught our attention a few weeks ago when a friend noticed them on the menu. A few advance scouts checked it out and reported that those dumplings were indeed very good, and authentic, so we got a gang together to do a more thorough survey. (We're working on a cool name, "The Pork and Chive Dumpling Gang" is a little ungainly... )

[EDITED TO ADD: I was reminded that the menu does not refer to Xiao Long Bao as "Soup Dumplings" and the staff will tell you that these are not soup dumplings. They use the term "steamed buns." The first two items on the menu, the "Shanghai Steamed Buns" and the "Steamed Buns with Crab Meat" are Xiao Long Bao. Number 3, the "Vegetable Steamed Buns" are not Xiao Long Bao, they are large, non-soupy, buns with a more fluffy, doughy wrapper, like the more conventional Cantonese dim sum steamed "bun." The first two photos in this post are of item #2 on the menu "steamed Buns with Crab Meat."]

We're happy to report that the Xiao Long Bao are indeed excellent, with thin, delicate wrappers (careful getting them out of the steamer!) and delicious fillings of pork, or pork and crab, surrounded by an intense broth. They're a little tricky to eat - one needs to carefully lift a dumpling onto a soup spoon, then carefully bite the very top of that extending collar off, and, presuming the soup is not still too hot, slurp up some of the delicious broth. You may then want to drizzle some black vinegar onto the dumpling and pop the whole thing in your mouth. Is it worth the trouble, and the hot-broth burn risk? Yes it is.

On the specials board was Shaou Mei which we correctly assumed was an alternate spelling of "Shu Mai."
These were not filled with soup, rather with pork and mushrooms, and were quite good as well, if not quite as exciting!

The "Vegetable Steamed Buns" (number three on the menu) were pretty thrilling, because they were about the size of a baseball, filled with green vegetable, mushrooms and, according to our waiter, a "secret ingredient."

We're not sure what the secret ingredient in the filling is, but we do know another secret: that their homemade sauce for these buns makes a huge difference. A little drizzle of that soy-based sauce really perked them right up.

We decided that we needed some more soup dumplings, when suddenly, TRAGEDY!I think a few of us might have actually wept a bit when we accidentally lost control of a steamer full of XLB. Thankfully, nobody was injured by a flying hot soup grenade, and we continued on, shaken, but not deterred.

Tricolor Salad had pickled vegetables and pressed tofu, and give a light and tangy and crunchy contrast to all those dumplings.

Seaweed Salad offered a similar bright crunch.

Smoked Fish, on the other hand, brought a darker, muskier note. It was indeed smoky, funky, salty, and a little sweet too. It's intense stuff, but very good if you like strongly-flavored fish.

Meatballs were smaller than the classic "Lion's Head" style, but were otherwise very similar: tender meatballs in a thich, slightly sweet sauce. Delicious.

Pork Chop Rice doesn't look too thrilling, but it's amazingly tasty. The meat itself is surprisingly tender and moist, and the rice has soaked up some mysterious flavors.

Chili Pork and Cabbage, Noodles with Soup brought hand-drawn noodles in a good broth, studded with pork, cabbage and pickled vegetables.

Hand-Drawn Noodles with Roast Duck. I think Iliked the texture of these noodles even better than in the soup, and the duck gave them a great flavor.

There are many more soups and noodle platters, as well as things served on rice, so "Dim Sum Garden" is not an especially apt name for this place: they have much more than just Dim Sum items, and not an especially wide variety of dumplings and other small dim sum classics. Even so, it's worth coming here for the Xiao Long Bao alone, as well as the other dumplings and buns. But don't miss the noodles or rice platters, this is more of a casual Shanghainese restaurant than merely a dumpling shop.

It's pretty small, with austere decor, and in an unlikely location, but the food is excellent, the staff is super-friendly, and the tableware is surprisingly elegant. Prices are very affordable, we recently gorged ourselves on less than $15 per person. We're looking forward to checking out the rest of the menu as soon as possible. Then starting again at the beginning.

Dim Sum Garden
59 North 11th Street (between Filbert and Arch)

read more in Lari Robling's article in the Daily News>>

Osteria Update

It's been entirely too long between Osteria visits. There have been so many new places to check out, it's easy to get distracted from (not so) old favorites.

Osteria's menu is in a constant state of flow, with dishes being added and subtracted from the repertoire according to the seasons and the chefs' inspirations. We revisited a few proven classics and tried some new ones too, all to delicious effect. We started with a constant menu item, one we'll never tire of, the Lombarda Pizza. (pictured above) Their own aromatic sausage and runny egg are our favorite toppings for the consistently excellent pizzas here, and this latest one did not disappoint (although I prefer the darker crust we usually get...)

The Lardo Pizza sounded intriguing. We'd draped pieces of lardo from the salumi platter over hot pizza crust before, and really enjoyed that melting texture, so a whole pizza like that sounded great. In practice, it was a little one-dimensional. The rosemary mentioned on the menu was barely detectable, and lardo is more about mouth-feel than vivid flavor, so the ultimate effect was too subtle. The could probably work, but needed a but more seasoning, maybe just some nice coarse salt.

We quickly forgot about troubleshooting the lardo pizza when the pancetta-wrapped snail spiedini showed up. Perfectly tender snails, pancetta and the creamiest polenta celery root purée known to man. Need I say more?

Duck and Foie Gras Terrine wasn't especially photogenic, but it was as creamy and decadently rich as you might guess.

Candele with Boar Bolognese might just be the perfect winter dish. The pasta itself has the perfect resilient tenderness, and the bolognese is reduced down so that it's barely a sauce, just ground pork adhering magically to the noodles.

Pork Ribs with Black Pepper Sausage is another dish that may not look like much, but any shortcomings in visual appeal were made up by the flavors of the falling-off-the-bone ribs and assertive sausage.

What?!? MORE pork?!? Yeah, for some reason the pork dishes were really appealing to us this evening, and I think it's safe to say: if they're offering the roast suckling pig special, get it. This was totally simple, but maybe the most gratifying dish of the night. The tender, juicy roast pig was herby, salty, doused in oil, and completely addictive. Even the potatoes were eliciting moans of delight.

Sorbettos were just about the only dessert we could contemplate after that extravaganza. This is blood orange, pineapple and meyer lemon. Those bright, vibrant flavors were an excellent ending to all this excess. Well, OK, we'll also admit to attempting to eat some zabaglione gelato, and some pistachio, but we're not proud of it.

Although it was completely unrealistic to even contemplate munching on these little petit fours over espresso, we couldn't resist ordering them for the sake of investigation. And this selection of snacks does indeed make a really lovely accompaniment to an espresso or after-dinner drink. The little white cookies were airy and lemony, the candied orange peel simultaneously sweet and bitter. The pistachio and pine-nut brittles were really good with coffee, as were the biscotti. We couldn't quite figure out what the flavors were in the pâté de fruits-ish jellied thing, but it was good... This is a really nice plate to share among 3 or 4 people at the end of a meal.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable meal all the way around, even considering the inevitable sticker-shock when the bill comes. It can climb up quickly if you're not paying attention (or asking the prices of specials!) and having some wine, but when the food's this good, I never regret it.

Osteria offical website
Read a more complete review at

Friday, January 11, 2008

Yakitori Boy update

We had a chance to try Yakitori Boy again, and are happy to report that they appear to be getting in the groove. The food was better overall (or maybe we just ordered more things they do well.) Service was very friendly, almost too enthusiastic, we had servers, bussers and runners practically falling over one another bringing dishes, clearing them, or checking up on us. Their liquor license still bogged down somewhere, they're hoping for it any day now.

There was a little confusion right when we came in, and it took a few minutes for our server to come over and take our order, so as an apology for the delay, they were nice enough to send over Ika (Squid) Salad and Seaweed Salad, both of which were quite good.

We ordered an Avocado Salad which was pretty straightforward, but fresh and tasty, with a good ginger dressing.

Pork Gyoza were also pretty standard, but very nicely fried to a good crunch.

Bacon and Eggs, well, Quail Eggs Wrapped in Bacon were very tasty. How could they not be? We were very amused when at the end of the meal, as plates were being cleared, one of our servers noticed a lone remaining egg, and jokingly scolded us: "don't waste bacon!" I'm thinking of getting a tattoo that says that...

Saba Yaki Saba Shioyaki (salt-grilled mackerel) was pretty basic, nothing really wrong with it, but it was not really spiced or sauced, just broiled fish. Fine for what it was. Keep in mind, it's pretty boney...

Kimchee Don (pork with Kimchee) brought spicy Korean pickled cabbage studded with fried pork, some bean sprouts adding crunch. This was very tasty, and also provided some spice and acid to our array of dishes.

Tonkatsu had a very light, greaseless coating on the tender pork. There was a bowl of katsu sauce served alongside, which a server described as "like a Japanese A-1 sauce." Unfortunately, that was fairly accurate, it seemed closer to A1 than most katsu sauces I've had. Still, the pork was very nice, the sauce not bad.

Shrimp and vegetable tempura was excellent: light, greaseless, good crunch, a nice mix of vegetables and two large shrimp, mild dipping sauce alongside.

Our Yakitori selections were all strong this time: Chicken and Scallions, Chicken Meatballs, Chicken Skin. They all seemed to have a bit more of a flavorful, slightly sweet glaze, and a better grill char to them than before, I'm quite sure we'll get all of these again.

On this cold, rainy night, we'd actually been moved to return to Yakitori Boy to try the ramen we'd seen on the menu on our first visit. All the soups are referred to as "mini" and while they're not quite as large a portion as you would get at a ramen joint, they're not exactly mini either. It's a very nice size, presuming you're going to eat something else too: not a tiny serving like you'd get with a lunch special or combo bento box, but not a huge bowl that will completely fill you up either.

The sad news is that we didn't much care for the Ramen (pictured above.) The broth was bland and a little bitter, and the noodles were undistinguished. The good news is that the Soba (below) and Udon were much better. (Sorry I only have a soba photo here, the udon pix didn't turn out too well - ahh... it happens, I'm shooting by candlelight here!) Those soups had a rich, clear dashi-style broth with a pleasing smoky edge. The soba noodles had a good nutty flavor and firm texture, the udon a pleasing chewiness.

Boiled Spinach was simple, but just right, nice to have some greens amidst the meats.

We also got an order of Tatsuta Age (Fried Chicken) that somehow didn't get photographed amid the 800 other dishes. It was almost as good as on our first visit, and might have been even better if we'd jumped right on it while it was straight from the kitchen. And that brings up an ordering-strategy issue: this type of menu is really designed for ordering a few dishes, eating them, ordering some more... Our server advised us of this, and we intellectually understood it, but we have so little self control that we went ahead and ordered everything at once. As a result, we had a pretty crowded table, and we weren't getting to everything right when it was kitchen-hot. It would make sense to spread it out a little, so we'd advise ordering in batches, which gives you a little more control over what comes in what combinations too.

The highlights this time were the Ika Salad, all the Yakitori, the Tempura, and the (non-ramen) noodle soups, and there's still loads more to explore. There's an extensive sushi menu, and the sushi looks fine, but there's other stuff that's more unique to this place, so we're going to concentrate on that. Stay tuned...

Yakitori Boy
211 N. 11th St
Philadelphia (Chinatown)