Philadining Home

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Koo Zee Doo -Portugueze in Northern Liberties

I have to admit having some trepidation about Koo Zee Doo, the new Portuguese restaurant at 614 North Second Street. It seemed almost eerily similar in concept to their neighbors a few doors up at Kong: both new places featuring experienced chefs interpreting the traditional cuisine of their wives' families. In the case of Kong, it's the street food of Hong Kong; for Koo Zee Doo it's the homey cooking of Portugal.

A few doors north, Kong's versions of Chinese street food have been disappointing, neither authentic nor all that tasty on an absolute level. So we were concerned - how well would this chef be able to replicate and innovate when working with Portuguese cuisine that he didn't grow up eating?

Well, either chef David Gilberg is a good student, or his wife Carla Gonçalves is an excellent teacher, or both, because the food we had at two different dinners was both true to its roots, and consistently delicious. I'm no authority on Portuguese food, but on our first visit we had a native Portugeezer with us to weigh-in on the authenticity issue. After some initial skepticism, he pronounced that most things felt "right" or were at least recognizable as valid interpretations. I'm personally not all that concerned about how "correct" the food is, as long as it's tasty, but I certainly find it more interesting if it's accurately reflecting its origins.

That said, any creative act should show some traces of its creator, and reflect its place and time, and that's certainly the case here. It's Portuguese food, but made by an American chef, in Philadelphia, in 2009. So what shows up on your plate might not be exactly as any random Portuguese grandmother would make it, but I'm sure she wouldn't find it unfamiliar, or disrespectful.

The meal starts with some wonderful bread, baked in-house by Carla Gonçalves, who had already made quite a reputation in town for her baking at the previous restaurants where she and David Gilberg had worked previously. Her breads at Coquette, and even more so, her biscuits and Kimmelweck rolls at the Ugly American, had created a significant buzz. Koo Zee Doo is the most impressive showing yet by the pair, probably because it's their own place, and they're free to do things their own way, rather than collaborating with quirky owners. The breads here are a light French-Bread-ish roll, and Broa, a dense cornmeal-based bread typical of Portugal.

We started with the Queijo Fresco, a light goat's milk cheese, and the Caldo Verde, a hearty potato and collard greens soup, studded with spicy chouriço sausage. Most noteworthy was the Salada de Bacalhau com Grão em Bico, a chickpea salad with house-cured salt cod and hard-boiled egg. The fish had a wonderful firm texture and intense, salty flavor, but was much more fresh tasting and less stringy than any conventional dried cod I've ever had.

The Carne de Porco à Alentenjano (Pork and Clams) is absolutely addictive. Tender cubes of pork are accompanied by tender clams, and cubes of perfectly roasted potato, both crispy and fluffy. Those elements would be perfectly sufficient to make this noteworthy, but there's also the most delicious sauce in the bottom of the dish, a gravy-like essence of both meat and shellfish. I couldn't stop eating this.

Every once in a while, a restaurant features a dish that so strongly resonates with me that I absolutely must get it every time. I suspect that the Arroz de Pato is one of those. The baked rice is studded with crispy shreds of duck leg, and topped with a sliced, grilled duck breast. It's comforting, yet intense, a great accompaniment to other dishes, and strong enough to stand alone. Let some of that pork and clam juice seep into it, or some runny egg, that is, if it's on your plate long enough to soak anything up.

The Bife à Portuguesa (pictured at top) is a few chunks of Picanha steak, draped with slices of ham, a couple of sunny-side-up eggs and discs of the platonic ideal of the fried potato. I don't think I can even remember what a french fry is anymore, my brain has replaced all fried potatoes with an image of these. We found the steak to be tender and juicy, and the whole package, well, with the ham, and the egg yolk drizzling over the meat, and into the fried potatoes, oooph! Decadent and delicious.

The Coelho à Caçador, a rabbit stew, is really mis-named. It is in fact, a pork belly stew, with some rabbit tucked in behind the crispy edges of the roasted cubes of bacon... Well, OK, I suppose there was a big rabbit leg in there, and some other significant chunks, but it actually did take some digging to find it. Not that I'm complaining about getting unctuous nuggets of pork on my spoon as I dig for rabbit and vegetables. It's worth noting too that the tiny roasted potatoes and other vegetables in the stew were cooked really nicely as well, they weren't merely afterthoughts, or elements used only for flavoring the stew, they were quite good on their own.

Speaking of vegetables, we were intrigued by the Milho Frito, billed as fried corn porridge. (Think fried slabs of polenta, studded with vegetables.) Roasted and grilled vegetables added a mysterious smoky note to the plate. This might be a bit dense and heavy for one person to eat as an entree, but it's great for the table to share.

In fact everything is presented on large plates, in very generous portions, designed to share family-style, and I can testify that that's the best way to experience this food, having a little bit of everything.

Another of those everythings we tried was the signature Cozido Minhoto, a large pot of a wide array of meats: ribs, three kinds of sausages, chicken, cabbage and other vegetables. It's a hearty, homey dish, everything boiled together in a pot, so it bears some resemblance to a traditional New England Boiled Dinner, but with a few more varieties of meats... As you might guess from the preparation, it's very comforting and satisfying, if not shooting off the same fireworks as some of the other dishes.

There are some fish preparations we haven't gotten around to yet, but we've made our way through most of the rest of the menu. I'm not sure how often things will change on the menu, but even if it doesn't for a while, I could see coming back and ordering almost anything we had, especially that Duck Rice... I don't think this menu would make a lot of sense in the summer, but it's almost ideal Fall and Winter food, so I don't care if it stays the same for a while...

Although we were full-to-bursting both times, we managed to find just enough space for a traditional dessert, the Pastel de Nata. It's a custard-filled tart, much like the egg tart you might get in a Chinese bakery, or off a dim sum cart, but larger and well, better! In the future, we really need to make an effort to show some restraint and leave room for dessert here, because Carla Gonçalves is a talented baker and pastry chef, and there are a few other items on the menu that sound good.

Prices are quite reasonable given the mammoth portions, but this place is not cheap on an absolute level. The larger plates start in the high teens, most are in the mid $20s. Starters are under $10, Salads about $10-ish. These strike me as very good values, especially when you could get away with ordering a couple of starters and then less than one large plate per person. But then, why would you want to do that!? The better plan is to order more than you think you'll need, and then you'll have leftovers.

And you DO want leftovers...

Koo Zee Doo
614 N 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
ph: 215-923-8080


Friday, October 09, 2009

Awesomeness Alert: English Onion Soup at Pub and Kitchen

I'll readily admit it: I'm a snob about French Onion Soup. I do not like it when liberties are taken, especially the popular trend of using mozzarella and/or provolone for the cheese. This should be declared a culinary crime, and anyone using salad croutons as a support for the cheese, rather than proper toasts, should be subjected to a lethal injection of Lipton Cup-a-Soup.

I make a pretty respectable version of French Onion Soup in my own kitchen, and after myriad disappointments even in very good restaurants, I almost never order it out anymore.

But I trust Pub and Kitchen chef Johnny Mac, and when I saw this on their menu, listed as English Onion Soup, I was willing to take a chance. I was even willing to allow some slack, given that it clearly was meant as a riff on the classic.

And it is indeed an original interpretation: the rich broth is based on pork stock, rather than the traditional chicken or beef. Joining the expected caramelized onions in the bowl are large pieces of fall-apart tender chunks of pork. It's a surprising addition, but a good one. A couple of toasts hold up appropriate cheese. Most importantly, the whole package harmonizes perfectly. As the weather turns chilly, this is definitely going to be a go-to-soup.

While at Pub and Kitchen, it's hard to resist their famous Windsor Burger, with homemade bacon and English Cheddar, on a very good brioche bun. I especially liked the pickled onion that accompanied the lettuce and tomato. The burger itself was juicy and very beefy, and the sum of all the elements places it high among my favorite burgers. The fries are good too, although they fade a bit as they cool...

The rest of the smallish menu has much worth investigating as well, just don't skip the soup...

Pub & Kitchen
1946 Lombard St. (at 20th)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stella - Starry Opening Night

I usually try to avoid opening nights, especially at buzzed-about restaurants, it's usually too much of a mob-scene, the food and service are still shaking-out the inevitable quirks of a new operation, it's just not a great way to asses a new restaurant. but I found myself unable to resist the opening of Stella, Stephen Starr's new pizza place at 2nd and Lombard. Friends and I have long been traveling to New York City to partake in the pizza culture there, from old-school places like Patsy's in East Harlem, or Grimaldi's and DiFara's in Brooklyn, to the newer wave of Neapolitan-inspired artisan shops, like Una Pizza Napoletana (recently closed), Keste and Franny's. In fact it's been hard to keep up with all the openings and changes in NY. San Francisco also has an exciting pizza scene, as does Los Angeles. So where has Philly been during these developments?

Sure, there are some decent pizzas to be had in Philadelphia, and some of the unique local spots like Taconneli's and DeLorenzo's in Trenton lend some regional interest, but aside from Osteria, Philly had been ignoring the trend of the minimalisitic, elegant, artisan, Neo-Neapolitan pizza. Until now.

As reported extensively in the local papers, Stephen Starr's crew did extensive research before opening his pizza place, visiting many of the fabled old-school and new-school spots in New York, New Haven and beyond, even traveling to Phoenix, Arizona to experience one of the most highly-regarded restaurants in this trend, Pizzaria Bianco. I'm happy to say that, judging from our experience on opening night, even amidst the inevitable first-day bumps, the Starr crew seems to have studied well, and they've created an exciting and satisfying pizza experience at Stella.

Does it rank up with the rarified upper-eschelon of pizza places? Should New Yorkers put down their slices and travel down here for a pie? Should San Franciscans abandon A16, Delfina and Tony's Pizza Napoletana and buy a ticket for Philly? Well, maybe not, but then it's a little unfair to judge a place from one visit, and on their first night. Despite that hedging, we thought the pizza was very good, and we're thrilled that a place has opened in Philly that is seriously pursuing this type of thin-crusted pizza, made in the Neapolitan style, with high-quality ingredients and attention to detail. They may not be striving for the obsessive artisan perfection that some spots do, but they've achieved at least a high-quality, reliably tasty result.

That high level of critical asessment was evident to us, sitting at the bar, inches away from the counter where the pizzas were being assembled, then after emerging mere minutes later from the blazing-hot oven, sliced and readied for service. We saw a surprising number of pizzas being tossed in the trash, not measuring-up to the critical standards of chef Chris Painter, who gave each pie a careful inspection, including a few taps to the bottom to test the structural integrity of the crust, before slicing them and sending them out.

And it showed in the final product: the crusts were light and crisp, yet had a satisfying bread-like chewiness, not a crackery crunch. The tomato sauce was fresh and bright, although at least one member of our party felt that it might be overly-herby, too dark with oregano for his taste. Toppings were of high-quality, applied sparingly, although more generously than some of the hard-line Neapolitan joints.

We started with a required baseline pie: a basic Margherita, featuring nothing more than sauce, mozzarella and basil. I thought this was pretty dead-on, with a perfectly charred crust, a good balance of toppings, and a wonderful texture. There's always room for debate about sauce recipes and ideal degrees of doneness, but this pizza certianly hit a satisfying sweet-spot.

We also sampled one of the more ingulgent entries on the menu, the
Tartufu, featuring dollops of black truffle paste, a drizzle of truffle oil, and a raw egg cracked on top. It's carefully sliced to avoid breaking the yolk, so it arrives at the table intact, but the server then spreads it around with a spoon, which is probably a good idea, ensuring a more even distribution around the pizza, rather than it mostly running down into the cracks between slices.

Our server performed this maneuver before I could manage to snap a photo of the intact egg, but it's still pretty nice-looking... More importantly, it's quite tasty, with the earthy and rich flavors that you'd expect from its components. We found ourselves musing about how one more flavor would really put this over the top, but we never figured out exactly what that that flavor could be...

We quite enjoyed our seats at the counter, with a great view of the process, including a good angle right into the oven itself. And it turned out that those seats had another advantage: by total coincidence, Art Etchells from Foobooz sat down next to us, and before long, we'd negotiated a trade of some of our slices for a taste of his Pistachio pizza. Somehow, in the chaos of trading slices, I managed to forget to snap a photo, but I liked it enough that I'd order it again, and I promise to photograph it then! (And with a better camera too, I was caught without my usual gear, so all these photos are from my iPhone...) That pizza is an interpretation of one from Pizzaria Bianco, and while I haven't had the opportunity to try the original, the textures and flavors of this version, with merely nuts, Fontina and red onion, were quite good.

Another dining partner down the counter had a pizza with sausage, which had a great fennel kick, so I'm looking forward to trying a whole pizza with that topping soon.

We also tried what has become an unexpected favorite pizza of mine, the Marinara. This most minimal of pies features nothing more than their San Marzano tomato-based sauce, a little garlic, a few herbs. I've found that this expression of pizza lets one really taste the sauce, fully experience the crust. And it didn't disappoint, those very basic flavors and textures worked beautifully. We've had crusts with a little more character, sauce that sang with more freshness of pure tomato essence, but still Stella made a respectable showing even in this most demanding context.

The wine list is short and fairly basic, but hey, it's a pizza place. Mark-ups are predictably severe, except for the very drinkable house red, a Montepulciano that goes nicely with this food, and is available by the glass at a very reasonable price, I can't quite remember $5.50? $6.50? The wine is served in short tumblers, which somehow doesn't seem quite as annoying in this context as it is in some others. Our glasses, and the wine itself, were quite warm, we're hoping this is a simple procedural thing they can fix.

The space is pleasant enough, if a little generic and chain-like. It doesn't have that typical Starr design flair (although it does have the typical Starr loud clamor in the dining room.) None of us cared much for the large photo of Venice on the wall behind the oven. First, uh, why Venice? Second, it's just not that compelling of a photo, clearly a vintage shot of the grand canal, but not an especially exciting one. That said, I wasn't looking at the mural very much, I was more transfixed by the flames inside the oven, and the beautiful pizzas shuttling in and out.

It's a little too early to tell whether this will ultimately be a serious pizza destination, or merely a good option for the neo-Neapolitan style. But it's a real thrill to see this kind of pizza finally available in Philly, and the evident care with which the chefs were preparing the pizzas on opening night bodes well. I'll most certainly be working my way down the rest of the menu, which does include a few appetizers and salads, charcuterie, and even gelato, in addition to several more pizzas. I'm very happy to have Stella here, in Philly, and in a relatively accessible location at that.

A second visit revealed a couple of changes. The first was in the form of the pizza crust. They seem to be making the pizzas with a larger, thicker cornicione (the raised outer edge of the crust.) I'm not in favor of this development, I think this new style of crust creates edges that are too dense and chewy. I noticed other tables that had finished plates with piles of crust on them, not that unusual in an American-style pizzeria, but really shouldn't be happening in one going for more of a Neapolitan style. I found myself leaving parts of the outer crust uneaten as well, which I did not do on my first visit.

Also: they seem to have changed the sausage used as a topping. On our first visit, it was bright with fennel seed, with an appealing sweetness. This time, the flavor was much more muted, not exactly bad, but not nearly as interesting as before.

In better news, the pepperoni they use is quite tasty, so I quite enjoyed that pizza. The sauce, pepperoni, cheese and crust were in nice balance. Well, almost, there was that issue of the too-thick edges... The Philly outpost of Lombardi's pizza that was on 18th street near Sansom for a few years used to make a pretty killer pepperoni pizza, with slightly thicker slices of meat, and I wouldn't mind that here, but this is not a bad alternative.

Purists will scoff at pepperoni on a pizza, you're unlikely to find that topping many pizzas in Italy. In fact, you're unlikely to find pepperoni at all, it being an American thing... But I think the Italians are missing out! Sure, there are more complex spicy sausages that one could use instead, but there's something very appealing about pepperoni on a pizza. And if one gets good pepperoni, like the ones they make in-house at DiBruno's, I think it's even better in this use than a traditional soppressata or other southern-style
salame piccante.

The other good news is that some of the non-pizza offerings are worth checking out as well. We especially liked the Octopus and Squid appetizer. It's a chilled salad, with amazingly tender rings of squid (it could do with a higher percentage of octopus...) small chunks of potato, some herbs, and a light dressing. It's very nicely executed, and a pleasant contrast to hot doughy pizza.

Pizzaria Stella

420 South 2nd St (at Lombard)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Awesomeness Alert: Charbroiled Beef Short Ribs at Vietnam Palace

I'm not sure how I ended up taking sides on in long-standing rivalry that exists between Vietnam Palace and Vietnam, restaurants directly across 11th street from one another in Philly's Chinatown. But somehow, I ended up in the Vietnam camp, and I still stand by their huge barbecue platter as one of the best appetizers in town - heck a friend and I will sometimes just share one as a meal. But as a result, I hadn't thought to cross the street in years.

But we recently dared to venture across 11th street to visit Vietnam Palace, and it's there where we stumbled upon our current appetizer obsession: Suong Bo Nuong - Charbroiled Beef Short Ribs. They're sticky, they're sweet, they're salty, smoky, a little chewy, intensely beefy. They're addictive. We've been back three times in recent weeks, sometimes just to get a couple of orders of these. They're a little like Korean Barbecued shortribs, specifically the L.A. Kalbi cut that is strangely hard-to-find in Philadelphia, featuring that distictive cross-bone cut. The sauce is a little thicker and sweeter than one usually finds at Korean restaurants, but the grill char and general flavor profile is reminiscent of that style.

We'd actually oniginally returned to Vietnam Palace to have their "Beef Carpaccio," officially called Bo Tai Chanh. It's thin slices of raw beef, marinated in lime juice, accented by basil, peanuts, raw and fried onions, and hot peppers. We'd been disappointed in some other versions we'd tried around town, and remembered this one as being especially good - and it is - maybe even better than we'd remembered - far and away the best rendition of this dish we've found in Philadelphia.

So that makes two compelling reasons to go to Vietnam Palace, and we haven't even gotten off the appetizer page yet. We've been so obsessed with these dishes that we haven't gotten too deep into the rest of the menu, but we can testify that papaya salad, broken-rice dishes and curries are very good. (I'd skip the fried spring rolls, the ones across the street are much better...)

Vietnam Palace
222 N 11th St (west side of the street)
Philadelphia 19107
(215) 592-9596

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Oyster House - A New Beginning

The traditional, informal seafood house had almost become a thing of the past in Philadelphia, with the closing of the Sansom Street Oyster House, and Bookbinders, there were very few places to go for a bowl of snapper soup, a plate of raw clams, and some fried oysters. Nevermind that even when they were open, most of the traditional spots had slipped significantly in quality, or become tourist traps, or both, it was somehow comforting to know one could get some of those old-school classics, even if they weren't that good anymore...

Thankfully, not only have the original owners of the Sansom Street Oyster House reopened as simply Oyster House, but they've also updated both the physical space and the menu. The room itself is barely recognizeable, now sporting a very modern, clean, open look, with the charming retro touch of antique oyster plates adorning the walls. The menu too is a mix of the old and new, with straight-up fish house classics, with a few modern tweaks.

The very Philadelphian Snapper Soup is much cleaner and brighter and, well, better than the traditional versions I've had. It's full of flavorful, fresh turtle meat and still-vibrant vegetables, in a full-flavored, but decidedly un-pasty broth. Add a couple of drizzles of sherry, and it's really quite delicious.

They've just opened their doors, so I haven't had a chance to try their clam chowder or oyster stew, but the descriptions of both are so appealing that I doubt I'll be able to wait for cooler, more soup-appropriate weather. I'll dive into a good chowder even in the heat of summer, but I look forward to dropping in here for a warming bowl of one of these soups on a cold winter evening.

They Oyster House isn't stuck in Philadelphia traditions either, they wisely borrow from some other seafood-centric regions, especially New England. Although chef Greg Ling says they're having trouble sourcing the authentic split-top rolls, the Lobster Roll is still a pretty dead-on rendition, and more importantly, delicious.

It's a little on the pricey side (varies with the market price, this time it was $26) but there's a ton of excellent lobster meat, perfectly-cooked, lightly dressed, piled on a toasted bun. Pure lobster indulgence without having to wrestle with shells... it's pretty great. I'm not going to get into the argument about whether lobster rolls should be cold with mayo, or warm with butter, and just say that this one is very tasty. We'd prefer thicker fries, but while we were complaining about how we don't really care for shoestrings, we inhaled all of them....

The Fried Ipswitch Clams (pictured at top) were very good, nicely tender inside and crunchy outside. The batter is actually quite flavorful, which some might say distracts from the clams, but I don't think so, I felt like I could still taste the juicy bellies inside. I think someone was moving too fast and gave us cocktail sauce instead of tartar sauce, but they quickly replaced it, and the clams were a little better dipped in the intended condiment!

To accompany, we sipped the Oyster House Punch, a rum, tea and citrus concoction that was refreshing and tingly with spice on its own, but also complimented the food very nicely. There's a nice selection of classic cocktails, slightly tweaked by our good friend, bartendrix Katie Loeb. The bar selection is not terribly deep yet, but I'm confident it will expand, and in the interim, if you'd like a drink that's not on their list, just ask, they may be able to make it for you. Our party indulged in Sazeracs and Corpse Revivers in addition to the punch, and the yellow-tomato juice-based Bloody Mary variation, the Blonde Caesar seemed to be very popular at the bar. I'm sure that we'll see some more drinks appear on the cocktail list over time, but even now, the slightly-updated classics are pretty satisfying.

I was still mid-clams as a dining companion moved ahead to dessert, so I didn't taste it, but a fruity cobbler/crisp kind of thing looked pretty darn good! I was told that it would have been better warmer, but hey, this was the restaurant's opening day, we're not going to get nudgey about things yet!

As we were getting ready to go, we chatted a bit with chef Ling, and somewhere it same up that we hadn't tried any Oyster Shooters. He was kind enough to offer us a couple, even though the shuckers had packed everything up. He dug-out a couple of oysters, and Katie mixed-up the accompaniments.

To be honest, I'm not sure I get Oyster Shooters, I can't quite figure out whether I'm supposed to be just swallowing them, in which case I feel like you miss the oyster, or if you're chewing-up the oyster a little, there's kind of a lot of fluid... But then, I might just be a little clueless! If you like oyster shooters, they have some very interesting ones, with innovative flavorings, check them out!

Of course we only scratched the surface of the menu, and opening-night is not the fairest time to assess a place, but we were very impressed. It's a great-looking spot, the food was all good, and service seemed very smooth, especially given it was their first day open to the public. So we look forward to trying more, including, incongruously enough, an amazing-looking burger, which is billed as being made from aged prime beef, and got a big thumbs-up from a guy across the bar from us.

Oyster House
1516 Sansom St

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sakura - More Soup Dumplings in Chinatown

It has somehow become my role in the Philadelphia dining community to shoot-up a signal flare whenever Xiao Long Bao are spotted in the area. I'm pleased to say that I can report another spot that offers the delicate "juicy buns" and not only that - they just might be the best yet.

The high quality of these dumplings shouldn't come as a surprise: the new-ish restaurant Sakura, at the corner of 11th and Race in Chinatown, is run by former partners in Dim Sum Garden, where the local mania for Xiao Long Bao was stoked. Although there were several dishes from Shanghai on Sakura's opening menu, the XLB are more recent additions, announced on a hand-writen sign on the door. We're told a new menu is imminent, featuring even more regional Chinese specialties, and these will surely be on it, but don't look for "Soup Dumplings." Like at Dim Sum Garden, they're referred-to as "Steamed Juicy Buns."

There are three varieties: one with pork, one with pork and crab, and one with shrimp and pork. We've sampled the plain pork, and the pork and crab, and they're really outstanding (we slightly prefer the plain pork.) The wrappers are paper-thin, but display significantly better structural integrity than those at Dim Sum Garden. We haven't had a single one rupture or tear, a frequent problem at Dim Sum Garden. They might be a little smaller than the ones at Dim Sum Garden, but larger than Zhi Wei Guan's, and come 6 to an order (as opposed to 8 at DSG and ZWG) but these seem in perfect balance. The skins are tender, yet strong, holding in just the right amount of broth. That soup inside is less salty than many other versions, but comes into perfect balance with a few drips of the gingery sauce that accompanies.

It's pretty amazing: not long ago, Phiadelphians would bemoan the lack of XLB in local restaurants, and now we have three places that serve good ones.

The even better news about Sakura is that there's much more worth exploring on their menu. Of particular note is their Scallion Pancake, which threatens to overshadow the Xiao Long Bao as a seductive snack. This version is airy and flaky, not the crunchy puck we've gotten used to at other restaurants. They're still a little oily, but seem more buttery than greasy. There are two versions, regular and onion, neither of which tastes very much like scallions, but they're so good that it's easy to not care.

There are lots more interesting things on the menu, along with some of the same-old Chinatown standards, it will be interesting to see if the new menu tilts more strongly toward the traditional Chinese styles. Although they offer several spicy dishes typical of Sichuan, I think the kitchen is stronger in the realm of the foods from Shanghai.

That said, the Double-Cooked Pork was tasty, if not especially spicy. Tender slices of pork belly were stir-fried with cabbage and chile sauce, which gave a bold flavor, but not a lot of heat, and none of the tingly sensation that comes from Sichuan Peppercorns.

The spicy dishes we got on an earlier visit were good, but they're not going to challenge the versions you can find a few blocks away at Four Rivers, or Szechuan Tasty House, or out in the 'burbs at Han Dynasty.

You'll have better luck here with the Shanghainese dishes, like the Braised Pork Shoulder, the Lions Head, or some of the dishes with Rice Cake.

We tried the Fried Rice Cake with beef. It's mild, but the chewy texture of the noodle-like discs of rice cake along with a little crunch from cabbage an onion make this a nice subtle comforting dish.

I hope to see more homey dishes from Shangahi and beyond on the new menu. I'll certainly be checking in with them soon!

In the meantime, there's no reason at all for you to delay heading over there for Steamed Juicy Buns and Scallion pancakes.

1038 Race Street (on the corner of 11th Street)

earlier post about Sakura here>>

Friday, April 17, 2009

Han Dynasty in Royersford -
A Feast for 15

We were thrilled to hear that Han Dynasty in Royersford was being reviewed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which should garner it some well-deserved attention. A few devotees, myself included, have been spreading the word about this restaurant (and its original outpost in Exton) as much as possible, but even with the reach of the internet, we could never hope to compare to the impact of a review by Craig Laban. His reviews in The Inquirer are very widely read and respected, and introduce many people to new places every week. We're really happy that he liked Han Dynasty enough to want to write about it, and very gratified to learn that at least one element in encouraging him to check it out in the first place was our crowd's discussion of it on the food discussion board eGullet.

I wrote about my first visit to this second outpost of Han Dynasty in this earlier post, but just realized that I had failed to update this blog with documentation of a rather extravagant group dinner we threw there back around Chinese New Year's. That holiday was an excuse to get people together, but it wasn't a traditional New Years banquet, it was more just a big group of friends sharing a lot of food!

We put ourselves in the hands of Han, which is always a good plan. Just let him know what you like and don't, and let him bring you what he thinks you should have. You might be surprised, but we've found that those surprises are almost always happy ones.

Most of these dishes are available regularly at the restaurant, but a few were specials, so don't be too surprised if any given item isn't available when you go. And do check the specials menu, there are always a few new interesting things on there.

The short review of this dinner is that we liked everything. That sounds like a cop-out, like we're being undiscriminating, but I just think Han made strong selections for us that worked very well. If we had any complaints, they were circumstantial: we had a couple of vegetarians in our group and so the kitchen kindly left meat out of the green beans and the Ma Po Tofu, which made them accessible to all. This was a compromise we were willing to make, but the omnivores missed the ground pork that usually perks-up both of those dishes. And although some of the dishes packed a serious chili kick, a few of them were clearly toned down for the sake of wider appeal, again a compromise that we're willing to make when sharing among 15 people! If you go with a smaller group, it's easier to customize things to your preferences.

We started with a Fish and Pickled Vegetable Soup

Sweet Potato Cakes

Dumplings in Chile Oil

Sliced Beef and Tripe in Hot Sauce (cold)

Spicy Rabbit with Peanuts (cold)

Chengdu Style Green Bean Noodles (cold)

Shredded Chicken in Spicy Sesame Sauce (cold)

Spicy Hot Pot (with fish, shrimp, scallops, beef, noodles, tofu, vegetables, probably more treasures that I didn't manage to find...)

Sweet and Sour Fish Filet

(no, it's not always served with the carved carrot sculpture!)

Smoked Bacon with Leeks

Tea Smoked Duck in Beer Sauce

Szechuan Style Sea Bass

Eggplant Stuffed with Shrimp

Three Cup Chicken

Fish in Dry Pot

Stir-Fried String Beans

Chicken with Dry Hot Pepper

Ma Po Tofu (missing photo)

Taiwanese Sausage with Snow Peas

Deep Fried Shredded Beef

Bok Choy with Black Mushroom

Lamb with Cumin

Braised Bacon

Sesame Dumplings

As you might guess, even though there were 15 of us, we left stuffed, and carrying a decent portion of the food home with us. Even with a smaller group, you wight want to use this model: just ask Han to select a balanced array of good dishes and see what you get. If you're bringing a large group, or would like something special, call ahead, and you might find even more rare delights being presented. You certainly can ask for certain things if something catches your fancy, but you'll do much better here if you keep an open mind.

One warning though: some of these dishes are seriously hot, and others have that unique Sichuan blend of heat and tingling, numbing sensation called "Ma La." It's very attractive to many people, even addictive, but can be a bit too much for others, or at least an acquired taste. So be sure to let your server know if you want your food full-on-traditionally spicy, or if you'd like to venture in more gradually.

Personally, I've become addicted to the spice. A few dishes, like the deep-fried shredded beef pictured above have a cumulative spice level that I can barely tolerate, but I can't stop eating them, and I find myself drawn back to the restaurant specifically for those dishes. A good beer makes a pleasing companion, one with a little sweetness seems even better.

Even if you're not a fan of spicy food, there are many things on this menu for you, just ask your server. Just be a little daring and try some traditional dishes, not the same old stuff that you can find at the Americanized places everywhere. Instead of General Tso's Chicken, try the Triple Delight Chicken (AKA Three Cup Chicken). Sure, it has bones in it, but it also has tons of flavor. The Tea-Smoked Duck has deeply complex flavor and an incredible texture, whether served plain or in a beer-based sauce. The Smoked Bacon and Leek has no chili heat, and isn't quite as decadent as it seems. OK, maybe it is pretty decadent, but it's also delicious, so skip the bacon for breakfast next time and get your diet back on track.

If your group is not feeling confident enough to dive into the deep end, go ahead and order some familiar things, but get at least one or two dishes you've never had, but that sound good. But another warning: your local strip-mall Chinese take-out place might start seeming pretty blah...

Han Dynasty (2)
70 Buckwalter RD
Royersford, PA 19468

and the original:

Han Dynasty
260 N. Pottstown Pike
Exton, PA 19341

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Sakura - Regional Chinese, and Sushi too

Sakura is a restaurant with multiple personalities. One might think from their name that they're a Japanese restaurant, but although they serve sushi, their main focus is on Chinese food. To add another layer of complexity, they serve Chinese food that draws from many parts of China. There are dishes that are typical of Shanghai, some from Sichuan, northern dishes, and the broad selection of Mandarin style typically seen in Beijing.

We chose to concentrate on the Chinese side of the menu, we're still a little unsure about the combination of Chinese food and sushi, we tend to want one or the other, not both at the same time. There's plenty to choose from on either side of the menu, so that was no hardship.

Even though we were concentrating on Chinese, they wanted us to try the special "Wasabi Roll" and kindly sent one out for us to try. It was filled with tempura shrimp and dressed with four sauces. My tablemates all said this was not the kind of sushi they normally order, but admitted that it was tasty!

We started the main meal with Shong Shao Fish Soup, which had a nice thick texture, tender fish, and a bright, complex herbal flavor.

The Scallion Pancake showed no evidence of scallions, but we didn't care, it was a wonderful version, very light and flaky, with many layers, the top adorned with sesame seeds.

House Shrimp were well-liked at the table.

Diced Chicken with Hot Pepper had some serious spiciness.

As did the Baby Shrimp Sautéed with House Spicy Sauce

The Braised Pork Shoulder is a favorite from Shanghai, with a deep, sweet glaze over the luxuriously fatty meat.

Lion's Head is another popular dish from Shanghai, and these baseball-sized meatballs were a flavorful version, despite being just a touch dry. The delicious sauce and braised bok choy compensated nicely.

Sautéed Water Spinach was bright and tender, the hollow stems of the vegetable soaking up the garlicky sauce.

Shanghai Pan-Fried Udon had a great texture from the large, firm noodles.
Steamed Fish with Ginger and Soy was very nicely done, featuring delicate fish, just barely cooked, flavored with a thin but flavorful sauce.
Chicken in Rice Wine Sauce was a favorite around the table. The cold chicken had picked up a pleasingly boozy, sweet flavor from the marinade, and its time in the wine had tenderized it perfectly.
Shanghai Marinated Duck was another cold dish with vivid flavors from a complex dark marinade.

We'd asked if they had any pickles, and these preverved vegetables had a bright sour kick that went well with many of these dushes,

For dessert, they sent a delicious sweet soup with tender tapioca and a touch of wine.

And finally, Banana Tempura. Warm, crunchy, sweet... what could be wrong with that?

Overall we thought the food was very good, and we're thrilled to see more regional Chinese on menus here. It's a big country, with many different traditions. Shanghai-style is represented well here, in fact we recognize some staff from Dim Sum Garden which also serves excellent dishes from Shanghai.

We're still not sure they need to serve sushi here, the menu is already very diverse, but I'm sure they'll find out whether there's a demand for it in this context. We'll be back to explore more of the menu, we barely scratched the surface, and who knows, maybe we'll even feel like some maki too...

1038 Race Street (on the corner of 11th Street)

(website under construction)