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Thursday, April 14, 2011

925 Race Street - Pearl Restaurant - Szechuan Noodles

As mentioned in this review, there's lots of turnover in this location, and sadly, Pearl didn't last long either... it's been replaced by a budget buffet... Oh well.. 

I could almost devote a blog to the comings and goings in this one storefront: it's been the home of a large number of exciting places. Sadly, none of them has stuck around for long.  I first was intrigued by it being the home of a dumpling place, one of those spots where you could get a plate-full for a buck, along with a stuffed scallion pancake, and other cheap and quick snacks.  That didn't last long...

Following that was one I was really pulling for: Zhi Wei Guan, who also called themselves the Magical Kingdom of Dough.   They served the food of Hangzhou, focusing at least initially on dumplings and other noodle dishes. They had some very tasty soup dumplings, and indeed some of the wontons and noodles were quite good, but I found their other dishes to be even better.  But... they didn't last too long either.  I miss them.

There probably was something in there in the interim, but it seems like only a few weeks ago, we were excited to try Tang's Kitchen, which seemed to feature a variety of traditions, but we especially liked their homey Taiwanese and Shanghainese dishes, like Three Cup Chicken and Lions Head meatballs. They made a passable version of soup dumplings as well, and even better: the fried juicy buns that looked like potstickers, but contained soupy, juicy interiors along with the pork filling (pictured at left.)  But... Tang's didn't last long... I swear it was only a few weeks,

We were saddened to see their awning go down, but when the new one went up, we had reason for at least cautious optimism: It said Pearl Restaurant - Szechuan Noodles.  No, it's not a new location for that fusion-y Vasian place on Chestnut st near Rittenhouse square that closed a while back, this is a whole different vibe, not a slickly designed scene with a club upstairs. 

But you don't need a doorman or a velvet rope to get my attention, the phrase Szechaun Noodles will do it!

It's not a big menu, and despite the subtitle of Szechuan Noodles, it's not exactly noodle-centric. The first part of the menu is indeed devoted to soups and other noodle dishes, but there are only 5 or 6 of them. The rest of the menu is made up of fairly sparse descriptions of ingredients, so it's never entirely clear what's going to arrive. There are hoagies, congees, and rice platters, a few vegetables, and a list of meats that just read, Quarter Chicken, or Pork Tongue, or Corned Beef.  Yep. Corned beef. 

More about that in a minute, but first, let's start with noodles! The first item on the menu is the Hot and Sour Crystal Noodle Soup, to which you can add pork, chicken or beef.  The noodles are clear, slippery, and fettuccini-sized, swimming in a slightly spicy broth, studded with ground pork and peanuts. A few slices of tender pork lay on top, marinade and grill-char cutting through the flavorful soup. This was quite good, and made us eager to try the rest) or just come back for this one again and again!)  
We ordered the Pig Tongue, but were told that they had run out. We might be too suspicious for our own good, but we wondered whether the chef just vetoed our order... I hope not, the pig tongue was a favorite dish at these tables back when it was Zhi Wei Guan, so I'd like to see what this version is like.  The waitress suggested the Quarter Chicken as a replacement.  We were surprised to discover that it was served cold, but not disappointed. It was delicately steamed, beautifully tender, and marinated in a light wine-based sauce.

A variety of cold vegetables were lightly pickled, a bright, refreshing accompaniment to the heavier foods. 

The most surprising item on the menu was Corned Beef.  It was indeed brined, and even had the salty, cured flavor of the item you might eat on St Patrick's day. In this case, it was simply sliced  and served warm, over some pickled radish and carrot. 

The flavor was mild, not especially exciting, but the combination of the lightly salty beef and the sour vegetables was pleasant enough.

We're eager to try more of the noodles, but also the sandwiches and rice platters.  Prices are more than reasonable, actually downright cheap - soups are $5-6, the meats at $6.95 are the most expensive items. There's lots for under $5.

It's an odd niche that this place has staked-out, but here's hoping that they can make a go of it in this location, where others have failed.  Philly can use as many Szechuan Noodles as it can get! 

Pearl Restaurant
925 Race St
Philadelphia, PA 

Regional Cuisine in Chinatown: Fuzhou

On the surface, the majority of restaurants in Philly's Chinatown appear to be variations on a theme: Americanized food, based loosely on Cantonese or Hong Kong style cooking. Of course, there are exceptions, like the Sichuan cuisine offered at Four Rivers, Szechuan Tasty House and E Mei, or the Shanghainese specialties at Dim Sum Garden and Sakura Mandarin.  There's Taiwanese food at Empress Garden, if you pick carefully, or can navigate the Chinese-only listings on the back page of the menu.  Various regional cuisines can be found on the menus of Rising Tide and Red Kings. And of course there are a few obvious non-Chinese places as well.

But among the many places that present themselves as the standard Chinese restaurant, there have long been rumors about the "other menu." It's often true:  many places that outwardly seem like clichéd  Americanized restaurants do offer more authentic food, sometimes on a menu written entirely in Chinese characters.  It's not generally a conspiracy to hide the good food from English-speakers, many of these restaurants simply believe that non-Chinese wouldn't be interested in eating the more traditional food.  When asking about it, it's not uncommon to hear "you wouldn't like that,"  and that opinion might be based on actual experience with unadventurous diners, as much as on vague generalizations about Americans' preferences. It's not without foundation that there are assumptions that Americans don't like meat with bones, or too much fat, or anything with unusual textures.

But sometimes the waitstaff can be quite happy to help you navigate the "other menu." Or even if they're not thrilled about the idea, they can sometimes be convinced to let you order the more Chinese-targeted dishes, and there are often large rewards to going off the familiar path.  But please, for the sake of all of us exploring these more traditional foods, if you're going to do this, play fair. If you order something that you've never had, it's not cool to send it back or refuse to pay for it.  You're exploring, you might get something you don't like.  Suck it up. Try it, even if it looks and smells nothing like you were expecting. If you really don't like it, chalk it up to experience. But you're going to make it harder for the rest of us if you try to send it back, or make a fuss about not liking it.

There are separate, traditional menus at many restaurants in Chinatown, but the majority of the places are still Cantonese. There's plenty of rewarding food to be found there, but we've been most interested lately to explore the cooking of some lesser-known regions. Lurking beneath the surface of some very generic-looking restaurants is the distinctive cooking of Fuzhou.

Perhaps the best example of hiding in plain sight is Chinatown Restaurant. Located at the corner of Tenth and Arch, right in the shadow of the Chinatown arch itself, it would be easy to dismiss this as the typical beef-and-broccoli, sweet-and-sour-chicken joint, serving up all of the usual-suspect dishes for low prices. A while back, we'd heard a rumor that they served the elusive Soup Dumplings (AKA  Shanghai Juicy Buns, or Xiao Long Bao) but when we asked about them they said no, and pointed us to their garden-variety dumplings on the Americanized menu.  But we recently noticed a poster on the wall with pictures of the juicy buns, so we decided to give it another shot.

We were once again provided with a small menu of Chinatown classics, but this time we asked more directly whether there was another menu. Our waitress said that yes there was another menu, that had different food, but did not offer to give it to us. When we directly asked to look at that one, she somewhat reluctantly agreed, and a whole other dimension opened up. The menu is in both Chinese and English, and despite a few perplexing translations,  it's mostly easily decipherable. And after expressing a real interest in those dishes, and asking for advice, the waitstaff was quite helpful, and enthusiastic about recommending things we might want to try.

I'm not sure whether Steamed Shanghai Juicy Buns are traditionally served in Fuzhou, but they make a very tasty version here. The wrappers are a bit thicker and less delicate than those at most of the traditional Shanghainese places, and the buns themselves are a bit smaller too, but this is not necessarily a bad thing: these seem to stay intact a bit better than some, we had no holes or leaks that resulted in soup-loss.  And good thing too, because the broth is delicious, as is the tiny meatball it surrounds. Overall, a very fine example of a juicy bun.

Turning that paradigm inside-out, we tried a Meatball soup, which featured a mild, but satisfying, broth,  which also included several small meatballs, each wrapped in what seemed like a very fine wonton wrapper.

On another visit, our server suggested the Jellyfish soup, explaining that jellyfish wasn't really the right term, that it was some other kind of fish. And indeed, this soup contained a nice light white fish of some sort, with a slightly unusual texture, but not that of what we think of as jellyfish. The broth was slightly sour, from pickled vegetables that also provided some crunch.  We were told that a little red vinegar would be good in it, and indeed, that added acid perked up the flavors nicely.

We did get some actual jellyfish, but prepared in a way we'd never experienced before. Not only were these cross-sections of the bodies, or heads, rather than the tentacles we're used to eating cold, but these pieces were stir-fried, and served hot.  They had the springy-crunchy texture we'd expected from this ingredient, but the shape, the tangy sauce, the temperature, and the inclusion of the surprising element of crunchy fried dough,  all made this a distinctive and very enjoyable dish.

Also from the sea, the Clams in Foo Chow Sauce were another favorite (pictured at top of post.) The tiny clams were perfectly tender, and the red wine-based sauce was unique and tasty.  As similar sauce was served on pieces of bone-in duck. This was almost as tasty, but it was one skinny duck, there just wasn't a ton of meat amongst the bones.

An Oyster Pancake reminded us of a Korean Haemul Pajeun, but with a nice funky, smoky overtone from what were either tiny oysters, or chopped-up pieces, along with scallion in a batter that was crisp in parts, tender and pliable in others.

One of the signature dishes of Fuzhou is Lychee Pork, and it's famous for good reason. It's kind of a really good sweet-and-sour, with a nice balance of fruity and tangy flavors, and no goopy sauce, more of a glaze over the crispy pork nuggets. This would be a crowd-pleasing dish, but was still interesting enough to please our jaded palates.

On the earthier side, we tried a Mutton Casserole, which had tender chunks of what was probably lamb, it didn't display the funkiness of a really old sheep, but it did have nice flavor, as did the broth, which had also soaked into some curls of tofu skin. Black mushrooms threatened to steal the spotlight though, almost tasting meatier than the mutton, making this a very hearty, rib-sticking dish, and a nice counterpoint to the sweeter pork.

We also had some stir-fried rice cakes with pork, and these were a very good version, with tender slabs of noodle interspersed with shredded pork and some greens. We also had some basic stir-fried pea shoots and similarly-prepared water spinach, which were both fine, if not distinctive.

There's plenty more to explore on the menu, and although it might be a small hurdle to convince the servers that you actually want to order the food from Fouzhou, once you do, they can be enthusiastic guides.


We faced a similar skepticism at Happy Restaurant, at 906 Arch St.  We were initially presented with a small and boring menu of Chinatown standards.  We asked for the other, larger menu, and our waitress somewhat grudgingly gave them to us, and was very skeptical about a few things that we ordered. But we eventualy convinced her that we did indeed want some of the food from Fuzhou, and we were well-rewarded. 

It was a little bit of a hard-sell to convince our server that we wanted the Pork Bone with Seaweed Soup. She scowled, and told us that there's really no meat on it, but we insisted, and were glad we did. It indeed might be off-putting to some people: there are large bones, with little or no meat on them, along with wide pieces of seaweed, tied in knots.  The broth is very thin, salty, and tastes mostly of the sea. We liked it quite a lot, but it's not a familiar-tasting soup, it was austere and exotic, odd and intriguing.

We tried their Beer Duck, which was similar to the Duck in FooChow sauce we had up the street, but we liked this one even better. The duck itself was a bit more substantial, and the sauce was a little looser, delicious soaked-up with rice.

Small chunks of spare ribs and cubes of taro soaked up a vaguely sweet sauce.  We liked them, even if they weren't especially distinctive.   Their version of stir-fried rice cakes was fine, if a little bland, as the dish can easily be. The only greens we could seem to get was another rendition of the snow pea shoots, this time with a some chicken broth and garlic. They were quite tasty, and I can never get tired of them, yet we try to find other greens when we can, just for the sake of variety.

 Happy's menu is even bigger than Chinatown Restaurant's, with many unfamiliar (to us, at least) offerings that bear further exploration.

There's nothing wring with Cantonese food, and the flavors of Sichuan are finally well-represented in Philly, thanks to Han Dynasty, E Mei, Four Rivers and Szechuan Tasty House.  But there are many more regional cuisines in China, and if you'd like to try the food of Fuzhou, you can find it at Chinatown Restaurant and Happy Restaurant.  Just ask for the "other menu." 

Chinatown Restaurant
935 Arch St (at 10th)
downloadable menu at:

Happy Restaurant
906 Arch St.
downloadable menu at:

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Despite my optimism, the Speck project crashed and burned shortly after this post, and never opened.  But if you are curious about what it might have been, these pix might give you an idea.. 

You can keep up with Shola's activities at his website:

At last, one of the most eagerly anticipated Philadelphia restaurants in years, Speck, the long-awaited showcase for the enigmatic chef Shola Olunloyo, seems to be finally on the verge of opening.

After many rumors over the course of several years, a few false starts, and a couple of  overly-optimistic estimates of an opening date, the project has understandably generated a bit of skepticism.  The folks at Speck are certainly not alone in experiencing delays before opening, or in being bad at predicting bumps in the road...  it's become a bit of a sport among the local foodies to guess when the new place by (insert random chef's name here) will actually open, as opposed to their  projected dates, but this particular journey has felt especially long. 

So what's the real opening date? I honestly don't know, but after a recent look around the space, it's inconceivable to me that it wouldn't be pretty soon: the restaurant looks ready to go, and I couldn't help but get the feeling of being in a race car revving its engine at the starting line. It's sleek, beautiful, with a lot of powerful tech under the hood, just waiting for the starter's flag to get waved.

Shola Olunloyo is best known for StudioKitchen, a private dining experience that combined the elegance of haute cuisine, the experimentation of an avant-garde testing/tasting lab and the exclusivity of an underground speakeasy. The small private dinners held under that name featured high-end ingredients, innovative cooking techniques, novel combinations of flavors, and close interactions with the chef. In addition to creating great food, those events offered a rare glimpse into the creative process itself.

I was lucky to have had the opportunity to attend many StudioKitchen dinners, most of which were documented in what became an epic communal thread on Those events still rank among the best dining experiences of my life. The intimacy of the communal table, the interaction with the chef, the exhilarating array of wines that generally were brought to accompany, all contributed to be sure, but the main attraction was the food itself.

I would periodically step back and try to make sure I wasn't confusing the thrill of membership in an exclusive club of sorts, for actual culinary excitement.  I found it reassuring to get confirmation from fellow diners who had traveled great distances to partake in the StudioKitchen phenomenon. No, they'd assure us, we Philadelphians weren't basking in some misplaced local pride, weren't merely under the influence of some sort of culinary reality distortion field; these visitors assured us that there was indeed something special going on. Any dining experience is the sum of many parts, but the food at StudioKitchen was the star, and a bright one.

Despite a widespread sadness among SK insiders over the prospect of losing this intimate experience, everyone knew that Shola's ultimate goal was to open a restaurant, and a more  commercial venue would certainly offer some advantages too.  It was no small undertaking to get a reservation and to organize a StudioKitchen dinner, and so the prospect Shola's cooking being more accessible has been quite appealing.

The good news is that Speck will retain much of the appeal of the original StudioKitchen, perhaps even improving upon it in some ways.  The main part of the restaurant will have an a la carte menu, from which one can choose one's own array of starters, soups salads and main courses, as one would do at any contemporary restaurant. But within Speck, StudioKitchen lives on. There are eight seats along a counter that overlooks the open kitchen. At that counter, a wide-ranging tasting menu will be served, featuring the kind of creative and innovative cooking that StudioKitchen was and is all about. A quick scan through the StudioKitchen blog will give you a sense of the kinds of techniques and ingredients one is likely to encounter.

Personally, I'm looking forward to both aspects. On one hand, it will be great to be able to have the StudioKitchen experience without having to wrangle an entire table full of companions, or find an open date in the first place.  (Of course, it remains to be seen how difficult it will be to score a reservation at that counter, the plan is for those seats to be reserved and pre-paid via the StudioKitchen website, and it's easy to imagine those limited seats being hard to book, but it's bound to be at least a little easier than the original! )

But I'm also looking forward to the less-intense Speck dining: just sitting at a table and ordering a few items from the menu. I haven't seen the final version of it, but some early prototypes were very appealing, featuring  a wide variety of items that ranged form casual snacks to formal entrées. It will surely be a very different thing than the sequence of polished jewels that is a Studio Kitchen tasting menu, but the ingredients and techniques share the same aesthetic, and the overall style should be familiar.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll find the occasional opening at the SK tasting counter, because in many ways this new set-up could be even more interesting to obsessive foodie types like me than the old set-up was. Seated on stools looking directly into the kitchen, one will get to observe the preparation of not only the multi-course tasting menu, but all the food for the entire restaurant.

It should be quite a show, there's some amazing equipment back there, and watching the cooks in action should be better than any Food Network program! The food that came out of the tiny, basic kitchen of the old SK was so good, the mind boggles at what Shola, and his talented staff, will produce on this state-of the art equipment. And it should be fun to watch too...

Even the adjoining dining room will share in the energy of the open kitchen - but the feel is otherwise quite serene. StudioKitchen regulars will recognize Shola's spare, clean style, expressed in subdued tones and warm woodwork. There may be fewer of the obsessive collections of ingredients and equipment than used to be on display in the old SK, but I'd be surprised if that aspect was completely absent!

But the overriding aesthetic tone is one of serene minimalism, which extends to the bar (still in the process of being stocked in this photo) featuring more of that dark wood. That area will almost certainly be more than just a waiting area for the restaurant, I expect it to be a prime spot for an innovative cocktail, or perhaps even a quick bite, offering yet another way to experience the food.

And lets not forget that the excitement IS about the food...  Shola seems to have become a controversial figure around Philly, and on the internet as well, but there's really no debate about his skills: the dude can cook...

I, for one, can't wait.

Except, I guess we'll have to, hopefully for just a little while longer.  I promise to post updates as I hear them.

Piazza at Schmidts
2nd and Wildey Streets (Northern Liberties)
Philadelphia, PA