Happy Birthday, Chester!

Chester officially hit his mid-thirties this weekend. All of a sudden, my turning 29 doesn’t seem all that bad.

We headed to Center City on Saturday afternoon to celebrate. Our first stop was Philly Chocolate for birthday treats. This lounge style café is the sister store to Philly Cupcake (where I had the best Pumpkin cupcake ever earlier this fall), and specializes in artisanal chocolates, gourmet baked goods, and chocolate drinks. It took over the space that was vacated several months ago by Naked Chocolate Café, which was one of my favorite places in the city for satisfying my sweet tooth.

While I think Philly Chocolate has a bigger selection than Naked—everything from basic truffles to chocolate covered Twizzlers to old fashioned lollipops to towering layer cakes—something was missing in the quality of the ingredients. We shared a brownie drizzled with milk chocolate, which was giant, but pretty average in terms of flavor. We also ordered hot chocolates. They were similar to what you would get at Starbucks and I was pretty disappointed that they used canned whipped cream (I know. I’m a snob. But seriously, how hard is it to get one of those cans with the nitrous oxide chargers to class things up a bit with homemade whipped cream?).

Birthday Boy!

I would probably go back if I needed a quick chocolate fix, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m still searching for something to fill the void left by Naked Chocolate. They promised that they were going to re-open soon, but so far, that hasn’t happened yet.

We made our way over to Macy’s to see the Holiday Light Show. Like most Philadelphians, I’ve been going to the light show since I was little (I’ve even got some of it memorized. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Marie who was given a Nutcracker for Christmas. She loved him very much because he could crack nuts between his teeth.” Impressive, right?) and it’s still one of my favorite things about the holiday season.

Then, we made our way down Walnut Street to Rittenhouse Square Park.

Our final stop was Williams-Sonoma, where Chester picked out his birthday gift—one of those fancy Boos butcher block cutting boards that he’s had his eye on for awhile. I know it kind of takes all the fun out of birthdays when you know what you are getting, but I know next to nothing about knives and all the stuff that goes with them and Chester is kind of the expert. Plus, I’ve got a lot of holiday cookies on my list that require chopping nuts and/or chocolate, and I hope that he’ll be enticed to lend me his chopping skills if he’s got cool new equipment.

Finally, it was time for dinner. While we were waiting in line at Morning Glory a couple of months back, we heard another group of people raving about a meal that they had recently had at Cochon, a French-inspired BYOB in Queen Village that specializes in pork. Chester later checked out Cochon’s menu and decided it was the perfect place for him to celebrate hitting the big 3-5 (and enjoying the fact that he can still enjoy rich foods for at least a few more years with minimal side effects).

All of Cochon’s pork products are house made, so while you can find a couple of beef, fish, and chicken dishes on the menu, the pig is the real reason to go there.  Chester was in charge of the wine, and he picked a really good French Pinot Noir (which I even remembered to ask him for the name of: Joseph Drouhin Chorey les Beanue). It was really smooth and fruity, and paired well with all of the pork-centric dishes.

Chester picked two of the evening’s specials as his first and second courses. For an appetizer, he had the blood sausage, pig cheek and pig’s feet croquette. He described it as eating “really good, flavorful lard.” It was fatty and rich, but because it was served warm, it melted in your mouth rather than being chewy. For an entrée, he had the pork loin, topped with fried egg and Roquefort cheese sauce. All of the flavors worked so well together. Lentils accompanied the dish. They aren’t Chester’s favorite starch, but they were a nice, light alternative to potatoes or a heavier starch, since the dish was already pretty rich.

For my appetizer, I had the potato herb gnocchi, with pig cheek. I’ve had a streak of good luck with melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi dishes lately (for example, at Le Castagne and Talula’s Garden), and Cochon’s version continued this trend. The pig cheek gave the dish some additional saltiness and substance. Then, I had the pork chop. It was fried in bacon fat (yes, bacon does make everything better), which gave the dish an extra crunch and richness and kept the moisture sealed into the meat. It was served with rice, with bits of sausage mixed in. It was probably the best pork chop I’ve ever had in my life.

We saved room to share two desserts, if you can believe it. One was a banana walnut bread pudding, topped with brown sugar ice cream. The streak of bacon-caramel sauce on the plate made an excellent drizzle for the ice cream, but the bread pudding was actually more like a mini-bundt cake. It was pretty tasty, but the second dish–the poor man’s pudding—was outstanding. This dish features a shortbread dough, which is baked in a deep dish and topped with bacon maple caramel sauce and a scoop of bacon ice cream. The whole dish is served warm so all of the salty-sweet flavors melt together. It might be up there with Barbuzzo’s salted caramel budino for my favorite dessert of 2011.

All in all, Cochon is pretty freaking amazing. The food was outstanding, the meal was paced just right and our server could not have been nicer or more helpful as we tried to narrow down the options.

A couple of caveats: the menu is pretty small and the emphasis on pork dishes might not please every palate, so be sure you know your group before you make a reservation (or just leave the picky eaters at home). In addition, parking is a bitch in the area. The neighborhood is mostly residential, and on a weekend evening when more people were home, street parking was impossible to come by. We ended up parking at a lot on Bainbridge, a couple of blocks away, which was $20 (so much for the savings you usually can count on by going to a BYOB). Finally, the restaurant is cash-only so swing by an ATM on your way there.

All in all, I think we ushered in the second half of Chester’s 30s on a good note (no, I can’t resist the references to his age).

On a sentimental note—Checkter, I love you very much. I’m glad that I’ve had you by my side for the last (almost) seven years so that I haven’t had to eat, travel, and watch bad television all alone. I’m looking forward to many more.

Restaurant Review: a.kitchen

Last week, I turned 29.

There I said it.

For the past few years when my birthday was on the horizon, I would joke that I was turning 26 again, that it was my third 26th birthday, etc. You see, I had a pretty amazing year when I was 26 (got engaged, bought a house, finished graduate school, etc.) and I decided that I was going to stay that age forever. Recently though, I was starting to realize that I was confused about my own age. I caught myself in a lie more than once when someone asked my age, and I replied 26, without even thinking.

So, it’s time to embrace the fact that 26 has gone for good.

I’m 29.

I’m in my late 20s.

I’m almost 30.

What a sad fact. Ugh.

I had to work on my actual birthday (very long road trip to D.C. and back), so I planned a fun weekend with my family, instead. Friday night, Chester and I kicked it off with dinner at a.kitchen, located in the new AKA boutique hotel in Rittenhouse Square. It had been on our radar screen to try for awhile, but a recent glowing three-bell review from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig LaBan quickly pushed it up to the top of our list.


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I’ve seen my fair share of hotel restaurants in recent years, and this does not fit the typical mold. The head chef is Bryan Sikora, who was previously the chef and co-owner of Django and Talula’s Table (before he and Amy Olexy got divorced. Oh, the drama.). I would agree with the critics, who have found it pretty hard to classify what a.kitchen is all about. The menu blends various types of cuisines—Italian, French, Spanish—and seems to have the same relaxed, modern vibe and focus on seasonal ingredients that are staples of Philadelphia’s array of farm to table restaurants.

Clearly, though, the buzz about a.kitchen has spread around the city. Every table was full when we arrived at 8 p.m. and potential customers who stuck their heads in to inquire about the wait time were told that it stretched toward 10 p.m. Although small inside (we were seriously invading the personal space of the bar patrons while we waited for our table), the interior of the restaurant is warm and inviting, with classic oak, steel, and marble furnishings throughout. We ended up being seated at the ten-seat counter around the open kitchen, where we could take in all of the action. The line of chefs behind the counter, expertly manned the pasta, grill, salad, and dessert stations throughout the night, without bumping into each other once.

The menu was divided into three sections—vegetable, fish, and meat.  If you are indecisive, you can choose from one of two pre-set tasting menus that feature one dish from each section of the menu, plus dessert. Since I couldn’t even make up my mind about what to choose from the vegetable section, I opted for one of these menus.

My first course was a scallop dish. Although they were seared to perfection (none of that rubbery texture that comes from being overcooked) and seasoned well, they weren’t extremely memorable. I wondered what Craig LaBan had seen in his visits that I was missing.

Once I sampled the next two dishes, it was clear that the scallops were just meant to be a warm-up.

First up was Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. How could a dish with just five simple ingredients be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten? The homemade pasta was the perfectly al dente and the ratio of butter, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese was just right. This would be one of those dishes I would love to make at home, but would never be able to do justice.

Next, came the Lamb Loin, with Treviso and Black Olives. The squares of lamb were cooked to a lovely shade of pink in the center, and they were plump enough to absorb all of the juice they were cooked in. The slightly sweet sauce played well with the treviso, which is a slightly bitter herb, and the salty olives. All in all, it was a perfect combination of flavors that appealed to every tastebud.

Finally, dessert was three almond macaroons served atop a date puree. I would have rather had the chocolate panna cotta that came with the other pre-set menu, but I did enjoy the chewy, nutty cookies. I tried the dates and decided that I still don’t care for them.

Meanwhile, since Chester is better at making up his mind than I am, he chose his own dishes. Which of course, I sampled.

First up were the spiced potatoes, which were paired with a very citrusy mayo. These would make a nice happy hour snack, but were really nothing remarkable. Next up was the frisee salad with pork belly and poached egg. I know that Chester would have preferred the pork belly to come as a big, thick slab rather than diced up throughout the salad, but I liked that the poached egg made the greens warm (like my old favorite, the warm chicken salad, that used to be on the menu at Pod).

Like my scallops, these two courses were just place holders for the rest of the meal.

Next up was the tender, flavorful grilled octopus. Like scallops, octopus can become rubbery if it’s left to cook for too long. Not the case at a.kitchen, where it was tender and flavorful. It was served with chickpea fries. I first sampled these at the now defunct Noble where they were tough and flavorless. a.kitchen’s were melt-in-your-mouth perfection. I would take a side of them with a burger (over French fries) any day.

The final dish was venison. Chester loved it, and the little bite I had was pretty amazing. It was lean and tender and didn’t have the gamey taste that I expected.

The one negative I would mention is that the service was a bit lacking at some points. There were a lot of staff members milling around the dining room, but it didn’t seem like some of them were doing anything. Our primary waiter disappeared for long stretches of time (and put the wrong salad order in for Chester the first time around. Luckily, the kitchen staff hustled to get it out) and it was often awhile before another server came over to refill glasses and clear plates.

Given some of the so-so dishes and uneven service, I still don’t completely know where LaBan is coming from with the three-bell review. Nevertheless, a.kitchen is absolutely worth a visit (even if it’s not your birthday) and is my favorite of the new places I’ve tried recently. If you don’t already have it on your list of restaurants to try, add it. If it’s already there, bump it up. The beauty of this restaurant is that it just offers simple dishes that are well prepared and beautifully presented. Really, a.kitchen doesn’t have a gimmick, and I guess that’s what makes it so refreshing.

Restaurant Review: Nam Phuong and a bit of Capogiro

On Saturday, I had to work all day (I’ve become a bit spoiled, actually, as I haven’t had to work on a weekend since before leaving DU.) and when I left, it was dark and chilly, my feet were killing me, and I was tired and hungry. Chester suggested going out for Pho, and I thought it was the best idea ever.

We headed to Nam Phoung (1100 Washington Avenue), which we discovered shortly after moving to South Philly. The restaurant has been around for more than 20 years, and bills itself as “the best Vietnamese restaurant in Philadelphia.” Evidently, more than a few people agree, since it’s always packed when we go.

Some people swear by chicken soup, but I’m convinced that a heaping bowl of Pho from Nam Phoung is the cure for whatever ails you. The broth is rich with beef and ginger flavor, but is not salty at all. I usually order mine with chicken, and Chester prefers the Deluxe version, with steak, flank, brisket, tendon, beef tripe, and beef meatballs. A side dish of Vietnamese basil, lime wedges, bean sprouts, and mint and assorted condiments are placed on each table so that you can season it to your taste and preferred level of spiciness.

In addition to the soup, we really enjoy the spring rolls, with shredded pork, and the summer rolls with shrimp and chicken. The former is served with a rich peanut based dipping sauce that I’m pretty sure would be amazing on just about anything.

Nam Phoung has yet to disappoint, and best of all, it’s pretty inexpensive. Dinner for the two of us (two appetizers and two soups) adds up to less than $20. Service is friendly and efficient and there is also free parking in the adjacent lot.

After this most recent visit, we took the money that we didn’t spend on dinner and headed over to Capogiro (1625 E. Passyunk) for dessert. I suggest you do the same. At some point, I’ll need to devote a whole post to the love I have for Capogiro. Their gelatos are made with fresh ingredients that make them well worth the price tag.

Nutella and Peanut Gelato

I was all better after that.

On the Road: New Hampshire

When Chester and I are on vacation, we usually spend some of the time thinking about where we’ll go next. When we were in Pittsburgh over Labor Day, we came up with the idea of a trip to New England to see the fall foliage. We mentioned the idea to my BFF and her husband, since they live in Boston. Turns out, Bridget and Bill had the same idea for a fall vacation. We decided that we would all head up to New Hampshire and rent a cabin for a long weekend.

We flew up to Boston and then drove about two hours or so up to Lincoln, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains. Bridget and I had scouted cabins online, and I think we made a pretty good pick with Green Village Cabins. The cabins were pretty tiny, but clean, comfortable, and centrally located to all the major attractions in the area.

Then, we spent the weekend doing festive fall things.

We picked apples.

Took in nature at the Lost River Gorge and Caves.

Drove along the Kancamagus Highway.

Saw rainbows (three to be exact!)

Encountered wildlife.

Drove half-way up Mount Washington (it was too windy to go all the way up), the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. And nearly froze.

Of course, we ate. A lot.

Cider Donuts!

Before we left Boston, we stocked up on fancy meats and cheeses at Formaggio Kitchen. Combined with the apples we had picked, wine (for me and Bridget) and beer (for Bill and Chester), we had some pretty awesome nighttime snacks while playing Apples to Apples and Catch Phrase.

We were all kind of craving comfort food throughout the weekend. It must have been the chill in the air. Luckily, the vast majority of the restaurants in the area seemed to specialize in this type of cuisine. For lunch, we just grabbed whatever we happened to be near, but we had really good dinners each night.

On the first night, we ate at the Adair Country Inn and Restaurant, in the nearby town of Bethlehem. The restaurant is casual, but elegant, and its menu showcases local ingredients and specialties. We all ended up doing the three course menu option (you can choose as few as two courses or as many as five) which included an appetizer, salad, and entrée.  My whole meal was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed my spinach salad, mostly because it had dried cranberries, and the entrée, the Haddock New Bedford, which was lightly breaded with cornmeal, and served with a tomato, clam, and chorizo topping. For dessert, we all shared the apple-popover bread pudding. The texture was very light, and it wasn’t as sweet as some other bread puddings that I’ve had. The tartness and natural sweetness of the apples really came through, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of extra sugar added.

Toasting the Weekend!

The second night, we went to the Common Man, which is actually a restaurant chain in New England. The rustic furnishings and homey feel of the place reminded me of the Cracker Barrel—which I hate—so I was a bit skeptical. But the food was far superior. The menu is pretty extensive, and features everything from soups and salads, to lobster mac-and-cheese, to ribs and steak. I had the meatloaf which was served with a rich tomato based pan gravy and topped with caramelized onions. I can’t imagine anything that would have tasted better after a day of being outdoorsy.

The Woodstock Inn Brewery was our final dinner of the trip. I think Bridget was probably the only one who was not totally happy with her dish—sesame maple scallops, served over linguine. It was…interesting, and not in an entirely good way (it kept making me think of that scene from Elf, where he douses his spaghetti in maple syrup). I enjoyed my chile glazed salmon, since it was a change of pace from the heavier dishes I had been eating. The Brewery also featured a selection of Wellingtons, which the boys both enjoyed.

On the last day of our trip, before getting on the road back to Boston, we sought out a pancake house. A lot of places had closed for the season, but, luckily, we found Flapjack’s Pancake House. Best. Pancakes. Ever.

Cranberry Apple Flapjacks

The whole weekend was very relaxing, but Monday rolled around so quickly, and it was time to go home. It was so nice to spend some time with our friends and I’m looking forward to being able to do it again soon!

Restaurant Review: Spread Bagelry

I love bagels. So, when I first heard that Spread Bagelry would be coming to the Rittenhouse Square area, it immediately went on my list of places to try. However, three days after opening in May, a small fire broke out in the shop and it ended up closing for repairs for a bit. Chester and I finally got around to trying it out for lunch last week.

Spread specializes in Montreal-style bagels, which are hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, and baked in wood-fired oven. At first glance, the only thing that seems to differentiate this kind of bagel from the typical New York style bagel is the larger hole. But, it’s, chewier, lighter and sweeter than that variety. Spread offers plain, sesame, poppy, everything, whole wheat, whole wheat everything, and a sweet daily special.

Toppings include Amish cream cheese (plain and flavored), butter, jam, peanut butter, smoked salmon, bacon/turkey bacon, tomato, onion, and apple slices. I chose to keep things simple and opted for the mixed berry variety, last week’s featured special, on my whole wheat bagel. It was light and fluffy and studded with bits of blueberry throughout. And, there was a lot of it.

Spread also offers a variety of sandwiches and melts. Chester had the Bagelry Club, with roasted turkey, cheddar, apple slices, and bacon on a whole wheat bagel.  All of the ingredients were fresh—the apples were a particularly nice touch—but we both would have preferred it as a melt. Although this didn’t seem to be an option, maybe next time, we’ll ask.

Also, they serve La Colombe coffee. It’s self-serve, and unlimited. Bonus points.

The line was out the door during our week day lunch visit, so I can only imagine what it’s like at breakfast and on weekends. There were more than half a dozen staff members milling around behind the counter, but only one person taking orders (who was a bit on the slow side. She kind of stared down at her notepad for almost 30 seconds before asking if she could help us). It all seemed a bit disorganized. But, the staff members were all very friendly. There seemed to be quite a few regulars around, and the owners went out of their way to chat with them.

While the bagels are pretty good and offer a change of pace from what you find at Dunkin Donuts (whose bagels I actually happen to like) or Manhattan Bagel, they are pricey. One bagel will run you $2 and a half-dozen come in at $10. Then, you’ll need to add on an extra $3 or so for a spread. Sandwiches are about $8 or more.

Ultimately, I think Spread offers a great concept and product, I don’t know that the long wait and the price tag are justified. Maybe I’ll stop by every once in awhile, but I won’t necessarily go out of my way. They’re just bagels.

Restaurant Review: Meritage

We had one last hurrah for Restaurant Week, this past Friday evening, with dinner at Meritage Restaurant and Wine Bar, located a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. This was my favorite of the four places that I visited during the last two weeks.

Anne Coll, the executive chef, spent time at the now closed Susanna Foo (which, sadly, I never got to visit), and has created a menu at Meritage that blends French techniques with Asian flavors. The menu changes seasonally, and features ingredients that are sourced by the chef herself from local farms and vendors.

The vibe of the restaurant is casual and relaxed. The bar area at the front was packed when we arrived. Judging from the laughter and banter between the bar patrons and the staff, I got the sense that this is a neighborhood hangout. I liked that the dining room is located towards the back of the restaurant, which separates it from the bar area and minimizes the noise. It was a warm, inviting, tiny space, and reminded me of some of the South Philly restaurants that are located in old houses.

There is an extensive selection of wines by the bottle (most under $50) and the glass (all about $10). If you are the kind of person that likes to pair a different wine with each dish, there is no shortage of options. We stuck to the basics with a Cabernet for Chester and a Chenin Blanc for me.

Meritage’s Restaurant Week menu was very impressive. Sometimes, restaurants eliminate the pricier (to keep the costs to $35) or more labor intensive items on the menus during these two weeks. This wasn’t the case at Meritage, where foie gras, scallops, escargot, and other high end ingredients were showcased prominently throughout the menu.

I started with the roasted butternut squash soup, with ginger and apples. The soup itself was thick and velvety, with a slightly nutty flavor. There were bits of apple in each bite, and it was topped with a crispy shrimp fried wonton—I would have eaten a whole plate of those on their own and I don’t even like shrimp that much. Chester, meanwhile, enjoyed the red wine braised escargot. They had already been removed from the shell and they didn’t have the same briny flavor as the ones we sampled on vacation this summer. But they were prepared so that they were perfectly tender, and served with a flavorful garlic puree that brought back memories of France.

For an entrée, I ordered the seared mahi mahi, which was accompanied by a lemongrass beurre blanc. The fish itself was well seasoned and tender, and wasn’t swimming in the rich, flavorful sauce (Audrey Claire take note). I liked that I could dip the fish in the sauce, kind of like how I like to eat my salads with the dressing on the side. The fish was served with a fricassee of white corn, summer squash, and herbs. Chester has the red wine braised beef short ribs, with smashed new potatoes, button mushrooms, and baby carrots. The beef was well seasoned, and like the fish, wasn’t so overly sauced that the taste of the meat was obscured.

Finally, I had the chocolate peanut butter bomb for dessert. This was a smooth peanut butter mousse—that looked heavy, but was actually surprisingly light—enrobed in a chocolate shell. It was a little difficult to crack it open and eat it with a spoon, and I had to be careful that I didn’t send it flying across the room. It was served with a side of current jam and a creamy, slightly caramelized meringue. Chester had the pot de crème, which was served with a homemade chocolate dipped biscotti. The biscotti was a little bland, in my opinion, but the pot de crème, with a combination of milk chocolate and cinnamon was delicious.

Service was attentive throughout the evening, but it was just a tad too fast for my liking. We were in and out in just about an hour, and I would have liked to linger just a little bit longer between each course. Still, that’s the nature of Restaurant Week. I’m sure that they had other reservations coming in after us and needed to turn the tables over. Overall, I felt like we got a true taste of the kinds of creative dishes that the restaurant is capable of producing on a regular basis, and I would be glad to return to Meritage again.

So, fall Restaurant Week may be over, but at least we’ve only got a couple of months to go until the next one. Usually, there is one in early winter, around January or February. By then there will probably be a dozen or more new restaurants on my list of places to try.

Restaurant Review: Audrey Claire

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I’ve had a busy schedule for Restaurant Week this time around. What can I say, I’m pretty popular and everyone wants to have dinner with me.

To kick off the second week, I met up with a group of my girlfriends—Rhonda, Gab, and Lauren—for dinner at Audrey Claire. We try to get together for dinner every month, but this was an extra special occasion as we celebrated that Gabby will be tying the knot in just a couple of weeks!

Audrey Claire is a tiny BYOB, located right on the corner of 20th and Spruce in the Rittenhouse Square area. Everything about the restaurant—from the bowls of green apples and vases of sunflowers perched on the windowsills, to the rustic furniture, to the food—is overwhelmingly simple. And, that’s part of its charm. If you plan to go, be aware that the restaurant is cash only, and does not take reservations on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The menu draws heavily from ingredients, herbs/spices, and dishes from the Mediterranean region. I had an amazing mushroom risotto on my first visit a couple of months ago, and I was looking forward to ordering that—or some other version of risotto—again. But alas, it wasn’t included on the menu. That’s the way it is during Restaurant Week sometimes—a more limited menu that tends to eliminate the things that take a lot of time to prepare and/or that would make it difficult to keep the dinner price down to $35. Oh well.

For an appetizer, I ordered the seared haloumi, which is a cheese from Cyprus that’s made from a combination of goat and sheep’s milk. The cheese is slightly salty and stays pretty firm even when grilled or fried. It was served with candied dates and sesame compote, which made for a nice combination of salty and sweet.

For an entrée, I had the shallot crusted lemon sole. It had a bit too much butter and not enough lemon for my liking. Also, to me, the term “crusted,” implied that the shallots would somehow be incorporated into the breading. But, they were instead fried and placed on top of the fish. And, there were a lot of them. They reminded me of those French’s onions that sometimes go on top of green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. It was served with green beans that had a nice crunch, and a couscous that was kind of bland. I kind of wished I had followed Rhonda’s lead and ordered the tuna, which didn’t seem to be heavily sauced and looked to be cooked perfectly on the rarer side, just as she requested.

For dessert, I chose the cinnamon white chocolate bread pudding. I think that the white chocolate was part of the glaze, but I honestly couldn’t really pick up on it. But, it was deliciously warm and sweet, the bread was slightly chewy, and the cinnamon flavor made it the perfect dessert for the transition into fall. Maybe they would give me the recipe to add to the ever growing list of fall baking projects I’ve been lining up.

While I’ve enjoyed the overall experience both times that I’ve been to Audrey Claire, I do think that the food gets more hype than it deserves. There are plenty of other places with a similar atmosphere and concept that have far more to offer in terms of food (such as the highly underrated Southwark in Queen Village or Fond on Passyunk Avenue).

As a side note, Audrey Claire Taichman (the owner) also owns two other places right on the same block of Spruce: Twenty Manning and Cook. I last went to Twenty Manning years ago, and wasn’t impressed. But, it’s since undergone a renovation and menu redesign, and I’m willing to give it another try. Cook is a boutique, bookstore, and collaborative kitchen, where celebrity chefs from around the area will be teaching classes. I’m looking forward to checking that out this fall!

Restaurant Review: Sampan

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Chester and I continued Restaurant Week(s) with dinner at Sampan in Midtown Village, which offers a contemporary spin on traditional Asian street foods. The menu is wide-ranging and features interpretations of dishes from all over the continent, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

For Restaurant Week, Sampan is offering its seven course chef’s tasting menu, plus dessert, for $35 per person. Your entire party agrees on which dishes to order from the various sections of the menu: two from the small plates section and one from each of the satay, meat, cold and hot, fish, and sides sections. This was a great way for us to sample a variety of dishes, since we were finding it pretty tough to narrow things down.

The first few plates that were brought out were pretty tiny. We joked that we might have to stop at the diner on the way home. But, towards the end of the meal, the dishes got progressively larger and more filling. Some dishes fared better than others in terms of taste, execution, and presentation.

We sampled:

  • The “Philly Cheesesteak”—I think this has appeared on a few of those “must try” dishes in Philly lists, but it was just okay. It was kind of like cheesesteak bruschetta—a crispy bao bun is topped with shredded short rib, shallot, sriracha, and shredded provolone cheese. It was a creative concept, but I think that it would have been better if a rib eye was used, instead of the short rib.

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  • Kobe Beef Satay—This was also a “miss.” Although the beef was well seasoned and paired well with the apricot dipping sauce, the meat was way overdone and none of the rich fattiness that makes Kobe so wonderful was there.
  • Crab Wonton Taco—A crispy wonton shell holds a refreshing combination of crab salad, avocado, cilantro, and pickled shallots. This was one of the best executed, tastiest, and creative concepts that we tried.
  • Pho Dumplings—Another well executed concept. Four small dumplings were filled with short rib and served in a pho broth. When you spooned a dumpling into your mouth, you got all of the rich flavors of a traditional pho soup in one tiny bite.
  • Lobster Stir-fry—The chef wasn’t stingy with the lobster by any means, as there was a chunk of it in each bite. I would have chosen a different kind of starch to accompany the dish. The egg noodles that came with it were a bit burnt and clumped together. I’m not sure if this is what they were going for, but it was a bit tricky to eat, and just looked sloppy.
  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts—I don’t like brussel sprouts, normally, but everyone who has been to Sampan seems to rave about them, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try them. I promptly told Chester that we could have brussel sprouts all the time if they were prepared this way. They are served in a slightly salty, spicy fish sauce and cooked until they are just a bit soft, but not mushy (that would be gross). The puffed rice gives them a bit of extra crunch.
  • Pork with Pineapple Rice—this was the largest dish, and I’m glad it came at the end when we weren’t totally full yet. The pork was perfectly cooked—juicy and tender, with just a bit of pink at the center and the sweet pineapple rice was a nice complement.

It seemed odd to have something as quintessentially American as soft-serve ice cream in little sugar cones finish off the meal, but I enjoyed the featured flavor choices: chocolate peanut butter and vanilla grape jelly. They must have known I was coming that night. They use some pretty good quality ingredients to get the flavors just right, particularly for the grape, which actually tasted like the fruit and not some artificial syrup.

In the end, we left very satisfied. The kitchen staff did a great job of pacing the meal appropriately and staggering the larger dishes to preserve our appetites. The service from the wait staff was friendly, but a bit uneven at times (a long wait sometimes for drinks from the bar, for example), but the restaurant was packed and it was a Friday during Restaurant Week, so that is to be expected.

The interior of the restaurant is dark, sleek, and pretty, which creates a casual, if a bit trendy, atmosphere. The centerpieces of the main dining areas are the color-shifting walls (a la Stephen Starr’s Pod Restaurant in University City) against which are placed the silhouettes of bare trees. You know what was really weird though? The bathrooms. Each one is its own individual stall, but the weird thing is that the pipe in the audio from movies. They were playing clips from one of my favorite movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” (“Hey Napoleon, what did you do last summer again?” I told you, I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!”). It was amusing, but really just weird to have people talking above your head while you are in the bathroom.

Sampan also has a small outdoor patio—the Graffiti Bar—tucked into the rear of the restaurant, that offers a rotating selection of cocktails and $2 appetizers during happy hour. I would gladly return for that to sample some more of the creative dishes on the menu. There are definitely some things that I would not order again, but I’m confident that there are some other stand-outs on the menu that I didn’t have a chance to try on this visit.

Restaurant Review: Le Castagne

This is favorite times of year in Philly. Yes, fall is officially here, for me anyway, since I had my first Pumpkin Spice Latte on Friday. But, it’s also Restaurant Week. This week and next, restaurants in Center City offer three course lunches and dinners, for $20 and $35, respectively. Restaurant Week(s) also happen in early winter, and it’s a great opportunity to try out new places or revisit old favorites.

To kick off the festivities this time around, I got together with two of my friends from Drexel, Jeff and Lara, for dinner at Le Castagne. Although I’ve been to Le Castagne, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, a couple of times before, I’ve only just made the connection that it’s name means “chestnut” in Italian, and it’s located on Chestnut Street. How clever (I’m blonde. These things take me awhile, okay?).  Northern Italian is characterized by the use of butter (rather than olive oil), cream sauce (rather than tomato), starches other than pasta (including risotto, gnocchi, and polenta), and game animals. Le Castagne offers modern, upscale interpretations of these traditional dishes, while still preserving the hearty, rustic ingredients and flavors that characterize this region of Italy.

While we sipped our drinks, Lara and Jeff caught me up on everything that’s happening at good old DU. It seems that my presence is appropriately missed at the Paul Peck Alumni Center, and that makes me happy. Jeff is friends with the chef, and he was nice enough to send out a plate of antipasti for us to share. It included grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, olives, prosciutto, salami, and bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

For an appetizer, I ordered gnocchi. I’ve tried my fair share of gnocchi at restaurants all around Philly, and Le Castagne’s is easily my favorite. Sometimes, gnocchi gets so overworked that the dumplings end up heavy and dense. Gross. Le Castagne gets the preparation just right. There were two versions on the menu when we visited—one with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella (alla Sorrentina) and one served in a white truffle cream sauce (al Tartufo). I ordered that latter. The gnocchi were pillowy and tender—they practically melted in my mouth—and although the sauce resembled an alfredo, it was much lighter and far more flavorful. The portion was very generous for a starter dish.

For an entrée, I had the timballo of slow-braised lamb. The traditional preparation of this dish features a meat filling, encased in pasta or rice and baked with cheese and vegetables. Le Castagne offers a different take. Shredded lamb is served with wild mushrooms and topped with a poached egg. The whole thing is placed on top of garlic crostini. While the cheese and pasta are missing, the earthy, rustic flavors are all still there. The only thing I didn’t really care for was that the crostini got very mushy from soaking up all the juices from the lamb, but that’s a minor point.

Finally, came a trio of desserts—a square of cheesecake with blueberry sauce, a cannoli, and tiramisu. I am not usually a fan of tiramisu, so I was surprised that it was actually my favorite of the three pastries in this instance. Instead of the traditional multilayered preparation, one small circle of cake was topped with whipped mascarpone cheese, and dusted with cocoa powder. It resembled the top of a cupcake and did not have the overpowering liquor flavor that I dislike about tiramisu.

Service was friendly, professional, and attentive, even as the restaurant began to fill up later on the evening. Restaurant Week or not, Le Castagne is definitely worth a visit.

Restaurant Review: Taqueria Veracruzana

They say that you shouldn’t go food shopping when you are hungry, or you’ll just buy all kinds of junk food. I would also add that you shouldn’t watch the Cooking Channel while you are hungry, or there’s a possibility that you might not be able to stop yourself from eating the entire contents of your refrigerator. Luckily, on Friday, pizza was on its way while we were watching United Tastes of America, or that might have become a very real scenario in our house. Burritos were the topic of the show that night, and they all looked so amazing that we decided that we would have to have them at some point over the weekend (obviously, we’re a marketer’s dream. It’s amazing we don’t have a house full of “As Seen on TV” products).

Taqueria Veracruzana (908 Washington Avenue) in South Philly had been on our list of places to try for awhile, and it seemed like the perfect place to satisfy our television induced burrito cravings. It’s located in the Italian Market, which has undergone something of a transition in recent years, and now includes a variety of Mexican and Asian grocery stores and restaurants in addition to the Italian butchers and kitchenware stores that have been in the Market for decades.

We went with the sole intent of having burritos, but the menu does feature a variety of other Mexican specialties, including breakfast, tacos, moles, and enchiladas. While we waited for our order, we snacked still warm tortilla chips, red chipotle salsa, and salsa verde. Both of the salsas were a bit too spicy for me. Next time I go back, I’ll have to order some guacamole or pico de gallo so I have at least one mild option.

I got a chicken burrito and Chester got steak. Both were stuffed to the point of bursting (and mine actually did. I had to eat most of it with a fork!) with refried beans, rice and avocado. The only thing I found odd was that they used American cheese. I guess it’s got the same sort of mild flavor that queso fresco has, but I didn’t expect it, since everything else seemed pretty authentic.

If you go, don’t get scared by the way it looks outside (a bit sketchy and grimy, especially at night); the interior is brightly decorated, well maintained, and clean. As a note, you can stop by the creepy looking store down the street for alcoholic beverages, since the restaurant is a BYOB—but that place is actually sketchy and grimy, so do so at your own risk. I’ve pretty much decided that this is going to be my go to place for burritos from now on. The quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the reasonable prices, make it a much better option than Qdoba and Chipotle. I hope to go back soon to try some more items on the menu.