Getting a Facelift…


I had been really been worried about the lines that seem to have crept up around my eyes lately, so I decided to get a little nip/tuck done. I hope that the bruising and swelling goes down in time for the holidays. That won’t look very nice in photos, now will it?

Just kidding. I’m a total wuss and could never take the pain.

But, my blog did get a little work done recently!

Chester knows how much I’ve been enjoying blogging, so as part of my birthday gift, he had it redesigned and registered a domain name for it.

So, please update your bookmarks, RSS feeds, Google Reader subscription settings, etc. to my new home on the Internets: And, if you don’t already subscribe, now’s a good time to do so! (Special note for mom and aunt, there’s a little box in the second section on the right hand sidebar where you can enter your e-mail address. It’s easy.).

I worked with Katie Lane at Dream Up Studios on the design. She captured all of my preferences and design ideas (not that I had any real idea what I wanted) perfectly! It’s so much better than the standard WordPress template I had before.

Let me know what you think of the new look! I still have a few tweaks to make, such as adding pages and such, but I think it’s pretty much all set otherwise.

Hope you all are enjoying reading Pass the Spork as much as I enjoy writing it.

Recipe: Chocolate Espresso Sugar Cookies

As I’ve mentioned before, Chester’s preferences for desserts are not as wide ranging as mine. But, he’ll never turn down a cookie. So, instead of a birthday cake, I offered to make cookies instead.

He browsed through some of my cookbooks and came across a recipe for mocha shortbread cookies. They sounded great, but as I reviewed the contents my baking cabinet, I realized that I didn’t have all of the ingredients on hand. All was not lost, however, as I had everything I needed for sugar cookies.

I added cocoa powder and espresso powder to a really simple sugar cookie recipe that I discovered around the holidays last year. The end product was pretty amazing. The coffee and chocolate combo provided a rich flavor and the texture was somewhere between a cookie and a brownie—crisp around the edges and chewy in the middle. I sprinkled the tops with extra espresso powder while the cookies where still warm for a bit of an extra kick, but you could skip this is you don’t want the espresso flavor to be too strong.

Baking a practice batch of cookies really got me in the mood for holiday baking. I’ve got four types of cookies on my list to make this year: chocolate with white chocolate chips, peanut butter sandwich with chocolate ganache, roll-out butter, and lemon. Hopefully, they’ll all turn out well and I can share the results! What’s on your list to bake this year?

Chocolate Espresso Sugar Cookies

Adapted from McCormick’s Vanilla Sugar Cookie Recipe

Yield: About 3 dozen (note: I used a medium size cookie scoop, which holds about a 1 ½ tablespoon of dough)

What you will need

  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup of unsweetened, Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Additional sugar, for rolling
  • Additional espresso powder, for sprinkling

What to do

  1. Mix first six ingredients (flour through cocoa powder) together in a medium bowl.
  2. Using an electric mixer, cream sugar and butter on medium speed until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and vanilla. Mix well. Gradually add flour mixture on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Refrigerate dough until firm (at least two hours).
  4. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Use a cookie scoop to shape dough and roll in additional sugar before placing on cookie sheet.
  5. Bake approximately 10 minutes, until cookies are just set. Sprinkle with additional espresso and cool on baking sheet for one minute.
  6. Move to wire racks to finish cooling.

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.

On the Road: Thanksgiving Weekend in New York

Going back to work after a holiday weekend is pretty much the worst thing ever. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, which I just can’t seem to think of right now.  But, I’m glad to have this day over with.


Chester and I avoided Black Friday shopping and spent the day getting the house all festive for Christmas and went to see the Muppets (if you grew up watching the show, it’s a must see. I’m pretty sure I was grinning from ear to ear for most of it). Then, on Saturday, Bridget and I headed up to New York to shop, eat and most importantly, to see Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway. The weather has unseasonably warm around here lately, and while it doesn’t exactly feel like Christmas yet, it made for a great day of walking around the city.

After dropping our bags at our hotel, we headed over to Craftbar, for lunch/belated birthday celebration for me. Craftbar located on Broad is one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants and is located on Broadway, near Union Square.

When we arrived around two, the restaurant was still serving their brunch menu, in addition to the regular menu of snacks, salads, pastas, and entrees. We both ordered from the latter. The server was really knowledgeable about the menu, including recommendations for cocktails and wine. He suggested a red wine for Bridget and helped me decide between the two cocktail options I was considering. I ended up with something that was similar to a Tom Collins, but had earl grey infused gin in it. Refreshing. I can’t remember the name of either. Sorry.

We split an order of pecorino risotto balls, which were served piping hot with a spicy tomato sauce. They reminded us of the rice croquettes that Bridget’s grandmother makes, but the gooey cheese was a nice touch.

For an entrée, Bridget chose the pork belly, which was served with brussel sprouts, poached egg, and sweet potato puree. It was really tender and pulled apart easily with a fork. I had the veal ricotta meatballs, which were served over house made spagehetti. The meatballs were light and delicate and the tomato sauce was slightly sweet. The only drawback for me was that the pasta may have needed to be cooked a bit more, as it was slight chewy.

They must have known I was coming, because the dessert list included a peanut butter and jelly sundae. The peanut butter ice cream, which was creamy and rich, but not overly sweet, was topped with grape jelly syrup (tasted exactly like my favorite Welch’s variety) and a generous handful of caramel corn, which added a bit of texture and saltiness.

Photo stolen from Bridget

For the rest of the afternoon, we burned off a few calories shopping, and then it was time to make our way over to the Broadhurst Theater for the show.

It goes without saying that Hugh Jackman is pretty adorable. And, also, really talented. He’s not just Wolverine, folks. He can sing. He can dance. He flirts with everyone in the audience and embarrasses late-comers as they take their seats. During the two hour show he performs some of his favorite songs from the likes of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein and Peter Allen (whom he won the Tony Award for portraying in The Boy From Oz back in 2003), interspersed with antidotes about his life, family and career.

At the end of the show, he auctioned off two of his sweaty undershirts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He invited the winners backstage after the show to meet him, and Bridget and I almost took out our credit cards, but figured it would be difficult to explain the charge to our respective husbands (one shirt fetched $10,000 and the other $6,000).

On the way to the theater, we noticed that there was a Shake Shack right near our hotel, so we stopped there on the way back for burgers, fries, and shakes to bring back to our room. I’ve heard that Shake Shack was the inspiration for Stephen Starr’s Square Burger. This may be the case, but the Shack is a million times better.

The burgers were cooked to a medium rare, so they were juicy and flavorful. The fries were pretty standard—crispy and salty—but they were crinkle cut, so they get extra points in my book for the novelty factor. The vanilla shake has earned a place (along with Nifty Fifty’s, of course) on my list of best milkshakes ever. It was thick and creamy and I was so sad when it was all gone. I will be first in line when the Philadelphia location opens in Center City next year.

Amazingly, we woke up hungry the next morning and headed to Trattoria dell’Arte, right across from Carnegie Hall. This is one of our go-to places when we come up for a show. They have an excellent antipasto bar with just about anything you could ever want, from mozzarella, to Italian meats, to grilled vegetables. We opted just for brunch—light and sweet Panettone French toast for me, and rich spaghetti carbonara for Bridget (with the egg, bacon, and carbs, it does make a good breakfast dish if you think about it!)

And, with that, it was time for me to catch the train back to Philly and for Bridget to make the long drive back up to Boston. But, we’re already planning our next trip to see another show in the winter and/or spring (Book of Mormon and the upcoming revival of Evita are on our list).

The only good part about the weekend coming to an end was that I got to head back to the gym today. And, not a moment too soon.

Turkey Day 2011

In recent years, Thanksgiving has become one of my favorite holidays. The older I get, the more I appreciate the time out to be grateful for all of the good things in life, and the opportunity to spend time with the people that matter most. This probably sounds cheesy, but it just seems that life gets busier and busier lately and it’s so easy to forget to take the time to do these seemingly simple things.

One of my favorite parts of the holiday is spending the day in the kitchen with my mom. We’ve gotten pretty good at our holiday preparations over the years—we don’t even bump into each other in her tiny kitchen. We always take quite a few breaks in between chopping onions, whipping the potatoes, and making cranberry sauce to watch the Macy’s Parade. Perhaps we’ll start our own Thanksgiving catering company someday.

I usually help out by making some of the sides and something for dessert, but my mom always does the turkey. She’s a pro at them since she makes at least one a month (maybe more?). Every Thanksgiving, someone says “This is the best turkey ever.”  But, this year, it was. Seriously. My mom got a tip from Bobby Flay on the Food Network who said that the secret to a moist turkey is to cook it until it reaches 165 degrees in the breast. My mom has decided that the instant read thermometer she recently purchased was the best $3 she ever spent.

There was plenty of other stuff on the menu, too:

  1. Stuffing, with sausage, ground pork and veal–which was probably also the best ever, due to another Food Network tip from Emeril, who suggested soaking the bread cubes in a mixture of egg, cream, and stock to keep it from drying out when cooking.
  1. Mashed and sweet potatoes
  1. Corn on the cob
  1. Two kinds of cranberry sauce (orange ginger and plain)
  1. Roasted mushrooms and brussel sprouts.
  1. My aunt’s pumpkin muffins, corn bread, and dinner rolls.
  1. For dessert, salted caramel ice cream and applesauce coffee cake. Side note: Do yourself and favor and make this ice cream ASAP. The preparation is a bit time consuming because you have to take your time with preparing the caramel (I burned one batch), but the end result is amazing. Buttery, rich, and—strangely—warming.

All in all, it was a perfect Thanksgiving. I got to spend it with my husband, mom, aunt, and brother—the best family anyone could ask for—eat, play with my mom’s three dogs, win at Apples to Apples (but lose at Scrabble), and watch Elf. Now, that I’m actually able to look at food again, it’s time to start planning for holiday baking and Christmas feasts!

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Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! What was on your menu?

Restaurant Review: Salt and Pepper

I’ve said it before (I think), but there are so many great restaurants in South Philly nowadays. The Center City restaurants always seem to get most of the attention, and I’m trying to make it a point to try out more of the places that are right in my own neighborhood. You can pretty much get anything you want in South Philly, from traditional Italian food, Mexican and Vietnamese specialties, and everything in between.

When my friend Lara and I made plans to get together to celebrate our birthdays, I was glad when she suggested Salt and Pepper, a little place on Passyunk Avenue, that Open Table said was one of their “neighborhood  gems.” The restaurant is an American bistro, which started out as a BYOB in another location nearby. It became so popular that they moved into their current larger space—and also acquired a liquor license. Side note: I really enjoyed the Sparkling Ginger cocktail that I had. It was a blend of prosecco, ginger, and lemon (maybe?). It would be a fun new year’s drink.

Salt and Pepper’s menu is not huge—just six options each for starters and plates. But, as Lara pointed out, this is actually better most of the time because it keeps you from changing your mind too many times.

We all decided to share the butternut squash flatbread, which was one of the starter specials, as an appetizer. I’ve eaten more butternut squash this fall than I have in my entire life, and I’ve decided that I really like it. The flatbread had a thicker crust than I expected from a flatbread, but the flavors—sweet from the squash, salty from the sharp cheese, and savory from the red onions—came together really well.

Then, we waited—probably about 30 minutes—for our entrees to arrive. Lara and Chester had both ordered the steak and Lara’s husband Matt and I both ordered the roasted rack lamb. I started to get nervous that 1) we were totally forgotten about or 2) our food would arrive cooked way beyond well done.

Fortunately, both dishes were just about perfect. The lamb was a lovely shade of pink in the center, and the feta, eggplant, and thyme flavored sauce that accompanied the dish gave it a slightly Mediterranean flair. Chester’s New York strip steak was seasoned well and, for once, was also perfectly cooked. The scalloped mashed potatoes, with just a hint of truffle oil, were also pretty great. Portions were very generous and satisfying.

We browsed the dessert menu, which offered the standards—chocolate cake, cheesecake, apple pie and a banana split—but ultimately decided to pass. Next time.

Salt and Pepper kind of reminded me of another of my favorite places, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. There isn’t necessarily a wow factor associated with food—the dishes are just traditional favorites that are moderately priced and well executed. I’ll be adding it to the list of my favorite South Philly restaurants.

Restaurant Review: Positano Coast

Happy Thanksgiving Week! I should have eaten much lighter than I did this past weekend, in order to prepare for Thursday’s feast, but I didn’t.

I took a couple of days off of work last week to hang out with my mom and aunt, and so I kicked off my weekend eating a bit earlier than usual. On one of our days off, we hung out in Old City, saw a movie at the Ritz (Anonymous. Highly recommend if you like the soap opera which is Tudor England. Which I do.  A lot.) , drank a lot of Starbucks (first Eggnog Latte of the season!) and then headed over to Positano Coast for dinner. Chester had to work that day, but he braved the nine bus down Chestnut Street to join us as well.

I’ve mentioned Positano Coast in passing before—it used to be Pasta Blitz, which was a weekly dinner destination for my family. When it became Positano Coast, it switched its menu from traditional red gravy Italian food to slightly frilly Mediterranean style tapas. When BFF and I tried it a few years back, the food was good, but just not the same
as we remembered.

On this most recent visit, however, it seems that they have struck a balance between the creative tapas plates and the more traditional dishes. The menu features a variety of appetizers, pasta/risotto dishes, and poultry, fish, and beef entrees. There is also a raw bar available. The portion sizes hover between small plate and entrée size. We chose to share a couple of the appetizers and each ordered and entrée size pasta dish, but if you aren’t in the mood to share, two or three courses per person (for example, an appetizer, entrée, and side) would probably leave you feeling pretty satisfied.

We started off with the Antipasto platter (which featured mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, sharp provolone, prosciutto, speck, salami, eggplant caponata, grilled artichokes, olives, and mushrooms) as well as the fried calamari. My favorite items on the former were the creamy burratta style mozzarella and the caponata, which is an eggplant/tomato mixture that is kind of like a cross between a stew and bruschetta, that’s served cold on crostini. The calamari was pretty run of the mill, except for the fact that it was topped with peppers that had quite the kick to them.

The pasta dishes that we chose weren’t very large thought the prices were pretty reasonable for the size of the dishes. My aunt and I both had tagliatelle, served in a rich, creamy mushroom sauce. The portion size was just right, so that I felt full, but not like I had overdosed on carbs and truffles. Chester had the tagliatelle with bolognese sauce, which tasted exactly as I remembered it from the Pasta Blitz days. I had a small bite of my mom’s baked cannelloni with ricotta, spinach, and mozzarella. I liked that it was stuffed with rib eye, instead of just ground beef. It gave it a heartier flavor.

We all enjoyed our meals very much, and the delicious food was enhanced by the beautiful surroundings. Usually, I’m so focused on food that I don’t notice the décor of a restaurant that much, but Positano Coast is really beautiful. The cool shades of blue, mosaic tiles, crisp white linens, lounge style furnishings and images from the Amalfi Coast might cause you to forget that you are in the middle of Olde City Philadelphia for a second.

The only décor element that is kind of questionable are the articles of clothing that are mounted on the walls—it reminded us of something out of an end of the world movie, where everyone gets taken up to heaven or wherever and their clothes get left behind on the street. I tried to find a decent photo of it–the best I could do is below–I direct your attention to the back wall.


I would definitely return to Positano Coast again, since there were a variety of things on the menu that I would like to try. Plus, it would make a great location for a summertime happy hour. Positano Coast does offer happy hour specials throughout the week and is BYOB on Sundays and Mondays. If you are in the neighborhood before or after catching a movie at the Ritz, it’s worth checking out!

Restaurant Review: Village Belle

Chocolate Chip Cake from Termini Brothers. I ate this for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. Because it was my birthday weekend so the calories didn't count.

Birthdays were a lot different when I was little. Back in the day, I would start a countdown to the big event at least two months in advance and would start to harass my mom about my dinner and cake selections for the big day. The anticipation would really start to build about a week before, as cards arrived in the mail for me and reached great heights on the day before my birthday when my grandfather would always call to tell me that it was “The Eve of the Anniversary of my Birth.” On the day itself, I’d get to bring cupcakes to school to pass out to everyone in class (things got even better in high school, when I was able to convince my mom to call me out “sick” on my birthday a couple of times. I’m pretty sure my BFF played hooky with me, too) and just felt pretty darn special all day. My birthday was pretty much on par with Christmas.

Fast forward to my grown-up birthdays. I usually have to work. And, as I mentioned before, I was in a state of denial about my age for the past few years, as I tried to cling on to the last years of my 20s.

The silver lining is that as schedules get crazier and it becomes more difficult to coordinate getting family and friends together at the same time, the celebrations—and the opportunities to do fun stuff and eat good food—stretch out over a couple of weeks.

This year’s birthday celebration continued into the weekend, with movies (J. Edgar. I recommend) and dinner with my family at Village Belle, an Italian place in the Queen Village neighborhood. If you are familiar with the South Philly restaurant scene, it’s in the location that used to house Frederick’s, another Italian place that used to always put up a festive Christmas light display. I picked it mostly because my picky brother was joining us, and as he pretty much refuses to eat any other pasta shape except cappelini. When I looked at the menu online, cappelini was at the very top of the pasta section of the menu, I figured it was a safe bet.

The interior of the restaurant has been completely renovated since the Frederick’s days. There is a bar area right up front, and the main dining room has a retro sort of feel, with red leather booths and exposed brick. It wasn’t overly crowded when we arrived at 6:30 p.m., but things picked up a bit as the night went on.

We started off by sharing some appetizers: hummus with pita and veggies, calamari, and meatball sliders, which are one of the signature items at the restaurant. The hummus was a bit bland, but the calamari fared better—the tiny rings were not heavily breaded were not fried to the point of becoming rubber bands. The meatball sliders were the star of the show. They are a combination of beef, pork, and veal, and we all agreed that they were pretty darn close to the meatballs that we make in my family and that they were probably the best meatballs I’ve had at a restaurant. They are served on a hard, slightly sweet roll, but would be excellent just on their own over a dish of spaghetti.


We all ordered pasta, which was homemade and incredibly light. My brother and Chester both ordered the cappellini, which was served with a generous amount of seafood (salmon, clams, mussels, etc.) in a saffron broth, almost like a bouillabaisse. The cappellini was super thin, so I’m sure that made Michael happy. My aunt and I both had the chicken and mushroom cannelloni. I loved that this wasn’t smothered with cheese, so that the hearty flavors of the other ingredients really came through. Finally, my mom tried the crespelle, which are basically the Italian version of a crepe, filled with ricotta and pine nuts. If I ever visit Village Belle for brunch, that would be my pick for a dish.

Finally, what’s a birthday dinner without dessert? My mom and I shared the dark chocolate cake with cherries and my brother and aunt shared the pumpkin cheesecake. My brother whispered to the waiter that it was my birthday, so my cake looked festive, but luckily, there was no embarrassing singing.

As a final cute touch, our waiter brought a little leather guest book with the check for us to write a note in (my mom wrote it, so chances are no one will be able to make out the handwriting). I’ll be stealing that idea if I open a restaurant someday.

I would definitely head back for another meal at Village Belle. The atmosphere was casual and comfortable and the staff members were all extremely friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. I imagine it’s really nice in the warmer months, since there’s a little space with outdoor seating that looks out towards Penn’s Landing.

All in all, I had a great birthday weekend with Chester and my family. And, I’ve still got another celebration lined up with my BFF, when we go to New York over Thanksgiving Weekend. We’re looking forward to trying Craftbar, shopping, and most importantly, seeing Hugh Jackman in Concert with her. Maybe turning 29 isn’t so bad after all.

Restaurant Review:

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, 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.


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 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 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, 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.’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, 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, doesn’t have a gimmick, and I guess that’s what makes it so refreshing.

An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert

Source: Ticketmaster via Uwishunu

If you’ve been following along for a bit, you probably think that all I do is eat. I want to assure you that I do like to do other things. For example, when I got an e-mail from the Kimmel Center in the late summer about their upcoming season I checked off a bunch of shows that I wanted to see (and then my calendar filled up with other stuff and all of my grand plans went awry for the most part).

One of the things on my list was “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert” at the Merriam Theater. Chester and I are both fans of Bourdain’s show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. We watch it with an equal amounts amazement that he’s still alive from all the poor lifestyle choices (drinking, smoking, drugs, ingesting bizarre foods, etc.) he seems to have made over the years and jealousy that his full-time job involves food and travel. We didn’t really know anything about Eric Ripert, except that he is the chef/owner of several restaurants, including 10 Arts in the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia and the Michelin starred Le Bernardin in New York.

We were about to purchase tickets on our own when we learned that the Drexel University Alumni Association was hosting an event in conjunction with the show, so we went with them instead (I’m such a loyal dragon). There was a pre-show reception at Valanni, a Latin tapas restaurant just down the street from the theater. I’ve eaten dinner there before and I remember liking it, but it’s been so long that I can’t really remember all the specifics. At the Drexel reception, they served Serrano Ham Croquettes and they are reason enough alone for you to make a reservation today.

Okay, enough about food. Back to the show.

Bourdain, in person, is just like he is on his show—funny, edgy, and unable to complete a sentence without peppering it with curse words. Ripert is the opposite—refined, soft-spoken, and just…French. Still, they had the type of good rapport you often see between longtime friends.

They started off the show with a mock interrogation. Bourdain questioned Ripert about his immigration status, and Ripert grilled Bourdain to find out if he still calls himself a chef after being out of a kitchen for so long. Both are formally trained and know the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business and it was interesting to hear them reflect on their respective careers and debate all kinds of food related topics.

For example:
The Food Network: Bourdain hates everyone associated with it, with the exception of Ina Garten. Bourdain exhibits a particular dislike for Guy Fieri and his wardrobe, but Ripert seems strangely charmed by the “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” host.

Gordon Ramsey: Ripert himself was trained in kitchens in France and subject to the type of abuse and insults that Ramsey has become famous for. He admitted that when he started running his own kitchen, he treated his staff in this  “old school” way, but soon came to realize that it wasn’t the way to get results or motivate people. He is pretty offended by the way Ramsey treats aspiring chefs on Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve since learned that Ripert is a Buddhist. No wonder he’s so nice.

Best Place to Visit for the Food: Both suggest heading to Asia, particularly Singapore, Korea or Thailand. If only those fares would come down…

Travel Etiquette:  Bourdain encouraged the audience to go out of their comfort zones while traveling. To paraphrase, he suggested everyone treat their vacations to foreign countries like their at their grandmother’s house. Leave you vegetarianism, veganism, and other self-imposed restrictions at the door. Eat everything that’s put in front of you and/or whatever that street vendors offer you, “because that’s what you do in Grandma’s f-ing kitchen.”

At the end of the show, Bourdain and Ripert took questions from the audience, which ranged from the must-have tools for home cooks (good knives) to the way to tell if bone marrow is properly cooked (never pink) to why there is a glass ceiling in the kitchen for female chefs (both chefs disagreed with this last question. And, it’s a particularly silly one to ask in this city, when you consider that women head up several kitchens at well-known restaurants. In fact, up until recently, Jennifer Carroll was at the helm of 10 Arts).

One of the final questioners asked the two chefs their favorite places to eat in Philly. Neither one of them really had good answers (Ripert cheated and said 10 Arts, but redeemed himself a bit in my eyes by mentioning Zahav and Parc, too). Maybe next time they visit, they could use a tour guide to show them all that the city has to offer. I know someone they could call.