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.

Anyway.

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.

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.

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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.

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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: 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: Morning Glory Diner

The DMV is pretty close to the top of my “least favorite places” to go list, but my license was thisclose to expiring, so I had to drag myself there yesterday. I convinced Chester that something terrible could happen to me if I went alone and that he needed to go with me. I figured if I had to wake up early on Saturday, someone else should have to suffer, too. I bribed him with a promise that I would take him to breakfast afterwards.

Turns out, the trip to get my photo taken was pretty uneventful. We were in and out in less than five minutes, and for once I took a photo that I don’t mind being stuck with for the next few years. I wasn’t even in there long enough to see anything crazy/funny happen, which was slightly disappointing. But, it did mean that we could probably beat the rush at the Morning Glory Diner (735 S. 10th Street), which we had been wanting to check out for awhile.

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We actually tried to go Morning Glory once before, on a Sunday, but woke up way too late. By the time we arrived, there was easily a 90 minute wait ahead of us. And, as I was close to gnawing my arm off, we decided to go elsewhere. Turns out, if you go at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, you can probably get a seat right away.

Morning Glory opened in the late 1990s, and has since become a neighborhood favorite and winner of numerous awards from the likes of Zagat and Philadelphia Magazine. The restaurant offers traditional breakfast and lunch favorites, using local ingredients, some of which come from Philadelphia institutions like the Reading Terminal and Italian Market. The restaurant also prides itself on making its ketchup and jam from scratch and brewing its own blend of dark coffee. The latter is excellent (it reminded us of La Columbe) and is served in tin camping mugs. You know I’m a sucker for cute presentation.

I considered two of the specials—Pumpkin Pancakes and Chocolate and Strawberry Stuffed French Toast—before deciding on the Neighborhood Frittata, with egg whites. The frittata was packed with a generous amount of fresh red peppers and spinach and finished with a layer or provolone cheese. It was accompanied by two sides—warm spiced apples and grits. The real star of the show was the enormous thick, golden brown, crumbly biscuit, which I enjoyed with a generous helping of butter and cranberry jam.

Chester had steak and eggs, one of his favorite breakfast dishes. The portion of grilled rib eye was pretty generous, but arrived well done instead of medium rare like he asked for (this always seems to happen to him). The side of bacon that he ordered, on the other hand, was cooked to crisp perfection. He tried some of the ketchup on his poached eggs, and compared it to sweetened tomato sauce. Doesn’t sound all that appetizing to me—I’ll take the processed stuff, thanks.

I would probably be willing to go back to Morning Glory, but I do think it’s a bit overrated. Yes, the food was decent and the portions were generous, but it was nowhere near as delicious or creative as what you find at other places in South Philly. Also, at $40 for the both of us, I felt that it was bit pricey for pretty standard breakfast fare (remember to bring cash if you go, because credit cards are not accepted). I would wait in line Sabrina’s or Green Eggs Café before Morning Glory any day.

Restaurant Review: Tortilla Press

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Our house is a stones throw away from the Walt Whitman Bridge, so we can be in South Jersey in about five minutes. To me, however, New Jersey may as well be a foreign country. I generally get lost every time I go there and the rules against making left turns annoy me to no end. I would much rather stay on the “right” side of the bridge.

Chester and I made an exception recently, though, and ventured into Collingswood for dinner with some of my Drexel friends. Our pilgrimage coincided with Collingswood’s Restaurant Week, so we (me, Chester, Lara, Matt, Richard, Louisa, Darin, and Joe) decided to head to The Tortilla Press (703 Haddon Avenue).

Tortilla Press serves Mexican “influenced” food—familiar dishes fused with Mexican herbs, spices and sauces. It was pretty busy when we arrived around 7:30 on a Friday evening, but since we had more that 6 people in our party, we were able to make a reservation and were seated right away.

Collingswood is a dry town, all restaurants are BYOB. We all brought wine, but it would probably be fun to bring your own margarita mix to Tortilla Press, too. The restaurant was offering its full menu, in addition to the four-course, $30 Restaurant Week menu. Most of us opted for the latter. While we waited, we munched on chips, two kinds of salsa (one mild, one spicy), and black bean dip.

I started with the Pumpkin, Goat Cheese and Black Bean Quesadilla, which was served with a sour cream based chile sauce. This seemed like an odd assortment of ingredients, but the combination of sweet, savory, and spicy came together surprisingly well. I also sampled a bit of Chester’s chile rellano, it could have been a bit warmer, but I really liked the tomato broth and queso fresco that accompanied it.

Next, was butternut squash soup. After the excellent bowl that I had at Meritage earlier this fall, my expectations were high. Tortilla Press’ version fell short, unfortunately. It didn’t have the velvety smooth texture that Meritage’s had and it was sort of bland. A more liberal sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg would have kicked it up a notch.

For an entrée, I opted for the Chicken Milanesa, breaded chicken breast, topped with avocado, queso fresco and pico de gallo, served with rice and red beans. The chicken was moist and flavorful, but like the soup, could have used a bit more spice. It fared much better, though, than Chester’s entrée—the apple and chorizo stuffed pork loin—which was seasoned well, but bone dry.

Dessert was probably the highlight for me (isn’t it always?). I would love to try to recreate my pumpkin bread pudding with cinnamon ice cream at home, but I am sure I could never turn out anything close to what I had at Tortilla Press. It was served warm, and the cinnamon and pumpkin flavors kept it from being cloyingly sweet, like some bread puddings can be. Chester’s apple & walnut empanadas with vanilla ice cream were delicious as well. I liked how they soaked up the house-made cider syrup that accompanied them. We both would have just preferred them to be a bit warmer.

The atmosphere was relaxed, service was friendly, and the presentation of the food was very pretty. Overall, I enjoyed my meal, but the food wasn’t memorable enough for me to want to rush back.

On our walk to and from the restaurant, I noticed that Collingswood’s main street is actually pretty adorable. I noticed a bunch of cute little boutiques and restaurants that I would like to try. I never thought I would say this, but I’m actually looking forward to my next trip over the bridge.

(Side note–thanks, friends, for turning me and Chester on to American Horror Story on FX. We’re all caught up now, and I’m officially scared of my own house.)

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.

Restaurant Review: Fuel

After a few days of eating like New Englanders, we were craving something on the lighter side when we got home. We decided to check out Fuel (1917 E. Passyunk Avenue), which serves salads, snacks, soups, sandwiches that contain fewer than 500 calories.

The lounge style furniture, brightly colored walls, and TVs tuned to dance music videos at top volume combine to create an atmosphere that’s a cross between a club and a gym. It seemed a little strange, especially on a slow Monday night (I’ve since learned that Fuel is owned by Rocco Cima, a DJ at Q102, so I guess these things make sense).

With this first impression, I became a little bit skeptical about the place. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. Service was attentive, and everything was made to order, with fresh ingredients.

We debated between guacamole and hummus to start, and finally chose the latter, which was served with soft, grilled pita. It was decent, but had a bit more lemon than I typically like. A bit more garlic could have evened it out.

The sandwich and salad combinations were creative. I considered the skewered Greek salad and spinach and strawberry salad before I noticed the South Philly wrap (note that the bread will up the calorie counts on the sandwiches past 500!), with grilled chicken, provolone, spinach, roasted red peppers, and garlic spread. The wrap had a generous helping of tender chicken and was served with a side of mixed green salad with tangy balsamic dressing.

Chester opted to order the  Roasted Portabello and Eggplant Sandwich as a salad. It was served with roasted peppers, strips of provolone cheese, olive tapenade and chicken. The portion was also generous, but there was a little bit too much dressing. This probably pushes the calorie count up too, so order on the side, and you should be fine.

In between courses, we perused the juice/smoothie menu. Of course, the Protein Buster, with peanut butter, honey, and banana was the first thing I noticed, but many of the fruit based options, including the Fruit Fuzzion (with strawberries, raspberries and banana) sounded appealing, too.

If you are one of those people who don’t believe that healthy food can be delicious too, a trip to Fuel is sure to change your mind. Fuel also has a location in Center City (around 12th and Walnut), and delivers pretty much anywhere. Prices are reasonable too—our meal came out to roughly what we would have spent at a fast food restaurant and the quality was far superior.

We’ll definitely visit again, even when we aren’t in detox mode.