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: 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.)