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.


Source

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.

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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.

Chinatown Night Market

October is one of my favorite months of the year, but it always seems to be the busiest. I guess that the first hint of fall in the air snaps everyone back to reality after three months of summer mode and we pack as much as we can into its 31 days. Work and the rest of my life are always seem extra busy in October, which is why I started to write this post more than a week ago and am now just getting around to putting it up.

Anyway.

The Food Trust launched its Night Market events last year and they’ve quickly become a Philadelphia tradition. The concept is based on the night markets traditionally held in Asia and brings together entertainment, artisans, and food in a residential area. Many of the well-known, as well as the new players, in Philadelphia’s food truck fleet participate. Despite the fact that there has been one held in South Philly (where I live) and University City (where I used to work), Chester and I didn’t get around to experiencing the festivities until a couple of weeks ago, when the fourth Night Market was held in Chinatown.

When we arrived at around 8 p.m., the market was in full swing, with live music, dancing and throngs of people making their way down 10th Street, which was closed to traffic.

We picked our way through the crowds to make it to our first stop The Dapper Dog. This truck serves all-beef hot dogs with a variety of toppings, from fried egg to mac and cheese to asparagus. At the Night Market, the truck was offering a traditional Chicago Dog and a Cheesesteak Hot Dog. You’ve probably been reading long enough to guess which one of us ordered what.

The truck uses Sarcone’s hoagie rolls as the vehicle for their creations. While Sarcone’s is awesome on its own, I’m just not a fan of overly chewy, thick bread with a hot dog. Give me a traditional potato roll any day. But, The Dapper Dog’s version of the Chicago Dog was spot on—even Chester, who hails from Chicago and has had many a hot dog in his day, was impressed.

Our next stop was Chewy’s a new food truck that specializes in burgers, fries, sandwiches, and salads. The blue cheese slider was well seasoned, but pretty basic. The kimchi slider was unique and much more memorable. The fries were a bit disappointing, as they were limp and soggy (but did bring back memories of food truck dinners in college). I’ve read a few more reviews about  Chewy’s since the Night Market, and the tater tots are getting a lot of buzz, so those might be a better side dish option.

You all know by now that I spend most of the time planning what I’m going to have for dessert. There were quite a few dessert options to choose from at the Night Market, but I had my sights set on sampling the gourmet cupcakes from Sweetbox Truck.

 

Sweetbox was offering several flavors that night (including a Pumpkin Spice, which was really tempting!), but we kept it simple and went with a Vanilla Buttercream and Chocolate Ganache.

Oh my goodness. With the first bite, you can tell that the ingredients that the bakers use are extremely high quality. The cake was moist and delicious, and the icing was not overly sweet. They were on the softer side, which made them a bit tricky to eat, but perhaps that was because it was a bit warm that night. Overall, these cupcakes were heavenly, and I see a quite a few trips to Love Park, where Sweetbox is frequently stationed, in my future.

The crowds had started to thin out a bit, so we went off in search of Guapos Tacos, Jose Garces’ mobile outpost. I love that the truck is covered in bottle caps, by the way.

We shared a chipotle short rib taco, with onions, radish, cilantro, crema and queso fresco. The short ribs were juicy and well seasoned, as though they had been marinating all day. This was one of the highlights for me, and I wish I had saved enough room to try one of the other flavors as well.

Our last stop was Yummy Yummy, for Hong Kong egg waffles. Yummy Yummy had a stand at the Market, but the waffles were only available from the shop on (52 North 10th Street).

These doughy sweet treats are made from eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk and produced on a special griddle that gives them their fluffy, egg shape. The outside of the waffle was crispy and golden brown, but yielded to a tender, creamy center. These could be habit forming.

And, with that, we called it a night.

Overall, the Night Market was a fun experience. A few tips, if you plan to go: Pack your patience as the lines are long. We waited about 20 minutes or so at the beginning of the evening although the crowds did thin out as the night went on. The price point at most trucks is about $5 and portions were quite generous. So, pace yourself and don’t expect that you will be able to sample every single thing on offer.

I’ll be keeping an eye out to see where the next installment of the Night Market will turn up. In the meantime, I’ll be stalking some of the other trucks that I missed out on at the event, as were so many things that we just couldn’t get around to sampling.