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.

Advertisements

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: 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.

Source

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: 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.

Source

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: 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.