Archives for September 2011

Restaurant Review: Meritage

We had one last hurrah for Restaurant Week, this past Friday evening, with dinner at Meritage Restaurant and Wine Bar, located a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. This was my favorite of the four places that I visited during the last two weeks.

Anne Coll, the executive chef, spent time at the now closed Susanna Foo (which, sadly, I never got to visit), and has created a menu at Meritage that blends French techniques with Asian flavors. The menu changes seasonally, and features ingredients that are sourced by the chef herself from local farms and vendors.

The vibe of the restaurant is casual and relaxed. The bar area at the front was packed when we arrived. Judging from the laughter and banter between the bar patrons and the staff, I got the sense that this is a neighborhood hangout. I liked that the dining room is located towards the back of the restaurant, which separates it from the bar area and minimizes the noise. It was a warm, inviting, tiny space, and reminded me of some of the South Philly restaurants that are located in old houses.

There is an extensive selection of wines by the bottle (most under $50) and the glass (all about $10). If you are the kind of person that likes to pair a different wine with each dish, there is no shortage of options. We stuck to the basics with a Cabernet for Chester and a Chenin Blanc for me.

Meritage’s Restaurant Week menu was very impressive. Sometimes, restaurants eliminate the pricier (to keep the costs to $35) or more labor intensive items on the menus during these two weeks. This wasn’t the case at Meritage, where foie gras, scallops, escargot, and other high end ingredients were showcased prominently throughout the menu.

I started with the roasted butternut squash soup, with ginger and apples. The soup itself was thick and velvety, with a slightly nutty flavor. There were bits of apple in each bite, and it was topped with a crispy shrimp fried wonton—I would have eaten a whole plate of those on their own and I don’t even like shrimp that much. Chester, meanwhile, enjoyed the red wine braised escargot. They had already been removed from the shell and they didn’t have the same briny flavor as the ones we sampled on vacation this summer. But they were prepared so that they were perfectly tender, and served with a flavorful garlic puree that brought back memories of France.

For an entrée, I ordered the seared mahi mahi, which was accompanied by a lemongrass beurre blanc. The fish itself was well seasoned and tender, and wasn’t swimming in the rich, flavorful sauce (Audrey Claire take note). I liked that I could dip the fish in the sauce, kind of like how I like to eat my salads with the dressing on the side. The fish was served with a fricassee of white corn, summer squash, and herbs. Chester has the red wine braised beef short ribs, with smashed new potatoes, button mushrooms, and baby carrots. The beef was well seasoned, and like the fish, wasn’t so overly sauced that the taste of the meat was obscured.

Finally, I had the chocolate peanut butter bomb for dessert. This was a smooth peanut butter mousse—that looked heavy, but was actually surprisingly light—enrobed in a chocolate shell. It was a little difficult to crack it open and eat it with a spoon, and I had to be careful that I didn’t send it flying across the room. It was served with a side of current jam and a creamy, slightly caramelized meringue. Chester had the pot de crème, which was served with a homemade chocolate dipped biscotti. The biscotti was a little bland, in my opinion, but the pot de crème, with a combination of milk chocolate and cinnamon was delicious.

Service was attentive throughout the evening, but it was just a tad too fast for my liking. We were in and out in just about an hour, and I would have liked to linger just a little bit longer between each course. Still, that’s the nature of Restaurant Week. I’m sure that they had other reservations coming in after us and needed to turn the tables over. Overall, I felt like we got a true taste of the kinds of creative dishes that the restaurant is capable of producing on a regular basis, and I would be glad to return to Meritage again.

So, fall Restaurant Week may be over, but at least we’ve only got a couple of months to go until the next one. Usually, there is one in early winter, around January or February. By then there will probably be a dozen or more new restaurants on my list of places to try.

Restaurant Review: Audrey Claire

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I’ve had a busy schedule for Restaurant Week this time around. What can I say, I’m pretty popular and everyone wants to have dinner with me.

To kick off the second week, I met up with a group of my girlfriends—Rhonda, Gab, and Lauren—for dinner at Audrey Claire. We try to get together for dinner every month, but this was an extra special occasion as we celebrated that Gabby will be tying the knot in just a couple of weeks!

Audrey Claire is a tiny BYOB, located right on the corner of 20th and Spruce in the Rittenhouse Square area. Everything about the restaurant—from the bowls of green apples and vases of sunflowers perched on the windowsills, to the rustic furniture, to the food—is overwhelmingly simple. And, that’s part of its charm. If you plan to go, be aware that the restaurant is cash only, and does not take reservations on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The menu draws heavily from ingredients, herbs/spices, and dishes from the Mediterranean region. I had an amazing mushroom risotto on my first visit a couple of months ago, and I was looking forward to ordering that—or some other version of risotto—again. But alas, it wasn’t included on the menu. That’s the way it is during Restaurant Week sometimes—a more limited menu that tends to eliminate the things that take a lot of time to prepare and/or that would make it difficult to keep the dinner price down to $35. Oh well.

For an appetizer, I ordered the seared haloumi, which is a cheese from Cyprus that’s made from a combination of goat and sheep’s milk. The cheese is slightly salty and stays pretty firm even when grilled or fried. It was served with candied dates and sesame compote, which made for a nice combination of salty and sweet.

For an entrée, I had the shallot crusted lemon sole. It had a bit too much butter and not enough lemon for my liking. Also, to me, the term “crusted,” implied that the shallots would somehow be incorporated into the breading. But, they were instead fried and placed on top of the fish. And, there were a lot of them. They reminded me of those French’s onions that sometimes go on top of green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. It was served with green beans that had a nice crunch, and a couscous that was kind of bland. I kind of wished I had followed Rhonda’s lead and ordered the tuna, which didn’t seem to be heavily sauced and looked to be cooked perfectly on the rarer side, just as she requested.

For dessert, I chose the cinnamon white chocolate bread pudding. I think that the white chocolate was part of the glaze, but I honestly couldn’t really pick up on it. But, it was deliciously warm and sweet, the bread was slightly chewy, and the cinnamon flavor made it the perfect dessert for the transition into fall. Maybe they would give me the recipe to add to the ever growing list of fall baking projects I’ve been lining up.

While I’ve enjoyed the overall experience both times that I’ve been to Audrey Claire, I do think that the food gets more hype than it deserves. There are plenty of other places with a similar atmosphere and concept that have far more to offer in terms of food (such as the highly underrated Southwark in Queen Village or Fond on Passyunk Avenue).

As a side note, Audrey Claire Taichman (the owner) also owns two other places right on the same block of Spruce: Twenty Manning and Cook. I last went to Twenty Manning years ago, and wasn’t impressed. But, it’s since undergone a renovation and menu redesign, and I’m willing to give it another try. Cook is a boutique, bookstore, and collaborative kitchen, where celebrity chefs from around the area will be teaching classes. I’m looking forward to checking that out this fall!

Restaurant Review: Sampan

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Chester and I continued Restaurant Week(s) with dinner at Sampan in Midtown Village, which offers a contemporary spin on traditional Asian street foods. The menu is wide-ranging and features interpretations of dishes from all over the continent, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

For Restaurant Week, Sampan is offering its seven course chef’s tasting menu, plus dessert, for $35 per person. Your entire party agrees on which dishes to order from the various sections of the menu: two from the small plates section and one from each of the satay, meat, cold and hot, fish, and sides sections. This was a great way for us to sample a variety of dishes, since we were finding it pretty tough to narrow things down.

The first few plates that were brought out were pretty tiny. We joked that we might have to stop at the diner on the way home. But, towards the end of the meal, the dishes got progressively larger and more filling. Some dishes fared better than others in terms of taste, execution, and presentation.

We sampled:

  • The “Philly Cheesesteak”—I think this has appeared on a few of those “must try” dishes in Philly lists, but it was just okay. It was kind of like cheesesteak bruschetta—a crispy bao bun is topped with shredded short rib, shallot, sriracha, and shredded provolone cheese. It was a creative concept, but I think that it would have been better if a rib eye was used, instead of the short rib.

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  • Kobe Beef Satay—This was also a “miss.” Although the beef was well seasoned and paired well with the apricot dipping sauce, the meat was way overdone and none of the rich fattiness that makes Kobe so wonderful was there.
  • Crab Wonton Taco—A crispy wonton shell holds a refreshing combination of crab salad, avocado, cilantro, and pickled shallots. This was one of the best executed, tastiest, and creative concepts that we tried.
  • Pho Dumplings—Another well executed concept. Four small dumplings were filled with short rib and served in a pho broth. When you spooned a dumpling into your mouth, you got all of the rich flavors of a traditional pho soup in one tiny bite.
  • Lobster Stir-fry—The chef wasn’t stingy with the lobster by any means, as there was a chunk of it in each bite. I would have chosen a different kind of starch to accompany the dish. The egg noodles that came with it were a bit burnt and clumped together. I’m not sure if this is what they were going for, but it was a bit tricky to eat, and just looked sloppy.
  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts—I don’t like brussel sprouts, normally, but everyone who has been to Sampan seems to rave about them, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try them. I promptly told Chester that we could have brussel sprouts all the time if they were prepared this way. They are served in a slightly salty, spicy fish sauce and cooked until they are just a bit soft, but not mushy (that would be gross). The puffed rice gives them a bit of extra crunch.
  • Pork with Pineapple Rice—this was the largest dish, and I’m glad it came at the end when we weren’t totally full yet. The pork was perfectly cooked—juicy and tender, with just a bit of pink at the center and the sweet pineapple rice was a nice complement.

It seemed odd to have something as quintessentially American as soft-serve ice cream in little sugar cones finish off the meal, but I enjoyed the featured flavor choices: chocolate peanut butter and vanilla grape jelly. They must have known I was coming that night. They use some pretty good quality ingredients to get the flavors just right, particularly for the grape, which actually tasted like the fruit and not some artificial syrup.

In the end, we left very satisfied. The kitchen staff did a great job of pacing the meal appropriately and staggering the larger dishes to preserve our appetites. The service from the wait staff was friendly, but a bit uneven at times (a long wait sometimes for drinks from the bar, for example), but the restaurant was packed and it was a Friday during Restaurant Week, so that is to be expected.

The interior of the restaurant is dark, sleek, and pretty, which creates a casual, if a bit trendy, atmosphere. The centerpieces of the main dining areas are the color-shifting walls (a la Stephen Starr’s Pod Restaurant in University City) against which are placed the silhouettes of bare trees. You know what was really weird though? The bathrooms. Each one is its own individual stall, but the weird thing is that the pipe in the audio from movies. They were playing clips from one of my favorite movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” (“Hey Napoleon, what did you do last summer again?” I told you, I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!”). It was amusing, but really just weird to have people talking above your head while you are in the bathroom.

Sampan also has a small outdoor patio—the Graffiti Bar—tucked into the rear of the restaurant, that offers a rotating selection of cocktails and $2 appetizers during happy hour. I would gladly return for that to sample some more of the creative dishes on the menu. There are definitely some things that I would not order again, but I’m confident that there are some other stand-outs on the menu that I didn’t have a chance to try on this visit.

Restaurant Review: Le Castagne

This is favorite times of year in Philly. Yes, fall is officially here, for me anyway, since I had my first Pumpkin Spice Latte on Friday. But, it’s also Restaurant Week. This week and next, restaurants in Center City offer three course lunches and dinners, for $20 and $35, respectively. Restaurant Week(s) also happen in early winter, and it’s a great opportunity to try out new places or revisit old favorites.

To kick off the festivities this time around, I got together with two of my friends from Drexel, Jeff and Lara, for dinner at Le Castagne. Although I’ve been to Le Castagne, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, a couple of times before, I’ve only just made the connection that it’s name means “chestnut” in Italian, and it’s located on Chestnut Street. How clever (I’m blonde. These things take me awhile, okay?).  Northern Italian is characterized by the use of butter (rather than olive oil), cream sauce (rather than tomato), starches other than pasta (including risotto, gnocchi, and polenta), and game animals. Le Castagne offers modern, upscale interpretations of these traditional dishes, while still preserving the hearty, rustic ingredients and flavors that characterize this region of Italy.

While we sipped our drinks, Lara and Jeff caught me up on everything that’s happening at good old DU. It seems that my presence is appropriately missed at the Paul Peck Alumni Center, and that makes me happy. Jeff is friends with the chef, and he was nice enough to send out a plate of antipasti for us to share. It included grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, olives, prosciutto, salami, and bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

For an appetizer, I ordered gnocchi. I’ve tried my fair share of gnocchi at restaurants all around Philly, and Le Castagne’s is easily my favorite. Sometimes, gnocchi gets so overworked that the dumplings end up heavy and dense. Gross. Le Castagne gets the preparation just right. There were two versions on the menu when we visited—one with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella (alla Sorrentina) and one served in a white truffle cream sauce (al Tartufo). I ordered that latter. The gnocchi were pillowy and tender—they practically melted in my mouth—and although the sauce resembled an alfredo, it was much lighter and far more flavorful. The portion was very generous for a starter dish.

For an entrée, I had the timballo of slow-braised lamb. The traditional preparation of this dish features a meat filling, encased in pasta or rice and baked with cheese and vegetables. Le Castagne offers a different take. Shredded lamb is served with wild mushrooms and topped with a poached egg. The whole thing is placed on top of garlic crostini. While the cheese and pasta are missing, the earthy, rustic flavors are all still there. The only thing I didn’t really care for was that the crostini got very mushy from soaking up all the juices from the lamb, but that’s a minor point.

Finally, came a trio of desserts—a square of cheesecake with blueberry sauce, a cannoli, and tiramisu. I am not usually a fan of tiramisu, so I was surprised that it was actually my favorite of the three pastries in this instance. Instead of the traditional multilayered preparation, one small circle of cake was topped with whipped mascarpone cheese, and dusted with cocoa powder. It resembled the top of a cupcake and did not have the overpowering liquor flavor that I dislike about tiramisu.

Service was friendly, professional, and attentive, even as the restaurant began to fill up later on the evening. Restaurant Week or not, Le Castagne is definitely worth a visit.

Restaurant Review: Taqueria Veracruzana

They say that you shouldn’t go food shopping when you are hungry, or you’ll just buy all kinds of junk food. I would also add that you shouldn’t watch the Cooking Channel while you are hungry, or there’s a possibility that you might not be able to stop yourself from eating the entire contents of your refrigerator. Luckily, on Friday, pizza was on its way while we were watching United Tastes of America, or that might have become a very real scenario in our house. Burritos were the topic of the show that night, and they all looked so amazing that we decided that we would have to have them at some point over the weekend (obviously, we’re a marketer’s dream. It’s amazing we don’t have a house full of “As Seen on TV” products).

Taqueria Veracruzana (908 Washington Avenue) in South Philly had been on our list of places to try for awhile, and it seemed like the perfect place to satisfy our television induced burrito cravings. It’s located in the Italian Market, which has undergone something of a transition in recent years, and now includes a variety of Mexican and Asian grocery stores and restaurants in addition to the Italian butchers and kitchenware stores that have been in the Market for decades.

We went with the sole intent of having burritos, but the menu does feature a variety of other Mexican specialties, including breakfast, tacos, moles, and enchiladas. While we waited for our order, we snacked still warm tortilla chips, red chipotle salsa, and salsa verde. Both of the salsas were a bit too spicy for me. Next time I go back, I’ll have to order some guacamole or pico de gallo so I have at least one mild option.

I got a chicken burrito and Chester got steak. Both were stuffed to the point of bursting (and mine actually did. I had to eat most of it with a fork!) with refried beans, rice and avocado. The only thing I found odd was that they used American cheese. I guess it’s got the same sort of mild flavor that queso fresco has, but I didn’t expect it, since everything else seemed pretty authentic.

If you go, don’t get scared by the way it looks outside (a bit sketchy and grimy, especially at night); the interior is brightly decorated, well maintained, and clean. As a note, you can stop by the creepy looking store down the street for alcoholic beverages, since the restaurant is a BYOB—but that place is actually sketchy and grimy, so do so at your own risk. I’ve pretty much decided that this is going to be my go to place for burritos from now on. The quality and freshness of the ingredients, and the reasonable prices, make it a much better option than Qdoba and Chipotle. I hope to go back soon to try some more items on the menu.

On the Road: Pittsburgh

Well, fall is officially here. The school buses are back on the road to mess with my commute into the city, DSW is tempting me with e-mails advertising boots, and most importantly, the Pumpkin Spice Lattes have returned to Starbucks.

Over Labor Day weekend, we crammed in one last bit of summertime fun with a trip to Pittsburgh. We had been talking about going for a while and a good deal on a hotel through Hotwire sealed the deal. It’s really not that bad of a drive from Philly. We left at the height of holiday rush hour traffic on Friday, and made it there in a little over five hours. I think I only asked Chester if we were there yet ten times. I’m really not the best passenger.

At some point in grade school, we learned that Pittsburgh was called the “Steel City” and as a result, I’ve always pictured that it would be grey, dreary, and a little boring. Over the years, though, the steel industry has waned, and Pittsburgh has morphed into a hub for education, healthcare, technology, and finance. The city has an interesting combination of old and new, modern and industrial, college students, yuppies, and blue-collar senior citizens. In many ways it is similar to Philly, in that it’s a city of neighborhoods, arts and culture, hardcore sports fans (every second person was wearing at least one kind of Steelers item), and good food.

We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is located Downtown. Since this is the main business district, it had pretty much emptied out for the long weekend by the time we arrived. It does look like there are a few apartment complexes and condos popping up Downtown, so perhaps, a few years from now, it will be a bit more vibrant on the weekends! But, the hotel is in a good, central location, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and theaters, so it makes a good base for exploring the city.

We arrived at the hotel just in time to head over to Market Square for dinner. The courthouse, jail, and city hall used to be located on Market Square. It was renovated a couple of years ago to resemble the pedestrian friendly plazas that you would find in Europe, complete with restaurants, cafes, and outdoor seating. Fun fact: the new Batman movie just finished filming there.

Market Square, by day. Looks just like Gotham City, right?

We had reservations at NOLA on the Square. I was excited to go there because I don’t really know of any good Cajun/Creole food in our area. We used to have a place in Media, the New Orleans Café, but that closed years ago. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was pretty crowded and there was a live band playing jazz music. They were very good, but it did make it kind of loud (I know, I’m old). Luckily, we were seated at a table towards the back of the restaurant, so that cut down on the noise a bit.

We ordered drinks—a beer for Chester, a cocktail for me—and they sat on the bar for quite a bit. When our waitress noticed, she was extremely apologetic, and then the manager came over to apologize some more and let us know that he was going to take the drinks off of our bill. We didn’t really mind, as we could see it was really busy, but yay for free drinks, and good customer service. I enjoyed my Toulouse Martini—a mix of Vodka, Ginger Snap, Pineapple Juice, prickly pear granita, Mint. It was a cross between a mojito and a cosmo, two of my favorite drinks.

For an appetizer, we shared the Crispy Fried Alligator, served with a spicy aioli and chives. I know that “tastes like chicken” is what people say when they don’t know quite how to describe the taste of something or they are trying to get you to eat something gross. But, seriously, I can’t think of another way to describe these little bites, except to say that they reminded me of chewy chicken nuggets. I didn’t dislike them, but I guess I was expecting that they would have a bit of a different taste. Perhaps they needed to be tenderized a bit more or the spice needed to be dialed down a bit for that to come through.

For an entrée, I was torn between the jambalaya and the catfish. I decided that the latter would be a better choice, since it was getting kind of late in the evening and approaching my bed time. I had never eaten catfish before—probably because I don’t really like fried fish, and that’s usually how it’s prepared. But, NOLA’s version is marinated in a flavorful citrus sauce and grilled to perfection. Whipped potatoes and grilled sweet peppers and onions were a nice compliment to the flaky fish. Luckily, Chester ordered the jambalaya, so I was still able to sample it. It was almost like paella. The cast iron dish was filled to the brim with rice, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and smoky andouille sausage. It was pretty spicy! The rice was cooked to fluffy perfection, and the seafood was tender, not rubbery.

With this satisfying meal, our trip was off to a good start. The next day, we woke up early to go to the Strip District. The Strip lies next to the Alleghany River, and is just a short walk from Downtown. Former industrial spaces and warehouses have been turned into markets—to me, it was a combination of the Italian Market in South Philly and the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Saturday is supposed to be the best day to go—everyone is out, and the markets are bustling.

 

We started with breakfast at DeLuca’s, one of the area’s most popular diners. The line out the door looked intimidating at first, but we really only waited about 15 minutes to be seated. Good thing, too, because it was blazing hot that day. I was so excited to see the sign in the window advertising iced coffee. I need my coffee to function in the morning, but in the 90 plus degree heat, the last thing I want it a hot drink! A few words of warning: 1) DeLuca’s is cash only, so make sure you hit an ATM before you go in; 2) If you are concerned about limiting your intake of carbs, fats, etc. in the morning, this is not the place for you.

 

The service is brisk and the interior no-frills. The menu features the usual hearty breakfast fare, including stuffed omelettes, waffles, crepes, and breakfast burritos. Two of the signature items include the mixed grill (sausage or ham with veggies, eggs, home fries, and toast) and ice cream sundae pancakes. I had the cinnamon-raisin French toast. The bread, which was Italian style from Mancini’s a local bakery, was very good. But, I still prefer my French toast bread to be a bit thick and spongy, so that it can really take on that eggy, custardy, taste. But, the raisins did provide an extra bit of sweetness. Chester had a corned beef omelette with a side of thick-cut, crispy bacon. The eggs were cooked to fluffy perfection, and as you can see, the portion was so generous that it nearly took up the entire plate!

Yes, ten pats of butter came with my three slices of French Toast. That's just crazy.

After breakfast we walked through the neighborhood, to browse stands and shops selling fresh fish, meat, poultry, produce, Italian, Asian, and Polish specialties, art, antiques, and Steelers gear. If we weren’t going to be staying for a couple of more days, I would have loaded up on cheese and fresh pasta from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. Side note—it literally just occurred to me that there was a small fridge in our hotel room. Now I’m kicking myself. Someone should sign me up for their Cheese of the Month club for my birthday—they deliver.

Later that day, we headed up the Duquesne Incline, which provides the best views of the city skyline, bridges and rivers. The Incline was opened in 1877, to carry cargo and residents up Mount Washington, and has become one of Pittsburgh’s most popular tourist attractions. The fare to ride each way is $2.25; make sure to bring exact change! The cable car only goes about five miles an hour and is really well maintained, but it is a little scary to think about what would happen if a piece of wood split or a cable broke. Yikes. So, don’t think about it, and just enjoy the view.

View from the Top

Later that evening, we met up with my friend Megan, whom I met while working at Drexel. We actually started our jobs on the same day in 2007, but I lasted a bit longer than she did. We met up at a bar downtown called the Sharp Edge (it had a really extensive beer selection) and I filled her in on everything she missed out on at Drexel. It was great catching up with her (and now she need to come visit us in Philly!)

Megan has been a long time resident of the Pittsburgh area, so she gave us great suggestions about what to do and where to eat. In addition to, NOLA on the Square Megan suggested the restaurant went to our Saturday night—Meat and Potatoes—which was probably my favorite meal of the trip.

Meat and Potatoes is Pittsburgh’s first gastropub. Its menu features updated takes on simple classics, like pasta, chicken pot pie, burgers, and hot dogs. The interior is elegant and cozy—almost like a Parisian bistro—with dark wood trimmed in gold, mirrors, and cushy armchairs at the dinner tables.

It's hard to get a decent photo of this place. It's located inside of a theater.

I can never pass up mac-and-cheese when I see it on a menu. Meat and Potatoes’ version was the best that I have had in a long time (aside from Chester’s mac-and-cheese that he only makes during the colder months). The elbow macaroni, cooked to a perfect al dente and topped with crunchy bread crumbs, was the perfect vehicle to hold on to the tangy taleggio cheese sauce. The bits of ham and peas provided a nice balance of salty and sweet and since they were evenly distributed throughout, all of the flavors were included in each bite.

I devoured the appetizer sized portion, served in a little cast iron dish (and seriously considered asking for seconds), and still had room for my mushroom burger. If Meat and Potatoes had a location in Philly, their burgers would give Jose Garces’ and his Village Whiskey and JG Domestic a run for their money. The burger was a perfect medium rare. It was so light—almost like biting into air (that analogy probably makes sense only to me). It hadn’t been overworked or over seasoned, so the juiciness of the meat, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the nuttiness of the Midnight Moon goat’s milk cheese could be fully appreciated. The shoestring style fries were a bit soggy but I was so full by the time I got to them so I didn’t mind leaving them behind.

Chester, in the meantime, got to have bone marrow the way he likes it—straight from the bone. Eating bone marrow is quite a process. You dig it out from the bone, spread it on grilled bread, and top with onions, salt, and gremolata. The three bones provided a generous serving, so you will probably need to ask for more bread to go with it. Chester thought it was “heavenly”—according to him, this is the way to eat bone marrow (not stuffed in a burger). And, you can trust him. He is a connoisseur of this kind of stuff. But, I did not like the fatty texture and the greasiness that lingered in my mouth after just a small bite. I guess it’s an acquired taste. For an entrée, he had the strip steak, which was served with a mix of red and green peppers and corn. Strip steak can be a tough cut of meat to prepare, but this version was tender enough to cut with a fork and well seasoned.

Finally, for dessert, we shared the chocolate pot de crème. I loved that it was served in a mason jar. I was surprised by how rich it was, given that it was made with milk chocolate instead of dark (which seems to be more popular lately). It was served with a slightly sweet, fresh whipped cream was the perfect end to the meal.

The service was a little bit uneven—we waited a really long time between each courses (my fries had probably been sitting for a while, I guess). The restaurant was full and there were a couple of larger parties. It seemed like maybe they could have used a couple of more staff members on duty. By the end of the night though, I was in a food coma, so this didn’t really bother me as much as it might have.

On Sunday, we slept in, and then went to back to the Strip District for lunch at the original Primanti Brothers. Since 1933, Primanti’s has been making its signature sandwiches, which consist of meat, cheese, tomato, cole slaw, and French fries, sandwiched between Italian bread. Like DeLuca’s, there was a brief wait at the door. But, once we were seated, our server took our order right away and our sandwiches arrived at our table in less than ten minutes.

Chester went for pastrami and I had salami. I expected not to like this sandwich. But, you know what? I did. The French fries were not greasy at all and the vinegar based cole slaw was a nice change of pace from the traditional variety that drips mayo all over your hands and makes the bread soggy. I surprised Chester and myself by eating the entire thing. Yes, I beat him in a sandwich challenge, for the first (and probably only) time ever.

After lunch, we went over to the Andy Warhol Museum, which I highly recommend. I’ve always been fascinated by him and the way that he embraced culture, media, celebrity, business, etc. and made art that accessible—and more often than not controversial. It features seven floors devoted to his paintings, drawings, films, and items his massive collection of “time capsules,” which hundreds of cardboard boxes filled over many years with all types of ephemera from his daily life. One of the most memorable exhibits is the “Silver Clouds,” an installation that he designed for a gallery show in the late 1960s. It’s a room full of rectangular mylar balloons, which are blown around by a fan. Guests step into the room and can actually interact with the work. There were a ton of little kids in there, but the grownups—like me and Chester—couldn’t help joining in as well. Video below, so you can see what I mean (there aren’t any people in it, but you get the point.

When we left the museum, we took a stroll along the riverfront. There are miles of trails, green spaces, and public art all along the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The baseball and football stadiums, hotels, and the headquarters of major corporations (such as Del Monte and Starkist) line the area. Small boats were docked all along the way, and people were hanging out on their decks eating, drinking, and playing cards. The trails also seem to be a destination for runners, bikers, and kayakers. It was vibrant and busy, and it made me wish (as I often do) that Philly would develop its waterfront in the same way.

It rained off and on throughout the afternoon. At one point, we had to duck into a hotel and hang out at their café until things cleared up. After the rain, we stumbled upon Rib Fest which was taking place at Heinz Field. Dozens of nationally known rib vendors were participating, and despite of having eaten a huge lunch earlier, Chester was lured in.

Chester tried ribs from Texas, and these from North Carolina, which he liked better because they weren't too smoky.

On the way back to the car, we stopped by to visit Mr. Rogers. If you grew up watching PBS like I did, you must stop and see him. Although, he does look a bit like Alfred E. Newman here.

Won't you be my neighbor?

For our final dinner in Pittsburgh, we went to the East Liberty section of the city to try out Spoon. Apparently, the local, organic, farm-to-table angle is making its way out to Western Pennsylvania as well. Pittsburgh Magazine named Spoon one of the best new restaurants in the city last year.

The interior of the restaurant is very…zen, for lack of a better word. Warm lighting, earth tone décor, and plush chairs. Even our waiter was very mellow. Chester theorized that he had been hypnotized by the music, which was the kind of stuff you would hear in a spa. It was very relaxing and a change of pace from the other places we ate though, which were loud and on the crowded side.

Spoon has an extensive wine list, with many options available by the glass. I had the St. Chapelle Riesling, which had a nice combination flavor combination of peach, orange, and honey. The latter made it a bit heavier, and not bubbly, like other Riesling I’ve had are. But, I really liked it.

I decided that I needed to go lighter with some lighter options after all of the rich foods that I had been eating over the past couple of days. Luckily, Spoon’s menu had quite a few options, including salads and fish, to choose from.

I had the Caesar salad for an appetizer, which was pretty basic. I would have rather had the “bacon and eggs” that Chester was having. A soft-boiled egg sat atop a thick slab of pork belly. Asparagus and hollandaise sauce accompanied the dish. It was a creative concept that was perfectly executed.

Bacon and Eggs at Spoon.

Source

For an entrée, I had the halibut wrapped in bacon. Halibut is the kind of fish you can do a lot with, since it will take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. It was topped with a bright pesto sauce, and the combination of the salt from that and the smoke from the bacon provided a great flavor. It was accompanied by homemade ravioli and vegetables. The thin dough and light mascarpone filling kept the ravioli from being too heavy. The server poured a flavorful broth over the entire dish when it was served, creating a kind of soup. Chester, on the other hand, was a bit disappointed in his Kobe beef burger. It had been overcooked, and as a result was quite dry and lacked the rich, fatty flavor that Kobe beef should have. The parmesan and herb fries, with an earthy truffle dipping sauce, were the best part of his dish.

As you know, I normally always go with the chocolate option on a dessert menu, but the lemon cheesecake caught my eye. I’m glad I changed things up. As you also know, I’m a sucker for a cute presentation; I loved that the cheesecake lacked a crust and was served in a demitasse cup. Mascarpone cheese, (which I think pairs really well with lemon) was topped with an intense lemon curd. Homemade white chocolate cream puffs and raspberry jam accompanied it. Chester went for two kinds of sorbet—peach and strawberry lemonade. The peach was our favorite, but both had a nice, refreshing tang. It was a nice ending to our weekend getaway.

As you can probably tell, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer you if you are a foodie. You can sample so many different types of food from ethnic specialties to comfort food classics that hearken back to the blue-collar days of the city. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Pittsburgh has to offer, and I think it’s poised for even greater growth and development in the near future. It’s worth the trip—so go!

South of France: Part I

Labor Day—and the unofficial end of summer—may be coming up this weekend, but I’m still stuck somewhere in early June, as I continue telling you about our France trip. I know, I’m ridiculously slow. Case in point—this past weekend, I just finished a photo book of our trip to Spain, where we spent our honeymoon. More than one year ago. Eventually, stuff gets done.

Anyway. Today, we’re moving on from Paris to the South of France. We spent the second week of our trip in that region, starting in Marseilles, going through Provence, and ending up in Nice. Along the way, we noticed some big differences between the Northern region, where we started our trip, and the South. Of course, since it’s closer to the Mediterranean, the South is  warmer and the food and architecture are typical of the region (it reminded me of Italy). In addition, the people are more laid back and welcoming. Even the language is different. The French spoken in the South is harsher and lacks the smooth, lilting quality that we had become used to hearing in the North.

We took a short flight from Paris to Marseille, the second largest—and oldest—city in France. Because of it’s location on the Mediterranean and it’s longstanding tradition as a trading port, it has long been a major point of entry for immigrants to France. Italians, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Spanish, North Africans, and Arabs have contributed to the diversity of the city.

The Greeks settled Marseille in 600 BC. After that, it was one bad thing after another. The Romans conquered it. Then, the Visgoths did. Then, the Franks. Then, the Aragonese. The plague came through and killed 100,000 people. It was heavily bombed during World War II. An oil crisis and economic downturn in the 1970s gave rise to increased crime and poverty. The city does look a little beat up.

On the other hand, there are some beautiful views to take in. We stayed at the Hotel Alize, which faces the Vieux (Old) Port. This area is really lovely, and is filled with cafes and places just to sit and gaze at the crystal blue water. If you take a ferry from the port, across the Bay of Marseille, you can visit the The Château d’If, the prison, which was the setting for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Vieux Port

We took a bus tour of the city, which stopped at the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde, which is situated on a hill, at the highest point in Marseille. It’s worth getting off the bus and climbing the steep steps to this church in the hillside, to take in some of the best panoramic views of the city.

Notre Dame De La Garde

View from Top of Notre Dame De La Garde

Another view from the top

And, last one from the top. It was quite a hike, but the views are the best in the city.

The food was probably our favorite part of our time in Marseille. For lunch, we went to Au Falafel, an Israeli restaurant on a little side street, which was walking distance from the port. I will forever be in search of hummus that will live up to what we had here—it was velvety smooth, with just the right mix of garlic, chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and olive oil, and was served with warm, chewy, pita bread. I could have made a meal out of just the hummus, but I couldn’t resist the kabab sandwich, which was stuffed to the point of bursting with turkey, lamb, fresh veggies (including eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes) and topped with a yogurt sauce.

Bouillabaisse, a rich, hearty fish stew, is one of the specialties of Marseille. The dish was invented there by fishermen who were looking for a way to use up what they couldn’t sell from their catches. For dinner, we headed to Chez Fonfon, which is frequently cited as being one of the best places to sample it. The restaurant is little off the beaten path (we had to take a cab there, and then descend a flight of dark creepy steps and walk through a little alleyway) near a small port called the Vallon des Auffes.

Not the best photo, but it was dark and late by the time we left.

When we sat down, the waiter already knew that we were there for the bouillabaisse. Although there is some version of fish stew in many parts of France, bouillabaisse is distinctive in the way its prepared (the name of the dish is a combination of the French words for “boil” and “simmer,”) its use of herbs de Provence and bony fish, and the method of serving it.

First, our server gave us only the broth, with a bit of toasted bread. This is kind of like an appetizer and lets you appreciate the hearty tomato and saffron infused base of the soup. Then, he brought out a plate of fish and potatoes, ramekins of aioli (garlic mayo) and rouille (kind of like mayo as well, but with saffron and chile peppers), more bread, and refilled our bowls with the broth and left us on our own to add the fish—which included eel, scorpion fish, gurnard, John Dory and weever—and all of the toppings. The server will keep bringing broth until you are too full to eat anymore. The dish is so rich and hearty that it doesn’t take long for a food coma to set in—I think I made it through a bowl and a half.

Aside from the food, Marseille honestly wasn’t one of our favorite stops on the trip. There are still some neighborhoods that are kind of underdeveloped and sparsely populated. Then, there are some streets that are so crowded, you feel like you can’t even breathe. We felt a bit uncomfortable walking around.

Nevertheless, it served our purposes of an entry point into the South of France. We picked up our rental car the next morning (a debacle, but I’ll spare you the details) and made our way out of the city, to Salon de Provence.

Gateway into historic center of Salon

Salon’s principal claim to fame was that Nostradamus lived out his final years and is buried there.

Nostradamus

Church of the Cordeliers where Nostradamus was buried. Fun fact: He's buried standing up in a wall.

The home where he wrote his famous prophecies is now a museum. Basically, it’s a series of rooms with wax dolls, depicting different scenes from his life (from his childhood, his time training to be a doctor, the plague, etc.). You stand in the room, stare at the dolls and commentary plays out of the speakers to explain the scene. It was interesting to learn a little bit more about his life and where his ideas came from, but it was a little strange.

Nostradamus was here. Plaque outside of his home, which now houses a museum.

After lunch, it was back on the road again to head to Avignon. The town is situated along the Rhone River and the ancient town center is still surrounded by walls.

Avignon became the seat of the popes for 68 years, beginning in 1309, when Pope Clement V decided that he wanted to stay in Avignon, instead of moving to Rome (which at the time was pretty chaotic and violent). He and his successors took up residence in the Avignon monastery, which they gradually expanded into the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe. The palace, situated in the center of the town took about 20 years—and most of the papacy’s money—to build.

Palace of the Popes

Chester blesses the crowd

View from watchtower at the Palace of Popes. The bridge over the Rhone goes to nowhere. It used to have 22 arches, but was damaged so many times over the years that they just stopped rebuilding.

Dinner that night was at Restaurant L’Essentiel. If they had a location in Philly, I might  eat there three times a week. The food was wonderful, and the presentations were so pretty. Some of the highlights included Chester’s marinated sardine appetizer; my chicken in a flavorful mushroom cream sauce with olive oil mashed potatoes and both of our desserts. I went with the warm chocolate cake (of course) with tart strawberry sorbet and Chester had cottage cheese topped with cherries and cotton candy. I know that probably sounds like a weird combination, but all of the flavors worked together and the pink spun sugar on top was unexpected and fun.

By the end of the day, I decided that I am going to retire to Avignon. It is the perfect combination of old and new, trendy and simple, upscale and simple. You can walk down the main street and be surrounded by shops and restaurants or walk through the winding medieval back streets.

Hotel Mignon, where we stayed in Avignon. Hey, that rhymes.

Oh, retirement. Such a long way away. At least I still have plenty of time to start learning French.