Archives for January 2012

Restaurant Review: Twenty Manning Grill

When I last visited Twenty Manning several years ago, it was pretty disappointing. At the time, they had a weird, kind of Asian-inspired menu going on. I remember getting “vegetable lasagna,” which consisted of a few pieces of zucchini, squash, and eggplant cut into circles and stacked on top of each other and topped with soy flavored tomato broth. I’m sure I was probably hungry again 15 minutes later, and, needless to say, I wasn’t in a rush to return.

However, the restaurant was recently re-branded as Twenty Manning Grill and the menu given an overhaul to focus on more classic fare (including fish, beef, pork, and fowl, as the flag outside says) and I decided that I wouldn’t mind giving it another chance. So, Chester and I decided to check it out for Restaurant Week last night.

As I have noted before, some people complain about Restaurant Week because restaurants often offer a limited menu of their least expensive dishes and service can be rushed. Although this probably helps restaurants contain their costs and maximize profits, it doesn’t give diners a true flavor for what a restaurant is all about, so that they might be enticed to return for non-promotional pricing. Twenty Manning takes the right approach to Restaurant Week, in my opinion, by offering a lot of menu options to choose from, generous portions and service that is attentive without being rushed.

It was cold and windy last night and my first course of roasted tomato bisque warmed me up right away. It had just the right amount of acidity and salt, as well as a great texture (it wasn’t totally smooth, but didn’t have huge chunks of tomato in it either) which was enhanced by the addition of bits of garlic crostini, topped with shaved locatelli. Chester, meanwhile opted for something that tasted more like summer—the scallop ceviche. The acid from the citrus was not overwhelming and the ratio of avocado, scallop and jalapeno was perfect, so that you got a bit of each ingredient in each bite. It was accompanied by shrimp chips. I thought they were weird, but Chester liked them because 1) shrimp chips are one of his favorite snacks and 2) he thought they were chicharróns at first because they were so crunchy and heavily fried.

I debated between a couple of different entrees on the menu, but decided on the pork chop, mostly because it came with seared brussel sprouts. The sprouts were simply prepared with a bit of salt just the way I like them—but the maple brined pork chop was dry and a bit tough. The accompanying creamy gorgonzola sauce and sweet, honeyed figs helped a bit, and, the closer I got to the bone, the juicier the meat became. Chester suggested that maybe it had just needed to settle a bit in the kitchen before being served. It wasn’t terrible, but I was a bit disappointed and became even more so after I tried Chester’s bison burger. It was slightly gamey, tender and juicy (which was unexpected since bison is a fairly lean meat). The standard toppings of lettuce, tomato, and red onion were included, but the grilled vegetables on top were a nice touch. It came with a huge pile of thin, crunchy fries, which were lovely on their own, but even better dipped in the melted gorgonzola sauce on my own plate. I know what I’m getting next time around.

Dessert was a sampler plate of three miniature pastries including a chocolate soufflé cake, cheesecake square and strawberry strudel. The first two were tasty but nothing special and the strudel was pretty lackluster at best—like an Entenmann’s pastry that had been left out too long. I would have much rather had the half-baked Toll House cookie and vanilla ice cream from the regular menu.

Like its sister restaurant, Audrey Claire which is located just down the street, Twenty Manning’s dishes are simple and use seasonal ingredients. However, it is not a BYOB and accepts credit cards. The cozy glow from the candles on each table, spacious bar area, which includes a TV and comfy banquette seating, gives it a more casual, relaxed feel. While Audrey Claire is a great option for a sit down dinner, Twenty Manning could be a great spot for drinks and appetizers after work.

Although the food wasn’t perfect, I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements that had been made since the last time I visited, and I would definitely go back again.

Restaurant Review: Santucci’s Pizza

There is a pizza place on every third corner in South Philly, but most people have their go-to spot that they tend to stick with. Ours is FrancoLuigi’s and whenever I order from anywhere else, I kind of feel like I’m cheating on it. But, last night we tried Santucci’s for the first time, and I may have a new favorite.

Santucci’s is a family-run business that has been around since 1959. There are five locations in the Northeast, and the first South Philadelphia location (which is BYOB and cash only) opened last summer in the Italian Market area. It specializes in square pizza, but the menu also features a variety of flatbreads, strombolis, hot and cold sandwiches, pasta dishes and salads.

When we arrived at around 8 p.m., all of the 30 or so seats in the restaurants were taken. The waitress told us we would have about a 15 minute wait for a table, but we probably waited closer to a half and hour. Once we were seated, the service was a little rocky at first—for example, there was some confusion over which staff member was assigned to our table, and it took awhile to get utensils and water. But, as the crowds thinned out throughout our visit, things went a bit more smoothly and our server was attentive and friendly.

While we waited for our pizza, we shared the antipasti, which included a generous helping of Italian meats, cheese, and veggies. I was a fan of the inclusion of arugula and pickled onions. I haven’t really seen these on an antipasti platter, but they are two of my favorite things, so I was pretty happy.

Our sausage, onion, and mushroom pizza arrived shortly after our appetizer plates were cleared. I judge a pizza by its crust, and Santucci’s was perfect—not so thin that the slices were difficult to hold, but not thick and doughy either (which is why I don’t usually prefer Sicilian style pizzas). Santucci’s preparation is also unique in that the cheese is at the bottom, the slightly sweet and peppery sauce on top, and the toppings distributed throughout the middle. This ensures that you get a bit of everything in each bite and keeps the toppings from sliding off.

Although Santucci’s offers take-out and delivery service, I think that its style of pizza is probably best enjoyed on the spot because the crust did lose some of its nice crispy texture as it sat out (plus, I have read a few reviews that indicate that delivery is unreliable and slow). Nevertheless, we are still enjoying the leftovers today, and I’m looking forward to returning to try out some more of the items on the menu.

Recipe: Cranberry Orange Scones

We had some leftover dried cranberries hanging around from a salad we made a couple of week’s ago, so I decided to try making scones for the first time. I used an America’s Test Kitchen recipe for cream scones, which was super easy. In fact, I had a harder time figuring out how to assemble and operate the food processor that we got as a wedding gift almost two years ago so that I could make the dough.

Cream scones are a British invention. Unlike the thick, slightly dry versions you usually find in coffee shops in the U.S., these scones are light, tender, and delicate–almost like a biscuit. There is a minimal amount of sugar in the dough, but in this case, the orange zest lends a nice, bright flavor. They would probably still be tasty with a smear of butter and/or jam, although they don’t really need it. Along with a cup of coffee (or tea, if you want to have the full English experience), they are the perfect snack for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Cranberry Orange Scones

From: America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book

Makes 8 scones

What you will need

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¼ inch pieces and chilled
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh orange zest
  • ¾ cup dried cranberries
  • 1 cup heavy cream

What to do

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees; line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Pulse the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in food processor to combine (about 3 pulses). Scatter butter evenly over the top of mixture and continue to pulse until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, with a few slightly larger lumps of butter (about 12 pulses).
  3. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and stir in cranberries. Stir in cream with rubber spatula until dough begins to form (about 30 seconds).
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it forms a slightly sticky ball. Press dough into a 9-inch cake pan. Unmold and cut into eight wedges.
  5. Place the wedges on baking sheet and bake until tops are lightly golden brown (about 12 to 15 minutes), rotating the pan halfway through baking time.
  6. Transfer to a wire rack and cool about ten minutes before serving (this will allow the scones to firm up and improves their texture).

Federal Donuts Comes to Cook

Felicia D'Ambrosio and Zachary Engel fill donuts prior to the start of class at Cook

Federal Donuts, located in the Pennsport area of South Philadelphia specializes in just three things—donuts (obviously), coffee, and fried chicken—and was probably one of the most talked about restaurants of 2011. A limited amount of donuts and chicken are available each day and it has been pretty common for everything to be sold out by the time lunch rolls around. The last time we tried to go—on Chester’s birthday—we got there way too late and the handwritten sign on the door told us that they were sold out of everything. Sadness.

Luckily, this disappointment coincided with the release of the January class schedule at Cook—one of the other most talked about places to hit the culinary scene last year—Audrey Claire Taichman’s (of Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning fame) kitchen/classroom/pantry in Rittenhouse Square. When I saw that Michael Solmonov, James Beard award-winning chef of not only Federal Donuts, but Zahav (hummus!) and Percy Street Barbeque as well, was going to be part of a Federal Donuts brunch class, I stalked the registration page so that I could snag two of the 16 available seats for Chester and I as part of his Christmas gift (food and time with me? How could anyone turn that down?). Success!

I will have a kitchen that looks like this someday

Solmonov, along with Zachary Engel who is in charge of the kitchen at Federal Donuts, led the class. Joining them were two of their other partners: Felicia D’Ambrosio, who mixed up cocktails throughout the class and Thomas Henneman, owner of BODhi coffee, which supplies the caffeinated beverages to Federal Donuts.

Michael Solomonov serves up the donuts

Fried chicken and donuts are pretty simple to make, but Federal Donuts employs a pretty lengthy preparation process to ensure that their versions are pretty much the the best that you will ever have.

The shop makes 60 orders of chicken per day (four pieces in each order) and the preparation process is quite lengthy. The chicken is brined the day before it’s to be served. Then, at midnight, an employee comes in to place the chicken into the deep fryer, where it poaches for awhile. It’s then dried on racks until chicken ordering time begins, just before noon. They start making donut batter, at midnight too, and start frying at 4 a.m. (Obviously, this would never be a good job for me. I need my sleep). With this extra care and attention to detail in the preparation, its no wonder there have been consistent sell-outs and lines around the block since the October opening.

Throughout the class, we sampled four kinds of donuts and two kinds of fried chicken. It’s a good thing that we arrived at Cook pretty hungry. The donuts that were featured were made especially for the class at Cook, but the fried chicken recipes are the same ones that are used at Federal Donuts each day.

First up was the sufganiyot, a chewy, sugar-raised donut that’s filled with raspberry jam and is traditional Hanakkah treat. The Federal Donuts team served up one version rolled in vanilla-lavender sugar and one rolled in appolonia spice—a cocoa and orange blossom sugar blend. All of the spice blends are made for the shop by La Boîte Biscuits and Spices in New York.

Next up, was my favorite donut of the day: a sour cream donut with tonka glaze. These donuts had a rich, cake-like texture and were tender on the inside and slightly crispy outside.

I had no idea what tonka was prior to my experience at Cook, but I’m now in love with it. It smells and tastes like a combination of vanilla, almond, cinnamon and clove, and it’s traditionally been used in perfumes, potpourris and soaps. The government controls it as an additive in food; it can be slightly poisonous when consumed in large quantities, since it contains coumarin, which had blood thinning properties. So, enjoy your tonka in moderation.

This bean could kill you

The final donuts were the the oddly shaped Loukomades, a honey dipped Greek donut. They look heavy on the outside, but are actually light and fluffy with a mild flavor. I think they would be great rolled in a little cinnamon or powdered sugar too.

Next up, it was time for chicken.

Demonstrating how to cut up a chicken. First, you have to make it dance.

My biggest pet peeve about fried chicken is that the breading always seems to peel off when you bite into it. Not so with the Federal Donuts versions, since the breadings included cornstarch or sweet potato startch to keep them in place. The outside has a satisfying crunch when you bite into it, and the chicken underneath is extremely moist and flavorful.

First up were Taiwanese fried chicken wings. They were flavored with a Chinese five spice powder and served with a Za’Atar spice (a blend of herbs, sesame seeds, sumac and other spices) and chile garlic glaze. They were presented in separate bowls, but I liked mixing them together for a little bit of extra heat.

Engel spent time in New Orleans’ earlier in his career and continues to be inspired by the cuisine there. So, for the second chicken preparation, he made the fried chicken recipe from Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a New Orleans institution. This was a more traditional fried chicken preparation, as it had buttermilk incorporated into the coating. It’s fried in pork lard, so while I would love to eat this everyday, I probably shouldn’t.

And, then, we were stuffed.

I highly recommend taking a look at the upcoming classes being offered at Cook. Get onto the mailing list so that you can be notified as soon as registration opens up, because things sell out very quickly. Although the class was on the pricey side, it’s definitely worth it if you love food (and I think you can tell Chester and I do!) and want to hear directly from the chefs about how and why they do what they do. In the case of Solmonov and his crew, it’s clear that they all love what they do and all enjoy working together. It was a far more personalized experience than we would have had if we visited Federal Donuts on the average day.

Time to make the donuts

I’m hoping that it won’t be too long before we’re able to have donuts and fried chicken from Federal Donuts again. Although we left Cook with the recipes, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever be able to come close to getting them right at home. The good news came out this week was that the shop is starting a dinnertime chicken service on the weekends, so at least we might not have to wake up too early for our next visit.

Restaurant (Delivery) Review: Circles

After the first week back to work after the holiday (which seemed to go on forever even though it was only four days long), all I wanted to do to kick off the weekend was throw on my comfy clothes, park myself on the couch and watch the first season of Downton Abbey (my new obsession) on Netflix. But, the prospect of ordering yet another pizza or sub-par Chinese food was less than appealing. So, I was thrilled when Chester learned that Circles, a Thai restaurant in the Newbold (i.e. Point Breeze. When we were house hunting a couple of years ago, our real estate agent said she had a few clients “pioneering” in this area. In other words, it’s improving, but still a bit sketch) area, delivers to our neck of the woods.

Although Circles charges a $3 delivery fee, the total bill for both of our meals was just under $40. This is on-par with what we would pay at Lemon Grass, our regular destination for Thai, but the food was far superior. Plus, the 45-minute delivery time that we were quoted on the phone was pretty accurate, so everything arrived as piping hot as if we were sitting at the restaurant.

I got one of my favorite dishes, coconut milk soup, which was full of fresh mushrooms as well as crisp carrots and green beans. There was a substantial amount of lime in the soup, which I didn’t mind since I like the acidity of citrus (random trivia about me: I can eat an entire lemon by itself). Seafood, shrimp, or chicken can be added to the soup, but I stuck with just the veggies since I had chicken in my main course—the pumpkin curry, which also included ample amounts of bell peppers, basil, and Kabocha pumpkin. The latter is a Japanese vegetable that is moister than a standard orange pumpkin and has an interesting flavor that’s a cross between a sweet potato and a butternut squash. It packed a lot of heat—I could feel my lips swelling up as I ate—but I really liked it.

Chester chose the crab rangoon for his appetizer. Instead of being just plain, the cream cheese filling was seasoned with a pretty substantial amount of curry. This did make it a bit difficult to pick out any hints of crab, but it was pretty tasty. A side of sweet plum sauce helped to tone down the heat a little bit. Chester declared that his beef pad thai was one of the best versions he has ever had. I’m not the biggest pad thai fan, but I have to agree that it was pretty outstanding. The beef was very tender and well seasoned. Each bite had just the right amount of peanut flavor, but the dish swimming in sauce like some versions I have sampled.

If you don’t live in South Philly, Circles is opening a second location in Northern Liberties this year, which will hopefully deliver to your neighborhood as well. Now, if more places like Circles would deliver, we might never leave our house on weekend nights again

On the Road: More Chicago Restaurants

While the Girl and the Goat was definitely our favorite place that we ate at on our recent Chicago trip, but there were a few other notable stops as well.

They include:

Davanti Enoteca is a wine bar and restaurant serving rustic Italian fare. It’s located in Little Italy, right across from the building that Chester lived in during college. The menu includes a wide variety of antipasti, salad, pizza, and pasta dishes that are just the right size for sharing with friends.

My favorite part of our lunch was the Focaccia di Recco. This type of focaccia is not as thick as what’s typically used in sandwiches and it’s stuffed with a soft, cow’s milk cheese. Davanti’s focaccia is made to order, and I recommend paying for the extra $2 for a bit of local honeycomb to spread on top of it for an extra bit of sweetness.

Crappy cell phone photo does not do this deliciousness justice.

I ordered cacio e pepe, which was just okay. I probably was comparing it too much to the wonderful version of the dish that I had at for my birthday. Although the flavors in this simple dish were well balanced, Davanti’s pasta didn’t have that homemade taste or texture (a bit bland and too thick) that would have taken it from good to great. Chester’s pizza was tasty—how could it not be with its fried egg, pork belly, and potato on top, which was reminiscent, of a breakfast sandwich. I would have just liked the crust to be a bit crispier towards the center.

If we lived nearby, I could see this being on the list of regular places to grab a low-key, casual dinner on a Friday night. Towards the back of the restaurants, where we sat, the walls are lined floor to ceiling with wine. You can buy a bottle or two at retail prices, plus a $7 corkage fee to enjoy with your meal.

Topolobampo on the North Side is Rick Bayless’ Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s the sister restaurant to Frontera Grill, with which it actually shares a front door and bar area. Frontera is where you would go if you want chips, salsa and other casual fare, whereas Topolo is a bit more upscale (with prices to match). It also takes reservations, whereas, Frontera does not (the night we visited, Frontera had a two hour wait!).

The menu changes on a monthly basis, and features many regional specialities, seafood, meat and game. Although there are several tasting menus, We opted to order a la carte as none of the items that we wanted were included as part of the tastings.

I loved my Sopa de Pan Festivo, a savory, saffron and spice infused “bread pudding soup” with plantains, golden raisins, olives, egg and roasted tomato. For an entrée, I had the roasted lamb in mole sauce that was comprised of dark chiles, dried fruit, nuts & spices. It was a spicy dish, but the sweet, pickled apples that accompanied it took some of the heat off.

For his appetizer, Chester chose a sampling of three tacos: aged beef tenderloin with black bean, chorizo with quail egg (we both liked this one the best) and pork loin with avocado-tomatillo salsa. His entree was a combination of seared Wagyu ribeye and roasted lamb in a black mole sauce. The preparation of the sauce in this dish was more traditional and had more of the chocolate flavor that you associate with mole. The lamb was well prepared, the ribeye was definitely the standout here.

For once, we actually both got dessert! I had a Mexican vanilla cake, with a plantain pudding, banana leaf ice cream, and fried plantains. After the heaviness of the rest of the meal, this was a nice, light way to finish. Chester had an eggnog mousse, which was served with sweet, lightly fried yucca donuts and a sweet cream sorbet. My favorite part of his dish were the tart red currants, which were a nice complement of the sweetness of both of our dishes.

The food was delicious, creative and beautifully presented. The only slightly negative aspect was the service. There were some hiccups with clearing plates between courses and our main server was a tad on the miserable side. She acted like it was a huge inconvenience to her when we asked for a few more minutes to make our selections. I’m guessing she wasn’t on duty the day that the Michelin committee visited.

Franks ‘n’ Dawgs in Lincoln Park takes the hot dog up several notches with it’s assortment of hand-crafted gourmet sausages and hot dogs and assorted toppings. There aren’t even any standard hot dog buns here—instead, each creation is served on a buttery, New England style lobster roll. Three hot dogs came to just under $30 so it’s pretty pricey, but these are far from the typical ballpark dog. It’s also BYOB, so that can help you save a few bucks as well.

Chester had a Chicagoesque Dawg, which is served with housemade pickles, cherry tomato relish, caramelized onions & beer mustard, as well as the Brunch Dawg, which features pork loin breakfast sausage, smoked bacon, fried egg and maple mayo. I couldn’t pass up the Truffled Mac and Cheese dog. Definitely a step up in taste and quality from the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with cut up hot dogs that I loved as a kid, but just as comforting.

Again, tasted so much better than my cell phone made it look.

Vincent in the Andersonville neighborhood, is a bistro serving Dutch food at pretty reasonable prices. Although there is a wine/cocktail list, you can also BYOB for a $5 corkage fee (cheap!).

Vincent offers mussels prepared in a variety of ways including the Amsterdam style (beer, butter, roasted garlic, anise, fennel, dried basil) and the Asian-inspired sambal (tamarind, shrimp paste, lime leaf). I kept it simple and went with the Provencal style (white wine, tomato, caper, olive, garlic, anchovy). The portion was extremely generous. There were about three dozen mussels, which were well prepared—neither gritty nor rubbery. They were served with a heaping side of thin, crispy fries and a garlic aioli dipping sauce that I wish I could have bottled up and taken home. The broth was delicious, but I would have like a bit more to sop up with bread (on the subject of bread, I probably could have made a meal of the crusty baguette, butter, and roasted garlic that we enjoyed while waiting for our food).

Chester opted for the three course Dutch dinner for $25, which came with an endive and mixed green salad, topped with walnuts, apples and Gouda, beef stew with mashed potatoes, and a cheese plate which featured two kinds of aged Gouda. His only complaint was that the stew had a little bit too much clove for his liking.

Both the food and the interior of the restaurant are warm and comforting, so it was a good thing that the day we visited was one of the coldest days of our trip.

Mercat al Planxa, in the South Loop, is owned by Jose Garces (I had no idea that he was actually from Chicago, given that most of his restaurants are in Philly) and serves Catalan inspired cuisine. We went for lunch and took advantage of the Catalan Express—two courses and a beverage for $18.

This was one of the stops on our second to last day in Chicago, and after nearly a week of eating lots of heavy things, I was glad to be able to have something lighter: a green salad with crunchy asparagus, avocado, green beans and a grilled chicken sandwich with romanesco sauce, tomato and parmesan. Chester had the Spanish omelette with spinach, potatoes and saffron aioli and the black angus hanger steak. It came with potato croquettes which were crispy and well seasoned, as well as braised beef short ribs, which were so-so. The fact that, for once, steak was actually cooked to a perfect medium rare, more than made up for this shortcoming. The food definitely brought back memories of our honeymoon in Spain.

Um. yea. So, we ate a lot on this trip. Good thing it was back to our regularly scheduled gym routine and salads for dinner this past week.

On the Road: The Girl and the Goat

Hancock Tower, Chicago

I was pretty much in some degree of food coma from December 23 to January 1. On top of all the Christmas goodies, Chester and I spent last week eating our way through Chicago.

Okay, it wasn’t all about food. We did other things, too. For example:

After Christmas sale shopping on Michigan Avenue.

View from Michigan Avenue Bridge, overlooking Chicago River

A trip to the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

A visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which was decked out in millions of lights.

New Year’s Eve celebration with family.

Really, thought, it was mostly about the food.

Our dinner at the Girl and the Goat, which is owned by Stephanie Izard, the winner of the fourth season of Top Chef, was easily our favorite meal of the trip. If I lived in Chicago, I would be a regular there.

I was thinking about how I would categorize the food, and it’s kind of tough. There’s definitely a good old American comfort food element, as many of the dishes use hearty, familiar ingredients as a base (pork, shrimp/scallops, chicken, green beans to name a few). But, the flavors in the dishes that we sampled ran the gamut from Asian to French to Mediterranean to Indian. This may sound like the place is all over the map, and it is—in a good, creative way. A lot of thought has clearly gone into choosing ingredients, flavors, and textures for each dish that will all come together in a way that totally works.

Plates are meant to be shared—most are slightly larger than the typical tapas style plates that you are probably used to seeing, and some are as large enough to be categorized as an entrée. We ended up sampling a total of six dishes—two from each of the other section of the menu—plus bread.

The menu is divided into vegetable, meat, and fish sections, each of which have some crossover with each other (i.e. not everything on the vegetable menu is vegetarian). The night that we visited there was also a list of goat specials. Neither Chester or I are fans of goat, so we skipped that section entirely.

Bread is baked in house each day; there were three varieties on the menu the day that we visited. We ordered the Oompa. It was still so warm from the oven when it was brought to our table that it burned our hands when we broke it apart. It had perfect, crusty exterior and a carrot/curry flavor (which gives it an orange color. Hence the name. Get it?). It was served with slightly salty walnut raisin butter and carrot oil for dipping. Most of us are probably used to getting bread for free in restaurants, but I would gladly pay for bread at every place I go to if it was like what we had at Girl and the Goat.

For the rest of the meal, we had:

1. Chickpea fritters: This may have been my favorite dish of the night. These little squares of stewed chickpeas are lightly fried and accompanied by an eggplant/tomato based sauce and bits of fresh mozzarella. The latter gives a little more substance to the dish, since the fritters are so smooth and light that they practically melt in your mouth.

2. Scallops: Two huge, perfectly seared scallops in a light brown butter sauce, accompanied by fried brussel sprouts. There wasn’t anything really special or different about this dish, but I love scallops just about anytime, anyplace, anywhere, as long as they are cooked correctly. And, they were in this case. So, I was happy.

3. Wild mushroom ragout: A rustic, earthy dish, served with sweet potato agnolotti (a flat, rectangular filled pasta) and a mushroom crème fraiche sauce. The addition of capers provided a bit of saltiness that was a nice complement for the sweetness of the pasta and mushrooms.

4. Escargot Ravioli: This was a different take on the traditional presentation of escargot, in that you had to fish out the escargot from the pasta instead of its shell. Overall, it was a pretty good dish. The pasta was light and the escargot was tender and briny. Bits of bacon on top were an interesting touch. The ravioli were served in a tamarind-miso sauce neither Chester or I could really taste it—it could have been a bit more pronounced.

5. Grilled pork ribs: I was worried that I would end up a total mess after eating this dish, but this was more of a deconstructed presentation, where the meat was taken off the bone. Strangely, though, there were some pieces of bone included on the plate, but nothing that really had a substantial amount of meat that could be consumed. Just for decoration I guess? Aside from that, I really did enjoy this dish. The pork was tender and a scallion vinaigrette and a tomatillo-mushroom slaw was served alongside it. Each bite had a different flavor—sometimes more Asian, sometimes more Spanish—depending on whether you ate the pork with the sauce or the slaw.

6. Pig Face: Probably my least favorite dish of the night, but Chester has proclaimed it one of the best dishes he’s ever eaten. The two oven-roasted patties are formed from the pig’s jowls and chin. I may have been a bit put off from the start by the fact that it resembled an over cooked piece of scrapple. However, flavor was a bit better and the texture far more interesting—chewy, crispy, tender and fatty all at the same time. It was served with potato sticks (that looked and tasted exactly like the bagged snack food I loved in my younger days), tamarind sauce, and a fried egg, which, strangely, all seemed to tone down the richness a bit. I didn’t totally hate it, but I probably would not order it if I went again.

After our last plate was cleared, our server brought the dessert menu for us to peruse. This was my only truly “meh” moment of the evening, as nothing at all seemed really appealing. Probably a good thing considering I don’t know where I would have fit dessert. I honestly can’t recall anything on the dessert menu, except for Chocolate Thai Chili Gelato. I had overheard someone at the next table who had been to the restaurant a couple of times talk about how he wasn’t really impressed with the dessert selections on any of his visits, so perhaps this is just not the restaurants strongest point. Maybe if I was still hungry, I would have ordered another round of chickpeas.

Service was excellent throughout the evening. Since it was so crowded, I was half expecting that we would be rushed out so that they could accommodate as many people as possible, but this was not the case at all. The food was served at a steady, but leisurely pace and the staff was attentive, without hovering or being intrusive. They seemed to materialize out of nowhere when water glasses needed to be filled or plates needed to be cleared. Our main server was extremely knowledgeable about the menu and did a great job of making recommendations diners who were having trouble narrowing down the options. I was surprised how reasonable the final bill was, considering we had quite a bit a food and a few glasses of wine with our meal.

I’ve got quite a few more places to share with you in another post. But, since I loved the Girl and the Goat so much, I thought I would give it its own post. Stay tuned for more.

Christmas 2011

Hello and Happy New Year, friends! I hope that 2012 is off to a great start for everyone and that you will be able to keep up with all of your resolutions for at least for the next week or so. I actually did pretty well with the goals I set for 2011 (get new job, start and stick with a new hobby, lose ten more pounds. The irony is that my new hobby is this blog, and I still managed to lose a bit of weight while eating pretty well.) so I have high hopes that I can do just as well in 2012.

Chester and I got back from Chicago late last night, where we had a great time hanging out with his family, catching up with friends, and eating at some pretty awesome places. I have quite a few recommendations for you to add to your list if you are planning a trip out there anytime soon. More on that in another post.

But, first, I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about Christmas. I know, it seems like it was eons ago, right? As I type this, I’ve been glancing at my Christmas tree from time to time—it looks like it’s been through the war. I mean, it looked so bright and sparkly when I last saw it on December 24. Now, just a little over a week later, it’s all lopsided and seems to have all of these bald spots that I hadn’t noticed before. My grandfather was right—all of the decorations really do look sad after all of the celebrations are over.

Alright, that’s enough of the depressing stuff. Our Christmas was pretty great this year.

I did a pretty good job with my wrapping this year.

There was food, of course.

We started off the festivities at my BFF’s mom’s house on Christmas Eve afternoon. Bridget’s husband Bill made some yummy appetizers, and also, snickerdoodle cookies that I must get the recipe for.

Bill's stuffed dates and tuna crostini appetizers

Me and Bridget

After that, we headed over to my aunt’s house for Christmas Eve dinner. Scallops, risotto, arugula salad, and my aunt’s homemade bread were on the menu. My mom and I slaved over the stove as my brother “supervised.” This meant that mainly stood over our shoulders to tell us what we were doing wrong. In addition, he chopped one bulb of garlic, taste tested, and, when it looked like the scallops weren’t searing properly, stepped in and cooked about four of them to perfection.

Mom oversees the scallop station

I made risotto for the first time ever. I was nervous about it because a good risotto requires quite a bit of patience (which I always seem to be a bit short on) to achieve its trademark, creamy consistency. It took about 30 minutes, lots of stirring and two cartons of chicken stock, but it turned out pretty near perfect. Even my picky brother gave it the stamp of approval. A proud moment for me.

Risotto Preparations

We spent Christmas Day at my mom’s house, and had our traditional spread of Italian antipasti (meats, cheeses, bruschetta, olives, etc.) for lunch. Then, there was lasagna for dinner.

If there's one thing I know how to do after years of planning events, it's how to arrange an antipasti tray.

I made this, too. I was pretty handy in the kitchen this year!

For dessert, my aunt made a flourless chocolate cake (which we dug into way to quickly for me to get a photo of!) and I made eggnog ice cream. Last year, when I was fairly new to ice cream making, I took a shortcut and used store bought egg nog as the base and it was a little on the icy side. This year, I used this recipe and made the custard from scratch. It was a million times better—rich, creamy, and a bit spicy from steeping nutmeg and cinnamon in the cream for about thirty minutes.

Thanks, mom, for the new ice cream glasses!

One of the best parts of Christmas this year was reconnecting with some family members that we hadn’t seen in a very long time. Remember how I said that Christmas Eve always seems just a little bit magical? Well, this year was no exception.

My mom and I headed up to the Reading Terminal early on Christmas Eve to pick up scallops for that evening’s dinner. As soon as we walked in the door, I saw my dad’s father and stepmother, whom we have not seen or spoken to since my dad passed away more than a decade ago, at one of the stands. My mom and I debated about what to do. Finally, we went over, tapped them on the shoulders, and tears followed (my mom was the worst of all. She has the best ugly cry I’ve ever seen, but it’s pretty awkward in a public setting.) as we caught up on everything we’d missed out on over the past ten plus years.

Of course, I’ve never stopped thinking about my dad or his family over the years. If anything, I’ve thought about them even more in the last few as the big stuff, like getting engaged and then getting married, has happened in my life. I’ve wanted to reconnect with them again, but after such a long time, I guess I didn’t really know what to do. I figured I would see them again if the time was right.

It might sound cheesy, but I believe that sometimes, something—or someone—else just steps in and makes it happen. I like to think that maybe my dad thought the time was right for us all to reconnect and he helped move things along and made sure that we were all in the right place at the right time. My mom and I had talked about going somewhere in our neighborhood to pick up the things we needed, but we took the trip up to the market instead. We found a great parking spot just across the street from it and ended up right at the entrance closest to the stand where my grandfather and Ronnie were shopping (Turns out that it was a “no stopping” zone, and we returned to find out that the Philadelphia Parking Authority wasn’t in the Christmas spirit and had left us a $76 ticket). I could feel my dad smiling down on all of us on Christmas Eve, and then the next day when we all got together again at my mom’s house.

So, yea, Christmas 2011 was pretty cool. I hope that your holiday was just as special.

My mom, me, grandfather, and brother on Christmas Day. Two photos were being taken at once, which is why not all of us are looking at the right camera. This is the best of the bunch.