Archives for March 2012

Restaurant Review: Hot Diggity

In my younger days, I spent quite a bit of time on South Street. On Saturdays someone’s parents would drop us off there, and we would go to Tower Records and Imagine. For a few years, Bridget, her mom and I volunteered on Friday nights at a store called Thrift for AIDS. It used to be a pretty cool place. Not so much anymore, as many of the quirky, independent stores have moved out and been replaced by places that buy old gold and sell cheaply made clothing.

I’ve hardly spent anytime on South Street over the last several years, but ended up there twice this past weekend, once on Saturday to go to Supper and then the following day to check out Hot Diggity. After trying Underdogs a couple of weeks ago and the Dapper Dog at the Night Market last year, we wanted to try out one of the other much buzzed about places that has embraced the food trend of the moment—the gourmet hot dog.

Hot Diggity’s menu is smaller than Underdogs—about ten hot dog combinations and fries (with a variety of dipping sauces) and craft sodas. Whereas Underdogs also offers a variety of sausages, Hot Diggity sticks to all-beef hot dogs, although the menu did state that any offerings could be prepared for vegetarian preferences as well.

As usual, Chester tried out the Chicago Dog (called the Windy City here) as well as the Cincinnati Skyline, topped with cheddar cheese and chili. I opted for the Fiesta Dog, with guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream. All of the dogs were grilled and piled high with toppings on a hoagie roll. Additionally, we enjoyed a side of thick, Belgian-style fries, which were  served in a paper cone that slid through a hole in the table. Clever.

Clockwise from the top, Fiesta Dog, Windy City and Cincinnati Skyline

The Chicago Dog fell short; it was missing the trademark celery salt and hot peppers, and was topped with red onions instead of white. The chili on the Cincinnati dog was really good—I would have liked just a plain old bowl of it, sans hot dog. The Fiesta Dog was tasty—proving my theory that anything goes with guacamole—but the combination of toppings was really not that unique.

Overall, we didn’t feel that Hot Diggity’s hot dogs were as good as those used at Underdogs—they were thinner, less meaty. Also, instead of being boiled, they were grilled, which resulted in a flavor that overpowered some of the toppings. As was the case with the Underdogs variety, the bread was just a bit too thick and chewy. And, although it doesn’t break the bank, Hot Diggity was also a bit more expensive, with hot dogs running between$5 and $6.

Even though this was a case of the Underdog having its day, I have to say that Hot Diggity is probably one of the nicer additions to South Street in recent years. Perhaps other small, fund businesses like this will make their way back to the area soon!

Restaurant Review: Supper

My mom got another year more fabulous last week, and we went out to celebrate over the weekend. (Side note: I should also mention that my aunt got another year more fabulous last week, too, since she and my mom are twins. However, she’s been feeling a bit under the weather lately, so we’ll celebrate when she’s feeling more up to it. We love you, Aunt!).

We were supposed to make a return trip to Bibou, but ended up having to find another option when my mom had to work late on Friday evening. This probably ended up being a good thing, because my brother, also known as the world’s pickiest eater, decided to join us. The chances of him eating French food? Slim to none.

One of the first places that came to mind when looking for a new option was Supper on South Street. Chester and I had been there for one of my birthday dinners a couple of years ago and I remembered that we both enjoyed it. I also remembered that it specializes in American cuisine and that most of the menu options had easily identifiable names. Chicken. Salmon. Scallops. Burger. So, I figured that would sit well with the picky one.

Supper changes their menu often to reflect the seasons and uses local ingredients. Much of the produce is grown exclusively for the restaurant at the privately-owned Blue Elephant Farm in Newtown Square. The chef travels to the farm each day to pick the ingredients that appear on plates later in the day. If you have a non-meat eater in your group, there will be plenty of options for him/her to choose from, including a three-course Harvest menu, which features only vegetarian options. The décor is reminiscent of a farmhouse—rustic and simple, with accents of warm oranges and yellows. Perched over one of the dining tables is a large light fixture, comprised of various metal elements, exposed wires, and light bulbs of varying sizes and shapes. I thought it was pretty cool, but my mom spent a large part of our dinner worried that it would fall on the elderly patrons seated below it.

We started with the cheese puffs, from the hors d’oeuvres menu. They were filled with warm cheddar cheese and sage and topped with a bacon sauce. The combination of flavors was delicious, but at $6 for three small puffs, we felt that they were a tad pricey.

Our second appetizer, the farmhouse platter, was $34, but it was pretty substantial. It contained a sampling of three cheeses, charcuterie, nuts, pickled apples and cucumbers, and spreads. I liked all of the cheeses—cheddar, brie, and a mild Amish blue cheese—but some of the meats—including pates, chicken liver mousse, and pork rilletes—were little too fancy for my tastes. I stuck to the lamb pastrami and the Boudin blanc, a white sausage that is a combination of chicken and pork meat. My mom described it as tasting “like the Reading Terminal smells.” Kind of like a farm I guess? Anyway, if you’ve been to the Reading Terminal, chances are you know what I mean. It was a pretty accurate description. There was a surprisingly good stone ground mustard on the plate, which was good spread on a bit of the cheese or meat, or just on a little bit of bread.

There were some things that I didn’t really notice—or maybe didn’t remember from my first visit—that left me a bit underwhelmed by the entrees. Some of the accompaniments were odd choices to complement the main ingredient. In some cases, there were so many elements going on in the dish that the main ingredient got lost. There’s some expression related to accessorizing outfits that basically suggests that if you take one accessory off  before leaving the house, your outfit will be perfect. This could probably also be applied to cooking as well. Sometimes, simple is better.

As an example, I had the market fish of the day, which was a sea bass. The fish itself was perfectly cooked and flavorful, but then it was paired with a lemon jam, salsa verde, creamy oregano flavored rice and escarole. The jam has a very strong flavor that I thought was overpowering to the fish and the escarole was braised, making it tough to chew. The salsa verde and rice were much better complements, and perhaps the escarole could have been as well, if a different preparation method had been chosen. Similarly, my mom had the salmon. Again, it was cooked well, but the spinach mousse, fried potatoes, fried oysters and sauce just seemed too be too much. In both cases, I felt like the cut of fish was very small relative to the price and all of the other ingredients on the plate.

Chester decided to order the osso buco, mostly because the menu indicated that it came with bone marrow. However, the small piece of the bone included with the dish had hardly any marrow at all inside of it. The rest of the dish was good, however. The generous portion of tender, flavorful veal shank was served over polenta and was shredded to resemble pulled pork. I would have liked to see the addition of tomatoes or carrots as in the traditional preparation to add a bit more to this dish and bring a bit more color to the plate. So, I guess there are cases when sometimes you need to add those little extra accompaniments.

As I predicted, my brother chose the burger, served on a brioche bun, piled high with a variety of toppings, including ham, pickles, tomatoes and cheese. Although he finished most of it, he did say it was a bit salty and didn’t really the duck fat fries. I’ve heard some people claim that Supper’s burger is one of the best in the city, but I can’t really comment since I didn’t try it. My brother would never share his food with me. Germs, you know.

Supper got dessert just right on this visit, however. My mom and I shared the dark chocolate pudding. It had a much thicker consistency and denser texture—almost like a mousse—than I would associate with a pudding. But, it was delicious and served with fresh raspberries (which were surprisingly sweet, considering I don’t think that berry season has started yet) and salted shortbread cookies. Both of these were well chosen to complement the ultra rich chocolate. Chester ordered one of the specials, Irish soda bread pudding, topped with a warm cognac flavored sauce. The soda bread minimized some of the sweetness that bread pudding can sometimes have, and I will definitely trying to replicate this with the leftover loaf of soda bread that we have in our freezer from St. Patrick’s Day.

On the whole, I don’t think I enjoyed this visit quite as much as my first one, but I wouldn’t write totally write Supper off. I think the ingredients that are used are of a high quality and the atmosphere is fairly relaxed. Since the menu changes seasonally, perhaps the issues that I noticed with the entrees would be minimized by a change of ingredients and preparations.

This Week for Dinner

Back when Chester and I first moved in together, we used to go to the grocery store almost every day after work to pick up ingredients for dinner. That was a pain. Now, we’ve gotten a lot better about planning out a week’s worth of dinners so we can just make one trip a week. Since our local Shop Rite is pretty crazy (actually, I’m pretty sure that all Shop Rites, everywhere, are crazy), one visit a week is really just about all that one person can handle.

On Sundays, we consult our cookbooks and recipes pinned on Pinterest or bookmarked from blogs and magazines that I read and head to the grocery store with our list (which Chester manages to fit onto a single Post-it note each week). We’ve come across a lot of good recipes lately, so I figured I would start sharing them in case you are looking for some things to add to your own meal plans. Plus, I have this cool new 50mm lens that I need to practice using, so taking pictures of what I’ve eaten for dinner this past week seems like a good way to do that.

Sunday: Fettuccine with Prosciutto and Peas

This recipe comes from Martha Stewart’s Great Food Fast, which is one of our most frequently used cookbooks, since it includes more than 200 recipes are pretty easy to prepare after we come home from the gym. The recipes are arranged by season, so you can choose from the heartier dishes in the winter and lighter options at other times of year. Then, there are some, like this pasta, with its bright lemon flavor and sweet peas that work just about anytime of the year.

Monday

I worked late. We had takeout.

Tuesday: Chicken and Broccoli Rice Bowl

I recently started subscribing to Cooking Light since it’s packed pretty much from cover to cover with recipes. The magazine’s website is also a good resource because it breaks down the recipes into several collections, including those that take just 20 to 40 minutes to prepare or that use just five ingredients.

Be aware that some of the recipes do contain canned or processed items, so, you might want to make some substitutions to avoid increasing the sodium content. This rice bowl, for example called for Velveeta Cheese. Eww. We substituted a bit of sharp cheddar and also added garlic, which is pretty much the base for everything when we cook. This recipe would have been kind of bland without it.

Wednesday: Grilled Portobello, Red Pepper and Goat Cheese Sandwich

From time to time, I convince Chester to eat a meatless meal. He usually complains that he still feels hungry afterwards. This time was no exception. If you ask me, though, Portobello mushrooms are hearty enough that you don’t need a protein to accompany them. This sandwich is a good one to keep in mind as grilling season gets underway. We couldn’t find basil at the grocery store this past week, and I think that would have been a nice touch in this sandwich and I’ll definitely make sure to add it next time around.

Thursday: Avocado Pasta

Avocados are one of the foods that I just can’t seem to get enough of lately, which is why I was thrilled to come across this recipe from Two Peas and Their Pod, via Pinterest. The sauce comes together quickly in the food processor, and is so rich that you would think that there is cream or butter included. We added chicken, since one vegetarian meal this week was enough for Chester.

Friday: Arugula Salad with Chicken, Prosciutto and Asiago Cheese

I’ve only recently become a fan of arugula. Now, I love the slightly spicy flavor that it adds to everything—from pizza, to sandwiches, to salads like this one. We added red onions and a bit of Dijon mustard to the simple olive oil based dressing and skipped the croutons. We had a particularly sweet batch of grape tomatoes, which was a nice compliment to the peppery greens.

So, that’s what was for dinner this week. And, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last year, wondering if I ever eat at home, now you know that I do.

What are your go-to sources or favorite recipes for easy weeknight meals?

Welcome Spring.

You know spring has sprung in South Philly when Pop’s is open for business.

Pop’s has been making water ice—or as we say in my neighborhood “wooder ice”—for the past 80 years. This stuff is the real deal. Just sugar, ice and real fruit (if applicable), with none of the artificial flavor and oddly creamy consistency that you find at Rita’s.

I’ve been coming here since I was little. We used to ride our bikes over to Pop’s and eat our water ices in the park across the street. Oh, and we used to dip pretzel rods in them, too. That was pretty tasty. Memories.

Chester and I enjoyed our first water ices of the season today. I always get lemon, which was the original water ice flavor, from what I’m told. Chester couldn’t decide, so he had chocolate AND watermelon.

Happy Spring!

Restaurant Review: Porcini

Reason number 5,283 that I love living in Philly: at least five new restaurants are opening up every week. We currently have an ever-growing list posted on our refrigerator (and I have a Pinterest board) of new spots that we want to try. As soon as we cross of one, we add another one or two on.

With all of the chatter surrounding the new additions, it’s easy to overlook the places in the city that have been serving up solid food for years, but now don’t get nearly as much buzz as they should.

Porcini, an Italian BYOB on a narrow block of Sansom Street in Rittenhouse Square neighborhood which opened in 1996 (before BYOBs were really a big thing in the city)  is a great example of this. I had been there once before, several years ago, and my mom, Chester and I had a chance to try it out again tonight.

The restaurant is very tiny. We arrived at about 5:30 when it had just opened for the day, so we didn’t have a problem getting a table, but reservations are probably a good idea. Regardless, you will be sharing close personal space with your fellow diners and as the restaurant fills up, it may be a bit noisy. Throughout our visit, service was attentive, friendly and not at all rushed. All of the food, from the pasta to the sauces, is house-made (the chef even grows his own oregano, thyme and basil on the roof of the restaurant).

We shared two seafood appetizers to start with. First up was a huge plate of mussels served in a red sauce with white wine, garlic. Although I usually order my mussels in a plain white wine sauce, I loved this preparation because the sauce was made with sweet San Marzano tomatoes. We are picky about our “gravy” and gave high marks to Porcini’s version. The second dish, tender grilled octopus and baby calamari, was simply dressed with a bright lemon, caper, olive and olive oil marinade, which would have made a great dressing for just about any kind of salad. Our server kindly brought out another basket of bread so we could soak everything up.

For our main courses, my mom and I both ordered pasta dishes: Papardella in a rich Porcini mushroom sauce for me and one of the specials, Lasgana with eggplant and a fluffy ricotta filling for her. The noodles were extremely light, and neither dish was heavily doused in their respective sauces; so, while the portions were generous, we didn’t end up feeling overly full. I just would have liked just a few more mushrooms on top of mine! Chester opted for the veal in Maderia wine and mushroom sauce. When I have had veal other places, there has been a tendency for it to be pounded too thin and cooked until it becomes too dry, but neither of those issues occurred here. The medallions were so tender that they could be cut apart easily with a fork.

Overall, the dishes are very simple, but the attention to detail that has gone into choosing the right combinations of ingredients and deciding what sauces to serve with which pasta is evident. Our experience at Porcini was a great reminder that if you look beyond the places that everyone is talking about lately, you just might discover a hidden gem.

Restaurant Review: Underdogs

One of the nice things about working in higher ed is that you sometimes get random days off. For example, this week was Spring Break at the university I work for, so our office was closed yesterday. So, I decided to wander around the city and practice using the new camera and lens that Chester gave me for Valentine’s Day.

The camera is a Rebel T1-I and it makes me feel like a pretty legit photographer. Other people must think so too, because when I stopped in Barnes and Noble to pick something up in between shots, the sales associate struck up a conversation with me about how great my camera was and then about how sad he was that no one uses film anymore. I only understood every other word of what he was saying, but I smiled and nodded anyway.

Having camera in my hands made me notice things about the places that I pass several times a week that I never stop and appreciate as I zip by them in my car or walk back to and from my office quickly on my lunch break. A few shots are below, and you can see more here.

Rittenhouse Square Park

Outside a shop in Rittenhouse Square. I may get one of these for my house.

Stumbled upon Van Pelt Street, the only place that seems to be in bloom right now.

City Hall actually has some really beautiful architecture. Of course, you have to be able to tolerate the smell of pee to capture it.

The Masonic Temple. One of my favorite buildings in Philly.

Masonic Temple Arches

Of course, I made sure to build in time to stop for lunch. I met up with Chester, who unfortunately had to work, and we headed over to Underdogs, a fairly recent addition to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, which serves up hot dogs and sausages with a variety of toppings.

We had a pretty hard time deciding what to order, since the menu offers more than a dozen different options. Combinations range from the traditional, such as the Coney Classic with sauerkraut and spicy mustard to the more unique, such as the Marrakesh, which features spicy merguez sausage with harissa mayo and Mediterranean salad.

After much back and forth, I decided on the My Thai. The concept of a Thai style hot dog is bizarre, but somehow the salty hot dog, the spicy peanut sauce and the sweet green papaya slaw all worked well together. Chester always likes to sample a Chicago Dog when he finds it on the menu, so he opted for one of those, plus a Texas Tommy (because you can’t go wrong with a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with cheese) and the Adonis, which was almost like a gyro. He deemed the Chicago dog to be pretty authentic, right down to the celery salt, the hot peppers and the neon green relish. The Adonis, with lamb sausage with lettuce, tomato, onion and tzatziki, actually ended up being our favorite. The sausage was juicy and still had a bit of pink in the center.

From left to right, Adonis, Texas Tommy, Chicago Dog and My Thai

Overall, we found all of the ingredients to be of a pretty high quality. The hot dogs are of the all-beef variety and all of the toppings were very fresh. We did think that the rolls weren’t the best choice, as they chewy and a thick. They soaked up a lot of the juiciness of the hotdogs and kind of interfered with the flavors a bit.

The fries at Underdogs were a pretty pleasant surprise. You would think that they put so much emphasis on the hot dogs that the fries would be an afterthought. But, they are fresh cut and crispy. There are a variety of dipping sauces to choose from, including curry mayo, garlic aioli, and horseradish mustard. The first sauce is free, and additional options are just 25 cents each.

Underdogs is a relatively inexpensive lunch option for Center City, with sandwiches ranging from $3.25 to $5 and fries from $2.25 to $2.75 depending on the size. We would definitely go back to try out some more of the menu, but this isn’t the only place specializing in fancy-pants hot dogs right now. We’ve also heard some buzz about Hot Diggity on South Street, so we’ll have to put that on our list next so that we can compare.