Archives for July 2013

Restaurant Review: Brunch at SoWe (Closed)

Confession: I don’t understand the world’s obsession with bacon. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a bacon cheeseburger or BLT from time to time, but those cravings are pretty rare. And, I definitely don’t understand the more off-the-wall uses that people have come up with for bacon (Bacon milkshakes? Sunscreen?).

Still, bacon–and pork, in general, for that matter–continues to be a “thing.” SoWe Bar and Kitchen (918 S. 22nd Street), a gastropub whose name is a nod to its location southwest of Center City and to the fact that its menu places a heavy emphasis on pork products (depending on the pronunciation, it sounds like “sow” or a pig call of some sort) is one such place that has capitalized on the trend.

Once Chester caught on to the latter fact, it went on our list of “to-visit” places for brunch. But, don’t worry if, like me, bacon isn’t really your thing. You will still find plenty of other options to choose from, including carrot cake waffles, stuffed French toast, vegetarian egg dishes, and a variety of sandwiches and salads.

Bacon beignets are one of the restaurant’s signature items (they were even featured on a show called “The United States of Bacon” which airs on a cable channel I’ve never heard of). Applewood smoked bacon is mixed into the dough, which is deep fried and then tossed in cinnamon sugar. The savory-sweet pastries are served warm, with a bacon-caramel dipping sauce. They were definitely the standout item of our meal.

bacon beignets

After debating between a few options, I chose the ricotta pancakes. They were light and fluffy, which make them a good summer brunch dish. The mixed berry compote that stood in for the maple syrup lacked any real flavor, but the berries used as a garnish were fresh and sweet. The menu also mentioned a citrus infused mascarpone, which I couldn’t seem to find anywhere in my dish. I love the way that tart lemon complements the mild flavor of ricotta, so I definitely missed it.

ricotta pancakes

Chester opted for the crab cake eggs Benedict. We were both disappointed that the poached eggs were a bit on the well done side. Everyone knows that runny poached eggs are the best part of eggs Benedict! On the plus side, the crab cakes themselves were heavy on the crab instead of other filler. The substitution of fried green tomatoes for the traditional English muffin and a spicy relish (the menu called it a remoulade, but it seemed too chunky to be classified as that) for the hollandaise gave the dish a bit of a Southern flavor profile. Of course, he couldn’t resist adding on a side of applewood smoked bacon, which was cooked to a perfect crisp.

crab benedict

Although it was not super busy on the Saturday afternoon that we visited, service was a bit uneven at times.  Perhaps it was because the staff was kept pretty busy with the nearly full outdoor seating area, while we were pretty much the only ones who opted for an indoor table (because air conditioning is my favorite thing these days). Still the three servers who waited on us were friendly, in a quirky, hipster-ish sort of way.

Pricing was reasonable and in line with other options in the area. Most dishes hover around the $10 to $12 mark and the restaurant also offers endless mimosas and bloody marys for $16.

Brunch at SoWe was enjoyable, but is on the whole just average. Maybe if there weren’t so many other stellar options in the surrounding area (Cochon is the best place to get your pork fix, in my opinion, and Sabrina’s and Green Eggs can’t be beat for sweet, carbohydrate-laden dishes), it would have stood out more.

Restaurant Review: Serpico

Last fall, word began to circulate that Stephen Starr was working on a new project with Peter Serpico, James Beard award-winner and second-in-command chef of New York’s Momofuku empire. The two spent the last year refining the menu and concept in the kitchens of some of Starr’s other Philly venues and Serpico (604 South Street) opened for dinner at the end of June. Originally, the restaurant had not intended to take reservations, but Chester came across it on OpenTable during a random search and we snagged a table for dinner before the long Fourth of July weekend.

Upon stepping into the restaurant, the general “blah” feeling that I’ve come to associate with South Street quickly faded away. The decor is sleek, with lots of clean lines and black and white tile. The centerpieces of the restaurant are its open kitchen at the back and bar along the windows at the front. A few of the walls have been turned into chalkboards to showcase the food and extensive bar menu. Modern light fixtures at each table help to show off the food and keep the space from feeling too dreary. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful space used to be a Foot Locker!

Serpico drew inspiration from all around the globe in developing  his menu, with dishes incorporating Asian, Latin, Italian and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. Our server noted that although there would be some staple items on the menu, most of the dishes will change with the seasons. The first half of the menu consists of plates that would be the appropriate for appetizers (salads, ceviche, pasta) and the second part of the menu leans toward the heavier, entrée options. Most of the plates on the menu can be shared and our server suggested choosing three to four.

First up was the deep fried duck leg.

duck slider

The duck was coated in a smoky-sweet hoisin sauce and perfectly cooked—tender and moist on the inside, with a crunchy exterior—and was served slider style on a potato roll. A side of spicy sriracha ketchup and cool pickled vegetables made excellent accompaniments, as you could add as much or as little as you wanted based on your flavor preferences. If Serpico offered these as full size sandwiches at lunch, I predict that there would be a line out the door every day.

Next, we chose the ravioli, which was probably my favorite dish of the night.

ravioli

The pasta was incredibly light and filled with a velvety, sweet white corn filling. With its delicate sour cream sauce, lime and bits of chorizo and cojita cheese, the dish was reminiscent of Mexican grilled corn, one of my favorite dishes to enjoy in the summer.

The lamb ribs came out next.  This is the only dish on the menu that is specifically noted as “for two,” and the portion of six ribs definitely made for a substantial entrée.

 lamb ribs

The ribs had been marinated and rubbed with cumin and were cooked until they were so tender that only a fork was needed to break them apart. A yogurt sauce is a traditional accompaniment for lamb and Serpico’s version had just the right balance of mint and garlic. The addition of Japanese eggplant to the sauce provided a hint of sweetness.

We opted to each make a selection from the dessert menu to finish our meal. I chose the Rocky Road, which featured bittersweet, frozen chocolate pudding, was topped with a dollop of marshmallow crème, shards of marshmallow meringue and walnuts. Chester chose one of the menu’s semi-sweet dessert offerings, the foie gras (which is a nod to one of the most talked about dishes at Momofuku). The foie gras had been transformed into a powder and frozen. Chester described the texture and melt-in-your mouth quality of the dish as being similar to Dippin Dots ice cream. Grapes and candied peanuts provided a sweet balance to the savory dish.

 dessert

Overall, the desserts were the only dishes that I was not all that impressed with. I appreciate that they were trying to offer a unique twist on traditional dishes by incorporating elements of molecular gastronomy, but I thought that the presentations were messy and lacked the same attention to detail that the main dishes had (for example, the walnuts on the Rocky Road were toasted to the point of being bitter).

Much of the criticism that I’ve seen about Serpico so far seems to relate to the price point. When you consider what is currently in the area (greasy pizza shops and dirty looking bars, mostly), I have to agree. The current menu features dishes that range from $9 to $55 (with an average price of $20). The bar pricing is also steep. Wines by the glass ranged from $12 to $21 (and pours were not all that generous) and cocktails were in the $12 to $13 range. Mark-ups on bottles are ridiculous, with selections that run $15 at a liquor store priced at more than $70. Depending on what you order, dinner for two can be pricey!

This is why I wonder if, even though, the food is delicious, creative and well executed, Serpico will be sustainable after the initial buzz wears off. I am sure that people will see it as a fun, one-time experience for a special occasion, but I wonder if it will develop a following among area residents who are looking for a new go-to place for dinner. I hope that I’m wrong and that Serpico will be a success, which will in turn encourage other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to bring their creative concepts and ideas to a neighborhood that desperately needs some revitalization.

On the Road: Victoria

After three days in Vancouver, we hopped on the ferry to head to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. The ferry is the easiest way to get between the two points. The weather was perfect on the day we made our trip, so we spent most of the time outside on the deck taking in the scenery.

Named after Queen Victoria, the British settled the city in the early 1840s as a trading post. However, after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Vancouver, Victoria lost its position as a commercial center. Fortunately, its mild, dry climate and scenic gardens and waterfronts made it a popular destination for wealthy tourists to unwind and for industrialists and government officials to make their homes.

castle

Craigdarroch Castle, home of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his family. Definitely take the time to check out the gorgeous interior!

Today, remnants of traditional British architecture and culture remain and the atmosphere more laid-back and relaxed when compared to Vancouver.

victoria city hall

Parliament Building

The Butchart Gardens are one of the best places to see why Victoria is nicknamed the “Garden City.”  Robert Butchart and his family made their fortune in cement manufacturing and once their 55-acre limestone quarry was spent, his wife Jennie transformed it into a seasonal garden with floral displays in the Victorian tradition.

The Sunken Garden was the first display to be completed, and over the years, the family  has continued to create additional features. Today, Butchart Gardens is one of Victoria’s most popular attractions and one of the premier show gardens in the world.

sunken garden

Sunken Garden

japanese_tree

Japanese Garden

italian garden 2

Italian Garden

The Gardens are located halfway between the ferry terminal and downtown Victoria. Since we had a rental car, we made it our first stop on our way into the city (if you don’t have a car, there are plenty of shuttle/public bus and boat options from both the terminal and downtown).

Once you get into the city proper, Victoria is very walkable and getting around on foot is a great way to appreciate all of the beauty and charm of the different sections of the city. The downtown area, with shops, restaurants and hotels spills into the bustling Inner Harbor, which is surrounded by museums, government buildings and recreational activities.

sunset 2

The harbor around sunset

empress

The swanky Empress Hotel, all lit up at night

From there, you can walk along the harbor trail or through quaint residential streets to Fisherman’s Wharf, to have lunch by the water, see the brightly decorated float houses or feed the seals.

wharf_house

Float House at the wharf

Wildlife_8

Seal friend

One of my favorite activities of the trip was our whale watching excursion, which we booked through Prince of Whales tours. Depending on how adventurous you are, you can take a trip on an open or closed style boat. The former, called the Zodiac, looks kind of like an inflatable raft and requires you to wear a special flotation suit the entire time. Needless to say, we opted for the sturdier looking enclosed vessel.

 whale watch

Getting ready to set sail!

We traveled to the area around the San Juan Islands during our three-hour trip, and had a very knowledgable guide who taught us quite a bit about porpoises, whales and seals along the way. We had plenty of whale sightings that day, including a few orca mothers and their babies (fun fact: the period of gestation for orca calves is 18 months. Yet another reason I’m glad to be a human).

Wildlife_17

If you go, definitely dress in layers as it does get pretty chilly out on the water. Binoculars and/or a zoom lens also come in handy, since the boats stay a couple of hundred meters away from wildlife. It was definitely an amazing experience.

I read somewhere that Victoria has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada and is regarded as one of the world’s centers for slow food, for its emphasis on the production and enjoyment of local, sustainable agriculture, fisheries and cooking. Like Vancouver, Victoria’s dining scene offers a mix of high-end restaurants and casual cafes, specializing in diverse cuisines, from Asian to West Coast fusion to European. Not surprisingly, you’ll find plenty of English pubs and hotels serving afternoon tea.

In the touristy areas, like the Inner Harbor and the Wharf, you’ll find chain restaurants catering to tourists and the cruise ship crowds, so it’s worth it to venture off the beaten path and into the surrounding neighborhoods.

We had our rental car on the first day, so we drove a bit out of the downtown area where we were staying to the Oak Bay neighborhood for dinner at Blighty’s Bistro (2006 Oak Bay Avenue). The restaurant only has about a dozen tables and most of them seemed to be filled with regulars when we visited on a Saturday night. Although it was busy, the service was very attentive and friendly. The owner of the restaurant was there, checking on each table several times throughout the evening and helping the server take orders and deliver dishes from the kitchen.

For the most part, the menu sticks to traditional bistro dishes, like seafood, chicken breast and beef tenderloin, but they are well executed. We particularly enjoyed the savory garlic and basil panacotta with bits of crispy bacon as a starter. My main course, a lamb tagine, was perfectly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and paired well with the accompanying watermelon and mint salad. A warm sticky toffee pudding with banana ice cream was the perfect ending to the meal.

If you have time for a leisurely breakfast, the Blue Fox Café (919 Fort Street) in the heart of the city’s Antique Row, is a good option.

I emphasize leisurely here because the service is pretty slow. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike, so there was a line out the door to be seated. This part doesn’t bother me a ton because I’m used that from the brunch places here in Philly. But, I do get annoyed when the servers have no sense of urgency once you get in there! There were quite a few staff members working when we visited, but they all seemed focused on one task and one task only. One person brought over menus and took drink orders. Another person took food orders. A third person delivered orders from the kitchen and sometimes let them sit awhile in the window before doing so. It made no sense to me, especially because I felt like they should have been trying to turn over the tables as quickly as possible.

That being said, the food is delicious and creative. There are ten different kinds of Eggs Benedict on the menu, ranging from the classic to the exotic, like the Moroccan spiced chicken with apple chutney and the Eggs in Hell (Chester’s choice) with spicy chorizo and fresh avocado. I couldn’t decide which of the four French toast options I liked best, so I went in a totally different direction and ordered porridge. The kitchen was so generous with the toppings on the huge bowl of steel cut oats; I got bit of baked banana, roasted pecans, maple syrup and sour cream along with each bite.

But, if you only have time for one meal in Victoria, go to Red Fish, Blue Fish (1006 Wharf Street). Sure, we had a few fancy meals during our trip, but still can’t stop talking about the fish and chips and seafood tacos from this unassuming outdoor waterfront restaurant housed in a converted shipping container. It’s apparently pretty common to have to wait in line for 30 minutes to an hour to place your order; but, be assured that the wait is well worth it.

In short, the fish and chips were the best that I’ve had outside of the UK. There are three choices for the fish and chips platter–halibut, salmon or cod. We went with the first option and the piece that we received in our basket was bigger than the palm of my hand and served with a heaping pile of thick-cut fries and cole slaw. I’m glad that we decided to share!

fish and chips

The fresh fish was covered in a tempura-style batter and fried to a perfect golden brown. It had a bit of a sheen to it, so I was surprised when I took my first bite and heard a satisfying crunch, without any greasiness at all. The batter didn’t become soggy or fall apart, so it kept the fish hot and moist throughout our entire meal.

Fish tacones are one of the other specialities of the house. A generous helping of seafood is wrapped in a grilled tortilla and topped with creamy mayo, cabbage slaw, and tangy lemon pickled onions. We sampled the barbeque wild salmon and the sweet bay scallops. These are good, light addition to round out your meal, but two of them would make a substantial main course on their own.

seafood tacos

We spent about two and a half days in Victoria, which was the perfect amount of time for an overview of the city. It kind of reminded me of being at a resort. There are plenty of activities to do if you want to, but you’ll enjoy it just as much if all you want to do is sit by the water and take in the beautiful surroundings. For us, it was a great stopping point before we headed to busy Seattle, the final stop on our Pacific Northwest tour.

Recipe: Cherry Streusel Bars

I hope that everyone had a fabulous 4th of July! We didn’t do anything too crazy, mostly because the idea of leaving the comfort of an air-conditioned house was not at all appealing. Watching the fireworks on TV and having an indoor barbecue with my family was good enough for me!

Whether you are spending your summer holidays indoors or outdoors, it just wouldn’t be a party without a good dessert. Flag cakes seem to be the most popular for summer’s patriotic holidays. But, if you are looking for something a little different, I would suggest these dessert bars, loaded with a tart cherry filling and a buttery almond and oatmeal topping. There was that whole legend about George Washington and the cherry tree, right? So, these are still a pretty patriotic option.

cherry bars 2

You could easily substitute other dried fruits or preserves that you might have on hand for the cherries in this recipe. Strawberries or blueberries could be another good option for summer and maybe apples or cranberry in the fall, for example.

I highly recommend serving them with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream (As usual, I whipped up my favorite version from David Leibovitz’s the Perfect Scoop).

Cherry Streusel Bars

Adapted slightly from: America’s Test Kitchen and Bon Appetit Desserts: The Cookbook for All Things Sweet and Wonderful 

Yield: About 2 dozen (depending on how large you cut the bars)

What You Will Need

Note: The original recipe called for 1 tablespoon of kirsch (clear cherry brandy) in the filling and 1 cup of sweetened flaked coconut in the streusel. I left these out because I didn’t have them on hand, and don’t think it affected the flavor or texture at all.

Filling

Note: Filling can be made one day ahead and refrigerated until you are ready to bake.

Dough and Streusel

Note: The suggestion of using the dough/topping from the America’s Test Kitchen (ATK)  raspberry bar recipe came from Gastronomy Blog. It’s true–the ATK recipe has just the right texture and sweetness and it always bakes up perfectly. But, adding the extracts and cinnamon called for in the Bon Appetit recipe gave something extra special to the bars, as those ingredients are the perfect complements for cherries!

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened and cut into tablespoon sized pieces (16 tablespoons are needed for the dough, 2 tablespoons for the streusel)
  • 1 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 3/4 cup sliced almonds

What to do

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 13 x 9 inch baking pan with an aluminum foil sling. Spray with cooking spray or grease with butter.
  2. Combine the dried cherries and the preserves into a chunky puree using a food processor. Set aside.
  3. Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in bowl of electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment for the mixer, beat in 16 tablespoons of butter, as well as the vanilla and almond extract at slow speed, until the mixture comes together in moist clumps. Set aside 1 cup of the mixture in a separate bowl for the streusel topping.
  4. Gather remaining dough together into a ball and press into the prepared baking pan. Pierce dough all over with a fork and bake until golden, about 22 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking.
  5. Remove crust from oven and let cool for 15 minutes.
  6. While crust is cooling, make the streusel topping add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, light brown sugar, oats and almonds to the reserved dough and mix with a fork or pastry blender until small clumps form.
  7. Once crust is cool, spread cherry filling over it with a spatula and sprinkle streusel topping on top. Bake until filling is bubbling and streusel topping is golden brown, about 25 to 27 minutes.
  8. Remove from oven and set pan on wire rack to cool for two hours. Remove bars from the pan using foil sling and cut into squares to serve.

 

30 Weeks.

In Seattle, around 26 weeks. I keep meaning to take weekly pictures and failing.

In Seattle, around 26 weeks. I keep meaning to take weekly pictures and failing.

Back in the day, when I was making all of my grand plans for my life, I decided that the best time to get pregnant would be between late May and mid-June. That way, I could have a Pisces baby (one of the ideal matches for a Scorpio mom) and I could avoid being heavily pregnant in the summer.

Well, you know, best laid plans and all of that…

In general, summer is not my favorite time of year. It should go without saying that I’m enjoying it even less than usual this year. Now that I’ve been incubating this (Virgo) baby for 30 weeks, I’ve realized that nothing about pregnancy is particularly comfortable. But, the heat, humidity and rain that we have been having lately hasn’t really helped.

Remember how great I felt during the second trimester?  Well, as soon as I hit the third, it was as though someone flipped a switch and all of that extra energy I had vanished completely. I feel completely exhausted, huge, hot and cranky most of the time. The latter feeling is at its most acute when random people touch my belly and/or look at me sympathetically and tell me that summer is such a rough time to be pregnant. Um, really?

At least I have a great excuse to lounge in the air conditioning while eating ice cream (which, honestly, is pretty much the only thing I feel like eating lately). I try to keep myself busy, though, or else I end up in a two-hour Google search spiral, in which I overdose on horrific childbirth stories. Some things really are better left unknown.

Luckily, it seems like I may have entered the nesting phase already, as there is nothing I enjoy more lately than organizing things around the house. I feel particularly accomplished when I shred or throw things away, because I feel like I’m making all of this room for all the baby accoutrements that will soon be overtaking my home. Seriously, how can tiny humans need so much stuff?

Along those lines, Chester and I have started to make some progress on nursery projects. He has been working on some furniture refinishing and is endlessly patient with me as I continue to change my mind almost daily about the paint color and linens. Meanwhile, the furniture and some of the decor has started to arrive, and I made this adorable map letter to hang on the wall.

photo-2

As for ET, she’s big enough now that breathing is a challenge. Pretty much the only time I can do so comfortably is when I’m standing, laying on my left side or sitting with my arms above my head. For the past couple of weeks, she’s been performing a one-woman version of Cirque du Soliel from the moment I wake up in the morning until the moment I lay down in bed at night. I like the constant reminder that she’s doing alright in there and am alternately amazed and creeped out when her little hand or foot makes my whole belly ripple.

As impatient as I am to meet our baby girl in person, I need her to stay put for the next 10 weeks so that we can check a few more items off our to-do list. If that means I need to slog through July and August with my arms above my head all day, then so be it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a carton of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream in the freezer, and I can just hear it calling my name.