Date Night at Sur La Table

Has anyone ever seen food poisoning listed on those Hallmark lists of traditional anniversary gifts?

I didn’t think so.

Which is why, instead of attempting to make Chester a fancy steak dinner at home to celebrate our second anniversary back in June, I signed us up for a steakhouse themed “Date Night” cooking class at Sur La Table instead.

This was my third experience with a cooking class Sur La Table (I previously attended a cake baking and decorating workshop with my mom and aunt and a class on French pastry) and I really enjoy them. There is ample counter space to work, really great kitchen equipment and someone else to clean up the mess.

 Flank steak, ready for the grill

The instructor split everyone up into groups of four people and we all took turns preparing the ingredients and doing the cooking. My culinary ineptitude was on full display, as I had trouble operating a vegetable peeler. Chester, of course, was one of the star students. The instructor could tell that he knew his way around a grill.

Grilling zucchini

We made four different dishes, starting off with shrimp wrapped in pancetta:

Rosemary stuffed flank steak, topped with Parmesan cheese and accompanied by a side of zucchini with pesto:

Dessert was a caramel apple “pizza,” baked on puff pastry and topped with vanilla ice cream and dulce de leche sauce.

All of the recipes were fairly simple and, since we got to take them with us, I’m fairly confident that I could recreate them at home. Everyone seemed to agree that the zucchini was one of the highlights of the evening, particularly since the pesto had a few non-traditional ingredients–earthy parsley, sweet almonds and tart red wine vinegar–that made for a great combination of flavors.

As a bonus, we got ten percent off all of our purchases at the shop that evening. We bought a bench scraper and a food scale. I was pretty excited about the latter item because now I can try my hand at making macarons.

Chester and I had a great time cooking together, and it made me kind of sad that we don’t have a big enough kitchen to do that more often. That’s definitely going to be a priority when we move to our next home.

Enjoying the end result of all that hard work.

 

The Craft of Ice Cream at the Philadelphia Art Alliance

I started working at an art school last year and since then have become a bit more in tune with the organizations that foster the visual and performing arts in the city. I’ve seen a couple of great exhibitions at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and was really excited when I started to get e-mails advertising events focused not only on the traditional craft and design mediums, but on the craft of particular foods as well.

To me, creating good food definitely does share some of the same elements that go into creating things like jewelry or glass. Many professional chefs and bakers, for example, spend years training in various techniques and continue to refine their skills over the course of their careers. They think creatively about how to use ingredients that make dishes interesting (both in terms of their taste and visual presentation) and keep customers coming back to their restaurants and businesses again and again. And, many of them then go on to train and mentor others to do the same.

The most recent installment in the Art Alliance’s food-focused event series brought together one of my local favorites—Franklin Fountain—and the Alliance’s new, on-site restaurant Rittenhouse Tavern for an evening focused on summer’s quintessential treats: burgers, fries and ice cream. Obviously, this was pretty much the perfect date night for me and Chester. I’m not sure if the pricing is standard for each event, but I thought that the $35 registration fee, which included the RT Burger and fries, the discussion and ice cream tasting was pretty reasonable for a night out (Note: Beverages were not included and there was also a $20 registration option that just included the discussion and tasting).

Rittenhouse Tavern has only been open for a few months, but I have been hearing good things about the food being created by chef Nicholas Elmi (formerly of Le Bec Fin) and the beautiful garden dining area (which was just listed by Philadelphia Magazine as the best outdoor dining spot on its recent “Best of Philly” list). The whole space, in general, is gorgeous. The décor is classic and elegant—distressed wood tables, leather chairs, and marble accents—that really complements the original artwork and details of the historic mansion that the Art Alliance calls home.

The burger, features dry-aged beef, provolone, watercress and “special sauce.” It’s served on a multigrain roll, baked with Yards’ Extra Special Ale, which gives it a rich, yeasty flavor.

Unfortunately, the burgers came out a bit more well done than our requested medium (me) and medium rare (Chester). Perhaps, in light of the number of people expected to attend that night, a lot of the prep and cooking was done in advance, making it difficult to get things just right. Overall, though, it was one of the best burgers I’ve had in awhile in terms of the flavor combination—the sharpness of the cheese, slight bitterness from the greens, and tang of the mayo-based sauce. I would definitely return to Rittenhouse Tavern to sample more of what’s on the menu. There were many appealing options listed, including the fish entrees and family style fried chicken supper, as well as an extensive cocktail, wine and beer list (For a hot summer night, I highly recommend the Tavern Lemonade, which has just a bit of rum and mint.)

After dinner, we went upstairs for the discussion with Eric Berley, who co-founded Franklin Fountain along with his brother in 2004. He spent about 40 minutes discussing how they built their business, from hunting down traditional soda fountain equipment, to working with antique ice cream making supplies and molds, to apprenticing with an ice cream maker in New York to learn the craft. Berley has quite an extensive knowledge of the history of soda fountain and ice cream in general. Since opening Franklin Fountain, he and his brother have made ice cream in the shape of Liberty Bells and colonial houses for special events and have been called upon as consultants for other entrepreneurs looking to refurbish old soda fountains in other cities.

Of course, there were samples, including a refreshing raspberry sorbet, creamy vanilla bean, and fresh blueberry.

From adjusting the amount berries that are needed to give the blueberry ice cream its subtle hue to achieving a perfect, thick consistency for hot fudge, to playing around with the amount of  syrup needed for a smooth coffee ice cream, Berley and his team go through an extensive trial and error process to ensure that each recipe is just right. They use local ingredients to craft traditional favorites, such as vanilla, rocky road, and coffee, as well as flavors with a historical context (such as  teaberry and huckleberry). This attention to detail and the use of natural ingredients ensures that Franklin Fountain ice cream and toppings taste exactly what they are supposed to taste like, without any hint of artificial flavoring or cloying sweetness.

I really enjoyed hearing the story behind Franklin Fountain and it made me appreciate the craftsmanship and passion that goes into making one of my favorite treats. The Art Alliance is planning a few future “Craft of…” events, including a November program, featuring Franklin Fountain’s sister business, Shane Confectionery. I’ll definitely be putting that on my calendar!

You can visit the Art Alliance website to sign up for its mailing list so you can get in the loop. Aside from the food related events, the Art Alliance shows a lot of great work. One of the current exhibitions, Shiny Monsters, features Adam Wallacavage’s gothic, under-the-sea inspired chandeliers and light fixtures  (if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you might remember that I posted one of his pink octopus chandeliers back in April, when he exhibited them in UArts’ annual fundraiser). They’re kind of crazy, but I kind of wish I had a place for one in my house.

 

Lunch in Tuscany: Officina della Bistecca

Shortly before we left for our trip to Italy, Chester was watching an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain visited Dario Cecchini, owner of the butcher shop Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Dario, whose family has been in the business for more than 250 years, has an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for traditional Tuscan cuisine, particularly when it comes to the proper way to prepare Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine grilled steak).

On Sunday afternoons, Dario celebrates this and other classic dishes with his “Officina Della Bistecca” menu, a family-style luncheon on the second floor of the butcher shop, which features beef prepared five different ways. If you have been following along for any length of time, you know that Chester has never met a piece of steak that he hasn’t liked. So, when we discovered that Panzano was only about an hour away from our home base near San Gimignano, we immediately made a reservation.

The drive was much more complicated than we had anticipated. We traveled up and down hills and through winding roads and I spent most of the ride trying to contain my carsickness and praying for a gas station to materialize, since we were dangerously close to running out of fuel at one point. Luckily, one did, but by the time we finally made it to Panzano we were nearly 30 minutes late for the 1:00 p.m. seating. We almost scrapped our plans to go to Dario’s, thinking we were too late. Fortunately, Dario’s wife, Kim, who handles reservations totally understood the reasons for our delay and showed us to our places table.

We were seated with a really nice group of people, including an American couple who spends part of their year in Tuscany (she is an art teacher) and a Brazilian couple who had been enjoying a month-long stay in the area, and the conversations with them made the afternoon even more enjoyable. The atmosphere in the dining room was very homey and festive throughout the afternoon, with everyone laughing, being loud and passing jugs of wine back and forth across the table.

In addition to the five beef dishes, the menu includes bread and raw vegetables (which become highly addictive when dipped in olive oil, seasoned with a generous helping of the salt/pepper/garlic blend bearing Dario’s name), white beans and baked potatoes, Chianti “butter,” (which is actually lardo, or pork fat.) dessert, red wine, grappa and military spirits, and coffee. At 50 euros per person (right now, about $62), the pricing is far less than what you would pay for a similar experience in Philly, and the quality of the beef was far superior to the best cut of steak I’ve had here at home. All of the preparations were grilled to medium rare, seasoned with salt and pepper and doused with a bit of olive oil. This simple preparations allows the flavor of the meat to really come through.

I don’t eat red meat often, and on the occasion where the odd craving for it strikes me, I can barely ever finish a steak when I order it in a restaurant or when Chester cooks it at home. At Dario’s, I had seconds (and, occasionally, thirds) of everything. It was just that good. My favorite dishes were the beef tartar, which was finished with just a bit of lemon (I overheard one of the waiters referring to this dish as “Chianti sushi”) and the Panzanese steak, which is a cut from the rump of the cow that Dario helped popularize. I was surprised at how tender and flavorful it was.

Clockwise from top left: Beef tartar, rib eye, Florentine Steak, Panzanese steak, seared beef

Dario stopped by to expertly dismantle a cut of beef, fresh off the grill. As you can see from this video Chester shot, Dario is quite the showman, quoting Dante as he demonstrates some crazy knife skills.

Olive oil cake was the perfect finish to this meal. I must try to recreate it at home, although I know I’ll never be able to achieve the perfect balance of sweetness and crunchy top crust that this version had. I stayed away from the spirits and grappa, though, but can verify that they did make everyone, really, uh, spirited (including one of our table mates, who got into his car after lunch for a three hour drive to the Milan airport. Here’s hoping that he made it!).

If you plan to check out Officina Della Bistecca, you can also reserve your place on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Or, you could just visit the shop itself, where you will likely find the crowds spilling out on to the sidewalk and enjoying free wine and samples of food. Dario will likely be there as well, entertaining everyone while covered in blood and wielding a frightening looking saw, like so:

Chester’s favorite photo of the trip

 

Night Market Visits the Italian Market

Since Chester and I had such a good time at the Food Trust’s fall Night Market, we marked our calendars as soon as we heard about its plans to visit the Italian Market neighborhood in South Philly. This time our friends Shannon and Dave joined us.

The location made for a nice mix of vendors, including long-time Italian Market occupants, such as Villa di Roma and DiBruno Brothers, as well as the trendy, new food trucks. The event was set up primarily along Washington Avenue, between 9th and 11th Streets, which made it feel a lot less crowded than the comparatively narrow streets at the Chinatown event. Since it was a pretty warm night, the extra room to move around was most welcome.

One of the first vendors we came upon was the Sweetbox Cupcake Truck. By the time I got to that truck on my last visit, they were almost sold out. So, Shannon and I decided to eat dessert first. The moist chocolate cake topped with creamy peanut butter icing was the perfect way to start our evening.

Then, it was on to real food.

First up was Tashan, which was offering veggie samosas, buttered chicken and mango lassi. The chicken was my favorite because it reminded me of one of my favorite dishes from Sitar India. I know Sitar is a buffet and Tashan is more of a fine dining establishment, but that chicken is one of my favorite things ever, so that’s pretty high praise, I think.

Next up was Royal Tavern. Their sliders, which I had heard a lot about, did not disappoint either. Although there was a major flare up on their grill which caused a fairly long wait time for our burgers, it was worth it. The meat was cooked to perfection and very juicy. Toppings included crispy bacon, caramelized onions, pickled hot peppers, smoky gouda cheese for an interesting and somewhat spicy flavor combination.

These were easily my two favorite stops of the night, and I’ll definitely be paying a visit to their brick and mortar locations soon. Although I was pretty full by that point, I couldn’t resist making a final stop at the Smoke Truck, because they had mac and cheese. It was just okay—I should know that mass quantities of make and cheese don’t keep very well. It was a bit soggy, but I really could only stomach a few bites of it anyway. And, although Chester had already had a pork sandwich from Esposito’s, he tried the truck’s pulled pork sandwich, which is prepared Carolina style, with vinegar and lots of spice. I would definitely give this truck another try, though, on an occasion when I’m not already close to a food coma.

Not pictured are the empanadas from Cuba Libre, tacos from Cantina los Caballitos, and meatball sandwich and gnocchi from Villa di Roma that Shannon and Dave sampled. I try not to annoy my friends too much by shoving my iPhone at them when they are trying to eat, you know?

One vendor that I had been curious about but that we didn’t stop at was the Ka’Chi Truck, which specializes in Korean food. It had one of the longest lines throughout the night (aside from the lines for beer), so I’ll assume it must be pretty good. I will definitely need to keep my eye out for it around the city.

We definitely left stuffed after eating pretty heavy food on a summer night. The Night Market was a good time, once again, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it turns up next!

Always Crafty!

I describe myself as a casual crafter. I tend to craft up a storm around the holidays. Or, sometimes I’ll drag out my scrapbooking supplies or my stash of beads on a random weekend and whip something up. Then, I’ll pack everything away for months at a time.

Shannon and Bethany, on the other hand, are kind of like Martha Stewart. Except they are nice, normal gals. And haven’t been convicted of any felonies, as far as I know.

Anyway, my point is, they are pretty craftastic. And, they know how to entertain. Shannon, for example, owns Bottle Pop Party, an event planning and design company. Bethany has been all over the Internets for her beautiful bridesmaid boxes. Then, her surprise New Year’s Eve wedding, planned in just a few short month, ended up on one of the biggest wedding blogs ever.

This is why it came as no surprise the Always Crafty workshop was bursting at the seams with all manner of adorable, hand-crafted decorations and attention to every single detail. Such as:

A Lemonade Bar. Love those stripey straws and the grey and yellow color scheme.

Delicious cake pops

Swag bags for everyone!

Lemon swags. Yes, I had never seen one either.

I was worried that I would make a total fool of myself and perhaps would end up with finished projects that looked like a pre-schooler and/or half-blind senior citizen in a nursing home did them. But, Shannon picked easy and fun projects and had directions available to help those of us who ride the short bus of crafting.

I already told Chester we are making a chalkboard wall ASAP!

I ended up with some really cute stuff to take home, including:

A Moss Wreath

Chicken Wire Picture Frame

 

Fabric Flower Garland

There were two other crafts I didn’t get to–stamping napkins and making a miniature sewing kit in a Mason jar–since the three that I completed wore me out! I never knew crafting could be so exhausting! But, you can check out Shannon’s blog this week, where she is posting tutorials for the crafts we worked on.

It was a really fun afternoon. I’ve decided that crafting is a whole lot more fun when you are hanging out with friends. And, drinking an Arnold Palmer spiked with vodka doesn’t hurt either. In fact, it’s just the thing to take the edge off when you burn your fingers with the hot glue gun.

Lizzie Beth, Shannon and Bethany

 

Chinese New Year and Restaurant Review: Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ

In case you haven’t heard, the Chinese Year of the Dragon began last week. Everyone seems to be all about it, probably because it’s the luckiest year of the Chinese Zodiac, and I’m pretty sure that most of us can use a little good luck these days, right? Chester was born (many years ago) during the Year of the Dragon and claims to have always have good luck in dragon years. So, I’m hoping this will be the year that he hits the Mega Millions or something—we’ll just have to start playing first.

This past weekend, the Lunar New Year Parade was held in Chinatown, and my mom, aunt, Chester and I went to check out the festivities. I really love a Chinese New Year Parade—much more than Mummers. I know, that’s the kind of thing that can get you kicked out of South Philly. You still get festivity, fireworks, music and dancing, but there’s no public drunkenness and/or physical violence. I seriously thought my mom was going to freak out over the loud noise and smoke and want to leave in fifteen minutes, but I think she probably had the most fun out of all of us. She danced around pretty much the entire time, and probably would have gotten into a lion costume if they let her.

I’m slightly afraid of firecrackers, but Chester is not. So, he got close enough to the action to get a bunch of fabulous photos:

As the parade started to wind down, we got pretty hungry. So, we decided to check out Sammy Chon’s K-Town BBQ, which recently opened in the neighborhood (I just learned that there is also a location in Cherry Hill that’s been around for about four years). The menu is pretty extensive. There is of course, beef bulgogi, the staple dish of Korean BBQ, but there are also grilled meat, seafood and noodle dishes to choose from, too. For most dishes, you can choose your level of spiciness.

While we waited for our food, we watched what seemed to be a Korean MTV (complete with Justin Beiber and Katy Perry look-a-likes) and munched on banchan, including kimchi, spicy cucumbers, black beans and vegetables, and chicken wings. The wings had a nice crunch and a sweet honey-sesame flavor, but I just thought they were okay. If I hadn’t tried the Federal Donuts variety just a couple of weeks ago to compare to, I probably would have been more impressed.

We all ordered a dolsot—chicken for me and my aunt, mushroom for my mom and octopus for Chester. This dish consists of rice, vegetables and meat, cooked in a hot, clay pot and topped with egg. The dishes came out of the kitchen hot and sizzling and took quite awhile to cool down. It is a flavorful, hearty dish that is enhanced by the fact that the heat of the pot makes the rice at the bottom slightly burnt and crunchy (I recommend ordering brown rice for its nice, nutty flavor) and cooks the egg on top to a creamy consistency. This was the first time I had this dish, and I think it might be one of my new favorite things.

They gave us these little yogurt drinks for dessert. They had a slight citrus flavor, which. I didn’t mind at first, but decided I didn’t really care for a couple of sips in.

I would definitely go back again. On my next visit, I would like to try the Koagie: Beef Bulgogi or Spicy or BBQ Chicken served on a Sarcone’s sesame roll. It might not be a traditional dish, but it sounds like a winner to me.

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.

Christmastime Fun at Winterthur and Restaurant Review: Pagoda Noodle Cafe

One of Winterthur's many Christmas trees.

There are so many Christmas-y things to do in Philadelphia that it would be impossible to try to fit them all in each holiday season. Of course, there are some things that we try to do every year—the Light Show and Dicken’s Village at Macy’s—just because we’ve always done them. But, during the past couple of years, we’ve tried to visit some different places with holiday festivities taking place. This year, my mom, aunt, Chester headed to Delaware for the “Yuletide at Winterthur” tour.

Close up of the peony tree.

Winterthur is a sprawling estate that takes up nearly 1,000 acres of land and was the home of Henry Francis DuPont and his family.  Henry was quite the hoarder collector. Over his lifetime he accumulated, literally, thousands of objects—from glassware to books to building facades that he incorporated into the architecture of his estate. To store all of these treasures, he just kept adding rooms onto his house. During the holiday season, many of the 175 rooms are done up with festive décor that reflects Christmas traditions from colonial America through World War II.

Montmorenci Staircase. DuPont found this in a home in South Carolina and had it brought to Winterthur.

If you are planning to go, this year’s Yuletide runs through January 8th and reservations can be made in advance on the museum’s website. We had a really excellent guide for the hour-long tour, who knew so much about the history of the place, traditions, and the objects on display.

Dried flower tree. Smelled so good!

Afterwards, we headed over to King of Prussia Mall so that we could do some shopping. As expected, there were jerks in the parking lot (Chester was waiting patiently for a parking spot and someone swooped in and stole it!), it was crowded and lines were pretty long. Although we all got a few things checked off our lists, we didn’t want to brave the crowds for dinner around there. So, we headed back into the city for Chinese food at Pagoda Noodle Café in Old City.

We’ve been to Pagoda a bunch of times before because it’s right next door to one of the Ritz movie theaters. Chinese food is actually not my favorite thing in the world, but when I do have an odd craving for it, I don’t mind going to Pagoda. The dishes are not laden with salt and all of the other things that invariably make me feel a bit ill after eating Chinese food (I’ve never fully recovered from my experiences with the now closed Happy Dragon in South Philly’s Whitman plaza. Ugh).

We always order steamed dumplings at Pagoda. They include a generous helping of pork, vegetable or chicken and can also be ordered fried. On this visit, I ordered the pagoda noodle soup, which included an ample amount of shitake mushrooms and chicken. It was the perfect meal for such a chilly day. Some other dishes I’ve tried and liked include the Mango Chicken and Thai Style Grilled Salmon Filet. Chester’s favorite dish is General Tso’s Chicken, and he gives Pagoda’s version pretty high marks.

There are two floors in the restaurant, but it never seems really busy. It has been open for more than ten years though, so I’m guessing that they must do a decent business with take-out and deliveries. If you read some of the reviews online, you’ll probably notice that many people complain about poor service, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a problem. The servers do seem a little cold, but they are attentive to guests and the food comes out promptly.

The portions are really huge, so I had plenty to take to work with me for lunch on Monday. Most importantly, it was a much more enjoyable experience than if we had to wait for an hour or more for a table at a restaurant at the mall.

Do you have any favorite Christmas traditions and/or places to go after a long day of Christmas shopping that you’ll be hitting up this weekend?  Only ten days left until the big day (and three days left of work until 2012! Not that I’m counting).

On the Road: Thanksgiving Weekend in New York

Going back to work after a holiday weekend is pretty much the worst thing ever. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, which I just can’t seem to think of right now.  But, I’m glad to have this day over with.

Anyway.

Chester and I avoided Black Friday shopping and spent the day getting the house all festive for Christmas and went to see the Muppets (if you grew up watching the show, it’s a must see. I’m pretty sure I was grinning from ear to ear for most of it). Then, on Saturday, Bridget and I headed up to New York to shop, eat and most importantly, to see Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway. The weather has unseasonably warm around here lately, and while it doesn’t exactly feel like Christmas yet, it made for a great day of walking around the city.

After dropping our bags at our hotel, we headed over to Craftbar, for lunch/belated birthday celebration for me. Craftbar located on Broad is one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants and is located on Broadway, near Union Square.

When we arrived around two, the restaurant was still serving their brunch menu, in addition to the regular menu of snacks, salads, pastas, and entrees. We both ordered from the latter. The server was really knowledgeable about the menu, including recommendations for cocktails and wine. He suggested a red wine for Bridget and helped me decide between the two cocktail options I was considering. I ended up with something that was similar to a Tom Collins, but had earl grey infused gin in it. Refreshing. I can’t remember the name of either. Sorry.

We split an order of pecorino risotto balls, which were served piping hot with a spicy tomato sauce. They reminded us of the rice croquettes that Bridget’s grandmother makes, but the gooey cheese was a nice touch.

For an entrée, Bridget chose the pork belly, which was served with brussel sprouts, poached egg, and sweet potato puree. It was really tender and pulled apart easily with a fork. I had the veal ricotta meatballs, which were served over house made spagehetti. The meatballs were light and delicate and the tomato sauce was slightly sweet. The only drawback for me was that the pasta may have needed to be cooked a bit more, as it was slight chewy.

They must have known I was coming, because the dessert list included a peanut butter and jelly sundae. The peanut butter ice cream, which was creamy and rich, but not overly sweet, was topped with grape jelly syrup (tasted exactly like my favorite Welch’s variety) and a generous handful of caramel corn, which added a bit of texture and saltiness.

Photo stolen from Bridget

For the rest of the afternoon, we burned off a few calories shopping, and then it was time to make our way over to the Broadhurst Theater for the show.

It goes without saying that Hugh Jackman is pretty adorable. And, also, really talented. He’s not just Wolverine, folks. He can sing. He can dance. He flirts with everyone in the audience and embarrasses late-comers as they take their seats. During the two hour show he performs some of his favorite songs from the likes of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein and Peter Allen (whom he won the Tony Award for portraying in The Boy From Oz back in 2003), interspersed with antidotes about his life, family and career.

At the end of the show, he auctioned off two of his sweaty undershirts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He invited the winners backstage after the show to meet him, and Bridget and I almost took out our credit cards, but figured it would be difficult to explain the charge to our respective husbands (one shirt fetched $10,000 and the other $6,000).

On the way to the theater, we noticed that there was a Shake Shack right near our hotel, so we stopped there on the way back for burgers, fries, and shakes to bring back to our room. I’ve heard that Shake Shack was the inspiration for Stephen Starr’s Square Burger. This may be the case, but the Shack is a million times better.

The burgers were cooked to a medium rare, so they were juicy and flavorful. The fries were pretty standard—crispy and salty—but they were crinkle cut, so they get extra points in my book for the novelty factor. The vanilla shake has earned a place (along with Nifty Fifty’s, of course) on my list of best milkshakes ever. It was thick and creamy and I was so sad when it was all gone. I will be first in line when the Philadelphia location opens in Center City next year.

Amazingly, we woke up hungry the next morning and headed to Trattoria dell’Arte, right across from Carnegie Hall. This is one of our go-to places when we come up for a show. They have an excellent antipasto bar with just about anything you could ever want, from mozzarella, to Italian meats, to grilled vegetables. We opted just for brunch—light and sweet Panettone French toast for me, and rich spaghetti carbonara for Bridget (with the egg, bacon, and carbs, it does make a good breakfast dish if you think about it!)

And, with that, it was time for me to catch the train back to Philly and for Bridget to make the long drive back up to Boston. But, we’re already planning our next trip to see another show in the winter and/or spring (Book of Mormon and the upcoming revival of Evita are on our list).

The only good part about the weekend coming to an end was that I got to head back to the gym today. And, not a moment too soon.

An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert

Source: Ticketmaster via Uwishunu

If you’ve been following along for a bit, you probably think that all I do is eat. I want to assure you that I do like to do other things. For example, when I got an e-mail from the Kimmel Center in the late summer about their upcoming season I checked off a bunch of shows that I wanted to see (and then my calendar filled up with other stuff and all of my grand plans went awry for the most part).

One of the things on my list was “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert” at the Merriam Theater. Chester and I are both fans of Bourdain’s show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. We watch it with an equal amounts amazement that he’s still alive from all the poor lifestyle choices (drinking, smoking, drugs, ingesting bizarre foods, etc.) he seems to have made over the years and jealousy that his full-time job involves food and travel. We didn’t really know anything about Eric Ripert, except that he is the chef/owner of several restaurants, including 10 Arts in the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia and the Michelin starred Le Bernardin in New York.

We were about to purchase tickets on our own when we learned that the Drexel University Alumni Association was hosting an event in conjunction with the show, so we went with them instead (I’m such a loyal dragon). There was a pre-show reception at Valanni, a Latin tapas restaurant just down the street from the theater. I’ve eaten dinner there before and I remember liking it, but it’s been so long that I can’t really remember all the specifics. At the Drexel reception, they served Serrano Ham Croquettes and they are reason enough alone for you to make a reservation today.

Okay, enough about food. Back to the show.

Bourdain, in person, is just like he is on his show—funny, edgy, and unable to complete a sentence without peppering it with curse words. Ripert is the opposite—refined, soft-spoken, and just…French. Still, they had the type of good rapport you often see between longtime friends.

They started off the show with a mock interrogation. Bourdain questioned Ripert about his immigration status, and Ripert grilled Bourdain to find out if he still calls himself a chef after being out of a kitchen for so long. Both are formally trained and know the ins-and-outs of the restaurant business and it was interesting to hear them reflect on their respective careers and debate all kinds of food related topics.

For example:
The Food Network: Bourdain hates everyone associated with it, with the exception of Ina Garten. Bourdain exhibits a particular dislike for Guy Fieri and his wardrobe, but Ripert seems strangely charmed by the “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” host.

Gordon Ramsey: Ripert himself was trained in kitchens in France and subject to the type of abuse and insults that Ramsey has become famous for. He admitted that when he started running his own kitchen, he treated his staff in this  “old school” way, but soon came to realize that it wasn’t the way to get results or motivate people. He is pretty offended by the way Ramsey treats aspiring chefs on Hell’s Kitchen. I’ve since learned that Ripert is a Buddhist. No wonder he’s so nice.

Best Place to Visit for the Food: Both suggest heading to Asia, particularly Singapore, Korea or Thailand. If only those fares would come down…

Travel Etiquette:  Bourdain encouraged the audience to go out of their comfort zones while traveling. To paraphrase, he suggested everyone treat their vacations to foreign countries like their at their grandmother’s house. Leave you vegetarianism, veganism, and other self-imposed restrictions at the door. Eat everything that’s put in front of you and/or whatever that street vendors offer you, “because that’s what you do in Grandma’s f-ing kitchen.”

At the end of the show, Bourdain and Ripert took questions from the audience, which ranged from the must-have tools for home cooks (good knives) to the way to tell if bone marrow is properly cooked (never pink) to why there is a glass ceiling in the kitchen for female chefs (both chefs disagreed with this last question. And, it’s a particularly silly one to ask in this city, when you consider that women head up several kitchens at well-known restaurants. In fact, up until recently, Jennifer Carroll was at the helm of 10 Arts).

One of the final questioners asked the two chefs their favorite places to eat in Philly. Neither one of them really had good answers (Ripert cheated and said 10 Arts, but redeemed himself a bit in my eyes by mentioning Zahav and Parc, too). Maybe next time they visit, they could use a tour guide to show them all that the city has to offer. I know someone they could call.