Restaurant Review: Townsend

Remember when this used to mostly be a blog about food?

Me too.

For obvious reasons, we don’t go out to eat a ton these days. And, when we do, it’s usually for brunch or lunch, to the same places where we already know that the food will be decent, the service will be quick and we’ll get minimal dirty looks if our kid has a meltdown in the middle of the main course.

So, that’s why I was pretty excited to go out to an early Valentine’s Day dinner at Townsend, one of the latest additions to the ever-expanding dining options on East Passyunk Avenue. Chef Townsend Wentz was previously employed at various Center City institutions such as Lacroix and the Fountain at the Four Seasons, so it’s not totally surprising that he chose to fashion this restaurant as a modern French bistro.

The menu changes seasonally, and on the night we visited, it was heavy on the seafood options, which is always okay with me!

To start, I had the beef tartare. This was one of the best versions of the dish that I have had. The beef was prepared with just enough mustard and lemon to give it a memorable flavor, without being overpowering. The grilled slivers of bread, with melted sheep’s milk cheese were an excellent complement.

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Chester, meanwhile, had the oysters.He enjoyed them, but thought that the fact that they were cooked and topped with bacon masked some of their natural flavor. I have never heard anyone complain about something being topped with bacon, but I’m not really a fan of oysters, so what do I know?

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We shared the next course, escargot and brussel sprouts. The escargot were tender and flavorful and the sprouts were perfectly crunchy,and the sherry cream sauce took the whole dish over the top. The portion looked small, but the dish was so rich that it ended up being just enough. And, we liked it so much that we devoured it without taking a photo.

I feel like I rarely see bouillabaisse on restaurant menus, so I chose that for my entree. While it had a generous helping of seafood (a slightly crispy cod, tender scallops, mussels and clams), it also had a generous helping of Old Bay seasoning, which I didn’t love. It overpowered the flavors of the broth, completely masking any hit of saffron that is characteristic of the dish. I ended up with mixed feelings about the dish, and probably would choose something different on a future visit.

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Chester chose the venison, which was on the Valentine’s Day menu. I only had a small bite, but it was tender and flavorful, and not at all gamey (which is what I had expected).

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To end the meal, we shared the chocolate soufflé (which means that Chester had half a bite and I ate the rest). This may have been my favorite part of the meal. I mean, you can’t go wrong with warm, fluffy dark chocolate, right?

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Overall, I think that Townsend is a great addition to Passyunk Avenue and it’s definitely a nice date night option. It was definitely nice to have a grown-ups only dinner for the first time in a few months.

It was back to regularly scheduled programming the next day, as we took B to Max Brenner for Valentine’s Day brunch. She got the biggest sugar rush of her life from a few sips of a chocolate milkshake and it was completely adorable!

Restaurant Review: Talula’s Daily/Secret Supper Club

Talula’s Garden is one of those restaurants that is so charming that I want to move in. What can I say, I’m a sucker for twinkly lights, pretty flowers, and pastel colors. I would happily pull up a chair in the garden and keep ordering cheese and cocktails for as long as they would let me stay (which probably wouldn’t be very long. Those of you who have seen me after a cocktail or two know what I mean).

Now, I’m similarly smitten with the new addition to Aimee Olexy/Stephen Starr’s empire, located right next door. By day, the space functions, as market/café called Talula’s Daily where patrons can grab a cup of coffee and a pastry or a take-out lunch to eat across the street in Washington Square Park. At night, the lights dim and it transforms into Talula’s Secret Supper Club, serving a five-course, seasonally inspired menu.

With its farmhouse tables and chairs, floor to ceiling shelves filled with gorgeous dishes, and country-inspired décor and linens, the place looks like something out of an Anthropologie catalog. And, that’s because it kind of is. All of the dishes, glassware, and utensils are from the retailer (It was fortunate that I wasn’t carrying a large purse or else some items may have found their way into it).

The food is prepared in open kitchen at the back of the restaurant and seating is limited to about 20 or so. There is a communal table for 8 in the center of the room, where there seemed to be a couple of unrelated groups eating together. I suppose that being thrown together with complete strangers, à la a random dinner party in someone’s home, is part of the charm, but I was glad that Chester and I had our own little table for two. The menu changes monthly. So, unless you make it over there this evening, you will be enjoying something totally different than Chester and I did over the weekend.

Our meal started off on a high note, with Parker House rolls and creamy, salted butter. We don’t use real butter at home, so anytime I get my hands on the good stuff, I tend to overdose on it in a way that is probably impolite. I don’t care, particularly when it melts into a light, feathery roll that has just come out of the oven. Bliss.

Next up were the risotto croquettes with mushrooms. Normally, these are one of my favorite dishes, but I found Talula’s version a bit lacking. They were a little too heavily fried (to the point of being a bit burnt) and the interior lacked the creaminess that is characteristic of risotto. The accompanying balsamic glaze was a nice change from the tomato based sauces that I usually see this appetizer paired with, and a nice complement for the mushrooms.

The asparagus soup was my favorite dish of the night.  A small piece of spiced, poached salmon floated in the middle like a little island, when our server poured the creamy soup into our bowls. The dish was simple–with just a bit of salt, pepper and onion and a dollop of mild crème fraiche to flavor the soup–but captured all of the best flavors of springtime.

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The main course was spring lamb, three ways—a medium rare chop, shredded neck and lamb belly. The latter, rich and fatty, with a smoky flavor, was my favorite of the three preparations. The other two styles were more traditional. In other words, I thought they were tasty, but not entirely memorable.

The cheese board was creatively presented, as deconstructed baked brie. Brie is one of the few cheeses that I don’t like, so this wasn’t my favorite dish. But, it was tolerable when spread on a bit of puffed pastry and topped with sweet strawberry rhubarb compote.

On the other hand, I was thrilled to see carrot cake on the menu! It’s one of my favorite non-chocolate desserts, but I have it so infrequently. The incredibly moist cake had just the right balance of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The highlight of the dish was the tangy cream cheese ice cream (note to self: learn how to recreate this) and garnished with candied pecans. I liked the deconstructed nature of this dish, as well. Letting each element stand alone was a great way to experience to the different flavors.

The price point for dinner is $55 per person, which makes it kind of a bargain when compared to other tasting menu concepts in the area. There is an option to add on a beverage pairing for $35. The fact that the server will top you off your glass if you find it nearly empty during a particular course is a nice touch. Our waitress was very sweet and attentive throughout our meal, even giving me a complimentary glass of Prosecco for putting up with a wobbly table.

The Secret Supper Club is a nice little place for a night out. Overall, I think I enjoyed the food a bit more at Talula’s Garden, but I think most of my complaints are based on my own personal preferences.  The May menu looks delicious, so check it out and let me know how it is!

Restaurant Review: Amis

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Chester and I have been trying to go out, sans Little B, once a month. We were excited that we were able to plan one of our date nights to coincide with a recent visit from Old Original Big Bridget and Bill (Obviously, I’m still working on a new nickname for my BFF. None of these seem to fit).

I sent Bridget a list of restaurants to choose from for our double date and she ranked Amis, as her first choice. I was pretty excited, because I have been dying for more of Marc Vetri’s signature handmade pasta ever since our visit to his namesake restaurant over the summer. Fortunately, Amis provides the opportunity to do so at a considerably more comfortable price point than Vetri.

Amis is Vetri’s take on a Roman trattoria. As such, the menu is relatively simple and the vibe is pretty casual. The interior of the restaurant, however, was more industrial than homey, with modern, wood and metal furnishings, an open kitchen and dim lighting. I loved the pink vases filled with daisies, that provided pops of color on each table.

While sipping our drinks and snacking on olive oil focaccia bread, we perused the menu to select a few small plates to share. Our server recommended one or two per person, but we erred on the smaller side to save room for pasta and dessert.

The arancini, served in a short rib ragu, was the universal favorite. The inside contained creamy aborrio rice and cheese and was fried to a crispy, but not greasy, golden brown.

The next two appetizers were simple, but solid. I would have eaten the avocado bruschetta with pecornio and pancetta with a spoon, but avoided embarrassing myself and my friends by spreading it on the accompanying toast like a normal person. The third dish, creamy buffalo mozzarella, with sweet persimmons and earthy chestnuts was an unexpected, but pleasant combination of flavors.

Our final dish, the sweetbreads, were a real “miss” for me. I know that many people can’t get past what they are (animal pancreas or thymus), but I have had them before and actually liked them. When they are prepared correctly, they have a mild flavor and soft interior. Unfortunately, Amis’ sweetbreads seemed tough and had a greasy aftertaste, as if they had sat in the frying pan for too long.

That’s okay, though, because it gave me more room to overdose on carbs.

My pappardelle pasta, with guanciale and parsnips, was reminiscent of a carbonara. The cured pig cheek has less salt, but more fat than, pancetta, which is traditionally used in the dish. The fat acted as a substitute for egg, in coating the pasta and lending a rich flavor to the dish.

Bridget chose the bucatini with almond pesto and jalapeno. The heat from the peppers, the creamy sauce and the crunchy almonds worked surprisingly well together. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like it. Bill had one the evening’s specials–rotini with chicken. I didn’t try it, but it looked delicious.

Chester was torn between an entree and a pasta dish, so he asked the server if the cacio e pepe was available as a smaller pasta course. She ended up bringing us a complimentary, full portion of the dish so that we could all share it. It’s such a basic dish–just pasta, black pepper and pecorino cheese–but the key is getting the balance of the ingredients just right. Too much pepper overpowers the dish and too much cheesy makes it kind of gluey. Amis got it just right.

For those looking for something other than pasta, there is a short list of “secondi” or entree dishes, featuring seafood, steak, pork and lamb. Since he ended up with a smaller pasta portion, Chester also ordered the roasted lamb shoulder. Pan searing gave it a crispy exterior, but kept the inside tender. It was simply seasoned and very tasty.

How we had room for dessert after all that food, I’ll never know. But, I’m glad that we didn’t pass it up!

I chose the semifreddo sundae, which was another example of a seemingly random grouping of ingredients complementing each other perfectly. The semifreddo, with its buttery flavor and mousse-like texture, was topped with salted almonds, a sweet orange marmalade and a slightly bitter chocolate sauce, for an interesting combination of flavors and textures.

If I go back again though, I’m definitely copying Bridget and ordering the belgian waffle. The waffle itself was light and airy and topped with a generous helping of nutella, vanilla semifreddo and hazelnuts. I mean, really. You just can’t go wrong with that combination.

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Stolen from Bridget’s Instagram

Although we had an early reservation, the restaurant filled up rather quickly during our visit. I’m not sure if this is because our visit took place over Valentine’s Day weekend or if it’s always that way on a Saturday night. Either way, service was on point throughout our meal. Our server checked in with us frequently, but allowed us to take our time with each course.

Small plates range in price from $8 to $14, pastas from $14 to $16 and entrees from $20 to $26. I think this is in line with most restaurants in the neighborhood, but the nice thing about Amis is that dishes are sized pretty well for sharing, so that might be an option if you are budget conscious. You could easily make a meal out of a couple of small plates or a small plate and one of the pastas, too.

Portions were extremely generous and we all left completely satisfied. And, as always, it was wonderful to spend time with great friends, who don’t mind that we’ve turned into old people and like to eat at 5:15.

Restaurant Review: Rosa Blanca (Closed)

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Earlier this year, Jose Garces closed Chifa, and reopened it as Rosa Blanca, a Cuban diner. Although I was a fan of Chifa, I know that others thought that the Peruvian-Chinese concept was a bit off the wall. Rosa Blanca will appeal to those who prefer the more traditional Latin flavors and dishes that are characteristic of Garces’ other restaurants throughout the city.

Chester and I were eager to try the new spot, so we snagged a Friday night reservation during Restaurant Week. The place was already packed when we arrived, which made us feel a bit less lame about going out to dinner at 6 p.m.

The decor of the restaurant is quite eclectic. The front of the space has been redecorated in shades of bright pink, aqua, orange and silver, in the style of a 1950s diner. All of the classic accents are there–the lunch counter overlooking the grill, a take-out pastry case and a chalkboard menu. The rest of the restaurant has a more romantic feel, with the lower lighting and the dark wood that I remembered from the Chifa days. The booths on the first floor are large enough to fit groups of 6 to 8 people, but the downstairs dining room, where we were seated, was a bit more intimate. It had its own bar and a half-dozen tables for two.

With extensive menu of Cuban comfort foods, Rosa Blanca is nearly a 24 hour operation, as it opens for breakfast at 8 a.m. and doesn’t close until midnight. I was glad to see that the Restaurant Week menu featured so many of the dishes that are on the regular dinner menu. There is an lengthy beverage list, with more than 70 wines, rums, cocktails and soft drinks. My first mojito in a very long time did not disappoint.

Due to a food runner’s mistake, we actually got extra appetizers with our meal. He dropped off a bowl of guacamole and an empanada that we didn’t order and when we checked with our server and it turned out that the dishes were intended for the table next to us, but he let us keep them anyway. I’ve never met a guacamole that I didn’t like, and Rosa Blanca’s version with smoked pineapple and thin slices of plantain and yucca for dipping was quite unique. The empanada was tasty–you can’t go wrong with ricotta and mozzarella filling–but basic. The wrapper was not at all greasy, but it could have benefited from some seasoning or a dipping sauce of some sort.

The appetizers that we actually ordered arrived next. The creamy coconut and conch chowder, packed full of vegetables and sweet chunks of conch, was the perfect dish for a chilly evening. Chester had the tuna ceviche, which lacked strong acidic flavor that is traditionally associated with that dish. The texture and flavor reminded me more of a tuna tartare, which I happen to love. But, those who would prefer a true ceviche flavor might be disappointed.

Both of our entree selections were excellent. The ropa vieja was made with braised short rib instead of flank steak, which made it incredibly tender. Both the meat and the accompanying beans and rice were perfectly seasoned with a variety of spices, including smoky paprika, garlic and cilantro. Chester chose the masitas de puerco, which featured chunks of tender, fried pork served with cornmeal and sweet sautéed onions. Once again, the seasonings in the dish were well balanced.

Both of the offerings on the menu were fruit based. I preferred the creamy coconut custard with tangy mango sorbet to the pineapple upside down cake, the flavor of which was overpowered by the accompanying guava sauce. On the whole though, both desserts were just so-so. It would have been nice to have something chocolatey to end the meal.

The only drawback to the experience was that the meal went by way too fast–we were in and out in 47 minutes! This is to be expected during Restaurant Week, as kitchens typically prepare some of the dishes in advance, in order to expedite the service and turn over the tables quickly. Still, now that we are only getting out for date nights about once a month, we would have preferred a more leisurely pace.

In spite of this, I am definitely looking forward to another visit to Rosa Blanca in the near future. The breakfast and milkshake menus sound particularly amazing. With the range of items on the menu and the nearly all-day service that the restaurant offers, it would be perfect for a variety of occasions, from a date night to a family-friendly lunch.

Restaurant Review: Paradiso

One of the reasons I enjoy this time of the year so much is that there are so many occasions to celebrate, and, hence plenty of excuses to indulge in delicious food. For me, the prime eating season is a two month affair. It kicks off with my birthday in November and winds down on New Year’s Day. By that time, pretty much can’t stand the sight of food and vow to drink only water and eat only yogurt for the entire month of January (a commitment that never seems to last more than two days).

Chester’s birthday falls right in the middle of all of the festivities, so we celebrated with a day out. Since we are officially old, we caught an afternoon showing of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (So good. They have done an amazing job adapting the books for the big screen so far. I can’t remember the last time that two and a half hours flew by so quickly!). After that, we headed to dinner at Paradiso.

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In front of the Christmas tree on East Passyunk Avenue

Paradiso opened back in 2008, helping to kick of East Passyunk Avenue’s development into a prime dining destination. In a neighborhood that had long been home to restaurants offering the “red gravy” variety of Italian food, Paradiso changed things up quite a bit with it more eclectic dishes. If you have picky eaters in your group, they might be put off by mentions of tripe, chicken livers and wild boar.

Chester opted to start with one of the evening’s specials, escargot. The snails were perfectly prepared, out of their shells, and served in a rich tomato sauce. The sauce was excellent—a little thinner than a traditional marinara, but thicker than a broth–making it the perfect consistency to sop up with bread or the accompanying parmesan crostini. Meanwhile, I chose the octopus salad, with beans and potatoes. I liked that the salad was served warm, with a creamy arugula puree instead of traditional greens. But, it had too much salt and pepper (This may just be a matter of personal preference, however. Since we don’t use a lot of these ingredients when we cook at home, I seem to be hypersensitive to them when we go out).

Our server explained that all of the pastas are homemade and could be ordered as entrees or appetizers. So, we opted to share another one of the evening’s specials, squid ink bucatini, as a pasta course. It was a bit disappointing. Some strands were al dente, while others were almost totally uncooked. And, like the salad, was a just a bit too peppery for my taste. The shrimp that accompanied the dish fared much better. They were fresh and cooked just right—a bit chewy, without being tough—and well-seasoned.

I can rarely pass up risotto when I see it on a menu, so it didn’t take me long to decide on that for an entree. By this point, it was evident that the preparation of the seafood items on the menu is one of Paradiso’s strongest suits. The two large scallops that topped the dish were perfectly caramelized and tender. The risotto itself was creamy and included a generous helping of wild mushrooms and parmesan cheese. It was pretty much perfect. Of course, I also sampled a bit of the pork chop that Chester ordered and it was simply seasoned and tender.

If I hadn’t been so stuffed from the hearty risotto, I would have ordered the pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, as it looked delicious. I was content to finish the meal with a strong cappuccino and biscotti.

Although the staff could not have been nicer, service was a bit bumpy at times. We had three different people ask us what kind of water we wanted when we were first seated and our server gave me the wrong wine. The pacing of the courses was a bit uneven as well. Appetizers arrived rather quickly and the main courses taking forever to come out of the kitchen, which resulted in Chester’s entree being slightly cold by the time it got to us.

I attribute these stumbles (and, perhaps, the previously mentioned lack of attention given to cooking the pasta and seasoning certain dishes) to the fact that the restaurant was hosting two large parties that evening—one in the private room on the second floor, and another, unfortunately, in main dining area.

Now, I can deal with crowded restaurants. In fact, I pretty much expect this to be the case in South Philly (especially on a Saturday night), since most places are very small. But, a group of 20 people who are loud, obnoxious and generally acting like they are the only people in a place, really puts a damper on things for everyone else. Chester and I had trouble hearing each other across the table (and now I sound really old) and I heard several other patrons complain to the server about the noise level as well. I understand that the restaurant wants to maximize its bottom line, but a group of that size really needs its own space.

On the whole, though, we enjoyed the food and think that some of the shortcomings are probably not as evident on nights when the restaurant isn’t catering to large groups. Our waitress noted that Sunday nights are generally more low key, and as a bonus, the restaurant is BYOB on that day.

Restaurant Review: Nomad Roman Pizza

After Little B was born, everyone told us that the newborn stage was the best time to take a child to a restaurant. This is why most of our Saturday outings now revolve around lunch or brunch. For now, Little B will generally sleep for at least an hour or two after she has been fed and settled in her car seat/stroller, which gives us plenty of time to enjoy a meal and a walk around the city.

We stick to casual places (B has been to Sabrina’s so many times that she already has a regular table) and try to go when it’s not too crowded (i.e. early in the day), just in case B decides to have a meltdown. When it was warmer, we sought out places with outdoor seating; it’s just a lot easier when you don’t have to steer a bulky car seat/stroller combination through narrow restaurant aisles.

This past Saturday was a bit too cold for dining al fresco, so we decided to check out Nomad Roman Pizza in Midtown Village. I have been on the hunt for a pizza like those that I fell in love with on my first trip to Rome nine years ago, so I was hoping that this much closer to home location would fit the bill.

Nomad Roman is the second Philadelphia restaurant from the team behind the Nomad Pizza truck. Its focus on hand rolled, thin-crust style pizza sets it apart from other restaurants in the a neighborhood that specialize in the thicker Neopolitan style.

The menu consists of twelve kinds of pizza that run the gamut from traditional (such as the Margherita to fancy (like the Truffle Pecorino). Each one is made to order in a copper faced, wood-fired brick oven, using ingredients from local farms.

Our server noted that each pizza generally serves one person, but that one could be sufficient for both of us if we also opted to order a salad. Since the salads sounded pretty basic (house, Caesar, arugula, etc.) we decided each order a pizza so that we could sample both the red and white varieties.

In terms of style, Nomad hits the nail on the head. The crust was thin and crispy and the center of the dough was paper thin. Somehow though, it managed to stand up to the ample amount of toppings that went all the way to the edge of the crust. The red sauce on my arugula pizza struck the perfect balance between sweet and acidic. Chester’s Truffle Pecorino pizza was quite rich, due in part of the perfectly poached egg that oozed over the entire pie.

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The only thing that was a bit different was that the server sliced the pies as they were delivered to the table, whereas pizzerias in Rome serve pies unsliced and they are eaten with a knife and fork. In this case, though, I was happy to be able to eat with one hand, as Little B woke up from her nap and I ended up holding her in my other arm throughout lunch.

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Pizzas ranges in price from $11 to $19. This is a bit more expensive than other restaurants in the area (such as Barbuzzo and Zavino) that have pizza on the menu, but the pies are a bit larger and the ingredients, although very simple for the most part, are of the highest quality. Homemade dark chocolate from Nomad’s Hopewell, NJ location was a welcome surprise at the end of the meal.

Although nothing can replace the experience of enjoying pizza in Rome itself, Nomad’s pies come pretty close to replicating the flavors of one of my favorite cities. I’m glad to have it close by, because it might be awhile before I make it to Italy again!

Restaurant Review: Vetri

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The weekend before Little B made her entrance, Chester and I celebrated our impending parenthood (and last date night for foreseeable future) with dinner at Vetri.

It was pretty amazing.

So, although I can barely remember what day of the week it is lately, let alone what I ate for dinner nearly a month ago, I feel I should at least tell you a little bit about it.

In 1998, Marc Vetri opened his 30-seat namesake restaurant in the townhouse that was once home to Le Bec Fin (yesterday was actually the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, according to an article on Philly.com). The rustic Italian fare, handmade pastas and spectacular service made him a fixture in the Philadelphia restaurant scene and one of the most lauded chefs in the country.

A couple of years ago, Vetri did away with its a la carte menu and now only offers a chef’s tasting menu. Dishes change with the seasons, with the exception of  several signature items. When I have chosen the tasting menu at other restaurants, dishes have usually been served family-style or everyone in the group is served the same dishes. But, Vetri does things a bit differently.

The menu, which is divided into four sections (fish, vegetable/pasta, di terra, meat/poultry and dessert) is presented in advance and diners can make special requests for dishes that they would really like to try, as well as those they would prefer to avoid. In addition, each person is served a different dishes during each course. I liked this approach because personalized the experience a bit more and allowed us to try about half of the items on the menu.

Our meal started off  with stuzzichini (hors d’oeuvres), including olives, cured meats, a rich foie gras pastrami on crostini and raw vegetables with balsamic crema.

After that came 12 other dishes, including:

Lorighittas with Frutti Di Mare: Delicate ring-shaped pasta and a simple white wine sauce allowed fresh scallops and squid to be the stars of this dish.

Conchiglione with Lobster Dumpling: Shell shaped pasta, stuffed with perfectly poached lobster, in a light tomato broth.

Corn and Tomato Tortino: A tiny pie, filled with a creamy corn custard and topped with roasted tomatoes. Both vegetables were perfectly sweet, just as they should be in the summertime.

Sweet Onion Crepe with Truffle Fondue: This dish had the best parts of French onion soup–caramelized onions and melted cheese–without the broth. It’s no wonder this is one of the signature dishes that always remains on the menu.

Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter: Another signature dish, these dumplings have a more intense flavor than the traditional potato variety. But, they had the melt-in-your-mouth quality that is essential to good gnocchi.

Almond Tortellini with Truffle Sauce: This dish was one of my special requests and is another signature menu item. The earthy truffle sauce provided a savory balance for the sweet ricotta and toasted almond combination (although if the sauce were omitted or something with a sweeter flavor profile was used instead, this could be an amazing dessert pasta!).

Agnolotto with Pistachio Vellutate: Agnolotto is basically a rectangular ravioli. All of the elements of this dish–the toasted pistachio filling, the sweet, julienned zucchini that was perched on top of the dumpling like a salad and the creamy sauce worked very well together.

Piedmontese Carpaccio with Figs: This was the only dish that I didn’t try because raw meat and pregnancy don’t go together. Sad face. Chester enjoyed it though!

Duck Stuffed with Chorizo: I’ve mentioned before that Chester has bad luck when it comes to ordering duck in restaurants, as it always seems to be overcooked. Not so in this case. Vetri’s duck was cooked to a perfect medium rare, with a pink center, and got just a little kick of spiciness from the chorizo.

Roasted Lamb: This was Chester’s special request. Like the duck, the lamb was cooked to a perfect medium rare. The cut was so thick that it looked more like beef. The use of Nebrodini (a type of oyster mushroom) and tuma persa (a sheep’s milk cheese) made this a very earthy dish.

Capretto with Stone Milled Polenta: I was a little apprehensive about this dish when the server set it in front of me. The only time that I’ve ever tried goat was at an Indian restaurant and I thought it was terrible. Fortunately, Vetri’s version had none of the gamey taste and tough texture that I remembered from that experience. It wasn’t my favorite dish, but at least I ventured out of my comfort zone and gave it a second chance.

Dessert: The sweet portion of the evening started with a plate of miniature pastries and cookies and a small scoop of mango sorbet. I could have easily been satisfied with that, but of course couldn’t pass up the chocolate polenta soufflé. It had a rich, pudding-like texture, that I’m sure I would never be able to recreate at home. Chester had the Paris-Brest, a puff pastry filled with a light, hazelnut cream. It was a little too sweet for him, so I ended up finishing most of it (I’m not sorry).

All of the dishes we tried were outstanding, but a month later I still find myself thinking about the pastas at Vetri. They were all incredibly light and the accompanying sauces were so delicate. In addition, the other ingredients in each dish (seafood, vegetables, cheeses, etc.) were thoughtfully chosen, so that all the elements in each dish complemented, rather than competed with, each other.

As you might expect at a fine dining establishment, portion sizes for each dish weren’t huge. But, they were just the right size for the two of us to share. In addition, many of the dishes, particularly the pastas and the meats, were on the heavier side. So, we definitely left feeling full and satisfied.

Service was impeccable throughout our meal. The servers explained all of the elements of each dish as it was presented and were very knowledgeable about how everything was made. They checked in with us regularly throughout the meal, without being overbearing or rushing us through the courses. At the end of the night, we were given ricotta cookies and a copy of the menu to take home as souvenirs. I tucked the latter item away so that we will be able to remember how we celebrated Little B before she was born.

At $155 per person, Vetri probably isn’t going to be in your regular restaurant rotation (if you have even deeper pockets, you can opt for one of the wine pairings, which start at $90). But, the combination of delicious food, exceptional service and intimate atmosphere makes it worth experiencing at least once, particularly if you have a special occasion to celebrate.

 

On the Road: Seattle

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With all the baby prep we have been doing during the past few months, the summer has just flown by. Needless to say, I’ve had less time to focus on blogging, which is why I’m just getting around to telling you about the last leg of our trip to the Pacific Northwest. Better late than never!

Anyway. Our last stop was Seattle, which is easily accessible from Victoria, via ferry or airplane. Since the first option can take three hours or more, we opted for the quick 25 minute plane ride instead. The day that we made the trip also happened to be our third wedding anniversary. Spending a bit of extra money on a plane ticket was worth it, since we were able to arrive with plenty of time left in the day to start exploring and enjoying the gorgeous weather.

Our first stop was the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum, which showcases a collection of work by internationally renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. It is located in the Seattle Center area, which  is home to several museums, theaters and other entertainment venues and the Space Needle, so you can easily spend a day in the area doing several different things if you want.

I can easily say that this is one of the most beautiful museums that I’ve ever visited. The vibrant colors,  grand scale of the works and the way that the space is organized—so that you feel like you can almost walk through the installations instead of just looking at them—made me feel like I was walking through someone’s crazy dream or an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

I’ll just let the photos (which I could not stop taking) speak for themselves.

blue chihuly 2

 

chihuly boats 2

chihuly flower ceiling

chihuly red and yellow

glass garden_space

glass house

 

blue glass garden

Regular adult admission is $19, but you can also buy a $26 ticket that allows you to visit twice in one day, so that you can view the exhibition during the day and night. We couldn’t take advantage of this because we had anniversary dinner plans, but I imagine that seeing the gardens, in particular, all lit up at nighttime is amazing.

After that, we headed up to Kerry Park to take some photos of the Seattle skyline. Getting to the park requires a climb up a pretty steep hill. Since I was carrying around the extra weight associated with growing a person, we decided to cheat and took the bus up to the top (but, we did walk back down!).

cary park

When doing the research for our trip, Chester came across Seattle Free Walking Tours (SFWT), a non-profit organization that operates on a “pay-what-you-wish” model. Jake, SFWT’s founder and our tour guide for the day, started the organization after taking a trip through Europe where tour guides frequently utilize this system. SFWT is sustained by tips and donations and although a minimum tip of $15 is suggested for the guide, you can certainly tip more or less, depending on your own assessment of how valuable the tour was.

We ended up taking two tours on our second day in the city–The Pike Place Market Experience and Seattle 101–and thought that they were more interesting and informative than some of the paid tours that we have taken in our travels. Jake was a funny and engaging guide who was clearly passionate about his city and wanted everyone else to love it too. He knew all of the major facts and lesser known tidbits about all of the sights included on the tours.

The Pike Place tour started bright and early at 9:30 a.m., which gave our group some time to have the Market almost all to ourselves for awhile.  The Market covers nearly nine acres and offers just about every kind of food and handmade craft imaginable. It was nice to have a guide to help us navigate through its winding alleyways and staircases, and of course to make sure we got to try plenty of samples along the way!

chester_starbucks

At the original Starbucks

market

Checking out the gum wall near the Market theater

Checking out the gum wall near the Market theater

Our next tour, Seattle 101, took us through the downtown corridor, to historic Pioneer Square and finally to the waterfront.

I pretended that this ferry was taking all the Grey's Anatomy people to work.

I pretended that this ferry was taking all the Grey’s Anatomy people to work.

skyline

For our last two days in town, we rented a car to explore some of the neighborhoods a little bit further out from the city center. Our first stop was Fremont, an offbeat neighborhood referred to by its residents as the “Center of the Universe.” It is home to vintage clothing and gift shops, bookstores and music stores and quirky public art, including the Fremont Troll, who lives under a bridge.

fremont

 

Getting up close and personal with the Fremont Troll

Getting up close and personal with the Fremont Troll

While we were in Fremont, we took a tour of the Theo Chocolate factory. Theo was the first organic and fair trade chocolate producer in North America and it was fascinating to learn the ins-and-outs of how cocoa beans are harvested, roasted and milled in amazing chocolate bars and other gourmet treats. A one-hour tour costs $7 per person and includes plenty of chocolate samples!

Suited up for the factory tour

Suited up for the factory tour

 

Chocolate making equipment

I would like a chocolate pipeline in my living room.

 

Next, it was on to Ballard, where we spent some time at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks and Gardens. The locks allow commercial vessels and recreational boats to pass through Lake Washington to Puget Sound, while keeping the fresh and salt water from mixing. It was a pretty cool process to see in action.

Boat exiting the lock

Boat about to exit the lock

Seattle’s food scene reminded me of Philly’s, in that it has an eclectic mix of offerings, from high-end restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs to hole-in-the-wall neighborhood favorites. Obviously, it’s been a few months so some of the precise details of what we ate are getting a bit hazy, but we got to enjoy several amazing meals at the following spots:

Tilth (1411 N. 45th Street) is a cozy farm-to-table restaurant, located in a remodeled craftsman home, where we decided to celebrate our anniversary. Executive chef and owner Maria Hines, a James Beard award winner, changes the menus with the seasons. Five or eight course tasting menus (including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options) are also available. Some of the highlights from our tasting included a refreshing English pea soup, the light-as-air ricotta gnudi in a lemon-parsley cream sauce, and the Wagyu beef, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with creamy farro.

Paseo, with locations in Fremont (4225 Fremont Avenue N) and Ballard (6226 Seaview Avenue NW) looks like little more than a shack from the outside, but it has quite the following among locals and tourists alike for its amazing Caribbean dishes. We climbed up Fremont Avenue, braved a 30 minute wait in line and had to pounce quickly to snag one of the four tables in the tiny space. It was totally worth it. Most of the well-deserved fuss is over Paseo’s sandwich offerings. Crusty French baguettes are stuffed to the point of bursting with tender, roasted meats, jalepenos, onions, lettuce and a creamy cilantro mayo. At around $8.50 each, this is one of the least expensive, most satisfying lunches we’ve had anywhere. Make sure to stop by an ATM beforehand, as the restaurant does not take credit cards, and grab some extra napkins before digging into your lunch!

The Book Bindery (198 Nickerson Street) is worth a stop, just because it is so beautifully designed. It’s housed in, you guessed it, a former book bindery that overlooks a canal. I’ve decided that when I have my dream home someday, it will include a library that looks just like this restaurant–white wainscotting and marble, soft grey paint and fabrics and huge bookcases filled with vintage books built into the walls. Sigh.

As if the interior design wasn’t enough, the food was outstanding and beautifully presented as well. The hearts of palm salad that I chose for an appetizer had every kind of spring vegetable imaginable, from fava beans to radishes to carrots (and a couple of more that I’m probably forgetting) for an interesting mix of flavors and textures. It was dressed simply, with just a squeeze of lemon, to keep things light. Good thing, too, because the cavatelli that I ordered as a main course was a much heartier dish. In addition to the pasta, it included a generous helping of wild mushrooms and was served in a foie gras emulsion. I’m not normally a fan of foie gras, but in this case, the rich, fatty flavor and silky texture was the perfect complement for this earthy dish.

Most of the time when we travel we grab a quick cup of coffee and a pastry at a cafe before starting out for the day. But, we had heard good things about breakfast at Toulouse Petit Kitchen and Lounge (601 Queen Anne Avenue N.), located right across from our hotel, so we decided to make time for a more leisurely breakfast on our last day in the city. The restaurant brings the flavors of New Orleans to the Pacific Northwest. Make sure to get an order of the beignets, which are served with a coffee infused anglaise sauce for dipping.

benigents

Chef Tom Douglas has built quite the empire in Seattle, and we ended up at three of his restaurants during our time there. First, we met my friend Nellie for lunch at Etta’s (2020 Western Avenue), his seafood restaurant near Pike Place Market. The shrimp roll–piled high with sweet bay shrimp on a buttery, toasted roll–was perfect after our morning spent walking around Seattle.

Next, up was pizza at Serious Pie (401 Westlake Avenue N or 316 Virginia Avenue). Pizza topping combinations ranged from the traditional margherita and mushroom varieties to the more unique, like the clam and pancetta pizza that Chester chose (and deemed a bit strange, in a good way). I liked that the crust was almost like a foccacia bread–chewy and on the thinner side, with lots of air bubbles to keep it light.

Our final meal of the trip was at Lola, which draws inspiration from all over the Mediterranean region, from North Africa to Greece. As usual, we found ourselves in a situation where we wanted to try everything on the menu, so we opted for the “Big Dinner” tasting menu instead. At $50 per person, this worked out to be less expensive than ordering a la carte and we got to try dishes from every section of the menu.

I could have made a meal out of the first course alone, which featured a selection of six different spreads and grilled pita (my favorites were the roasted sweet red pepper and the fava bean and garlic varieties). But, I paced myself so that I could enjoy the Greek salad, squid and chicken kababs, and the highlight of the meal–thinly sliced leg of lamb in a rich sauce. I felt bad that we could barely touch the loukamades–Greek donuts served in a honey sauce and topped with walnuts–for dessert! Next time!

So, that wraps up our trip! It’s crazy to think that when we go on our next adventure, we’ll be taking an extra person along with us. But, that won’t be until she can drag her own suitcase through the airport (I actually spotted a kid on this most recent trip with one of these and I’ll be getting ET one when the time comes!). Until then, I guess we’ll be sticking close to Philly!

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.