Weekend Adventures: Spruce Street Harbor Park

On weekend mornings, when B wakes up, we tell her that we are going to get ready to go on adventure. Sometimes, it’s a trip the park and Starbucks for a cake pop and caffeine fix. Other times, we take advantage of our memberships at the zoo or the Please Touch Museum (if the weather isn’t great). B is happy doing just about anything and Alice just goes with the flow. And, we all are a bit happier when we can get out of the house for awhile.

Luckily, this is also the time of year when the weather is changing and there are plenty of fun, kid-friendly things to take advantage of in the city. One such destination is Spruce Street Harbor Park, which recently re-opened for its third season along the Penn’s Landing Waterfront.

There are hammocks to lounge on, games to play and food options galore, including an outpost for Jose Garces’ Distrito, Kevin Sbraga’s Fat Ham, Franklin Fountain and Federal Donuts. A converted shipping container has been turned into a Boardwalk style arcade, complete with video games, Skeeball and a photo booth. On weekends, vendors from the Art Star and the Punk Rock Flea Market set up stands near the Columbus Monument for those who want to partake in a bit of outdoor shopping. Later in the season, the RiverRink will be transformed once again into an outdoor roller skating rink, which I would love to try out with B!

This past Saturday, we had a great time looking at the boats, eating fried chicken from Federal Donuts and playing with gigantic Legos at the park.

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How she usually spends most of our adventures.

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IMG_2875Actually awake, but pouting about it.

IMG_2882In addition to giant Legos, you can also play giant Jenga, chess or Baggo

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Our waterfront has long seemed like a long stretch of missed opportunities, so I love seeing the space transformed in this way. I think we’ll be spending a lot of time here this summer!

Christmas Light Tour

Big, sparkly Christmas light displays are my fave. Luckily, there are no shortage of them in and around the Philadelphia area. And, since taking in the lights is a pretty toddler friendly (and free!) activity, we’ve been doing a lot of it this season. Our first stop was the Franklin Square Electrical Spectacle, with our friends Richard and Louisa and their kids. Every 30 minutes, the park is illuminated by an elaborate light show, set to a soundtrack by the Philly POPS. There is plenty to do at the park keep everyone occupied, including a seasonal craft market, food/beverage tent and of course the carousel and mini golf, so I would definitely recommend adding this to your holiday to-do list (this year, it runs through New Year’s Eve). FS-24 FS-3

She was obsessed with the water in the fountain. She kept spinning in circles and saying “wa-wa”

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She started clapping as soon as the music started

Next, we headed to Peddler’s Village in Bucks County. You can get some of your shopping done while taking in more than one million lights that make up the outdoor display. PV-1

Killing time in the toy store, while we waited for the lights to come on.

PV-6 Our final stop was the Christmas Village in Love Park and new Dilworth Park outside of City Hall. CM-2 CM-6

B had fallen asleep in the car on the way there and was not too happy about being woken up from her nap, or about the crowds in the village

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We didn’t notice until going through the photos that these lights changed color

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She’s on the move, and she loved the big, open space…

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…and the steps. She would have gone up and down them all day. Not pictured: the meltdown that ensued when I picked her up to leave. That’s how I knew it was time to head home.

Where have you all been getting your Christmas light fix this year?

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.

 

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.

Lately: A Restaurant Roundup

I’m in a weird mood lately.

I’m tired and bored. But, strangely, I’m incredibly antsy at the same time. I can’t really seem to focus enough to get myself interested in anything. I’m going to call it a summer slump and I’m hoping that I will snap the heck out of it. Soon.

In the hopes of getting myself back on track, I present to you a round-up of all of the places I’ve  eaten recently, but haven’t gotten around to blogging about:

Zinc: This French bistro near Jefferson Hospital wasn’t really on my radar screen, but Chester and I decided to try it out before our last show of the season at the Walnut Street Theater a few weeks back and were pleasantly surprised by how good it was. I had a tasty salad with asparagus, poached egg, bits of crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce—kind of like breakfast for dinner—and a perfectly medium rare tuna dish. It’s the sister restaurant of Caribou Café, which I would also recommend for more casual fare or a light lunch.

Zama: When our friends from Chicago, Kristin and Scott, came to visit us for a long weekend and Kristin and I sent the boys off to a Phillies game and we had a spa/sushi evening. The menu at Zama, located in Rittenhouse Square, features more than 30 a la carte sashimi, as well as a variety of maki rolls. I couldn’t decide, so I got a sushi and maki combination, which included one of the best spicy tuna rolls I’ve ever had. Kristin got a roll that was a play on a Philly cheesesteak, featuring Japanese beef and provolone with spicy mayo and bibb lettuce wrapped in red pepper flaked soy paper. It’s a little pricier than the average sushi bar in the city, but the ingredients are definitely of such a high quality, so I would say that  it’s worth it!

Hundred Acres: Bridget came to spend two weeks in Philly and we took a fun trip up to New York with our moms and my aunt to see Evita (one of my favorites!). While we were there, we ate lunch at this farm-to-table spot in Soho. The menu changes frequently, but at the time we visited, there was a really nice mix of options for brunch, from pancakes and French toast, to salads and sandwiches. We both enjoyed our grilled cheese, with white cheddar, apple and pecans. The only thing that I didn’t really enjoy was the odd mix of club/semi-hardcore rap music that was playing. Not exactly what you associate with a casual brunch, right?

Zavino: Bridget came to have lunch with me in the city during her visit and we were both in the mood for pizza. I’ve been to this Midtown Village spot a couple of times before and really enjoy the pizzas here—the crust is not too thick, but not too thin either. I like the Kennett (a white pizza with mushrooms) and the ‘Stache (pistachio and pesto, topped with a generous helping of arugula. They get bonus points from me because all the pizzas can be made with a whole wheat crust and they serve their iced tea in Mason jars.

Ralph’s: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve eaten at Ralph’s, which is located in the Italian Market. It is reported to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the country that has been continuously owned by the same family and the second oldest Italian restaurant in the country. Ralph’s serves traditional, “red-gravy” Italian food. My most recent visit was with Bridget and her family, and we both got what we always get—the manicotti. I’ve tried other things here, but this is my favorite dish. Chester really likes the Linguine Pescatore, with shrimps, clams, mussels and crabmeat. Reservations are a must, because it’s pretty small—you’ll be sharing close personal space with your neighbors. I have to say though, I’m not a huge fan of the service, as it tends to be a bit brusque—bordering on rude. I’ll still keep coming back, though.

New Delhi: This past weekend was a million degrees, so naturally, that’s the best time to eat Indian food, right? Chester and I pulled up to our perennial favorite, Sitar India, only to find it closed (hopefully, it’s just for renovations). So, we headed a few blocks down to one of the other University City Indian buffet spots. Sitar may have some competition when/if it reopens. As much as I love Sitar, it serves the same thing every day, and it seems that New Delhi rotates their items on a daily basis. And, the samosas and the chicken tikka masala at New Delhi may be just a little bit more flavorful. Plus, they have gulub jaman for dessert.

FARMiCiA: This is a solid Sunday brunch option in Old City. It doesn’t have the over-the-top dishes or long lines of Sabrina’s or Green Eggs. It’s just good, normal eggs, pancakes, and French toast, with a few other more fun options like breakfast quesadillas and cheddar grits thrown in. I enjoyed my crab omelette, which was bursting with a flavorful crabmeat, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. And, because it’s owned by the same folks that own Metropolitan Bakery, so the carb products are pretty outstanding. Now that I think about it, I should have gotten some granola because Metropolitan’s granola is the best (even though it’s probably like $10 per bag at this point). Next time. The service was a little slow, but the staff was super friendly—even to the guy next to us who was being a tool and wanted to order the steak and eggs with bacon and sausage instead of steak, over easy eggs instead of scrambled, and a side of spinach instead of potatoes. Right…

So, if you were worried that my summer slump was affecting my eating habits, never fear. It would seem that that’s the only thing I’ve been doing.

Is anyone else in a summer slump? What are you doing to cope with it?

Restaurant Review: Cochon for Brunch

Yesterday, I woke up with a major craving for pancakes and convinced Chester that we needed to go to the diner. Somehow, he interpreted pancakes as “pork” and suggested that we go to Cochon.

You might remember that we fell in love with Cochon after having dinner there back in December.  Even prior to that, we had heard rave reviews about its brunch while waiting for a table at Morning Glory awhile back. So, despite this seemingly complete disconnect in our breakfast preferences, it only took me about three seconds to totally forget that I had been craving carbs and maple syrup.

I made a reservation through Open Table (mostly because I like to accumulate the points), but when we arrived it was clear that this is probably the only South Philly brunch establishment where reservations are not a must and there most likely will not be a wait for a table. This absolutely is not a reflection on the food, but more likely a function of the fact that the menu appeals to a much narrower segment of the population—namely, those who love pork and pork products.. Even the French toast is infused with pork (andouille sausage, to be exact).

Sure, you’ll find a crab frittata in entrée list and pancakes as a side order option. But, the real reason to go is dishes like these:

The Eggs Cochon (on the top), includes slow roasted pork shoulder that comes apart with a fork, just like pulled pork. The runny yolks from two poached eggs and a cheesy Mornay sauce are the perfect complement to a crumbly biscuit, studded with bits of cheddar and bacon. Or, there’s the tender Berkshire ham chop, which is smoked and topped with a sweet, maple-citrus syrup. And, since Cochon is BYOB, you can enhance your food coma if you want by bringing some vodka to add to the restaurant’s Bloody Mary mixes or some champagne to add to its freshly squeezed orange juice.

It’s not health food by any stretch of the imagination and it will leave you feeling like you could sleep for days afterward. That’s why it’s the perfect Sunday brunch. Or, the cure for the world’s worst hangover. In short, for a lazy day, Cochon is the breakfast of champions.

Note: Cochon is cash-only

Restaurant Review: Ela

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Ela in Queen Village has been on my list of restaurants to visit since its since opening late last year. The restaurant is a partnership venture between Jason Cichonski (formerly of LaCroix) and Chip Roman (owner of the much buzzed about Mica and Blackfish, which I still have yet to try).

Fish is a predominant ingredient throughout the menu, but this is by no means just a seafood restaurant. The menu is an eclectic mix of dishes, ingredients and flavors, which run the gamut from American to Asian to Spanish and everything in between. At first glance, it all seems a bit wacky. But, the ability to take seemingly disparate ingredients and make them into inventive dishes is how Cichonski has started to make a name for himself (at 27, he’s still fairly early on in his career).

Chester started out with the oysters. I don’t touch oysters, ever, but he enjoyed them as they were fresh, sweet and briny. They were noted on the menu as having dill pickle and bacon, but he found these flavors to be pretty subtle.

I, in the meantime, had the best dish of the night—the diver scallop noodles, one of Cichonski’s signature dishes. Now, this wasn’t just scallops served over pasta. The scallops themselves were actually shaved into long, thick strands, so that they resembled noodle. The shellfish had a unique ability to hold on to the rich peanut sauce as though it was a starchy Thai noodle. Cool strands of sweet green papaya were a nice complement to the slightly salty, spicy sauce.

This was one of the most creative, memorable dishes I have had in awhile and for a moment, I considered ordering a second helping. But then the gnocchi Chester ordered for his second course arrived and we ended up sharing that. The tiny melt-in-your-mouth dumplings were served in a foamy, smoked gouda cheese sauce, and topped with hazelnuts and sweet dates. This dish was a nice mix of sweet, savory and creamy flavors that worked well together.

For the main course, I had the halibut, which was served on top of homemade longatelli (short, thick pasta noodles) and sweet English peas. The fish was fresh, simply seared and topped with a crunchy mustard-seed cracker. I don’t like my fish swimming in sauce, but since halibut is a fish that takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in, it definitely could have benefited from more another spoonful of the accompanying hearty morel mushroom sauce to enhance its flavor. Chester had the pork belly. He noted that it was a bit tough, especially at the top layer, although the rest of the portion was very tender and flavorful.

For dessert, we shared the hot chocolate chip cookie dough. With a name like that, I expected something pretty amazing, but it was just okay. The “dough” was actually a sweet, brown sugar based sauce that was then poured over chunks of bananas browned in butter, dark chocolate shavings and vanilla custard. It was like a deconstructed version of chocolate chip cookies and milk, but the combination of ingredients was just a bit too sweet.

Although the bar menu is diverse and well-thought out (the cocktails, in particular are creative combinations with fun names, like “Last Chance to Lose Your Keys,” to match), drinks are pricey. For example, wine prices hover around $15 a glass. So, although the food is priced appropriately relative to portion size, a couple of drinks will but add a substantial amount on to your bill.

The service itself was attentive throughout the evening, but the pacing was a bit fast for our taste. We were in an out in about an hour and 15 minutes. Furthermore, some of the dishes arrived from the kitchen only lukewarm, making us thing that everything had been prepped way in advance (perhaps pork belly was a bit tough from sitting out a bit?). Given the fact that it wasn’t overly crowded and fairly easy to get an 8 p.m. reservation on a Friday evening, I don’t quite understand why there needed to turn over the tables quickly.

This semi-emptiness also makes me wonder what kind of longevity it will have in the area. Queen Village is still pretty much just a residential neighborhood and not really a dining destination. So, if you live in the area and are looking for after-work dinner options, I don’t know if the food and price tag at Ela will really fill that need.

On the other hand, though, the relative ease of getting a table can give you the chance to check out a talented chef before he becomes really famous and moves on to a place at which it will be impossible to score a table for months. Because, overall, dinner at Ela was an interesting experience and I can’t think of anyplace I’ve been to recently with such a creative approach. Although it fell a bit short in some areas, with a few tweaks to some dishes and to the pacing of the service, it definitely has the potential to be outstanding.

 

Restaurant Review: 943 (CLOSED)

I have a secret desire to be an Extreme Couponer. Sadly, it will never happen. Although I love saving money, I don’t have the patience, organization and/or math skills to make it work. I faithfully clip the coupons that get dropped off with all of the circulars on my doorstep every week and I get pretty excited when the machines at the cash registers give them to me. But most of the time, I forget my sparkly little coupon wallet at home when we go to the supermarket and by the time I get around to sorting through it again, most of my coupons have expired.

This poor track record with couponing is why I don’t let myself purchase Groupons that often either (side note—the deals for things like dental work and Botox freak me out. Those just seem like things worth paying full price for, you know what I mean?). Recently though, friends of ours had a Groupon for 943, a BYOB located in the Italian Market area that they knew that they weren’t getting around to using. Since I hate to see a good deal go to waste, I purchased it from them.

Although we had heard mixed reviews about the restaurant, Chester and I are always willing to try out a new place, especially if it’s in our neighborhood. We managed to sneak in a visit just a week before the deal was due to expire.

Since there isn’t much foot traffic in the Italian Market area after all of the businesses close for the day, I wasn’t surprised to see that it wasn’t too crowded when we visited on a Saturday night. It’s located in a very large storefront, but it’s sparsely and simply furnished. That is kind of a nice change of pace since so many restaurants in the area are quite tiny and loud and have you sharing close personal space with your neighbors.

The chef grew up in an Argentinean-Italian home and the menu reflects the homestyle cooking of his family. The selection of starters all sounded good, so we had a hard time narrowing down what we wanted to try. So, we ordered a few to share.

Our favorite was the grilled octopus. The octopus was perfectly cooked and tender and served in a saffron and fennel infused-broth and topped with fava beans. It reminded us of octopus dishes that we had on our honeymoon in Spain. For the price of the dish, though, there definitely could have been more octopus included in it.

Chester also really enjoyed the house-made sausage plate, which featured a combination of spicy Argentinean and blood sausage. I was fine with the first selection because it tasted like what I might have with Sunday gravy. I just cannot get past the spongey texture and a gamey taste of blood sausage, though.

The empanada sampler—which included beef, ham and cheese and chicken varieties–was also a highlight. The fillings were all well seasoned and the wrappers weren’t at all greasy. It seemed like maybe they had been prepared in advance, but they held up well even though they sat out on the table for awhile as we worked our way through the dishes.

The thick cut papas fritas, had a generous helping of parsley, garlic and salt that made them slightly addictive. The menu advertised them as having a broken fried egg, but our version seemed to have bits of scrambled egg sprinkled over the top. I think a fried egg with a runny yolk would definitely have added a bit more to the dish.

Finally, we shared one of the appetizer specials, the provoletta—a circle of lightly grilled provolone cheese, drizzled in olive oil and topped with bits of chorizo. Can you go wrong with any of those ingredients? No, I don’t think you can.

Although we felt like the small plates added up to a pretty substantial meal, we also decided to share one of the entrée selections—the grilled short rib. I’ve only ever had braised short ribs and this preparation didn’t seem to give the meat the same rich flavor as I’m used too. It reminded me of eating a steak, but at least it was well seasoned and pretty tender.

Overall, we ended up being pleasantly surprised by our experience at 943. I don’t know if I would go rushing back, but I was glad that I had the Groupon as an excuse to bump it up on my list of places to visit.

If you go, keep in mind that it’s cash only and you’ll probably want to grab a bottle of wine before leaving your house, because there is not a wine and spirits store in close proximity. Even if you don’t go for a full meal, it would be a good casual place to have a few glasses of wine and some snacks with a group of friends.

Restaurant Review: Rex 1516

South Street West is building up quite a nice little Restaurant Row, if you ask me. Sometimes, we drive that way on the commute home for work and have put quite a few places on our “to visit” list. I’m even curious about the random little place that’s just called “Indian Restaurant.” You’ve got to love a place that just tells it like it is, right?

Our most recent discovery of what makes this neighborhood worth a visit is Rex 1516, which serves up Southern-inspired cuisine. Although it’s only been open about two months, it seems that many others have already discovered it, as all the tables and the bar area were completely full on our Friday night visit.

The restaurant has a casual, inviting vibe (I loved the fact that they had old Alfred Hitchcock movies playing on the television over the bar area) with simple décor and a menu of comfort foods to match. At first glance, the dishes might seem pretty basic—mac-and-cheese, spinach salad, steak, and the like. But, this is a great example of how a skilled chef can take a few simple ingredients and bring them together in some truly memorable dishes.

My first course was the mac-and-cheese and I think I would rank it among one of the best that I have ever had at a restaurant. Gruyere, fontina and swiss cheeses made for a rich flavor combination and the right amount of gooiness—I like when you pull your fork away from the dish and get those strands of cheese that just don’t want to let go. The addition of roasted tomatoes and cubes of ham added to the complexity of the flavors and kept the cheesiness from becoming totally overwhelming. The perfectly al dente elbow macaroni and crunchy bread crumbs made for the right texture. I tried not to eat the whole thing. I failed.

Chester opted for the crawfish pot pie. While the pie crust on top was flaky and buttery, the crust that was molded inside the dish to hold the filling was a bit too thick and hard to eat. That didn’t really matter to us though, because the filling was pretty amazing on its own, due to the combination of rice, cheese, red peppers, onions and mushrooms, sizable chunks of the fish and a healthy does of spiciness.

For an entrée, I had the pork loin, stuffed with cornbread & sausage stuffing. I’m always a bit hesitant to order pork at a restaurant, because more often than not, it seems to come out of the kitchen as dry as a bone and difficult to chew. Not the case at all here, since it’s brined for a few days before being prepared. It was tender enough to cut through with a fork and the morel mushroom sauce added a rich, earthy flavor. It was accompanied by sweet potatoes, mashed with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. I wanted to eat them all, but I figured that I had already consumed enough carbs as a result of my mac-and-cheese overdose.

Chester chose the ribeye. It was cooked to a tender, perfect medium-rare, in spite of the fact that since it was a very thin cut, it could have easily been overcooked and dry. It was simply seasoned with just salt and pepper (which let the flavor of the meat really come through) and topped with lightly fried onions/shallots. There was a small ramekin of a dark, onion-based sauce provided, but the steak was juicy enough on its own that it didn’t really need it. Chester thought that the creamed spinach was a bit too salty, but gave it points for not being overly soupy.

Although we were approaching uncomfortably full (in a good way—kind of like how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner) status, we couldn’t resist trying out the honey brioche bread pudding for dessert. We would have liked there to be a bit more of the Southern Comfort glaze to soak into the thick slab of bread, but the addition of figs and molasses flavored whipped cream provided an unexpectedly good flavor combination (and I’m not even a huge fan of figs).

Rex also has a pretty robust wine, beer and cocktail menu. Chester chose a red wine and I enjoyed the lime rickey, a refreshing combination of gin, bitters, lime and club soda that was a nice complement to a heavy meal.

Regis Jansen, the executive chef, came out of the kitchen and chatted with us after our meal. He mentioned that he grew up Alabama, learning to cook with his mom, and that gave him his passion for food and cooking. He has been in Philly for the last seven years and after stints at several area restaurants, he teamed up with the owners (who also own Jet Wine Bar across the street) and started working on the concept for Rex.

We commented on the fact that the menu seemed a bit heavy, especially as we are heading into the warmer months. Regis noted that the opening had been slated for the winter—which happens to be his favorite season to cook for—but there were a few delays that pushed it back. They decided to launch the restaurant with the existing menu, but there are plans to change things up on a seasonal basis.

Service was also friendly and attentive throughout the meal. It did seem like it took awhile for food to come out to our table, but we didn’t really mind because this lag provided a nice break between the substantial courses. The only real drawback for me was that the restaurant was pretty loud—granted, we were seated right near the bar and a super-chatty bachelorette party. But, when the food is this good, I’m sure the noise level is going to be the norm for a long time to come.

Overall, Rex 1516 is definitely worth a visit. In addition to dinner, the restaurant also serves lunch and brunch on the weekends. I personally can’t wait to return and see what will be on the menu for the summer months.

Restaurant Review: City Tavern

We are still working our way through our supply of $50 gift cards from the Restaurant Week contest and noticed that the card from City Tavern was due to expire on April 1. This restaurant has never really been high on our list of places to go, but we figured it would be silly to waste the card. So, we ended up there for dinner before catching a show at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater last weekend.

The City Tavern was constructed in the 1770s and during the period of the American Revolution, it was the social and economic center of the city. It served as the unofficial meeting place of the Continental Congress and hosting the likes of George Washington and John Adams.

The current chef, Walter Staib (if you live in the area, you may recognize him from the show “A Taste of History” on PBS) maintains some of the customs, china and glassware and food of that time period. This includes having the staff dress like “colonials.” So awkward. Even when I’m walking down the street in the historic district, I have to stifle my laughter when I see the Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin impersonators. I almost lost it when the hostess referred to the restrooms as “the necessaries.” Yes, I’m five years old.

I had assumed the menu would be filled with bizarre sounding things, like pheasant or squab, and that I wouldn’t find anything that sounded appealing. There are indeed those kinds of dishes on offer, but there are also pretty standard meat and fish dishes as well. I was surprised to see fried tofu on the menu, but it turns out that Ben Franklin had a recipe for it as far back as 1770s. That Ben really was a trendsetter.

The restaurant makes all of its bread and pastries in-house, and our server brought out three different kinds for us while we were looking over the menu. I thought they were all a bit on the dry side. I don’t remember the specifics of all of them, except for the sweet potato and pecan biscuits that were supposedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite. Those ended up being our favorite, too.

I decided I wanted something light for an appetizer, so I chose the tomato and onion salad, which consisted of four slices of beefsteak tomato, topped with bits of red onion and a light vinegrette dressing. The tomatoes were sweeter than I expected, but it was pretty standard, really.  Chester had the broiled duck and pork sausage. Although it was tasty, it came out of the kitchen pretty quickly and was just warm. We suspected that it been cooked ahead of time and sat around for a bit.

For an entrée, I had the trout. It was pan-seared, which gave it a crispy coating, and topped with several different sauces, including brown butter, lemon, and Bearnaise. This sounds like a lot, but it actually wasn’t overly dressed. Chester had the steak and shrimp. The steak was cooked to medium rare, but it lacked a lot of the intense flavor that you find in a traditional steakhouse steak. The mashed potatoes that accompanied the dish were pretty dry.

Our server brought around a dessert tray with a variety of options, including apple cobbler (served with Bassett’s ice cream) and crème brulee, that all looked delicious. We ended up skipping dessert, though because the theater is located within walking distance of a Capogiro and that was our plan for after the show!

We ended up at the restaurant pretty early in the evening (about 5 p.m.) because we had to get across town for the show, and it was already pretty filled with the touristy crowd and families with children. The service was a little bit uneven at points, with the appetizers coming out very quickly and then the entrees lagging a bit.

All in all, the food was just average. I guess if you want to have the full historic experience, it’s a cool place to go, but it goes without saying that there are other places in the city that I would recommend to visitors who really want to see what Philly has to offer.