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 Week Round-up

Food is pretty much the only thing that makes winter bearable, so it’s helpful that Center City District schedules one of its twice-yearly Restaurant Weeks for late January/early February. I hit three different spots for this season’s festivities, all of which are definitely worth a visit at any time of the year.

Russet

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The very name of this restaurant conjures expectations of simple, comforting foods and that’s exactly what Chester and I found on the menu for dinner on a chilly Friday evening.

A relatively new addition to the city’s BYO scene, Russet features farm-to-table dishes with French and Italian twists. It’s location in an old brownstone on Spruce Street, outfitted by the owners (a husband and wife team) with vintage tchotchkes and furniture and tables made of recycled wood, adds to the homey feel. There is a lot of attention to detail given to the menu, right down to rustic, fresh baked breads (lemon-oatmeal on the night we visited) and house made sodas.

Some of the highlights from our visit included melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with crispy pancetta and a sweet gorgonzola sauce, halibut in a buttery saffron sauce and a rich, chocolate budino with tart cranberries. However, the menu changes daily to take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients, so you might find different options when you go. Featured ingredients and daily menus are posted on the restaurant’s website so that you can get an idea of what to expect.

Lacroix

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A group of co-workers and I took advantage of the $20 lunch menu at this swanky French restaurant in the Rittenhouse Hotel. This is probably one of the best deals around for Restaurant Week, as I imagine that lunch on a normal day would probably set you back a bit more.

The restaurant was featuring a handful of dishes from their regular menu, including two kinds of salads, a soup, duck, pasta and scallops. I can vouch for the Caesar salad, (which was one of the prettiest that I have ever had), with grilled Romaine, bits of preserved lemon and a paper thin Parmesan cracker as well as the light-as-air hand-rolled tagliatelle pasta, topped with poached egg and a generous helping of earthy truffles. A trio of miniature desserts, including a cinnamon cream puff, blueberry tart and chocolate mango cake were the perfect finish to the meal.

Bistro 7

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I hadn’t even heard of this French BYOB in Old City before Chester and our friends Matt and Lara decided to try it out on a Friday night double date. The elegant and simple ambience and the food made this one of the best restaurants that I’ve tried in awhile.

Gnocchi seems to be a popular appetizer at the moment. Bistro 7‘s version was served in a sage brown butter sauce and topped with bits of crispy shallots and tender butternut squash. The gnocchi were light and delicious and the ingredients were perfect for the winter time, but the dish was just a little bit too salty for my taste. The short rib entree, on the other hand, was just perfect. The two generous pieces of beef braised in red wine and rosemary came apart easily with a fork. I also really enjoyed Chester’s lamb tagine. The meat was seasoned with a perfect combination of flavors, including cinnamon and nutmeg.

Many people complain that menus and service can be hit-or-miss during Restaurant Week. But, in doing my research, it seemed that most restaurants were offering really interesting menus this time around (i.e dishes directly from or similar to their everyday menus so that you could really get a taste of what the restaurant was all about) and the service and experience at all of the places I visited was top notch. Hopefully, restaurants have discovered that many people, like me, use Restaurant Week to discover new favorite places and this trend will continue in the future.

While Center City Restaurant Week is over, I was excited to learn that East Passyunk Avenue is set to host its first Restaurant Week from February 24 through March 2. This neighborhood has become a restaurant mecca and many of the old favorites and new hot spots are participating, with menus ranging from $15 to $35. Make your reservations as soon as you can; since some of these venues are tiny, tables are sure to be snapped up quickly!

Restaurant Review: Garces Trading Company

I was pretty excited when Bridget told me last week that she and Bill were planning a weekend trip to Philly. It seemed like months had gone by since our Labor Day excursion to Newport, so I was glad that we were able to coordinate a visit over dinner during their trip.

I was even more excited when Bridget reminded me that Restaurant Week, in which dozens of Center City restaurants feature lunches and dinners for $20 and $35 respectively, was beginning. I had made a couple of reservations at the end of August, but kind of forgot about them. Until my iPhone reminds me that I need to be somewhere, I rarely remember the dates for things.

We chose to meet at Garces Trading Company, the gourmet market/restaurant in Jose Garces’ vast empire. I had been there for dinner when it first opened a couple of years ago and really loved the food and the concept. In addition to a vast selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie, decadent sweets, and signature olive oils, vinegars and coffees, GTC is home to the first state-operated liquor store to be located in a market-café. So, you can get everything checked off your list for a fancy dinner party at home or you can have a seat in the restaurant and let someone else do the cooking for you.

Dining and market spaces at Garces Trading Company

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Although the in-house wine boutique features an extensive collection, if you choose to bring your own wine the $10 corkage fee is waived for the first bottle. The shop was closed during our visit since it was a Sunday, so I didn’t have a chance to check pricing. But, bringing our own saved us a few bucks over ordering by the glass (and, it helped that our server kindly waived the corkage fee for our second bottle which was of the screw-top variety).

GTC’s Restaurant Week menu featured four-courses as opposed to the standard three. To start, Bill and Chester both enjoyed the rich, salty pork rilletes. Bridget and I both selected the cheese plate, which featured a mild, Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, complimented by lavender truffle honey. The honey was definitely the star of the show. When I ran out of cheese, I just spread it on bread. I’ll definitely be stopping back soon to grab a jar to keep at home.

I remembered that the pizza was one of the highlights of my first visit to GTC so I was glad to see the Italian sausage and Margherita varities listed among the second course options. However, they actually were more like the flatbread served at Distrito than the Chicago-style deep dish I remembered from my first visit. But, they were delicious all the same. The dough is made with duck fat, which gives it a chewy texture. There was minimal cheese, which let the other flavors—tomato, fennel and olive—shine. Chester also shared a few spoonfuls of the Salmorejo, a cold soup that has the refreshing flavor of gazpacho, but a thicker texture due to the addition of day-old bread that is blended into the tomato, olive oil and garlic puree.

For my third course, I briefly considered the scallops before settling on fusilli carbonara. Long strands of homemade pasta were cooked to a perfect al dente and topped with a runny poached egg, plenty of cheese, peas and crispy bits of bacon. It didn’t have as much cream as I’m used to in a carbonara, but I didn’t really miss that in light of all of the other ingredients. I also tried some of Chester’s roasted duck. As is pretty standard when he orders something cooked medium rare, it came out closer to well done. Still, it was pretty tender and flavorful and paired well with the slightly tart apple broth that accompanied it.

There were two options for dessert, so Chester and I chose one of each to share. I preferred my pick—a layered concoction of flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and salted butterscotch pudding dusted with espresso powder to Chester’s French 77, an elderflower and lemon panna cotta, topped with strawberries and half of a strawberry macaron. The panna cotta itself was tart and creamy, but the dessert lost points due to the fact that the macaron was a bit stale.

Overall, GTC was a good Restaurant Week experience. Many of the restaurant’s signature items were available and the extra course was a nice bonus. Service was friendly and didn’t feel rushed at all.

We still have a few more reservations lined up for Restaurant Week, which continues through October 12 (with a break on October 6). If you are still looking for some recommendations of where to go, Foobooz has a great guide, which allows you to narrow down your restaurants options based on a variety of criteria, including BYOs, vegetarian friendly options and restaurants offering additional courses.

Restaurant Review: Mercato

For our second Restaurant Week outing, we headed to Mercato in the Washington Square neighborhood. Located in what used to be a “corner store” (as we say in South Philly), the restaurant is a cash-only, BYOB, featuring a regularly changing menu of contemporary takes on traditional Italian dishes.

The entire menu was available at the $35 Restaurant Week pricing, so there were plenty of options to choose from. Additionally, there was a separate menu featuring Italian meats, cheeses and a selection of olive oils, which was available to choose from as a substitute for a first course.

For an appetizer, I ordered the roasted portabella, which was topped with pecorino cheese and wrapped in a puff pastry. It was tasty, but there was way more pastry than filling, which was somewhat disappointing. It was accompanied by an arugula salad,  topped with a simple, citrus/thyme dressing and pine nuts. Chester had the whole grilled artichoke, which was also just so-so. It was on the small side and kind of fibrous, instead of meaty and tender. I also didn’t enjoy the smoky flavor, although it was better when dipped in the side of citrus aioli.

All in all, we were a bit underwhelmed by our first courses, and I became a bit nervous that the rest of the meal would be a disappointment as well. Luckily, things did improve from there.

For an entrée, I had the short rib ragu, with gnocchi, broccoli rabe and locatelli. Although the pasta was billed as ricotta gnocchi, they didn’t really have that much of a flavor and were a bit more dense than some other versions that I have had. But, I was able to overlook that since the ragu was exceptional. The locatelli melted slightly over the dish and its sharp flavor  complemented the earthy, red-wine infused sauce well. The short ribs were perfectly prepared and came apart easily with a fork. Chester’s veal cutlets were prepared in a simple white wine sauce, but were tender and flavorful. There were plenty of veggies on the dish as well–a topping of roasted red peppers, olives and spinach, and sides of asparagus and roasted potatoes–which I liked.

For dessert, I had the chocolate cake, with a warm, liquid center that reminded me of melted Nutella. A scoop of vanilla ice cream minimized some of the richness. Even Chester enjoyed dessert—a very light, marscapone cheesecake with walnut shortbread crumbs sprinkled on top.

With the exception of pre-theater, holiday, and Restaurant Week dinners, Mercato normally does not take reservations. And, from what I have read, the tiny space tends to fill up very quickly on regular business days. Just be aware that if you do make a reservation during one of these times, you will need to provide a credit card to hold the spot, and will be charged $25 per person in your party if you fail to cancel.

Mercato was definitely one of the most cramped and noisiest places I’ve been to in awhile. And, since we were seated in a corner table right near the kitchen, it was quite warm. I was definitely ready to leave by the end of the meal. Although I enjoyed the food and the portions were generous, it wasn’t so spectacular that I would feel compelled to go back again and brave a two hour wait for a table.

Restaurant Review: Twenty Manning Grill

When I last visited Twenty Manning several years ago, it was pretty disappointing. At the time, they had a weird, kind of Asian-inspired menu going on. I remember getting “vegetable lasagna,” which consisted of a few pieces of zucchini, squash, and eggplant cut into circles and stacked on top of each other and topped with soy flavored tomato broth. I’m sure I was probably hungry again 15 minutes later, and, needless to say, I wasn’t in a rush to return.

However, the restaurant was recently re-branded as Twenty Manning Grill and the menu given an overhaul to focus on more classic fare (including fish, beef, pork, and fowl, as the flag outside says) and I decided that I wouldn’t mind giving it another chance. So, Chester and I decided to check it out for Restaurant Week last night.

As I have noted before, some people complain about Restaurant Week because restaurants often offer a limited menu of their least expensive dishes and service can be rushed. Although this probably helps restaurants contain their costs and maximize profits, it doesn’t give diners a true flavor for what a restaurant is all about, so that they might be enticed to return for non-promotional pricing. Twenty Manning takes the right approach to Restaurant Week, in my opinion, by offering a lot of menu options to choose from, generous portions and service that is attentive without being rushed.

It was cold and windy last night and my first course of roasted tomato bisque warmed me up right away. It had just the right amount of acidity and salt, as well as a great texture (it wasn’t totally smooth, but didn’t have huge chunks of tomato in it either) which was enhanced by the addition of bits of garlic crostini, topped with shaved locatelli. Chester, meanwhile opted for something that tasted more like summer—the scallop ceviche. The acid from the citrus was not overwhelming and the ratio of avocado, scallop and jalapeno was perfect, so that you got a bit of each ingredient in each bite. It was accompanied by shrimp chips. I thought they were weird, but Chester liked them because 1) shrimp chips are one of his favorite snacks and 2) he thought they were chicharróns at first because they were so crunchy and heavily fried.

I debated between a couple of different entrees on the menu, but decided on the pork chop, mostly because it came with seared brussel sprouts. The sprouts were simply prepared with a bit of salt just the way I like them—but the maple brined pork chop was dry and a bit tough. The accompanying creamy gorgonzola sauce and sweet, honeyed figs helped a bit, and, the closer I got to the bone, the juicier the meat became. Chester suggested that maybe it had just needed to settle a bit in the kitchen before being served. It wasn’t terrible, but I was a bit disappointed and became even more so after I tried Chester’s bison burger. It was slightly gamey, tender and juicy (which was unexpected since bison is a fairly lean meat). The standard toppings of lettuce, tomato, and red onion were included, but the grilled vegetables on top were a nice touch. It came with a huge pile of thin, crunchy fries, which were lovely on their own, but even better dipped in the melted gorgonzola sauce on my own plate. I know what I’m getting next time around.

Dessert was a sampler plate of three miniature pastries including a chocolate soufflé cake, cheesecake square and strawberry strudel. The first two were tasty but nothing special and the strudel was pretty lackluster at best—like an Entenmann’s pastry that had been left out too long. I would have much rather had the half-baked Toll House cookie and vanilla ice cream from the regular menu.

Like its sister restaurant, Audrey Claire which is located just down the street, Twenty Manning’s dishes are simple and use seasonal ingredients. However, it is not a BYOB and accepts credit cards. The cozy glow from the candles on each table, spacious bar area, which includes a TV and comfy banquette seating, gives it a more casual, relaxed feel. While Audrey Claire is a great option for a sit down dinner, Twenty Manning could be a great spot for drinks and appetizers after work.

Although the food wasn’t perfect, I was pleasantly surprised by the improvements that had been made since the last time I visited, and I would definitely go back again.

Restaurant Review: Bellini Grill

When Center City District hosts its Restaurant Week (s), the participating restaurants bring a card along with your check so that you can submit your contact information for their mailing list, and a chance to win 52, $50 gift certificates. Well, Chester won (I, however, want partial credit for this good fortune, since I filled out the card for him)! He’s just lucky that way. I, on the other hand, can’t even win a free ticket on one of those lottery scratch-offs.

Needless to say, we’ll be eating pretty well and I’ll have more that enough options to choose from to come up with blog posts for the foreseeable future. Thank you Center City District!

Tonight, my mom and aunt were in Center City to do some Christmas shopping, so  I met up with them for dinner at Bellini Grill, an Italian BYOB in the Rittenhouse Square area, after work. We have been there before and have always have enjoyed the food. And, as another plus, it just so happened to be included in the bag o’ gift certificates that we received a couple of weeks back.

Bellini Grill is a casual, Italian BYOB in the Rittenhouse Square area. The menu features traditional favorites at prices that are very reasonable for the neighborhood in which it’s located. The outside of the place is pretty nondescript and the interior is reminiscent of an Olive Garden (the painted ceilings are a bit ridiculous. And, there’s a creepy baby up there), but don’t let this deter you as the food and the service are both pretty solid.

On this visit, we started off by sharing the mussels in white sauce, which were tender and fresh. The broth was so good that we all couldn’t resist soaking it up with bread. Although I’ve had chicken or fish dishes on some visits, the homemade pasta is really Bellini’s specialty. I like that it can be ordered in a whole wheat version. Today, I had the thinnest cappelini ever, which was served in a light tomato sauce with a generous helping of crabmeat.

In some of the reviews I’ve read, people complain that the staff was rude and rushed them out of the place. I have never found this to be the case, and have always thought that the servers and the owner (who always seems to be there) are warm, welcoming, and attentive. However, I’ve also noticed that these reviews come from visitors who were dining with very large parties (12 people or more); since the restaurant and kitchen are pretty small, I could see there being some issues with bigger groups.

This is Philadelphia, and you’ll probably find more outstanding Italian food somewhere else, but Bellini can always be counted on for a consistently satisfying experience. And,  it’s also a good place to keep in mind if you are in need of a quick bite before heading to a show at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music.

 

Restaurant Review: Meritage

We had one last hurrah for Restaurant Week, this past Friday evening, with dinner at Meritage Restaurant and Wine Bar, located a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. This was my favorite of the four places that I visited during the last two weeks.

Anne Coll, the executive chef, spent time at the now closed Susanna Foo (which, sadly, I never got to visit), and has created a menu at Meritage that blends French techniques with Asian flavors. The menu changes seasonally, and features ingredients that are sourced by the chef herself from local farms and vendors.

The vibe of the restaurant is casual and relaxed. The bar area at the front was packed when we arrived. Judging from the laughter and banter between the bar patrons and the staff, I got the sense that this is a neighborhood hangout. I liked that the dining room is located towards the back of the restaurant, which separates it from the bar area and minimizes the noise. It was a warm, inviting, tiny space, and reminded me of some of the South Philly restaurants that are located in old houses.

There is an extensive selection of wines by the bottle (most under $50) and the glass (all about $10). If you are the kind of person that likes to pair a different wine with each dish, there is no shortage of options. We stuck to the basics with a Cabernet for Chester and a Chenin Blanc for me.

Meritage’s Restaurant Week menu was very impressive. Sometimes, restaurants eliminate the pricier (to keep the costs to $35) or more labor intensive items on the menus during these two weeks. This wasn’t the case at Meritage, where foie gras, scallops, escargot, and other high end ingredients were showcased prominently throughout the menu.

I started with the roasted butternut squash soup, with ginger and apples. The soup itself was thick and velvety, with a slightly nutty flavor. There were bits of apple in each bite, and it was topped with a crispy shrimp fried wonton—I would have eaten a whole plate of those on their own and I don’t even like shrimp that much. Chester, meanwhile, enjoyed the red wine braised escargot. They had already been removed from the shell and they didn’t have the same briny flavor as the ones we sampled on vacation this summer. But they were prepared so that they were perfectly tender, and served with a flavorful garlic puree that brought back memories of France.

For an entrée, I ordered the seared mahi mahi, which was accompanied by a lemongrass beurre blanc. The fish itself was well seasoned and tender, and wasn’t swimming in the rich, flavorful sauce (Audrey Claire take note). I liked that I could dip the fish in the sauce, kind of like how I like to eat my salads with the dressing on the side. The fish was served with a fricassee of white corn, summer squash, and herbs. Chester has the red wine braised beef short ribs, with smashed new potatoes, button mushrooms, and baby carrots. The beef was well seasoned, and like the fish, wasn’t so overly sauced that the taste of the meat was obscured.

Finally, I had the chocolate peanut butter bomb for dessert. This was a smooth peanut butter mousse—that looked heavy, but was actually surprisingly light—enrobed in a chocolate shell. It was a little difficult to crack it open and eat it with a spoon, and I had to be careful that I didn’t send it flying across the room. It was served with a side of current jam and a creamy, slightly caramelized meringue. Chester had the pot de crème, which was served with a homemade chocolate dipped biscotti. The biscotti was a little bland, in my opinion, but the pot de crème, with a combination of milk chocolate and cinnamon was delicious.

Service was attentive throughout the evening, but it was just a tad too fast for my liking. We were in and out in just about an hour, and I would have liked to linger just a little bit longer between each course. Still, that’s the nature of Restaurant Week. I’m sure that they had other reservations coming in after us and needed to turn the tables over. Overall, I felt like we got a true taste of the kinds of creative dishes that the restaurant is capable of producing on a regular basis, and I would be glad to return to Meritage again.

So, fall Restaurant Week may be over, but at least we’ve only got a couple of months to go until the next one. Usually, there is one in early winter, around January or February. By then there will probably be a dozen or more new restaurants on my list of places to try.

Restaurant Review: Audrey Claire

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I’ve had a busy schedule for Restaurant Week this time around. What can I say, I’m pretty popular and everyone wants to have dinner with me.

To kick off the second week, I met up with a group of my girlfriends—Rhonda, Gab, and Lauren—for dinner at Audrey Claire. We try to get together for dinner every month, but this was an extra special occasion as we celebrated that Gabby will be tying the knot in just a couple of weeks!

Audrey Claire is a tiny BYOB, located right on the corner of 20th and Spruce in the Rittenhouse Square area. Everything about the restaurant—from the bowls of green apples and vases of sunflowers perched on the windowsills, to the rustic furniture, to the food—is overwhelmingly simple. And, that’s part of its charm. If you plan to go, be aware that the restaurant is cash only, and does not take reservations on Friday and Saturday evenings.

The menu draws heavily from ingredients, herbs/spices, and dishes from the Mediterranean region. I had an amazing mushroom risotto on my first visit a couple of months ago, and I was looking forward to ordering that—or some other version of risotto—again. But alas, it wasn’t included on the menu. That’s the way it is during Restaurant Week sometimes—a more limited menu that tends to eliminate the things that take a lot of time to prepare and/or that would make it difficult to keep the dinner price down to $35. Oh well.

For an appetizer, I ordered the seared haloumi, which is a cheese from Cyprus that’s made from a combination of goat and sheep’s milk. The cheese is slightly salty and stays pretty firm even when grilled or fried. It was served with candied dates and sesame compote, which made for a nice combination of salty and sweet.

For an entrée, I had the shallot crusted lemon sole. It had a bit too much butter and not enough lemon for my liking. Also, to me, the term “crusted,” implied that the shallots would somehow be incorporated into the breading. But, they were instead fried and placed on top of the fish. And, there were a lot of them. They reminded me of those French’s onions that sometimes go on top of green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. It was served with green beans that had a nice crunch, and a couscous that was kind of bland. I kind of wished I had followed Rhonda’s lead and ordered the tuna, which didn’t seem to be heavily sauced and looked to be cooked perfectly on the rarer side, just as she requested.

For dessert, I chose the cinnamon white chocolate bread pudding. I think that the white chocolate was part of the glaze, but I honestly couldn’t really pick up on it. But, it was deliciously warm and sweet, the bread was slightly chewy, and the cinnamon flavor made it the perfect dessert for the transition into fall. Maybe they would give me the recipe to add to the ever growing list of fall baking projects I’ve been lining up.

While I’ve enjoyed the overall experience both times that I’ve been to Audrey Claire, I do think that the food gets more hype than it deserves. There are plenty of other places with a similar atmosphere and concept that have far more to offer in terms of food (such as the highly underrated Southwark in Queen Village or Fond on Passyunk Avenue).

As a side note, Audrey Claire Taichman (the owner) also owns two other places right on the same block of Spruce: Twenty Manning and Cook. I last went to Twenty Manning years ago, and wasn’t impressed. But, it’s since undergone a renovation and menu redesign, and I’m willing to give it another try. Cook is a boutique, bookstore, and collaborative kitchen, where celebrity chefs from around the area will be teaching classes. I’m looking forward to checking that out this fall!

Restaurant Review: Sampan

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Chester and I continued Restaurant Week(s) with dinner at Sampan in Midtown Village, which offers a contemporary spin on traditional Asian street foods. The menu is wide-ranging and features interpretations of dishes from all over the continent, including China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

For Restaurant Week, Sampan is offering its seven course chef’s tasting menu, plus dessert, for $35 per person. Your entire party agrees on which dishes to order from the various sections of the menu: two from the small plates section and one from each of the satay, meat, cold and hot, fish, and sides sections. This was a great way for us to sample a variety of dishes, since we were finding it pretty tough to narrow things down.

The first few plates that were brought out were pretty tiny. We joked that we might have to stop at the diner on the way home. But, towards the end of the meal, the dishes got progressively larger and more filling. Some dishes fared better than others in terms of taste, execution, and presentation.

We sampled:

  • The “Philly Cheesesteak”—I think this has appeared on a few of those “must try” dishes in Philly lists, but it was just okay. It was kind of like cheesesteak bruschetta—a crispy bao bun is topped with shredded short rib, shallot, sriracha, and shredded provolone cheese. It was a creative concept, but I think that it would have been better if a rib eye was used, instead of the short rib.

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  • Kobe Beef Satay—This was also a “miss.” Although the beef was well seasoned and paired well with the apricot dipping sauce, the meat was way overdone and none of the rich fattiness that makes Kobe so wonderful was there.
  • Crab Wonton Taco—A crispy wonton shell holds a refreshing combination of crab salad, avocado, cilantro, and pickled shallots. This was one of the best executed, tastiest, and creative concepts that we tried.
  • Pho Dumplings—Another well executed concept. Four small dumplings were filled with short rib and served in a pho broth. When you spooned a dumpling into your mouth, you got all of the rich flavors of a traditional pho soup in one tiny bite.
  • Lobster Stir-fry—The chef wasn’t stingy with the lobster by any means, as there was a chunk of it in each bite. I would have chosen a different kind of starch to accompany the dish. The egg noodles that came with it were a bit burnt and clumped together. I’m not sure if this is what they were going for, but it was a bit tricky to eat, and just looked sloppy.
  • Crispy Brussel Sprouts—I don’t like brussel sprouts, normally, but everyone who has been to Sampan seems to rave about them, so I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try them. I promptly told Chester that we could have brussel sprouts all the time if they were prepared this way. They are served in a slightly salty, spicy fish sauce and cooked until they are just a bit soft, but not mushy (that would be gross). The puffed rice gives them a bit of extra crunch.
  • Pork with Pineapple Rice—this was the largest dish, and I’m glad it came at the end when we weren’t totally full yet. The pork was perfectly cooked—juicy and tender, with just a bit of pink at the center and the sweet pineapple rice was a nice complement.

It seemed odd to have something as quintessentially American as soft-serve ice cream in little sugar cones finish off the meal, but I enjoyed the featured flavor choices: chocolate peanut butter and vanilla grape jelly. They must have known I was coming that night. They use some pretty good quality ingredients to get the flavors just right, particularly for the grape, which actually tasted like the fruit and not some artificial syrup.

In the end, we left very satisfied. The kitchen staff did a great job of pacing the meal appropriately and staggering the larger dishes to preserve our appetites. The service from the wait staff was friendly, but a bit uneven at times (a long wait sometimes for drinks from the bar, for example), but the restaurant was packed and it was a Friday during Restaurant Week, so that is to be expected.

The interior of the restaurant is dark, sleek, and pretty, which creates a casual, if a bit trendy, atmosphere. The centerpieces of the main dining areas are the color-shifting walls (a la Stephen Starr’s Pod Restaurant in University City) against which are placed the silhouettes of bare trees. You know what was really weird though? The bathrooms. Each one is its own individual stall, but the weird thing is that the pipe in the audio from movies. They were playing clips from one of my favorite movies, “Napoleon Dynamite” (“Hey Napoleon, what did you do last summer again?” I told you, I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!”). It was amusing, but really just weird to have people talking above your head while you are in the bathroom.

Sampan also has a small outdoor patio—the Graffiti Bar—tucked into the rear of the restaurant, that offers a rotating selection of cocktails and $2 appetizers during happy hour. I would gladly return for that to sample some more of the creative dishes on the menu. There are definitely some things that I would not order again, but I’m confident that there are some other stand-outs on the menu that I didn’t have a chance to try on this visit.

Restaurant Review: Le Castagne

This is favorite times of year in Philly. Yes, fall is officially here, for me anyway, since I had my first Pumpkin Spice Latte on Friday. But, it’s also Restaurant Week. This week and next, restaurants in Center City offer three course lunches and dinners, for $20 and $35, respectively. Restaurant Week(s) also happen in early winter, and it’s a great opportunity to try out new places or revisit old favorites.

To kick off the festivities this time around, I got together with two of my friends from Drexel, Jeff and Lara, for dinner at Le Castagne. Although I’ve been to Le Castagne, which specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, a couple of times before, I’ve only just made the connection that it’s name means “chestnut” in Italian, and it’s located on Chestnut Street. How clever (I’m blonde. These things take me awhile, okay?).  Northern Italian is characterized by the use of butter (rather than olive oil), cream sauce (rather than tomato), starches other than pasta (including risotto, gnocchi, and polenta), and game animals. Le Castagne offers modern, upscale interpretations of these traditional dishes, while still preserving the hearty, rustic ingredients and flavors that characterize this region of Italy.

While we sipped our drinks, Lara and Jeff caught me up on everything that’s happening at good old DU. It seems that my presence is appropriately missed at the Paul Peck Alumni Center, and that makes me happy. Jeff is friends with the chef, and he was nice enough to send out a plate of antipasti for us to share. It included grilled eggplant, roasted peppers, olives, prosciutto, salami, and bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

For an appetizer, I ordered gnocchi. I’ve tried my fair share of gnocchi at restaurants all around Philly, and Le Castagne’s is easily my favorite. Sometimes, gnocchi gets so overworked that the dumplings end up heavy and dense. Gross. Le Castagne gets the preparation just right. There were two versions on the menu when we visited—one with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella (alla Sorrentina) and one served in a white truffle cream sauce (al Tartufo). I ordered that latter. The gnocchi were pillowy and tender—they practically melted in my mouth—and although the sauce resembled an alfredo, it was much lighter and far more flavorful. The portion was very generous for a starter dish.

For an entrée, I had the timballo of slow-braised lamb. The traditional preparation of this dish features a meat filling, encased in pasta or rice and baked with cheese and vegetables. Le Castagne offers a different take. Shredded lamb is served with wild mushrooms and topped with a poached egg. The whole thing is placed on top of garlic crostini. While the cheese and pasta are missing, the earthy, rustic flavors are all still there. The only thing I didn’t really care for was that the crostini got very mushy from soaking up all the juices from the lamb, but that’s a minor point.

Finally, came a trio of desserts—a square of cheesecake with blueberry sauce, a cannoli, and tiramisu. I am not usually a fan of tiramisu, so I was surprised that it was actually my favorite of the three pastries in this instance. Instead of the traditional multilayered preparation, one small circle of cake was topped with whipped mascarpone cheese, and dusted with cocoa powder. It resembled the top of a cupcake and did not have the overpowering liquor flavor that I dislike about tiramisu.

Service was friendly, professional, and attentive, even as the restaurant began to fill up later on the evening. Restaurant Week or not, Le Castagne is definitely worth a visit.