Thursday, November 18, 2010

Opening Review of Sakura Sushi - Lunch Options on Spring Garden

Looking to avoid the afternoon slump that can hit an office-worker like me who has overloaded on lunch, I was pleased to see Sakura opening up near my office on the 1500 block of Spring Garden.  There were more than two dozen great looking options for the lunch roll special, so I decided to try them out on opening week.

It's a clean & tidy little spot, not unlike most of the sushi joints closer in towards downtown, with a small bar that seats about 5 and maybe a half-dozen tables.  In the weeks following their opening I'm pleased to see that they always have a healthy lunch crowd and are hustling out the orders.

I opted for the 2-roll Lunch special for $7.50; two of your choice with a cup of miso soup and a simple salad.

I enjoyed my lunch outside on a weirdly warm day - here's the spread pictured above.

I've kept to the more standard fare; salmon, yellowtail and standard tuna. My colleagues have tried rolls like the tofu skins and found them pleasant.  The soup was a nice pick-me-up and while the salad dressing was a zesty ginger, overall it reminds me of  'Japanese Steakhouse Salad' I would have as a kid, meant to tide you over before the knife-show...simple iceberg-cuke-tomato.

I haven't tried Domo yet, around the corner down on 18th and Callowhill, but I'd definitely put this on the map if, for some weird reason, you find yourself around N. Broad & Spring Garden and in need of sushi.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Monkey Makes Whoopie

Flying Monkey is one of the latest bakeries to enter into the whoopie pie running. The cupcakes are pretty good, so we figured the pies may be just as good.

I hadn't had a whoopie pie before trying the chocolate-chocolate from Whole Foods - it had a good moistness and the filling was marshmallowy without being stingingly sweet.

Flying Monkey has pies in two sizes and had a few flavors to offer...vanilla, chocolate and SnickerDoodle.

We bought a chocolate and a vanilla;
the chocolates pie was a little on the dry side and the filling, while decently flavored, was a bit too soft and tended to run. The vanilla was much better...larger pie made for a moist cake and the filling was more marshmallowy.

At 2.50 each, vs. 4 for $6 at Whole Foods, the pies are a bit short on value.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Late Summer Locavore's Produce Picks from Headhouse Farmer's Market & Our Garden

Last Sunday Headhouse Market was buzzing with high-summer produce. Culton has his humongo-watermelons on display yet again - this time I remembered to snap a picture. You can also see the sign for heirloom Lima Beans, which was one of many veggies that we picked up from his stall.

First the watermelon, now this? Look at the size of Culton's beans! What is he feeding his plants?

The variety was Dr. Martin's, apparently a famously delicious version of the lima bean or butterbean as Elizabeth knows it. Ususally gargantuan versions of fruit and produce just taste awful or bland, but these beans had all the sweet, satisfying flavor of a regular butterbean, along with a meatier texture & a fava bean.

Here's a pretty detailed post about these giants. My favorite line from the article?
They’re tremendously fun to shell, which can be a thought inducing and/or provoking exercise also, almost hypnotic and rosary-like if you're willing to let your mind go all the way...

Looks like they're not far from the's a pic of Elizabeth happily shelling away! 

In addition to Culton's always fresh offerings, we picked another 5 pounds of grapes from our grapevine; with some many sweet and ripe bunches coming off the vine, we're struggling to come up with good savory recipes that use seeded grapes.

Also from our garden, we've got a bumper crop of Roma tomatoes - this is what's left of at least 2 dozen fruit that our four plants have put out thus far.  Elizabeth cooked them down into a sauce, which would be used for some Eggplant Parmesan. The oregano, parsley and basil that was used to season the sauce all came right from the garden as well.

The eggplant, also purchased from Tom Culton, were peeled, sliced into rounds, soaked in milk and then breaded and lightly fried in a shallow pan.  It was pretty standard stuff from there - layered in a casserole dish with some homemade goat-cheese that we've been making with raw milk from Fair Food Farmstand, then smothered in tomato sauce from our Romas and dusted with Parm. Reggiano.

350 degree over for 30-40 minutes. Once the eggplant cooked through, Elizabeth topped each piece with some Di Bruno Bros. fresh mozzarella and then broiled them to gooey perfection.

Although this version of eggplant parm was really, really good, what made it taste that much better was knowing that, with the exception of the Parmesan, all of the ingredients came with a locavorian's pretty easy to pull something like this off in high Summer, as the ingredients speak for themselves.

Bye Bye BYOB @ Fat Salmon

Spider Roll - Softshell Crab & Lettuce

I had heard that Fat Salmon, the novelty sushi bar on 7th & Walnut, was about to start-up it's license to sell alcohol on Sept 1st, so we took a few summer brews and a bottle of wine along last Friday night the celebrate the waning days of a great BYOB situation.

After happily uncorking our wine bottle, the waitress confirmed that this was the last weekend for BYOB dining.

After drifting around the menu of signature rolls, we decided to do some research on a few of the rolls that included cooked components in case we wanted to do sushi with any less adventurous diners in the future.

The shumai were just as good as I had hoped after hearing about them in the Adam Erace's review of Fat Salmon. Tender skins, surrounding juicy nuggets of shrimp..these were so tasty on their own they didn't even need the spicy sauce that accompanied them.

The seaweed salad was your basic affair...a decent side with enough sesame flavor and seasoning to break up the sometimes heavier flavors of Fat Salmon's over-the-top rolls.

Miss Sake Bomb-eel, avocado & crunchy on top-lightly cooked salmon with tartar sauce

Miss Sake Bomb was a study in contrast...a rich eel & avocado roll topped with lightly broiled salmon & a dill-spiked tartar sauce. I was really hesitant about tartar sauce as a condiment - it conjured up memories of greasy fishsticks - but the dill and pickle were pronounced enough to balance out any over mayonnaise-y nastiness. 

Mr. French Kiss -crab stick with masago, fried shrimp & tartar sauce

Next up, Mr. French Kiss. Having gotten over my apprehension of the tartar sauce, we tried out a roll that featured crab-stick and crystalline-crunchy masago with a topping of tempura-fried shrimp & tartar sauce. There was a claim of bacon & onion in the tempura, which I didn't detect, and the shrimp itself seemed more breaded than tempura-fried, but nevertheless, it was a crunchy and savory addition.

Midori - cucumber, shitake, oshinko, gourd & burdock

We also had an order of a vegetarian roll, the Midori - a combo of pickled vegetables, gourd, burdock and shitake. We had never tried these veggies and ordered it more for the acidity that pickled veg can brig to balance out what was quickly becoming a very heavy sushi session, what with all the fried preparations.

I will definitely miss the 'affordability' of Fat Salmon in BYOB mode - out total check came to less than $50 - but the menu is broad enough that I can see coming back for more traditional sushi or for the flashy house-creations.

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Devil's Den Sour Beer Fest & Menu Revisited

A few weeks back Devil's Den hosted a week-long 'Sour Beer Fest' in which they had 8 different sour beers on tap that you could sample. Two of our favorites were the St. Louis Gueze and Ommegang's Zur, each one distinctly sour and puckery-pungent in their own way.

I won't go into too much detail, as most of the more interesting brews are pretty much non-available on draft throughout the rest of the year, but we did visit twice during the week and enjoyed some excellent small plates to go along with our beer tasting.

While Devil's Den has a good reputation for their taps, the kitchen was always hit-or-miss with me - this opinion was shared by most of the people I talked to when I mentioned going to D's Den for sours.  I'm glad to report that this is no longer the case with the 'small plates' we tried...they're serving up some great options like flatbreads (a new popular item on half the menus in town, along with sliders) shown here.

This one was called the Casino and was a riff on the traditional dish with seafood, bacon and a creamy white sauce. Garnished with frisee greens and served on a cracker-thin crust, this disappeared from the table.

Not quite as stunning was the BBQ braised pork flatbread, which we tried on another trip back. The structural weakness inherit in cracker-crust pizzas was apparent as the heaping dollops of tender pork became like tacos and threatened to bring the each piece to a messy ruin...however, the crust held out and allowed us to enjoy the flavor profile of spicy pork and a loose hash of cheese and salad.

 As wonderful as the surprise of good flatbreads was, this dish was the big winner - Chickpea Fries. The cubes of chickpea were flash fried, for a crispy shell encasing a soft and creamy chickpea custard.  The pickle, remoulade and a spicy oil that accompanied the fries gave a little bit of contrast to the texture, which reminded me of fresh-cooked corn bread straight from the oven.

You can see how light and airy these were, not a heavy, clunky blob of fried batter.  We went back a second time and ordered these, but they came out more like polenta or semolina 'fries' that I've had other places, where large blocks of polenta are allowed to set-up in a chiller before being sliced into slivers, coated and flash-fried. If I was going to order an entree, I'd make sure I had a few of those little squares on the side.

The bacon-wrapped balsamic dates were the only real disappointment of our trips during Sour Fest - the bacon wasn't fully rendered on a few dates and the glaze was so heavy handed and the char so overdone that this snack resembled charcoal candy more than a intensely sweet and rich bite-sized sack.

The slider trio was pretty good too - we didn't bother with a photo - if you've seen one slider like this, you've seen them all. The flavors were spot-on, with the meat cooked medium rare and the accompanying toppings, like caramelized onion and fresh pico di gallo, delicious.

So while I'm sad to see the sour beers fall off the tap list one at a time, I'm happy to see alot of what's coming out of the Kitchen at Devil's Den .  Elizabeth & I are already looking forward to enjoying dark beers and good food next to the fireplace.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Beer Review - Triumvirate of Brewmasters Birth a Baby Buff

It's been a while since I've done a beer review, not because I haven't been sampling some good stuff lately but because to post about every great beer I've had a chance to lay my hands on around Philly would be a full time job.

We just got back this weekend from a getaway to Rehoboth DE and having thought I'd tasted everything Dogfish had to offer, I saw this at The Foodery this week...Saison du Buff.

Examing the label I saw the flavors of parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme listed on the bottle. Aside from the gimmicky angle that I've come to expect from Dogfish, I also saw the logos of two of my other favorite craft brewers...local hero Victory and the uber-excellent Stone.

This latest brew was apparently the result of a friendly collaboration between the three head brewers and if it's anything like the latest Stone collabs with mad genius Scottish brewers BrewDog I knew it would be worth trying.

This is not a beer that stuns you into submission with a boozy character overloaded on flavor.

And no, despite all the herbacious hinting on the label, the beer was not green. It poured clean & clear, a pale gold with slight head. The aroma was dominated by thyme but it wasn't heavy or perfumed.

The body was light and hinting at effervescence, a good summer beer. The sage and rosemary were more pronounced on the tongue, creating a slight hoppiness of their own...I can imagine how the essential oils from these two herbs filled in the flavor alongside the hops.

A great beer but a little pricey for regular consumption - like a Hitacho, it will be an occasional treat.

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Chicago, Chicago You're My Kinda Town - Restaurant Roundup

I recently traveled to Chicago for a training at work and had enough time to take in some of the sights and check out some of the restaurants around the downtown area known as the Miracle Mile.

Armed with a new Android-powered phone, I was able to track down some pretty good grub in the short three days that I spent there. Let's start with the one that everybody knows about...

You probably recognize the Top Chef Master Season winner Rick Bayless - traditional Mexican fare is his niche and it all started with Frontera. On a Tuesday night the wait for a table was 1 hour, that's how popular this place is. We waited patiently for a spot to open up and the the bar; if it hadn't been for the kindness of a pair of British tourists who allowed us to claim their spot before they got up, we would've been waiting at least 15 minutes more.

A friend of mine and his wife regularly visit Chicago and always make sure to stop in here for a meal - in fact, he's the one who gave me the tip to forget the table and order from the'll get the full menu without the wait and the hassle. What you've got here is a good collection of Mexican flavors - the sopes, fried discs of masa dough topped with slow-braised pork were excellent - the spicy shrimp & corn soup was unusual and refreshingly spicy - in the foreground was a tortilla topped with black-bean mash, pork belly, avocado and a heap of cilantro..another contrast between deep, umami flavors with a clean, green & herbaceous finish.

The wait isn't for everyone and the crowds can be discouraging but the I'm glad we tried some of those flavor combos - it reminded me alot of a meal at Xochitl with attention paid to the layering of flavors.

This place belongs in Philly. It's focused on three things....Oysters...Excellent Beer...and nose-to-tail cooking, preferably of the porcine variety. The restaurant itself is decorated like an upscale barn, with diners sitting in penned in booths like livestock or seated around large communal tables farm-style.  The lyrics for the Beatles song Piggies kept popping into my head when I saw happy diners tucking into massive plates of food
Everywhere there's lots of piggies 
Living piggy lives 
You can see them out for dinner 
With their piggy wives 
Clutching forks and knives 
to eat their bacon 

This wasn't bacon or pork belly or tongue or any number of interesting cuts on the menu - this is a lamb neck that is slow-braised then dusted and fry-crusted before being served in a broth alongside lemony potatoes & yogurt.  A little heavy for August, but unctuous and rich with flavor, a sweet dark meat being braised for so long right on the bone. 

This is my favorite fun dish of the trip...fried spicy pork rinds.  These were still hot from the frying oil and coated with a spicy, cheesy powder coating...think Cheetos meets chichirrones. I found out later that this dish was featured on the schlocky "Best Thing I Ever Ate" time-filler show on the Food deserves better.

I found the Purple Pig online in a search for tapas on the Miracle Mile. The website & menu looked pretty good and I'd even considered it for a dinner, but as luck would have it, we got to Chicago early so we chose to go there for a late lunch.

I was a little worried as we approached the place - what had looked like a gastro-pub/tapas bar online had all the appearance of a ladies-who-lunch/post-shopping trip wine bar - the kind that serves up $15 glasses of chardonnay to go with uninspired bruscetta.

The Purple Pig was somewhere in between the two expectations - the food was clever and had a few interesting flavors. I especially enjoyed the chorizo-stuffed fried olives.  Some of the food was on the edge of being too oily or salty.

Always looking to compare Chicago to Philly, we decided that the Purple Pig was similar to the small plates from Amis, albeit a cut below in terms of execution. This dish was the most evocative of Vetri's Italian tapas - a mousse of mortadella spread on delicious crusty bread and topped with pistachio, arugula and quality balsamic vinegar.

I'm glad we went there for a late lunch - I think I would've been disappointed with a dinner there as the menu seemed to promise flavors that never seemed to peak on the plate.

Speaking of ladies-who-lunch, another meal the next day took us deep into the so-called "Viagra Triangle" - a term for the high-end shopping/restaurant/bar district that sat just off the north end of the Miracle Mile. I'm guessing the large amount of middle-aged shoppers and diners strolling about contributed to the moniker.

Welcome to the Luxbar! Take away the D&G clad grannies pecking away at their chicken salads and you could see the bones of a decent gastropub here - a smattering of decent craft beers and options like truffled fries and sliders had me thinking I was back in Philly sitting outside Varga watching the the world go by and 10th & Spruce.

Objects on the blog may appear larger than they are on the plate! Luxbar had a mix of sliders to choose from - here's a lineup of the mini-dog, BBQ, Kobe and Fried Chicken sliders. Nowhere near as good as the Varga sliders - the Kobe was dried out and the BBQ was disgracefully sweet and without a smidge of heat or tartness.

Again, decent lunch option but I'm glad that we didn't spend an evening in the Viagra Triangle.

Located several blocks away from the Triangle and closer to Loyola Law School was the strangest Spanish restaurant I've ever eaten at - Cafe Iberico.

Now, don't get me wrong, I really wanted to like this place but everything about it was cringe inducing to the poor sucker like me whom after reading several online reviews, was expecting something closer to Amada or Washington D.C.'s Jaleo.

Was it the laminated accordion-like menus that displayed a washed-out photo of every dish on the menu? Was is the cavernous interior, designed to simultaneously feed 300+ people in one sitting which made me worry about the attention to quality that inevitably goes out the window when you're hitting that many covers a night? How about the TVs on an endless loop of sports-news-weather, just like the airport terminal we'd left behind at O'Hare?

Well, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. This was tuna cannelloni, tuna wrapped in pasta and topped with a thin 'white wine' sauce which resembled yogurt.  Assembled together, it looked pretty much like more of the same goofiness we'd witnessed, but the taste was actually spot-on...the tuna was flavorful, not a mushy paste, and the tomatoes were fresh and vibrant in a dressing of olive oil and lemon.  Looks like a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole here.

This dish just had me in stitches - I chuckled when our served delivered the Pulpo a la Plancha - a pile of grilled octopus & french fries...yes, french fries....about as Spanish as the french fries you find at Chinese buffets. I joked with Elizabeth that this was Sandra Lee's recipe from some never-aired episode...a 'Spanish Siesta' complete with a paella made with Uncle Ben's and kielbasa braised in Sunny Delight.

Again, the saving grace for Cafe Iberico was that I'll be darned if the octopus wasn't cooked perfectly. And the fries, also perfectly done, actually worked in the dish. When I asked the waiter about the dish and the odd inclusion of fries, he kind of sighed and said 'American-style'. I was not lying when I told him that I enjoyed it and the octopus was perfect.

So to summarize - Cafe Iberico is a great deal for decent a chips&salsa on-the-table 'Mexican' restaurant for Spanish themed dishes.

OK, if you've made it this far, you really must be interested in some of the dining options in Chicago so I've saved the surprise favorite for those of you that have scrolled your way through to here.

We arrived at Quartino very late in the evening, just as the restaurant was winding down. having been hopping from place to place all night, we were in the mood for a late-night snack before headed back to the hotel and I had notived Quartino came up in nearly every search I did on the Droid for wine or tapas.

We had a seat at the bar and chose from an excellent selection of charcuterie and accoutrement - we opted for some olives, speck, and a slaw of pickled fennel. 

In another Philly comparison, not only is the menu similar to the Garces Trading Post, but the decor also has the same retro butcher/soda fountain/general store feel, with white subway tiles, reclaimed wooden timbers and a gargantuan bar.

The polenta fries were over the top in late-night bar snack - served piping hot, still crunchy and without any gumminess, these were another one of those dishes I hope will appear on a menu in Philly sometime soon...perfect replacement football-friendly finger foods like fried cheese sticks. We had them, along with a marinara veal meatball slider.

Looking back on all this great food I suddenly feel the need to take the stairs instead of the elevator at work for the next 2 months. Overall I was impressed with Chicago and I look forward to going back for more good stuff as we missed out on a few places due to the the timing of the trip.  The problem with having an early-week trip is that many of the restaurant were closed Monday & plan your trips accordingly.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

6th Annual 'Good Food, Good Beer and the Rest is History' at Headhouse Shambles

Time for the 6th annual 'Good Food, Good Beer and the Rest is History' at Headhouse Shambles

What could be more beautiful than a flower? Free craft beer!

Fork restaurant was serving up a wax-bean, scallop summer salad - the crushed nuts that topped the salad gave it some great texture and the simple dressing let the scallop flavor come through.

East P'unk Italian dynamo Le Vitru was serving up their pork 'lasagna' - I know that there's a more accurate term for this dish but basically it's assembled from hand-made noodles like a lasagna with a sausage & cheese filling. Just as delicious as last year.

Speaking of sausage, Noble was serving up a well-seasoned sausage with peppered tomato sauce and a dollop of polenta; the polenta & sausage felt a little out of season but it tasted wonderful and went great with some of the craft brews being poured by Earth+Bread Brewery.

Another newcomer, Wishing Well on 9th and Christian put in an appearance with a straightforward chicken taco - well spiced and served with a salsa, this was a decent contribution to the food offerings, although with Wishing Well's southern-leaning menu, I was hoping for something a little more interesting. I will give them credit for having one of the most tightly run stalls at the event - dishing out tacos at breakneck speed, once the food ran out they were packed and away in half the time it took me to finish a half-pint sized beer.

Speaking of 'bringing it' Southern-style, here's our nomination for 'Best in Show', the Swarthmore Food Co-Op's BBQ pork sandwich.

They called it the 'Three Little Pigs  - what you're looking at is a pork loin, stuffed with a sausage....

...and then topped with pulled pork meat from a set of slow-cooked ribs...

...and then stuffed into a potato roll.  

Served with a dollop of slaw, this was hands down the most delicious thing we had all evening, and the swarm of people around the stand was steady until the last of the pork was served up. This sandwich was so appealing that random people asked me 'Where did you get that?" and a few of the other vendors even ducked away from their stalls to procure a sandwich of their own,

The Restaurant School of Philadelphia was on hand serving up the newest craze in desserts, macaroons.  Nearly every color of the rainbow, these little treats were also going fast. 

We ran out of tasting tickets before discovering their presence (yes, I NEEDED that second pork sandwich) but other folks were scooping them off the trays that lined the table.

All in all, we really enjoyed ourselves this time around - last year we arrived about a hour after the opening bell and fund that barely half the vendors had food left. We stayed for a bit enjoying the great local beers as well - my favorite was the darker offerings from Earth+Bread Brewery, whereas Elizabeth was hooked on the Prima Pils from Victory.