Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei Sette Pesci

Mr. Row Home Eats checking in. My parents were high school sweethearts. What does that have to with a food blog? A lot actually, in a somewhat round about way. Let me explain. They grew up in East Haven, CT, so growing up both sets of my grandparents still lived there. Being only about 3 hours away from our suburban Philly home, we made many a visit to East Haven over the years. I believe my first 15 Christmas mornings I woke up at my grandparents. Obviously, as a kid the presents were the highlight. Looking back now, the real presents were delivered the night before. My mom’s mother was a tiny woman. I never got the official measurement but I’m guessing somewhere around 4’ 10” which, as a child, was wonderful because she was on your level. Because she was Italian, Christmas Eve dinner was always the Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes.) The cooking began in the morning. My sister and I would be eating our Lucky Charms but our noses would be full of chopped garlic, fresh seafood and tomato sauce. My grandmother was in constant motion, stirring, chopping, draining pasta; Pavarotti’s big, bold voice coming from the record player. I am instantly transported as I write this. On that day I think the only time she sat down was to eat.

When we got older we were pressed in to service. I recall being on the fish batter detail. In front of me would be a huge stack of flounder filets and two big bowls, one filled with eggs and the other breadcrumbs. The goal was to use one hand for the dry ingredient and one for the wet. That usually didn’t work out and by the end my hands were encrusted in a thick paste and it was the best! A positive spin on playing with your food! Eating the food that night that I helped create gave me a deep appreciation on the craft of cooking and on a path to my love my food! It helped that she was constantly encouraging us to ‘Mangia, mangia’!

Recently we created our own version. Here are some highlights:

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Prepping stuffed calamari

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Shrimp cocktail is a staple

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Cucumber boats stuffed with smoked salmon cream cheese

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Stuffed calamari

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Baked scallops

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Fettucine and clams

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Other dishes included fried cod, crab “gravy” and broccoli with lemon

Thinking about doing it yourself? Here are a few pointers:

-Check out this article to read more about crab gravy and a suggested recipe

-If you’re in Philadelphia, you can (and should!) get all of the freshest seafood, along with suggestions, tips and great service at Ippolito’s Seafood in South Philly. If you go during the holidays, it will be packed but festive

-Two other Seven Fishes staples are fried smelts and baccala salad but we skipped them because we aren’t fans

-Give yourself lots of time to prep the stuffed calamari. It’s labor-intensive but worth it

-Crusty bread is a necessity to sop up all of the sauce and juices

-We weren’t initially going to share this last tip but…Trader Joe’s sells frozen fried cod and it’s not too bad

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Dew’s Deli

South Philly needs another deli like I need a hole in my head, which is why I didn’t give Dew’s Deli a second glance when it opened. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even notice it. Sitting just up the street from Neumann-Goretti High School, Dew’s has an unassuming outside, with a small sandwich board sign with its name.

After reading about the unique Mediterranean menu items on Passyunk Post, my husband and I decided to walk there on sunny Saturday afternoon, dogs in tow.

When I walked in, the place was packed. Everyone knew everyone, it seemed, and the women working behind the counter were extra-friendly; greeting many folks by name. I ordered a hoagie for myself and wrap for the mister and perused the prepared foods case. The longer it took to prepare our sandwiches (and it did take a little while, given the amount of people ordering,) the more items I put in my basket, deciding instantly that we were going to have a Mediterranean themed dinner. As I browsed, the friendly ladies chatted me up and told me about some of their plans for the place (expanded hours and menu.)

We walked home with our tasty treats and unwrapped the sandwiches (for those of you who don’t have time to wait, they have prepared sandwiches and salads in the case.)

My roast beef hoagie (meat sliced to order) was pretty typical. Fresh and tasty, although the bread tasted just a touch on the stale side. In their defense, it was a little later in the day. However, the sandwich itself was hearty and could have stood up to most of the other spots in the neighborhood.

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In an interesting twist, Dew’s actually serves their wrap on pita, like you might find a gyro.

IMG_3948I didn’t taste it, but no complaints from the husband.

That night, we served our Mediterranean feast.

IMG_3952Clockwise, from the upper left-hand corner: Greek-inspired pasta salad with feta; tabbouleh, olives, grape leaves and hummus; spinach pie, zaatar bread and pita; grilled chicken and tzatziki (those were not from Dew’s.) The pasta salad was on point. Not too oily, nice bites of feta. The tabbouleh was excellent and bursting with lemony, parsley flavor. Hummus on the thicker side and a great accompaniment to the fresh pita (not made in-house.) I have an affinity for grape leaves and am scared to think how close Dew’s is…great for a quick afternoon snack. The spinach pie was packed with a surprisingly vivid lemony zest. And the zaatar was, well, zaatar. I love the sumac, sesame, herb blend.

Bottom line, Dew’s makes a good sandwich but if you’re in the mood for something a little more unique, bypass the hoagie counter and chomp into some Lebanese delights!

Cheu Noodle Bar

I love noodles. Give me pasta in any iteration from any cuisine and you have a happy camper. Vegetable lo mein? Yup. Spaghetti carbonara? Absolutely. Pho? Sure. Macaroni and cheese? I love you.

Philadelphia is a great noodle town. From my favorite red gravy restaurants in deep South Philly to the pho spots on Washington Avenue–and hand drawn noodles in Chinatown, of course–it’s easy to get a big bowl of carbs. Until a year or so ago, however, one noodle niche that we were sorely lacking was ramen. Much to the delight of many, ramen has recently become the next big thing. From Terakawa Ramen to Nom Nom Ramen to Hiro Ramen, there are growing opportunities to get a large bowl of chewy noodles with pork belly, soft-boiled egg and other accoutrements in a rich and steamy broth. When Cheu Noodle Bar first opened, as a series of pop-up dinners at Matyson Restaurant where Chef Ben Puchowitz works, they wowed diners with a ramen-centric Asian menu with a modern flair. Their pop-ups were all the rage, people (myself included) dialing endlessly to snag a seat at one of their popular events. I still remember the sweet Vietnamese sausage and broccoli that is now on the menu at Cheu. Almost as notable as the food was the neat and diverse play list which was much appreciated by our DJ dining companions.

Fast forward to Spring 2013 when Puchowitz and friend, Shawn Darragh (who has experience on the retail side of things) finally opened their store front. The space is small, with just a few tables and a long bar where you can watch the food being prepared. In my opinion, the bar is a prime spot as it affords you the opportunity to take in the show.

Because they do not take reservations, my husband and I stopped by for an early dinner one Sunday. The place was packed and we were lucky enough to snag two seats at the end of the bar. Note: they will take down your name and number and call you when your table is ready if you so desire.

Rather than bread, we were greeted with a snack of the dry ramen noodles that we are all familiar with.
IMG_3837It was a kitschy yet cute move that would only work for these guys.

We checked out the menu and had our usual conversations about what apps to split and what entrees we wanted to claim. You can’t order the same thing, of course.  We could have ordered every appetizer but stopped at three. It would be great to go with a group so you can get a little taste of everything.

We started with the black garlic wings with shishito peppers and herbs. We got them literally right out of the fryer and they piping hot but not spicy and the definition of finger licking good.
IMG_3838Following that, we tried the buns. This is the perfect example of their spin on traditional classics.

IMG_3839Buns are a staple at ramen houses and Cheu does steer slightly towards the traditional with their pork belly, but the cheeseburger option (you can select two. The other choice was mung bean) infuses the most traditional American food with this Asian standby. These are not the most “splittable” items on the app menu and I quickly found out why. As I carefully took my bite of half of the cheesesteak bun, I accidentally ate the entire pickle. Whoops! Even without the pickle, my husband confirmed that these were a tasty little snack to start the meal.

Our final app were the BBQ rice cakes. I really had no idea what to expect but had read that they were a can’t miss so we obviously had to order them.

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While my husband and I didn’t agree on these, I was ok with that–more for me! I had expected the rice cakes to be crispy but they were chewy, glutinous delights. When we had them, they were dressed with a sweet tatsoi, black bean sauce and sesame combination, although they’ve changed it up a bit since. While the rice cakes themselves could be considered an acquired taste, we both agreed that the dressing was worthy of licking the bowl.

Next up was the main attraction! While the cold sesame noodles are usually a weakness of mine, I was pretty set on getting one of the soups. I ended up going traditional (well, as traditional as you get get at Cheu) with the pork belly ramen and my husband got the duck pho.

IMG_3842While I love ramen, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m certainly no aficionado. I’ll just say that this soup was pretty damn good. The broth was smooth with a little funk and the noodles had just the right amount of bite. Oh, and the pork belly was pretty freakin’ tender.

I only had a bite or two of the duck pho but my husband declared the foie gras meatballs (foie gras meatballs?!) to be the best thing he ate all night. Delicate and fluffy, they melded perfectly with the slightly more refined pho broth than the ones that we are accustomed to.

IMG_3841Meanwhile, the soundtrack to the dinner had me tapping my foot all night long.

While I don’t usually take bathroom photos, I just couldn’t resist this adorable one. Glad to see they’re concerned with the environment.

IMG_3844Overall, I was beyond pleased. After the pop up at Matyson, I knew I’d like it. Didn’t know just how much I’d love it from the vibe to the friendliness of our waitress to, obviously, the food itself. While I came for the noodles, everything on the menu was top-notch and eating there just made me feel good.

Forest and Main

My in-laws live about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia and often come into the city to meet up with us and try new restaurants. However, we thought we’d give them a break from 76 and come closer to them last time we met up. After conferencing with my friend, Dorrie, we decided to meet at Forest and Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. Dorrie said they had a great beer list and we were looking forward to checking it out. In fact, unbeknownst to us, Forest and Main won Philly Mag’s coveted “Best of Philly” award in the brew pub catergory.

Forest and Main is just off the Main Street in “downtown” Ambler in an adorable old Victorian house. It was a gorgeous evening and we were able to dine at one of the few tables on the front porch, giving it an incredible homey feeling. Our visit happened to be during Ambler Restaurant Week. I’m not usually a big fan of restaurant weeks, due to overcrowding, sub-par food and service and the fact that you’re not always getting a deal (paying $35 for 3 courses when you would normally only order two for $25, for example.) Forest and Main’s Restaurant Week menu had two things going for it: you could choose any three dishes, none of which had to be a dessert AND the price tag of $25 included a beer. What a great deal!

My husband and I both opted for the Restaurant Week menu while his parents chose to order a la carte. Before the food order, we had a more important decision to make–beer. Forest and Main’s beer list is split into two sections: of British Inspiration and of Belgian Inspiration and you can get 16 or 20 oz. pours ranging from a reasonable $4.50-$7. For the indecisive, or those who like to taste a little bit of everything, flights of four are also available.

I am of the “like to taste a little bit of everything” mindset and got the flight of all four “of Belgian Inspiration” beers.

Of the four, my favorite was the tripel-style Ablution. Big and fruity, it was a favorite to everyone at the table, even my non-beer drinking mother-in-law.

For my three food choices, I selected summer corn soup, pierogies and the F&M sliders. My husband chose the same, but swapped the sliders for the fish and chips. We had a discussion at the table about whether we wanted to order bacon popcorn. My father-in-law was mysteriously quiet until we asked his opinion.

“You can get what you want, but I’m getting one for myself,” said the bacon lover.

The popcorn came out with the soup. It was adorable in the tin, Ikea buckets.

The popcorn received mixed reviews at the table. The in-laws loved it, but I found it to be a bit greasy for my taste. There was a definite smoky flavor from the bacon, so be forewarned if you’re not a fan of smoke!

The corn soup was a hit.

It was thick and chunky with just the right kick of jalapeno and creamy sweet corn. Besides, it’s the height of corn season. It would be hard for this dish not to taste good. I did sneak a few pieces of the popcorn into the soup which is highly recommended! This was probably my favorite dish of the night.

Next was a generous serving of pierogies. They looked beautiful.

I was surprised to receive such a large serving and ended up taking two home. These pierogies had potential to be good–I loved the sauteed leeks on top–but they were absolutely swimming in butter. And I do love butter.

I was looking forward to the sliders. Sliders are so cute. And they came with aged cheddar and bacon mayonnaise. Sold!

The sliders turned out to be a bit overdone with a bread to meat ratio that leaned heavily on the side of bread. Perhaps the full-sized version would be better. The house made chips were a great side, though.

The fish and chips were decent and came with a bottle of malt vinegar for that extra sour tang and a solid side of fries.

We decided to forgo dessert and took a stroll around “downtown” Ambler. Before heading back, we stopped at Toto’s Gelateria and Caffe for some gelato made in house.

I chose a decadent mix of dark chocolate fudge and nocciola (hazelnut.)

What a perfect combo. After chatting with the friendly owner, we sat at an outdoor table and enjoyed our dessert.

Overall, Ambler is a cute little town. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to hit Forest and Main, I think it would be a great stop for a beer and some apps. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt since I did go during restaurant week, but I’d like to see some more consistency in the food because this place really has potential.

JT Farnham’s: New England Fried Clams at their Best

We spend time in New England a few times a year, visiting my husband’s family in the fisherman’s town of Gloucester, MA (made famous by The Perfect Storm and, more recently, fishing shows Wicked Tuna and Swords: Life on the Line.) During each trip, it’s our goal to eat as much fried seafood, lobster rolls and clam chowder (chowdah) as possible. We’ve hit most of the famous spots such as Woodman’s and the Clam Box. However, we had never made it to JT Farnham’s in Essex, just 15 minutes from Gloucester. The first full day of our vacation started off dreary and rainy so we thought it would be a great day to visit my husband’s grandmother and grab lunch at Farnham’s. My ulterior motive, of course, was to stop at the cripplingly cheap Ipswich Bottle Shop to stock up on (cash only) spirits.

By the time we made it to Farnham’s, just down the road from its rival, Woodman’s, the weather had cleared. A rule of thumb in New England is that often the shabbier-looking the place, the better the seafood.

We stepped inside and got into line.
While lobster rolls are usually our fave, Farnham’s is known for their fried clams so we figured we’d go with the house special (aptly named “Our Famous Fried Clams”) of fried clams with onion rings and french fries. In our neverending search for the best bowl of clam chowder, we got an order to share. I ordered a large and had a humorous interaction with the counter lady whose iteration of “large” is much different than mine.

We headed outside to grab a slightly damp picnic table overlooking the salt marsh.

Don’t feed the waterfowl, by the way.
My husband brought our food to the table. Lots of greasy, fried goodness stared us down.

Check out the butter swimming in the creamy chowder. Unfortunately, the chowder was completely bland. The same went for the fries and onion rings. But the clams, oh the clams. Dipped in a vat of their homemade tartar sauce and gazing out over the salt marshes, there’s pretty much nothing better. If you go, stick to the clams. You’ll leave full and happy.

Not Just Pork at Jake’s Sandwich Board

Since its opening two years ago, Jake’s Sandwich Board has gotten great buzz from the foodie world and Center City lunch crowd alike.  I’d been meaning to go and finally ventured there when Level Up ran a promotion where anyone using the app would get $10 to spend at Jake’s. What the hell, free lunch.

We popped in and got to know a little more about Level Up, but then we got down to business with our order. During our conversation with the friendly Level Up gentleman, he pointed out one of the specials–BBQ brisket with swiss, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. Sold. My husband went with the Barnyard–pork, ground veal, sharp provolone, spinach, roasted peppers and roasted garlic spread. I also wanted to try the fried pickles that Midtown Lunch had raved about. There was a quick moment of terror when they thought they might be out of pickles. As it turned out, they had ONE order left. It was obviously meant to be. Then I saw the farm fries. Crispy fries topped with sharp provolone, pulled pork, bacon and homemade pork gravy. STOP IT RIGHT NOW! We obviously had to get them too! With the $10 promo and $5 for signing up, we ended up paying just $10 for all that food! I took a seat and twiddled my thumbs as we awaited our bounty, which came in just a few short minutes.

The Barnyard had a nice, Italian flare. It was stuffed to the brim with meat and topped generously with sharp provolone and fresh veggies (to make you feel a tad bit healthier.)
But I was more interested in this.

The dill pickles were thinly sliced and coated with a light batter with a creamy sriracha dipping sauce. It was the perfect side dish and a complete steal at just $2. The pickles were warm and crispy and the sauce provided the perfect heat to balance out the crunch. Heaven.

My sandwich was pretty darn good too.

Just look at it! Brisket slathered in sauce and topped with gooey Russian dressing, Swiss cheese and a hearty portion of sauerkraut. This is a six-napkin sandwich, folks. There is nothing not to like about it. The BBQ sauce was sweet but not overwhelming and the tangy kraut is always a palate-pleaser.

While one might think this sandwich would distract me, I also managed to dive headfirst into these guys.

LOOK AT THAT!!! These are no Caffe Chicco “gravy fries,” my friend. You can SEE the hunks of pork and crispy bit of bacon slathered generously atop these fries. When I’m looking for a gravy fry, THIS is what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

Jake’s Sandwich Board is making some of the better sandwiches in Philadelphia these days. Not sure why it took me so long to get there but I can certainly promise I’ll be back soon. Farm fries. Swoon.

Editor’s note: If you’re not using LevelUp, you’re missing out! It’s a way to pay using your smart phone by linking it to a credit card. It’s fast and you gain rewards by using it at certain merchants. For example, for each $100 you spend at Giunta’s in The Reading Terminal, you get $10. Sign up here using my referral code (172989)  and we’ll both get $5 to spend anywhere!

Caffe Chicco

A few months ago, I tweeted that I was going to Nick’s Roast Beef for the first time. I got a tweet back from someone imploring me to try Cafe Chicco on South Broad Street, just blocks from Nick’s. I had never heard of Caffe Chicco and despite driving up Broad Street frequently, I couldn’t even picture the space. I tucked it away for a day that I had off from work as their weekend hours are limited. When I started my summer break and still hadn’t gotten there, I knew it was on my short list. In fact, I went there on my second day off!

Caffe Chicco is easy to miss amidst some of the other more prominent store fronts on South Broad Street between Snyder and Oregon.

With a simple glass sign and a small sandwich board advertising their specials (gravy fries!) it’s rather unassuming. On one of the hotter days in June, I dropped my husband at work and hustled back down to Caffe Chicco to try the famous roast beef sandwich. Once I saw the sandwich board, I was obviously planning on adding gravy fries to the order. Duh. I snagged a meter right out front with 32 minutes on it. Score!

I walked inside the small shop with just a few tables holding a woman studying and an older, Italian guy waiting for his order. I waited. And I waited some more. Finally, a younger teenager emerged from the back to take my order of gravy fries and a roast beef sandwich with sharp provolone on a round roll ($5.50 + $1 for sharp provolone.)

I sat at an empty two top and waited. Then I waited some more. When I was done, I waited a little more. In the meantime, two others came in and ordered roast beef sandwiches. Finally, a gentleman came out of the back and started composing the sandwiches. Like Nick’s Roast Beef, the roast beef sandwiches are made in front so you can watch the meat being sliced and dipped in the juicy gravy. As the man kept making sandwiches, I kept thinking ONE of them had to be for me. Finally, the girl walked up to me.

“Are you allergic to peanuts?” she asked.

“Uhhh, haha, no,” I responded quizzically. She turned to the guy in the back.

“See, everyone laughs at me when I ask,” Apparently, the potatoes are fried in peanut oil. Luckily, I’m not allergic and all could proceed. Then I waited a little more.

Finally, the girl let me know that my food was ready. I hopped in the car with just minutes to spare in my free 32-minute meter (that was a looong wait.) Luckily, I lived just a few blocks from Caffe Chicco and was able to rush home to rip into my lunch.

Look at that gooery cheese! Opting for a thicker cut than most places, Caffe Chicco’s sandwich was certainly good. The meat was warm and tender, although I could have used a bit more cheese and gravy.

Then I opened the gravy fries. Oooh, the gravy fries. I recently wrote about my love affair for this dish at Nick’s Roast Beef and was excited to try the competition.

What I got were limp fries, bland gravy and just a dash or two of shredded meat. I could taste (and enjoyed) the peanut oil that was used for the frying but they could have benefitted from being twice fried or something to get them just a little crispy. And the gravy was a complete let down. Let’s be honest, folks. The gravy makes or breaks a dish and while the fries were lackluster, the sandwich was good. I think it could have been great with a richer gravy. Guess I’ll stick to Nick’s, unless anyone can give me another suggestion?

In Riva

It was a sunny Sunday and we had plans to meet my in-laws for brunch. I know it’s a long drive for them all the way into the city so I suggested a compromise. Push it back to lunch and we can meet at In Riva, just off Kelly Drive. My father-in-law, a pizza aficionado, was happy to oblige. What the cycling fanatic didn’t know was that In Riva is not only bike and runner friendly but a cycling theme throughout.

We decided that we would embrace the gorgeous day. My husband rode his bike to the restaurant, while I left a little early and went for a run along the drive. We met at In Riva at 11am where I gave my husband a tongue-lashing for opting to wear his cycling shorts to lunch. I was wearing my running pants though. Double standard? We stepped inside and admired the myriad framed cycling print that decorated the wall.   We were offered a seat on the patio overlooking the water and eagerly obliged.

We settled down and took a look at the menu. Surrounding the patio were old bicycles adorned with lights. I, however, was ogling the menu. There was an intriguing salumi and formaggi menu, including a wild boar cacciatorini, and a variety of cheeses. I liked the option of “the mix” where you can get two salumi and two formaggi for $16. However, we had our eyes on the pizza.  Between the four of us, we ordered a pizza each and one antipasto and a salad. My husband was yearning for some green veggies so he had the chopped salad and I just couldn’t leave without ordering the carciofi fritti (fried artichokes.) The waiter said he’d put in the antipasti and salad orders first so our food would be well-timed.

The salad came out first. With salami, provolone and ceci, it was a crisp and refreshing salad with hints of Italy.

The carciofi fritti arrived next, followed closely by my in-laws’ pizzas.

The fried artichokes were actually less flavorful than I had anticipated, although the lemony yogurt was the perfect balance.

Check out my father-in-law’s pepperoni pizza. He’s a traditionalist when it comes to pizza and I was glad they had an option for pepperoni. And check out the pepperoni–they certainly didn’t skimp on it!

I love the idea of perching the pizza atop the La Valle tomato can.

Unfortunately, the lag time between dishes was just a little too long and my in-laws were nearly done their pizzas by the time ours arrived. Have no fear, these pizzas were worth the wait!

Having decided to go with a red and a white pie, our red option was sausage and peppers with pepperonata and fennel.

Look at the beautifully charred crust. Perfect to munch on and wipe up the bits that spill onto the plate. The sausage was full-flavored with the perfect touch of fennel. The roasted peppers were the ideal partner to the tomato sauce with just a touch of mozzarella. Although it looks heavy, this was actually a light pizza, if there is such a thing.

When I saw a burrata pizza on the menu, it immediately beckoned. Then I kept reading and saw garlic spinach and balsamic onions. Balsamic onions? You had me at hello. The server explained that the pizza was actually cooked without the burrata, which would be added after it came out of the oven.

Scope that burrata! The spinach was garlicky, as promised, and the onions were more of a balsamic caramelized onion than I had anticipated (no complaints from me.) This was the perfect foil to the sausage and pepper pizza. I do believe we ordered well. In case you’re wondering, we did have leftovers. If you’re ordering apps, you could probably get a heavier app each and split one pizza. However, my loyal readers, if you know anything about me, you know I like trying as much as possible. And my motto is “we can always have leftovers!”

In Riva is a great option for lunch after an AM workout. The staff is friendly, the deck is relaxing and…SPANDEX ARE OK! As it turns out, my husband was NOT the only guy in there rocking his spandex. While it’s a little out of the way for me, I’d love to check them out for happy hour. They have a nice-looking Italian beer list and I can only imagine that deck on a cool summer evening.

Shake Shack

I’m a local food blogger so here”s my obligatory Shake Shack post.

I love a good burger (maybe not as much as this guy, but believe me, I’m a fan.) When I heard that the much lauded Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s burger chain, was coming to Philly, I got a lil’ excited. When I heard it was coming to 20th and Sansom–walking distance from my job!!–the excitement increased monumentally.

When it finally opened on June 6th, twitter told me that the first people got in line at 9:15am. No way was I waiting in line for hours for anything, let alone a simple burger. The next day, however, a few of my co-workers and I decided to brave the line (in hopes it would be shorter) and check out this new attraction.

At around 11:30am, we walked the few short blocks from work and there was a line out the door and about halfway down the building. It seemed to be moving quickly, so we took our spots at the end of the line and were quickly followed by dozens of others.

Our wait in line was made much more pleasurable by the friendly Shack employee handing out free custard (so rich and creamy!) and menus and asking if we had any questions. It was obvious a lot of thought has been put in to customer service. After about 10-15 minutes outside, we made out way through the door and scoped the scene.

While the burger line was long, pro tip: there is a separate line for cold orders like custard, drinks, etc. So if you’re hoping to stop by for a shake, have no fear! Your wait will be significantly shorter.

I put in my order for a shack burger, cheese fries and the Abita root beer on draught, which came to about $12–a bit steep for a fast food lunch. I was then given a numbered beeper that would alert me when my food was ready. As we waited, we checked out the back seating area and watched the employees at work through the glass window. My co-worker kept trying to signal to one of the employees that he had something on his nose (a spot of custard, I do believe,) but he just kept working.

A highlight for me was this neat-o water fountain!

But I digress…after a short wait–ten minutes, tops, my beeper went off. I was SO excited. I went to the counter to accept my food. It comes in a neat Shake Shack brown bag. My only critique is that the to-go orders aren’t wrapped and our food was lukewarm once we got back to work, just a few blocks away.

It was pretty good though.

I bit into the burger first, of course. The Smoke Shack is a cheeseburger topped with Niman Ranch applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry peppers and the signature Shake Sauce.

I loved the potato-esque bun that contained the simple patty. The cherry peppers added a nice tang, while the bacon–well, it was bacon. What else is there to say? The creaminess of the Shake Sauce (a chipotle-esque mayo) blended perfectly with the other components contained between the bun. The burger was decent. Despite the bit of gristle I got with my first bite, it had a nice char and the entire burger, bun, condiments and all really maintained the perfect balance. While it filled me up because I had cheese fries on the side, if I only got a burger next time, I would probably get a double.

I sipped my root beer along with my lunch. It was slightly sweeter and less carbonated than a typical soda, but certainly enjoyable. At $2.65 for a small (12 or 16 ounce) cup, it was a more than I would normally spend for a non-alcoholic drink. And I’m not even a soda drinker to begin with.

My favorite might have been the fries. Cheese fries are high on the list (along with macaroni and cheese) of things that I *must* order when I go places.

When I saw that they were crinkle-cut, I was a little bummed. Crinkle-cut is not my favorite fry “style” as they’re often pre-frozen, limp and flavorless. The Shake Shack proved me wrong though! These fries were crispy and extra salty (if you’re not a huge salt fan, it might be off-putting, but I loved it.) And the cheese dip on the side, a combo of cheddar and American, was nice and hearty. I hate when you pay extra for cheese fries and get a minuscule amount. Shake Shack doesn’t mess around. They also have this adorable little fork (pick? pitchfork?) thingy to help you pick up the fries and dip them in the sauce without dirtying your fingers.

How thoughtful!

I tried a couple bites of the Shack-cago dog topped with a variety of veg. It was decent but with all the fine hot dog spots that we have around the city, I’d stick to burgers at Shake Shack.

Bottom line, Shake Shack is a great new addition to the area. I’m surprised by the insane hype and think those who are comparing it to Village Whiskey are a little silly. But it fits its own niche and we welcome it to the neighborhood.

Vernick Food and Drink

It’s always so hard to decide what to do on your birthday. It’s extra hard when it’s been a tough year and you know that great food is one of the only things that can make you feel really good. We were originally planning on taking a day trip to New York, but decided we wanted more time than the day would allow and decided to create our own day trip in the area. We started the day at Green Eggs Cafe–always a sure shot for their massive club or quinoa porridge (it was my  birthday so I opted for the club, of course.) We had a nice meal, despite the throngs of folks celebrating Mother’s Day. Have I ever mentioned how AWESOME it is sharing my birthday with Mother’s Day? After Green Eggs, we made our way to Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey, after hearing that La Phemme Phoodie had celebrated her birthday there the previous day. On the way home, we stopped for some Pop’s Water Ice, which was a perfect snack on the warm and sunny day–and our first water ice of the season!

The previous day, when throwing around ideas of where to go, what to do and, most importantly, what to eat on my birthday, I asked twitter for early word on Vernick Food and Drink. There wasn’t much of a response, but I said what the hell, let’s check it out. With Chef/Owner Gregory Vernick’s impressive background (CIA grad, Jean-Georges vet,) there was quite a buzz before it even opened. I didn’t want to call during dinner service so I booked dinner for two on Opentable and added a comment that we would like to be seated at the kitchen counter, if possible.

We stopped at Dandelion for a pre-dinner drink and had quite the chatty bartender who assured us that we just had to try the food there and told us all about a dish that all the chefs in the city come to eat. Thanks, buddy. I knew I wanted a cocktail at Vernick, so I decided to get a beer. Dandelion is a British spot, so I figured I’d check out one of their ciders. I’ve been partial to Strongbow ever since we visited my brother who was studying abroad in London in 2004. I asked the bartender to recommend a cider based on that interest and he directed me towards the Samuel Smith’s Organic Apple Cider. At $15, it certainly wasn’t cheap, but I figured I could go all out, it was my birthday! His recommendation was accompanied by a glorious tale of how Shakespeare used to drink this cider. How could I NOT order it when Shakespeare used to drink it??

The beer was pretty good. $15 good? I’m not sure. But I was obviously pumped to be drinking SHAKESPEARE’S FAVE BEER! Meanwhile, my husband enjoyed their cask flight which was a steal at $8 for three 5 ounce pours.

As my husband and I were drinking and chatting, he picked up my bottle to examine the label, which clearly stated “Est. 1758.” Um, Shakespeare died in 1616 so there’s no way in hell he ever had even a sip of this cider. Dammit! Either way, we got a great laugh out of it.

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

We walked a few blocks to Vernick, which is in an old bookstore’s space on 20th and Walnut. When we entered, we saw Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen fame and pastry chef, Monica Glass hanging at the bar.  I gave my name to the hostess/owner Julie Vernick and she glanced down at her reservation book.

“Oh,” she said with delight. “You wanted to sit at the chef’s counter?” I was nervous that she’d say it was unavailable or we couldn’t sit there for whatever reason.”

“Right this way.” She was SO pleased that we wanted to sit there.

YES!

We were brought to the back room with a few tables and a small, 7-seat chef’s counter. As we sat down, the hard-working folks in the open kitchen made sure to greet us without interrupting their dance.

We began the evening with a cocktail. My husband stuck with a classic martini while I ordered off the drink menu. The Green Goddess, with absolut, cucumber water, lime, chartreuse and bubbles tasted of a cool cucumber. The perfect summer drink.
 Soon after we received our drinks, they brought out a complimentary taste of pea soup. The soup was fresh and tasted of spring. With the soup, Vernick does the perfect job of preparing your palate for what is to come–simple ingredients with big flavors.
Following the soup, we received another gratis bite–one of our favorite dishes of the evening. The parmesan custard is made by boiling down the parmesan rinds and adding egg, of course. It is reminiscent of an Italian street food. This custard had the sharp tang of a real parmiggiano, cut with the richness of the egg. It was, quite literally, the perfect bite.

Following the parmesan custard, we received our toasts. There are a variety of toasts, ranging from $6-14. The toppings change seasonally. We had fromage blanc with pickled ramps (swoon!) and beef tartare with freshly grated horseradish.

The pickled ramps provided a tangy complement to the creamy fromage blanc. The beef and horseradish provided a similar, but more shocking combination. Look at all that fresh ‘radish!

Next up was the house made mozzarella with rhubarb jam. It provided a refreshing bite. The mozzarella was a bit denser than I was accustomed to, but the rhubarb jam paired nicely with the creaminess of the cheese.

The only thing I didn’t love about this dish were the tiny dark rye croutons. While I liked the concept of an added crunch, they were just a little too hard.

A simple beet salad followed. It’s hard to mess up a beet salad, but it’s also hard to really nail it. I’ve had great beet salads at both Barbuzzo and Vernick lately.

It was just so refreshing. And the moliterno cheese added just a bit of sharp creaminess to the dish to cut the richness of the beets.

Throughout the evening, we chatted with the chefs during the down times. They were working hard, but there was an ease to their work–you could tell they were really enjoying themselves. About halfway through our meal, a single gentleman sat down at the end of the counter and we started chatting with him. As it turns out, he was the owner of Rotisseur and fed the Vernick Food and Drink family many, many meals as they were building and developing the restaurants.

Our next two dishes were on the heavier side–the pacing was spot-on throughout the evening, starting with the toasts and moving graduating to the larger dishes. Our first pasta was the only real miss of the night. A buckwheat pasta with broccoli rabe and lemon, it kind of just fell flat.
The next pasta, however, hit the nail on the head…hard. The potato ravioli with braised lamb was something I could keep eating and eating for days. The pillowy ravioli was filled with a simple potato mixture but the braised lamb was rich, meat and just plain delicious. I loved the crunchy bread crumbs sprinkled delicately atop the dish.
We ended up forgoing dessert, although I can only imagine that Pastry Chef Angela Ranalli, who splits her time between Vernick and Le Virtu, is pushing out some amazing food.

Although we went the first week, there were no major kinks. The food was one of the better meals I’ve had in the city for a long time. If I lived closer, I’d be a regular for the creative cocktails and toasts at the bar. I’m sure my wallet (and my husband) is pleased that I don’t.