Talula’s Table Snowstravaganza!

Early in our nearly eight year-old relationship, my husband and I cautiously began exploring Philadelphia’s food scene with our tiny bank accounts, his affinity for meat and my love affair with vegetarianism. We both had cheap rent and little overhead so we tended to eat and drink (and buy cute shoes) our way through our paychecks.  We spent countless hours and dollars at Philadelphia’s hippest (read: Stephen Starr) and tastiest (read: Matyson) restaurants. When we heard about Django, this tiny little restaurant off of South Street that was causing quite a stir in the “foodie” (ugh, hate that word) community, we figured we’d check it out. Honestly, I don’t even remember what we had that night, but I remember the bread served in cute little clay flower pots and the (BYOB) wine in juice glasses. What could have been either kitsch or cute somehow managed to work.

As the story goes, the married owners of Django, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, made the decision that they wanted to raise their young daughter in the countryside. To the disappointment of many, they sold Django and left the city. Shortly thereafter, they opened Talula’s Table in Kennet Square, PA. Talula’s Table is a gourmet food market with loads of artisanal items, charcuterie, a huge selection of fine cheeses, baked goods, frozen pastas, sausages and other items along with a nicely stocked deli cases with sandwiches, salads and more.  Due to a non-compete clause, Olexy and Sikora were not allowed to open a restaurant within 40 miles from Django until 2009 and, as I understand, Talula’s Table lies just inside the line. Sikora did, however, get approval to cook in Talula’s kitchen and the dinners began.

Soon after opening, Sikora and Olexy began offering a “farm table” dinner with one seating per night for 8-12 people. When Craig LaBan gave a glowingly effusive review (no bells though, because he only visited once and was not anonymous) that was just the beginning of a flurry of news from all over, including a 2008 piece in the New York Times. Suddenly, Talula’s table became the “most hard-to-get” reservation in the country. To get a reservation, prospective diners had to call at 7am ONE YEAR in advance. It was then that caller’s responsibility to fill a table of 8-12 people for the evening.  At approximately $130 (including tax and gratuity) plus wine (they give proposed pairings to your menu to be purchased at Moore Brothers,) it was a much easier sell than one might imagine–due partially to the intrigue, I would imagine.

Fast forward to a couple years ago. My best friend, Farish, learned of Talula’s Table. Farish is someone who is enamored by both good food and “hard to get” items like a reservation with such specific requirements. Farish and another friend, Suzanne, went to Talula’s to shop one day and, in chatting with the owner, were added to the “invite only” chef’s table list, a four-top that is actually in the kitchen. Those who are added to the list are contacted when a table is available and invited to come out. It tends to occur on shorter notice and she received a call one summer but we were all busy with work and vacations and were unable to commit. We never heard back afterwards and always intended to call.

A couple of months ago, Farish and I were sitting on my couch discussing Talula’s Table and she mentioned that she was going to call them the following morning to make a reservation for late 2011. We took a peek at the website, just to check things out and learned that they had a cancellation for Wednesday, January 26th. The store was closed for the night, so Farish promised to call at 7am on the dot the following morning. Later the next day, I received an email from Farish–we were in! Thus the planning began. We solidified the guest list and waited patiently for the menu with suggested wine pairings.

About a week before the dinner, Farish got the menu with suggested wine pairings and we planned to visit Moore Brothers to purchase the wines for the nine excited eaters.  After an interesting trip to South Jersey (aren’t they all) and a GPS malfunction (for some reason, GPS’ place their address incorrectly) we made it to the store. Moore Brothers is like no wine store I’ve ever seen, especially as a resident of Pennsylvania with its parochial liquor laws. We were immediately assisted by a young and knowledgeable employee who took a look at our menu and pairings. We offered us a few suggestions, such as getting an extra bottle of the white Burgundy because he could see us sticking with that through the pheasant course. We ended up getting two bottles of each of their suggested pairings, with the exception of an additional bottle of white Burgundy and only one Moscatel. Farish and I left with some wine of our own, of course! I’m especially excited to try the Lambrusco as my husband and I drank many a bottle of the bubbly red in Emilia Romagna in May 2008 during our memorable trip to Northern Italy during which we got engaged.

As our dinner date neared, the weather forecasts became more and more ominous. A flurry of emails kicked off on Tuesday night and by Wednesday we decided to book a hotel room in the area so we wouldn’t have to drive home during the height of the storm (and after nine bottles of wine!) I looked up local hotels on Yelp and found a Marriott which was apparently .5 miles from Talula’s Table. I booked two rooms–what’s a little more money at this point, anyway?–and we were all set to go! After typing the address into Google maps, however, I learned that it was more like a mile from Talula’s. No sweat, I figured we’d be so pumped from the dinner that a nice stroll back to the hotel would do us well.

The nine of us left the city in three shifts–my husband and I were alone in our car and left around 4:15. The snow was supposed to start at 5pm and we figured we’d get a jump on the snow and evening rush hour. Well, the highway was a ghost town and we flew down 95 under a little rain but no sign of snow. Of course I had us take an absurdly roundabout route because I was worried about traffic and wanted to avoid Baltimore Pike, but we had plenty of time and the winding back roads were scenic and quiet. We even saw some sheep on the way out there. The conversation that ensued went a little bit like this.

Me: OHMYGOD

Husband: (alarmed) What? What?

Me: Look at those things!

Husband: Sheep?

Me: YEAH, are they REAL SHEEP???

Husband: I dunno, I guess.

I am such a city girl.

We finally made it to the hotel and checked in. The Marriott-owned Fairfield Inn was surprisingly nice and we got settled and waited for the rest of our friends. We decided that they would pick us up from the hotel and park in town. We would leave the car there overnight and we’d drive them to their car in the morning. We did notice that the route was not quite as walkable as we had envisioned–um, apparently there were no real sidewalks on Baltimore Pike. By the time they picked us up, just after 6pm, the snow was starting to come down pretty hard. We got to Talula’s around 6:30 and explored the store a bit. I bought my sister some treats for graciously agreeing to spend the night with our dog at the last minute. After wandering for a bit, we went next door to the pub for a beer while they finished preparations. At just after 7pm, we headed back to the store. Check it out in its snowy splendor.

Once we made our way inside, we saw the single table set for nine. It was simple, yet elegant, with single red tulips in vases and beautiful crystal (I think?) stemware.

The were touches of the rustic nature of Django with different colored wooden chairs. As you can see, the table falls right in the middle of the store. The shelves are packed with dry goods on the side and the cheese case is at the far end of the table. We sat down excitedly and they popped our first bottle, a crisp and sparkling Bonhomme Cremant 2007. As we took our first sips, we were presented with one of three amuse bouches of the evening, lobster on a spicy biscuit. This was one of my favorite bites of the evening. Smooth and creamy lobster with the crumbly biscuit that packed a bit of a punch.

Check out my place setting.

And a close up of one of the few printed menus that were scattering the table.

Around this time, I unsuccessfully called two taxicab companies in attempts to book a ride back to the hotel at 11pm. Next came a woodsy mushroom tartlette with rich, meaty chunks of mushroom and a buttery crust.

The third amuse bouche was a shot of butternut squash soup that tasted unlike any similar soup I’ve had in the past. It wasn’t quite as sweet and had a certain taste that I couldn’t quite put my finger (or taste buds) on but the savory nature of the dish really spoke to me. Even my husband, who does not generally like butternut squash, slurped it down with delight.

For each of those three dishes, they brought them to the head of the table on a platter and proceeded to hand them out. I tried to grab a picture of her explaining them but I felt a little creepy so I figured I’d stick with the ones on my plate.

The first course came out next. A Bisque of Hand-Harvested Maryland Shrimp, Shrimp Puppies, and Seafood “Andouille.” This velvety soup was a group favorite of the night.

The crunchy hush puppy paired perfectly with the richness of the soup. Sitting under the hush puppy was a play on a scallop–a scallop-shaped shrimp and scallop cake. I’m not generally a big shrimp fan but this soup was just so rich, yet not too heavy for a first course. I loved taking little bites of the hush puppy and shrimp/scallop cake in a spoonful of bisque. In fact, this is the first time I’ve had scallops since Scallop-gate 2004 when I got a serious case of food poisoning the night before the Eagles played in the Super Bowl.

Between courses, they delivered a hot gougere that I dove into with its light and buttery richness. So tasty!

We opened the White Burgundy Corsin Saint Veran 2008 to pair with the upcoming courses.  I was a little nervous about this one. I’ve never had snails before and I can’t say that they were even on my list of new foods to try. In the spirit of the evening, however, I wanted to try everything. I was quite interested in this presentation–Snail Caesar, Burgundy Snails, Braised Lettuce, Parmesan Crisps, and Garlic Toast.

The snails were chewy and almost had the consistency of mushrooms with no real distinct flavor. They were a bit sandy at times. In all, they were kind of just there. I was glad that I had the opportunity to try them, but they definitely didn’t wow me. I enjoyed the braised romaine and smear of Caesar foam along the side. The White Burgundy paired nicely–it had rich hints of Chardonnay with touches of butter but no heavy oakiness. It drank like a red. I don’t know much about French wines, especially from Burgundy, but this one certainly piqued my interest.

Then the bread baskets were delivered with local butter, sprinkled with sea salt. I didn’t really need bread, but I grabbed a flowery-looking brioche roll and smeared it with salty butter.  Hey, you’re at Talula’s Table, ya gotta try everything.

It was still snowing pretty hard at this point. Things started to get a little heavier with the Raclette Gratinée, Potatoes, Speck, and Smoked Almond served in individual gratin dishes and topped with a lemony arugula salad.

I’m a cheesy kinda gal and this was one of the dishes that I had been most excited about.  The gratinee was creamy and cheesy with big chunks and potato. The dish was gratineed, of course, and topped with healthy slice of speck and the smoked marcona almonds, along with the arugular salad. One thing that would have made me like this dish better was if the potatoes were either sliced thinner or cut into smaller chunks.  They used very starchy (she said Yukon Golds) potatoes and the big chunk did not allow each bite to incorporate a little bit of everything. I remedied that by cutting the potato and everything else into tiny pieces so that each bite offered a taste of everything. Wow, that speck was full of salty goodness and huge flavor. The marcona almonds were subtly smoked and they added a great crunch to the creaminess of the rest of the dish. I love a good crunch!

From there, the meal continued to progress nicely with our first, and lightest, protein dish of the evening, Virginia Bass with Squash Broth, Wild Rice Risotto, and Brown Butter Vinaigrette. We also moved into our first red, a Clos Julien Pinot Noir 2008.  The wine was tasty (I liked all of our wines) but I kind of lost my memory of it with all the other wines. It was quite drinkable and light, as to be expected with a Pinot Noir. I liked this dish a lot.

The bass was perfectly cooked and the broth added a nice wetness to the dish. I loved the crunchiness of the wild rice risotto, which is surprising, because I don’t usually like wild rice. Somehow they made it work because the crunchiness imitated the al dente-ness of a risotto. I also enjoyed the subtle hints of butternut squash in the broth. It wasn’t an overwhelming flavor, rather, my taste buds found the flavor every once in a while throughout the dish. On the side was some sort of crisp with some pieces of wild rice baked in. It reminded me of a rice cracker but I was in the bathroom when the dish was presented. The story of my life.

It was around this course that we heard the news “all public and parochial schools are closed tomorrow.” The table lit up with excitement as over half of us had just learned that we had the day off! I was especially impressed by Molly’s snow day appreciation dance. Perhaps she’ll reprise that one at her wedding in a few months.

Next up was Tender Pheasant, Sauerkraut and Apples, Riesling Sauce. They were not kidding about the “tender” description. I’ve never had pheasant and it tasted like a slightly richer and meatier version of chicken. As simple as it is, poultry can be difficult to cook to perfection because the margin of error from perfectly done to overdone and chewy is slim.  The pheasant was perfectly fork tender with a nice, chewy richness.

I also love, love, loved the tanginess of the sauerkraut and apples, which was balanced perfectly by the sweetness of the Riesling sauce. That sauce was so rich that I never would have guessed it came from the under-appreciated Riesling. I can only imagine how much butter was in it! This dish was really exciting and packed with flavor and texture.

By this time, the table had already discussed important educational issues and our favorite musicals. We then went around the table to share what type of restaurant or food establishment we would open if we had the chance, inspiration and money. Highlights included a good bakery while lowlights were captured by Tre with his idea for “Lukewarm,” a restaurant that would serve all food at room temperature. Awesomeness, Tre. Here’s our crazy group of diners (except for me.)

Our final protein of the night was one of the other dishes that I was extra-excited for! Confit of Meadowset Lamb, Rosemary Fazzoletti (wide ribbons of pasta,) Sourdough Breadcrumbs, and Sheep’s Milk Ricotta. I did get a little nervous after our whole sheep spotting incident, but forgot about it as soon as I dug in. I mean, c’mon, look at the description! Lamb confit?!?  We also opened our richest and heaviest wine of the night, Quinta de Quietud Quinta 2005, a Spanish Tempranillo.

The confit was reminiscent of a duck braise and had nice shreds of chewy, flavorful lamb. This is the type of food that my husband and I love to cook at home (although Talula’s did it better, of course.) I enjoyed the creaminess of a slightly thicker scoop of sheep’s milk ricotta perched atop the dish. I know the picture doesn’t do it justice but just believe me on this one–this dish was hearty and filling without being too heavy towards the end of the meal. It was phenomenal.

So I’m getting a little thrown off. The menu says that we stuck with the same wine for the cheese plate but my memory is a bit fuzzy as to when we moved along. I’ll go with the written menu, because it didn’t have a bottle of wine that night like some of us…

The cheese plate–Winter Cheeses and Cottage Condiments from the Green Mountain State–had an interesting variety of cheeses that I’ll try to remember here, even though I just realized that the notes I took on my phone are long gone.

The first two cheese were soft, creamy varieties, one of which had an aggressively pungent flavor. It’s kind of like you couldn’t even tell if you liked it so you kept eating it–with the smoked chocolate smear on the side, of course. The middle cheese, a Vermont cheddar (all of the cheese were from the Vermont area–apparently that’s the Green Mountain State?) was crumbly without falling apart in my fingers and had the cheddary tang with a smooth finish. I don’t remember the fourth cheese, but I do remember that we were supposed to eat it with the pretzel and peanut butter  ball on the side because it apparently pairs well with bacon and the flavors of the pretzel and PB bring forth bacon. The blue cheese was served with a splash of maple syrup from Vermont, of course. It was subtle and easy to eat. Again, it was a firm cheese without a serious tendency to crumble.

Let me catch my breath for a moment. We’re still going!!

To go with dessert, they poured our final bottle, La Cosecha Moscatel. I’m a huge fan of sherries and other dessert wines, so I was extra excited for this one and it did not fail me! The final course of the night was Milk Chocolate Pudding Tart with Banana Brulée, and Dogfish Head Rum Sauce.

This dish was fun and playful with a scorched marshmallow atop the pudding tart, atop a crisp cookie. Bananas are one of my most-hated foods (I’ve tried, I really have. I WANT to like bananas but just can’t do it) so I stuck with the left side of the dish. The housemade marshmallow and pudding tart were a perfect match–a little sweet, a little sticky–yet the cookie didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to cut into the whole dish to get a little bit of everything and the cookie was to crisp. I ate the other items off of it and then picked up the cookie and ate it by hand–which ended up working well for me. The Dogfish rum sauce was rich and awesome and added a punch of flavor to the dish.

Still snowing.

We thought dinner was over but alas, they brought some chocolate caramels–dark chocolate with sea salt and milk chocolate and pear.

My husband and I split one (isn’t it cute when married people do things like that?) It was rich and gooey with the best caramel I’ve ever eaten.  I’m not gonna lie–we had about 3 or 4 leftover chocolates and I put them in a ziploc bag that had been in my purse since a recent cookie swap during the holidays. My friends made fun of me and even accused me of being like my grandmother (her escapades deserve a post of their own, but let’s just say she’s poured many a food item into her purse.) I was just trying to help out and thought we could have the chocolates back at the hotel. Haters.

Anyway, our check finally came. I even took a picture of it. I mean, seriously, everything about this meal was TOO CUTE, down to the check.

With the check came a basket of house made scones “for breakfast in the hotel tomorrow.” Adorable!

We passed it around and I got a lemon-ginger one. Suzanne got the same one and snagged a photo.

Then came the interesting part.  We headed out of the cozy, welcoming doors to the height of the snow storm.

After a harrowing walk involving a lost bottle of wine (the bag broke and I didn’t hear it fall,) a few slip n’ falls and Tre’s close encounter with a snow plow–with a side of absolutely stunning scenery–we made it back to the hotel.

I can’t even imagine what the front desk folks thought when they saw nine abominable snowmen walk through their front doors as it neared the witching hour (well, seven, because we lost Molly and Terry for a short time.) We went upstairs, cracked a bottle of wine, chatted for a bit and feel soundly asleep.

The following morning, we sloooowly awoke and made our way downstairs for the complimentary breakfast. If I didn’t say it before, I was surprisingly pleased with our hotel. They had a nice lay out of bagels, English muffins, cereal and even an oatmeal bar! They had pre-made (not in house) quiche and Jimmy Dean sandwiches to be heated up in the microwave but we steered clear of that… We made ironic comments about our breakfast spread compared to the previous night’s gastronomic experience but it satiated us sufficiently (all I needed was carbs and coffee!) The guys headed back into town to pick up the other cars (well, they made it most of the way until they encountered a steep hill that our 2 wheel drive couldn’t handle) and we were on our way.

Despite the horrible roads, we made it back to Philadelphia in one piece (mad props to the Chester County Office of Emergency Management.) By the time we bounced and slid our way down our tiny South Philly street, my sister had shoveled out most of the spot that we had preemptively saved–nothing wrong with that! The rest of the day consisted of important things like a nap and a movie along with the consumption of my scone–PHENOMENAL!

Overall, Talula’s Table is an experience in and of itself, but the snowstorm added yet another layer. It was great to be with such a fun group of friends who enjoyed eating, drinking and laughter as much as I do.

New Wave Cafe

While looked for the online menu for this place, I finally realized why it sounded so familiar. There are apparently TWO New Wave Cafes in Philadelphia. I’m not talking about this one, folks. I’m talking about the Kensington-area (or was it Port Richmond? I get kind of lost up there) New Wave Cafe on Allegheny Avenue, just a few blocks from 95. Before we get any further, allow me to mention the alternative post title–New Wave Cafe or The Restaurant with the Worst Looking yet Best Tasting Food. That’s your warning. My pictures are pretty bad. In my defense, brown food doesn’t often translate well, but I will continue to share the images with that caveat.

My friend, Amy, and I had a workshop at the Center for Grieving Children, Teens and Families (great place, by the way) in Port Richmond? Kensington? or something like that on Wednesday night. We planned to grab a bite to eat afterwards and I was on the hunt for a good place nearby. As I was playing on Yelp and Google Maps, my best options seemed to be places like “Golden Dragon Chinese” and “Sal’s Pizzeria.”  I began to rethink our dinner date and wondered aloud what we could possibly do. See, Amy and I live in completely opposite areas and there was no real convenient place for us to go if we couldn’t stay close to the training.  My co-worker, Larissa, mentioned that there was a great Polish place not too far from there. I looked it up online and discovered it was just a few minutes from the training and I was sold!

After the training, we made our way back across Kensington Avenue and headed down Allegheny–Amy was following me and I was trying desperately to read my Google map directions in the dark. We finally passed the place on the right and it looked nothing like I would have expected. It seemed almost…shuttered? There was a bright white sign out front, but was otherwise indistinguishable. We couldn’t find a spot on Allegheny and I turned up the next little street. When we passed by the lady wandering aimlessly in her pajamas, I began to wonder if we made a mistake. Luckily, we made our way back onto Allegheny and quickly found two spots on the other side of the street.

We slowly opened the dark and ominous door to an interesting scene. The place screams dive bar but has some cool sculptures on the wall and even a disco ball in back. Verrrry interesting. When we walked in, the folks at the bar paused from their Polish banter to look up at us.  We were the only patrons sitting in the eating area and also happened to be the only non-Poles as well.

The friendly bartender/waitress came over quickly with the menus and we were quite pleased. There was a short but comprehensive menu heavy on kielbasa, potato and cabbage. Yes! All of the menu items were listed in both English and Polish, including an option for “traditional” or “Hungarian” potato pancakes. For those who are interested, apparently Hungarian ones have some sauce sandwiched between the two pancakes. We were both drooling over the pierogies and decided to split an order of mushroom & cabbage ones to start. “Fried or steamed,” she asked us. “Fried,” of course, was the obvious answer. I also got an order of borsch (we call it borscht where I come from but Poland must have dropped the “t”) and we both went with the “Cabbage and Meat” as an entree, which is basically a stewed cabbage and kielbasa dish.

The pierogies and my soup came out quickly. The pierogies arrived with a smattering of caramelized onions on the top. Wow, could you possibly make these pierogies even better? YUP, just add those onions!

The pierogies were stuffed to the brim, although I didn’t notice the mushroom end of the promised mushrooms and cabbage. Don’t get me wrong, I was drawn in by the cabbage so nothing was missing in my book! They were fried lightly on the outside and tangy, cabbages pillows inside.

My soup came out as well.

I’m a little disappointed that the picture didn’t translate the hot pink color that we saw in person. Although I only wanted a cup-sized portion, all soups come in bowl orders only and for $3.00 that’s fine by me. As mentioned, the soup was a bright pinkish-red clouded with a clump of sour cream that had obviously already disintegrated into it and specked with chunks of beets, potato and dill. This borsch was lighter than other version I’ve had, with a clean, refreshing taste. My favorite part, of course, was when I got a surprise chunk of beet in my spoon!

While we were still finishing up our appetizers, our cabbage entree came out.

This was a stew-like dish of cabbage studded with a generous amount of sliced kielbasa in a thickened sauce. It came with a side of marbled rye for dipping and we were sure to indulge. This was a cabbage dish for someone who does not like cabbage. It was slowly stewed to a belly-warming softness with a rich and somehow creamy yet tangy sauce. I was a bit full from my whopping portion of soup so I ended up taking about half of my dish to go (and ate it later that night, whoops! All in the name of research–it’s good cold too!)

As we were preparing to leave, I headed to the ladies room. I was unbuckling my belt when I heard a loud banging on the door and an older woman’s voice saying “honey? honey? the bathroom!” I quickly redid my belt and was adjusting my shirt while she continued to pull on the doorknob (thank god I remembered to lock the door!)  When I came out, this little Polish grandmother with an apron mentioned that the bathroom was broken. I started to say “I can just use the men’s…” but before I knew it, she was bending over, aggressively plunging the unassuming victim. Moments later, she stood up, flushed the toilet and said “all done,” before heading back into the kitchen. All I could think was I hope she washes her hands.

Overall, New Wave Cafe was a great place to go for a break from the norm. Although it’s a bit of a hike from my house, its proximity to 95 makes it a welcome destination spot when I’m craving some hearty Polish fare. NB: they do NOT take credit cards, even though Yelp says they do. This created a near disaster for us until we could scramble together enough cash to pay the (very reasonable) bill.

Buffalo Wings

Last weekend, my husband was removing a takeout menu from our front stoop when he mused “why don’t we have wings for the game on Sunday.” When I asked him if he wanted to buy or make them, he initially said buy, but then we both decided that this is something we could easily make-with the right recipe, of course. I did a little searching on the internet and came across an Alton Brown recipe that looked pretty straightforward and had great reviews. I’m a little weird about using online recipes. I have my “go to” sites that I trust, which include Epicurious and The Food Network. On the other hand, I’m totally weirded out by things like Allrecipes and Cooks.com. Don’t ask because I wouldn’t be able to give you a reasonable informed rationale behind my thoughts. Back to the wings. Even though I think Alton Brown is a total weirdo, I’ve made a few of his recipes before and they seem to be on point–something about the science behind his recipes seems to work. So I figured I’d check out his wing recipe and see what it was all about.

Alton Brown’s Buffalo Chicken Wings

  • 12 whole chicken wings
  • 3 ounces unsalted butter
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • I added about 1/4 cup honey to balance out the spiciness

**I had slightly more than 12 chicken wings so I upped the amounts a bit. Didn’t use any specific ratios, just eyeballed it. And, as I stated in the ingredients, I added some honey so the wings would be a bit sweeter and to cut the spiciness

Place a 6-quart saucepan with a steamer basket and 1-inch of water in the bottom, over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. The funny thing about using the steamer basket is the fact that we were cleaning out the basement the previous day and my husband picked up the steamer basket and asked what the heck it was. I don’t think I’ve used it in the four years we’ve lived in our current house and I used it the day after he noticed it.

Remove the tips of the wings and discard or save for making stock (i.e. put in your freezer with the best intentions, forget about it and then throw it away during a freezer-cleaning frenzy.) Using kitchen shears, or a knife, separate the wings at the joint. This takes a little practice to get just right. When you cut it in the right place, it will cut through very easily. If it’s not cutting easily, you probably need to adjust your cut. Place the wings into the steamer basket, cover, reduce the heat to medium and steam for 10 minutes. Remove the wings from the basket and carefully pat dry. Lay the wings out on a cooling rack set in a half sheet pan lined with paper towels and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour. This step is incredibly important because it fully dries out the chicken. Dryness is important because it helps the skin get nice and crispy in the oven.

 

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Replace the paper towels with parchment paper or a silpat if you realized that you ran out of parchment paper earlier.  Parchment is best though, because cleaning a silpat after cooking these wings on it is a real pain.  Roast on the middle rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Turn the wings over and cook another 20 minutes or until meat is cooked through and the skin is golden brown.

While the chicken is roasting, melt the butter in a small bowl along with the garlic. Pour this along with hot sauce, honey and salt into a bowl large enough to hold all of the chicken and stir to combine.

Remove the wings from the oven and transfer to the bowl and toss with the sauce. Serve warm with celery and house made blue cheese dressing from Linvilla Orchards. But only if you’re fancy like us! Oh, and enjoy while watching the Eagles win, of course.

These wings were excellent! The roasting provided a perfect crispness without the added fat of your traditional deep-fried wings. It also allowed for us to enjoy the juicy meat with just a perfect amount of crunch. Although there were a few steps, the overall dish was super easy and the basic preparation could be used with a variety of different sauces.

 

 

Le Viet

Ever since Le Viet opened in a flashy building on 11th Street, just north of Washington, a few months back, my husband and I had been wanting to check it out. Have I mentioned that we love Vietnamese food?? It seemed to have Vietnam potential a little closer to our neck of the woods–solid Vietnamese food and yummy cocktails. OK, I didn’t really know what kind of cocktails they had but drive by and look at the sign; it will make you think they have yummy cocktails, I promise. Somehow we never got the chance as our go-to Vietnamese spots are, as you know, Vietnam and Vietnam West. When we get into the Mex-Asian area of Philadelphia (11th & Washington-ish) we tend to frequent Nam Phuong for good, cheap pho and a lightning quick meal. Actually, we were recently at Nam Phuong for lunch and I saw a number of flyers on the cars parked in the Asian Supermarket that shares a space with Nam Phuong. Much of the flyer was in Vietnamese,  but I got the gist that they were explaining that their prices were just as reasonable, if not more so, than the other local restaurants. But I digress. A few weeks ago we were in the mood to eat out on a chilly Saturday night and thought we’d check out Le Viet for the first time.

We drove a few blocks (it was cold!!) north to Washington Avenue and searched for a spot for a few minutes before settling on a strange side street on which we had to park with two wheels on the curb. Oh, we’re from South Philly so this parking spot was our cup of tea! We walked into Le Viet and were greeted immediately by a friendly staff member who ushered us back to a table. I chose the seat facing the open kitchen, of course, but my husband is accustomed to that. As we perused the menus, glancing over at the gorgeous wood bar and large plasma televisions, my husband noted that they must not have their liquor license as the bar was devoid of alcohol. That was strange. I guess we missed the memo that the liquor license was still in limbo. Oh well, an alcohol-free dinner isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The menu had many traditional (and familiar) Vietnamese items, although the appetizer list was a little more adventurous. We went safe with our entrees–house special pho for the husband and vermicelli with shrimp balls for me. I was proud of myself for veering away from my typical protein selection of chicken, beef or calamari. For appetizers, we went with our favorite summer rolls stuffed with shrimp and pork (we usually opt for the veggie version) and the wings. Oh man, the wings aren’t listed on their website’s menu but they had a funny name like “Uncle Charlie’s Wings” or something. Don’t quote me on that though…

After a brief wait, the summer rolls (gui cuon) arrived.

While they were not dissimilar to other summer rolls I’ve had, it did not keep me from enjoying them immensely.  There’s nothing like the fresh flavors contained in a simple rice wrapper. The secret to summer rolls? The sauce. I actually had to guard the leftover sauce from more than one overzealous waiter once the rolls were devoured.

Soon thereafter the wings arrived. Something we noticed throughout our meal was the neat dishes and attention to plating in the kitchen. Also, cutely enough, the wings came with much-needed wet-naps!!

I’m a bit delayed on blogging so I’m having difficulty with taste recall but they were sweet and not spicy with a gingery Asian flair. These wings were really, REALLY good! I also enjoyed the bed of arugula soaked with excess wing sauce. Made me feel like I was eating healthy!

After a slightly longer than preferred wait (ok, it probably would have been better if we had drinks!) our entrees arrived. My husband’s steaming hot bowl of pho was just was he was hoping for.

My vermicelli, on the other hand, totally threw me for a loop. They set it at the table and asked if I wanted it with rice paper wrappers. You saw what I wrote about them earlier, so I enthusiastically said “Yes!”

Look at the shrimp balls! And yes, the word ball is a little misleading. So they placed the wrappers down next to my plate and asked if I wanted a tutorial. Who me? The old Vietnamese food pro? Nah!! The wrappers, for those of you who don’t know, must be dipped briefly into a bowl of steaming hot water to sufficiently soften them for your wrapping pleasure. After a few successful rolls, a waiter swooped onto my table and told me that he just had to give me a lesson because I was dipping my wrapper for too long. Who knew. A bruised ego and a few notches humbler, I perfected the dip and finished up my little rolls. While they were quite tasty (and I especially enjoyed the “fixins” that went with them) I did yearn for my typical Vietnam vermicelli bowl. It’s ok though–I had something a little different and enjoyed it!

We passed on dessert and got the check. Apparently dining without alcohol has its perks–our meal was in the $20 range for two appetizers and two entrees! I guess those Vietnamese language flyers were telling the truth! Ironically, Craig LaBan’s two-bell review of Le Viet came out the same weekend.  I guess the husband and I are just in the know!

Vietnamese Noodle Salad a.k.a. Adventures with my Mandoline

Fridays are usually take-out nights in the Row Home Eats household. After a long week, there’s nothing like curling up to a movie and a Los Jalapenos steak, pepper and onion burrito (hold the rice, add guacamole, please.) We don’t have to worry about cooking and our weekly food supply has diminished just in time for our Saturday shopping expeditions at the Reading Terminal. This Friday, however, we had some extra marinated flank steak calling our name. My butcher, Harry Ochs, has an amazing soy-ginger marinade that they use on flank steak and chicken breast. It’s normally available pre-packaged but, if not, they’re always happy to marinate your choice of meat to order. Flank steak is a difficult topic for us because I enjoy my meat a little more well done, while my carnivorous husband, Mr. Row Home Eats, likes it rare. We recently discovered a happy medium–we cut the steak into skewers and the pieces can be cooked to order. Happiness all around.

As I was contemplating the sides to go with our marinated steak skewers, my husband suggested an Asian noodle salad. The evening took off from there. Have I mentioned that Vietnam is my favorite restaurant? Have I devoted extensive posts to my adoration for Vietnamese food? Why is it, then, that I have never attempted to make it at home? That was it. I was sold on making a Vietnamese noodle salad topped with grilled steak similar to my favorite vermicelli bowl at Vietnam.

I did a little googling and came across this recipe. I didn’t realize it was Bobby Flay until just now so you can stop making fun of me. I did, of course, make major alterations to the recipe based on available ingredients and taste preference. My amalgamated recipe follows.

Bobby Flay’s Vietnamese Rice Noodle Salad, adapted

  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (omitted–Mr. RHE doesn’t like spicy)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (used more like 2-3 tbsp)
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce (didn’t have. Used 3 tbsp soy sauce instead)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt(omitted)
  • 1 pound dried rice vermicelli
  • 2 carrots, julienned
  • cucumber, halved, peeled, seeded and sliced into thin halfrounds
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint (omitted, didn’t have.)
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded napa cabbage (probably used closer to 1-2 cups. What can I say, I like cabbage)
  • 1/4 cup chopped dryroasted nuts

I started by slicing and skewering the flank steak to prepare it for the grill.

While we waited for the grill to pre-heat, I pulled out my mandoline and began wreaking havoc on my kitchen. I was inspired to use my mandoline after my recent post on kitchen tools. My friend, Alexa, commented that she loved her mandoline and I realized that I’ve only used it once, rather unsuccessfully, since we received it as a wedding gift. Another friend, Brad, shared his unfortunate mandoline experience (unfortunate for his finger, that is) and I was intrigued. Perhaps I should give my mandoline another shot, I thought.

Last time I used the mandoline, I was less than successful. It was difficult to get the hang of it and I couldn’t get a clean “sweep” back and forth. This time I started with the easy English cucumber. The mandoline glided back and forth effortlessly–I was back in business! Then I moved on the the cabbage. I was excited to try the julienne blade as I had only ever used the straight slicer. It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful.

Most of it got into the bowl I placed beneath…it went a little more downhill when I switched to carrots. In the end, I got a nice amount of sliced and julienned vegetables. I think they look rather pretty!

My mandoline was a little worse for the wear. Does anyone have tips as to how to remove carrot stains?

As I finished playing with my mandoline, the water started boiling for the rice noodles. As I was just about to toss them in, my husband came in and informed me that we were out of propane halfway through the cooking process. Chalk that up to another typical cooking experience. Sigh. Under the broiler they went and I began prepping the sauce.

I combined the soy sauce, lime juice, honey, cilantro and garlic in my mini-Cuisinart. See, I TOLD you I use that thing a ton! I was wondering why Bobby didn’t use any rice vinegar in his recipe so I tossed a bit in the mixture. After I whirred the thing a bit, I deemed the mixture a bit thin and decided to add some peanuts. Where did I get said peanuts? Well, for those of you who might have thought that I was some fancy foodie, think again. I picked the peanuts out of a bag of trail mix that was sitting in my fridge. Yes I did. Nothing is beneath me, my friends. Here’s the Cuisinart in action.

After the sauce was made, I brought the water back to a boil and tossed in the rice noodles. Instructions said to boil for 2 minutes but they weren’t quite ready and I added another minute or two. Then I drained them and covered in cold water, rinsing them well. The rice noodle give off  a lot of gumminess so the rinsing is key. Also, this is a cold noodle salad and we want to keep it that way. Here’s a boring white on white picture (with a shadow) to show you what it looks like at this point.

I pulled the flank steak out of the broiler and it looked darn good. We don’t need no stinkin’ grill!

While the steak was cooling a bit, I tossed the noodles and vegetable slaw with the dressing. I didn’t think the dressing would be sufficient (it was only about a cup) but it soaked into the noodles nicely.  I also threw in some more ground peanuts, sliced green onion and some extra cilantro on top.

I mixed it all up and put the remaining cucumbers on top.

Then we dug in! I prepared myself a bowl with a couple slices of flank steak and, if I can say so myself, the dish looked eerily similar to my favorite place!

I topped mine with some sriracha because I like the heat! Then we settled down to an evening of Mad Men on DVD. The noodle salad was a hit! It had a very strong lime/acidic flavor, probably due to the extra rice wine vinegar I added. The vegetables and chopped peanuts added a welcome crunch to the chewiness of the noodles and the steak was, not surprisingly, a perfectly charred, meaty addition to the bowl. A word to the wise–this dish does not keep well at all. The noodles harden up a bit and the flavor subsides substantially. If you’re going to make it, be sure you eat it all the same day. It’s so darn good that it shouldn’t be too difficult.

Vietnam Restaurant

I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about Vietnam Restaurant yet.  This is probably my favorite restaurant in Philly–a great place for a quick bite or a long, martini-filled evening with family or friends. You may remember an early Row Home Eats post in which I documented a family dinner in honor of my brother’s impending move to Orlando. Although we did not dine at Vietnam, we began our evening there with a memorable cocktail.

Vietnam has two locations–its flagship restaurant on North 11th Street and Vietnam Cafe (or Vietnam West, as we sometimes call it) which is located, quite conveniently, a block from my parents’ house.  My husband and I take every opportunity to dine at either spot as often as possible. In fact, I may or may not have eaten dinner there two nights in a row this summer. Shhh…

Some of my favorite Vietnam memories involve rowdy, laughter-filled meals with my dearest friends in my post-college days. Recently, my good friends, Minna and Ben, were in town and we decided to revisit the past and dine at Vietnam with another close friend, Ninh.

Oh I forgot to mention that Vietnam is located quite conveniently on the route 23 bus line–as is our house. This is wonderful for so many reasons. Let me count the ways. #1 We have to walk under 1 block in total, door to door #2 No searching for parking and (drumroll please) #3 Safety first! No drinking and driving!

The husband and I grabbed the 23 quickly and reached the restaurant with some time to burn. Our intention was to grab a drink at the bar/lounge on the top floor, but apparently it’s not open on weekdays. We decided to traipse a few doors down and wait for our friends at Yakitori Boy. Yakitori Boy is a relatively new bar and restaurant best known for its karaoke and “Japas.” We didn’t indulge in either of those, but sipped a tasty martini at the empty bar. Interesting martini glasses.

After a brief wait, we met our friends back down the street at the restaurant. My husband and I don’t often stray from our typical orders at Vietnam. He tends to get the #37–House Special Vermicelli–which is a combo of spring rolls, meat balls, grilled chicken and pork over vermicelli. It’s actually no longer #37, but old habits…I always get vermicelli, but switch up the protein from chicken to beef to squid, if I’m feeling fishy. We’ll usually split an appetizer of vegetarian summer rolls or crispy shrimp.  Things are different, however, when you’re out with a group. Our friends were hoping to order a number of dishes to share and for some reason I was feeling strangely proprietary over my food (this coming from a 29-year old who needs to sit at the same seat at my parents’ dining room table that I sat in growing up.) However, majority rules and I agreed to order with everyone.

We started with a drink, of course.

Three men in glasses just sharin’ a little drink. Let’s see how long this picture stays up before any one of the three depicted orders it to be banished from the interwebz.

We decided to order an appetizer of green papya salad with shrimp. My friend, Minna, travelled through Asia in her early 20s and this is one of the dishes that she remembers fondly. This was Minna’s non-negotiable dish. Last time I was at Vietnam, we dined with my co-worker and her husband. My co-worker, Alexa, has two younger brothers who were adopted from Vietnam and has become familiar with the cuisine over the years. Her go-to dish is salt and pepper shrimp which I tried and loved! The name does not do that dish justice and I vowed to try it again. For this reason, I walked into Vietnam (the restaurant) with hopes of ordering salt and pepper squid. My friends weren’t initially feeling this request, but that became my non-negotiable and thus it was ordered.

To round out the meal, we ordered the immense BBQ platter, chicken vermicelli and a seafood hot and sour soup. The BBQ platter is great for a group. It has meatballs, grilled chicken, grape leaves stuffed with beef, vegetable accoutrements and maybe some other things….I’ll have to look at the picture to job my memory. They include rice paper wrappers if you are so inclined to make your own little Asian burrito/summer roll/etc. This dish is awesome. Did I mention that?

Our food came out in no particular order.

Oh right, it has spring rolls too. Interestingly enough, my favorite part of the BBQ platter was probably the grilled chicken and the grape leaves.

Grilled shrimp and papya salad. I don’t eat a ton of shrimp, but I grabbed a big spoonful of papaya salad and tossed it with the vinegary dressing and a splash of sriracha. That did just the trick!

OK, now I’m confused. The soup was a contentious menu item for us. Minna doesn’t like spicy and Ninh wanted to order hot and sour. He promised it wouldn’t be too spicy, but now I’m looking back and think that we may have gone with the Canh Chua Thai (seafood lemongrass) soup. Who knows. My husband loved it but I thought it was just ok (and I only had the broth as scallops and I haven’t gotten along since 2004.) The broth was rich and tangy and we ended up polishing it off. So whatever it was, I guess it was good!

Ahhh, the salt and pepper squid. This, my friends, was another contentious item, but I’m glad I put my foot down. What a hit! I texted Alexa during our meal and thanked her for inspiring my order! The squid came in strips and was not overly fried–just enough to provide a little crispy crunch. I could have eaten those guys all night long. Seriously.

And the vermicelli. There’s not much to say about this besides it was as good as ever. As much as I enjoyed our meal, I was reminded how much I really, really love Vietnam’s vermicelli. They just do it right. From the dipping sauce to the pickled veggies and char-grilled meats, there’s nothing I don’t like about this dish. Oh, and peanuts make everything taste better.

This was our table at the end of the night. We done good! After my tentative feelings going into the meal, the splitting encouraged me to try new dishes AND it was budget friendly. We left sufficiently stuffed while spending less than we normally do at the same restaurant. Can’t complain about that. Besides, we had the very best company and lots and lots of laughter. I love my friends.

Adsum Restaurant

Adsum opened a few months in the space at 5th & Bainbridge that formerly housed Coquette. Owner and Executive Chef, Matt Levin, has a resume that reads like a Who’s Who in fine dining. He spent time at Le Bec Fin, Brasserie Perrier and Lacroix, among others, refining his skill set in fine dining. Adsum displays this attention to detail and fine dining with a little more personality. Chef Levin (@ChefLevin if you’re the Twitter-type) has taken Adsum and made it some weird yet phenomenal fusion of fine dining (and drinking, of course) and just plain fun!

I had been wanting to check out Adsum for weeks, especially since following them on Twitter (@adsumrestaurant) and reading about mouth-watering late night specials like fried green tomatoes and mini pierogies. Yum!  Then restaurant week happened. I’m usually anti-Restaurant Week because the restaurants are packed and I feel as if you’re not getting the true experience of the place from a food OR service side. However, when the Center City Restaurant Week (not linking it because I’m being a brat. Google it if you like) decided to bar restaurants lying south of South Street from their Restaurant Week, I thought that was just plain mean. THEN, some of these restaurants like James and Adsum created their own “restaurant week” menus in a renegade restaurant week. How racy!  I checked out Adsum’s menu and thought it looked pretty interesting, but was reeled in by the $12 wine pairing. For $47 you could get 3 courses with paired wines (including a dessert wine. I love dessert wine!)

I asked my friends Joe and Christina to join us and we met them on a breezy Tuesday evening. I hopped out of the car while everyone was looking for parking and ordered a tasty Belvedere martini despite the intriguing cocktail menu.  By the time everyone arrived, I had decided that I was not, in fact, going to order from the fixed menu, despite my initial attraction. I was really, really drooling over two items on the menu–the pierogies and the fried chicken. Now, Rick Nichols LOVES Levin’s fried chicken, naming it the best in the city along with my neighbor, Ann Coll’s, at Meritage. Nichols must really like that chicken, because he was dining at Adsum the night I was there as well.

As I was perusing the menu, I noticed that one of the waitstaff was a dear old friend of mine from high school. Along with an amazing meal that evening, I had the opportunity to catch up with Jay and feel blessed that we were able to reconnect. I asked Jay for suggestions and he immediately pointed out the fried oyster appetizer along with the fried chicken and pierogie entrees (how in the world do you spell pierogi? Spellcheck doesn’t seem to like any of my suggeestions.) Ironically, we had been checking out all of those dishes. It was settled My husband started with the heirloom tomato salad (he’s a tomato junkie) and the fried chicken. I went with the fried oysters and pierogies. My husband loved his salad but I was too busy devouring my oysters to care about anything else.

The oysters were fried with a pickle juice remoulade. Um, YUM! They were a perfect balance of crunchy fried coating encasing each meaty, briny oyster. Sigh. These were SO GOOD!

Looking at that picture makes me want to eat them all over again. Christina ended up ordering the fixed menu and got the tuna carpaccio. I didn’t try any (or get a picture) but she really enjoyed it, especially commenting on the garlic soy flavor. In a funny twist of events, the kitchen accidentally had an extra romaine salad and dropped it at our table for Joe, who had not ordered an appetizer. Apparently Joe does not like green stuff, but the kitchen’s gift was not lost on the others. The rest of us picked at the romaine hearts while he snacked on a few of the polenta croutons.

Then came the entrees. My pierogies, which Jay described as “not your grandma’s pierogies” were stuffed with a creamy potato filling and accompanied with”burnt onions” and a smoky buttermilk cream.

Talk about comfort food. I can see why they make miniature versions of these for the late night bar snack. I loved the cool smokiness of the buttermilk cream while the onions rounded out the doughy pockets. One word of warning–if you don’t like smoke flavor, you will not like this dish. Luckily I like smoke flavor!

Then came the fried chicken. Save yourself some bad writing and cut right to the chase with Rick Nichol’s description that I linked above. This chicken might have been the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

Unfortunately, I took an awful picture. Oh well, go there yourself and just get the chicken. You’ll thank me later.

I didn’t get a photo of Christina’s gnocchi, but Joe went all out and got the burger with farmhouse cheddar, pancetta-onion fondue and, yes, duck fat fries.

Oh right, I forgot the mention the monstrous SLAB of foie gras that can be added for an additional $9 (in case you were wondering, he doesn’t eat green stuff on his burgers either.) I didn’t try the burger, but Joe left a happy and full man. I did snag a few fries and they were perfectly crisp and salty. Much better than the super crisp yet tasteless fries I had in New England this weekend.

Throughout the dinner we had a couple more drinks and lots of laughter (some of it coming at the expense of the person pouring our water who poured it really, really high such that we couldn’t pick up our glasses without spilling it all over. Things like this are amusing to me.)  The wine comes in beakers and is poured into your glass table side–the wine pairing came with smaller pours which was probably a good thing for Christina! My husband and I ended dinner with after dinner drinks that they recommended. My mind is blanking right now but I definitely enjoyed it. Overall, Adsum has a great vibe. I would love to check it out for just a few apps and drinks and it would probably become dangerous to my wallet, liver and waistline if I lived a little closer.

Oh, and we didn’t realize that we were on a pre-celebratory dinner with Christina and Joe who got engaged the next day. Congratulations, friends!

Lobster Dinner

When one goes to New England, one must engage in typical New England behavior such as devouring enormous amounts of lobster and forgetting how to pronounce the letter “r” at the end of words such as chowder (chowdah) and bar (bah.) It’s truly a cultural experience. Although we have yet to indulge in lobster rolls (waiting for our side trip to Maine,) we perpetuated the tradition of a family lobster boil. It didn’t hurt that lobster (lobstah) currently stands at $4.99/lb which is UP one dollar from last week!

My husband and I volunteered to pick up the lobsters from one of the multitude of lobster retailers along the bay. We were directed to Captain Joe’s by my father-in-law. This is after we stopped to stock our cooler with ice and get cash from the ATM because the lobster shop was cash only, of course.

It was nice to have some sort of direction because there were tons of viable options along the bay, including a place that lured people in with the alluring scent of a smoker–a respectable side business. When we pulled into Joe’s, there were empty lobster pots stacked around the parking lot. Can’t get much more authentic than that.

We walked up to the garage-like building that butted the harbor.

Unassuming, right? And I didn’t even notice the Porta-Potty until I posted the picture. How appetizing. The structure had openings at both ends and you could see where the lobster boats unloaded right into Captain Joe’s garage. We walked towards the back of the room, wondering if we were doing the right thing. You don’t want to look like an outsider or tourist at a place like this. At the very back, right hand side of the room, sat about a dozen lobster tanks and two men occupying themselves with something, obviously lobster-related. I was trying to fit in and all so I didn’t blatantly take a picture of the set up, although I did take a quick shot of the “price list.”

It’s hard to read, but I kid you not when I say that the lobster were $4.99/lb. That’s right, kids. They were cheaper than steaks and even some fancy, Whole Foods chicken breasts. Lobstah!?!

OK, I lied. Apparently I took one quick picture of the lobster containers. This ain’t fancy, folks. The lobsters were divided by size and stored in these long containers.

Here is a view from the dock where they “receive” the lobster–I literally stood in the edge of the dock.

Because I’ve been trying to write this post for about a month now, I’m not going to get into the lengthy argument, ahem, conversation we had about the preparation of the lobster. I will say two things, however, There were a few strong opinions and one too many cooks in the kitchen. My husband’s aunt had recently read an article in Yankee Magazine with a different technique of cooking lobster. They advocated steaming them in a couple inches of very salty water instead of boiling them.  The recipe came from Bertha Nunan, owner of the Nunan’s Lobster Hut in Kennebunkport, Maine and my husband’s aunt was very emphatic that we try it. Bertha Nunan believes that boiling the lobster leaves the crustacean too soggy, while steaming it allows for the perfect consistency. As a former vegetarian who has a terrifying lobster slaughtering experience, I wasn’t a fan of steaming them. I was a fan of the quick and dirty boil–we’d put those little suckers out of their misery in a snap–but realized that there were two many opinions and retired to the deck with a book in hand.

A few minutes (and lots of talking, pots clanging and timers beeping) later, my father-in-law emerged with this:

The Nunan method was a success! The lobster was perfectly cooked and the heavily salted water imparted just a hint of ocean flavor to the meaty lobsters. We pounced on them with dishes of butter by our sides and this beautiful tomato salad compliments of my sister-in-law. We had corn too, but I was too busy with my lobster to grab a photo.

The Kennebunk Inn-Academe

I will preface this post with the subtitle–“A Tale of Two Restaurants.”

A few years ago, I fell hard for former New York Times food editor and (then current) Gourmet Magazine editor, Ruth Reichl.  I read a number of her books, which would fall under the increasingly growing sub-category of “food memoir,” but became particularly smitten with Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl discusses her tenure as Times restaurant critic and the costumes, meals and emotion involved in the job. The book is an easy yet interesting read, divided into chunks that centered on the restaurant she was reviewing and how that fit into her life at the time.

Two interesting side notes to this book. First, my best friend borrowed the book shortly after I finished it. She, too, enjoyed it immensely, but owned up that she had spilled red wine on my hardback copy and had gotten me a paperback replacement because that was all that was available at the bookstore. Instead of taking the new book, I opted for my increasingly tattered and now wine stained book because every tear, wrinkle and stain tells a story. The other story is a bit more serious. Five years ago, my father was in the hospital for a month with an undisclosed lung infection that necessitated a medically-induced coma. I sat faithfully by his bed each day until he shocked the medical world (true story) by turning the corner and is in impeccable shape today. Because I was so distraught by his illness, it was difficult for me to concentrate on anything serious. Instead, I spent hours reading and rereading Garlic and Sapphires, allowing Reichl’s words to take me to another place with Bob Dylan and the Band on repeat on my ipod.  I saw Ruth Reichl at a reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia a year or two ago and became emotional when I had the opportunity to meet her. It’s amazing to think how much someone can have an affect on your life without even knowing.

But I digress yet again.

In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl is often faced with the dilemma or wrapping her head around the “meaning” of her job. Although she held a lofty position and had the opportunity to have red carpet treatment at every restaurant in the City, she wanted to be sure she was able to truly and honestly critique the restaurants for “the people.” She wanted every Tom, Dick and Harry to understand what his experience would be like should he opt to eat at Le Cirque, for example, rather than having them read about her amazing meal only to come and be treated like a (gasp) normal person or worse. To combat this concern, she had different personas that came complete with wigs and costume overhauls so that she truly got the everyman’s dining experience.

Although we did not wear costumes at The Kennebunk Inn’s Academe Brasserie in Maine, we had the unique opportunity to do something we’ve never done before–eat dinner at the same restaurant two days in a row. Let me back up a bit. My husband and I were planning a trip to New England to visit his aunt, sister and brother-in-law. We decided to take a side trip up to Kennebunkport, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In googling “dog friendly hotels Kennebunk” (more budget friendly lodging than the ‘Port as locals call Kennebunkport) I came across The Kennebunk Inn. It turns out we stayed at The Kennebunk Inn three years ago when we were last in Maine. According to the dog-friendly website and a confirmation call to the hotel, dogs were not only allowed, but we would be able to leave her in the room if we wanted to partake in any dog-unfriendly activities in Maine. Score! Many of the supposed dog-friendly hotels will not allow you to leave your dog in the room unattended.

We got into Kennebunk mid-day on Wednesday and went immediately to Kennebunkport for a lobster roll and clam strips at the Clam Shack and a stroll around town. Stay tuned for my lobster roll post. We went back to the hotel room and I found a local pet supply store while my husband explored the area on his bike. When he returned, we took Jewels to the beach for her first experience with waves. She loved it!

The weather was lovely and we decided that we would have dinner at the Inn that evening. We headed to the private courtyard and made ourselves comfortable (despite the wicked Maine mosquitoes) while waiting for our martinis. For $7.50 and $8.00 for dirty Absolut and Beefeater martinis respectively, we got a great deal. Especially considering the mini shaker that came with another half a martinis worth on the side.

The martinis were fine although I still haven’t found one that holds a candle to James or Le Virtu’s skilled bartenders. We enjoyed them while we perused the vast menu. I had already checked out the menu online and couldn’t help but be drawn to the chicken croquettes. Why? I’m not sure. However, I couldn’t peel myself away from them. I decided to be piggy and go with the chicken croquettes and the lobster pizza. When in Maine, right? My husband ordered the specials–haddock chowder and an intriguing scallop dish.

Our appetizer arrived we tore into after the deliciously moist and fresh out of the oven rolls. My croquettes were larger than expected.

The order came with three substantial croquettes surrounding a heap of crunchy romaine, cucumbers and tomatoes with ranch dressing. Where shall I even begin…The chicken was smooth and creamy, yet chunky enough to grasp the freshness of it. The cool crunch of the salad played perfectly with the warm creaminess of the croquette and I loved the light breading on the outside. Although these were phenomenal, I only ate 2/3 (well, a little less with tastes by my husband and the dog) and brought one back to the room for a midnight, Top Chef watching snack.

The Haddock chowder was creamy and flavor rich with huge chunks of Haddock. We had a fair amount of chowders on this trip and Academe’s haddock chowder stands out as one of the best–heavy on fish, light on filler.

Look at those big chunks of haddock!

Our entrees came out rather quickly afterward, although we had some interesting dialogue with both the chatty folks at the next table over and the quirky and absent-minded yet friendly and eager-to-please waitress. My lobster pizza had a nice combination of freshly picked claw and tail meat.

I would have liked to see a little more of the truffle flavor and less of the roasted tomato. In my mind, lobster warrants a white pizza and while this one did not have sauce, the chunks of roasted tomato confused my eager palate.

My husband scored big time with the scallops

The dish was complex and well thought-out. There were four nice sized diver scallops pan seared with roasted figs and tomato carpaccio topped with pancetta and a reduction of grapes from their garden. On the end of the plate sat a large goat cheese ravioli. I am not, unfortunately, a scallop eater, due to a nasty bout of food poisoning the night before the Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance, but my husband enthusiastically devoured them and gave them two thumbs up. I had a small yet satisfying bite of the ravioli which had a thin and tangy goat cheese filling.

We finished the evening with a glass of port and decided to forgo dessert although they had really interesting sounding desserts including a reverse root beer float that had vanilla soda over root beer flavored ice cream. They also allowed for moderation portions, which are smaller portions of any of the desserts for an affordable $3.50. This is my kind of place.

If you want to read an awesome review of an amazing meal, stop reading now. If you want to read the full story, please continue.

The next day we had a bit of a snafu with the dog-friendliness of the hotel. This is a food blog so we’ll leave it at that, but I will say that I am out $35 for a kayak trip that I was unable to take. Instead, I shopped with Jewels who was admired by many. After my husband returned from his solo trip, we drove out for more lobster rolls, chowder and clam strips (ah, life is good) and then returned to the hotel where I shopped and he went for a bike ride until 5pm when the beaches are open to dogs. Because we were having such a nice time, it was 7pm before we left the beach and the three of us were tired and hungry. Due to the bark nazis at the hotel and the fact that we greatly enjoyed our meal there the previous night, we decided to just return to Academe.

We got to the restaurant around 7:40. I waited in the courtyard with the dog while my husband went inside to get us seated. He came out shortly afterwards with two menus in his hand saying that the hostess had asked him to seat himself. This should have been our first warning, but we practically didn’t notice. After ten minutes had passed (and I had difficulty deciding because I wanted to hear the specials) with no server in sight, I went inside to speak with the hostess. Our conversation went as follows:

Me: I just wanted to check to see if anyone knew we were outside?

Her: Um. Probably not. I’ll tell them

Me: **A little confused** OK, thanks

I went back outside and we waited another 5-7 minutes. I got up again, much to my husband’s chagrin. I tracked down the hostess and tried again.

Me: I was just wondering if anyone was going to come outside

Her: Oh, no one has given you anything?

Me: No

Her: No water, no nothing?

Me: No, and I am staying here at the Inn and I ate here last night and right now I’m pretty unhappy.

Her: OK, I’ll have someone come right out.

I turned around on my heels, absolutely furious at this point. It took another 3-5 minutes for a waitress to come out, followed by the hostess hurrying to fill our water glasses. The waitress sat down and I expected to hear wholehearted apologies from both of them. Instead we got hurried apologies and a recitation of the specials, while our waitress got a comfortable seat.  We ordered our drinks which came out slowly and put in our food order.

I am a bit ashamed to say that I did another thing that I have never done before. Not only did we eat at the same restaurant two nights in a row, but I also ordered the same thing–chicken croquettes. They were so darn good the night before that I decided to have them again. I also ordered the other pizza I had been eying the previous night–shaved beef with mashed potatoes. Interesting. My husband went with the iceberg salad and the surf and turf.

While we were waiting, waiting, waiting for our appetizers (and our waitress disappeared time and time again) we heard the kitchen banter through the screen connecting the kitchen to the outdoors. I enjoyed hearing the orders being fired and the working chatter of the kitchen. I did not enjoy hearing out waitress ask about rolls only to hear her response–“oh shit.” Shortly thereafter she brought out our appetizers with no silverware. When I asked for rolls she said “we’re working on that” and returned with some lukewarm crusty bread that may have otherwise been good, but was no replacement for the luscious rolls. Apparently they had run out.

Luckily, the croquettes were just as good as the night before. Yes, I took another picture.

You’ll notice that the picture quality is not quite as good. This is was getting progressively darker during this long, long meal. My husband got the simple yet refreshing iceberg salad. He was hoping for a wedge, but this was probably our fault for not reading the menu carefully enough.  The salad was tasty and refreshing with all the crunch that iceberg offers. Besides, there was a healthy sprinkling of bacon on top, so he couldn’t really complain.

Our entrees were good, yet didn’t quite reach the first night’s success. I enjoyed the interesting flavors of my pizza–beef, mashed potatoes and a vanilla port reduction, although I didn’t love the pizza itself. This is my fault for ordering pizza two nights in a row–oh yeah, and for ordering pizza in Maine period. It was still an interesting dish and made for some tasty late night, Jersey Shore watching snacking.

The surf and turf was interesting. The beef was extremely tender–no detectable chewiness whatsoever–and was cooked perfectly. The lobster corn croquette, on the other hand, was overpowered by vanilla while there was not nearly enough lobster. We had both been eying the dish since the previous night, so I’m glad he ordered it. It was just underwhelming.

Although we were planning on getting desserts, the mosquitoes were killing us and we could not bear to sit outside for another moment after the interminable meal. It took me 15 minutes to even get the bill and pay while my husband retreated to our room with the dog. When I got the bill, I noticed that we were charged full price for everything. I do not own a restaurant and thus would never tell someone how to run their business, but I will say this–unhappy customers should be appeased in some manner. I felt as if the apologies we were given were fruitless and nothing more than lip service. I would have asked to speak to the owner(s) had I not known that they are both chefs. Last time I had a poor experience at a restaurant, they bent over backwards to apologize and make up for the errors that I will certainly be returning. The next day the hostess (who was also working the front desk) apologized and told me that they were overwhelmed with diners that evening. Well, after they’re on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate” for their lobster pot pie, I hope they’re ready, because this ain’t gonna cut it. The Academe Brasserie is an excellent example of a place that has tons of potential but needs some fine tuning in the front of the house to counter the interesting and just plain fun things that are going on in the kitchen. Best of luck to them and here’s hoping it’s just growing pains.

New England Eats

Row Home Eats is on vacation!!! We’re spending a week in New England with the in-laws and the dog. A few months after my husband and I started dating, he brought me to Rockport, Massachusetts for a family vacation. His aunt rented a condo there every summer and I had the opportunity to get to know her and the rest of his family. Fast forward seven years (along with one major haircut, numerous job changes, and a little wedding) and his aunt, sister and brother-in-law live in the area and his parents just bought a vacation property.  In fact, we’ll be returning to the area in just over a month to celebrate the marriage of my sister and brother-in-law. I already have an amazing family and have married into one that’s just as great. I feel pretty lucky.

The day at the beach didn’t hurt either

With our impending trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts with a side jaunt to Kennebunk, Maine, we knew that we would be indulging in lots of seafood (with an emphasis on chowder and lobster rolls, YUM!) After a picnic lunch on the beach yesterday (sandwiches, fresh peaches, honey roasted peanuts and homemade pickles, of course) we embarked on our journey into town for authentic New England fare.

We began at the Bean & Leaf Cafe, a little coffee shop/cafe that happens to employee my sister-in-law as assistant manager.

Bean & Leaf is a typical, yet adorable cafe with a phenomenal view of the harbor. I’m kicking myself for missing a picture but I’ll have to get one later. They have an extensive menu of wraps, soups, sweets and beautiful Italian pastries. We opted for the chowder, of course.

I must admit that this is my mother-in-law’s chowder. I wanted to get an authentic shot with oyster crackers, but I choose to abstain so I wouldn’t let her eat until I got a picture. The chowder was warm and creamy with big hunks of potato. It filled me up pretty quickly and I let Jewels finish it off.

After a few slurps, she looked like someone had upended a bowl of chowder on her head. It was everywhere, but she certainly enjoyed it!

After warming our bellies, we headed over to Top Dog, a nearby hot dog shop, to complete our meal. Top Dog, along with Bean & Leaf, is right in the heart of “downtown” Rockport. It’s the central point of town where people come for an evening stroll, a quick bite and some serious people watching. During our short time there, I have already spotted a girl rocking a three-corner hat and the most ridiculously puffy dog I’ve ever seen.

Top Dog (surprisingly) has a dog theme. All of their hot dogs are named after types of dogs–although I’m disappointed there’s no bulldog. Come on, guys, the opportunities are endless!

After perusing the outdoor chalkboard menu, my husband and I decided to go with the “man’s best friend” chili cheese dog. My brother-in-law got the one that was second on my list–the “golden retriever” topped with MACARONI AND CHEESE!

Man’s Best Friend

Golden Retriever

Seriously–how could something topped with macaroni and cheese be anything less than fantastic? They also serve their hotdog on the classic New England spit top roll that looks more like a piece of bread than a roll itself. No roll, however, could have helped contain my fabulously messy hot dog.

I topped my already heaping hot dog with diced onions and relish. I love fixins. And you can never pronounce it with the “g” at the end (fixings) because it just doesn’t have the same effect as “fixins.” I think Top Dog had 4-5 different types of mustard alone. This is my kind of place.

We also went with an order of cheese fries to share. I tend to stay away from cheese fries outside of Philadelphia because they are something of a holy grail to me (please note: Row Home Eats loves anything cheese) but these had some bastardized version of cheez whiz that did the trick. While the fries themselves could have used a little work (twice fried for crispness, please!) the cheez itself was unobjectionable.

I forgot to mention that we ate our dogs outside while sitting on (boo, hiss) Boston Red Sox seats. They also had the game on in the restaurant. Apparently there’s some sort of special if the Sox hit a home run or do something good when you’re in the establishment. Luckily we were not privy to the special. No thanks. Meanwhile, Jewels sat outside proudly rocking her Phillies leash and collar set. That’s MY Top Dog.

After dinner, we headed over to the ice cream shop for some dessert. By this time I was pretty full, but figured I’d make a little room for something. The ice cream shop, located right next to Bean & Leaf, is a cute little shack with a line out the door. I figured it had to be good.

I’m still trying to figure out if it actually has a name besides “The Ice Cream Store.” Maybe it’s kind of like The Philadelphia School or Supper Restaurant. Who knows. Anyway, I ended my evening with a whopping serving of chocolate almond frozen yogurt in a waffle cone. It was decent but I’m still on the search to find ice cream better than Hillside Dairy, the little dairy and store just off the Wilkes-Barre exit of the turnpike and on the way to my parents’ vacation home.

Next up (hopefully) lobster rolls!