Pitruco Pizza

When my brother, Joe, was younger, he played tennis with this kid named Jonah. They were buddies. Unstoppable on the junior doubles circuit and together all the time, they truly were brothers. Although Jonah was a little taller and skinnier, they even looked alike, down to the same haircut and that fateful prom where they donned matching silver suits (inevitably from Suit Corner or another one of those “high-quality” men’s apparel stores on Market Street) and spray-died silver hair. I felt sorry for their dates, although the memory, captured by a single photograph, is certainly a family treasure.

While the boys went to different high schools and colleges, they remained close, occasionally entering a tournament together, although they were both occupied by life’s various ventures. After college, Joe spent time in the middle East while Jonah returned to Philadelphia and channeled his background in education and tennis expertise with a position as tennis pro at Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education. Ashe was where Joe and Jonah began their tennis journeys, so it was only fitting for Jonah to return. He was, not surprisingly, quite successful in his position. Years passed and Joe and Jonah maintained this friendship, often separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. They had one of those friendships, you know how it is, where they could call one another up and pick up conversation like nothing had changed. Beyond their relationship, of course, the two families got to know one another quite well, celebrating Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays and other momentous events together.

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A few months ago, I was perusing the various local food media outlets and came across a piece about a new food truck, Pitruco Pizza, which would feature a wood burning pizza oven INSIDE the truck. Super cool, I thought. But something else caught my eye. As it turns out, tennis-playing Jonah was one of the partners. What?! Having known Jonah for years, I was intrigued but not at all surprised. With his go-getting nature and entrepreneurial spirit, this was completely aligned with the young man I remember best in his tennis whites. Over the next few days and weeks, I gathered more information about the truck and learned that they would be at a fundraiser for Arthur Ashe one weekend when my brother was home. Ironically, my friend Sean of the nano-brewery, Mellody Brewing, would be at the event as well. I was unable to attend but sent my brother and father off to the fundraiser, with instructions to report back. Midway through the event, I received a phone call from my father.

“Hey dad,” I answered.

“Hey Zoe, hold on.”

All of a sudden, I heard a new, yet familiar voice on the phone.

“Hey Zoe.” It was Sean of Mellody Brewing. Sigh. I am 30 years old and my father still embarrasses me. Yes, it’s true. My father had sought out Sean and, always the overachiever, chose to not simply introduce himself as my father but to call me and shove the phone in Sean’s face. Double sigh.

But this is about Pitruco. When Sean returned the phone to my father, I heard nothing but good things about the pizzas they had tried. In fact, they went to Love Park later that week to sample more pies. At this point, I was jealous. They had tried Pitruco twice and I was yet to get even a taste.

This quickly changed during the Chinatown Night Market. Pitruco was one of the many, many vendors and food trucks selling their goods on the packed street that October evening. Luckly, we ran into some friends (including the aforementioned Sean) who waited in line for pizza while we checked out the other trucks. We were lucky enough to try the traditional margherita and the salame, a red pie with soppressata, mozzarella and a touch of pecorino. Both pies were tasty, with the necessarily crispy crust. I especially loved the chewy soppressata on the salame. Because they were busy that evening, I could only wave hello to Jonah and the guys, while I had a brief chat with his mom, who was helping out for the evening.

After that taste, I knew I wanted more. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to leave work for an extended lunch hour and it took a few months for me to get another taste.

Last Saturday, we were at a 30th birthday celebration for two of our friends who live in Fishtown. As we left, around 11pm, Zach mentioned that Pitruco was stationed at Frankford and Girard, just minutes from the party. This is why I love my husband, folks. There was no conversation; we simply knew we were getting some pizza.

As we approached the intersection, we spied the truck sitting just across from Johnny Brenda’s. He pulled over and I hopped out to place our order. I was pleased to be greeted by my dear old friend, Jonah. I hemmed and hawed about our order, asking them what I should get, considering the two I had already tasted. They wanted me to get a better dish than what I had tried at the Night Market, because the pizza that night were not up to their high standards. We settled on the traditional margherita ($8) and a sausage ($8.50.) Jonah and I chatted as the guys prepped the pies for him to put into the hot oven.

I love the tiling.

As we caught up on our lives and chatted about business, Jonah deftly operated the pizza peel, sliding the dough towards the flames.

The sausage emerged first, loaded with meat and other earthy toppings.

The margherita followed soon thereafter, with a heat blistered crust that was prime for eating right there on the chilly street. Check out the steam!

Unfortunately, we did not get the pleasure to eat it immediately (and I do think this pizza is best eaten as soon as humanly possible after it is removed from the oven.) I sat the two pies on my lap for the seemingly interminable drive home. As soon as we stepped through the door, we ripped into them. The verdict? The sausage was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t realize it had mushrooms until I was eating it and they created this earthy flavor that balanced the savory sausage, with a hint of sweetness from the caramelized onions and a creamy bechamel. Oh my. And I wasn’t the only one who liked it. I begrudgingly  tore off a small taste of the sausage for my dog and she literally quivered in anticipation as I held it above her head.

The margherita was, of course, everything a margherita should be. A perfect ratio of sauce, buffalo mozzarella and basil created a humble and simple pie, packed with full flavors in each bite. And the crust certainly did not disappoint. I loved chewing on the charred pieces throughout.

Many might say that I had to say something nice about my brother’s best friend, the tennis boy. If I had tried the pizza and didn’t like it, I certainly would have struggled with what to write (and may have opted not to write anything.) Luckily, I wasn’t faced with this challenge in the least.  This post literally wrote itself. I am beyond beyond happy to see the success of Pitruco Pizza and its partners, Jonah, Nathan and Eric who embarked on this journey with incredibly interesting and diverse backgrounds. Besides, Craig LaBan liked the pizza so who even cares what I have to say…

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The Cantina

Ever since September, my former student, (and new friend!) Jerome, and I have been trying to get together for dinner. We both love good food and looked forward to spending some time together outside of school. Well, September became October, November, December and all of a sudden it was March and we still hadn’t gotten together. We finally committed to making it happen and I asked Jerome to come down to my neighborhood so I could check in on the dog before we went out.

When Jerome got off the 23 at Passyunk, I gave him the choice of Mexican (the Cantina,) bar food (Lucky 13,) or something else…I think I threw Stogie Joe’s or Marra’s out there as well. He immediately chose Mexican and we crossed the street and headed into the Cantina.

Sometimes the former vegetarian in me sneaks back and I couldn’t help eyeing up the seitan buffalo wings. Jerome was nice enough to indulge me and we split an order of them to start.

The “wings” were good. They were fried extra crispy and had a big kick. We sopped up plenty of blue cheese to counter the spice. Those who get squeamish when dealing with seitan or other “fake meat” probably would have been ok with this dish.

I went with the quesadillas for my entree. I knew this would happen. It’s been a few weeks since our visit and now I can’t remember what kind I got. It was either chicken or mushroom. Either way, they were darn tasty.

And Jerome went with the goat burrito. Now Jerome is not a little guy but look at the size of this burrito!

Isn’t Jerome adorable??? I love his blog, too, even though he hasn’t updated it in months! The burrito defeated him about 2/3 of the way through and he packed up the remainder for the next day’s lunch (or perhaps a late night snack.) What a lovely evening with a lovely gentleman.

Ladies Lunch & Libations

Today was fun. A new fried of mine, LeeAnne, hosted a “Ladies Lunch & Libations” for eight wonderful women who all happen to be a little food obsessed. I first met LeeAnne in person at Supper’s Hair o’ the Dog brunch on New Year’s Day but we previously “met” on Twitter.  LeeAnne is from Canada and has met a number of local food fanatics (Phanatics?) via Twitter and, of course, her sparkling personality. While the ladies lunched and libated, my husband joined LeeAnne’s beer-o-phile husband, Ryan, on a tour of Philadelphia Brewing Company and a late lunch at Memphis Taproom (fried pickles, holla!)

Meanwhile, we got to munching. Highlights of the day included crackers topped with smoked salmon and a dill creme fraiche, olive oil and lemon poached chicken with a tzatziki dipping sauce and curried chicken salad in won ton cups.  Check out this table!

Ohh, how could I have forgotten about the dates?! The dates were stuffed with cream cheese, caramelized onions and bacon(!!) and topped with candied pecans. Love.

I brought a trio of bruschette–caramelized fennel & parmesan, lemony mushroom and roasted red pepper.

The fennel was especially popular–and a great dish for those of us who aren’t typically fans of the licorice-y vegetable.

Desserts were pretty neat. Amy made beautiful whoopie pies with chocolate stout (I think–Jill made a yummy gingerbread with beer too and I can’t remember which had the stout. Both, perhaps?)

And Christine made dirt in a Snoopy pail and all. How fun!

I even drank beer! I enjoyed a Libertine black lager from Earth Bread Brewery that Christine brought in a neat growler.

No meal is complete without a little meatball!

And Amy too!

Thanks to LeeAnne for hosting a lovely afternoon and to all the ladies for great food, drink and convo that ranged from Gilmore Girls to tattooes to Talula’s Table. What a day.

 

Circles Thai–An Asian Feast

I like Thai food. A lot. I don’t eat it often because there are no great Thai restaurants in my neck of the woods and, well, if I’m going to grab a quick bite, I’ll usually get Vietnamese. Occasionally, though, I have a real craving for a good, hearty red curry or spicy Thai noodle dish. Until recently, I ordered from a rather expensive place on South Street–our house falls one block inside their delivery radius. A few months ago, however, I saw mention on Twitter of Circles Thai, a Thai take-out/delivery spot just a few blocks from my house. Ummm, what?!?! This was fantastic news! I ordered from them once or twice and knew that this would become a go-to delivery spot for us (especially with Los Jalapenos’ recent demise.) I’ve ordered from them a number of times and have never been disappointed.

This weekend, we decided to meet up with some friends, order takeout and just hang out. A back and forth ensued regarding our cuisine of choice and we happily settled on Thai. We were a hungry bunch and our final order consisted of summer rolls, cheesesteak spring rolls, fried tofu, chicken satay, rice soup, red curry, two Thai beef salads and Pad Kee Mow.

The food came quickly and my friend, Brian, engaged in a brief conversation with the friendly delivery guy that seemed to center around my bulldog and skateboarding. We brought the food into the kitchen to unpack and realize that we had quite a haul.

Brian’s rice soup. I didn’t taste this but he seemed to enjoy it and I think it looked simple and tasty.

The fried tofu. For someone who was a vegetarian for many years, I’ve never been able to get behind tofu. This tofu was good though. Their secret? Frying, duh. Make anything crispy enough and I’ll love it.  Although it did have a nice, crispy coating, the tofu inside still maintained its integrity. There was a syrupy dipping sauce that reminded me a bit of duck sauce.

The summer rolls were pretty straightforward.

The cheesesteak spring rolls. Oh, the cheesesteak spring rolls. When I was in college, I used to go to a Chinese store in Germantown that sold cheesesteak spring rolls and I devoured them like it was my  job. When I saw these on the menu, it brought me back to those days and I eagerly ordered them. These are nothing like the cheesesteak spring rolls of yore. They have a light and flaky wrapping with a flavorful cheesesteak filling–rich meat mingled with onions and cheese. An order gives you three and I could easily house all of them.  It comes with a side of spicy ketchup that I usually toss in the fridge and save for later (it’s actually really good) because I don’t want anything marring the flavor of the spring rolls. Wow, apparently I feel pretty strongly about this dish.

My other favorite is the chicken satay. My husband and I grill a lot and know how difficult it can be to get moist white meat chicken. Circles NAILS this dish. It comes with three huge skewers that are marinated in something unrecognizable but the meat is so, so very tender. There are two dipping sauces on the side. Two sauces?! I can never decide if I prefer the vinegary cucumber sauce or the peanut sauce so I usually alternate between the two.

Oh my gosh, oh my gosh–vegetarians!!! I just checked out the online menu and it looks like they have vegetarian versions of the spring rolls and VEGAN versions of the satay. Love it!

On to the entrees. Teresa went with a red curry. I didn’t taste it but the scent wafted into my  nostrils as I was taking a photo and if it tasted even half as good as it smelled then she was ok. Check out the trails of creamy coconut milk.

I got the Pad Kee Mow (Drunken Noodles) which is wide rice noodles with a garlic chili basil sauce. You can add your choice of proteins but I usually opt for veggie (hold the tofu, please.) By the time I got to this dish, I was pretty full already. It was so darn good, though, that it didn’t stop me from eating and eating. The sauce has just a bit of a kick and I have a serious weakness for wide rice noodles. They’re NOT easy to find on takeout menus in Philadelphia so when I get them, I’m a happy lady.

The story of the night goes to the Thai beef salad. My husband and Brian both ordered it but Brian specified spicy while my husband, Zach, prefers mild. When they started eating, Brian made a few comments about how spicy his dish was and Zach quietly munched. Towards the end of the meal, Zach made a comment along the lines of “if this is mild, I don’t want to taste the hot.” I grabbed a bit of rice and soaked up some of the juices. Holy hell, that dish was HOT!!! I then tasted Brian’s to get a comparison and his was either just as hot or hotter. My taste buds were so burned by then that I couldn’t really tell the difference. Poor Zach liked the salad so much that he finished the whole thing (with a little extra sweat and clear nasal passages of course.) Regardless of Spice-Gate 2011, the gentlemen enjoyed the salads and kept going back for more.

Did I mention we were also celebrating Chinese New Year? Teresa is Chinese-American and has quickly become my resource of all things Chinese (remember when we got Dim Sum?) When we walked in the door, I immediately gravitated to the cookie sheet perched on the counter with these delightful looking won tons.

Teresa informed me that they were nutella-stuffed won ton wrappers that she would be baking for dessert. Meanwhile, she brewed me a cup of tea (ok, this isn’t really because she’s Asian, but just because she likes tea but I couldn’t really fit it anywhere else in the post.)

While she was brewing the “Women’s Favorite Tea” that contains ingredients such as alfalfa and dandelion, she showed me a traditional Chinese tea set that her parents had bought for her boyfriend and explained the process by which the tiny little (shot) cups of tea are served. Interesting stuff.

Another intriguing item that she had was Chinese New Year’s cake. Now, earlier in the day when Teresa told me she’d be attempting this cake, I expected to see flour, sugar and eggs. How wrong I was. Chinese New Year’s cake looks more like this. Well, the sweet version does. Apparently there’s a savory version as well.

Above is the glutinous rice dish pictures before being dipped in egg and pan fried. Here’s the final product of both desserts. Honestly, the “cake” didn’t look so pretty so I strategically placed it near the back of the photo.

Teresa didn’t care for the baked won tons and mentioned that she had probably overcooked them a bit. So they were a little crispy and the nutella inside had hardened a bit. Um, it was still nutella which was ok by me! The cake was interesting and I’m not just saying that to be nice. It was only slightly sweet and heavy on the gluten. It was one of those dishes that I couldn’t tell whether I liked it or not. So I kept eating it.

After that dish, Teresa surprised us with a final dessert of sesame rice balls. Jeez! She must be trying to prepare me for my upcoming trip (20 course tasting menu) to Han Dynasty. The rice balls were glutinous as well, yet slightly less sticky and they were stuffed with a murky, sweet sesame paste. We decided together that this glutinous flavor/consistently is unique to Asian cuisine, which is why my palate was having so much difficulty with it. Really, I just couldn’t tell how I felt about these dishes because they were so unlike any sweet dessert I am accustomed to. In the end, I enjoyed each of them.

The black stuff at the bottom of the bowl is a bit of the sesame stuffing that leaked out of the rice ball. Check out the steam! Ultimately, this was an amazing Asian feast. I love that we started the night in Thailand and ended in China. I’m game to take an intra-continental dinner any time and Saturday did not disappoint thanks to Circles Thai and Teresa!

Soup Swap

About a month ago, I caught sight of something interesting on Twitter. Apparently there was a recently created “National Soup Swap” day. I tucked the idea away (and followed @soupswap on Twitter) but knew immediately that this is the type of event I would LOVE to attend. In fact, I considered hosting but knew I should ask my husband before I jumped right in as I’ve been wont to do. When the husband agreed, I excitedly began planning the event. I started with the invite list. My house isn’t huge and I wanted people to be able to comfortably mill about as well as gather together when the time came for the swapping. In the end, I invited about 25 people or so and got about 15-17 confirmed attendees. I was pleased with that amount–not too big, not too small. We also had a mixed bag of regular friends, work friends, Twitter friends and even my sister!

My original intention was to have each person bring six quarts of soup for swapping (it took me a while to figure out how much a quart is. I’ve never been good at conversions.) I liked the idea of allowing us to taste one another’s soup but could not come up with a real user-friendly way to make that work, especially with the need to keep soups warm. Instead, I thought it might be fun for us to swap based on description alone.  When we got closer to the event, I realized six may be a bit much for those who don’t own this. I sent out an update saying that four would suffice.

As the day neared, I envisioned myself doing things little by little throughout the week. Of course I didn’t and I waited until Thursday night to cook my two soups. I cooked the coveted red lentil and chicken sausage soup that you can see in my previous entry here as well as a vegetarian minestrone to give options for my vegetarian friends.  It was a long week and I started cleaning up a bit on Friday night but my husband and I mostly wanted to veg out and relax. The poor guy had to work at 7am on Saturday morning so I wanted him to have a low-key night. That was nice of me and all but it led to a crazy Saturday. I woke up at 8am to shop at the Reading Terminal with my parents and sister. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this tradition but I drag myself out of bed too early each Saturday to spend a relaxing morning at the Market, shopping, coffee drinking and chatting with the other regulars.

Anyway, we got to the Market and I knew I had work to do (well, I grabbed a Wawa coffee first, of course.) I left my coffee behind the counter at DiNic’s (my usual routine) and hit Iovine’s first. I had my party notebook with me–the one I use to plan menus for larger dinner parties and gathering–to ensure that I got everything I needed. In the end, I spent $50 at Iovine’s. I have never spent that much there–I’m usually closer to the $20-30 range.

Next, I hit up the meat department. I needed a couple of things for the party and then I wanted to supplement my shopping for the week. For the Swap, I needed chicken breast for these and marinated flank steak for skewers. My husband and I loooove Harry Och’s marinated flank steak and eat it on a pretty regular basis. Recently, I discovered that I could cut it into strips and grill it on skewers for a slightly different option. I’ll usually whip up a quick peanut dipping sauce on the side. I got my meat items and the marinade hadn’t been made yet, so my butcher graciously offered to cut the meat in strips for me and toss it in the marinade so my husband could pick it up later–lucky guy works a block from the Reading Terminal.

I got home, put the bags down and took a look at my menu:

-Cheese and charcuterie plate (Danish blue, goat cheese, triple creme brie, gouda)

-Edamame

-Stuffed zucchini bites

-Stuffed cherry tomatoes

-Chipotle chicken skewers

-Deviled eggs w/capers

-Flank steak skewers

-Crudite and blue corn chips with French onion dip

-Mushroom & lemon bruschetta (we learned how to make this in Italy)

I assessed the situation. I had to clean, cook and then clean again (the kitchen, that is.)  Usually, when people are coming over, my husband and I split these tasks, but this time it was up to me. I decided to start cooking, of course. I figured I’d make the biggest mess and then clean it all up together. I decided to get the gross stuff out of the way and cut the chicken into tiny little bites to be skewered later, and whirred up the chipotle marinade. Next, I began  cutting and hollowing out the zucchini bites (all recipes to be included later) and making the roasted red pepper, feta and pine nut stuffing. After that, I picked an annoying task and finished peeling the hard boiled eggs and made the filling for the deviled eggs. Little by little, things started coming together, even though I forgot how much I hate hollowing out tiny little tomatoes–but they are SO good with basil, lemon & walnut pesto. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I ate half of a roast beef, provolone and broccoli rabe sandwich from DiNic’s.

My friend, Michael, was coming over a bit early to help me with last minute set up, so I kicked into high gear about an hour before his arrival. When he got there, I was mopping the floor in my sweats. How cute. Michael was awesome. He helped me enjoy the last minute touches and he even paid attention to plating. I am so anal about plating and I was able to let Michael help a bit–this is a big deal! Eventually, we got the food on the table just as the clock hit 6 o’clock.

I conveniently forgot the mention the fire I started in my oven due to the chicken. When I was broiling them, the bamboo skewers went up in flames regardless of the fact that I had been soaking them for hours. Oh right, that happened last time. Note to self: do not make this dish on skewers any more! I quickly pulled them off the blackened skewers (or what was left of them) while Michael fanned my REALLY good smoke detector with a dish towel. “My husband calls me accident prone,” I told Michael, as I pulled the chicken out of the oven and dumped half of the juices on the floor. About that time, my husband came home with the marinated flank steak and asked if something was burning.  I looked at the table full of food, looked at my clean kitchen, looked at my husband and tossed that meat right into the fridge for dinners later in the week.

All in all, the chicken bites turned out great! A close up of the cheese, meat and eggs. I like to think of this as the “protein shot.”

The stuffed zucchini and tomato. If the other one was the protein shot then this is the veggie shot.

And a final shot of the whole table.

As soon as everyone arrived, we started prepping for the swap. As folks got there with their soup, they brought it to the kitchen and displayed it with a name card. Here are my two soups and Michael’s tomato bisque. Doesn’t he have great handwriting?

More folks arrived, as did more soups.

And the entire bounty.

We ended up with a very diverse 10 soups:

-Creme of mushroom (Roz)

-Beef stew (Chris & Kat)

-Minestrone (me & Zach)

-Red lentil w/chicken sausage (me & Zach)

-Spicy beef & bean chili (LeeAnne & Ryan)

-Corn Chowder (my sister, Sophie)

-Thai chili corn chowder (my sister, Sophie)

-Carrot soup (Tim)

-Clam chowder (Marcie & Stephen)

-Tomato basil bisque (Michael)

We picked numbers (out of a soup crock, of course) and each person, from 1-9, had to describe their soup. Here’s Tim describing his Aunt’s famous carrot soup.

Once everyone had adequately described, we began our snake draft, with the first round going from 1-9 and the next round going from 9-1. My husband and I had good placement with a 4 and 8. While folks were drafting, they also had to vote on these categories: most unique/creative, fewest ingredients and most seasonal. We all decided together that Tim won most seasonal, but Farish and Tre computed the votes for everything else.

Here’s LeeAnne advocating for the clam chowder before she realized that she picked number 1.

The draft was fun and suspenseful, as any good draft should be. In the end, everyone was pleased with their soups. My husband and I came away with the following: chili, beef stew, corn chowder, clam chowder, tomato bisque x 2 and carrot soup x 2. For most creative soup, my sister NARROWLY defeated my red lentil and sausage soup with her thai chili corn chowder. Tim won the least ingredients prize and Chris & Kat’s beef stew eked out a win over chili for most seasonal. The winners got prizes of a cutting board, wooden spoon set or a soup ladle.  In the end, all we were left with was these:

So far we’ve had the clam chowder, corn chowder and tomato bisque. Zach liked the clam chowder so much that he had it for lunch AND dinner on Sunday. It’s ok, Marcie made it due to a special request from him so I figured he could have it. I snuck a taste of the carrot soup and was shocked at how absolutely carrot-y it tastes–I literally felt like I was biting into a farm fresh carrot. The other soups are in the freezer for one of those nights when I don’t feel like cooking but am in the mood for something hearty and delicious. I can’t wait!

And my husband had the nerve to ask me what was for dinner on Sunday. My response” “ummm, soup?!”

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.

Amada

I was first exposed to tapas in college when I worked at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. A few doors down from the theatre, on the corner of 7th & D, NW, was a Spanish restaurant, Jaleo. We often recommended Jaleo to our patrons for a light, pre-theater meal or a late night, post-show snack. Jaleo is owned by renowned chef and restauranteur, Jose Andres who single handedly brought the tapas revolution to the United States (in my humble opinion, that is.) I enjoyed many a post-shift glass of sangria with a side order of garlic shrimp and laughter at Jaleo during my time in DC. In fact, my family and I dined at Jaleo and Zaytinya, Andres’ Mediterranean mezze restaurant during my tour de food graduation weekend in 2003.

That said, when Amada opened in Philadelphia in 2005, I was cautiously optimistic that a tapas restaurant was finally coming to Philadelphia. Since then, I’ve been to Amada 3 or 4 times. While I enjoy my early visit(s) it was not until my two  most recent visits that I had the complete experience. I will be sharing the story of my most recent visit for a friend’s birthday, although my previous visit bears mentioning because my husband and I did a Garces Restaurant Group restaurant crawl for our first wedding anniversary this past June.

Anyway…

I received tickets to The Real Americans, an amazing one-man show that played during First Person Arts‘ annual festival. Luckily, it was my co-worker’s birthday and it seemed like a great opportunity for a birthday outing. We arranged to meet at the Painted Bride for the show and grab a late bite to eat afterwards. We figured Amada was the best option because they were open late and we could probably just eat at the bar. When the show got out at 9:45, we walked over to Amada with Michael and his friend Heather. The walk from The Painted Bride to Amada isn’t very fun in heels in case you were wondering. When we got into Amada at around 10pm, the place was packed! There was barely even any standing room at the bar and the host told us it would be a 30 minute wait for a table. We conferred and decided that we were too hungry to wait that long. After stepping outside, we conferred again and realized that we probably wouldn’t be able to get into any place as good as Amada and we would just finagle a standing room spot in the bar area. When we walked back in, the host said that a table had actually opened up at the bar and they could seat us immediately. Well what do you know?? Kismet.

We hopped up onto our contoured bar stools and perused the menu. Michael gave me full reign of the menu (I knew I liked that guy!) and my husband is confident that I know his taste and food preferences. Heather had a few key recommendations and we ended up with the following order.

1 pitcher of red sangria

Patatas bravas

Calamari a la plancha

Serrano ham

Manchego cheese with truffled lavender honey

Salad with figs, serrano ham, cabrales and spicy nuts

Clams in a chorizo broth

Beef shortrib flatbread with bacon and parmesan

Pumpkin soup with flan

Asparagus with a poached egg, mahon crisp and truffles

Chicken brochettes

At Amada and many tapas restaurants, the dishes are brought to the table as they are made. The waitstaff did a nice job of pacing our food without overloading us. However, once the first pitcher of sangria came, it was on…our food flooowed like our sangria did!

We started with a complimentary dish of cheesy crisps with a tuna dipping sauce. This sauce can be off putting if you are not expecting tuna, but it is pleasantly smooth and unfishy, balancing nicely with the crunch of the cracker.

Before we finished gorging ourselves on that dish (remember, it was after 10pm and we were hungry!) our food started to arrive. We began with the manchego cheese, served with bread, sliced apples and the aforementioned truffle lavender honey. This is their most popular cheese order for a reason. The cheese was a traditional manchego but the honey was such a unique flavor mixture–the truffle providing an earthy umami flavor while the lavender balanced that with a floral sweetness. They sell the honey in jars and I was certainly tempted.

Next came the Serrano ham. I’m not a ham eater but Heather’s report (this was a nostaglic order for her, having eaten Serrano ham in Spain) was that it wasn’t quite as good as she has had in the past, but it was certainly enjoyed by all–it was all gone by the end of the evening.

After the ham came the grilled calimari a la plancha (plank) and the pumpkin soup.

The calamari wasn’t very visually appealing but it was certainly tasty. Although I’m the first person to order a fried calamari dish, there’s something refreshing about char-grilled calamari, especially when the chef has gotten a lot of the chewiness out of it, as in this dish. It was a subtle flavor boosted by the squirt of lemon and flavored olive oil on the plate. I once read about a chef who ran his calamari through a clothes dryer in order to tenderize it to his liking.

The pumpkin soup emanated fall.

It drives me crazy that I can’t remember what type of creamy flan was in the center of the bowl–the soup was poured table side. If only Amada would update their website with a more seasonal menu…The pumpkin was incredibly rich and creamy without being heavy and overpowering.  The perfect bite involved just a bit of flan in a spoonful of soup.

Thus concluded our first mini wave of food. Our second wave was kicked off with this thing.

I admit, when they brought it to the table I thought they had the wrong dish for sure. It looked like some sort of ham wrapped pork loin. Instead, we soon discovered that this was the Serrano ham, fig, cabrales and spicy almond salad. While poor picture quality, this should give you a general idea of what it looked like on the plate. The simple salad was a clear front-runner for best dish of the night. Who ever would have known?

Next up were the patatas bravas (friend potatoes.) I have fond memories of ordering these at Jaleo–they came in a little clay tapas pot and were great, rustic finger food. At Amada they’re a little more refined, yet I love the smoky paprika crema perched daintily on each potato.

Next up was the grilled, skewered chicken. It was fine. The chicken was moist and juicy, but the flavor was nothing to write home about. I know, I know, it’s chicken. However, we decided as a table to get the chicken because we were getting such a grand variety of other meats that we thought it would round things out a bit.

After the chicken, things improved vastly.

We were so excited to eat this flatbread that I forgot to take a picture of it before we started dividing it up. I’ve eaten iterations of flatbread at a number of different Garces restaurants (random fact, I know) and have thoroughly enjoyed them in each place. This tells me I should be ordering flatbread more often. This had the meaty richness of the shortribs with the tang of the parmesan and crunch of the flatbread.  Funny fact–when I was typing this, I mixed up “shortrib” and “flatbread” and kept writing “shortbread.” It would have been very strange had I eaten a shortbread entree. Good thing I occasionally glance over these posts before hitting publish.

Ohhh, I almost forgot. The clams and chorizo were next. This was my favorite dish. Yeah the clams are kind of little but I could pick up that broth and drink it and its spicy, earthy, tomatoey goodness. Actually, I pretty much just ate the broth as a soup, using empty clam shells at first and then threw caution to the wind and straight up used my soup spoon. I have no shame when it comes to good food.

The asparagus was next. Wow, my pictures got progressively worse throughout the night. You do the math. The asparagus was tasty, albeit a bit tough to cut, with the gooey poached egg and truffle. I just loved the mahon crisp, personally.

And that, my friend, was our dinner at Amada.

Oh wait, I forgot to mention dessert! I’m not usually a big dessert fan–I get my kicks on the savory side of things. However, because it was Michael’s birthday, I wanted to embarrass him with candles, loud singing and a birthday crown. Then I remembered that we were at Amada and not Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, I opted to subtly ask the waitress if she would stick a candle in whatever dessert we ended up ordering. I also instructed her to bring out a certain dessert just in case Michael and Heather weren’t in the mood. I’m so sneaky! We ended up deciding on one dish for the table–crema catalan de chocolate–which was basically a chocolate custard with a scoop of raspberry sorbet.  Michael was shocked when the waitress came bearing the candle. “How did she know?” he kept asking. Hehehe. We snapped a photo before he blew out his candle and I think it looks pretty artistic.

Here’a  close up of the dessert (remember, last photo of the night. NOT my best work.)

This dish exceeded my expectations. I tried a little bite and couldn’t get enough. A little scoop of custard with a hunk of raspberry sorbet was the perfect chocolatey/fruit combination in my mouth.

Happy birthday, Michael. Thanks for sharing your special day with the Row Home Eats readers!

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!