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.

Nam Phuong

I may have mentioned once or twice that my husband and I love Vietnamese food. Well, maybe I’ve mentioned it before. It’s like my love for all things Italian–it comes up often. We usually frequent Vietnam Restaurant (either the Chinatown or the West Philly location) but sometimes when we’re in the mood for a lightening quick and inexpensive meal, we go to Nam Phuong at 11th and Washington in the Wing Phat Plaza.  Parking in Wing Phat Plaza deserves a post of its own, but let’s just say it’s always interesting trying to score a spot in the parking lot packed with folks lurking for a spot to park their minivans. There are lots of minivans in Wing Phat Plaza.

The main dining room is huge and almost always packed with a primarily Asian clientele. Last weekend, there were remnants of Chinese New Year littered throughout the parking lot and leftover decorations inside the restaurant itself. We were quickly ushered to a table, as usual, and our water and tea appeared before we could even remove our coats.  We’re so familiar with the menu that we generally know what we want to order, so a quick perusal always does the trick. This time, we went with the vegetarian summer rolls ($2.95) and each got a bowl of pho. My husband doesn’t mess around. He got #152 Deluxe Pho with Eye-Round Steak, Well Done Flank, Fat Brisket, Soft Tendon, Beef Tripe, Beep Balls ($6.25.) Good boy. I’m a little safer with my meats and stuck with #162 Pho with Slices of Eye-Round Steak ($5.75.)

The summer rolls came quickly with the standard peanut sauce. I always take little tastes of the peanut sauce alone because it’s just so darn tasty. There’s nothing especially noteworthy about the rolls but, in a way, that’s why I like them so much. I always know what to expect and there’s something kind of cool about an appetizer that feeds 2 for under three bucks.  They may not be as pretty as the ones at Vietnam or Le Viet, but let me tell ya, they certainly do the trick.

Before we could even finish the rolls, our bowls of steaming hot pho were placed on the table. Before your pho is served, they give you your plate of “fixins” as I like to call them. The fixins contain basil, bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime and are mixed into your pho according to your tastes. I like a lot of lime and jalapeno, while the husband steers clear of the spicy.

Check out this big ole bowl of noodle soup. The meat is dropped into the soup immediately before it’s brought to the table, so it finishes cooking in front of you.

This broth was so rich and full that I could have poured it into a cup and drank it plain. Instead, I fully embarrassed myself, as per usual in authentic Asian establishments, with my poor yet earnest attempt at chopsticks. Folks have tried to teach me for years but I’m a lefty and I hold a pen funny so chopsticks are kind of a lost cause. That doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort though! Each bite contained a big scoop of noodles (or whatever size I was able to capture with the chopsticks) along with the crunchy bean sprouts and maybe a hunk of meat if I was lucky. It was divine and I almost forgot how much I probably stuck out as I happily sloshed around in my bowl o’noodles. We left that day with warm bellies and perhaps a few broth stains on our shirts (I wear a lot of black for a reason, folks.) The best part about it? The entire meal was under $20 including tip. If you are so inclined at dinner, you can even get an inexpensive glass of wine or other spirits and you will certainly not break the bank. Just be careful when you’re leaving the parking lot.

Chhaya Cafe

Almost a year ago, I heard about a new cafe opening on Passyunk Avenue. Since we live just a few blocks from “the Avenue,” we’re always excited to hear about a new shop, bar or restaurant. [Side note: some of my favorite spots are Green Aisle Grocery, Fond, Salt & Pepper, Izumi and Nice Things Handmade, although I could spend–and have!–hours strolling with my dog, husband and a La Colombe cafe au lait from Capogiro and chatting with locals and shop owners alike.] In October, The Food Trust hosted the first ever Night Market on the Avenue and we (along with hundreds of others) checked out local food merchants, including Chhaya, a new cafe that served a variety of food on waffles.  My friend, Farish, and I got something that was either chicken or chick pea curry on a waffle (I’m still not sure why we couldn’t figure it out–I think the guy said one thing but it tasted like the other.)  We enjoyed the little taste and made a note to check it out.

Fast forward to last weekend. My husband and I slept in and were ready for a hearty Sunday brunch. He wanted pho but was overruled–I wanted a place where I could relax with a leisurely cup of coffee and Nam Phuong isn’t quite that place (don’t worry, he got what he wanted later in the day!)  I had been eyeing up Chhaya’s reviews on Yelp for the past week or so and figured it would be a great time to check it out.  We headed over there with empty bellies and high hopes.

Chhaya is adorable. I walked in and noted immediately that it had more of a coffee shop vibe than cafe. We were greeted immediately by the friendly waiter (who also served us during the Night Market) and gave our drink orders. Chhaya has four different types of coffee that can be served three ways–siphon, pour over or french press. This is my kind of place! I’ve recently become obsessed with “pour over” or Chemex style of coffee thanks to Bodhi Coffee (love that place!) Chemex is an hourglass-shaped glass vessel in which you pour hot water over a special filter. It’s very streamlined and simple and I am absolutely in love (hint, hint, my birthday is coming up!) I went with the Honduras coffee and was very ok with the forewarning that the pour over style would take some time. As the gentleman behind the counter prepared my drink, I walked over to get a photo. He was a bit perplexed and had some difficulty understanding what I wanted but this was my drink in progress.

When it finally came to the table, I had about a cup and a half of coffee. It was a pretty light roast and notably SMOOTH.

We perused the brief but comprehensive menu and I went with one of the waffle specials–their version of Huevos rancheros with black beans, tomato salsa, avocado and chorizo topped with a fried egg and hollandaise. I remarked that the Hollandaise was an interesting addition and the server explained that some folks had complained that the dish was too dry so they figured they’d add a little sauce. Hollandaise makes everything better, right?  My husband went with the bagel sandwich with cream cheese, bacon, avocado and tomato with an optional egg. He added the egg but never received it. Oh well.  The sandwich was good but pretty straightforward.

Then came my waffle. Take a look at the picture and tell me if anything looks strange to you…

It’s a little harder to tell in this picture but the waffles are all served on plates that are just a bit larger than the waffles themselves. This caused quite a dilemma for me. Because the dish was slightly deconstructed–the beans, tomato, chorizo were all in separate areas rather than mixed together–I had a hell of a time trying to get a good bite. Besides, every time I tried to cut into the waffle, the whole thing would slide around a bit and, inevitably, something would fall onto the table. It was a messy meal. I need a little space, folks! Taste-wise, the waffle was still pretty dry, even with the addition of Hollandaise that is evident in the picture but I barely tasted it. Each of the flavors was good on its own, but the plating made it impossible to mix them.

Final verdict–great concept, implementation needs work. Give me a bigger plate and double the toppings so that each bite is not overwhelmed with dry waffle and we can talk.  I will definitely return to Chhaya for a cup of coffee and perhaps a smaller bite, but I’m not sure about this whole waffle thing anymore.

Erawan Thai Lunch Deal

A few weeks ago, my colleague, Michael, had a business lunch near our Center City school. He came back and excitedly shared the news that Erawan Thai, just a few blocks from us, has a great lunch deal. For $7.95 per person, you get a salad, soup or appetizer and entree (upon checking their website, there is a similar dinner deal for $15.95.) We decided that we had to check it out one day.

This week was jam-packed and seemed eternal, especially with an awesome conference we hosted over the weekend. By Friday, everyone was exhausted and VERY ready for the weekend. Michael and I decided to check out Erawan together for a mix of relaxation and business.

We walked a few short blocks over to 23rd and Sansom, across the street from Greenfield Elementary School. The outside of the place was cute.

When we stepped inside, the place was packed with people taking advantage of the special. There were a few large groups–this seemed to be a go-to spot for quick and inexpensive business lunches.  We were seated quickly and I checked out the options for the lunch special. The salad  included the “Erawan salad” with peanut dressing or “Thai garden salad” with creamy Thai dressing (whatever that entails.) Say peanuts and I’m sold. Michael and I both went with the Erawan salad. The salad came quickly and was a pretty unassuming plate of iceberg lettuce, cucumber, unripe cherry tomatoes, onion and shredded carrots and radicchio. Let’s talk dressing though. The peanut dressing was the bomb! Rich and nutty with chunks of crunchy peanut. That’s my kind of dressing.

The appetizer options were fried spring rolls, fried chicken curry dumplings, chicken dumplings, pork dumplings, veggie dumplings, fish cakes of golden tofu (any guesses on what that might be–I’m guessing fried tofu.) We both went with dumpling–he got chicken curry and I opted for veggie. The veggie are below.

The dumplings were fine. They were pretty skimpy on the filling but the ingredients were fresh and green (even the dumpling wrapper!) I didn’t grab a shot of Michael’s, but he seemed to enjoy them.

Our entrees, like everything else, came out quickly. There was a long list of entrees to pick from and I was torn between noodles and a red curry. I usually get awesome noodles from Circles Thai, so I figured I’d opt for the red curry that I love but rarely order. Michael went with the traditional pad thai. As soon as the waiter walked away, I started to have order regret. It continued when the entrees arrived. Check out this beautiful pad thai! Take an extra close look at the flurry of peanuts on the bottom right corner. That’s what I’m talking about!

I was actually so busy dealing with my dish that I didn’t grab a taste of Michael’s but I trust his report (and empty plate) that it was great. My red curry was listed as one star on their three star scale of spiciness. I don’t know if the chef had a heavy hand that day or if the star system (one star is mild with a little bite) is a bit skewed but holy hell, that dish was spicy!  The dish came swimming with yummy veggies like Japanese eggplant, zucchini, string beans. carrots, onions and peppers along with tofu–but not too much tofu, which worked perfectly for me. This dish was packed with flavor and heartiness but each bite was quite fiery!

I like heat but if I ordered this again (which I would definitely do) I’d ask them to tone down on the chili peppers a bit. Overall, the entire lunch was about 45 minutes from door to door and would have been even less had it not taken me about 20 minutes to eat my entree. Sure Erawan has its flaws but I declare it a solid place for a quick and tasty sit-down lunch that won’t make your wallet scream. I’ll definitely be back (and want to try the noodles!)

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.

Hair o’the Dog Brunch at Supper

A few weeks ago, Mitch Prensky, the Chef-Owner of Supper Restaurant (@supperphilly) tweeted out some interested news. Supper, which happens to be one of my favorite restaurants, was planning on having a New Year’s Day “Hair o’the Dog” Brunch. What is so interesting about that, one may ask. Well, he and his wife, Jennifer, were holding the brunch as a fundraiser for PAWS Animal Rescue…and we could bring our dog!!! Now, if I haven’t mentioned it before, my husband and I have a four-year old English bulldog named Jewels and she is the light of our lives. We rescued her from HeavenSent Bulldog Rescue, an amazing, volunteer-run, breed-specific rescue, and are big advocates of pet adoption/rescue. We love going to brunch during the warmer months because we can sit outside with Jewels and have a leisurely meal. Somehow, winter brunch isn’t quite as fun without our little bulldog so we were SUPER excited at the opportunity. Brunch with Jewels AND an awesome meal??? Yes, please!

We woke up late on New Year’s Day and headed up to 9th & South ready for a tasty meal. We found a parking spot right away (this is a big deal!) and made sure Jewels peed before we entered the restaurant because we didn’t want to be “those people” whose dog peed in the middle of Supper. When we got to the door, we were greeted with this sign.

Once we entered the restaurant there were fresh cloth napkins for paw cleaning. After a quick wipe down, we walked up to the hostess stand and were greeted with overwhelming love and rubs for Jewels. They also gave her a squeaky toy!  Jewels was visibly excited about the opportunity to eat inside with us. She obviously knew that something special was going on and relished in the excitement AND extra attention. She tends to be a bit of an attention whore sometimes, but I’m ok with that. We headed over to our seats and perused the menu. My order went as follows: water, coffee, bloody mary, food. I was torn between the traditional bloody mary and the bloody maria, Supper’s spicier version, but I kept things simple and was pleased with the result.

There was still a nice bite and plenty of chewy horseradish. I LOVE horseradish. My husband got something similar with bourbon instead of vodka–he can’t quite recall but remembers that it had Kentucky in the name. On another note, check out the little milk bottle behind my bloody mary–they served the milk for my coffee in that container. Too cute!

Even though there were tons of tasty sounding things on the menu, the best post-New Year’s Eve (and pre-parade) meal for us both was the traditional Supper burger.

The burger had caramelized onions, smoked bacon, gruyere and  roasted tomatoes with a side of duckfat fries and house made pickles. Need I say more? Literally, no words could describe this better than looking at the picture and ingredients. Well, maybe they could, but none of MY words could…Meanwhile, Jewels was playing with her toy and licking her lips after tastes of burger.

While we were dining, we ran into a Twitter “friend” of mine and her pug, Meatball. Meatball and Jewels sniffed each other a bit, but each of them seemed more interested in the surrounding people–and food, of course.  Meatball is a cutie though!

As we were waiting for the check, Jewels looked up at me–“any burger left, Mom?”

It was a successful brunch for all and hopefully Supper was able to give a nice donation to PAWS for all of their hard work and dedication.  Thank you to Supper for helping kick off our 2011 with a smile.

Cafe Lutecia

When my husband and I lived in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood (or whatever trendy names folks are giving it these days,) we spent many a Sunday morning at Cafe Lutecia, a charming french cafe on 23rd & Lombard. We recently woke up on a Sunday morning with our minds and stomachs in the mood for something a little different for brunch. I forget who suggested Cafe Lutecia (these things happen when you’ve been with someone long enough) but the other happily agreed.

We found a quick parking spot along Lombard Street and walked into small, packed room with yuppies young and old sipping lattes, chatting and reading the paper. We had to wait awkwardly for a table (there’s no real good spot to wait without feeling like you’re hovering) but were seated quickly.

Cafe Lutecia has a sizeable menu of sandwiches, salads and croissants and always has a number of soup and quiche specials. My husband and I were hoping they had the tomato bisque, our old favorite. They always list it as a special but I think it’s a regular menu item. Anyway, who knows.

I started with a latte and the husband got his favorite, Orangina. There were a number of appealing options but we both decided on the tomato bisque and sandwiches. Although they have soup and half-sandwich options, we were both pretty hungry.  The bisque came pretty quickly with a nice hunk of their chewy baguette for dipping.

I literally cannot say enough good things about this soup. The bisque has a nice creaminess with miniscule, but perfectly placed chunks of tomato and something else–garlic, perhaps? It also has a subtle kick that you don’t taste until your mouth is empty again. It comes steaming hot and you just want to pick up the bowl and drink it. This soup is SO. GOOD.

After the soup came our sandwiches. I got brie and tomato and my husband got one of their french-named sandwiches whose name I cannot recall. He also pulled the perfect point and order because neither of us knew how to pronounce the name of his sandwich!

My tomato and brie. Simplicity.

His “name forgotten” french sandwich with olives, lettuce tomato, herbes de provence and capicola or some other porky meat.

OK, my mind was bigger than my stomach but that allowed for a tasty snack later that day. Cafe Lutecia is a tiny little french gem that never fails to deliver. And they have the best tomato bisque in the whole wide world. This makes me love them.

Stogie Joe’s

The in-laws ventured down to South Philly for a recent mid-week visit. It was mostly leisure, but we always like to get a little free labor out of my father-in-law and he helped my husband prep our bathroom for a new paint job. As my mother-in-law and I sat downstairs chatting, I got hungrier and hungrier and the two of us started checking out menus and planning where to go for lunch. We finally settled on Green Eggs Cafe, a cute, new-ish cafe in our neighborhood. Although there’s usually a bit of a wait for a table, we figured we’d be able to get in no problem at 1:30pm on a weekday.

Well weren’t we wrong. We trekked through the snow only to be told there was a 25-30 minute wait. At 1:30pm. On a Wednesday. We might have waited if I hadn’t been so hungry and if there weren’t folks already occupying the comfy couches by the fireplace. Instead, we chose to head back to the Avenue and hit up Stogie Joe’s, my husband’s original choice.  Stogie Joe’s has been there for a while and we’d heard great things but hadn’t gotten a chance to check it out yet.

We walked through the unassuming front door and were standing in the bar. There were a few loud patrons so we opted to sit in the side room that also had a nice fireplace. This room is kind of patio-esque and actually has what looks like a garage-type door that they open during warmer months so people can be “outdoors” without actually sitting on the sidewalk.

My husband had heard good things about the meatball sandwich and 3/4 of us opted for that. My father-in-law got the sausage sandwich and BBQ wings to split with my mother-in-law. In addition to our sandwiches, my husband and I got the crispy sausage bites as an appetizer.

The wings and sausage came pretty quickly. The sausage lived up to its crispy definition and had a light coating of BBQ sauce with more on the side for dipping. They were nice and chewy with a simple flavor–I enjoyed them and think they’d be a great late night bar snack, but it wasn’t the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

The wings were pretty good with lots of edible meat. I usually leave a ton of leftover meat on my wings because I’m not big on bone-gnawing but this meat was nice and tender and fell off the bone pretty easily.

As we were finishing our appetizers, our waiter (who had plenty of local flavor) brought out the sandwiches. I had to grab a quick shot of the sausage before my father-in-law dug in.

Interestingly, it was a flat patty rather than the typical long and round link. I didn’t taste it but my father-in-law felt it was a bit dry without sauce and asked for a side of “gravy.” The waiter looked at my very non-Italian father-in-law for a moment while processing what he was really asking for. Once the steaming bowl of gravy (red sauce) came, my father-in-law was quite content.

The meatball sandwiches were phenomenal.

They came on a kaiser roll, which kind of surprised me as I was expecting a long roll. However, I wasn’t too worried about the bread once I took my first bite. The meatballs were large and airy and the bite of sharp provolone (we had our choice of cheese) countered the sweetness of the beef and tomato sauce.  As the waiter said when he came to check on us “she looks like she needs some extra napkins. That’s a good sign.” He was right. I tore into that sandwich like it was my last meal and couldn’t get enough. There was a great sauce to meatball ratio and, although the kaiser roll made it a little messier, the soft bun was the perfect container.

After a bit of a wait, we paid our check and sauntered down the Avenue on our way home. Stogie Joe’s is definitely not the place to go for a quick bite as it has a bit of the old Italian “lentamente” attitude (i.e. slooowly.)  But you can count on a solid meal and service that will make you smile. And if you go, be sure to order the meatball sandwich. You won’t be disappointed.

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!