Sunday, July 31, 2011
Monday, July 25, 2011
A newcomer to the Philly restaurant scene, a.kitchen opened up in a small space a mere block from Rittenhouse, an area with stiff competition from Rouge, Parc, Melograno, Village Whiskey, and Tinto (among a slew of others). Hell--there's even the newly opened NYC explant Serafina just catty-corner to a.kitchen. Nevertheless, a.kitchen has been pretty much booked solid every weekend since its stoves were turned on. So what gives? History. A long time ago (early 2000's), there used to be a restaurant in Philly called Django. A tiny BYO, Django earned "Four Bells" from the Inquirer's Craig LaBan, the only BYO at the time to ever have accomplished such a feat (I have no idea if any BYO has gotten four since). The owners, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, sold it and moved out to Kennett Square to open another eatery, the now cult favorite, Talula's Table (and Django went on to close a few years later).
Unfortunately, Aimee and Bryan split a few years later--Aimee kept the Table, while Bryan bounced around the area, including a very short stay at MidAtlantic. Just this year, Aimee returned to Philly with Starr's new "it" resto Talula's Garden, and is doing quite well as far as I can tell (those who read our blog know how much we love the food). But I've always wondered what this meant for Bryan, who was pretty much MIA from the Philly dining scene. Enter a.kitchen ... a brand new place with Bryan installed as head chef. So the implication is obvious: with Aimee holding down Washington Square, how would Bryan fare in Rittenhouse? Time will tell.
G and I went to a.kitchen with a singular goal in mind. Although the details of this post all come from a single visit (thus limiting its utility), we didn't want an in-depth analysis of the entire menu, rather, we wanted to accomplish a much simpler objective: does Bryan still have "it"? You see, when Bryan was at Talula's Table with Aimee, there was something so special about the food. It was downright magical. You'd read the "menu" (i.e. a list of ingredients) and have no idea how everything was going to come together, but it always did. Every bite was a complex cornucopia of evolving flavors and textures. And now, even though Aimee's new Table (and the Garden) both have splendid food, it's not quite the same as it used to be. So was it Bryan? ... or Aimee? ... or the combo? g and I went in to a.kitchen hoping for proof that Bryan could do it again.
Friday, 7pm, Party of 2. We arrived on time to be greeted by the hostess stationed outside of the restaurant (I imagine they'll move her indoors in inclement weather). We were informed that although they had our reservation, the table we were to be seated in was still in the process of finishing--we'd have to wait "no more than 30 minutes." That was a weird way to tell a customer that they have to wait--as if they were proud of that accomplishment. But it was ok--g and I understood--the place was at capacity, the kitchen's slammed, and they're still brand-spanking new (they had only been open for 2-3 weeks). No big deal. We found our way to the bar and ordered up a glass of rose and "the honeycomb," a cocktail of tequila, honey, and lemon. g took the time to note a lack of hooks upon which one would hang a handbag under the bar (come on, people!). I took the time to survey the interior. It was modern--not in a Pod kind of way (ugh) --rather, a simple/clean modern. There were dark tables, dark chairs, white plates, plain silverware, and I did appreciate the Riedel water glasses--somebody was obviously spending a bit of money to run this place. As far as layout is concerned, the restaurant was clearly built with the focus on the open kitchen (as a matter of fact, you can sit at the counter that is right in front of the chefs hard at work). Bryan was in the house, but obviously distracted. Even if he did notice us, I doubt that he'd remember us from our dining in the Talula's Table kitchen--Aimee was always "the face" of the duo--the one with the memory and welcoming smile.
In just over 8 minutes at the bar, we were offered our choice of seats: at the kitchen counter or outside. We chose outside. This ended up being a wise decision for a reason I'll get into later--I must first express how, upon arriving at our seats, I was quite taken aback. I guess I never noticed it in the past when walking by, but the "outdoor seating" is not arranged in a "normal" fashion. At other restaurants with outdoor seating options, like Parc, tables for 2 are set up for diners to face their respective dining partners. Here, it's a single row of chairs sitting side by side, with a table placed in front of each pair. It was like a row of seats at a stadium (how weird!) ... but what's there to see? For one, we had a good view of Anthropologie, which is a pretty building (actually, Anthropologie should start doing some funny advertisements to mess with the people dining at a.kitchen), and, if nothing else, by having both diners face the same direction, people-watching is much easier--I actually kind of liked the seating by the end of the meal. What this particular outdoor seating is NOT good for is something like a blind date. Imagine sitting shoulder-to-shoulder right next to someone whom you're not yet super-familiar with, rather than across from them ... kind of creepy. On the other hand, if you're looking to "make a move", you can always stretch your arm around your significant other as you eat (like at a movie theater ... in grade school) ... also kind of creepy.
As our server came to talk to us about the menu, we were told some of the best news of the night: the liquor license, while approved for the inside of the restaurant, was not yet approved for the sidewalk. Consequently, they couldn't charge any of us outdoor diners for alcohol. However, they still wanted to serve us alcohol. The result: they were willing to comp 2 drinks per customer. Bonus! It was going to be a good night (g and I are small people--2 drinks is plenty)--any doubt about my choice of seating disappeared.
We asked the server for his recommendations and, after careful consideration, ordered up four plates. The first round featured the gnocchi gratin and the burrata.
I must admit that I had high hopes for the gnocchi, especially after the server showered us with propaganda: "the gnocchi gratin--it's my favorite thing I've served in over 20 years of waiting tables." Those are some pretty big words. When I finally got one in my mouth, I was greeted by a familiar texture of a classic Bryan-gnocchi. It was soft and pillowy with just the right amount of bite. But I was a little let down by everything else: the swamp of cheesy sauce and variety of veggies, leading to a cheese-and-veggie combo that was a little weird to me. The haddock was a nice touch, adding a brininess that gave the dish a very pleasant little "twist", but overall, the dish was kind of disjointed. In the end, after such a grand buildup, I'd liken my experience to being invited to watch the original trilogy of Star Wars, but instead being forced to watch the 3 prequels instead (and maybe the Haddock twist is like the first time you saw Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber). Thus, if the server was telling the truth, I suggest that he try more foods.
Unless I'm mistaken, a burrata is supposed to be an outer "shell" of mozzarella around an inside of some sort of cheese-cream concoction. So it's cheese ... stuffed with cheese. An easy win, right? Wrong. Although definitely not tasting overtly "bad" (and with a good texture of a softer mozzarella), the burrata was a bit ... ?insipid? It's wasn't particularly "cheesy" and didn't have any accompanying flavors. Happily, it was topped with a doo-dads to distract you. There were a few greens/onions, peas, and candied lemon which worked well with each other and I can see how they were definitely poised to "do something" to the cheese. Nevertheless, their impact was just too little to try and make such a large quantity of bland burrata more interesting. It was a nice thought, though.
Next to hit the table was the striped bass with a piperade and the duck confit. g dove into the fish first, and after two bites, said aloud "yea, this is cooked well ... and it tastes pretty good ... but that's it." That didn't inspire confidence in me. I went after my piece ... but I had to disagree with her: "so about that 'cooked well' part ... mine's over". Damn. No one likes over-cooked fish. Sure - every piece of fish I have ever cooked at home (minus our salt-baked fish) has been overcooked due to my obsessive-compulsive personality traits, but I expect more from the pros. Was it worth raising a fuss about? I debated but ultimately decided no--it'd simply be too mean to send back a half-eaten dish (g had taken her piece) to a kitchen that's slammed in the first few weeks of opening (see? I build people up, not tear them down!). The piperade had some depth to it with a rustic tone to the peppers, and the fish was well-seasoned, so it wasn't a total loss. There was also some unidentified brown smear and my memory has faded, so it's lost and gone forever--it apparently failed to leave an impression on me.
Finally, there was the duck confit. This was another surprise of the evening. Little did we know it, but "duck confit" as detailed on the menu merely described the method of duck cookery - it failed to describe the final presentation which was clearly that of a cold terrine. Fortunately, the terrine tasted pretty good--it was moist and tasted of well-seasoned duck. But where was the "oomph" of the confit? Where was that richness that made you go "holy crap"? It was lost in the cold, I suppose. The slice was accompanied by cherry and mustard which were a nice touch indeed and would have worked wondrously with a warmer duck. But overall, I appreciated the dish and consumed every last bit.
When dessert came around, g and I were a little too full. I asked the guy, "I'll gladly pass on my second glass of wine if you provide me with espresso instead," but he didn't budge. Darn. So g and I lingered on a glass of Riesling, pondering the people walking by, and whispering sweet nothings into each other's ear as the sun set in the distance ... (insert g's eye rolling here). Aside from my feeble, often unsuccessful attempts at humor, we also saw a hilarious event (and complete travesty) occur. It had nothing to do with food. As we sat, we watched the car parked right in front of us leave its superb street parking spot (it was first in line on the block). A few seconds later, a [loud] shiny black Maserati pulled up to the curb and backed into the vacant spot. The driver hopped out of his fancy car, prominently displaying his waxed chest through his top-three-buttons-unbuttoned white shirt, walked over to assist his way-too-much-makeup female passenger ... only to find that he had parked on the curb. Both tires. Completely on the sidewalk. Keep in mind that all he had to do was back straight up--not even parallel park! As the rest of us in the row giggled uncontrollably, some people--like me--took a picture of his piss-poor parking.
The best part was what happened next. This dude clearly had two choices: he could either correct his parking, thereby admitting that he sucks at operating his $120K+ car OR he could ignore it, thereby pretending that he's not a bad driver so much as oblivious to his treatment of his $120K+ car. He chose the latter. Hilarious. The only thing that would have made it better is if a dog-walker had allowed his pet to evacuate his/her bladder/bowels on it. I contemplated calling up my pet-owning parents in Jersey to see if they could race on up here so we could put on such a stunt--I'm sure the other folk at a.kitchen would have loved to have seen that.
Ok, back to the restaurant. Presumably, you'd like a final impression. First off, as you can tell from the title, it wasn't a "magical" dinner I had been hoping. At best, it was a "good" dinner. Whether this means that Bryan no longer as the "it" anymore or if perhaps we just didn't see "it" in the dishes we tried (e.g. someone else is limiting his menu), I don't know. Either way, I was sad at having to face even the possibility that the food that I had once tasted might not be had again. What makes me even sadder is that without the Bryan magic, the food, itself, just isn't that remarkable. It's "good" and in most cases, it's better than what I could make at home, yes - but let's be honest here ... Barbuzzo could totally bitch-slap the a.kitchen's burrata and obliterate the gnocchi gratin with just about any of their pasta dishes. Little Fish would butcher the striped bass in every aspect, from fish cookery to complexity of accompaniments. And finally, Bibou would scoff at the terrine with an outrrrrrrageous French accent (Monty Python anyone?). So for us, we'll go to a.kitchen once again as the crowd dies down, especially when the menu changes (per the waiter, the ones we had were "the best" on the menu). But for the time being, I just don't understand why it's drawing such a crowd--I'll chuckle at them as we shop across the street at Anthropologie.
135 S 18th Street
Philadelphia PA 19103
215. 825. 7030
• Is the froyo trend past its prime? The Daily Pennsylvanian weighs in
• Headlines: "Philly Loses World’s Largest Cheesesteak Title To Tuscon, Where We’re Pretty Sure There’s A Good Chance That the World’s Largest Cheesesteak Completely Sucks, Even If They Are Using Amoroso Rolls And The Dude’s From South Philly" - Foobooz
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Fruit tarts are beautiful, delicious, wonderful desserts. The first time I ever had one was when I was visiting a small bakery in Geneva, Switzerland a few years ago. It was early morning, and I had stopped in on my way to sightseeing to grab some breakfast. As I was perusing the items in the display case, a rainbow of colors caught my eye. A closer look indicated that the item was a tartlet- a hand-sized dessert consisting of a flaky crust, smooth pastry cream, and various sliced fruits, all topped by a shiny glaze. I loved the way it looked and tasted; I decided then and there to replicate the recipe when I came home.
To cut a long story short, pastry cream is harder to make than I thought. I have made (and threw out!) many batches; it either turns out too lumpy, too watery, too stiff, or too scorched. However, practice makes perfect, and I have finally managed to make a great pastry cream (or crème pâtissière as the French call it).
Here is the recipe for the fruit tart.
Pre-made pie crust
1 ¼ cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup white sugar
3 large egg yolks
1/8 cup flour
2-3 tablespoon cornstarch
½ cup apricot jam
1 tablespoon water
Various fruits such as sliced strawberries, blueberries, oranges, etc.
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Once it is at the right temperature, bake the pre-made crust for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
2. Sift the flour and cornstarch together. After mixing the sugar and egg yolks, add the sifted flour mixture slowly until your paste has a smooth texture.
3. Heat the milk and vanilla in a medium sized saucepan. Once the milk starts foaming, remove it from heat, and slowly add in the egg mixture. Make sure that you are whisking quickly to keep the mixture from curdling.
4. Once everything has been evenly incorporated, return the mixture back to heat until it thickens. Make sure that you are still whisking as it cooks. Once it reaches the desired smooth texture, remove from heat and set aside to cool.
5. In a small bowl, mix the apricot jam and water. Heat in the microwave for one minute or until the jam has melted. Stir thoroughly and set aside.
6. Spread a thin layer of glaze onto the baked crust. This seals the crust and keeps it from getting soggy from the pastry cream. Now add the pastry cream, followed by the various fruits. Once done, spread the leftover apricot glaze on the fruits to give them a shiny, smooth look.
7. Refrigerate until serving.
That’s all there is to it! Enjoy!
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
If you haven’t already, you should check out the latest issue of Penn Appétit (read it online here). From a tour of Philadelphia’s Italian market to tales of learning by cookbook, it’s full of insight, opinions, and—of course—stunning visuals of everything toothsome in Philly and beyond.
I was recently flipping through my copy of the magazine, casually skimming the various articles and interviews, when I noticed a full-page image of a crêpe. It wasn’t my first time reading the magazine (or second, for that matter), but until that point I had overlooked the photo. It was simple but pretty: a light brown pancake topped with strawberries and elegant little streaks of ganache. What really captivated me, though, was the banner below the photograph, which details five kinds of thin pancakes native to different parts of the world.
There’s the ubiquitous French crêpe, which has traveled far from its humble Brittany origins; the Irish boxty, a latke-like cake that’s inspired its own folk tune; and injera, the spongy Ethiopian staple used to sop up spicy stews and greens. There’s the yellow, turmeric-tinged Bánh xèo from Vietnam, and the crisp, slightly sour Indian dosa. Each flatbread plays poster child for its respective cuisine, serving as a vessel for the many colorful flavors that distinguish it.
That got me thinking. If a certain style of pancake represents a nation’s culinary culture to outsiders, would natives of that country agree with the choice? Regional variations exist for any national dish, of course, but there’s something about the pancake that’s gripped the fancy of locals everywhere. The Indian pancake, in particular, springs to mind.
Now, I love a good dosa as much as the next self-respecting Indian kid. The masala dosa alone, with its characteristic filling of spiced potatoes and onions, conjures enough warm-and-fuzzy childhood memories to power me through winter. But I’ll always be partial to the lesser-known dhirda, a pancake native to the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
The texture of the dinner-plate-sized dhirda—a soft, doughy middle and edges that crisp up into dainty lace-like patterns—encourages mix-ins. These range from the traditional tomato, onion, and cilantro to more adventurous ingredients such as cane sugar and pumpkin purée. I prefer the savory version, which, when enriched with fragrant, roasted cumin and coriander, makes a light and satisfying meal.
So does that mean dhirda should replace dosa as the official Indian pancake in the eyes of the world? Honestly, I’m not sure; the dosa does, after all, have its merits. But for me personally, dhirda will always reign supreme among the subcontinent’s flatbread offerings.
(For more about the five international pancakes discussed above, take a look at Elliott Brooks’ wonderfully informative article, “Flatten It Out,” in the Spring 2011 issue of Penn Appétit.)
Recipe for Dhirda
For a more authentic version of dhirda, use 1 cup of chickpea flour, ½ cup of all-purpose flour, and ½ teaspoon of baking powder. This will yield a thicker, heartier pancake that’s sometimes referred to as a “tomato omelet,” notwithstanding the lack of egg in the batter. I prefer the version below, which creates thin, crispy dhirdi that are perfect for snacking.
Makes 4-5 large dhirdi
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 medium onion, chopped
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1-2 tbsp chopped cilantro
2 small green chilies, chopped (optional)
½ teaspoon ground, roasted cumin seeds
½ teaspoon coriander powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
¾-1 cup water
Vegetable oil, to grease the pan
In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder, cumin seeds, coriander powder, cayenne pepper, and salt. Slowly whisk in the water until the batter reaches the desired consistency; it should be watery and slightly thinner than traditional pancake batter. Add in the chopped onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and green chilies. Mix well.
In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat about a teaspoon of oil over medium heat. Make sure to swirl the oil around so it evenly coats the pan.
Using a soup ladle, pour a scoop of the batter onto the hot pan. With the ladle or the pan handle, spread the batter until a thin layer coats the entire pan. Cook until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with plain yogurt or spicy chutney, if desired.
Recipe for Testaroli
In my quest for the hidden gems of the pancake world, I also came across this recipe for Italian testaroli, or “chewy mountain pancakes.” It’s from Jessica Theroux’s beautifully narrated Cooking with Italian Grandmothers, which flows with stories and recipes from some of Italy’s most beloved matriarchs. The more popular crispelle (the Italian equivalent of the French crêpe) often eclipses these ancient Lunigianan treats—but one bite of the nutty, semolina-enriched pancakes will have you wondering why. They taste best hot off the griddle, with a side of pesto for dipping.
Makes 20-24 small pancakes (serves 8 as an appetizer)
1 ¾ cup water
1 cup semolina flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Olive oil, to grease the griddle
For the garnish:
½ cup basil pesto
Freshly grated Pecorino
Finely chopped marjoram leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the water in a medium-large bowl. Slowly whisk in the flours and salt, continuing to whisk until no lumps remain. Set aside for 15 minutes to thicken and settle. Check the consistency of the batter and add water if necessary. It should be like thick pancake batter.
Heat a large (preferably cast-iron skillet) over medium-low heat. Lightly grease the pan with olive oil.
Pour scant 2 tablespoons of batter onto the hot skillet to form small pancakes; as soon as the batter hits the pan, use the back of the spoon to spread and widen the batter around. Ideally, you will create pancakes about 3 inches wide. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
The testaroli can be stacked on top of one another and kept warm in a clean cloth until they have all been made; otherwise they can be served hot off the griddle and slightly crispy. Either way, serve the testaroli warm with pesto, or with shavings of Pecorino, chopped marjoram, freshly ground pepper, and olive oil.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
• 34th Street is pleased with Chenango, Arrow Swim Club’s new restaurant at 1031 Germantown Ave., but Foobooz surmises its recent Philly Dealyo offering is a sign of troubled waters
Monday, July 11, 2011
Saturday saw the first rendition of the Vendy Awards—now a New York institution—in Philly. They were held in the Piazza at Schmidt’s, which was bright and hot in the sun, but the humidity was low and shade was plentiful. The tent with unlimited water and beer (run by the over-the-top and always delicious PYT) didn’t hurt either.
The Vendys are a celebration of street vendor food and culture, with the actual awards being somewhat of an afterthought. There were eight trucks to try, selected based on popular votes earlier this year. Some attendees wandered over to the voting table, but most were just relaxing and enjoying the open space or waiting in line to get their hands on more grub. Some celebrity judges were present, too, including Jennifer Carroll from 10 Arts and Top Chef, Michael Solomonov from Zahav, and the food editors from both Citypaper and Philadelphia Weekly. Mayor Michael Nutter even made an appearance; his exemplary handshake technique should have been less of a surprise to me than it was.
The first truck we tried was Cocina Zapata, a Mexican fusion deal that parks on Drexel’s campus. Service was efficient and super friendly, and based on what we sampled, it would be well worth the walk over for lunch. A short rib taco with avocado and cabbage slaw was a well-executed reminder of what’s so compelling about the Asian taco, and a chicken satay version was even better, with a sweet and pungent peanut sauce. Sweet potato curry was a revelation—complex, hearty, sweet, and some of the best street food I’ve ever tried.
Next was La Copine, a farm-to-table (err, farm-to-truck) concept that parks in a garden at 2nd and Poplar on weekends only. Their line snaked across the Piazza, and moved at a snail’s pace, though service was ridiculously friendly. Unfortunately their cooks were overwhelmed, and it showed. Hash browns were soggy and saturated in oil, and a quinoa salad was spicy and not much else. Banana bread with PB+J sounded exciting, but was dry and unimpressive. The bright spot was a breakfast sandwich of egg and homemade vegetarian sausage, which was well spiced and could have passed for pork. Next we skipped the enormous line at Guapos Tacos, which has disappointed in the past, and went for Gigi and Big R’s, a Caribbean and Soul Food kitchen that has trucks on 30th and Market and 38th and Spruce, and a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the 50s. There was no ordering—they just gave you a little bit of everything, which varied throughout the day. We missed out on mac and cheese (darn!) but got some delicious, freshly fried whiting that was moist inside and assertively seasoned. Braised chicken was wildly tender, and coleslaw was refreshingly simple: just cabbage, carrots, vinegar, and mayo.
After that, it was time for dessert. A chat with the judges led us to a vegan chocolate cupcake from Sweet Box, and it was improbably moist and rich. We also hit up Penn campus favorite Sugar Philly for some French macarons. A milk and honey variety was sweet and light, though a bit drier than usual—perhaps the scale that the awards demanded was somewhat straining on them.
We had room in our stomachs for one more dish, so we eschewed old standby Magic Carpet for a plate from the King of Falafel, which won the New York Vendys last year. Despite that, we weren't blown away. Hummus was good but nothing more; tabouleh had too much lemon juice. Babaganoush was balanced and mild, and the namesake falafel was a nice specimen—very crispy, with a hearty chickpea taste. Overall it was certainly pleasing, but not our favorite.
The awards ceremony took place at the end of the event, and we were pretty happy with the winners. Sweet Box took the cake (ha! get it?) for best dessert, Cocina Zapata won the people’s choice, and the judges selected Gigi and Big R, which left with the cute Vendy Cup. It was a sweet scene on stage after the announcement, with celebrating family members from Gigi’s who had been helping out all day. Genuine pride shone in their faces, and as the event organizers made clear repeatedly, everyone was a winner. The Vendys set out to explore and celebrate the culture of street food vending, and for a first-time event they did a bang-up job. We can’t wait for a bigger and better Vendys in Philly next year.
Despite the sweltering heat, the 1st Annual Philadelphia Vendys were worth it. The awards took place at the Piazza at Schmidt's, the enclosed plaza in No Libs, for the even ringed with the 8 nominated trucks. Arriving around 4, there were multiple winding lines criss-cossing the plaza, a girl playing piano on the stage at the far end of the space, and hoards of people sitting on the ground, with a sharp break in the crowd where the shade ended and the oppressive sunshine began. I wished again and again that the event were happening at night and not during the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, there were cold drinks on hand (though they ran out of beer and water later), and that made the waiting more bearable. I've never been one to throw tedious line inspired temper tantrums, but we waited for La Copine's brunch plate for over an hour, and even I started to get antsy, anxious that the other trucks were running out.
La Copine's food was all right, but not spectacular. I liked the breakfast sandwich (and would have happily eaten a bigger portion): juicy sausage, egg and english muffin. The hashbrowns were greasy, diner-fare standard. Not bad, but not necessarily anything to write home about. The banana bread with peanut butter and jelly was dry. I was a big fan of Cucina Zapata's Chicken Satay taco: spicy and tender with a thin slice of avocado topping it off. Chicken Satay is one of my favorite Thai dishes, and I loved eating it re-invented as Mexican cuisine. The sweet potato chicken curry was also a winning combination. I'm very excited to make Cucina Zapata my new go-to lunch spot, and it's no surprise they walked away with the People's Choice award. I didn't eat enough of Gigi's plate to really get a sense of the flavors, but they surely offered the most filling portion and the hottest food. Of course, being a Sugar Philly loyalist (full disclosure: they know my order), I had to pay them a visit for a milk & honey macaron. I enjoyed it, as usual, but as I didn't get a chance to try Sweet Box's vegan cupcakes, I can't compare the two.
All in all, a successful day: I shook the mayor's hand, met Jennifer Carroll, and ate delicious food, and really, what more can you ask for?
Seeing as how I was thwarted from enjoying myself at the last Night Market due to the ridiculous heat and humidity (I swear I now understand what a rotisserie chicken feels like), I was particularly excited to attend Philly's first ever Vendy Awards--a celebration and showcase of Philly's finest street vendors and sidewalk chefs. FYI that I'm also a native New Yorker (hold your applause), and I've been dying for years to attend the New York Vendy Awards. So to be at the first ever Philly version was pretty awesome.
Although the ticket cost of $45 (at the early bird rate) was a bit steep in terms of food truck food, at the end of the day, two things rang true: 1) separate portions from each of eight food trucks would've cost more than $45 (especially with drinks included), and 2) the proceeds of the event went toward supporting the efforts of the Food Trust, which I think is reason enough to throw down the cash. (Of course, I can't speak for those who paid more than $45. Or those that didn't end up getting eight food trucks worth of food--explanation ahead. Sigh. Double sigh.)
When my foodie friend Erich and I arrived at the Piazza at Schmidts around 4:30PM (the event was slated to go from 3PM to 7PM), we were a bit blown away by the ridiculously long lines. We should've figured as much, but alas, we had to think on our feet and strategize quickly. With the sun beating down on us, we decided to get on line for liquids first. Per Erich's logic, we needed to hydrate in order to prevent ourselves from shriveling up like raisins, as well as to have something with which to wash down our various bites. With beer and water in hand, we forged ahead, agreeing to move from savory to sweet.
Considering that we were already starting to melt, Erich picked out the shortest line in the shade, so that we could focus and plan. The first vendor on our foodie adventure was Magic Carpet Foods--a food truck that many of my Penn colleagues have touted as the best on campus. Though I would've loved to have started with an unfamiliar cart, my stomach was ready to be filled--by anything. Unfortunately, we arrived at the front of the line right as Deborah (the executive chef) was about to prepare food for the judges, so were stalled, with Dean (the president) manning the cart alone.
After a bit of discussion behind the scenes, I was finally able to order my tofu meatballs. Unfortunately (again), Dean apologized that they only had broken-up tofu meatballs. At that point, slightly frustrated and somewhat starving, I was fine with whatever he gave me. (I mean, they all get broken down anyways, right?) Coupled with the tomato sauce, and slathered over rice, no one would've been able to tell these meatballs were meatless! The tofu tasted exactly like perfectly-done-and-not-overcooked ground beef. It was like eating a homemade meat sauce! And while I'm personally a fan of vegan/vegetarian cuisine, the bigger litmus test was Erich, who was happily surprised by the consistency and quality of my dish, as compared to his falafel, which he sadly found to be quite dry.
On a side note, I was randomly checked out by Mayor Nutter and his entourage while I was enjoying my first dish of the day. While some people might be disconcerted with strangers inquiring about their food, I actually like sharing my food experiences, so it was nice to be asked about the bites I was savoring. Considering that I'm still new to Philadelphia, it definitely took a few seconds to realize who exactly was asking. But I'd consider it a minor celebrity sighting, no? That said, I have to admit that I was much more excited about being at the same event as Jennifer Carroll and Michael Solomonov-- two of the event's judges. Very cool indeed.
For our next vendor, we decided to check out another Penn favorite--Gigi and Big R Caribbean/American Soul Food. While I've seen the truck many times parked at 38th and Spruce, I've never had the chance to order from it. Even though I absolutely love soul food (and would have it as part of my dying meal), I suppose I consider it an indulgence--all of that fried and yummy goodness. That said, I was ready to indulge on this particular day. But again, because all the vendors seemed to be preparing food for the judges at the same time, we waited for what seemed like forever. A serious flaw that persisted throughout the event.
Thankfully, the plate was most definitely worth waiting for, especially since we got a good sample of their wares. Erich and I split one plate (so as to make sure we had enough room for other bites) and it was still plenty filling. I found the fried fish and the fried chicken perfectly crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. The roasted/sauteed chicken drumstick was amazingly flavorful and juicy, with a nice bit of heat left behind on the tongue. The caramelized onions were a nice accompaniment, along with what Erich determined to be an egg-ey potato salad of some sort. Definitely a strong contender.
As we waited on the Gigi line, I was somewhat traumatized upon seeing the Sugar Philly truck--my favorite truck of all time--close up shop! We saw Dan (the executive chef) standing out front with his partners, and we speculated on whether they seriously could've run out of their oh-so-delicious macarons--and at only 5-5:30PM no less! (If only my use of exclamation points could truly convey my sense of trauma at the time.) After consulting with Dan directly, we found out that they had indeed run out, especially with a ton of repeat customers at the beginning of the event.
This situation was likely echoed at Sweet Box as well, because they ran out of their decadent cupcakes fairly early too. The worst part was that I'd actually seen their cupcakes roaming around in the hands of other attendees, which made the loss that much more acute. With my personal attachment to, and fixation with, sugar, I realized that "saving the best for last" can potentially lead to depression. And that "dessert first" can pretty much guarantee happiness. Life lessons--care of the Vendy Awards (and whoever uttered these sayings first).
While Erich had sought out Guapos Tacos on previous occasions, I'd never had the pleasure of checking out Jose Garces's food truck. Unlike the previous two vendors, which had offered a substantial amount of food, Guapos took a more minimalist approach, presenting a small, well-cooked piece of fish over a purple-colored slaw. Even with the fish doused in a bit of hot sauce (thanks for nothing, Erich), I was pleased with the light and tasty fish taco experience. As a Garces devotee, I definitely wasn't surprised by the quality of the dish. Perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately, it simply made me wish there had been more on the plate.
Feeling sustained by the food of several vendors, we decided to wait on the ridiculously long brunch line at La Copine. This line took even longer than the line at Gigi, and I could easily have been emotionally damaged, as we barely made the cut to try all that the truck had to offer. Thankfully, Erich's friends (who'd showed up late and injected themselves into the line) offered to give us their fully-loaded plates. I found the breakfast sandwich quite good, with the fluffy egg and the juicy sausage. The banana bread with the grape jelly was nicely balanced as well, not too moist and not too sweet. Given my aversion to anything having to do with white potatoes, I passed my hash browns on to Erich, who didn't think they warranted any particular excitement.
During our semi-torturous wait for La Copine, I actually had time to wander over and pick up food from Cucina Zapata--one of the few street vendors I'd never heard about. With their blend of Asian and Latin flavors, I was excited to check out what they had to offer, especially since their line was way more manageable. After a short wait, I picked up the Thai short rib taco and the sweet potato chicken curry over rice. Even though I expected a big chunk of short rib, I actually preferred the smaller pieces with their crispy exterior. The beef was flavorful and the bite was scrumptious, but not particularly life-changing. The sweet potato chicken curry was good as well, though it was somewhat lost on me as I'm not the biggest fan of curry.
All in all, I have to admit that we were fairly disappointed. With no cloud cover, natural or man-made shading, we were pretty much roasting for half the time we were there. In addition, the fact that vendors ran out of food almost two hours before the end of the event was fairly upsetting, especially with attendees having paid up to $65 for their tickets. While we certainly can't blame the vendors (who were instructed to bring a certain amount of product), future iterations of this event will need to be better managed.
Food-wise, I was most impressed by the folks at Gigi and Big R. Their food was both delicious and substantial, both hot and tasty. And more importantly, they didn't run out! That said, it's not surprising that they took the top spot, winning the coveted Vendy Cup at the end of the event. Congratulations, Gigi and Big R! I'm thrilled I'll have the luxury of enjoying your award-winning wares year-round!
As a side note, I couldn't have survived the event without the wonderful fellow doling out samples of DRY soda between Magic Carpet and Guapos. I literally sampled 6 out of 8 flavors, with cucumber and rhubarb being top picks. And with my hopes for dessert dashed, I was thankful for the lovely woman giving out KIND bars right by the entrance/exit. I love how the fruit and nut bars are ridiculously satisfying without insane calories. Thank goodness for sponsors!
-Hoi Ning Ngai
Sunday, July 10, 2011
• During his visit to Philadelphia last week, President Obama stopped by John's Water Ice in South Philly Uwishunu
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
I love all things lemon. One of my favorite meals is lemon pepper roasted chicken, and my favorite dessert is lemon meringue pie. Therefore, when I came across Two Peas & Their Pod’s recipe for Lemon Raspberry Bars, I knew I had to make it.
The recipe is fairly straightforward. I made a few adjustments to suit my own tastes (I like my lemon desserts to be more tart than sweet and graham cracker crusts to be more sand-like in texture), but feel free to use the original recipe if you want. It can be found here.
2 large eggs
¾ of a can of sweetened condensed milk
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 carton of fresh raspberries*
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and sugar until the crumbs are fully moistened. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes.
3. Separate the yolks from the eggs. You can use the egg whites to make yourself a healthy omelet later!
4. Combine the egg yolks, the condensed milk, and lemon juice until evenly incorporated. The “batter” should be smooth and golden color in appearance. Gently fold in the raspberries. Pour the “batter” over the crust.
5. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
6. Cool to room temperature, and then place in the fridge to allow it to firm up before you cut the bars. If you have any lemon juice left, sprinkle a few drops on top of the bars before serving.
That’s all there is to it! Each bite contains an explosion of tastes and textures- it’s tart, sweet, and buttery, sandy, smooth, and creamy all at the same time – it will tickle your taste buds and send your senses into overdrive. Enjoy!
- These bars are delicious and highly-addictive. Consider yourself warned.
- If you’re not a fan of raspberries, blackberries work great as a substitute. I don’t recommend blueberries because they bleed too much color, and though the final result will still taste good, it will look “ink-stained” and really weird.
Monday, July 4, 2011
To celebrate the 4th, try this simple and summery recipe for Strawberry Shortcake. Decorate with blueberries, sliced strawberries, and whipped cream for a patriotic and light dessert.
6 cups sliced strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
Combine strawberries and half of the sugar and set aside. Stir together the rest of the sugar, the flour, and baking powder. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles crumbs. Combine egg and milk and add to flour. Stir until just moistened. Spoon dough into a greased 8x1 1/2 inch round pan and bake in 450 degree oven for 15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes and then remove from pan. Cut in half horizontally, and put half of the whipped cream and half of the strawberries on top. Then repeat with the second layer of cake.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
• Three West Philly food trucks--GiGi and Big R, Sugar Philly, and Magic Carpet--have been named finalists for the Vendy Awards; check out the event's website for details on all the finalists - Under the Button
• Manakeesh Cafe Bakery is offering a Groupon--get it before it's too late!
• Sabrina's Cafe, a popular bruncherie with two locations downtown, will be opening a new location in West Philly at 34th Street and Powelton Avenue this fall - UTB
• The Inquirer reports on the red velvet revival trend that has hit the Philly area in the past few years
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Last weekend dozens of restaurants and vendors set up shop at Penn's Landing to participate in the Taste of Philadelphia. I went down there with a friend to check it out late on Saturday, though we did not intend to get dinner there due to a previous reservation made at Han Dynasty. For a half hour, we walked around the food festival and looked at every vendor, even stopping to try one sandwich at a place that had a small line that I have wanted to go to in Center City (Marabella Meatball Co.).
Some of the places had predictably long lines, surely helped by the seductive smells coming from the hot food. Cuba Libre and their chicken empanadas, Darling Diner and their waffles, Jamaican Jerk Hut and their jerk chicken, Steaks on South and their cheesesteaks and Gigi Restaurant and their cheesesteak empanadas were all quite popular judging by their queues at about 7:45 in the evening.
While we walked around and took in the smells, music was playing (not too loudly, thankfully) in the background, allowing us to hear sizzles of the grills if we got close enough to some of the stands.