Monday, May 28, 2012

Seattle's Best

Ever since Starbucks' global explosion, Seattle has become synonymous with coffee. But there is more to the city than the purveyor of burnt beans and Norah Jones. A longtime tea lover, I asked friends for suggestions on where to truly find Seattle's best coffee, in the hopes of becoming the stereotypical Seattleite: a java-drinking bean snob. While I didn't succeed in the latter, I still managed to discover three fantastic Starbucks alternatives.

Lighthouse Roasters

Lighthouse Roasters is located in Fremont, the quirky Seattle neighborhood that calls itself "The Center of the Universe". Among the many oddities found in Fremont include a Soviet-era statue of Lenin from Slovakia and an eighteen-foot troll statue under a bridge, clutching a real Volkswagen Beetle in his hand.  In comparison, Lighthouse Roasters seems quite tame. The shop is open, spacious, and sparsely decorated. As it was a balmy day, I ordered an iced Americano. It was rich without being overpowering, and not even a bit acidic. Usually I have to add sugar and lots of cream to make coffee palatable, but with this Americano I added only a splash of half-and-half and that was all I needed.

Lighthouse Roasters roasts their beans daily in small, vintage cast-iron roasters. You can order their blends and varietals from their website.

Stumptown Coffee

First let me add a disclaimer: Stumptown isn't a Seattle-based coffee shop. It started in Portland, before opening two locations in Seattle and one in Manhattan. I'm still a bit sore about that, since when it comes to Northwest subculture, Seattle is often overshadowed by its hipper city to the south. And for good reason, Portland has Powell's Books and Voodoo Donuts and even inspired the comedy-show Portlandia. I was really hoping Seattle could beat Portland with coffee, but I guess not.

Despite its "Portlandishness", many Seattleites believe that Stumptown has the best beans in the city, and they certainly win for their sheer number of varieties, from South America to Africa to Indonesia.
 When I stopped by the Stumptown on Capitol Hill, I was feeling a bit over-adventurous and ordered a con panna, an espresso shot topped with whipped cream. Big mistake. I'm not very good at stomaching incredibly bitter things, even in small quantities. I was about to call my trip to Stumptown a failure, when the barista mentioned they were roasting beans in the basement if I wanted to go see. Turns out I had also arrived just in time for a free cupping, where a barista walks you through the roasting process and lets you try some of Stumptown's different blends. Mission Stumptown: success!

You can order Stumptown's coffees online, or if you're on the East Coast check out their Manhattan location at 29th and Broadway.

Local Color

Another disclaimer: I had already been to Local Color. In fact, it's my favorite coffee shop in Seattle, and I always make sure to hit it up when I'm in my hometown. No, they don't roast their own beans. However, their ambiance and location can't be beat.

Local Color is located within a stone's throw of the original Starbucks in the Pike Place Market, one of the nation's oldest and largest public markets. I think it's this proximity to Starbucks that keeps Local Color practically devoid of tourists in one of the city's top tourist destinations, making the experience at Local Color "local" indeed.

However, I hold Local Color near-and-dear to my heart for two other reasons. Firstly, it's also an art gallery, and I always enjoy looking at the selected artists works displayed in the back. Secondly, they serve my favorite coffee drink in the city, their Aztec mocha. True, I don't like their Aztec mocha because of the quality of their coffee, but because of the added chocolate and spices (add enough chocolate and spices and I'll drink anything!) Nevertheless, all my friends have agreed the Aztec mocha is quite decadent, and certainly worth trying if you're ever in the great tourist-trap Pike Place Market.

-Elliott Brooks

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Northern Liberties Night Market

I had the pleasure of kicking off my summer with the Philadelphia Night Market! One Thursday a month, May through October, food trucks, bands and beer stands colonize a Philadelphia neighborhood for the ultimate summertime experience. This month the market was held in Northern Liberties at 2nd and Market. When my friends and I arrived we were overwhelmed with all the people and activities (not to mention long lines!) because the Night Market draws quite a large crowd.

While we were walking, we got to sample some Frobana. As we were all trying to figure out what flavor of ice cream we were tasting, the lady handing it out shocked us all by informing us that it was not ice cream but was actually frozen banana with nothing else added! Indeed, they were putting frozen bananas through a machine on the spot and offering it with chocolate and other toppings.

The only complaint that I have about the whole experience was that the lines were excruciatingly long. There were so many choices of food trucks - from kabobs to tacos to wood oven pizza - all with long lines of people waiting to grab a bite.

Because two of my friends had recently lived in Chile, we decided to wait for over half an hour in line for the Delicias food truck (normally located at 34th and Market) which makes Chilean and Venezuelan fare. We ordered a chorpian and a sweet plantain arepa. The choripan was basically a sausage sandwich with spicy chorizo, caramelized onions and some pico de gallo.  The sandwich had just the amount of spice and the pico de gallo was a nice and refreshing addition. The arepas were little sandwiches made from corn patties and different fillings. Ours was filled with sweet plantains and a cheese that tasted like a crumbled queso blanco. I thought the arepa was more interesting than the choripan – sweet, a tiny bit salty, and extremely satisfying. Even now, a few days later, we've been scheming to get back to the food truck and have such tasty treats again. The combination of having the spicy and then the sweeter sandwich while sitting on a stoop was a perfect pair for a surreal summer night.

Don't miss the next Night Market on June 28th at 9th and Washington!

- Leyla Mocan

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


(1305 Locust), the casual Italian restaurant brainchild of chef Brian Wilson and partners Skip DiMassa, Giuseppe Sena and Anthony Masapollo, all formerly of Le Castagne, opened last week. Penn Appétit got a chance to sample their fare before the public grand opening. Upon entering the restaurant we were welcomed by the smell of smoke from the wood-fired brick oven. Along with the smoke, the exposed brick wall and the low-lighting created an atmosphere that was both cozy and rustic.


Brittney's Take
The Assaggi course had one of my favorite foods of the night: a white bean, rosemary and truffle spread. The spread was creamy with an addicting truffle flavor that made it hard to stop eating. I couldn't really taste the rosemary, but that did not subtract from the deliciousness of the spread. At first I spooned the white bean spread onto the polenta fries and bread, but eventually began eating it all on its own. The polenta fries were very tasty; I am not usually a fan of polenta but it seems the philosophy that "everything tastes better fried" held true in this case. The smooth garlic aioli that was served with the polenta fries was tangy and garlicky without being too rich, and also tasted good with the shoestring fries that we were served shortly thereafter.

The wood-fired eggplant caponata was another pleasant surprise. In addition to the eggplant, the caponata contained grapes and peppers and made a nice contrast in both texture and taste with the white bean truffle spread and garlic aioli. The Spiga fries (Yukon gold shoestring potatoes with parmigiano cream) were salty and tasty. The menu described them as "spicy," but I found them to be very mild. Finally, the caprino croccante (crispy goat cheese served with red beet dip) was an interesting innovation on their less classy cousin, the fried mozzarella stick. The goat cheese coupled with the red beet dip was a flavorful combination, but I found the sheer amount of goat cheese contained in each croccante to be a little bit more than I wanted of such a strongly flavored cheese.

Elliott's Take
I too was a fan of the white bean dip. The truffle flavoring added an unexpected richness to a traditional dip, making it downright addictive. In comparison, I found the eggplant caponata a bit lacking. Normally a lover of the deep purple nightshade, I found Spiga's caponata a bit too tart and thought the peppers overwhelmed the eggplant flavor. However, the Spiga fries more than made up for my disappointment over the caponata. They were thin and soft (not crispy, as one might expect), and spotted with melted cheese. They reminded me of a sophisticated, gravy-less poutine, and I admit I ended up munching on far too many throughout the evening.


Brittney's Take
The two types of pizza that we sampled occupied radically different ends of the pizza spectrum: first, we tried a classic Margherita pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. The pizza was cooked in Spiga's signature wood oven, which lent it a crispiness and woody flavor that enhanced the other ingredients. The other pizza we served was like no other pizza that I have ever tried before: it was topped with strawberries, balsamic onion and robiola cheese. At first glance, I felt doubtful about whether this was a pizza that I could eat. Strawberries seemed too much of a divergence from the savory pizza toppings that I was used to eating. However, the combination of strawberries, balsamic onions and robiola cheese turned out to be surprisingly yummy. The acidity of the strawberries and the balsamic onions was balanced by the creamy and mild robiola cheese, and the crunchy pizza crust made the perfect platform for this interaction to take place upon.


Brittney's Take
As a self-declared pasta lover, I was thrilled with the two pasta dishes that we sampled. The first was gnocchi with porcini sauce, and the incredibly tender gnocchi coupled with the warm and finely blended porcini mushroom topping melted in my mouth in a symphony of savory comfort. The other pasta dish, a much lighter composition of oricchette with robiola cheese, basil and tomato, was a welcome contrast to the warm and heavy flavors of the gnocchi. The tomato and basil created happy bright bursts of flavor in my mouth, and the robiola cheese was applied only sparingly. My only wish was that they would have included more tomatoes in the dish because by this point in the meal I was ready for some more vegetables.


Brittney's Take
For entrées, we were served a pork chop with peperonata and pecorino cheese sauce as well as a whole Branzino with roasted garlic oil and lemon. While I was a little intimidated by the Branzino (not being much of a fish-eater), my dining companion assured me that it was excellent. The pork chop was perfectly done; it was incredibly tender and the peperonata topping was a nice textural contrast. The peperonata topping, a mix of peppers of varying spiciness, also provided a nice bite with the sweetness of the pork chop. I tried a little of the pecorino cheese sauce with the pork as well and it helped balance the spiciness of the peperonata, but by this point I was not sure how much more cheese I could take (not that the cheese was not COMPLETELY delicious; I was just starting to reach my personal saturation level).

Elliott's Take
Both entrées far exceeded my expectations. Having been served far too many dry, bland pork chops as a child, I had put them on my "never order" list. However, Spiga's pork chops made me reconsider. They were remarkably moist although, like most pork chops, not incredibly flavorful. Spiga remedied this with their peperonata topping and cheese sauce which, when combined with a morsel of pork chop, was quite delicious.

However I abandoned the pork chop the moment the branzino (European sea bass) was set on the table. My Pacific Northwest snobbery has lead me to believe that I will never find decent seafood for affordable prices in Philadelphia. But the branzino was, indeed, delicious. It too had been wood smoked, making the skin perfectly crisp and charred. The lemon slices slipped into its belly rendered the tender white meat quite flavorful. I beheaded and deboned with gusto, absorbed in my own little seafood heaven.


Brittney's Take
The desserts provided a delightful end to what was a wonderful meal. Despite my stomach being at the point of bursting, I found room for the sweet treats that were served. I enjoyed the fig and mascarpone pizza immensely; the use of the mascarpone cheese demonstrated yet another tasty incarnation of this diverse type of food. The cannoli were also wonderful: the shells were the perfect thickness and the delicious fillings coupled with the powdered sugar sprinkled on top left me happy and, if possible, ready for more.

The Bottom Line

After this first experience at Spiga, we definitely plan on returning. The restaurant was opened with the goal of providing "simple, yet excellent" food and in our opinion, they have succeeded.

-Brittney Joyce and Elliott Brooks

Monday, May 14, 2012

Second Annual Cupcake Smash: A Smashing Success

What annual event lets you sample this captivating collection of creative cupcakes?

Only at the Cupcake Smash! The widely-attended cupcake contest and tasting event celebrated its second year on Saturday, April 28, drawing crowds to the Piazza at Schmidt’s in Northern Liberties. A collaboration between chief cupcake coordinator Melissa Mae Templeton, Philabundance, and Tommy Up of PYT, the competition pitted 15 amateur bakers and 15 professional bakers against each other for an elusive spot on PYT's menu.

The charity event raised an astounding $7,600, more than doubling donations from last year. All proceeds benefited Philabundance, Delaware Valley’s largest relief organization dedicated to fighting hunger by providing meals for those in need in Philadelphia. The funds raised will provide more than 15,000 meals for those in need. As Marlo DelSordo, Philabundance's Director of Marketing and Communications, observed, "It's not just a middle-aged businessman writing a check. There are people of all ages and interests donating not only money, but also their time and talents."

All cupcakes were based off of PYT's utterly unique menu, with unusual ingredients like fried pickles, tater tots, bacon, caramelized onions, and jalapeño peppers. The competition was fierce, but who eventually came out on top as cupcake king?

The People's Choice award was bestowed to That's Forking Good's "Fruit Loopy Cupcake." The colorful Fruit Loop-flavored cupcake with a Loopy Vodka buttercream frosting was inspired by PYT's "Adult Cereal" menu option (Froot Loops cereal with whole milk and Three Olives Loopy vodka). I'd certainly be content eating this for breakfast in the morning. (Read more about her experience as a contestant on her blog!)

The Judge's Choice in the Amateur division was Batter Up Baker. These talented cupcake creators designed the "Chocolate Covered Pretzel," inspired by PYT's "John Toffey Crunch Adult Shake" (a black-and-white shake with crushed Heath bar chocolate-toffee candy, kahlua, Three Olives chocolate vodka and crushed pretzels). Batter Up Baker's version similarly had a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese filling and a pretzel crust, topped with caramel icing and smashed toffee candy. This was one of my favorite cupcakes at the competition and I'm so happy that they won!

In the Professional division, the Judge's Choice was AMR Catering. Another cupcake inspired by PYT's "John Toffey Crunch Adult Shake," AMR's "Pretzel.Toffee.Crunch.Buzz" featured vanilla cake studded with Joe’s Coffee Porter & Kahlua Syrup, dark chocolate ganache spiked with Three Olives Chocolate Vodka, house-made pretzel butter toffee bits, Kahlua-infused bruleed meringue icing, and chocolate-toffee pretzel garnish. The different textures and intense flavors complemented each other quite well, resulting in a winning creation.

The “Pretzel.Toffee.Crunch.Buzz” cupcake will be featured on PYT's menu for the month of May, so be sure to stop by and indulge in dessert after feasting on one of PYT's funky burgers!

Read on for a further recap of the event, accompanied with plenty of tantalizing pictures.

Judges Tony Luke Jr. (Tony Luke’s), Leah Kauffman (, Drew Lazor (City Paper), Wendy Rollins (Radio 104.5), and Tommy Up (PYT) have a tough decision to make.

These tropical “Everythin’ Come an’ Curry, Mon” Cupcakes were inspired by PYT's "Bananas John Foster" shake (vanilla ice cream, a whole banana, sailor jerry spiced rum, banana liqueur and maple syrup topped with whipped cream and banana slices). Love the diagram!

"The Charmer" by Sweet Affairs certainly brought out the kid in all of us; the vanilla cupcake had a Lucky Charms crust, was filled with "Milk" sweet cream, topped with whipped cream, and sprinkled with the classic marshmallow charms. This number was based off PYT's Cereal Killer shake (vanilla ice cream, Tito's handmade vodka, and Lucky Charms-infused cereal milk topped with whipped cream and Lucky Charms).

What do you call a nosy pepper? Jalapeño Business! Zynnie Bakes' creation took PYT's Jalapeno Popper Burger and combined the flavors of jalapeno and pineapple for a sweet-spicy flavor blast.

These excellently-crafted "Root Beer Float" cupcakes tasted exactly like their namesake; samples were even served topped with tiny scoops of rich vanilla ice cream.

There's nothing like a cupcake to finish off a meal... but cupcakes and donuts? Now you're just spoiling me! The "Cupcake Sundae" (inspired by PYT's "Krispy Kreme Sundae") took a vanilla cupcake and adorned it with vanilla "ice cream" buttercream, chocolate covered bacon, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and shaved chocolate.

No competition is complete without bacon coming into the mix! These savory-sweet cupcakes delivered a punch with bacon toffee nestled in the frosting.

Inspired by local town carnivals where everything and anything is fried, the intense "CarniCake" created by Cammy Cakes riffed off PYT's "Cookie Monster Adult Shake" (vanilla ice cream, vanilla vodka, irish cream liqueur and crushed Oreos). The Oreo cupcake was dipped in luscious funnel cake batter, deep fried, drizzled with Irish cream and melted chocolate, and dusted with powdered sugar.

These Neapolitan-hued cupcakes by Team dee*Lish were based off the classic Banana Split and accordingly coined their name as "This Split is Bananas!" With a touch of banana liqueur blended into the trifecta of cake flavors, the cupcakes were topped with a whipped cream vodka flavored buttercream frosting, playful rainbow sprinkles, and a bright red cherry on top.

All in all, this year's Cupcake Smash was a smashing success. Kudos to all those who made this event happen! I'm already looking forward to this incredible event next year!

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