Friday, December 23, 2011

¡Viva Espana!

¡patatas bravas! 

It's been a busy month(s) and I have been severely slacking on the Food Baby posts. For that, I apologize. I do, however, have some great restaurants, recipes and reviews in the backlog.  My resolution for 2012 is to post on a more regular basis - hopefully twice a week in a Tuesday/Thursday schedule - and I will do my very best to keep to that promise.

Part of the reason for the absence from the blogosphere was our trip in November to Spain. We had a few days each in the dizzying metropolises of Barcelona & Madrid and then a few more in the lazy and beautiful town of Sevilla in the south. Barcelona is organic & futuristic Gaudi architecture, with wide tree lined avenues and hidden alleys in the ancient feeling gothic quarter. Madrid is the New York of Spain - people moving everywhere, something always happening and great food to be found on nearly every corner. Sevilla is the antithesis to all of this. It is Moorish buildings and orange trees, flamenco dancing and lazy strolls thru the city squares. Everywhere in Spain is incredible food though. From the open markets, to street vendors, to restaurants there is something good to be had everywhere you look. 

Even the smallest corner bars offer their small selection of tapas that rivals anything you would get in the United States. Smokey olives, warm ciabatta bread, beautiful sardines, spicy peppers and the jamon - my goodness the jamon. Served at nearly every meal, it is quite simply the best ham in the world. Sliced paper thin by little old men wielding razor sharp knives right from an entire ham hock, it nearly dissolves on your tongue, slowly unlocks it's labyrinth flavors of nutty, smokey, earthy and leaves you smiling knowing that life is good.  

Our first day in Spain was in Barcelona. We checked into the hotel around 4 and needed snacks. Off to Las Ramblas to get a feel for the city and find sustenance. We happened upon this cool open air market, the Mercado de San Jose, and right at the entrance was a stall selling that beautiful iberian jamon, spicy chorizo and all sorts of other piggy goodness.  Took us all of 10 minutes to find this place...I should be living in Spain full time.

this is my "i'm going to eat really well tonight" happy face

dried peppers in every color imaginable

 the spanish love their candy.  check out the little tennis balls in the middle.

Our next stop was a little tapas bar on Las Ramblas.  Glass of vino tinto (red wine) and three pinchos (medium tapas) for 5. Deal.

ham & fried pepper, potato croquette, brie & bacon pinchos

Taller de Tapas
After wandering the streets a bit, we made our way to Taller de Tapas for dinner. This place was recommedned to us by two different friends that had recently been in Spain, and it did not disappoint. A great bottle of spanish red, and then an assortment of small plates - jamon, cheese plate, patatas bravas, fried whole padron peppers (these were amazing!), some spicy chorizo sausage, spinach with chick peas and garlic, potatoes with egg & ham, etc. etc.  Needless to say, we were well fed and would pass along the recommendation to anyone visiting Barcelona.  


cheese plate with apple jelly
the wifey with her patata bravas

fried green peppers (top) and chorizo sausage

spinach with garlic and chickpeas - one of the best things we ate

Ham anyone? 
All over Spain are these shops selling nothing but ham. You can even buy it in the duty free shop at the airport. This place had the whole legs (hoof and all) displayed in these special holders that keep it steady for carving.  When you walk in the aroma is intoxicating - I imagine that it is similar to what angel farts would smell like.

Cava y Pinchos 
Another night out in Barcelona and we started with some very good local cava and a few pinchos.  Cava is the Spanish/Catalan version of champagne, with a much rounder flavor profile and I think superior to champagne and even prosecco. I also don't seem to get nearly the hangover from cava as the other stuff.  I'm sold. 

a few pinchos - fried peppers & ham, goat cheese and olive, mushroom and cheese

Cava - Spain's answer to champagne

Endless Tapas
We found this restaurant (the name escapes me) at the end of Carrer dels Boters. A nearly endless selection of tapas to choose from, and all self serve. You simply grab a plate and start choosing from either the cold or hot section. When you're finished, they count your sticks and charge you appropriately. Wine was cheap - only 1.50 a glass, and beers were just a €1. We came back again the next night to start a little tapas tour of Barcelona. 

tapas as far as the eye can see...

vino tinto

mascarpone with nuts, brie with apple jelly, goat cheese pine nuts (clockwise from top left)

jamon, potato & octopus with paprika skewer, empanadas

anchovie & mushrooms, eel & egg

Vi Cool - Madrid
Our best meal in Spain was at Vi Cool - a restaurant opened by Chef Sergi Arola who used to work at the famed El Bulli. We had a local friend lead us here, and even he was impressed. Every dish was incredible; the next better than the last. It's on a cool section of Calle de las Huertas, with excellent service, expertly mixed drinks, and a great vibe. 

steak tartare, with soy sauce and egg yolk

scallop tartar with ginger and crunchy lettuce leaves  to wrap it up in

Pisco Sours!  Haven't had these since we were in Peru.  Our waiter was  actually Peruvian and we struck up a little conversation about hiking Machu Picchu. 

charred eggplant, pine nuts & balsamic vinegar

patatas bravas! the best we had in Spain - and we ate them just about every day. 

egg with potato and spanish ham

croquettes - assortment of blue cheese & ham


lamb meatballs with chimichurri and goat cheese fondue (in the little pot)

coca pizza with quail eggs, truffle oil & potato chips

coca pizza with iberian jamon, baby artichoke hearts and roasted padron peppers

ricotta mousse with honey and fresh berries

the "pantry" above the bar at Vi Cool

Mercado San Miguel - Madrid
Like a glowing beacon on a chilly, rainy night, this enclosed market is the Reading Terminal of Madrid if the Philly version served ridiculously good ham, and let you hop from stall to stall with your wine glass. It's such a cool setup here - you grab cheese from one vendor, then wine from another, some ham here, and some fried sardines from another. Eat wherever you choose, maybe at some common tables in the center.  All the vendors share the same glasses and plates, so the wait staff just collects everything on a common cart. 

Mercado San Miguel - come, eat! 

locals choosing a snack from the multitude of vendors

a ham being sliced by hand

our first snack - iberian jamon

our second - the cheese!

We only had two days in Sevilla and wish we could have spent a lot more time here. After the hustle and bustle of Madrid & Barcelona, the lazy atmosphere and warm temperatures were like a mini vacation. Beautiful ancient winding streets to get lost in, lots of good shopping (the wifey did well here) and traditional flamenco dancing  - even I thought it was good. The restaurants in the main square area cater mostly to tourists, but we found a couple good places with locals and some good eats.

a happy and ham at a corner bar

patatas bravas - not our favorite here, too much mayo. 

a beef and cheese kind of thing - reminiscent of chili 

roasted goat cheese rounds with honey and toast - this was incredible

roasted artichoke hearts

Breakfast - with extra sugar. 
The Spanish love their sugar, and load up on it especially at breakfast. Note the extra packets with everything we ordered - even the orange juice. The OJ was great and tasted like it was from oranges just picked off the trees outside the restaurant. The churros & hot chocolate were just the thing after a good night out. 
churros, hot chocolate & fresh orange juice

The most incredible hashbrown known to man...
Better than Butcher & Singer...if that's possible. We ordered this as an afternoon snack at a nondescript cafe on one of the squares in Sevilla. The table next to us was eating it, and we just pointed and said "uno mas". That was a good decision. It's a mixture of fried shredded potato, chunks of really good ham, egg, and cheese all formed in a ramekin and then baked. The bright red streak is spicy paprika. Incredible. Jesus should have had this at the last supper. 

Afternoon snack - Sevilla 
Around 3pm we needed a break from sight seeing and stopped into a little cafe for a coffee and a nibble. In the south of Spain they have the most incredible olives. They are smokey and rich, luscious and strong. A bowl of olives and an afternoon beer sets the world right. 

Las Columnas - Sevilla
We had heard and read in guide books about this place - a crowded and noisy locals only bar serving cheap drinks and tasty tapas in the middle of tourist central. Problem was we couldn't find it. We circled around the block where it should have been at least twice. In frustration we wandered into a place called Bodega Santa Cruz for a drink and to regroup. On the sign out front, in small letters read "Las Columnas" - we'd found it! And what we found was one of the most fun bars we'd been to in all of Spain. Tons of locals carrying on, people spilling out into the street, great tapas and drinks flowing freely. To keep track of your tab, they don't take your credit card, instead the write in chalk on the bar in front of you. Didn't get a picture, but I had the most incredible fried sardines ever here. Crispy, salty little guys simply dredged and deep fried. You just pull off the hunks of tender meat. So good with a cold cervesa. 

Las Columnas / Bodega Santa Cruz bar in Seville
drinks outside Las Columnas

Outside Las Columnas. Can't get a table inside?  No problem, use your vespa. 

Spain has the best food of any country in Europe that I've been to so far. The wine is amazing, and cheap. The culture of tapas and bar hopping is overly agreeable. You start your night at 10pm, and go till you can't stand any longer. Then the Spanish stay out for another 3 hours. The simple ingredients are prepared amazingly in even the most divey bars. You can't help but have great meals here. If I could live anywhere on the continent, it would be Spain. Here's to getting back as soon as possible.  


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Twisted Tail

Good dinner at the newly minted Twisted Tail on Headhouse square the other night. Nice list of bottled beers, and a good sampling of drafts from Yards & Stoudt's to Rogue & Left Hand brewery. The drafts are available in normal sized pints, along with 1/2 and full gallons, if you're really feeling thirsty. I had a few Left Hand Sawtooth ESB's that were tasty, but a bit flat.

What you should really be coming here for is live blues music & the bourbon. I have never seen a collection of whiskey and bourbon like the one that The Tail has assembled here. It's as extensive as Village Whiskey and definitely cheaper. They also make a decent old fashioned, which always scores points in my book, but their mint julep is what really defined the experience here. Just enough fresh mint so you know it's there, but not so heavy a hand with it that it masks the good bourbon lying underneath. This is an OLD drink that your grandparents used to drink on Derby Day, and for good reason. It tastes like spring and gets you well on the path to inebriation, quickly. Muddled mint leaves, a tsp. of sugar + bourbon = delicious. Try one - it'll change the way you think about brown liquor.

a proper mint julep
Onto the food!  We had a small dinner - split a salad, then an entree each - so as not to be sporting the proverbial food baby before heading out to meet friends later on. The bibb & bacon salad was great, and large enough for two. Boston lettuce, blue cheese crumbles from Point Reyes creamery in California, ripe red tomatoes and warm, delicious bacon for a salty, creamy, crunchy salad. A great place to start dinner.

We ordered the St. Louis ribs & cedar plank salmon for entrees. The ribs were tender and nearly falling off the bone, with just a hint of sauce brushed on at the end of the cooking to give them a nice crust. Served with "wicked greens" that seemed to be either collard or mustard greens braised southern style with a ham hock and dressed with some good vinegar. The tang of the greens, with the hint of smokey ham, cutting through the sweetness of the ribs offering a perfect foil to the pork. There's good reason these have been paired on the same plate for decades.

The fish was tender but a bit mild. I tend to think salmon should taste like, well, salmon. The best is always fresh, snatched out of the hands of a hungry bear trolling class II rapids in Alaska. This version was likely of the frozen variety, snatched out of the back of a food service truck that was scoping a salmon farm in New Jersey. I did really enjoy the braised broccolini though; the skinny, somewhat bitter cousin to standard broccoli was the most distinct flavor on the plate. All served alongside some pickled kale that was curiously good. Tasting like it had just a light pickling, maybe 2-3 days, it was a clever take on a tough to like vegetable with a bad rep.

My only knock on the menu at Twisted Tail would be the pricing. With appetizers ranging from $5 to $12 [$7 for fries, really?!?] and entrees hovering around $20, it's not cheap eats. With two drinks each, we dropped about $90 for dinner. Not that there's anything wrong that ("they've got a good team over there") but based on the setup of this place as bourbon bar and blues joint it seemed pretty expensive. There's nothing particularly fancy about the menu: ribs, a burger, chicken, salmon, blue fish, shepherd's pie, lamb shoulder and a "cowboy" steak make up the entrees. Southern style cooking involves making the best out of cheap ingredients - necessity breeds innovation. The cooking and presentation here are good, but basic and simple. This is not fine dining, so don't try to charge for it.

Is this a bar that serves food? Or a restaurant that has a bar? I think that question has yet to be answered. While the management figures that out, I would stick to the upstairs bar for bourbon, live blues and the killer old school shuffle board table. Twisted Tail is a great place for drinks and live music on a Saturday night - something Philly seems to be lacking lately. On these points alone, it's worth a trip and even the $5 cover for the band. Hold off on the dinner plans for now though.

Food Baby rating - It's a girl!

The Twisted Tail
509 South 2nd Street
Philadelphia PA 19147
Phone: 215-558-2471

Hours: Mon-Sat: 11am-2am
Sun: 10am-2am

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Groupon - Los Taquitos de Puebla!

Today's Groupon is for the best taco's in Philly!  These are the same ones you get Sunday morning's at the Headhouse Farmers market.  Soooo goood.  $15 for dinner on the weekday, or $14 just for the tacos on a weekend.  From the Groupon site:

  • For $15, you get a taco meal for two (up to a $38 total value), valid Monday–Friday. The taco meal includes:
    • Two tacos (up to a $28 value)
    • One side (up to a $6 value)
    • Two sodas (up to a $4 value)
  • For $14, you get tacos for two (up to a $28 value), valid Saturday and Sunday.

Click here to get the deal.  The year of Groupon eating continues!  Viva Mexico!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Talula's Garden

A little past due with this review, but I'm rarely on time for anything - so why start being prompt now? For the wifey's (still kind of weird saying that) birthday in August we did dinner at the latest and greatest creation from the Steven Starr empire, Talula's Garden. Talula's is actually a collaboration between Starr and Amy Olexy of Django fame (does anyone else remember how great Django was 10 years ago?!?) and the one-year reservation required Talula's Table in Chadds Ford. Yes, you read that right - you need to call one year out to get a seat at the Table for a menu you don't get to choose and pay $100 a head for. It's apparently that good. Hopefully I'll get the chance to let you know someday. Luckily for us, you don't need to make a reservation one year out at the Garden - three or four weeks is advisable though. 

Located in the former space* occupied by Washington Square, on the park of the same name, it is a beautiful restaurant. Half of it is outdoor garden covered by a wisteria covered trellis and living walls growing herbs for the restaurant. The inside half is warm and inviting with just the right amount of shabby chic, "like you're eating at Anthropologie" as a friend put it. 

*Side note here - it occurs to me that I find myself using that phrase "located in the former space" a lot on this blog. Everything is housed in another restaurants former home. I think it makes places that have staying power such as Dmitri's or FriSatSun that much more impressive to have stayed in the same spot for 20 years, they're obviously doing something right. 

the Cook 
Rich Bourbon, Angostura, and Brown Sugar

The specialty drinks menu is impressive. Decently priced cocktails with names like the Gardner, the Artist or the Beekeeper feature simple ingredients of really high quality that shine thru from the first sip. The Cook, their take on the old fashioned with good bourbon, angostura and brown sugar was excellent. One of the best Old Fashioned's I've had in the city to date. I'd come back just for another one of these and a cheese plate. 

Let's talk about those cheese plates. Olexy has a reputation for knowing her cheese better than just about anyone in Philly. There are guys at DiBruno's that can't pair as well as she can. Talula's is very cheese centric, with an incredible selection of pre-determined plates from different regions or featuring a particular style, all of which are meant to be eaten in a specific sequence so that you appreciate the subtle nuances of each. We did the Locavore, with six cheeses all from the local region. WOW. Each cheese was incredible on it's own, but the sum of the whole was even more amazing. I think my favorite was the Birchrun Hills "Fat Cat". A rich and creamy, aged cow's milk, it melted on your palette and lingered for what seemed like hours. If you come here and don't get a cheese plate, you should be escorted directly to Applebees. 

The Locavore - Six cheeses from the region
From bottom to top: 
Bailey’s Dairy Ricotta (Cow, PA)
Pipedreams Fromage Ash Log (Goat, PA)
Birchrun Hills Creamery “Fat Cat” (Cow, PA)
Calkins Creamery “Cowtipper” (Cow, PA)
Firefly Farm “Cabra la Mancha” (Goat, MD)
Sprout Creek Farm “Eden” (Cow, NY)

Tempura fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese.  Holy schneikes. 

As a complimentary starter from the kitchen, they brought us a plate of squash blossoms, stuffed with goat cheese and then lightly tempura battered and fried, with a side of lavender honey for drizzling. This is one of the best things I've eaten all year, at any restaurant. Encompassing everything that is great about summer, the delicate squash blossom encasing amazing goat cheese and the lightest of deep fries. Absolutely incredible. They could have stopped there and I would have been happy (but not very full). 

Crudo of Rhode Island Fluke, Chilled Melons, Hot Pepper, and Smoked Sea Salt  

The rest of the meal consisted of one amazing dish after another. A crudo (basically the European version of sashimi) of fluke (it's a fish) with chilled balls of melon, some hot peppers and smoked sea salt hit just about every one your taste buds. The rich and tasty fish enhanced by the smoked salt, the peppers and melon giving a really unique hot/cold contrast in the same bite. Kind of like jalapeno ice cream. Nice.

Pan Sauté of Veal Sweetbreads
I rarely pass up the chance for sweetbreads (that's a thymus glad if you're curious - and yes it is delicious), and these were some of the best I've had, rivaling Modo Mio. A great crisp saute revealing unimaginable tender insides. Would absolutely get this again. 

Marinated Pacific Halibut, Oxtail Stuffed Artichokes, Sea Beans, Dill, and Saffron
For mains we both went for seafood, while our dining companions stuck to the land. I had a great piece of halibut served alongside artichokes stuffed with braised oxtail meat. The fish was cooked perfectly - flaky and tender - and topped with some saffron foam (didn't really taste the saffron though). Generally, I discount anything with "foam" in it. Foam is for parties on spring break, not for topping on food. The artichoke with oxtail was great though. The tender meat and soft, salty artichoke make such a good pair. I think it was better than the fish, and actually overpowers it a bit. I'd be happy ordering these on their own, sans halibut.

Fricassee of Chicken, Bulgar Wheat Risotto, Hazelnuts, Heirloom Carrots, and King Trumpets

When's the last time you saw chicken fricassee on a menu? When's the last time you even had fricassee? Do you even know what fricassee is? My mom actually used to make this all the time, and it's one of my favorite things she cooks. Basically browning pieces of chicken in a dutch oven with some butter or olive oil, then adding in liquid to make kind of a stew and cook until the meat is nearly falling off the bone. The Talula's version has super juicy pieces of free range chicken, local heirloom carrots and big meaty trumpet mushrooms. I only got to try a small piece, but it's clear why this is a staple of the menu. Chicken has to be done in a very special way to be worthy of ordering at a restaurant. This fits the bill.

Caramelized Maine Sea Scallops, Kohlrabi Puree & Watercress

Seared Maine scallops, each the size of a yo-yo, had a great char on the outside and perfectly tender inside. Scallops are easy to overcook, but when done right they can be incredible. These were of the latter style. Served over a puree of kohlrabi (in the cabbage family) and some watercress, this was one of the top dishes in an overall stellar meal. Probably the best new restaurant in Philly this year. Go there, now. And don't forget the cheese plate.


Food Baby Rating: Twins!

210 W. Washington Square
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215 592 7787
Sunday - Thursday: 5pm - 10pm
Friday - Saturday: 5pm - 11pm