Saturday, January 29, 2011

Max Brenner

For the last night of restaurant week we braved the sloppy streets and used up a gift card we'd been sitting on for over a year at Max Brenner.  I hadn't heard much of this place, and frankly don't know anyone else that's even been there so expectations were nil. Located on 15th street between Walnut & Locust they seem to be trying to cater to the pre and post theatre crowd.  Max Brenner is actually a chocolate themed chain with locations in Vegas, NY, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore & Israel.  Why they chose Philadelphia for an outpost seems a bit strange.  How bad can a chocolate themed restaurant be though?

When you walk in you are confronted by a massive display of house made chocolates and branded merchandise for sale, along with a free sample of chocolate covered pralines.  That was a nice start.  We were ten minutes early, which usually means you are ushered over to the bar for a drink.  Instead, the barely legal looking hostesses told us to wait in the merchandise area, with no one bothering to check our coats.  The interior is dark and meant to be romantic, with red christmas lights strung from ceiling rafters, candles and table top smores adding to the valentines day feel of the place.  We didn't have much better luck with our server, who didn't bother to ask what kind of vodka we wanted in our martini's (god only knows what they put in there), forgot to bring silverware with the entrees, and left us hanging for a second drink.  One of her fellow servers luckily stepped in and got things resolved.

The food itself was underwhelming.  Started off with a caesar salad that had chunks of avocado, tomato and a dressing infused with some spicy mexican chili that would have been really nice if had not been a 50/50 ratio of salad to dressing.  You could have done 21st birthdy shots with what was left over.  She got the corn croquettes that were basically little fritters, battered in panko breadcrumbs and flash fried.  They were prepared well, but lacked any serious depth of flavor.

Entrees were a NY strip for me that was cooked to medium rare as I asked, but the actual cut of meat was nothing better than you could have gotten at SuperFresh.  Served with roasted potatoes and the same corn croquettes we had for an appetizer, it's a pretty unimaginative dish for restaurant week.  She went with the black sesame salmon that was probably the best of the bunch.  Cooked well, and served with a wasabi aoli that was tasty but packed too little punch.  

Desert time came around, which should be the main event at a chocolate restaurant.  The restaurant week menu featured two options, the peanut butter chocolate crepe & the chocolate fondue.  The crepe was ok, but the portion was huge and overloaded with so much peanut butter that you needed several gulps of water after every bite just to swallow.  The fondue setup looked to be an event by itself.  One bowl of marshmallows, brownies & thick chocolate chip cookies and another of strawberries and bananas for dipping in two different chocolates and a caramel sauce sitting atop a little candle that looked like a potpourri at my mom's house.  Along with this they also give you a little sterno roaster for the marshmallows to make smores, minus the graham crackers.  As great as the setup was, the chocolates weren't very good.  The dark chocolate wasn't bitter enough, and the milk chocolate was almost runny.

No pictures in this posting.  Partly because it was so dark in the room that nothing would come out, but also because there wasn't much worthy of the camera.

I might come back to try some different desserts another time, but I'd give the food a pass.  Not quite a miscarriage, but definitely no babies on the Food Baby rating scale for Max Brenner.



-T.Kaso



Max Brenner
1500 Walnut St. (15th St. between Walnut and Locust)
Hours of Operation:
Mon – Thurs - 11:30am – 11:00pm
Fri - 11:30am – 1:00am
Sat - 11:00am - 1:00am (brunch is served from 11:00am - 4:00pm)
Sun - 9:00am – 11:00pm (brunch is served from 9:00am - 4:00pm)



Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Hikari

Dinner with good friends on Tuesday at Hikari on liberties walk. This is our go-to sushi spot, mostly because it's convenient, but the rolls are always good and it's reasonably priced as long as you don't go all out on the special rolls. Hikari is not the best sushi in the city, but I've paid much more for equivalent or even worse at other joints. It's a family owned and run place, with the front of the house run by Hana - the daughter of the owner who is always attentive and friendly when we stop in. There is a small sushi bar with seating where you can watch the action in the tiny kitchen, and on warmer days there are plenty of tables for outside seating in the walk.

Started off with edamame (a bit over salted) and the veggie gyoza, which were steamed perfectly but served with a dipping sauce that lacked any kind of punch to enhance the dumplings. Our friends had the miso soup, which was served with some unexpected but welcome enoki mushrooms floating on top. The soup was gone before I could get a taste, so I'm assuming it was tasty.

We splurged a bit on the rolls since we had a gift card and got a few extra of the special rolls.  The Sweet Potato maki, Sprunchy, Rainbow, Philly & Pink Lady all made appearances at the table, along with some Hamachi sashimi.  The Sweet Potato roll is a new addition to the menu, and was my favorite of the night.  Japanese yam tempura, wrapped with an almost neon green soy paper is not found on your average sushi bar menu.  The yam had an almost silky texture, and the switch from the normal seaweed wrap was a nice change of scenery.


The rainbow & philly rolls are almost required orders now.  Hard to mess them up but always good.  A sprunchy roll is always on our table at Hikari, and I think they do this better than almost anyone in the city.  A spicy tuna roll topped with avocado, tobiko, spicy sauce and panko for a little crunch.  The Pink Lady is another new item on the menu, yellow tail dressed with a spicy sauce and wrapped in pink soy paper and topped with lightly seared tuna (that's them in the middle in the picture above).  I loved these little guys - the seared tuna getting a great kick from the spicy sauce.

New to me, but not to the menu, was the Spiker maki with deep fried soft shell crab, asparagus, cucumber and masago roe.  The roll was good, but the presentation is great with the crab shooting out of the ends of the last rolls. You can see them below towards the back of the plate, apparently giving me the middle finger before they meet their demise.


The Matrix and  Sakura maki, ches' specials for the day, were works of art and well executed.  Unfortunately  I don't recall exactly what went in them - I'll have to get back to you on that.  Do order them if you go, you can thank me later.





















I give this meal a Twins rating on the Food Baby scale - more on that later.
-T. Kaso








Hikari
1040 N. American st # 701 
Philadelphia, PA 19123
215.923.2654

Business Hours
Mon- Thur; 11:30am-3:00 pm
Break Time
Dinner; 4:30-10:00 pm
Fri-Sat; 11am-11:00 pm
Sunday: 4:00pm-10:00pm

Free Parking, Free Delivery ($20 Min), B.Y.O.B

Monday, January 24, 2011

Amada

What's to say about Amada that hasn't already been written?  It's been one of the toughest reservations in the city for years now and for good reason.  The interior is classy and comfortable, a great bar scene with excellently crafted cocktails, and the food is incredible.  I think what's most impressive about Amada is just how consistently they produce such a varied and aggressive menu.  This time we took advantage of their restaurant week offering and landed the primo large table surrounded by linen curtains in the middle of the restaurant.


Since Amada is the original small plates / tapas spot in Philly, their restaurant week menu lets you order two dishes for your first course, two dishes for your main, and a desert.  We had six people at our table, and we strategically ordered to get a taste of just about everything.  Serrano ham and Chorizo Pamplona sliced razor thin are a ubiquitous bit of the excellent charcuterie here.  Ham croquetas fried perfectly and garlic shrimp that are so tender and tasty my non-seafood eating friend from Fishtown (ironic?) even tried them and proclaimed them "pretty good" for shrimp.  The kitchen's deft touch with all the seafood is reason enough to visit.


The serrano ham & melon dish was a great take on the italian speciality, and I probably ate more than my share. Tops of the appetizers though was the aged manchego with truffled lavender honey.  The honey alone was so good that we were dipping anything we could find in it - apples, bread, random charcuterie.  I was on the verge of asking for a syringe so it could be mainlined.


After a nice little break between courses (during restaurant week I always feel like you're being rushed to down your food and free up the table) our mains came out and these raised the bar to Night Court levels.  The beef shortrib flatbread with bacon parmesan and a touch of horseradish was great, a perfectly cooked dough with just enough chewiness. The calamari were cooked perfectly, but these are not fried, so try not to look squeamish when you get a nice hunk of tentacle.

We got both the chicken and beef brochettes - basically grilled skewers.  The chicken was good; the beef was melt in your mouth tender.  Amada has a thing for eggs and truffles - you see them all over over the menu in unexpected places.  Two of the best examples are the asparagus with poached egg & truffles, and the chicken breast with truffles and a friend egg, just because they can. These were the two best things on the menu by a long way.  Turns out you can make a veggie side dish into a rich and savory main by adding a few decadent ingredients.  For $35 a head, this menu is an amazing value.  Some places pay lip service to the restaurant week idea and offer a small prix fixe.  Amada goes big with lots of choices and plenty for everyone.

-T. Kaso

Amada
217 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215-625-2450
www.amadarestaurant.com

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sonata



Considering that Sonata, the "New American" BYO in Liberties Walk, is less than 3 blocks from our house it's almost a crime that we hadn't been there yet.  Chef Mark Tropeas has created a progressive new menu in the former Swallow space - you may remember it as the former Mac & Cheese restaurant - and based on the waiting list for reservations he seems to have a winner on his hands.  The menu changes with the seasons, and the current offerings for fall/winter reflect a heartier sampling of gumbo & soups, pork belly, bacon wrapped chicken & braised short ribs.  


Little has changed in the physical space; the bathroom is still a marvel of turquoise tile and stone work & the interior consists of faux hardwood floors and dimly lit tables.  The menu itself if almost over decadent.  My rabbit and andoullie gumbo was out of this world, while the lobster "mac&cheese" was so rich that we had to split it amongst the table.  The fresh papparadelle noodles were fantastic, but the nearly half tail of lobster was tough to cut thru, and the dish had so much butter even my Irish grandmother would be overwhelmed.  Other dishes were much better received - the fiancee had the porcine crusted tuna, which was perfectly done with the tuna just barely seared and a deep ruby color in the middle.  A friend at our table had the bacon wrapped chicken and marveled at how the bacon seemed to almost fuse with the tender chicken breast.  


After a dessert of the chocolate decadence consisting of chocolate beignets (they brought extra so everyone could try) and a hazlenut chipwich, the chef came out to thank us for coming and ask about our meals.  No one rushed us out of our seats, instead letting us causally finish off the extra bottle of wine we brought along.  We did notice that most of the diners in the restaurant did not bear the tight jeans and scruffy beards of the NoLibs local scene.  Sonata is pulling diners from center city and the burbs - which is impressive given it's location buried in liberties walk.  Looking forward to coming back in the spring to see what the lighter menu will look like.  They also have plenty of outdoor seating that will help with the reservation crush when the warmer months return. 


-T. Kaso


Sonata
1030 North American Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(215) 238-1240

wednesday & thursday: 5 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
friday & saturday: 5 p.m. - 11 p.m.
sunday: 5 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
closed monday and tuesday

Anthony Bourdain @ The Keswick

Those of you familiar with Anthony Bourdain and his travel show No Reservations on Travel Channel can catch him live at the Keswick Theatre on February 14th - Valentine's Day.  His book Kitchen Confidential is a great read that details his life as an aspiring chef and part time junkie in New York.

Not really a comedian, and definitely not a cooking demonstration, I'm curious to see what the live act is all about. The description of the show says "Tony will share the fascinating, hysterical, and sometimes shocking stories behind his life, books, travels, and his hit show. And he even takes questions from the audience."  

Tickets are priced at $40, $50 & $85 on the Keswick box office website.

Details of the show are posted at the link below:
http://bourdainlive.com/

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dim Sum Garden

Dinner with friends at Dim Sum Garden to fill up on dumplings and noodles on a sub-freezing January night.  Just a block off Market on 11th, don't be fooled by the sketchy looks or the proximity to the Chinatown Bus station.  Walk inside and experience the magic that are their soup dumplings - little purses of dough, enveloping pork or crabmeat and a bit gelatin aspic that liquefies when steamed.  The trick to eating these is not to sear your taste buds from the near boiling broth that runs out from the dumpling.  My method is to poke the little bugger with your chopstick, and drain the broth into your soup spoon - then knock out the dumpling and down the broth as your chaser.  I could eat hundreds of these without getting tired of them.



Also tasty are the scallion pancakes - we had to order a second round of these - and the steamed veggie buns that were surprisingly good.  Pumpkin fritters were a special of the night.  They were recommended by the quais-english speaking server and tasted a bit like funnel cake if the batter had squash in it.  We sampled the napa & pork dumplings, siumai, and triple steamed buns, which were all tasty, but just kept coming back to those juicy pork buns.  To give the cooking staff some variety, our server also recommended the seasoned vegetables which were basically sauteed chinese greens & the handmade noodles with what I think was a pork based sauce.  The greens added some needed color to our monochromatic sampling of dumplings, and the noodles were definitely a hit.

Saying the interior of the restaurant is sparse might be an understatement.  It's about as bare bones as you can get, with a stand-up pepsi cooler in the dining room serving as the prep fridge for hotel trays full of prepared pork and chicken.  It's BYO, but don't ask for wine glasses - if you're trying to stay classy you may want to bring your own.  After two tries, we got large tea cups for our bottle of House Wine red.  What it lacks in amenities and decor though, Dim Sum Garden makes up for in their menu prices.  Dinner for six of us came to $59 before tax & tip.  I dare you to find a better meal for $10 a person anywhere in the city.  I wouldn't take a first date here, unless you've got an adventurous foodie on your hands, but this is the perfect place for a dinner with friends.

-T. Kaso

Dim Sum Garden

59 N 11th St
PhiladelphiaPA 19176
Neighborhood: Market East
(215) 627-0218

Hours:

Mon-Thu 11:30 am - 10 pm
Fri-Sat 11:30 am - 11 pm
Sun 11:30 am - 9 pm

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Paesano's



Snow day means working from home, and that means Paesano's for lunch.  We're only 3 blocks from this little hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop but don't get in nearly enough.  Every sandwich is made from scratch with the absolute best ingredients available.  They roast their own suckling pig for the Arista, grind their own lamb for the Gustaio, and make their own crepes for the Crispelle.  There's room for 6 at the tiny counter, and if you score one of these primo seats you get a front row view of the action in the "kitchen" that also serves as prep station and storage area.  All dealings are in cash, but luckily there is an ATM at 3rd Federal just down the street.  

I shy away from calling these creations hoagies, as they are so much more than that.  A hoagie is something you get from the Wawa balloon man when they are on sale in August.  These are individual works of art that happen to be on a seeded italian roll. 


I've had most of the menu now, at least at the Girard Ave location.  They have an expanded selection at their second location at 9th & Christian in the Italian market including the elusive Bolognese that was featured in the Philly mag cheap eats piece over the summer.  However, owner Peter McAndrews is slotted to open a Sicilian-French BYO in this space and move Paesano's down the block a bit.  Up to this point, my favorite item on the menu has been the Arista, with the Paesano coming in a close second.  Both are a hot mess, sure to leave as evidence of your purchase a wrapper filled with sauce & juices that you'll want extra bread to soak up.  This time I went with the Gustaio - served on a thick pita that is crisped up in a frying pan right before assembly.  It's more gyro than sandwich, a nod to the Greeks with hand formed ground lamb patties that are seared right in front of you.  Add to this a base of gorgonzola cheese, sun-dried cherry compote, roasted fennel seeds and fresh arugula, my friend you've got yourself a Zeus of a meal.  



We finished up with a side of the Potota Arrosto, which are basically roasted red potatoes glistening in olive oil and presumably pork fat of some kind, then topped with shreds of sharp provolone.  This is then wrapped up in tin foil and thrown in the oven for a few minutes to get the cheese melting.  For $2, this is the perfect side dish. Most of the sandwiches are $8, and drinks are only a buck each.  They have canned soda, bottled water and a range of Hank's root beers including black cherry and orange cream.  I think it's time to head finally make the trek down to South Philly to sample the rest of the menu.  



-T. Kaso


Northern Liberties
152 W Girard Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19123
267-886-9556
Italian Market 
901 Christian St
Philadelphia, PA 19147
215-922-2220









Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mac's Tavern



Dinner the other night with the fiancĂ©e at Mac's Tavern on Market.  We wouldn't normally go out of our way to eat in Old City on a Monday night, but she had gotten a groupon for $40 worth of food and drink, so we decided to give it a try.   Mac's is owned by Rob McElhenney of It's Always Sunny fame, and is in the former Skinner's space between 2nd & 3rd.  Other than a coat of paint and a good cleaning job, the space hasn't changed much since it was dive bar, and that's a good thing.  Old City is desperately lacking good neighborhood spots that aren't havens for the masses from DelCo and South Jersey. Mac's is along the same lines as Charlie's & Sugar Mom's - no pretension, just a good vibe and cheap beers.



Alas, no milksteak or jellybeans on this menu.  There is an It's Always Sunnyside Up breakfast item and Sweet D's Sausage & P's on the sandwich list though, if that's your thing.  We stuck with more standard fare and a few drinks before catching a movie around the corner at the Ritz.  Gravy fries started off the meal.  Thick cut steak fries with a roastbeef gravy, covered with melted mozzarella and a last minute addition of grated "parmesan" cheese that seemed to come from one of those shaker cans. Despite the shady looking parmesan, the fries were pretty tasty - a nice philly take on poutine. The fiancee had the caeser salad with grilled chicken and I went for the roast pork with sauteed baby spinach and provolone.  The salad was good, but nothing memorable.  The roast pork was surprisingly well done.  Served on a fresh ciabatta roll, the pork was not as juicy as John's or Tony Lukes, but more of a complex oven roasted flavor that lent credibility to an otherwise generic menu.  All the sandwiches are served with a side of fries and spicy little aioli dipping sauce.

While it's not the most inventive menu on the block, there is something to be said for getting the basics right. More than that, Mac's has a good selection of beers, enough flat screens so that everyone can get a good view of the game, and a friendly staff.  Pretty much everything you want in a local, but rarely find in this neighborhood.

-T. Kaso

Mac's Tavern
226 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA(267) 324-5507 
www.macstavern.com

Friday, January 7, 2011

Food Writing - 101

I started this blog as a fun little experiment to spread some knowledge of Philly restaurants and hopefully relate some of the passion that I have for food.  I'm clearly not the only one doing this, as reflected by a new food writing course offered by St. Joe's to it's undergrads.  The course was featured in an article in yesterday's Inquirer, and highlights the growing popularity of food books, blogs, and self proclaimed foodies.

I love the fact that people in our little city are so into food these days.  There's practically a new restaurant opening every week, even in this Great Recession.  That speaks to the unquenchable demand for new takes on braised short ribs, cheese steak spring rolls, and authentic pizzas that has become the norm in Philly.

The article also makes me long for my undergraduate days, especially the latter ones, where senior electives let you take anything from eastern religions to wine & spirits (Drexel actually has that class, and it was the most I learned in 10 weeks during my 5 years there).  The possibility of a career in food is tempting.  From cheese mongering, to food anthropology, to culinary arts, there are just so many ways to get into the industry these days.  Perhaps a future in software consulting isn't my calling after all.

-T. Kaso

Han Dynasty Part II


Apparently I just couldn't get the delightful pain of Han dynasty's chili oil laden dishes out of my head.  Working in West Chester, I'm just a few minutes drive from Exton, where Han opened the original restaurant.  Now that I'm in-the-know, this is going to be a regular on the lunch circuit.  Food was almost as good as the old city location, but that may have something to do with the fact that we didn't bring any booze with us and Han wasn't there shouting expletives at people asking for non-spicy food. 

They suburban restaurants have an "americanized" menu with general tsao's, cashew chicken and the like.  But we ordered a few appetizers from the "authentic chinese"side along with the $6.95 lunch special (quite a deal for soup & and entree).  Sliced beef in chili oil and the noodles in chili oil, both served cold, were tasty with a nice heat that sneaks up on you towards the end of the dish.  



My boss got the chicken with dry hot peppers and I went with Ma Po tofu w/ minced pork. Do you know how to make tofu taste good?  Add some minced pork of course!  It actually had a great sauce on there, and just enough spiciness to make it interesting.  


Definitely looking forward to this being a regular lunch spot now.  My only wish would be that they add some more spicy items to the lunch specials list.  There were only two, which we got, but I've got a feeling we'll run through the rest of that list pretty quickly.  

-T. Kaso

Han Dynasty
260 North Pottstown Pike, Exton, PA 19341(610) 524-4002 handynasty.net

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Home Slice - Free Pizza


Make the best of the current chilly temps and get some free pizza from Home Slice in NoLibs.  They're running a special if the temperature drops below freezing you get a free pizza.  Details are posted on their Facebook page.

We got two pies last night - the Greek (white pie, spinach & tomatoes), and a  Steve Martin (grilled jerk chicken, red onions, sauce & mozzarella).  Delivery took about 45 mins and everything showed up hot with a still-crispy crust.  The Steve Martin was my favorite, with just barely sauteed onions and nicely seasoned jerk chicken chunks.

Weather.com says sub-freezing temps for the next week or so.  Good thing we love pizza.

-T. Kaso

"I know we've only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. And the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it."  - Navin R. Johnson, The Jerk. 


Home Slice1030 North American Street - Liberties Walk Philadelphia, PA(215) 627-2726 
Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sun: Noon to Ten
Fri & Sat: Noon to Midnight
Monday: Closed

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Han Dynasty

Dinner last week at the Han Dynasty - otherwise known as the HandyNasty if you read their website address a bit too quickly - which is the third outpost of  31 year-old entrepreneur Han Chiang.   Han’s restaurants are known for their authentic and viciously spicy Szechuan dishes.  His other two Dynastys in Exton & Royersford both feature an “Americanized” menu for the weaker stomachs of the mainline crowd.  His old city restaurant features no such mercy rule.  Your taste buds will be assaulted from every angle by the sneaky heat he has packed into even the most innocent looking dishes – spicy cucumbers anyone??


Han is a friend of a friend from Drexel, and we had a sizeable group of about 16.  So instead of squeezing into the modern feeling main dining room, we were quickly ushered into the underground banquet room, presumably where our cries for mercy from the chef’s seemingly endless supply of chili oil wouldn’t be heard by passersby.  I later found out that getting seated in this room was quite the treat.  If you’re lucky enough to land the big table you don’t get menus – food just starts showing up; sesame noodles, dumplings, wontons, chicken dishes, stir-fried eggplant, etc.  This continues until you’re either full or can’t take any more heat.  If you’re really lucky, Han will guide you thru your dishes and point out that “if you don’t like spicy food, go f*#% yourself.” 

All of the dishes we had were outstanding.  The feast started with two types of sesame noodles, one vegetarian and one with pork.  Both were dressed in a little chili oil that got more intense as you worked down thru the bowl and the noodles had the chance to bath a little longer.  Next was steamed wontons, soaking in chili oil, daring you to eat them.  The pork filling in them had a great sweetness that helped to cut thru the spice and they were steamed to perfection.  Little dumplings with a similar filling were equally as good and lip numbing.   White rice is served alongside, but don’t fill up as it’s just taking up valuable real estate.  Roasted & stir fried eggplant that was insanely good and crispy bits of perfectly fried dry pepper style chicken with whole red chili’s rounded out the meal.   Nearly ice cold sliced cucumbers offer some relief from the heat onslaught, but these too are soaking in that delicious chili oil and are almost a cruel trick – “go ahead eat me, you’ll feel better.”  Little bastards.   No matter what you do though, you can’t stop eating as each dish is better than the last.   



The whole meal runs you $25, and it’s BYO.  I don’t know a better deal in Philly for the type and amount of food you’re going to get at Han Dynasty.   I literally could not stop talking about it the next day, and kept thinking back to those evil little cucumbers daring me on.  Han informed us that our meal was a 5 out of 10 on his heat scale.  Looking forward to going back and experiencing what the other half of that scale is all about.



108 Chestnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19106 
215-922-1888