Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Square Peg

What's with all the hating on Square Peg?  Craig Laban's review did them no favors, nor did Trey Popp's piece in Philly mag. Matt Levin seems to have built up a certain level of expectation with the foodie crowd that is now biting him in the poutine. After reading both of the above mentioned reviews with much anticipation, I was left like a sailboat without wind, aimlessly looking for direction on how to interpret our own experience here. 

As the Dalai Lama once said, "If you have no expectations you will never be disappointed." What an amazing way to look at life, and restaurants. Luckily for us, the official reviews had not been published when we ate. I only read them afterwards, and felt truly surprised by the night and day experiences we had. We were at the mercy of only our taste buds, and they were happy. 

deviled eggs
Beautifully made deviled eggs, with bits of fresh dill and whole mustard seeds for extra umph. A zingy wasabi sauce is a subtle counterpoint for the richly whipped egg yolks. A deal for $4.  

mahi quesadilla

Another good bar snack was the mahi mahi quesadilla. Crumbled cojita cheese on top, creamy guac and pickled veggies with a just crisped tortilla. Tender hunks of mahi inside with melted pepper jack. Yumm. 

mac & cheese "grilled cheese"

Take some homemade mac & cheese, stuff that between two pieces of buttered bread, and then grill it on a flat top. The result is kind of ridiculous and indulgently deliciousWithout the picture, this one would be hard to describe. The view when cut open is priceless. The little bowl of tomato soup tasted like it came from a can; I would have preferred some Sriracha to cut through all the dairy and add some needed heat.  However, this is definitely a fun thing to order and a conversation starter for sure. One slice per person is enough, unless you're going the twins/triplets food baby route. 

fried chicken, collards, kool-aid watermelon

Levin knows a thing or two about fried chicken. The version he did at Adsum was memorable for the ultra crispy outer shell - when you bit into it, diners three tables over could hear you chomping away. He's brought that same deftness with the bird to Square Peg, where he has single-handedly created the most racist dish in Philadelphia. That same incredibly crunchy fried chicken - a hard outer shell but all tender inside like a Patrick Dempsey rom-com. Under the chicken is a pile of spicy collard greens, a small drizzle of honey hot sauce, and on the side a cube of kool-aid infused watermelon. 

I hadn't put it together at the time. But over dinner with a friend a few shades darker than my northern European self the other night, he professed that he would never eat here because of this dish. I think that might be a bit extreme, but I can see his point. The kool-aid watermelon thing is walking a fine line. The chicken is pretty damn good though. It's worth stopping in just for that. I'd put it in the top 5 of the city, especially now that Meme is closed. 

A pretty decent falafel plate. Grilled flat bread pita, pickled red onion & cucumber. A roasted cauliflower salad on the side. Big, crunchy falafel balls that were nicely fried and soft on the inside. It's not exactly Zahav, but tasty nonetheless and a somewhat healthier and definitely lighter alternative to the burgers, fried chicken and pierogies that litter the rest of the menu. I really liked the roasted cauliflower, which is saying something. Cauliflower is one of the few foods I really don't get excited about. Roasting them to golden brown gave them some crunch and a real depth of flavor that you just don't get any other way. Nicely played. 

deep fried pork chop

They deep fried a pork chop. Seriously. I wish I could tell you how good it was but I didn't order it. The guy who did barely stopped to take a breath between bites, so I assume it was tasty. I mean, how can you go wrong deep frying a pork chop? It was the special of the night and not on the regular menu. Hopefully it's there next time we go back.  

Square Peg is not the best restaurant in the city. It's probably not even in the top 10 or 20. But it is a whole lot better than critics have been giving it credit for. A menu of elevated bar snacks and creative presentations pushes the culinary envelope a bit. It's not Adsum, so don't walk through the front door expecting that. Instead, do as the Dalai Lama recommends - don't let yourself be disappointed. 

Food Baby Rating: Only Child

Square Peg
929 Walnut Street (at 10th)
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Just getting a reservation at Barbuzzo can be a chore. Tables are booked up weeks in advance. Once you're in, you have to then deftly navigate thru the narrow room - a series of four-tops on one side, the open kitchen on the other - to get to your designated table. Your efforts will be rewarded though. And even if you forgot to make the reservation a month ago, you can always try snagging a couple seats at the bar like we did late on a Tuesday night. You get access to the whole menu, plus your bartender is always at your beckon call! 

There is good reason landing a table at Barbuzzo is harder than getting into Dorsia. Marcie Turner is doing things with Italian food that will make your mouth water and your stomach rumble. This is not the refined pastas and fine dining of Vetri. Nor is it the veal parm and chicken saltambucca of hole in the wall South Philly joints. This is something else entirely. Forward looking dishes that are exciting and unique, yet at the same time comforting and accessible. Grilled shrimp, smoked in-house, alongside a crispy mushroom polenta. Fava bean arancini. Roasted corn agnolotti. The Fico pizza with fresh figs, gorgonzola dolce, walnuts, prosciutto, arugula and pomegranate molasses. This is so much more than spaghetti & meatballs. 

sheeps milk ricotta
You'll likely not find a better appetizer for $10 anywhere in the city. Quickly grilled slices of crusty bread.  A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. A delectably rich and salty scoop of fresh sheep's milk ricotta, kissed with vin cotta vinegar. You spread the cheese over the bread, watching it seep into every nook and cranny. At first bite, you are transported to a Tuscan village overlooking a deep valley, lush with olive trees. It slowly dawns on you that you are sitting on a bar stool on 13th Street. You then plot ways to fend off any would be takers on your ricotta like Katniss defending the Cornucopia. It's totally worth fighting the Careers for.


A 'simple' bruschetta of grilled foccaccia, melted mozzarella and an heirloom tomato salad with basil and balsamic vineger. Simple is a misnomer. So many brilliant flavors mixing into a harmonious Italian opera of taste. 

stuffed meatballs
Meatballs have been a trend for a while now in this city (see: Marabella Meatball Co on 12th & Walnut - dedicated solely to the subject). And any good red sauce joint south of Bainbridge should have a reputable ball. Barbuzzo has taken the humble little meat orb to a different place; stuffing them with caciocavallo (an Italian cheese similar to mozzarella) that oozes out when you cut into them. The meat is a grind of beef shortrib and pork, blended with oregano & some spicy chilies, then topped with an other-worldly red sauce and some shredded pecorino. Quite simply the best meatballs I've ever had. There is nothing elegant about these. It's is all about substance, passion for authenticity and devotion to the craft. These things have more heart than Rudy Ruettiger

grilled sardines
I've become a sucker for sardines. The mere mention of them makes my mouth begin to water and my wife's eyes start to roll. Smokey. Salty. Tasting of the sea. The quintessential dish of any coastal Mediterranean village worth it's gills. If you can get over the whole 'scales & tail' thing, you discover an intensely flavorful little fish. Served over a mix of immense fava beans, shreds of crispy bacon and drizzled with olive oil, the strong flavors play off each other and elevate each other. Each bite is more interesting that the last. 

salted caramel budino 

The best dessert in the city. Seriously. A layer of chocolate cookie crumbles on the bottom, reminiscent of Oreo's. A hearty layer of budino (basically Italian pudding). Vanilla bean caramel. Sea salt sprinkled ever so lovingly. Some whipped cream. A dusting of dark chocolate powder. It's everything a dessert should be. Sweet. Salty. Intense. Airy. Satisfying on so many levels. If you get nothing else, come here just for this. 

The constant crowds are a sign of the success here. Yes, it's annoying that you have to wait weeks for a table if you'd like to eat after 4pm. But the food here is incredible. Drinks are strong. Service is swift. Show up after 10:30 on a school night and check the late night menu. Beers for $3, sangria for $4 and a changing lineup of $10 plates. All these people can't be wrong. In fact, they are very, very right.

Food Baby Rating: Triplets! 

110 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA
(215) 546-9300