Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bar Ferdinand

Ever have a restaurant in your neighborhood that is so consistently good that you get bored with it? I know that sounds silly but it doesn't mean it can't happen. I love Honey Nut Cheerios. It's my favorite breakfast cereal and they are consistently delicious - no variations in 32 years now. But I just can't eat them every day.  I need to mix it up with Frosted Mini Wheats, Tony the Tiger or some Fruity Pebbles now and then to keep my sanity.

Such is the case with Bar Ferdinand for me. It's been one of the anchors of Northern Liberties and certainly THE anchor of liberties walk for 6 years now. They've stuck with a very solid menu of Spanish tapas, meats, cheeses and small plates that has won them a consistent following and excellent reviews for more than half a decade. They were doing tapas before Garces made it cool, and helped to legitimize the neighborhood. Question is, how many times can I eat bacon & date empanadas or a cerdo frito sandwich before I become desensitized?

I'm the type of person that constantly craves the new flavor, a twist on an old classic, a cuisine I've never experienced before. I had subconsciously held off on doing our monthly Supper Club at Bar Ferd for a lot of the aforementioned reasons. I'd been there done that. What have you cooked for me lately?

Enter Chef David Ansill of Pif, Ansill and Ladder 15 (wtf?) fame.  I'd been eating at his various restaurants for years now, and was very excited to see him take over the helm and put his touch on the kitchen. While not a complete reinvention, the updated menu has several new dishes and some updated takes on my favorites. Our experience for Supper Club was nothing short of extraordinary. For a $40 tasting menu we got to try 12 different dishes, including a substantial main and two desserts. The wine was flowing freely (although not cheaply) and by the end of the night you could have rolled me down liberties walk.

Some highlights: 

shishito peppers
Blistered shishito peppers cleverly served on a piece of Cuban newsprint.  The peppers are delicious, reminiscent of the ones we raved about on our trip to Spain last year. Every third of fourth pepper is a surprise of heat that smacks you in the mouth. Kind of like Russian roulette with peppers. An excellent new addition to the menu and indicative of the thoughtfulness in the kitchen.

manchego frito
Manchego frito, apple foam and quince puree. The foam is actually frozen, creating a crazy mouth sensation of the cold and the hot fried cheese. Not one of my favorite dishes of the night but an interesting take on an old standby here. 

marinated olives
House marinated olives are as good as ever, especially those little purple ones.  I could nibble on these all day. 

broccoli & kale soup
Kale and potato soup with chives and bacon. This was one of the best things we had, and I didn't even know they served soup! A creamy mixture of kale, potato and cream, with some chopped chives and bits of crunchy, delicious bacon floating on top. This might be the perfect winter soup. It even looks deceptively healthy. 

almond crusted eggplant
Almond crusted eggplant with spiced honey was hit or miss with our eleven diners. Some people loved it, yours truly included, and others thought it was a but bland or just odd. The slivered almonds form this great crust on the outside. When you bite in you get that outer crunch and the inner softness of the roasted and fried eggplant. It's not a particularly strong flavor, but that's where the spiced honey comes in - giving the dish a sweet and spicy component that really rounds it out and brings some complexity. 

date & bacon empanada
Remember those date and bacon empanadas that I was talking about? They've always been a favorite - we literally get them every time we're there. Chef Ansill has changed the dough to more of a filo type that is flaky and light where the former version was fried and substantial. It's a subtle change, but it's like an entirely new empanada. I'll keep coming back for these ones, too. 

patatas bravas w/ shishito peppers
My wife's favorite - patatas bravas are just as good as ever but now with the addition of those  shishito peppers on top. They are served with two sauces, per the Spanish style, a spicy romesco and creamy aioli.  Lovely, crisp olive oil fried potatoes just made for dipping.  Delicious. 

endive "salad"
Our "salad" consisted of endive leaves drizzeld with a jamon vinaigrette (you read that right) over a base of Cabrales crema. Cabrales is a Spanish blue cheese that pairs really well with the bitter endive.  Mix in the salty jamon bits in the sweet vinaigrette and you've invited to a party in flavor town. 

roasted mushroom coca
Just about everyone's favorite  of the night was the roasted mushroom "coca" (basically a flatbread) with truffles and goat cheese. Truffles, like bacon, make everything better - why not add them to a flatbread with two of my favorite ingredients? It's like Ansill is in my head. The dough is crusty and just a bit chewy, like some of the best pizza shops in town. The perfect bed for this orgy of flavor that is about to descend upon your mouth. It is earthy and luscious, creamy and robust - like the best glass of wine you've ever tasted. This is near on perfection. 

roasted chicken with chorizo and catalan spinach
For my main I chose the roasted chicken thigh with catalan spinach and chorizo. The chicken is succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender. You don't even need a knife. Huge chunks of the rich dark meat offer themselves up and leave your fingers glistening like they were sneezed on by a unicorn. Crunchy bits of that spicy chorizo and delicate spinach round out this perfectly opulent piece of chicken. 

churros con chocolate
Dessert was an exercise in fortitude. By this point we had already had 10 tastings and an entrée. This was going to take serious motivation. Platters of flan with fresh fruit and churros con chocolate did the trick, and were pretty much obliterated in 5 minuntes. The flan was surprisingly very good - I'm not usually a flan person but this was almost impossible light and airy, without any of that thick syrup that you usually find it floating in. The churros were the star though - crispy fried lengths of dough and dipped in melted chocolate that would make Augustus Gloop want to dive right in.

Chef Ansill is the shake up that Bar Ferdinand desperately needed to stay relevant in our ever evolving dining scene. Staying true to the Spanish authenticity, but varying enough to keep me surprised and excited with every course. I feel like I've found a toy in my Cheerios. What a lovely surprise.

Food Baby Rating: Triplets!

Bar Ferdinand
1030 N. 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123
(At the eastern end of Liberties Walk)

Friday, December 7, 2012

New York, NY

Now that I've learned how to "check in" on Facebook, you might have noticed that we spent the weekend in NY enjoying the holiday lights, seeing a show and eating lots of great food. Kind of hard not to eat well in NY, as long as you avoid any restaurant within 10 blocks of Times Square. We stayed with my brother-in-law on the upper east side (66th & 3rd) which has a ton of good local spots and easy access to the subway to explore the rest of the city.  I apologize for the lack of pictures. I wasn't thinking of blogging until the bus ride home and I started recapping all the great places we went.

Boltbus ride from Philly and a late dinner Friday night at The Smith in Midtown. A huge space by Manhattan standards, well lit and stylish. A good restaurant with a decent bar, and not the other way around; they do mostly steaks, chops and seafood. We had some great shishito peppers that were a flashback to Spain. Nicely blistered and just a little sweet. Mac & Cheese was great - crunchy little crust on top and served in it's own little skillet with a good béchamel as the cheesy base. My chicken pot pie was enough to feed 3. Needed some salt to amp up the flavor a bit, but the pastry top was flaky and buttery. So good on a cold windy night.

Brunch with some cousins the next morning at Extra Virgin, down in the Village. Almost no wait on a Saturday at noon (apparently unheard of in NY) and wonderful food. The truffled mushroom turkey burger was probably the best I've ever had. They serve it with a little side of porcini aioli that really brings out a depth of flavor and lusciousness in the burger. My only complaint about the place would be the $10 bloody mary's. They served them in tom collins glasses (should always be in a pint glass). The mix was watery and not spicy in the least. Basically tomato juice & vodka. Made me miss the good ones at N. 3rd & Standard Tap. Worth coming here just for the food though.

Craft beers for $5 in Manhattan?  Impossible you say?  Well you would be completely wrong. The Pony Bar serves only crafts on draught and has a live updating screen of what beers are being poured and what's up next. Basically the NY version of Kraftwork. The menu didn't look like anything special so we just stuck to the beers.  For $5 a beer though, I might never drink anywhere else here again.

I've always wanted to have that NY pizza moment. That slice that explains what all the fuss is about. The reason that foodie tours come here. Well, I finally had my moment. John's Pizzeria on 64th street was incredible. Kind of a no frills place with some booths and a decent list of beers you can get by the pitcher. The pizza that they pull out of their ancient ovens is just about the best I've ever had. They serve only whole pies - no slices,  it's definitely a sit down experience. There's lots of good pies in Philly (Stella, Tacconelli's, Zavino) but this seemed to be on a whole different plane of existence. The chewy crust with just a few blisters. The deeply flavored sauce. Pepperoni that does a little dance on your tongue. Mozzarella that tastes like it was stretched just minutes before going on. I ate my slices. Did my little happy wiggle in the booth. And tried to savor that moment.  Mmmm.  I get it now.

Can't come here and not get bagels right?  Sunday brunch/hangover helper with some more cousins at Ess-A-Bagel on 51st & 3rd. This place looks like they opened up in the 70's and never touched a thing since (the website confirms my suspicion). The bagels are pretty stellar though. The line is generally stretched along the counter and back to the door. They do not pride themselves on efficiency. Getting two bagel sandwiches made took about 10 minutes, plus another five to pay for them. The food is worth the wait though and nothing rights the ship like carbalicous bagels. I've told my wife before that good bagels are one of the best things she's brought into my life. Up until I met her I only knew frozen Lenders and Dunkin Donuts. For shame. What I've been missing out on.

It's great having family to stay with in Manhattan. Hotels are insanely expensive and having someone there that knows the good places is clutch. A quick 2 hour bus ride and we can play food tourist for a weekend - one of my favorite activities. Still need to get a Papaya Dog on one of these trips and maybe a trip to Brooklyn next time to check out the scene there. So much food and so little time to eat. 

-Food Baby

The Smith - Midtown
956 Second Avenue, New York, NY
(212) 644-2700

Extra Virgin - Greenwich Village
259 W 4th St, New York, NY
(212) 691-9359

Pony Bar - Upper East Side
1444 1st Avenue New York, NY

John's Pizzeria - Upper East Side
408 East 64th Street, New York, NY
(212) 935-2895

Ess-a-Bagel - Midtown East
831 3rd Avenue, New York, NY
(212) 980-1010