Wednesday, July 16, 2014


This is a post I've been waiting years to write.  Isn't it great when you know a server or bartender at a restaurant? You're sure to get a drink or appetizer for free.  It's even better when you happen to know the Chef de cuisine and they send over a bottle of champagne for your girlfriend's birthday and make you seem like a big shot.  Better still is when that same Chef decides open up his own restaurant. 

Chef Macgregor Mann, whom I happily call a fraternity brother and dear friend has opened Junto BYOB in Chadds Ford, PA.  It is the culmination of a culinary degree from Drexel and 10 years in the industry cooking for and learning from some extremely high profile chefs. I like to recall the moment that "Mac" decided to be a chef. His first year at Drexel he was in the Engineering college, working towards a degree in Commerce & Engineering. Ugh, snooze fest. One night sitting around the fraternity house  while we were "studying" he looked at me and said "Turcich, I think I want to be a chef." Mac proceeded to switch majors and pursue his dream.  Just like that.

He did a short stint at Penne on Walnut Street on Penn's campus, followed up by a gig cooking at Amada where he worked his way up to Chef de cuisine. He was even featured on Iron Chef America cooking right alongside Iron Chef Jose Garces. Next came a stop at Noma in Copenhagen for a chance to learn from Rene Redzepi.  If you have not heard of this Scandinavian culinary epicenter, check out this episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown for a primer.  The entire show is dedicated not to Denmark or even Copenhagen, but to this one restaurant.

Noma is ranked as the best restaurant in the world, several years running. They kind of invented the idea of foraging for ingredients. Not in a weird dumpster diving way, but among the wild Denmark coastlines, forests and fields. Things you never thought were edible are transformed into marvelous items on your plate.  And there is a bit of that on display at Junto

So I have friends who not only work in the industry, but now own restaurants.  I'm not sure if this officially qualifies me as old (probably yes), but I'm happy to reap the rewards and brag a bit. Junto is a hidden gem in Chadds Ford - an area that abounds in old money but lacks in dining destinations. It's not a huge dining room, but there is a lovely front porch and an ancillary "Session Room" in the back for private parties. Walking up the path from the parking lot you can get a peak at Mac and his team hard at work in the kitchen.

clockwise from topleft: cornbread, egg yolk ravioli,
cheese and charcuturie board
The menu is based on a Pennsylvania Farmhouse theme - with most everything being sourced from the area. Lots of locally caught seafood, Kennett Square mushrooms, and pickling of Lancaster farms produce for the long winter to come. There is a very thoughtfully prepared cheese and charcuterie list with cheeses from PA dairy farms, smoked country ham and even Lebanon bologna as a playful twist. Do try the chicken liver mousse on rye. The creamy, ethereal mousse is schmeared across just barely toasted schmaltz brushed rye bread that could be at home on the best Jewish deli menu. And there is the adorable little corncob shaped corn bread - the recipe is courtesy of Mac's mom and proof that the cooking genes have been passed down in this family.

clockwise from topleft: scallops, mushrooms,
softshell crab
Other highlights of the seasonally changing menu included the egg yolk ravioli that was an umami bomb - the fresh pasta yielding to your fork edge and the yolk spilling out to mix with sassafras pork jus.  The scallops were on special that night to replace the grilled sturgeon. A beautiful char accented the luscious meat underneath, mixing with the snappy watercress and verbena & white wine emulsion below.

The pot of wild mushrooms is a study in fungi. Several varieties, including the so-called "chicken of the woods" get a quick bath in hot English pea consommé. The result is at once fresh and luxurious. Pile some onto the accompanying goat cheese toast and you've got a party in your mouth with a bouncer and a velvet rope out front.  Another stellar hit was the soft-shell crab. Fried in a sweet-corn tempura batter is it light and crunchy, meaty and rich.

foraged daylilies with smoked trout
Daylilies foraged from the field in front of the restaurant and stuffed with smoked trout, compliments of the kitchen. See, it's good to know people.  Who even knew you could eat daylilies? A great crunch from the stalk reminds you of a delicate piece of celery, but with more flavor. A nod to his Noma days and not something you'll find on any other menu. They have a full time forager that brings in a random daily hodgepodge - giving the chefs a new challenge each day.

free range chicken
Probably my favorite thing on the menu was my free range chicken entrée. An old adage says to never order chicken at a restaurant because it's bound to be boring and unsatisfying. You can make chicken at home right? In this case, very wrong.  I've cooked my share of chicken breasts and none of them has ever tasted like this. It is an incredible tender piece of fowl. The breast is pan roasted, the leg is smoked over apple wood in the Big Green Egg - the secret to so many of the dishes here. Sautéed kale and arugula pesto serve as a luxurious bed  and refried summer squash is a an incredibly clever and tasty take on an old favorite. Oh, and some birch infused chicken jus, just because.

I am proud beyond words of Chef Mac. Junto is a personal achievement  and a culinary destination. Clearly I'm a bit biased, but everyone at our table was equally impressed with the meal. You could see it on their contented faces slowly sipping espresso after the meal and in the four food babies that made an appearance after the last bite of dessert. We'll happily make the 40 minute drive out to the burbs for another taste.

Junto BYOB
100 Ridge Road - Olde Ridge Village Shops 
Chadds Ford, PA 19317

Food Baby Rating:  Triplets! 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

In the Garden

"What have you been doing for the last 3 months?" my wife asks me.  "You haven't posted in forever." 

"I just haven't been inspired to write" I reply.  And it's true. To be even a halfway decent writer you have to be inspired. The words should flow through your fingers. And although we've had some good meals out, the food scene as of late just hasn't moved me to open up the laptop and start typing away. 

It's also true that our CSA share from Greensgrow is in full swing now, meaning that we are cooking at home with all those beautiful fruits and vegetables. 

It's also also true that we are now the proud caretakers of a community garden plot in Liberty Lands park, just steps from our front door. So on top of all our CSA veggies, we are now starting to harvest our own cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapeños , long hots, eggplants, basil, and watermelons. That's a lot of produce.

So maybe it's not that I haven't been inspired, it's that the inspiration is coming from a different source these days.  Spare time is spent tending the garden.  Weeding, watering, training tomato vines, curtailing watermelon runners before they take over the whole plot.  Meeting other gardeners, seeing what they are growing, picking up tips on pruning a raspberry bush or getting a good pesto recipe.  There's also volunteer hours spent in Liberty Lands itself - part of the arrangement for getting a spot in the community garden. 

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. But it's incredibly rewarding when you harvest your tomatoes for that first panzanella salad of the summer. A quick walk over to the garden and we've got fresh cut flowers for the house or jalapenos for some homemade Pad Thai. Speaking for myself, gardening is also amazingly relaxing.  Mindlessly pulling weeds on a warm summer evening is as good as meditation for me. Brings me back to hours spent in the backyard with my mother. I always wanted to help. She would let me pick what we grew that summer and I remember bursting with excitement for those three ears of corn we harvested. I'm sure she was rolling her eyes when her 7 year old son decided we'd grow corn, but she'd always go along with it.  Children and gardens teach you patience, I suppose.   

This thing you've created and crafted.  Cared for and nurtured.  Sweating and sometimes bleeding.  There is a certain amount of pride in bringing it to fruition and seeing that first watermelon start to take shape.  It is also humbling and exceedingly frustrating when you do everything right and the eggplants don't get taller than 7".  Maybe they need more sun.  Will have to remember that for next year.  Curious onlookers passing through the park, stopping to say hello and complimenting us on the garden is lovely though.  Such a bucolic setting with the birds chirping and the smells of mint and lavender swirling in the air as we brush by it underfoot. 

These are a few shots of the garden from early July.  Tomato plants are huge now and we've had to start tying them to the fence to keep them vertical.  The first red ones just starting to appear.  The watermelon plant is doing it's best to conquer every other living thing.  I swear to god it grows a foot per day.  We keep scolding it and turning the runners back on itself.  Almost time to harvest the basil and make a batch of pesto.  The jalapeños are coming in the dozens. We'll be pickling those for use at a later date.  We get a cucumber every couple days and they have been delicious.  The "mulch" on the ground is Salt Hay.  It dates back to colonial times and is harvested from sea marsh grasses close to the shore.  Since there's no seeds in it, it makes perfect bedding material as it won't sprout anything.  It doesn't break down very quickly, is 100% organic and is locally sourced.  Score.

What an amazing experience it's been so far - and we've only been at it for a few months now. We'll try to check back in on the garden every month or so and see what's in season.  Maybe some recipes from what we grow. Maybe even some gardening tips. Enjoy the summer while it lasts.  It'll be time for planting broccoli and kale before you know it.