Category — Dining Out

New York City, October 15 – Breakfast

I don’t know which was the crazier idea: deciding to walk through 32 blocks of traffic and pedestrian-laden New York City streets, or ending that journey by casually strolling into the Hotel Plaza Athenee, sans reservation, for breakfast.

To my surprise, the hostess did not bat an eye at my denim-clad, slightly-sweaty form as I requested a table for one.  She ushered me into the dining room and tucked me away into a far corner, which gave me a full view of the space.  The chandelier lit a high-ceilinged area, yellow with cream accents.  Harp music played softly on an overhead sound system.  As I was presented with the coffee service, I lifted the urn and found it to be silver and heavy in the way that the carafes at IHOP aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong.  Usually, when I find myself solo in New York City, I’d be spending breakfast on the run, with a Krispy Kreme doughnut in one hand and a grande Starbucks in the other.  But today I was lured to the Plaza Athenee by their new Chinese Breakfast, which offered a broad variety of authentic Asian delicacies curated to appeal to the Eastern palate.  Intensely curious, and with no appointment until the afternoon, I decided that a thorough investigation was in order.

The first offering was a bowl of congee, which I had always referred to as jook when I was growing up.  Served with a side of chopped scallion, the presentation could not have been more elegant.  Yet, as is the case with most comfort food from childhood, I found the congee to have missed the mark.  As a preparation, it was textbook – grains of white rice, cooked until they’ve collapsed into a soft, smooth porridge.  The texture was spot-on.  Unfortunately, there was little flavor to be found, even after garnishing with scallion.  In my household, there would always be bits of salted pork or chicken mixed throughout, adding both flavor as well as a certain level of luxurious fat to the dish.  It occurred to me later that maybe it was my responsibility to season the dish, much like when you order grits in the South, but there was little indication that this was the case.

Thankfully, the meal improved from there.  The second course consisted of a two-tiered bamboo steamer, with three steamed buns (bao) on the upper level and a variety of dim sum underneath.  Each bun held a different filling, and I was pleasantly surprised to bite into the first to discover a sweet egg custard inside.  I’ve never had it before, and it was one of the best things that I’ve ever tasted.  From there, I proceeded to finish off the shredded pork bun (a classic filling that was well-executed) and the bean paste bun (never my first preference, but still fairly good).

The dim sum were the standard “safe” options, with three har kow (shrimp) and three shui mai (pork), with nary a chicken foot in sight.  Both varieties were excellent, bearing the expected thin dumpling skin surrounding very fresh, perfectly seasoned contents.  Along the way, the dining captain delivered a tea-boiled egg alongside a small bowl of soy.  The egg looked like an orb of alabaster, with streaks of gray where the tea had soaked through the cracks of the shell.  And yet, for all of that presentation, I still found it to be too similar, in both taste and texture, to a standard boiled egg.

I took my time finishing the meal, watching the servers and the dining captain cater to the small handful of occupied tables in the room.  Each dish may not have looked like a lot of food, but the cumulative effect was quite filling.  I asked for the check, expressed some sadness at the lack of a room number to sign it to, and took to the streets of Manhattan to walk off breakfast.

*the above photo layout is courtesy of Diptic.  Check them out on the App Store!

October 25, 2012   Comments

Experience: A Taste of Revel

According to Google Maps, the journey from my office to the front step of the Revel Resort in Atlantic City is a relatively short 1 hour and 34 minute trip.  An invitation to join the Taste of Revel event, paired with the opportunity to cut out a little early from work last Friday, seemed destined to create the perfect gateway to the weekend.

What could possibly go wrong?

Two hours after leaving work, I had only just crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge into New Jersey.  Having experienced the rare joy of sitting in rush hour traffic both into Philadelphia and out of it, I was looking at arriving at the event exactly as it was scheduled to start, at 7pm.  Indeed, I pulled into the parking deck of Atlantic City’s newest casino hotel at exactly the three hour mark, with ten minutes to spare.

It took me twenty minutes, however, to find my way through the hotel, pick up my tickets, and find the venue.  Worth playing for?  Absolutely.

Taste of Revel was billed as a culinary showcase for much of what the new resort had to offer from a talented team of renowned chefs that includes Jose Garces, Marc Forgione, Robert Wiedmaier, Alain Allegretti and Michel Richard.  From what I was able to taste on Friday evening, it’s definitely a recipe destined for greatness.

Having grown up in New Jersey, I have a fond familiarity with Atlantic City, with memories of looking out at the hotel towers filling the horizon from the backseat of the family car.  But as I got older, my initial fascination with the buffets, boardwalk food, and cloned Asian/Italian/Deli/Seafood concepts offered by each casino gave way to a sense of frustrated limitation.  Built to appeal to gamblers and no one else, the casinos got away (for decades) with serving overpriced, standard fare to a captive audience that just wanted to cram their maws with food before heading back to the gaming floor.  The dining options at Revel are a clear step away from that formula, and a positive sign that the resort is reaching out to a new demographic that may never wager a single dollar at the property, yet drop just as much coin on food and entertainment.

I was able to secure a few moments with Nilou Motamed, Features Director and Senior Correspondent for Travel + Leisure magazine, the sponsor, along with its sister publication Food & Wine, of the weekend’s events.  Unlike my experience, Motamed had never really been to Atlantic City, so she was seeing Revel’s debut from a completely different perspective.  After sharing our surprise at such small details as the availability of Mexican Coke throughout the resort, we talked about Revel’s impact and what this cadre of chef-driven restaurants means for the future of dining on the Boardwalk.  Motamed noted that the public’s exposure to chefs as public figures, through reality television and increased food-focused programming in general, has increased the demand for the type of innovative, high-end dining that Revel offers.

So what’s good at Revel?  I made my way through the crowd, performing quick, surgical strikes to relieve the tables of their burdens, one plate at a time.  The Amada crew offered Jose Garces’ take on the traditional “grilled beef on a stick” concept, a spice-forward presentation that was tender, assertive, and the perfect introduction to the new level of dining now available on the Boardwalk.  From Azure by Allegretti, a cup of classic bouillabaisse, stacked with snapper, monkfish, shrimp, and mussels in a tomato broth tinged golden with saffron. One, Revel’s American grill restaurant, offered a playful take on a lobster roll, heaped high atop a miniature bun and topped with diced mango and avocado.  Standout dishes included a mini crabcake, along with crab mac and cheese accompanied by an onion-bacon tart, both courtesy of Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaier.  Other passed hors d’oeuvres, of no particular affiliation, brought a lobster corn dog and a small ice cream cone filled with pearls of raw tuna.

After the initial kickoff event, I headed to a different part of the resort for a Pastry Party hosted by chef Michel Richard.  Richard, a multiple James Beard Award winner,  worked the room as attendees noshed on passed plates of eclairs, caramel mousse, and a signature “chocolate bar” – a crisp chocolate truffle base topped with a rich whipped chocolate ganache, dusted with cocoa.

As I was about to leave to head home, Michel Richard paused in front of me just as I placed one of his desserts into my mouth.  Like a larger-than-life culinary Alfred Hitchcock, he watched me  and waited patiently for my reaction.  Unable to speak, I gave the chef an enthusiastic thumbs up.  A silent nod of agreement from Richard, and we headed our separate ways, both pleased with the results of his efforts.

My Twitter coverage of this event can be found at Storify.

May 31, 2012   Comments

Reconciliation, Healing, and Charcuterie – Part 2

This the middle of the story.  If this looks unfamiliar to you, you may want to start with Part 1.

Even though I kept my eyes locked on the entrances to the rail tracks, Dave still managed to sneak up on me.  Since he’s not active on Facebook, I hadn’t seen many recent photos of him, and to my surprise, he looked substantially the same as he did in college, although I’m sure the same can be said about myself.  We were both older but no worse for wear. Not wanting to waste a moment of catching-up time, we decided to stay in the building while we plotted out our day.

We headed downstairs to the dining concourse and talked over coffee for a long time, cramming 13 years of status updates into conversation rife with interrupted thoughts, tangents, recalled memories, and misrememberances.  Talking to Dave now, much as I did so many years ago as we sat in Sloppy Louie’s at South Street Seaport, was like starting an old car.  You’re afraid that it won’t turn over, but after a few cranks, the engine roars to life, and a few minutes later you’re cruising the neighborhood as if it were yesterday.

Before we knew it, a couple of hours had passed, our coffee had turned cold, pastries were reduced to crumbs, and it was time for lunch.  Using my phone for research, I started rattling off the names of nearby eating opportunities, but as soon as the word “fondue” left my mouth, our course was set, with Artisanal as our destination.  In less than ten minutes, had exited Grand Central Station, walked a few blocks, and were breezing through the front doors. We had the fortune of being seated immediately.

Artisanal is one of those restaurants where, if you needed a long, lingering meal as a backdrop to conversation, you’d find it there.  We ordered way, way too much, starting with the fondue and augmenting that selection with bread, salads, pork belly hash, and unending cups of coffee.  We never ran out of food, and we never ran out of conversation, which is pretty much the perfect combination of unlimited things.  Service was invisibly efficient, and I don’t recall ever seeing the bottom of my coffee cup. Eventually, I looked up to see that the restaurant was emptying out, and we found ourselves between the lunch and dinner service.

Stuffed, we walked off the meal by heading north, on our way to the second declared destination of the day, Laduree, for macarons.  It was a long, necessary meandering, notable for our passage by several locations of former, familiar, landmarks.  FAO Schwartz, which has now become a shell of its earlier glory.  The Apple Store cube, now standing where there used to be a pit of forgettable dining establishments.  We trudged up Central Park East, stopping occasionally to check our phones to get our bearings.  Eventually, we hit the right cross street and headed east to Madison Avenue.

Laduree was packed, so much so that a line of about 20 people spilled out of the doorway and down the block.  There was no sale or special promotion to be had – this was an everyday occurrence.  After about 25 minutes, we finally made our way inside and were blown away by the display cases, which were filled with a colorful array of macarons in flavors that ranged from citrus to straight-up chocolate and vanilla varieties.  We spent too much, but as in the days of old, we did it in stride.

The sun was starting to set on Manhattan, and it was time to decide where to end the evening.  I had heard much of Eataly, some good (an astounding array of Italian food and drink) and bad (so crowded you can’t even move) – but given that we were just two souls with relatively light baggage, we decided it was worth weaving through the crowds.  We hailed a cab and rocketed downtown…

Part 3 to come.

May 4, 2012   Comments

Reconciliation, Healing, and Charcuterie – Part One

“This feels the same, doesn’t it?”

Dave said this somewhere in the vicinity of 70th street, as we ambled up Fifth Avenue, a brisk walk that had its beginnings at 32nd Street and Park Avenue. In actuality, our journey began over 16 years ago, but, due to a combination of factors, had suffered an unfortunate suspension that had lasted for far longer than it should have. His comment made me smile, and, in spite of my aching legs and lingering back pain, I could not have agreed more. All in all, it did feel quite the same.

He was the best man at our wedding. But for years before that, when we were in college, he was a great and most excellent friend. We would foray into Manhattan on a regular basis, paying the $1 PATH fare to hop a train from Newark, eating too much, spending too much, staying too late and catching one of the last trains back to campus. Food was always a primary focus on these trips – we would end up at the original Balducci’s on 9th Street, or at Benny’s Burritos. More often than not, we would close out our evenings at an espresso bar in Greenwich Village whose name I’ve long forgotten.

To say that I did not see eye-to-eye with Dave’s girlfriend at the time would be a vast understatement. Our personalities, from Day One, just never found any common ground, and when their relationship turned into an engagement, and then into marriage, I had made the decision not to remain as a constant source of irritation and disagreement. Graduation had brought its own elements of separation – Dave went into the working world and I took refuge from a bad economy by enrolling in law school. Time marched on, we lived our separate lives, grew older, and started families – and thus began a 13-year silence and one of the few legitimate regrets that I’ve had in my adult lifetime. With no contact information to be had from Google, and no social networking presence, Dave was impossible to find.

Then, in August, from out of nowhere, he sent me a message on Facebook.

So much had happened in the span of 13 years. His marriage had ended in divorce, but he was now in the midst of a new relationship with a wonderful woman who was perfect for him – age appropriate, free from a first marriage, and with children of her own. And just a few days after our initial contact, he emailed me to tell me that they were taking a trip to Niagara Falls, where he was going to propose to her. And he did, and she said yes. With so many tales to tell, of his first marriage, his divorce, and his new engagement, along with all of those little details that fill in the gaps in between, there was just no way that it would all fit easily into email messages. So we plotted to return to New York to engage in that old traditional form of communication, walking and talking. And, of course, eating.

I caught an early Amtrak out of Wilmington, heading north, while Dave hopped on a Metro North train southbound from Connecticut. I arrived into NYC 45 minutes earlier than he did, and I took the opportunity to grab a coffee and trek uptown on foot, from Penn Station to Grand Central. Even though we were texting back and forth, I still had not actually spoken to him in 13 years.

I made my way through the crowds at Grand Central, through the cavernous main concourse, and waited at the staircase, hoping to catch sight of him as he emerged from the platform.

Part Two of Reconciliation, Healing, and Charcuterie is coming…

February 15, 2012   Comments

In Search of the Biggest Bellies

I have enjoyed a family connection to New England ever since my brother graduated college in the early eighties and moved to Massachusetts for his first real-world job, where he has remained ever since.  So, throughout the remainder of my teen years, through high school, college, and law school, and continuing today into my married life, I’ve been trekking up through the highways and country roads of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to visit him for inexpensive vacations featuring good times, free lodging, and great local cuisine.  At first, I went alone.  Then, I went with my wife.  On this most recent excursion up north, I went with my wife and my daughter.  Life goes on.

On one of those early trips, probably fifteen years ago, if not more, we found ourselves at the Atlantic Seafood Company, a restaurant in downtown Boston.  I had ordered a basket of fried clams, having been raised on those frozen orange boxes of Howard Johnson clam strips, which, despite having the texture of rubber bands, were actually quite tasty to my inner-city palate.  When the order came, I was dismayed to find, nestled among the traditional strips of fried clam, bulbous bits that came across as foreign, alien, and decidedly un-clamstrip-like.  I eyed my meal with growing suspicion.

Sensing my hesitation, my brother explained that these were belly clams that were local to the area.  Having not even suspected that clams had bellies, the concept was intriguing.  I fished a particularly large specimen out of the basket and popped it into my mouth, and,in doing so, triggered the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect fried belly clam.

It was unlike any other fried clam that I had tasted before.  Instead of having an antagonistic chew, the meat was tender and delicate.  The belly itself gushed when I bit into it, releasing a wave of clam juice and brine that was more evocative of the sea than any fried clam that I’d ever had before.  Instead of a thick wall of breading, these clams were lightly floured and fried quickly to retain their lightness.  I was hooked from the first bite, but also destined to be disappointed for years to come.

Ever since that fateful night, I have purposefully sought out fried belly clams, reviewing menus in seafood establishments and interrogating servers as to exactly how much “belly” was on the clams.  In nearly every instance, my order should have been accompanied by the tuba-sound of disappointment, as I was presented with plate after plate of sturdy clam strips, accompanied here and there by “bellies” that more closely resembled bubble wrap that’s already been popped than what I had eaten in Boston.  Belly clams may be native to the region, but finding true examples of them was largely hit-or-miss.

On our recent trip, then, to see my brother in Massachusetts and to introduce the baby to more family in Maine, I had fried belly clams on the brain.  I had done some research, which led me to this wonderful New York Times article on the subject.  To my surprise and delight, punching in the address of the Clam Box in Ipswich revealed that it was only a mere 2 hours from my brother’s house, in the direction that we were already headed on our way to Maine.

It was on.

At noon, we packed up the car and headed northeast, bound for Portland.  I programmed the address for the Clam Box into our GPS, and by the time our breakfast began to wear off, we were leaving Interstate 95 and cruising through narrow coastal roads on the way to Ipswich, catching fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean between the houses as we sped along.  As the road curved ahead of us, I spied a small, single story building shaped like a massive takeout box – a takeout box full of clams, to be precise.

Pulling into the sunbaked, gravel-covered parking lot, I trotted to the main entrance to find a short line of customers waiting to get inside.  The queue was not unlike the scene at Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and it moved just as quickly and efficiently.  While we were standing in line, I craned my neck to review the menu, which was posted above the order windows, and which only yielded more questions than answers – what, for example, was the difference between a “plate”, a “mini-meal”, and a “box”? Chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be a 29-year veteran devotee of the Clam Box, I determined that the difference lay in the number of sides.

We soon reached the window and placed our orders.  On a small whiteboard that was posted next to the main menu, a thick blue marker had been used to post the note “BIG BELLIES ON REQUEST”.   I asked the woman for the mini-meal of big belly clams, and my wife ordered a plate of native clams.  We shuffled into the dark, nautically-themed dining room and waited for our number to be called on the PA system.  The kitchen is fast, no doubt because they only serve a few items, all fried.

When our order was ready, my wife returned from the pickup window with a plastic tray that overflowed with huge plates of fried seafood.  As it turns out, ordering “big belly clams” by name actually did make a difference, as the clams in my order were a bit larger, belly-wise, than those that occupied my wife’s plate.  There was little distinction, though, to the taste – both the native clams and the belly clams featured a bright flavor that would be a revelation to anyone who’s ever been limited to frozen fried seafood.  These clams were the absolute ideal representation of what a proper fried belly clam should be – plump, light, full of clammy flavor, accompanied by a nice dish of cole slaw, with fries and onion rings on the side.  A paper cup of tartar sauce, spiked with fragments of sharp pickle, paired perfectly with every bite.

Traditions are good things, and perhaps there is nothing better than realizing that you have taken your first step in creating a new one.  This was a meal that was definitely worth repeating, and will undoubtedly become a regular occurrence on our subsequent trips to New England.  Our stop at the Clam Box served to bring me back to one of my fondest memories of the past, while making me yearn for that day in the future where I get to introduce my daughter to the taste of a real fried clam.

June 14, 2010   Comments

Talula’s Table, From The Other Side of The Kitchen Door

With a reservations policy that requires prospective diners to reserve the 12-seat farmhouse table exactly one year in advance, Talula’s Table continues to be one of the toughest reservations in the country – one that requires patience, diligence, and either a quick dialing finger or a willingness to camp outside of the store in the predawn chill.  Scoring one reservation, under any circumstances, would qualify us as extremely lucky – but having had the opportunity to eat at Talula’s Table twice in the span of seven months, once in November and again in June, is nothing short of miraculous.

But three times?  That would be pushing our luck.  This was our thirteenth wedding anniversary, and the last before the birth of our child, and by all rights we should have been planning an extravagant blowout celebration at a swanky downtown Philadelphia restaurant – Morimoto, Barclay Prime, maybe even Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.  But, in a moment of shared telepathy that only long-term married couples achieve, we had each separately come to the same wish – if at all possible, we wanted to have our anniversary dinner at Talula’s Table.  And, since an anniversary dinner isn’t an experience that is typically shared with ten other companions, we wanted more than anything to eat at the kitchen table, a private seating for two to six people that takes place in the middle of the action.

As luck would have it, our wish was granted.

Our evening started much like our other outings to Talula’s Table.  Having come in from the rain, we sat at a long table set up in the front of the store and dried ourselves while sipping drinks and partaking of  hors d’oeuvres.  From our vantage point, we were witness to an all-too-familiar scene, of that night’s dinner party greeting each other, mingling, and chatting excitedly as their sense of anticipation heightened.  Having been seated at the front of the store, with a generous cushion of space between us and the farmhouse table, I was quite sure that our presence never interfered with their experience.  In fact, if you were to ask me if I had ever taken notice of any kitchen table diners in either of our two previous visits, I can honestly say that I haven’t.

Once we had finished our starters, and the dinner service was ready to begin,  we were quietly ushered through the store, behind the cheese counter, beyond the threshold of the swinging door and into the brightly lit kitchen at Talula’s Table.

The first thing that struck me about the inner sanctum of chef Bryan Sikora’s kitchen is the quiet serenity of the entire scene.  You frequently hear stories of red-faced, manic chefs, barking orders at the harried cooks while the patrons in the dining room consume their dishes in blissful ignorance of the tumult.  The kitchen at Talula’s Table is nothing like this – it is calm, it is orderly, and it is organized.

As we walked through the kitchen, each member of the staff greeted us warmly.  Settling onto our chairs at one end of the wooden table, we immediately knew that we were in for a treat – having a front row seat to everything that was going on was a special, special feeling.  Sikora chatted with us amiably as he prepped the ingredients for the courses to come, and it was thrilling being able to ask him questions about the food as we watched and ate.  Want to know what’s in the sauce?  Ask the chef.  Right over there.

And that’s how our meal began.  We watched the sous chefs as they kept a close eye on an array of ingredients that were simmering on the stove, or baking in the oven, while Sikora tended to a cutting board of ripe summer tomatoes and ears of fresh corn.

I briefly recalled how hectic the kitchen at Django used to be, with Sikora and company spinning out dinner service for 38 patrons at a time, nonstop, from 5pm to 10pm and beyond, all in a kitchen no bigger than a small bedroom.  Now, Sikora reigns over a kitchen that is considerably roomier, where he and his sous chefs can concentrate on delivering an incredible multi-course feast to twelve people over four hours.

While the kitchen table experience is considerably different from that of the farmhouse table – for one thing, the kitchen is brightly lit, while the farmhouse table makes the best use of intimate shadows cast by the soft glow of an overhead chandelier, the service remains unparalleled in either environment.  As the dishes were presented to us, the server explained the construction of each preparation just as professionally here, with just the two of us, as if we were part of the larger group just outside the door.

Our first course was a Red Snapper Crudo, Cauliflower Puree, Nectarine, and Topeko Roe.  The cauliflower, piped into a circular base, provided an earthy well for the snapper, which was so delicate in its raw state, I can almost describe it as fragile.  The sweetness of the nectarine formed a perfect union with the marine saltiness of the golden roe – taken in a single unified bite, the components of this course melded well and were quite capable of waking up the palate to prepare it for the dishes to come.

Do you remember those tomatoes?  Those same heirloom gems, prepped by Sikora only moments before, made their grand entrance in the second course, an Heirloom Tomato Salad, Petite Sweet Corn Tart, Old Bay Butter Sauce, and Arugula Salad.  The actual dish deviated somewhat from the menu description, but its impact was in no way lessened by the variations – there was no Old Bay spice to be found in the butter sauce, and the corn tart was brought to a new level by chunks of goat cheese throughout.  The tomatoes, as fresh as one could get in August, were an appealing explosion of red, green, and gold.  Coupled with the crunch of fresh corn kernels in the tart, the entire dish was summer on a plate.

If you’re like me, for certain foods that you love, you will always remember the first time you had the opportunity to really taste them, and how much of an epiphany it was to have your palate expanded by this great new dish or ingredient.  For me, that food this night was the fava bean, and the third course is what introduced me to them.  The Hand Rolled Rigatoni, Maine Lobster, and Fava Bean Coulis was a relatively simple dish – a firm tube of pasta enclosed around some of the sweetest, most tender lobster meat I’ve had, all set on top of a forest-green puree of fava beans.  As a fan of broccoli rabe, I appreciate any vegetable that has a slightly bitter edge, and the fava beans delivered on this count, along with a velvety texture and a taste that evoked hints of grass.  I had tasted fava beans before, but only as an adornment – I had never had the opportunity to enjoy their flavor in such a pure, isolated format as this.

Following the Talula’s Table tradition of lighter courses that gradually escalate to heavier, more robust flavors, the fourth course was a Ballottine of Rabbit, Braised Cabbage, Spaetzle and Black Truffle.  The ballottine, comprised of boneless rabbit which had been stuffed and rolled into a bundle, had been braised and served with a rich rabbit jus.  The rabbit meat had a smooth consistency, not quite like a terrine, and a bed of spaetzle was put to good use, both to elevate the ballottine as well as to swirl around in the wonderful jus.  Earthy notes came from a hit of truffle butter and a topping of crunchy fried green olive slivers.

The last time we ate at Talula’s Table, I wrote about the amazing salmon course that was prepared sous vide.  At that time, I had images of a complex setup of precise heating units and immersion circulators dancing in my head, all perfectly calibrated to bring the vacuum-sealed fish to an exact temperature.  Having witnessed the preparation of the fifth course, a Wild Sockeye Salmon, Grain Mustard, Molasses, and Saskatchewan Chanterelles dish, I now realize that I have been overthinking sous vide all along.  At Talula’s Table, the sous vide process consists of little more than the highest quality ingredients, a pot of water, and a probe thermometer.  Yet, this simple configuration yields salmon with a velvety texture that melts on the tongue.  Paired with an aggressive mustard component that’s been tempered by the sweetness of molasses, the salmon was a standout presentation.  A delicately stewed cipollini onion, along with a smashed potato cake, crisp on the exterior yet soft as cotton on the inside, provided a nice contrast to the fish.

The sixth course was a celebration of beef entitled Caramelized Strip Steak, Smoked Short Rib, and Roasted Garden Pepper Terrine.  The strip steak was a straightforward preparation, seasoned simply with cracked black pepper, seared to medium-rare, with just the slightest hint of smokiness.  More creativity was devoted to the terrine, a block of shredded short rib meat encased in peppery Swiss chard, layered with slices of green and red peppers.

The cheese course was, as it always has been under the direction of Aimee Olexy, a perfect ensemble of ripened specimens covering the spectrum from mild to overtly adventurous.  There was a trio of goat cheeses, all local to Pennsylvania.  One was studded with cranberries,  another salty like feta, and still a third, tangy and covered in ash.  A Camembert followed, and an outstanding sheep’s milk cheese from the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York.  A raw cow’s milk cheese from Chester Springs led to the last, and most forward entry, Birchrun Blue.  The accompaniments – a sliver of housemade chorizo, a smear of honey, some toasted nuts – presented hard pairing choices with each of the cheeses.

The dessert course, a Frozen White Peach Parfait, Lavender-Almond Cake, Acacia Honey Granita, and Champagne Foam, was a perfectly balanced ending to such a lavish meal.  The cake was a spongy disk that served well to soak up the runoff from the melting custard-like parfait, and the granita provided a nice crunch to offset the smooth textures prevalent throughout the rest of the dish.

So, is the kitchen table a better experience than the farmhouse table?  It’s hard to say, because so much of the dining experience at Talula’s Table hinges on the synergy that emerges from a table of really well-paired dining companions.  With a farmhouse table filled with close friends old and new, the experience approaches perfection, achieving a harmony of food and wine and comradery that is unparalleled in any other establishment.  But with just the two of us, sitting there at the kitchen table, the feeling is the same, but more intimate, more personal – it’s the quiet thrill of sharing the best food with the best partner that you could ever ask for, celebrating the end of one of life’s chapters and the beginning of the next.

November 2, 2009   Comments

From the Ashes of Maia, Azie on Main Rises

At the time that I posted my review of Maia, in June of 2008, the sprawling addition to Villanova’s dining scene was on the upswing.  While I had some issues with the confusing layout of the takeout space on the first floor, the food was well-prepared, the bar and cold case had an admirable selection of craft beer, and I was looking forward to experiencing the upstairs dining room, where the considerable talents of the Feury brothers yielded, as early reviews recounted, some pretty incredible seafood dishes.

Alas, a second dinner for us at Maia was not to be.  By April of this year, two weeks shy of its first anniversary, Maia closed its doors.  There were certainly some telling signals along the way to the restaurant’s demise – a month earlier, Maia had closed its upstairs dining room and shortened its operating hours for dinner to only three nights a week.  Patrick Feury left to work full time at Nectar.  Terence Feury defected to Fork, in Old City, taking eight cooks with him.  Management declared that they were “reconceptualizing” the upstairs dining room and would reopen in the summer with a new chef and menu, which never happened.  A renovation budget of $8 million dollars, it seems, could not guarantee Maia’s success in this economy.

Maia’s loss, though, turned out to be Azie’s gain.  In July, Win Signature Restaurants, which oversees an empire of Asian restaurants throughout the area, including Teikoku and Azie in Media, unveiled its second Azie location, Azie on Main, where Maia once held court, taking advantage of the former tenant’s improvements to the space.  We had the opportunity to sample the menu prior to Azie’s opening during one of its Friends and Family events.

With the first floor space presently unused, getting into Azie involves parking in the lot at the back of the building and entering the space through an entrance that leads directly to the upstairs dining room.  The layout of the restaurant remains largely unchanged from when it housed Maia, even down to the long table that dominates the center of the room, paralleling the bar.  What Azie has done, though, is implemented its own stylish Asian design aesthetic throughout the space – subtle, yet quietly impressive.

We started with one hot appetizer, the Sauteed Foie Gras with Fuji Apple Confit and Honey Balsamic, and one cold selection, the Sushi and Sashimi Sampler.

There is something about the decadence of foie gras that is unmatched, and Azie does well by pairing the richness of this main component with the apple confit, which held a sweetness that countered the fattiness of the foie gras, and the occasional crunch of fruit that contrasted nicely with its velvety texture.  The balsamic contributed a welcome note of sweet and sour.

The sushi and sashimi sampler was a collection of tuna, salmon, and whitefish sashimi, accompanied by toro, yellowtail, and eel nigirizushi.  Each piece was some of the purest, freshest seafood that I’ve ever had, and it definitely made me want to book a reservation to come back and sit at the sushi bar, just to watch the sushi chefs work their magic.

We also decided to sample one of the signature sushi creations, the Azie Roll.  This was a concoction of spicy tuna, scallion, and avocado, topped with eel sauce, which was then topped off with some crunchy fried tempura flakes.  The flavor combination was incredible, with the spicy notes of the layer of tuna offset by the cool creaminess of the avocado and the crunch of the tempura.

For our entrees, we chose the 14oz New York Strip Steak, along with the Pan Roasted Halibut accompanied by the Lobster and Cheese Risotto, and Miso Beurre Blanc.

The steak arrived crusted with a nice char, perfectly cooked to order.  We had requested the House Steak Sauce, and while we’re normally not impressed with steak sauces, Azie has managed to create a sauce that complements the beef while representing the restaurant beautifully.  A combination of teriyaki sauce, soy, garlic, and mirin, the sauce lent just the right amount of Asian flavor without sacrificing the dish’s ability to showcase the quality of the meat.

Don’t let your eyes fool you.  Those are not fries on top of the halibut, they’re tempura-fried enoki mushrooms, and they were light and crisp.  I find it hard to ever write about a great piece of fish, because when done right, the quality of the seafood shines best when it is prepared with respect and not subject to overly fussy techniques and preparations.  The brick of perfectly prepared halibut was perched on a thick bed of risotto, with the flavor of the fish accented by a light beurre blanc with hits of earthy miso throughout.  Between the steak or the halibut, I envision myself returning to try each of the seafood selections, just to see what other wonders await me.

I have high hopes for Azie’s continued success.  Unlike Maia, which started out of the gate under pressure of an multimillion dollar investment, Azie enters the game with far fewer burdens, and with the benefit of inheriting all of the improvements that Maia instituted.  Plus, Win Signature Restaurants has already proven its ability to maintain five other restaurant properties – with the addition of Azie on Main, Win Somboonsong may very well be the Stephen Starr of the Main Line.

August 27, 2009   Comments

Hanging With The Best of the Main Line

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Best of the Main Line party, which celebrated the winners of the Best of the Main Line Awards that were featured in Main Line Today magazine.  The event serves to showcase the winners of each of the categories, and although the awards cover the hottest finds in shopping, dining, and lifestyle, I was there intent on seeing the faces and places behind what Main Line Today deemed to be the best food to be found on the Main Line.

Upon entering Drexelbrook, the immense 25,000 square foot corporate event center that hosted the party, I was inundated with an explosion of sight and sound.  To my left, a Moroccan-inspired seating area featured pork tenderloin served over Jamaican-style spicy rice.  In the opposite corner, shot glasses were filled with a pillowy  rendition of key lime pie.  On the other side of the hall, a chuckwagon served as the cooking and display area for a wide pan of chili, served with all of the appropriate accompaniments.  So many options to pick from, and I had yet to enter entered the main event space.

With the elevated stage and dance floor as centerpieces, the band rocked out over the proceedings, while the throngs of attendees milled up and down the aisles consuming samples and chatting with the winners.  One of the first vendors we encountered was Margaret Kuo’s of Wayne, winner of the Readers’ Choice for Ethnic Cuisine.  It usually takes a lot of skill to carve a Peking Duck tableside and serve it in the traditional accompaniments of pancake, scallion, and hoisin sauce, but these guys made it look easy, even in the confines of a small vendor space.  A little further down the row, chefs from the Blue Pear Bistro were spinning out plates of their award-winning braised short rib with a sweet potato puree.  The short rib was so artfully prepared, I didn’t even mind sampling what would otherwise be a winter dish at the height of summer.

Over the course of the evening, I had the pleasure of trying no less than three different crabcakes.  One, from Patty Mac’s Cafe in Berwyn, was the traditional interpretation – a ball of crab and breadcrumbs, deep fried to a crispy brown crunch.  This contrasted with the other two crabcakes, from Brodeur’s and D’Ignazio’s Towne House, both in Media, which leaned towards more of a pure-crab composition, held loosely together with minimal filler.  For pure decadence, however, the lobster roll on brioche, presented by the Desmond Hotel, was one of the best samples on offer at the party.

Main Line Today did a fine job of recognizing new establishments.  The accolade for New Thai Restaurant went to Jazmine Authentic Thai Cuisine of West Chester, which represented itself well with samples of Pad Thai and a refreshingly cool rice paper roll spiked with a nice hit of fresh cilantro.  Alison Barshak was on the receiving end of best Brand Extension for her second restaurant, the aptly named Alison two in Fort Washington.

For those with a sweet tooth, The Best of the Main Line party offered a treasure trove of finds.  Georges’, having taken the prize for Best Brunch, made a wise decision to forgo on-site omelet prep in favor of  an extensive assortment of its freshly baked tarts, breads, and other goods.  The Sweet Potato Cafe and Bakery, located in Media, had the longest presentation – nearly thirty feet of table space, every square inch weighed down with pies, pastries, and cakes of all sorts.  A request for a sample of cake resulted in a hand-sized slab of creamy, layered goodness that rendered one unable to pick up anything else until you were done with it.  Craving chocolate?  The Painted Truffle offered samples of its handmade chocolate truffles, in such surprising and astounding flavors as Midnight in the Garden of Chocolate (70% single origin dark infused with vanilla) and The Holy Grail (caramel and vanilla, touched with sea salt).

Finally, the worlds of beer, wine, and cocktails were well represented at the party.  Victory Brewing Company was on hand, offering samples of their four top brews, while Iron Hill Brewery enjoyed its own corner of the exhibit hall, offering beer, pulled pork sandwiches, and samples of bisque.  Ron’s Bar and Grille, winner of the Best Beer Selection, lived up to its title by offering at least a half dozen samples of beer, from Stone Levitation Ale to Southern Tier Creme Brulee Imperial Milk Stout.  But perhaps the most enlightening, refreshing cocktail sampler came from James Kennedy, Teikoku barman and the holder of the title of Best Bartender.  His Strawberry Sake Mojito will cool you off and have you seeing stars in no time flat.

August 18, 2009   Comments

A Midsummer Night’s Feast at Talula’s Table

The scene was the same, but nearly everything else was subtly different this time around at Talula’s Table.

We were a group of writers, artists, musicians, and artisans, united for one evening around the heavy wooden table that serves as the centerpiece for this gourmet grocery-turned-private bistro.  The first and last time we were able to reserve this table was in November – given very short notice due to an unexpected cancellation, we were able to cobble together a patchwork of friends, coworkers, and internet acquaintances that cold autumn night, and an extraordinary time was had by all.

If that meal, then, was our unofficial “first” dinner at Talula’s Table, then this one was our “official” debut.  A mere 365 days prior, my wife had placed a telephone call at exactly 7am to place a reservation, and was fortunate enough to be met not with the expected drone of a busy tone, but a live voice, greeting her a good morning and graciously granting her request for the table.  This time around, we were able to give our invitees much more notice, giving our prospective guests more time to consider, to plan, and to anticipate.

Different, too, was the weather.  In November, the cold was unforgiving, and we had to hustle our way through the darkened streets of a mostly-closed downtown Kennett Square to reach our destination.  Today, in the first week of June, we found ourselves strolling along, our spirits buoyed by a near-perfect summer day and the anticipation of experiencing Bryan Sikora’s seasonal menu for the second time in seven months.  We were lucky to be lucky.

This time around, we had a chance to mingle before the start of the meal.  Since our first outing, Talula’s Table has introduced a course consisting of passed hors d’oeuvres, which only improves on an already perfect service experience.  The first was a chilled green pea soup, served in shot glasses, the verdant color perfectly matched to the time of year – it was, for lack of better words, utter freshness in glass.  Next, we were presented with small bits of steak tartare mounded onto crostini, which were so good, I shuffled over and popped a second one into my mouth when the plate was set down.

7:30 came and we found our seats.  How entirely appropriate that, on that day, the sun set at 7:35?  And so it had, and the brightness of the light that was streaming into Talula’s Table slowly gave way to shades of ochre, then deep lavender, then darkness, as if Mother Nature herself were lowering the house lights and readying the stage for Act I, Scene I.

There was, of course, plenty of wine to go around, with each party contributing one, two, and sometimes three bottles to the communal mix.  Only this time, we were all in for a treat, as the wine was not the only libation – our friends Ray and Melissa, of Bathtub Brewery, were kind enough to bring four varieties of their homebrewed beer to share at the table.  Melissa had even spent some time studying the menu in order to craft the most appropriate pairings, and did a fantastic job of coordinating the harmony of flavors.  I will list the beer that was paired with each course, with descriptions provided directly by the brewers themselves.

Our first course was Foie Gras Parfait, Rhubarb Glaze, and Crunchy Nut Granola.  Kudos to the kitchen on the presentation of this dish, which was a cylinder of rhubarb gelee, through which ran a core of creamy foie gras, the meaty, salty aspects of which offset the sweetness of the rhubarb perfectly.  The savory and creamy aspects of the foie gras-rhubarb pipe were offset by the sweet crunch of the bed of housemade pecan granola that lay underneath.

The second course, Crayfish Bisque “a la Sazerac”, Anson Mills Polenta Pudding, and Fava Beans, was an explosion of bold flavors contained in a dish that was meant to recall the flavors of a Sazerac cocktail.  The pudding served as the foundation of the dish, a delicate disk of summery corn flavor surrounded by crayfish tails and fava beans, in a broth finished with Pernot and bourbon.  A slice of the housemade spicy andouille sausage jutted from the ensemble like an tiny Excalibur of pork.  The spicy undertones of the bisque paired beautifully with the sweet and assertive components of the Bee Sting Ale: “The Bee Sting is a hybrid ale built off a pale ale recipe-base, with the focus on honey and spice. Chinook hops,known for their grapefruit flavor, and Amarillo hops, known for their orange flavor, were used to complement the 2 pounds of orange blossom honey. These ingredients represent the “bee” while the “sting” is taken care of with seeds of paradise, also known as alligator pepper. The result is a very clear, pale yellow beer that is both refreshing and complex.”

All Things Asparagus, the third course, presented three interpretations of this harbinger of spring.  Where the roasted asparagus spears presented the vegetable with all of its flavor condensed and concentrated by intense heat, the asparagus flan demonstrated its light, airy, and springlike potential as a souffle.  Tempura-fried spears preserved the freshness of the asparagus in a light, brittle coating of batter that dissolved on the tongue.

As soon as the Wild King Salmon, Smokey New Potato Sauce, and Red Trout Caviar was presented to me, I immediately suspected that Talula’s Table had started to venture into the use of sous vide as a cooking method.  The color of the salmon, uniformly crimson throughout the slice, could only be achieved by cooking over a long period of time at a set temperature.  Until now, I had only read about sous vide cooking, and I was very excited for the opportunity to try it.  In fact, I was so excited, I forgot to take a picture, so it is my sincere hope that my words do justice to this description.

The sous vide preparation exceeded all of my expectations.  The salmon was easily my favorite course of the evening, with a rich, unadulterated wild salmon flavor and an incredibly delicate silkiness that melted away on my palate.  The pure seafood flavor was only further amplified by the oceanic saline explosion supplied by the caviar, and the smokiness of the thin potato puree added an extra layer of depth to the entire preparation, while a cucumber mignonette lent the dish some lightness.  This course was paired with Dry Humour Dry Irish Stout, which was as near-perfect a combination as any that I could imagine: “Think Guinness, but immensely better. A low ABV makes this an excellent session beer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at – this beer is full of roasty, chocolate, coffee flavor. The beer pours black with an excellent black-brown head, and uses a blend of malts such as roasted barley, black patent, English Brown and crystal malts along with British Kent Golding hops.”

It’s funny how I read the menu, saw Natural Chester County Veal Cannelloni, Chanterelle Blanquette, and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms, and was immediately overcome by waves of anticipation not for the main component, but rather for the squash blossoms.  Squash blossoms are such a fleeting indicator of summer, it’s always a joy to find them on a menu whenever you can.  They’re so delicate, they cannot be shipped to supermarkets, so you either have to grow your own or find a kitchen that works closely with local farms.  Don’t get me wrong, the cannelloni were excellent, full of deep, earthy, meaty flavor, and the chanterelle mushrooms were a lively reminder that we were in the Mushroom Capital of the World.  But the combination of those delicate blossoms, piped full of fresh ricotta and flash-fried, will haunt my memory for some time to come.  This course was paired with Sweetheart Kölsch, “a traditional top-fermenting German ale brewed simply with wheat and pilsen extract and 2 hop additions of Vanguard and Sterling. It’s a very balanced beer with some caramel and fruit sweetness mixed with citrusy hop bitterness, as well as a bit of toastiness.”

The next dish, Crispy Fried Hudson Valley Moulard, Baked Beans, and Molasses, was an interpretation of classic summer picnic fare, and probably my least favorite of the courses because the components of the dish can rarely be made better than their standard counterparts, no matter how talented the kitchen.  Small mounds of coleslaw and baked beans accompanied a slice of roasted duck and a small pile of duck confit.  Both interpretations of the duck were very well prepared, with the richness of the meat playing well against the sweetness of the beans.

The trademark presentation of the cheese course did not disappoint.  In our Collection of Italian Cheeses, we were presented with a soft-ripened goats’ milk Robiola, Foja de Noce, Tallegio, Sottocenere, and a goats’ milk Gorgonzola.  As with every cheese plate devised by Aimee Olexy, each selection was outstanding in its own right, and taken as a whole, with the intensity of each cheese increasing as I made my way down the row, all of the flavors came together as a symphony, especially when paired with the last remnants of the red wine.

Our meal ended with a Summer Napoleon of Strawberry Gelee, Strawberry Rhubarb Mousse and Wine Roasted Berries, which was a straightforward interpretation of classic summer dessert fare and a wonderful contrast in textures.  I was grateful to see a berry-based dessert served, instead of a heavier concoction which would most certainly have interfered with my enjoyment of the peanut butter brownie that Talula’s presents as a parting gift.  Appropriately, the Napoleon was paired with Bathtub Brewery’s Hefe the ORC, which was “brewed with Hefeweizen yeast, which is known for its banana and clove flavors, but take the style of Hefeweizen for a bit of a stretch. The beer pours a nice golden color and is a wonderful mix of flavors.  Amarillo and Chinook hops provide citrus notes that work with the orange blossom honey. After the initial brew day we racked the beer on top of raisins and dried cranberries, followed by a second racking on top of orange peel and coriander. (ORC stands for Orange, Raisin, Cranberry). The end result is a wonderful strong Belgian meets Hefeweizen beer.”

We finished our wine and our beer as the bill was presented.  The end of a meal at Talula’s Table often resembles a high stakes poker game, with each party contributing their share to a growing mound of cash in the center of the table.  After counting it up, someone had the idea to bind it all together with a hairband, and the take, a short and thick plug of cash, looked like it should have been hidden in a mobster’s shoe.  Intoxicated as much with the company and food as with alcohol, we thanked each other for the lovely times and poured ourselves out onto the sidewalk to enjoy the cool summer evening, happy to be fed, once again, in the company of good friends old and new.

August 4, 2009   Comments

New York Stories: Shelter from the Storm, and a Huge Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen

On a temperate summer day in New York City, the wind turned blustery, the blue sky transformed into a menacing shade of gray, and within moments, the heavens opened up.  The rain was intense, and the streets and sidewalks were mottled for only an instant before they became completely saturated, the gutters failing to keep pace with the rushing waters.  Pedestrians caught unprepared huddled together under the nearest available awning or bus stop shelter, forced to invade each others’ respective personal spaces by an Act of God.

All of this meteorological chaos was perfectly fine by me, because while it was happening, I was sitting in Katz’s Delicatessen, shoving an enormous pastrami sandwich into my gaping maw and tipping back a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.  We did not take an umbrella with us, but if there’s a place to hole up as you wait for a summer rainstorm to pass, you couldn’t ask for better.

In the weeks leading up to our trip to New York City for the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show, we had firmly decided that we wanted to make a return to this classic deli on the Lower East Side.  With our memories of our first experience quite fuzzy (in our defense, it was 2:30am and we had just emerged from a nearby nightclub), we knew that we wanted to experience Katz’s Delicatessen during the daylight hours.

The scene could not have been more different. At 2:30am, we were one of only a handful of occupied tables in the vast wood-paneled dining hall, which is decorated with framed pictures of famous people who’ve eaten there.  I remember reviewing the selection of items that is displayed on the wall above and behind the cutters’ stations, walking up to the lone cutter on duty, ordering our sandwiches, and making small talk as he assembled our meal.  This time, I stood at the end of a substantial line of people that snaked through to the front of the restaurant.  Here’s a helpful hint: each cutter has his own line, but most folks go to the line that is nearest to the entrance – move further into the hall to shorten your wait at a shorter line.  Almost every table was occupied, and when we managed to squeeze ourselves into an empty space, the back of my chair butted up against a neighboring table.  When I reached the counter, I had to raise my voice to call out my order.  I honestly think that it was the same cutter as from our first trip.

I made it through ordering the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches without incident.  I knew that I had a fifty percent chance of getting the next thing right.  “I’ll take one corned beef, one pastrami, and…a…knish.”  I had pronounced it “nish”, in the sincere hope that the ‘k’ served just as useful a function as it does in the word ‘knight’.

“You mean a “KA-nish?” the cutter replied, deadly serious. I was glad to have the counter serve as a barrier between us.

“Um, yeah.  That.”  He motioned me to the other counter to place the knish order.  That’s the quirky thing about Katz’s Delicatessen – if you want a sandwich, you go to one of the many cutters in the center of the counter, if you want a hot dog or knish, you go to the station at the end.  Want a soda?  Go down to the other end.  Want a beer?  Go back to where you ordered the hot dog.  You could skip all of this exercise by asking for table service, but where’s the fun in that?  Plus, if you go to the counter to get your sandwiches, the cutter will always provide you with a sample of the meat for your approval before he begins carving your order.

The sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen are immense, heavy with the weight of 121 years of tradition.  They are true deli sandwiches, served with a combination of sweet and tart pickles on the side and a swipe of sharp yellow deli mustard that serves to cut the richness of the fatty meat.  The pastrami sandwich is a full two inches of meat, precariously balanced on a comparatively small and thin platform of rye bread, its beefy edges crusted with spice rub.  The corned beef is similarly endowed, but with a juicier, fattier aspect that is characteristic of a superlative brisket.  As good as the corned beef can be, you can reach for epicurean nirvana by ordering a classic corned beef Reuben, which pairs the meat with a mountain of tangy sauerkraut and a layer of Swiss cheese so thick, you could ski down it.

The knish is a rectangular pillow of dough wrapped around a densely packed filling of potato and onion, fried until golden.  I highly recommend it if you’ve never had one.  You should be aware, though, that there are two varieties of knish.  The Coney Island knish is as I have described; there is also a traditional Jewish knish that is round and baked.  I tried one once and didn’t like it as much as the Coney Island, but you should taste one of each since it’s a matter of personal preference.

The last thing you need to know about Katz’s Delicatessen is this – they work off of a ticket system.  When you come into the deli, you’re handed an orange ticket, and as you order different items from the counter, the countermen take your ticket, mark it with what you’ve ordered, and pass it back to you.  At the end of the meal, you hand your ticket to the cashier, who totals it and takes your money.

Don’t even ask what happens if you lose your ticket.  You, and your wallet, really don’t want to know.

July 20, 2009   Comments