Category — Dining Out

Parc, Finally

“Steak frites, please.  Medium rare.”  The words tumbled out of my mouth with all the weight of a commandment, an incantation that would invoke the start of one of the most wonderful and highly anticipated meals of my life as a food writer so far.  Was it really that good?  Absolutely!  Should you go there for dinner?  Yes!  Go right now.  Take me with you.

Stephen Starr opened Parc on Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia nearly a year ago, on July 14, 2008 – Bastille Day.  Offering seating for close to 300 patrons, with additional space for 75 more at the sidewalk tables, Parc instantly evokes memories of its mainstay Parisian counterparts, the brasseries that remain crowded and brightly lit, stoves hot and ready to serve, well into the depths of the post-midnight hours.  Having fondly missed Paris almost every day since returning from our vacation five years ago, Parc has been cemented to the top of my to-do list for a very long time.

And a long time it has certainly been.  I have made seven unsuccessful attempts to have dinner at Parc – that’s how many times we’ve found ourselves in Philadelphia and somehow managed to eat somewhere else, either due to convenience of location or at the behest of the people we were visiting.  Our busy schedules keep us from driving down to the city “just because”, so whenever we’re in town, we’re in town for a reason.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I saw a spontaneous window of opportunity open up on Saturday, with just myself and my wife, plus the addition of the inimitable Amy Shields from the profoundly fabulous superband Mojo and the Helper Monkeys.  We were hungry, we were downtown, and we had nowhere else to be – so I seized the day like an obscure 80s movie reference..  “Parc! Parc! Parc!” I shouted as we navigated the narrow streets of the City of Brotherly Love.  I think I may even have made up a song about Parc along the way.  I was quivering with excitement, or maybe low blood sugar – either way, we were going, at long last, to have dinner at Parc!

We arrived early enough to have the fortune of being seated immediately.  As we were led through the massive space, I was impressed at how authentic Parc felt – the layout, tiled floors, dark woods, and zinc bar were all reminiscent of classic bistros in Paris.  We placed our drink orders, and, as I have practiced over and over in my head since first previewing the menu online, I ordered the steak frites.  Listed on the menu as “seared hangar steak, maitre d’ butter”, the description is deceptively plain for a dish that, to be honest, requires a certain elevated measure of talent to pull off correctly.  I’ve seen other restaurants offer steak frites, but compromise on the true interpretation by offering ribeye, or strip steak, or some other cut of beef that is more forgiving than hangar.  If you’ve ever worked with it, you know that hangar steak is a naturally tough piece of meat, and if prepared inartfully, can turn a dining experience into an event only slightly better than chewing on a wallet.

While we were waiting for our food to arrive, our server brought a basket filled with an assortment of bread – French baguettes, hearty wheat slices, and raisin bread, all accompanied by a crock of softened butter.  The bread, baked on the premises, presents a nice array of varied textures and flavors – the crusty, chewy baguette, the thick, grainy slabs of dark bread, and the sweetness of raisins tucked into a loaf that just yearns to see you return for breakfast.

The moment of truth arrived as my steak frites platter was placed in front of me.  True to form, it was unmistakably hangar steak – no other cut of beef has that same muscular, fibrous quality, a look that makes you wonder if you should eat the steak or wear it as a vest.  Brushed liberally with melted butter, parsley, a touch of garlic, and salt, the steak needed nothing else to become transformed into classic steak frites.  I wielded my steak knife, held my fork firm, and was reassured to feel the knife glide effortlessly through the meat.  Placing the first bite into my mouth, an act that I had looked forward to for close to a year, yielded an astounding burst of gamey flavor and a tenderness that approached filet mignon in its delicacy, but with the characteristic chew that can only come from true hangar steak.  I’ve had steak frites in Paris; this was no mere replication of that dish, no homage – this was truly a genuine steak frites in every sense.  The fries, slender, golden, dusted with sea salt, were served with an aioli for dipping.  The plate oozed with decadence, each bite as rewarding, flavorful, and satisfying as the first.  And, just like that, it was gone.

Other dishes proved just as skillfully executed and true to form.  A Trout Amandine presented perfectly cooked, delicate white flesh, adorned with slivers of almond toasted in butter and a splash of lemon.  Unapologetically French, there is little on the menu at Parc that would classify as light fare – even a Salade Lyonnaise comes draped with a poached egg.  But the poached egg is not alone, as it’s paired with lardons, that wonderful gift of salty, smokey pork fat.  It’s bacon taken to the next level and beyond.

As is typical with any outstanding restaurant experience, I’ve already assembled a mental hit list of menu items that I need to try on my next visit.  As the last dish that I enjoyed before leaving Paris, it is imperative that I sample the escargot, if only to have an opportunity to relive that memory again.  A charcuterie platter was a generous pile of cured meats, accompanied by pate and chicken liver mousse, presented on a wooden cutting board.  The onion soup gratinee, along with a glass of wine, would make for a wonderful midday lunch.  And was that steak tartare that I spied on an adjoining table?

June 23, 2009   Comments

The Best Burger in Chester County, Pennsylvania?

It was the first truly nice evening of spring.  A two-day heat wave gave way to a dusk that was tinged with the smell of cut grass, the rhythmic chirps of insects awakening to their own dawn, and the longing of everyone who, bone-tired of a winter chill that had long overstayed its welcome, just wanted to sit outside with a cold drink and a nice meal.  As it so happens, that’s exactly what we found at the Four Dogs Tavern in West Chester.

There’s some history behind the stone walls and heavy wooden floors of this place.  Two centuries ago, The Four Dogs Tavern was a stable, an accompaniment to the neighboring stone edifice that is now known as the Marshalton Inn.  A few days earlier, we had made an attempt to come to the Four Dogs Tavern for dinner and drinks with our neighbors, but the weekend crowds had packed the establishment so thoroughly, it was impossible to even find a hostess to find out about the wait.  We left, frustrated, only to fall prey to a lackluster dinner at a nearby bar that, in hindsight, should have never even been considered as a second, third, or even fourth option.

Despite the initial impression, we made a second effort to hit Four Dogs a few days later.  Like a lot of things in life, it turns out that timing is key – having gotten there at around 5:15, we were seated immediately in the outdoor patio area.  By 6:00, though, a line of hungry patrons had started to form around the periphery of the patio, with various sets of eyes darting to and fro, looking for any signal of a dessert order, or a request for the check.  There would be no such satisfaction, though, at least not from our table – given the weather, the beer, and the excellent food, our early bird status had given us free license to linger and savor each moment.

We started with an order of the calamari, served on a long serving platter, crusted with parmesan, and dotted with remoulade and parsley pistou.  Far from being overwhelmingly chewy, a sure sign of poor quality pre-frozen ingredients, each of the tender rings was delicate and tender, lightly batter-coated and flash-fried until just barely done.  Despite the wispiness of the coating, the richness of the remoulade made for a deceptively heavy dish, at least when apportioned between two people.  Overall, the calamari is a pleasant departure from the traditional heavily breaded stalwart tubes that one always sees served with a cup of marinara.

What really made the meal, though, was the burger.  Described quite simply on the menu as an “8oz Black Angus Burger with Fries”, its unassuming title fails to convey the absolute perfection of what arrived at the table that evening. A pillowy bun, wrapped lovingly around a thick patty that was prepared precisely to order (an occurrence so rare in other establishments that I’m actually surprised when someone gets it right), with a burst of sizzling hot juices that run down your wrist on your first mouthful, and the crusty char that is characteristic of the best tavern burgers around.  This is why I would be a miserable failure of a vegetarian.  Some cultures worship cows as sacred beings; I worship cows because they are delicious.  Is this the best burger in Chester County?  It may very well be.

The fries are worth a mention, for the sole reason that they reminded me of the fries that they used to serve at Veterans Stadium – crisp, thin, and not at all greasy, and not at all like what is served today at Citizens Bank Park.

The quality of this meal went a long way towards convincing me that, one day soon, we need to book a reservation at the Marshalton Inn for dinner.  If the kitchen can be so artful in its execution of a simple grilled burger and fries, I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by the higher end menu items that are served across the parking lot.  But, before that day comes, I suspect that I’ll be having quite a few more burgers at the Four Dogs Tavern.

June 5, 2009   Comments

Scenes From a Birthday Party

You wouldn’t expect a birthday party for a six year old to include house-cured duck prosciutto and steak tartare, but then again, it’s not every day that a restaurant has a birthday party.

We had the fortune of being invited to the sixth anniversary birthday party for Alison at Blue Bell, Chef Alison Barshak’s second venture since her return to the Philadelphia area in 2001.  As the sunlight of late afternoon faded into an early evening dusk, we mingled among roughly a hundred friends, family, and associates, all of whom had come to celebrate the restaurant’s entry into its sixth year.  That, and also the pig.

That’s where this story actually begins, with a tweet about a pig.  On Twitter, Chef Barshak had started following me, and having heard a great many good things about her, I followed her back.  Over the course of a week or so, I followed her updates and watched with interest as she started mentioning the preparations for this party.  She noted that they were pit roasting a whole pig for the event – an exchange of DMs led to an invitation to join the fete.

We arrived right at 5pm to find Alison at Blue Bell nearly empty – the kitchen was in its final moments of preparation, and guests who shared our sense of timing were standing around making small talk.  We were offered our choice of sangria or beer, and we settled into a table, nursing our drinks while partaking of pita wedges and hummus, only a mere preview of what was soon to come out of a kitchen that was clearly running on all cylinders.  By the end of the evening, I was glad that we arrived when we did – within an hour, all of the seats and tables in the small bistro would be filled, and latecomers would find themselves standing for much of the meal.

Standing turned out to be not as bad as one would expect.  Service was flawless, with the servers flowing through the crowd with trays of passed hors d’oeuvres like a performance of culinary ballet dancers (kudos to the server who, after witnessing my repeated failures in getting a sample of the bacalao fritters, made a priority out of dashing from the kitchen straight to our table when the next tray became available).  In addition to the constantly rotating offerings that were emerging from the kitchen, a long table running the length of the dining room featured platters of oysters and bowls heaped to overflowing with caesar and garden salads.  I typically don’t expect great things from salad, but the garden salad caught me off guard, bursting with the flavors of mint, tomatoes, radishes, tarragon, and snow peas in a light vinaigrette.

To date, I am still amazed at how well the handful of servers at Alison at Blue Bell managed to cater to that many people, with such a grand variety of dishes.  There were the aforementioned bacalao fritters, small marble-sized croquettes of fish, quickly breaded and fried, the delicate nature of the cod offset by the salty hit of a disk of chorizo sausage.  Wooden skewers bore small pieces of sweet melon wrapped in the house-made duck prosciutto, a combination that was only enhanced by a small dollop of mint pesto.  Small anchovies, known as boquerones in Spain, were accented with baby artichoke and bread crumbs.  The mozzarella en carozza were light pillows of cheese, breaded and flash-fried – the perfect food-on-a-stick, something that ought to come by the dozen in a paper cone at the ballpark.  Hangar steak tartare was served on crostini, topped with a sharp gorgonzola.  Bowls of lamb meatballs and tomato sauce were a surprising departure from standard beef-pork-veal combination. Small dishes served to bear a single ravioli, a delicate envelope of pasta wrapped around an eggplant filling and served with a sauce that bore the unmistakable tang of goat’s milk.

Among this panoply of treasures were more than a few outstanding preparations worth noting specifically.  Hollow egg shells were transformed into serving cups, holding an absolutely heavenly spring pea and parmesan custard, its foamy lightness tempered by the slightest hint of earthy truffle.  Shot glasses were filled with warm sunchoke soup blended with the irresponsibly decadent combination of foie gras and truffle.  Of these, I probably ate more than I should have, but I would have regretted it had I not.  You know those dishes that haunt your dreams?  I now have two more.

While all of this was going on, the pig slowly rotated on a spit outside, its skin having turned to bronze from the heat of the charcoal beneath it.  My overindulgence meant that when it was time to serve the pork, I admittedly wasn’t very hungry anymore, but when Alison Barshak presents you with something that has spent the better part of a day in the making, you don’t refuse.  It was an interesting choice to serve the slices of spit-roasted pork with a tonnato sauce, that concoction of tuna, olive oil, and mayonnaise that is more traditionally served as an accompaniment to veal.  I ate maybe three-quarters of one slice of pork before realizing that I had to throttle back to ensure that there was enough room for the cake.

Cake? Cake!  Of course, every birthday party needs a cake, and this party was no exception.  Like the prosciuttio (and, I suspect, everything else) the cake was made in-house, but that’s not really surprising given the caliber of the kitchen.  The really outstanding aspect of the cake, something that has made me completely forget mostly all of the other details about it – was the filling.  Running throughout the center of the cake was a layer of burnt caramel filling, the best of all worlds sweet, smokey, and dark, which pulled everything else about the cake – the frosting, the crumb, into a perfect synergy of flavors.

Happy birthday, Alison at Blue Bell.  You sure know how to throw down.

May 16, 2009   Comments

Meeting the Meat on the Main Line

I’ve recently started contributing content to West Chester Dish, a site dedicated to all that is hip and happening in and around the quaint college burg of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  As part of this new gig, we were invited to a press dinner for Georges’ (formerly Les Mas, formerly Le Mas Perrier) in Wayne to preview their new Butcher Shop menu, a collection of supremely high end cuts of prime beef and veal.

Here’s an excerpt:

My entree, the strip steak, was a 14oz platform of perfectly medium-rare goodness, seared to perfection on the outside, a uniform crimson throughout, with no bone to interfere with the coordinated attack of my knife and fork. The meat possessed that telltale mineral flavor that’s indicative of beef that’s been aged.

My writeup of that evening has been posted to West Chester Dish and can be found in its entirety here.

May 12, 2009   Comments

Game On at the Victory Brewing Company

I’ve wanted to write about the Victory Brewing Company for a long time, and I would have pushed this review out close to a year ago, but chose to wait on it.  Don’t get me wrong, Victory Brewing has some of the finest craft beers around, and is home to one of my favorite beers ever.  But when they emerged, butterfly-like, from their renovation last spring, having transformed from a dark, moody neighborhood hang-out (think brewery with some tables and a bar thrown in for good measure) to a full fledged restaurant – something didn’t feel quite right, despite the gorgeous overhaul that included a Brewmaster’s Table, where up to a dozen people can sit underneath a copper brew kettle top.

Prior to the renovation, which took around two months and, at its height, limited the available food items to about six tables and a handful of sandwiches, Victory had offered a decent selection of dishes.  The best output of the kitchen was always to be found in foods that one naturally would pair with beer – pizzas, burgers, the excellent buffalo wings and buffalo chicken wrap, a serviceable steak sandwich.  The menu offered some higher priced items, and whenever we would dare to venture outside the realm of “bar food”, we would invariably be disappointed – a dish described as “osso bucco” was clearly not the shank that the rest of the world has come to recognize as osso bucco, and its texture was closer to pot roast than anything.  So, we would stick with the bar food, and we were pretty happy with that.  The great beer lent a lot of leniency to the food, which wasn’t outstanding, but pretty good for what it was.

For me, the benchmark of any brewpub is the quality of its cheeseburger, which is the perfect pairing with a pint of beer.  So, in my mind, it was an unimaginable sin for the “new” Victory Brewing Company to have taken its burger, which was fine, and replaced it with two thinner patties which surrounded a “filling” – in other words, they took the toppings and tried to get fancy by “stuffing” the burgers with them.  The result was a disaster – the grill cooks could never turn out a proper burger after that, and we’d always get two overcooked, dried out burger patties.  Everyone we spoke with echoed the same sentiment – why can’t Victory just put out a regular cheeseburger and be done with it?

Well, recent excursions to Victory for their monthly “Follow the Liter” event ($5 liters of beer, plus arm wrestling!), as well as an impromptu midweek lunch, has shown the kitchen to be much improved.  Creative burger configurations are a thing of the past, and I am happy to report that the burgers are once again single patty wonders of beefy deliciousness.  They are also better than they were prior to the renovation, thanks to a switch to aged beef.  Having conquered the beer (the renovation enabled Victory to expand their offerings, so today they offer upwards of twenty different drafts plus another four on cask), it was only a matter of time before the kitchen caught up.  As a server recently remarked, the owners kept all of the food items that were working, tossed what didn’t sell, and now introduce new items on the right-side of the menu.  If you want to play it safe, stick with the left side of the menu – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a pick from the right side is doomed to disaster.

There are certainly more high notes to the menu as compared to last year.  The wings are as good as they’ve ever been, just the right heat, accompanied by that traditional tang of vinegar and always, always a requirement when we go there.  The burgers, as I’ve noted, are large and in charge, well enough of a meal in themselves to make you regret ordering the wings (but yet you’ll finish everything anyway).  The pizza selection has been trimmed to reflect the varieties that were actually not, you know, bland disks of bread – so you have a much better shot of ordering a pie that you’ll want to eat.  The buffalo chicken wrap is still on the menu, just as good and spicy as ever.  A hot roast beef sandwich was, in my wife’s words, “what Arby’s must taste like in heaven.”

Perhaps the best new addition to the food offerings at Victory, though, is a dish that I tried the first time we went to a Follow The Liter event.  It’s called Schweinshauxe, and it’s a pig ankle.  Actually, it’s two pig ankles, served with a cream sauce, sauerkraut mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, and it’s all kinds of amazing.  The meat falls off the bone, and the cream sauce pairs with the potatoes and the tart crunch of the cabbage very well – it’s a perfect rendition of traditional German cooking.  That, and one of Victory’s huge pretzels served with cheese dipping sauce, will always make me regret ordering the wings.

Somehow, though, I don’t think I’m ever going to learn from my mistakes.

April 27, 2009   Comments

Presenting Your Latest 3 Buck Bites

I had mentioned earlier that I had snagged a gig as a Dictator on the new Citysearch site 3 Buck Bites.  Since then, I’ve posted two submissions to that site – the fact that both are sugary carbo-bombs is completely coincidental.  Click on each link below to check ‘em out.  If you dig it, vote it up!

Chocolate Frosted Vanilla Cupcake from The Flying Monkey Patisserie

Ricotta Cheese Cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery

March 31, 2009   Comments

Journey With Me to The Magic Kingdom of Dough!

The first time we tried to go to Zhi Wei Guan, we trekked down to Chinatown in Philadelphia on one of the coldest nights of the winter.  Motivated by the anticipation of steaming bowls of soup and freshly prepared soup dumplings, we parked the car in one of the parking decks and booked it for four blocks down Race Street, with the residual heat from the car dissipating almost immediately upon setting foot to pavement.  With our fingers numb and teeth chattering, we finally came within view of the restaurant, whose entrance had been decorated festively with blinking mini lights.  Ascending the steps to the front door two at a time, we put a shivering hand on the door handle, only to find that no manner of pushing or pulling would open the door.

As we stood there in the dark – forlorn, cold, and hungry – a young woman came to the door wearing a heavy winter coat and explained, in heavily accented english, that their pipes had frozen, there was no water to run the restaurant, and that they, unfortunately, were closed.  That night, the Magic Kingdom of Dough, as the restaurant is also named, became the Magic Kingdom of Doh.

At that point, it was too cold to think, let alone walk very far.  We ended up eating an overly priced, faintly disappointing meal at a hastily chosen random Chinese restaurant up the street.  In hindsight, that meal ended up being way more expensive, and far inferior, to what we could have had at Zhi Wei Guan, had Mother Nature not intervened that evening.  So it was with some measure of triumph that, a few weekends ago, we finally had the opportunity to return to Zhi Wei Guan, this time for real.  We not only found them open and fully operational, but also so courteous and talented as to set a new standard for Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia.

We were part of a large group of 13 people, which presented a rare opportunity to try a greater variety of dishes than we would normally order for ourselves.  In other words, while we usually order too much food for the two of us when it comes to soup dumplings and dim sum, that night gave us the chance to order way too much food for 13 people.  True to form, we discovered that overzealous ordering scales very well to larger group sizes.

Dinner started with the mandatory order of Xiao Long Bao, which is the name that would appear on a soup dumpling’s birth certificate, if soup dumplings had birth certificates.  Since we’ve been friends with Xiao Long Bao for many years, I’m taking the liberty of referring to them as soup dumplings for the rest of this entry (and even the restaurant’s menu refers to them as “juicy buns”, so there).  At Zhi Wei Guan, soup dumplings are available in two varieties, the traditional pork and what the restaurant calls “three flavors”, which adds shrimp and mushrooms to the mix.  To judge the level of craftmanship behind a well-made soup dumpling, one need look no further than the delicate nature of the steamed dough that surrounds the meat and broth.  Soup dumplings should not be overly doughy and thick – the wall of the delicacy should be thin, and just substantial enough to withstand the steaming process and the journey from steamer to spoon to mouth.  For a place named The Magic Kingdom of Dough, Zhi Wei Guan did not disappoint, and both varieties of soup dumpling were perfect examples of the art, light satchels holding a generous portion of meat nestled in warm, velvety broth.  Are they as good as Dim Sum Garden?  Honestly, I can’t tell you – it’s a pretty tight race.

Alongside the soup dumplings, we also ordered the pork and vegetable dumplings.  Given the option of having them steamed or pan fried, we chose the pan fried variety, and were treated to compact squares of crisped dough, encasing a nice pack of greens, chives, and pork – all of which was complemented perfectly by the soy and vinegar dipping sauce that was provided as an accompaniment.  A dish of bok choy was perfectly prepared – stir fried until tender but still with some crunch to the stalks.  In fact, I’ve never had better bok choy anywhere else.

Sui Mai, a staple of Chinese dim sum houses everywhere, did not disappoint.  Larger than what I was accustomed to, the Sui Mai were certainly substantial, the meaty pork filling wrapped tightly and steamed, with four pieces to an order.  I can’t say that they were the best Sui Mai I’ve ever had (for there are many dim sum houses and Sui Mai is one of the harder things to screw up) but they were certainly very good.

I eagerly anticipate the arrival of warmer weather so that we can return to Zhi Wei Guan and walk off our meal afterwards in the streets of Chinatown, instead of running back to the car.  The best part about eating at Zhi Wei Guan, and in Chinatown in general, is the price.  At the end of the meal, when our pro-rata portion of the bill was calculated, the owner handed me a little slip of receipt paper with our total written in pen – $20.19.  You can’t get better than that, especially in Philadelphia.

March 23, 2009   Comments

A Bar Review We Can All Get Behind

Like any bar worth its salt, Ron’s Original Bar and Grille in Exton, Pennsylvania is marked by dark woods, shadowy corners, good music, and an imposing taxidermied head of a caribou that gets increasingly more menacing with each downed pint of draft beer.  We have happily found another bright star in the universe of restaurants with excellent food and a killer selection of microbrews.

For two years, our work and shopping travels have taken us within yards of this straightforward, unassuming spot, just a quick turn off of the intersection of Routes 113 and 100.  Whenever we exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike, our route would take us straight to the front door of Ron’s – if only we turned left, that is, instead of turning right to head home.  For two years, we thought of Ron’s Bar and Grille as nothing more than another restaurant with an ad in the local newspaper insert.  We had no idea what we were missing.

Last month, we needed to ship some Christmas gifts and, instead of going to the shipping store located closest to home, we decided to stop in Exton on the way home from work.  The parking lot of the modest strip mall was packed, and we had to drive around to the back of the building to find a spot next to the dumpsters.  Laden with bags and gifts, we lugged ourselves around the side of the building, passing right under the exhaust vents that lead directly out of Ron’s kitchen.  It was the right place, at the right time, and it smelled like bar heaven.

And what, you rightfully ask, does bar heaven smell like?  It smells like pizza, and grilled onions, and burgers, and beer.  And when the weather turns dark and cold, and you haven’t eaten anything since lunch, it smells perfect.

We’ve been to other neighborhood bar-restaurants that have lofty dreams of serving higher-class fare, and in the grand majority of cases, these kitchens fall short of the mark.  Instead of focusing on making the best bar food that they can, these establishments offer one page of bar food, followed by more complex, more expensive selections that are marketed as ‘complete meals’.  The result is too often perfunctory bar food and middling entrees no better than your average nationwide chain restaurant.

This is exactly why the menu at Ron’s is so refreshing.  Yes, there is a selection of dinner entrees, mostly Italian, that occupies the back page of the menu.  But, as is suited to a place with an outstanding variety of microbrews, the rest of the menu, all five pages’ worth, is devoted to bar food – buffalo wings, chicken fingers, burgers, hoagies, pizza, roast beef and roast pork sandwiches, and what Ron’s calls ‘ovals’, which are rounds of pizza dough with a selection of toppings, no sauce.  For now, I can only comment on the wings, ovals, nachos, and cheesesteak, but seeing as we have been to Ron’s twice in one week, I have little doubt that we’ll be making my way through the entire menu in short order.

There’s a universal standard for what makes a good buffalo wing – deep fried, not too saturated, no breading, with a slight vinegary kick that can only come with the right kind of hot sauce.  The wings at Ron’s Original Bar and Grill hits all of these points, and perfectly at that.  These are truly outstanding wings, served hot and served right.  We also sampled the No Holds Barred oval, which comes adorned with chopped steak, pepperoni, bacon, cheddar, and mozzarella – truly a heart attack on a plate, but so good.  On a subsequent visit, a platter of chicken nachos illustrated the generosity of the kitchen, with heaping mounds of cheese and grilled chicken that made the tortilla chips cling stingily to one another.  The cheesesteak, as much a barometer of good bar food as a burger, hits on all cylinders – decent amount of meat, chopped fine so that it blends seamlessly with the cheese, and a soft long roll to do justice to it all.  It goes without saying that all of these items pair wonderfully with the beer.

Let’s talk about the beer.  From the outside, no one can tell that Ron’s would have such an outstanding selection of microbrews.  Once you set foot inside the bar area, though, your eyes are drawn first to the immense caribou head mounted to the wall, but then to the chalkboard that lists that day’s beer offerings.  During our visits, about 80% of the board consisted of heavier beers for the cold weather – stouts that showcased elements of coffee or chocolate.  We ordered, between the two of us, the Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, the Breckenridge Christmas Ale, and the Founder’s Breakfast Stout.

Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, as is described on the Dogfish Head website, is a “dark beer made with a touch of roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John’s Wort, and licorice root. Brewed with whole-leaf Cascade and Fuggles hops, the grains include pale, roasted & oatmeal”.  It was, from the moment it touched our lips, an instant classic – dark, but not too heavy as to overwhelm the palate, its sweetness pairing wonderfully with the spice of the buffalo wings.  We left Ron’s that evening with four bottles of this brew from the neighboring takeout counter, and are trying to ration our inventory until we can get back to the store.

The Breckenridge Christmas Ale, noted by Breckenridge as the “ultimate winter warmer” at over 7% ABV, is another dark beer with notes of caramel and chocolate.  It made for a good first beer, something to sip off of while waiting for your food to arrive.  Contrary to my suspicion, having a glass of the Breckenridge while eating a full meal did nothing to slow the absorption of the brew into my system.  I was glad to be sitting down.

I finished the evening with a Founders Breakfast Stout, which is brewed with flaked oats, chocolate, and two varieties of coffee bean to arrive at a knockout 8.3% ABV brew.  This was probably my favorite out of the three microbrews that we had that evening, with the combination of chocolate and coffee forming an excellent post-meal libation that made me all so very grateful that I wasn’t the one driving home.

January 18, 2009   Comments

The Best Ice Cream in the World is in Princeton, New Jersey

It was a moment of temporary euphoria and disorientation.  With my fingers slowly thawing from having just come inside from the January chill, we sat at a window table that looked out onto the Christmas tree, still adorned with festive red and white lights, that stood in the middle of a darkened Palmer Square.  We had just sat down at one of the three small tables that make up the only seating options here, and I had just put a spoon of the cranberry sorbet into my mouth.

The soft orb that slowly dissolved on my tongue was the purest expression of the brightest of summer days – an explosion of sweet berry flavor that, for the briefest moment, made me believe that it was a warm, lazy day in August, and that Christmas and the New Year were not just days behind us.  The blood orange sorbet that shared the small cup with the cranberry was just as sweet, just as concentrated, just as redolent of starry nights and the sound of insects chirping in a rural field.  With some measure of reluctance, I passed my wife’s cup back across the table to her, consoled only by my own serving of roasted praline gelato paired with a dark chocolate ice cream.

The Bent Spoon is a tiny storefront in Princeton that specializes in the freshest, tastiest artisanal ice cream, sorbet, and baked goods.  It is a magical place where everything is done just right, the offerings are adventurous and unexpected, and your only regrets stem from your inability to taste everything in one visit.  From the moment you set foot inside the shop, you can sense the passion that the owners have for their craft, and one spoon of their frozen wares, or a bite of cupcake, illustrates definitively that The Bent Spoon strikes the perfect balance between passion and raw talent.  The success and popularity of the establishment is evidenced by the long lines of customers who wait patiently, in all manner of hot and cold weather, for the opportunity to sample the shop’s latest creations.  More often than not, the line extends past the entrance and wraps around the front window of the shop, populated by families, couples on date night, and Princeton University students.

The flavors on offer are hand-printed on whimsical construction paper signs that are posted above the service counter, and change according to what’s fresh, what’s seasonal, and what’s still available that day.  There are always some core crowd favorites on hand, such as the dark chocolate and vanilla bean.  During the holiday season, you can count on finding flavors such as peppermint, eggnog, gingerbread, and pumpkin.  Sorbets, such as the cranberry and blood orange varieties, are expertly crafted and showcase only the freshest local fruit.  The baked goods take the form of vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, both full-size and mini, and a host of cookies for every taste – from chocolate chip, to oatmeal, to a decadent, thick, chewy, molasses variety that threatens to haunt my dreams.  To top it all off, The Bent Spoon offers its own hot chocolate mix, in both a traditionally decadent version as well as a spicy habanero flavor.  A quick note for coffee enthusiasts – The Bent Spoon grinds and brews each cup to order using a French press.  The result is a more deeply rounded, intense cup of brew that pairs perfectly with one (or two) of their heavenly vanilla or chocolate cupcakes.

As you make your way to front of the line, you begin to realize that there’s good reason for the wait – as you slowly come within view of the day’s offerings of gelato, ice cream, and sorbet, whatever flavors you had previously set your mind on give way to new, extemporaneous impulses, and you start asking for a taste of this, a little taste of that – samples that the staff is always happy to provide.  Then, just as you’ve made your final decisions, and are ready to pay, cash in hand, your eyes come across the myriad displays of cupcakes and cookies, and you’re faced with another agonizing choice – not whether you’re going to pick up any baked goods, but whether you’re going to eat all of it there, or take a box to go home.

January 5, 2009   Comments

Coming Together: An Evening at Talula’s Table

It’s 7:10pm, and we’re racing our way through the utter blackness that is the backwoods of Chester County at night, our car swerving through tight corners, over single lane bridges, and past sleepy farms and darkened houses lit only by windowsill candles.  The first course at Talula’s Table will be served in 20 minutes, and we’re running a little late.  I pray that the deer that are so prevalent in these woods would stay far from the road tonight.

Something about us must have earned the favor of the food gods that evening, because our trip to Kennett Square was accomplished in record time, shaving at least ten minutes off of the typical ride.  Most of the businesses in this small downtown area close early, so finding parking was no challenge, and soon we were shuffling hurriedly through the cold night and flying through the doors of the shop with minutes to spare, a crinkled brown paper bag of wines in tow.

Tuesday night brought together friends, neighbors, coworkers, and a handful of people we had never had the fortune of knowing prior to Saturday.  Given a little more than a week to pull together a dining party, and having had a few cancellations, we were concerned about making the minimum 8 person quota for the reservation by the time the weekend was upon us.  Eventually, we turned to the wonders of the Internet, posting our call-to-arms to a couple of food-related threads and forums – which were well-received, to say the least.  In short order, we had the opposite dilemma, having rocketed past twelve attendees, up to fourteen, and were relieved when Talula’s Table allowed us the additional two seats.

We arrived at Talula’s Table at around 7:20pm to find that everyone had already settled in around the table.  Aimee Olexy greeted me warmly and took the bottles of wine from me, and we made the rounds, making it a point to introduce ourselves to the three people that we had never met before.  We yet had a few minutes before the dinner service started, so I had an opportunity to chat with folks and take in the room for a bit.  Besides, I needed to walk around to shake the mid-November cold off of me.

The store had taken on a completely different character for the dinner hour – I had gotten accustomed to the bustling marketplace that occupies the space from 7am to 7pm, bristling with regulars getting their daily coffee and office professionals picking up prepared foods and freshly baked loaves of bread for dinner.  Now, at 7:20 in the evening, none of those people were here – it was just the fourteen of us, the waitstaff, and the kitchen.  The store, normally brightly lit by sunlight streaming through the front windows, was dark except for a warm glow emanating from the single chandelier suspended above the table – the lights of the cold cases, and of the cheese counter, were turned off.  It gave you the sense, almost, that you were in a place where you shouldn’t be, but yet getting away with it – and that was a very strange and wonderful feeling.

The table had already been set with placemats, utensils, and several wine glasses for each guest – a nice touch, and a nod to the respect for differences among varietals.  Water glasses were filled, and would remain filled throughout the evening, thanks to the attentive yet unintrusive waitstaff.  For each dish that would emerge from the back room, a member of the staff would take the time to introduce the presentation, which was a nice touch.  Shortly after 7:30, the door to the kitchen swung wide, the conversation at the table quieted, and the first course was presented.

Fluke “Naturel”, Cauliflower Puree, Orchard Apple, and Foamy Pomegranate

The first course was a pitch-perfect demonstration of contrasting textures and flavors.  The fluke, topped with a crisp, paper-thin dried apple slice that shattered under your fork, was ringed by a pale cauliflower puree, and the plate was accented with small cubes of apple nestled into a mixture of delicate pomegranate foam and green roe.  The fluke itself was mild, fresh and clean tasting in the unassertive way that white-fleshed fish can be, pairing very well with the similarly mild taste of the pureed cauliflower.  The fluke barely held together, and flaked easily at the merest suggestion of a utensil.  But then, a layer of sweetness arrived in my mouth with the introduction of the apple and pomegranate foam, which was then further contrasted with the crunch and oceanic saltiness of the roe.  It’s definitely an eat-everything-together kind of course.

The kitchen continued the seafood theme into the second course.

Citrus-Drop Ricotta Ravioli, Butter Poached Red Crab, Greenhouse Radish Sprouts

Take a good look at the lump of red crab on this plate, and know that this was the singularly best crab I have tasted in my lifetime, in this or any other country.  It almost does a disservice to the ravioli, because the quality and taste of the crabmeat overwhelms everything else on the plate.  The ravioli was a pocket of pasta filled with oozing ricotta, bathed in butter.  I would have preferred a thinner, softer ravioli, so bear in mind that this pasta was a bit firmer than I am accustomed, but very good nonetheless.  The crabmeat – oh the crabmeat – was a nice firm knuckle of crab that had the purest, most definitive crab flavor ever.  Well sourced, perfectly cooked, and plainly served, as all seafood should be.

It was at this point that I switched from the white wine that I had been enjoying from the start of the evening to red, in anticipation of the courses to come.  Each place setting had a copy of the tasting menu, so we could see what was coming next.  It’s also very useful when you’re writing a recap of the evening later in the week.

Chicken Liver and Beech Mushroom Terrine, Duck Confit, Fresh Cranberry Sauce, and Smoked Brown Sugar

Shifting gears into more assertive flavors, the kitchen delivered this trio that introduces and demonstrates the proficiency of Talula’s Table with respect to terrines, pates, and game meats.  Almost a counterpoint to the smooth texture of many pates, this terrine was rough and earthy with a hearty and intense flavor that evoked country farmhouse-style dishes.  The cranberry sauce was intensely sweet, the flavor of the fruit condensed into a powerful core, and the duck confit – a small mound of shredded meat – at first seemed to be a stingily tiny portion until your palate realizes the depth and richness of everything in this course.  On the whole, the components of this course combined well to evoke the warm feelings of a holiday meal, with rich game meats and sweet accompaniments.

Spiced Black Grouper, Glazed Little Carrots, Saffron Infused Swallowhill Squash Broth

For the fourth course, the kitchen returned to seafood, but in an entirely different manner from the fluke that started the evening.  Where the fluke was a delicate, flaky fish, the black grouper was a nice firm chunk of marine goodness, annointed with a light broth, dried strips of nori, and served over some of the most perfect carrots I’ve tasted – lightly glazed, but not overly so, tender, but not overly so, allowing the fresh flavor of the vegetable to take center stage.

Now we come to what I personally believe to be the star course of the evening.

Tenderloin of Bison, Bison Sausage Choucroute, Spaetzle, and Horseradish Bechamel

The fifth course showcased bison in two different ways, offering contrasts in preparation and texture.  Bison is quite similar to beef in its taste, but less heavy, and with sweet undertones, and not at all gamy as some would suspect.  The tenderloin here presented bison in its pure glory, a medallion of fork-tender meat that was more delicate than filet mignon, yet sturdier and more flavorful than a piece of well-stewed short rib.  By comparison, the bison sausage was firm and assertive, offering a chance to experience the bison paired with other flavors and spices in another medium.  The spaetzle, by its nature a very bland accompaniment, was brought up a level by the addition of the tangy horseradish sauce – I was anticipating the typical horseradish kick and was pleasantly surprised to discover a much more subtle accent.  I could eat this every night and never get tired of it.  This is my desert island food.

Having leveled off and firmly cruising along with the more succulent game meats and rich sauces, the kitchen introduced the sixth course.

Creamy Quail Risotto, Our Culatello, and Peppercorn Syrah Sauce

This course again demonstrated the pairing of components that bring a spark to what is otherwise a typically bland accompaniment, risotto.  The quail here, a small bird about the size of a tennis ball, was shredded to allow each diner to combine the meat with the risotto, save for a small leg bone that we were encouraged to eat with our fingers.  Quail is a dark meat game bird, and as such, the flavor of the meat was reminiscent of duck, but with less fat.  Culatello is a distinct part of a prosciutto cut, seasoned, salted, and left to age for the better part of a year.  The result, presented here, is a sliver of uber-prosciutto, a salty counterpoint to the risotto whose aftertaste pairs elegantly with the quail.  If Talula’s Table carries the culatello as a regular marketplace item, it’s going on my next shopping list for sure.  The crunch of the sauteed brussels sprouts provided a good textural contrast to the creaminess of the rest of the plate.

The seventh course consisted of a grouping of aged cheeses, ranging from mild goat’s milk all the way to a runny, creamy, robust St. Marcellin that made me think of the phrase “meadow oyster”.  As has been the case with Aimee Olexy’s cheese selections, the cheeses started out mild on the left and became increasingly challenging as you progressed to the right.  There was something for everyone’s palate, but I would think that the St. Marcellin would count for bonus points.

The eighth and final course was, of course, chocolate. Glorious, melted chocolate.

Bittersweet Chocolate Soup, Brandied Cherries, Crunchy Almond Financier

There’s nothing quite like a bowl of melted chocolate to bring a meal to an end, and this was exactly what the eighth course represented.  The soup was warm and thin, and only slightly sweet, with additional sugar contributed by the cherries and a nice crunch provided by the almond financier strategically placed in the center of the bowl and topped with foam.

The evening ended with the presentation of chocolate truffles, and a basket of housemade scones to take home (a nifty way, also, of delivering the check).  We gathered our coats, and there were hugs and handshakes and promises to see each other soon, and in short order we were driving through the dark woods again, this time at a much less frenzied pace.

After all of this, I think I’ve finally figured out what makes dinner at Talula’s Table so compelling.  It’s not solely the food, as masterfully prepared as it is and as creative as the seasonal menu becomes with Bryan Sikora at the helm in the kitchen.  It’s not the fact that you have to make reservations one year in advance of the date that you actually want to eat there, although this one fact is probably a compelling enough reason for many faux foodie hipsters – you know, the ones that have ten varieties of sea salt in their pantry, but who never cook, and who would probably buy a clod of dirt if they were told that it was artisanal volcanic soil from a small half acre plot on the vanishing shores of an exotic land.  No, it’s definitely not that.

It’s more than any one factor.  After experiencing firsthand the Talula’s Table Farmhouse Table dinner with my wife and twelve other culinary companions, I’ve come to realize that the thing that truly makes dinner at Talula’s so magical is the rare synergy that emerges between the cuisine and the people, both in the kitchen and at the table, between each diner and each course, each server, the chef, and the hostess.  If it were just a dozen people sitting in the same room eating together, Talula’s Table would be a clone of every BYOB bistro in every metropolitan area in the country.  Instead, it’s much more than that.  Talula’s Table fosters that uncommon sense of togetherness that’s rapidly fading away in the pace and stress of daily modern living.  It’s four hours of putting life on pause, enjoying food and wine and company without distraction.

We were sitting across from three people whom I had never met, and who had never heard of us prior to a week ago, and by the end of the evening, without knowing much of anything about their lives, their views, or their backgrounds, we could sincerely count them among our friends that we would gladly welcome into our home at anytime.  Talula’s Table has that kind of energy, and it’s not something that’s easily copied.  Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy have continued their unique approach, started years ago at Django, of making every meal a personal experience, one where the dishes actually seem to taste better because the people behind it have a genuine desire to make you happy.

November 22, 2008   Comments