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

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

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

Yes, Please: ScrappleFest 2009

I love scrapple, and I always have.  So, when I found out that there was going to be a ScrappleFest down at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia last weekend, attendance became an absolute imperative.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with scrapple, Wikipedia defines it as “a savory mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour”, which is pretty much a spot-on description.  Cut into slices and fried until crisp (but with the inside still soft), scrapple tastes, to me, a bit like breakfast sausage.  To my wife, who hates scrapple, it tastes like barn.  There is no middle ground when it comes to scrapple – either you absolutely love it or you can’t stand it.

A little more background exposition, for those readers who aren’t familiar with Philadelphia – the Reading Terminal Market is a large hall filled with a dizzying array of food vendors, produce stalls, fishmongers, and butchers.  Chances are, if you’re craving a particular food, you’ll find it there.  At the height of the weekend during tourist season, there’s barely enough room to move through the crowds that pack the aisles, either gawking at menus or waiting in overflowing lines to place an order.  Seating, as can be expected, is always an issue, and finding an open table feels like finding a parking spot at the mall during the holiday shopping season.

ScrappleFest took place in the middle of it all, in a central court that, I believe, is usually taken up by that all-important seating that I mentioned.  Thankfully, since we’re still in the off-season, the Reading Terminal Market was well-populated, but not too crowded, so the reduction in tables and chairs was hardly noticeable.  Imagine a large rectangle of scrapple vendors, and a line of scrapple enthusiasts performing a slow, rotating tour of all of them, and you’ve gotten the gist of Scrapplefest.  There was a recipe contest, as well, pitting various creative interpretations of scrapple against one another, but in all of the time that we spent there, I never saw where the contest was being held.  It’s a shame, since I would have wanted to see that, but the charm of ScrappleFest lies in the fact that it’s not well publicized, not slickly marketed, and it doesn’t have a dedicated website.  You kind of just show up and eat scrapple.

All of the major pork product producers were at ScrappleFest, such as Dietz & Watson and Leidy’s, as well as smaller companies and family-owned operations.  At each station, there would be one or two staffers dutifully frying up the signature slabs on portable electric griddles, or frying pans set over hotplates, and a tray of samples from which to pick from as you walked by.  There was even an offering of vegan scrapple, which I can at least now say that I have tried.  I must admit that the turkey scrapple was better than I would have expected.

Oh, and no writeup of ScrappleFest is complete without a mention of the scrapple sculptures.  There was a Phillies cake made out of scrapple – while the shout-out to the local World Series champions was certainly appreciated, in all other respects the cake was merely a large rectangle of porkiness.  But, the true awesomeness of scrapple artistry came from Leidy’s, whose table featured a small Leidy’s delivery truck, manifest as scrapple, with little cherries for lights, slowing bleeding crimson rivulets down the porky contours of the sculpture.

You can check out other writeups of ScrappleFest here and here.  Amazing that there aren’t more, really.

March 26, 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