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

Maia Market and Restaurant in Villanova

Yay – Excellent food, superb bottled beer selection, and friendly servers and staff.

Meh – Layout, at least at dinner, is somewhat confusing, ‘market’ area needs more variety of items.  Some food items are priced appropriately, while others court the realm of ‘ridiculous Main Line markup’.

Summary - Definitely recommended for the food and beer, although it would be wise to keep an eye on the prices, as the bill tends to go high quickly if you aren’t careful.

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We recently had an opportunity to stop by the Maia Market and Restaurant in Villanova for dinner.  Having previously experienced the talents of chefs Terence Feury (Striped Bass in Philadelphia) and his brother Patrick (Nectar in Berwyn), we were looking forward to seeing what the two would do together on this Main Line collaboration.

Maia occupies two floors, with the first floor dedicated to a grab-and-go gourmet market and bar area and the second floor reserved for tablecloth-and-good silverware fine dining.

When we first walked in, the sense of the space was overwhelming.  We were greeted by the hostess and told her that it was our first time visiting, and we wanted to walk around and check the place out.  We wandered through the first floor, stopping to check out the coffee and pastry bar, and slipped through the bar area to the ‘market’ portion of the restaurant.

The Maia Market consists of display cases containing a number of varieties of charcuterie, pates, and cheeses.  You can see the potential there, but it needs a bit more diversity before it can reach the status of ‘market’.

The overall feel of the market area of Maia evokes a showroom type of atmosphere, with a handful of the very finest ingredients, displayed in quiet reverence behind glass, with a Maia employee behind the counter who is very eager to speak about the goods in the finest detail.  Three loaves of bread, baked on-site, displayed on a shelf, are dusted with flour to exhibit a monogrammed ‘M’.  I can see how one could call this a ‘market’, but it’s a market dedicated to Main Line folks who don’t cook.  Ever.  The kind who spend $50K outfitting a kitchen with the best of everything, but who will never turn a single burner on.

When I think of an upscale market, I tend to think about DiBruno Brothers House of Cheese, or Tallulah’s Table out in Kennett Square.  I like diversity.  I like variety.  I want to be able to pick from dozens of cheeses and other specialty items.  Granted, Maia has a worthy selection of pates (most impressively, a truffle and sweetbread one) and a moderate selection of meats, but as far as cheese goes, they’ve got a cheddar, something from the gruyere category, and a couple of bleu varieties.  Again, it’s a food market for people who don’t cook.  It’s all top quality, but it’s just not that many items.

If there is one shining superiority about Maia Market, though, it is the selection of bottled beers in the cold case.  It is stunningly vast, consisting of local selections such as Victory, somewhat local breweries like Ommegang out of New York, and extending to wonderful imports from around the globe.

Time to talk about the restaurant portion of Maia.  After looking at the menus for upstairs and downstairs, we decided to grab something to eat from the first floor and just sit at a table to enjoy our dinner.  We stood at the spot under the sign that said ‘Order Here’ and watched as servers and other employees rushed past us in all directions.  After a few moments, we thought that we were doing something wrong (ASKING FR FUD – UR DOING IT WRONG) and stopped one of the employees to ask if someone could take our order.  He looked at us in a puzzled sort of manner, and then spoke to someone else, and then said that someone from behind the counter would take care of us.  We waited a bit more without much success before I resorted to going up to the nice girl at the hostess station.

As it turns out, we were doing it wrong.  The ‘Order Here’ sign, and the menu posted next to it, was only for lunch.  If we wanted to eat dinner, we’d have to be seated with menus.  Some of the lunch menu items, such as the burger, are unavailable for dinner.  Others, like the hot pastrami, are available, but at a higher price.  Food-wise, my only complaint about Maia Restaurant is that while most of the dishes are priced appropriately, like $8 for the pate starter and $19 for the steak frites entree, other dishes seem far overpriced for what they are, Main Line notwithstanding.  The pastrami sandwich, officially labeled the ‘House Smoked Snake River Farms Kobe Beef Hot Pastrami Sandwich’, is $14.  A neighboring table ordered it, and I snuck a peek – it looked like a decent hot pastrami, but even with Kobe beef, asking $14 for it is kind of a stretch, especially for an item that doesn’t necessarily reflect an outstanding level of artistic skill on the part of the kitchen.  And I speak from the point of view of someone who’s smoked a lot of barbecue.

We ordered the Maia House Country Pate as a starter, and the Choucroute and Roasted Hangar Steak Frites as entrees.  Enough of my bitching about the confusing layout and inventory of the market -  the food in the restaurant, from our experience, absolutely shines.

The Country Pate ($8) was a nice thick slice of pate served with a frisee salad and mustard.  It tasted as a good pate should, very rich with a good mix of flavors that paired very well with the sharp tang of the mustard.  And, as could be expected, all of this paired nicely with a glass of Ommegang Hennepin.

My Choucroute ($15), consisting of knockwurst, bratwurst, and frankfurter, was not at all what I expected, but in a good way.  Instead of a large platter of sausages, I was presented with a smaller plate, with a small crock of wursts nestled in what I would describe as the very best sauerkraut I have ever tasted.  Next to the crock was a smaller container of whole grain mustard, and next to that were a few poppy seed rolls, split.  I believe the intent was to eat the wursts hot dog style on the rolls, but I went the route of slathering mustard on each bite of wurst and kraut, using the rolls as a palate cleanser.

My wife’s Steak Frites ($19) was a perfect example of what steak frites should be.  The steak was presented, sliced and fanned, with a dash of butter and fries.  Steak frites should not be the most tender thing you’ve eaten – it should have a little bit of chew to it and a lot of flavor, and this describes what we had exactly.

Our server was good, and seemed to enjoy his work, which makes all of the difference between great service and acceptable service.  Plates were cleared promptly, glasses were refilled without asking, and an offer for a second plate of bread was gladly accepted after we had finished the first.  Overall, each of the employees that we met were really good at making eye contact, and seemed content in their tasks.  Good training makes a big difference.

We decided against seeing the dessert menu, because I wanted to grab coffee and croissants from the pastry area.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the pastry selection was a little lacking, and there were no croissants to be found.  We ended up not getting anything else, and instead stopped at Rita’s for custard on the way home.

We picked up a menu for the upstairs dining room, and from what I can see, it looks like the Feury brothers are taking all of their experience with seafood and going all out, which should translate to off-the-charts awesome.  Of the ten entrees on offer that evening, only two weren’t seafood.  The prices are in-line with upscale Main Line dining, and it definitely looks like something that would be on our radar in the future.

June 18, 2008   Comments

Shanghai Soup Dumplings at Dim Sum Garden

The first time we ever had Shanghai soup dumplings was in a little dive of a restaurant in Chinatown, NYC.  It was one of those places that has the names of the dishes written, in Chinese, in black marker on sheets of white copy paper taped to the walls.  For those among us who don’t speak or read the language, a much less interesting selection of items was provided by way of the formal printed menu.

Anyway, this place had an article about soup dumplings taped in its window, and they sounded interesting enough to take the $3 gamble.  Basically, Shanghai soup dumplings are steamed orders of dim sum that contain a volcanic-hot filling of pork, sometimes crab, and broth.  Once you learn the art of eating them without burning your lips off, they are absolutely amazing.

So, for the time that we lived in New Jersey, we would find ourselves in Chinatown every so often, and we’d always stop by the restaurant and overorder on soup dumplings.  After moving to Pennsylvania, our trips into NYC became less frequent, as did our intake of dim sum.

We’ve since found some excellent soup dumplings at Margaret Kuo’s in Wayne, but given how it’s kind of a high-end place, it’s not the kind of place you just happen to drop in whenever you have a hankering for dim sum.

Imagine our delight, then, to find that Dim Sum Garden, down by the Convention Center in Philadelphia, had Shanghai soup dumplings.

It is a rule of thumb that the worse a Chinese restaurant looks, generally the better the stuff that comes out of the kitchen.  Dim Sum Garden does not disappoint in this regard.  It is located in the tunnel that runs underneath the Convention Center on 11th Street, right next to the bus depot where all of the cheap NYC to PHL Chinatown buses collect and drop off passengers.  You need to walk through a cloud of exhaust fumes to get to the restaurant’s front door, and when you walk in, it looks like your average Chinese takeout joint, with a few tables and some counter space, all under bright white florescent lights.

We sat down and were pleased to find that there was table service, as a waitress said she’d be right with us.  Each of the tables has three small mugs – one for “dumpling sauce”, one for “ginger sauce” and one for “chile sauce”.

We ordered one order of pork soup dumplings and one of the pork and crab, along with a few other items for sampling – pork and chive dumplings, some siu mai, and an order of fried rice.  The food took a while to come out to us, which is a good sign – means they’re making everything to order, and nothing waits around.

The chive dumplings, siu mai, and fried rice debuted first.  The dumplings came across as fairly standard, and maybe I am confusing them with potstickers, but I expected them to be a little crisper – still, the chives were good and fresh, and we were starving, so it all went down easily.

The siu mai were not the typical pork-kind.  Instead, they were large pieces, stuffed with a mixture of meat and sticky rice.  All in all, they were delicious and made even better with the addition of either the dumpling sauce (thicker and sweet) or the ginger sauce (thinner).  Neither of us touched the chile sauce, as it was basically a vat of red pepper flakes floating in oil.  The fried rice was kind of bland, which was easily resolved with more sauce, but I wouldn’t order it again.

Finally, the soup dumplings arrived, and met our expectations completely.  The waitress asked us if we had eaten them before, obviously prepared to deliver a warning about popping one whole into your mouth and burning your esophagus.  We said that we were soup dumpling veterans, which seemed to make her happy.

Here’s the technique for eating a soup dumpling – using chopsticks, tongs, or your fingers, lift a dumpling and place it into the well of a Chinese soup spoon.  It’s going to be mad hot, so if you have tongs, all the better.  Now, carefully nibble a hole into the top doughy twist of the dumpling dough, so that you can let the steam escape.  If you want, you can dribble some soy or other sauce into the hole.  Blow on it and resist the urge to eat the dumpling until it cools off a little, because otherwise you’ll burn your tongue and not be able to taste anything for the rest of the meal (yes, been there, done that).  When it’s sufficiently cooled off, pop the thing into your mouth.

The soup dumplings were really great, especially after quite a long period of soup dumpling drought on our part.  While the dough could have been a little thinner, the fillings were especially top notch, especially the crab, which was far more delicate than I would have expected from a hole-in-the-wall bus station dive.

So, if you find yourself downtown for a convention and craving Chinese food, while everyone else goes into Chinatown proper, you can scurry the other way into the tunnel and treat yourself to Shanghai soup dumplings.  Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but to my knowledge I know of no other restaurant in PHL Chinatown that serves soup dumplings.

June 5, 2008   Comments