Thursday, December 31, 2009

Restaurants From A to Z... In Review

Eating out in Philadelphia once or twice a week has never been easier. With restaurants on just about every block, you can't help but to be a bit adventurous from time to time. The challenge, however, is to broaden your horizons and go beyond the "tried and true" favorites where you know your chances of getting a good meal are pretty high and going into an unknown atmosphere.

For me, those are often the best meals, the ones where you have that moment of surprise when you try something new or something better or something just done differently than you have ever seen it before. And essentially, that was part of the point of this year's challenge, to get out there and see what the Philadelphia restaurant scene has to offer. In addition, it challenged me to go off the beaten path and explore places I had never heard of or seen before and probably would never have otherwise discovered. While I don't believe I reviewed a meal outside of the city limits (despite putting a number of suburban outposts up for vote), at least half of the places we ended up going are not trendy or well known or even convenient to get to. But part of the fun was discovering new neighborhoods and walking into a strange space without any expectations. We dove deep into south Philly, headed out to the Northeast and Mount Airy, and circled back and forth to Queen's Village, Northern Liberties, and Rittenhouse Square a number of times.

So how did we do foodwise? A mixed bag. Actually, all in all, there were probably more misses than hits, and two of the best meals I had all year weren't even in the review rotation (Dinosaur BBQ in the Bronx and Bolete in Bethlehem). But there were several standouts that I remember well -- the cheesesteak at John's Roast Pork, the gnocchi at Cucina Forte, and even the most recent lava rock shrimp at Zocalo. These are the types of dishes that always encourage me to walk into new surroundings and give new places a try. There is nothing wrong with the old reliable, but there is something fun and exciting about trying something different.

A lot of restaurant reviewers will rate a restaurant with letter grades or stars or bells, but in my mind, the question is always, "Would I go back there again?" So with that in mind, here in my year in review:

So Long To

  • Azul Cantina -- Surprisingly, the only place on our list to shutter its doors was the first visit. Azul Cantina closed less than a month after we visited and has since reopened as VargaBar.
Have Been Back To

  • Hymie's -- Old World Jewish deli the way it was meant to me. Huge sandwiches, great matzo ball soup, and just enough yentas to make you laugh as they kvech at the wait staff.
  • John's Roast Pork -- If I had to pick a favorite from among the 26 places on the yearly jaunt, this would be it. It is the kind of place that makes Philadelphia great. The best cheesesteak I have ever had -- the sesame seed roll, the perfectly melted cheese, the perfectly seasoned steak. I makes me hungry just thinking about it. Part of me wishes John's had more accessible hours, but part of me also likes that you have to make an effort to get there for weekday lunch. I can't say enough good things about this tiny South Philly shack.
  • Oyster House -- I went back with an ex (ex co-worker, that is) and was pretty disappointed. The oysters are exceptional, but my meal was bad. I'd still go back but probably only for the Happy Hour bivalves.
Will Go Back To
  • Cucina Forte -- The gnocchi was divine, just melt in your mouth good.
  • Meme -- If nothing else, I need to try the Thursday lunch fried chicken.
  • Vetri -- It's just very pricey, but it's worth the splurge for a very special occasion.
Might Go Back To
  • Geechee Girl Rice Cafe -- The wife didn't like it, but I did.
  • Kanella -- If only because our waiter was the best one we had all year.
  • Noble American Kitchen -- Beautiful space, ghastly prices, good food.
  • Parc -- I suspect someone will drag me back one of these days, though I personally was not impressed.
  • Memphis Taproom -- Worst meal I had all year, but too many friends have raved about this place so I'd be willing to give it another shot.
  • Restaurant School at Walnut Hill School -- You get your money's worth, but I'd only go later in the semester when the student workers have a little more experience under their belt.
  • Sweet Lucy's -- Good food, just too far of a drive.
  • Uzu Sushi -- I liked everything about Uzu, but it's a crowded field for sushi in the city right now.
  • Wine Thief -- It's just a hike from Center City and not really exceptional enough to justify a trip out to Mount Airy. I liked Geechee Girl better.
  • Zocalo -- Very good Mexican, but very iffy location.
Never Go Back To

  • Branzino -- You can do far better near Rittenhouse.
  • Divan's Turkish Kitchen -- One of the nicest interiors I saw all year, but inferior food.
  • Erawan -- Not a good vibe.
  • Fuji Mountain -- See Uzu Sushi.
  • Imperial Inn -- Not a big fan of their cleanliness.
  • Le Virtu -- I liked this more than some others, but it's not special enough to stand out among more convenient Italian BYOs.
  • 10 Arts -- Biggest disappointment of the year.
  • Kong -- Blech.
  • Novito Bistro -- They just weren't very nice people.

So what comes next? I have some ideas, though I'll probably take a break for a few weeks. Writing thousands of words for public consumption over the last year has taken its toll -- it became more and more difficult to become motivated to write comprehensive reviews these last few months. Certainly, though, we'll do something a little bit different that will hopefully be enjoyable to write and to read. I guess we'll see.

"Z" is for Zocalo

It's an unsettling feeling when you walk into a restaurant, especially a large restaurant, and you see that you are the only customers. For me at least, alarm bells instantly go off. "Run, run! There must be a reason no one is here, namely, the food sucks!" More than a few times during our yearly journey, this has unexpectedly taken place. And across the board, my instincts were proven right time after time. It would be great to think that you would get special attention being the only patrons at a place, but often, you are a nuisance that they just want to get out of there.

All this said, a bit of gratitude to the couple who walked into Zocalo a few minutes after us, saving us from this horror. While it's probably ridiculously to say that our food would have been any better or worse if they hadn't arrived, I'll give them some credit nonetheless.

Zocalo is oddly situated right in between the Drexel and Penn campuses, but it's a bit pricey for the college audience. It's a huge place that can probably seat at least 200, but on the cold, windy night we went, it was barren. Strangely, we were seated as far away from the front of the restaurant as possible, though I do have to give props for the fact that our grumpy hostess/waitress sat me on top of a heat grate. The wife and I both needed to warm up after the short walk from the car.

Unlike some of our recent duds, Zocalo was true to its theme, with Mexican decor, Mexican music, and (gasp!) an actual menu full of Mexican food. Now, this wasn't typical dumbed-down Mexican -- although they did have enchilidas. For the most part, it was more creative combinations of ingredients presented with flair. There was a lot on the menu that looked interesting, and it's always nice when I can pick between 3 or 4 entrees confident that I'll enjoy any of them.

I knew we would start off with the guacamole -- the wife just can't resist -- but even this wasn't your typical chips and dips. The guacamole and salsa were presented together on one platter and were meant to be combined with each scoop. I generally prefer a chunkier guacamole, but this was very good.

The entrees were even better.

I got shrimp with a spicy tomato sauce and charred peppers. Doesn't sound all that exciting, but it was served in a scalding hot (and I do mean scalding hot) lava rock bowl. Not only did the bowl serve as a hand warmer, but it ensured that each taste was fiery, which I love. Nothing worse than lukewarm food. It was a bit of a challenge to eat everything because I had to be very careful not to touch the lava bowl and burn myself. I had to reach around the bowl to take a taste of the rice and refried beans, which were served on a different plate but also much worth the effort. At first glance, the shrimp seemed kind of scrawny, but they were actually the perfect amount of food when combined with the tomatoes, onions, and peppers. It was an excellent dish.

The wife's entree was similarly good. I have had a fair amount of strip steaks in the last few years, but this was one of the best ones I have ever had. Incredibly tender and flavorful without a whole lot of fat. Really, really good.

Overall, an excellent end to the year.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: What was so nice about Zocalo's menu was that there was a great amount of variety that catered to many different tastes, likes, and dislikes, but they didn't take shortcuts and just sticks tacos or burritos on the menu. That would have easy, but it would have made Zocalo just like so many other middling Mexican restaurants.

THE DRINK: I had a very tart Mexican margarita (although I was warned of this by our waitress when I ordered it). It wasn't awful, but it wasn't good. They had some interesting cocktails on the menu so I would definitely go in a different direction next time.

THE STAFF: Our waitress was grouchy. I was in a good mood and tried to lighten her up with some humor, but she would crack a chuckle or two and then go bad to being Mrs. Grumpy. Oh well.

MAD PROPS FOR: Our "friends" at the table across the room. We didn't share a word with them, but I appreciated the fact that someone else was there.

OVERALL: This was right up there with Xochitl for the best high-end Mexican I've had in the city (though just a shade below). Unfortunately , it's in a weird location that we can't walk to and isn't near anything else in West Philly so you really need to go pretty much for the food alone (though I guess the campuses aren't too far to walk on a nicer day)

THE CHECK: $80 for the two of us. Zocalo is probably a tad bit overpriced compared to other restaurants in its genre, but it's worth it.

And that's it! Twenty-six restaurants in 365 days! Phew!

I'll put together a "Year in Review" piece within the next day or two recapping everything we've been through, but it's nice to have completed this by the end of 2009 as planned. One more item to cross off of my to-do list.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

B"Y"OB is for Ava's -- Errrr, I Mean Novita Bistro

Inevitably, it was going to happen. Restaurants come and go, especially in this economy. When this blog started, the first restaurant on the list -- Azul Cantina -- went bye bye within a month. And now, near the tail end of our journey, we were stymied by Ava's Cafe, whose closing was announced in the Dec. 17 Philadelphia Inquirer. But no worries, loyal reader -- put down your egg nog because this only required a minor audible to visit the runner-up for our latest vote, Novita Bistro.

Novita Bistro reminded me of a Seinfeld episode. It's the episode where Jerry walks into the restaurant across the street from his apartment owned by Pakistani-born Babu. Jerry looks through the menu quizzically, wondering why there are franks and beans, along with other traditional American items, on the menu instead of Pakistani dishes. It just didn't make a lot of sense. While it wasn't quite to that extreme, there were several things about Novita Bistro that make you stop and say, "Babu? Is that you?" For anyone who has been reading along these last few months, this unfortunately is not a unique issue for supposedly "ethnic" Philadelphia restaurants.

On its website, Novita Bistro bills itself as a Lebanese outpost. There are some very good Middle Eastern restaurants that remain true to their roots -- Figs in our neighborhood is an outstanding example -- that have managed to figure out how to tweak traditional dishes to be more palatable to a wider audience while remaining true to their unique roots. But ravioli? Gnocchi? Scallops with mushroom sauce? No. Nein. Nyet. All three of these were options on the menu at Novita Bistro.

Unfortunately for the wife, she had not done her homework and ended up with some of the lesser items on the menu -- the sickly looking scallops and the gnocchi that certainly did not appear to be homemade. I stuck with something that was more along the traditional Lebanese lines -- lamb tagine with cous cous -- and was rewarded with an excellent dish. The lamb was cooked and seasoned perfectly, it was properly presented in a tagine cylinder (I don't know what it's actually called but it is specific to tagine), and the cous cous was decent and plentiful. Unfortunately, that was the lone highlight of the meal.

The ambiance was similarly confusing. Novita Bistro is located in an attractive space and smartly decorated with a open kitchen in the back. But a music mix one part Middle Eastern and the second part Sinatra? Just bizarre. I'll give them a little leeway since we were the only patrons in the restaurant, which as always was a little off putting, but it was still a strange choice.

Novita Bistro has a lot of potential to serve as a neighborhood hotspot (it's near Graduate Hospital) catering to an up-and-coming yuppie crowd. Supposedly, according to a customer who came in to pick up a takeout order, it usually is crowded and is doing well. The weather and the date of our visit (Christmas Eve Eve, a few days after the big snow) probably meant it was a slow night for a lot of restaurants, but I couldn't help wondering if Novita Bistro would be going the way of Ava's unless they get their act together and figure out that people don't go to a Middle Eastern restaurant for Italian food.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: "All of our desserts are homemade," our waiter told us as he listed the evening's options (tiramisu? creme brulee? Ugh). There was not a single ethnic item on the list -- would a baklava or something similar have killed them? -- so we got the lemon tart. I don't know what "home" it was made in, but there was nothing fresh or particularly interesting about it. Not a good capper to the meal.

THE DRINK: It's a BYOB. Nice wine glasses.

THE STAFF: As much as I hate being the only table in the restaurant, it is nice just to be able to shout out your order. Our waiter, though, wasn't very simpathetic when we expressed our displeasure with the food. More of a, "Sucks for you" attitude.

MAD PROPS FOR: The location of Novita Bistro is great. It's not an area well known for its restaurants, but there is a huge potential clientele. If I were to open a neighborhood-focused restaurant, this would be a prime location.

OVERALL: Another disappointing overall meal, although my entree was quite good. Nothing else, however, from the plain old white bread with olive oil, the wife's dishes, and the desserts, were above average.

THE CHECK: $65, with tip.

At long last, 25 meals later, we have reached the final entry for the year (and just in time too as the calendar reminds me).

Ineligible restaurants for round 26...
  • Zahav -- I know that a lot people love this Old City Israeli restaurant (I also know some people who don't). I'm pretty much stuck in the middle.
  • Zakes Cafe -- You could do worse for suburban Sunday brunch.
  • Zorba's -- I probably should go again since it's so close, but there just is something about Fairmount's Greek restaurant that turns me off.
Candidates for round 26 (a surprisingly robust number of "Z" restaurants to choose from, so we're back to our usual setup):

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"X" (sort of) is for Kong

Of all of Philadelphia's neighborhoods, Northern Liberties might be my favorite for food (Queen's Village is either a little ahead or below, depending on what has opened and closed). Not only does Northern Liberties have a diverse mixture of cuisines, with Italian, Spanish, Southern, and many others, but you also generally don't have to spend a ton of money to eat there. In other words, you get what you pay for.

And in that spirit, I guess Kong is OK. It is relatively reasonably priced, but it really doesn't give you a lot back for the buck. It's not quite traditional Hong Kong street food, and it's not quite "dumbed down" Asian food for an American audience, which leaves it kind of floating between in never-never land. I get the sense that the owners sat down with the chef (or maybe they are the same people -- I really don't know) and the conversation went like this.

"We should try to recreate the fried cow's brain in spicy chili sauce I had last summer in Hong Kong."
"How about instead, we make pan-seared beef tenderloin in a mild peanut sauce?"
"I guess we can compromise. We'll go with grilled hangar steak in a spicy peanut sauce."

As in the NFL, restaurants rarely work when they don't have a good game plan. You either win by focusing everything you have on one thing or you lose by dabbling in a little bit of everything. Kong just doesn't know what it wants to be, which is too bad because there is a lot of potential here. The space is very inviting and it is just far enough south that it gets a little bit away from the Northern Liberty bar scene. It could be very cool and very hip and really fill a niche that I think could be really popular. If Tiffin could do it for Indian food, why couldn't Kong for Hong Kongian (or whatever the right adjective would be) food?

I'm convinced that Asian cuisines are going to be huge in the next decade in the U.S., both due to the continuing international influence of the Far East and the growing availability of some of the more exotic ingredients common in Asian cooking. It's as if the owners of Kong understand this, but don't quite get how to execute it. I am told that one of the co-owners (who also own Bistro 7, which is such a different restaurant that it is amazing) is Asian and Kong is an ode to her heritage. I just wish it had been more authentic.

Our meal got off to a lousy start. I asked our waitress, who was wearing a hideous, hideous outfit that looked like someone threw up on it, to tell me about one of the beers on their drink list. She replied, "It's good. People seem to like it." Wow, talk about insight! Needless to say, I steered away from asking her too many other questions about the menu since it didn't seem like she would be much help.

It wasn't that the food was bad -- it was just kind of boring. Tricked-up fried rice with egg and crabmeat. Unevenly cooked spicy beef in a grilled pita with various condiments (the condiments were the best part of the meal). A fried banana rolled in sugar with a chocolate dipping sauce. I mean, nothing was that bad, but nothing was that good either. A month from now, I won't remember a thing about this meal. Which is never a good sign.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: My main entree was my biggest disappointment. I am a big fan of food that requires you to construct it to your personal taste. If the pita had been separated from the beef, the beef from the sauce, etc., it may have been much better. Unfortunately, it was kind of goopy the longer everything sat together. The first pita was pretty good, but the second was not great. It didn't help that the pita was cold. The dessert was a big failure. It was just a really lazy presentation and not very tasty. At least the banana wasn't rotten.

THE DRINK: My beer was fine and relatively cheap. Kong had some drinks that sounded interesting. The bar was packed while the restaurant was pretty empty. That should tell you something.

THE STAFF: Our waitress defined frumpy indifference.

MAD PROPS FOR: I know it's pretty juvenile, but I like when you go to Kong's website and it screams at you, "KONG!" "KONG!"

OVERALL: I can't see Kong lasting very long in a very competitive neighborhood. There are a lot of excellent restaurants in Northern Liberties -- Il Cantuccio, Honey's, Standard Tap, Bar Ferninand -- that are in Kong's price range but offer far better quality food. You need to be very good to succeed there and Kong just isn't there yet.

THE CHECK: $50 for the two of us. That was the saving grace (get, it "saving" grace. Ha, ha, I kill me).

Before moving ahead, I do have to mention a fantastic meal I had Saturday night at Bolete in Bethlehem, PA. Talk about a restaurant that knows exactly what it is and how to execute its concept. One of the best meals I have had in a long, long time. It is worthy of all of the published kudos it has received. I highly recommend it if you ever in the neighborhood. Shout out to Rone-Rone for arranging the visit.

On to the Ys...

Ineligible restaurants for round 25:
  • Yardley Inn -- Very country-clubbish haunt in the suburbs. Lots of dark wood paneling. High-end food.
  • Yum Yum Chinese Restaurant -- OK, I have never actually been here, but judging by the neighborhood it is in and exterior of the restaurant, my guess is that it is "Yuck yuck."

I really thought there would be enough "Y" restaurants to choose from, but the choices are pretty sparse. So we'll go with a different theme for this round, presenting four BYOBs to choose from:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"W" is for Wine Thief Bistro

As someone who has been proudly taking Lipitor since I hit the ripe old age of 30, my cardiologist probably wouldn't be very happy that I loves me some fried chicken. That's if I had a cardiologist (I don't... yet). And that's if I cared (which I wouldn't -- doctors don't have all the answers).

There is a little part of me -- we'll call him the Colonel -- who does a double take every time I walk past the Crown's Fried Chicken next to the entrance of the Reading Terminal. "Does that fried chicken smell good? We should get some," the Colonel will plead. Fortunately, he is overruled by the sensible part of me which sees the disgusting interior, can hear the grease dripping onto the floor, and see the pile of ooze-filled napkins on the table. "I think we'll pass, Colonel, but maybe next time."

Now, there are times when the Colonel gets his way -- not at Crown's mind you, but at reputable restaurants that feature crisp, tender fried chicken. So when my cousin Josh listed fried chicken first on his list of recommendations at the Wine Thief Bistro (he's close friends with the head chef), I stopped paying attention. I knew what I was going to get. The Colonel would be fed.

And it was... good, but in a different way. Kind of like most of the things we tried at the Wine Thief. There weren't a lot of subtleties to their food. Everything that was tricked up, be it with celery seed, ginger, or bacon, was very clearly tricked up. Some times that worked, some times it didn't. On the fried chicken for instance, the crispness on the skin wasn't crackling as much I usually like it to, but it was still very tasty and had a definite hint of celery seed (or at least something similar). I bit into the first piece, and said, "Huh, this is different, but I think I like it"). Fortunately, that feeling held up throughout the meal and the Colonel left very happy.

Unfortunately, that same feeling didn't carry through to everything. The most notable example was the wife's jicama salad, which had a very, very strong ginger-like flavor. On the first bite, we both said, "Huh, this is different, but I'm not sure if I like it." By the third and fourth bites, we realized we didn't and shoved it aside. It would have worked as a very small garnish, but as a full side dish? Not so much. Same goes for the mound of collard greens that came along with my fried chicken. One bite, and then two, and then three, were good. But it was way too much of a middling vegetable that is often an acquired taste.

Now, for those few misses, there was a good deal to like about the Wine Bistro. It's on a very quirky strip in Mount Airy -- a row of restaurants just appears on Germantown Pike out of nowhere. I wasn't crazy about the interior, but I did like the cutesy quotations that were written on many of the walls. It was a unique touch.

The menu isn't fancy, which is fine. They have a lot of what I would call comfort food -- fried chicken, meatloaf, hangar steak -- with an upscale twist. We shared a tuna tartare tempura appetizer that was good, but definitely unusual. I thought the tuna would have more of a sushi-like raw texture to it, but it seemed like it was almost lightly seared. You know what I got for my entree. The collard greens on the side were too much, but the cornbread stuffing was solid. The wife wasn't nearly as pleased with her hangar steak. She doesn't like fatty cuts of meat that she has to work around, and anytime I get the "Is this cooked through enough for medium?" look, I really should tell her to send it back because it means that she doesn't think so. My bad.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: I knew that this meal would live and die, for me, with the fried chicken. And as I said, it was good, but not so much better than some local favorites (Jones, Bridget's) that I'd be willing to drive 30 minutes to Mount Airy for it. But yes, were I in the neighborhood, I would get it again.

THE DRINK: Wine Thief has a sensibly priced list mostly by the glass. I ordered a pretty bad California chardonnay. The wife encouraged me to send it back, but it wasn't as if our waitress recommended it. I just dove in blindly and suffered the consequences.

THE STAFF: Very young, but very friendly. I assume these were mostly neighborhood folks at the tables.

MAD PROPS FOR: The neighborhood feel. Mount Airy certainly is a very livable area, and the Wine Thief is the kind of place I could see going to frequently if I lived nearby. It does have a very comfortable vibe to it. Kind of like it's menu.

OVERALL: A solid meal, and I'm glad the Colonel got his fix in. I try not to indulge too often, especially when the results may be unpredictable, but Wine Thief worked out just fine.

THE CHECK: $70, with tip. We skipped dessert.

On to the Xs...

Ineligible restaurant for round 24:
  • Xochitl -- Philadelphia's best Mexican restaurant. Margaritas and guacamole at Happy Hour are always a solid choice.
Obviously, as we near the end of the alphabet, there are not going to be a lot of letter-specific choices so I'll present options in a few different categories. For this round, we'll look at restaurants that have opened in the last year since we passed specific letters of the alphabet. Candidates for round 24:

  • Bibou -- Once a staple of high-end food in Philly (think Le Bec Fin), fancy French food has nearly disappeared in the city. Bibou is bringing it back.
  • Fish -- The owners of my favorite restaurant in the city -- Little Fish -- opened an outpost off of Rittenhouse that I have been waiting to try.
  • Kong -- Northern Liberties' latest new restaurant goes Korean.
  • Percy Street Barbecue -- From the owners of Zahav, another attempt to bring barbecue into the city. Brand spanking new.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"V" is for Vetri

I won't lie -- this is the meal I had been waiting for since the start of our yearly culinary journey. For various reasons, plans we had to go to Vetri -- once in 2007 and again in 2008 -- had ended in cancelled reservations. Again this year, after I got the date of our reservation confused, doom was looming. Fortunately, thanks to a flurry of cancellations, first from ex-coworkers I supposed to get together with and then from an unlucky party who found they too couldn't make it to Vetri when they initially thought they would, the restaurant was able to squeeze us (as I always assure the wife, it all works out in the end) at 6:45 p.m.

As the witching hour neared, I was very excited. Almost as excited as I get on Sunday afternoons in the fall at approximately 1 p.m. Almost as excited as I get when I hear that Bryan Adams is coming around in concert. Almost as excited as I get when I hear the words, "open bar." You get the idea. I had eaten very little all day to prepare my appetite. I had looked up the address (Vetri is surprisingly restrained from the outside with only a small sign outside what looks like a regular brownstone). I had my wardrobe all picked out. I was expecting big, big things from a culinary heavyweight in our city. I was ready.

Three hours later, I was stuffed. That's what 8 courses (or so) of food with 7 changes of silverware, 4 glasses of robust red wine, and a pair of pants about 1 size too tight do to me.

Many, many weeks before the wife and I stepped foot in Vetri, I knew we were going to get the Grand Tasting menu. It was one of those, "if you are going to go big, go all in" theories. And I will admit, I felt a surge of power when our waiter came over and asked, "Do you need me to explain anything on the menu?" and I responded, "Not tonight, chief. We're putting ourselves at your chef's mercy."

I was envisioning seared fois gras, wacky foam emulsions, caviar, truffles, sea cucumber, cockles, you name it. The weirder the better. And from that standpoint, I'd have to say I was a bit disappointed. There was nothing too terribly exotic that was placed in front of us, nothing that I hadn't seen or tried before it some form or another. Obviously, the combinations and presentation of dishes was unique, but I was hoping for lots of new culinary experiences and didn't get them. A minor complaint, for sure, but worth noting.

Ordering a tasting menu is an interesting concept. You truly have little power over what is placed in front of you. The wife gave our waiter a short list of her personal "don'ts" -- lamb, raw quails egg, anchovies -- but we otherwise were completely blind as to what would be served. It's actually pretty exciting as you sit there and wait to see what you will be served next.

Interestingly, for most of the courses, each party gets a different dish. I'd say of the 12 of so items put in front of us, 6 were individualized, which meant more to taste, which was great.

I don't pretend to remember everything we ate (alas, my photographic memory has failed me yet again), but here were some of the highlights:

  • Lardo draped beignet (sort of a sugar donut with a thin shaving of fat on top of it). Sounds weird but you don't really taste the lardo.
  • Cauliflower flan with a raw quail's egg. Delicious.
  • Sweet onion tart. Very rich and powerful.
  • Baby scallops with minced carrots and pineapple. Incredibly delicate and sweet.
  • Spinach gnocchi in brown butter sauce. The sauce was a bit too rich, especially since it came in my next dish as well, but the gnocchi was incredibly silky and delicious.
  • Rabbit tortellini. Cool presentation.
  • Roasted skate with wild mushrooms. The mushrooms were particularly exceptional.

There were a few misses as well -- I could have done without the almond tortellini and the local veal served on a hot stone over a bed of rosemary was very dull. Our waitress kindly gave us an extra "entree" to try after seeing how unenthused we were about the veal, which was definitely appreciated.

Overall, though, it was hard to complain. A great meal in a great restaurant with great company. Are there things I would have changed about the evening? Sure (but that's how I am). Our table was so close to our neighbors that it was hard to have a private conversation. Some of the portions were a little too heavy (specifically, the wife got a massive portion of fettucine with wild boar ragu that was way, way too much for this sort of menu). The whole change of silverware for each course was a little much. Overall, though, while Vetri perhaps didn't quite meet the "best meal of my life" standards, it definitely didn't stray too far off the mark.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: When you know you are going to have a huge meal, you have to mentally and physically prepare for it. Yes, the portions are usually going to be on the smallish size, but it wasn't as if these were single bite plates. The wife and I managed to finish everything, but I'm definitely glad they didn't have a scale we needed to step on on the way out.

THE DRINK: A lavish, expensive wine list. I expected no less.

THE STAFF: No complaints. The wife asked the sommelier lots of questions about the wine list, which he patiently answered. And our waitress did hook us up with an extra dish.

MAD PROPS FOR: The self-important douche sitting next to us trying to impress his bimbo date. As I said, the tables were very close together. I enjoy listening to idiots trying to talk to one another.

OVERALL: You know, this is a tough one. It was a great meal with lots of memorable dishes, but a small part can't help but be a little bit disappointed that we didn't get lots of lots of "Oh my God, this is amazing" dishes. The scallops, the spinach gnocchi, and the cauliflower flan were all stellar, and lots of other stuff was very yummy, but it wasn't as if we got anything really unexpectedly interesting. I guess I'm just too tough to please.

THE CHECK: If you need to ask, you can't afford it. Seriously, though, this is a once a year (2 years, 5 years) kind of thing.

On to the Ws...

With a little more than a month left in 2009, we'll have to pick up the pace a little bit down the stretch, but four restaurants in a little more than a month should not be too much of a challenge. It'll just take some good plannin and lots of writing. We'll git er done.

Ineligible restaurants for round 23...

  • Warmdaddy's -- Back when I was in college, this was a cool jazz joint over near Old City. Now that it moved into a strip mall on Columbus Boulevard, it's not even close to being the same.
  • White Dog Cafe -- I admire the dedication that the old owner, Judy Wicks, had to the city, but I was far from wowed the one time I went.
  • William Penn Inn -- My first meal after becoming a man. Get your mind out of the gutter. It's where I had my Bar Mitzvah celebration. Sicko.
  • Winnie's Le Bus -- A solid alternative to Honey's for Sunday brunch. Consistently good food, relatively short wait, and kid friendly.
  • World's Cafe Live -- The best venue in the city to see a concert. The food is passable.

Candidates for round 23:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

U is for Uzu Sushi

In a city of culinary behemoths (Stephen Starr, Jose Garces, etc.), it's sometimes nice to step back and recognize that the little guy still has a place in Philadelphia, tenuous as it may sometimes seem to be. These are people whose livelihood depends on their day to day flow of customers, the ones who stare at the door for hours and hours, hoping and praying for another customer to walk in the door. They try everything they can -- lowering prices, tweaking the menus, greeting customers with a free morsel of food or two -- just so they can stay alive for another week.

On average, I would guess that one restaurant in Philadelphia closes every day. Some close for good reasons -- the food is bad, the place is dirty, the menu is poorly thought out, the location sucks. Others just find that, though they do everything right, they simply can't compete with the big boys and it becomes financially unwise to stay open.

Which brings me to Uzu Sushi on the fridge of Old City, a very small sushi place that has been around for a few year but changed hands what looks like (in online reviews, at least) about a year ago. The new owner is the kind of guy you just have to root for -- he speaks in halting English and obviously only understands some of what you are asking him, but he is constantly checking in on you (which can be a little eerie, to be honest), and laughing when he thinks you are making a joke.

Uzu is perhaps the smallest restaurant I have ever been in, with a capacity of about 15 people. Maybe. We went on a Monday night, figuring that the crowd would probably be sparse. We were right. There was one person at the bar, but I got the sense that he either worked there or was related to the owner. Maybe it was because no one ever checked on him the whole time. So basically, we were the only customers there the whole time. Frankly, since it was such a random night, I was not surprised.

Uzu is sort of a romantic spot -- dimly lit, with "Enya lite" music in the background. But since you have to sit so close to the other tables, were there other customers, it would have been hard to have much privacy. I guess we lucked out there.

For such a small sushi joint, Uzu has a surprisingly large menu that compares to most other high-end places in town. As with lots of other sushi places, they give you a printout of all of the possible pieces of fish and roll combinations you can choose from, and you just mark off what you want and hand it back. If nothing else, it prevents confusion. You can also order combination platters, essentially choosing a number of pieces of basic sushi and/or sashimi with some more common rolls (ie, salmon/yellowtail). I certainly was impressed with the selection, although a bit wary. Since they obviously don't have a lot of turnover of customers and therefore product, I wondered how fresh their fish would be. Thankfully, it was an unfounded concern.

On to the full review...

THE FOOD: Admittedly, the pieces of sushi were not as large as I've gotten as other places. And being the only customers, you would think that, especially with two people preparing the sushi behind the counter, we would have been served quickly, but it did take them a while to get everything together for us. Still, I had few complaints about the taste and quality. We ordered quite a bit of sushi and sashimi and, with the exception of the octopus which was a bit chewier than usual, everything was excellent. My latest sushi quirk, sea urchin, which tastes sort of like fish custard (I know it sounds disgusting) was very, very creamy and very, very good.

THE DRINK: Uzu is a BYOB, which of course is great. We did have to pour our own wine (at least he opened it for us), but it wasn't a huge deal.

THE STAFF: As I said, the owner is just one of those people you have to root for. He isn't the greatest at service -- I often had to point out to him that I needed more water, and he kept waiting and waiting to give us the check when we were finished (I finally had to ask him). But he was very kind to us in general and had a good nature to him.

MAD PROPS FOR: When we finished our initial mound of sushi, which was preceded by a bowl of OK edamame, the owner made up a few special rolls for us. He had a hard time describing them to us beyond indicating that they were a lot of different types of fish thrown together. Still, we weren't about to complain. In my book, free food is good food.

OVERALL: Have I had better sushi before? Sure. Has there been better ambiance? Of course. Is this going to be a meal I remember for ages and ages? Probably not. But there is something very comforting knowing that a place like Uzu Sushi can survive in Philadelphia. With all the hubbub you hear about the latest splashy new space in the city, the little guy can easily get squeezed out. So when one of my co-workers asked me the day after our meal where she should take her dad for good sushi that night, I directed her to Uzu. I told her to tell the owner the goofy looking tall guy from last night had sent her. She said he laughed when he heard that. My little contribution to his life. My parents would be proud (OK, not really, but it sounds good).

THE CHECK: We dropped about $90 with tip. Considering how much food we ate, I was OK with that.

On to the Vs....

Ineligible restaurants for round 21:
  • Vietnam Restaurant -- I remember going on a very unmemorable date here years ago.
  • Vintage -- I really wish Vintage was better than it is. It has so much potential, but it just never quite nails it.
Candidates for round 21:

The wife and I have been waiting a long time to go to Vetri. Two cancelled trips (one in 2007 and another in 2008) make it the eligible restaurant I've been waiting to try since we started this journey back in November. No voting this round because I am making an executive decision. Plus, we made reservations 6 weeks ago.