Wednesday, December 21, 2011

McCrossen's in Fairmount to Serve a French Grower Champagne & Black Truffle Dinner on Thursday, December 29th

Posted to www.Uwishunu.com on December 21,2011


Since arriving at McCrossen’s in July 2010, Chef Townsend Wentz has slowly seduced his clientele with French-inspired dishes, weaving in elements and techniques from his culinary past at the Fountain and Lacroix at Rittenhouse. He will continue the seduction next Thursday, December 29th with a four-course black truffle dinner that showcases the highly prized delicacy. Each serving will be paired with premier French Grower Champagnes carefully selected by GM and Sommelier Lauren Harris, whose passion for the bubbly is both contagious and intoxicating. 

So, what exactly is a truffle? It is a relative of the mushroom that is typically found around the roots of hardwood trees in late autumn and winter. The truffle’s positively pungent perfume permeates a room while its intense, earthy flavor is synonymous with umami, that elusive and savory fifth taste sense. The black variety, or the Périgord truffle, will arrive from southwest France and be presented in four unique dishes. 

Course 1: Roasted Sea Scallops with roe, Bordier seaweed butter, truffles
Scallops roasted in the shell, topped with roe and served in a sauce made with Bordier seaweed butter (handcrafted in Normandy), resplendent with citrus undertones and julienned truffles.

Course 2: Coeur de Cochon Pithiviers, with creamed salsify, Perigueux truffles
Rich handmade pork sausage topped with creamed salsify and a layer of thinly sliced truffles, wrapped in a puff pastry shell reminiscent of Pithiviers, the French town known for its tarts.

Course 3: Sauteed foie gras with pickled prunes, sauce foyot, truffles
Luxurious pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with prunes pickled in red wine vinegar and port, topped with shaved truffles and served on a pillowy hollandaise folded with the pickling liquid.

Course 4: Demi-Deuil Wild Scottish Pheasant, with potato fondant and truffles
Roasted pheasant prepared in the demi-deuil (half-mourning) style, a classic Lyonnais preparation where sliced truffles are stuffed under the skin, blackening the bird and appearing as a dark, lacy veil worn by French women to funerals. Served with Yukon gold potatoes slowly fried in butter and duck fat until crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Dessert: Newly hired French pastry chef Marc Lecomte will produce an array of petits fours to end the rich meal.

For Wentz, the truffle has always been a lavish luxury, yet its value is verified with every experience. “It is a worthwhile extravagance that everyone deserves at least once a year, or in their lifetime. We are presenting this special meal to celebrate the holidays and a successful year. We wanted to give our guests a high-quality dinner at a reasonable price to thank them for their patronage. I want this to be an unforgettable taste memory for them.” 

The evening promises to be a decadent holiday indulgence. Make your reservations now by phone at 215-854-0923.

French Black Truffle Dinner with Champagne pairings at McCrossen’s
When: Thursday, December 29, 6:30PM
Where: 529 N. 20th St.
Cost: $100, plus tax & gratuity

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

McCrossen's Tavern: A Welcoming Beacon Signaling Dynamic Change

McCrossen’s Tavern, a homey hangout located near the corner of 20th & Spring Garden in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, resembled a Spanish taverna on a warm July evening this Summer, the interior brick arches behind the bar, cozy dining room and opened windows to the street transporting one to Sevilla, if only for the moment. It was a reflection of the ongoing transformation occurring at the property that has been around since the 1850s, a history that has seen the structure change from a bakery to an ironworker shot-and-beer haunt to a renovated tavern. Three Riojas (one white) and two special Rosés were being offered by the glass this night, along with regional tapas specialties like marinated boquerones (anchovies), tortilla espagnole cooked in individual cast-iron pans, calamari in squid ink, and blistered padron peppers with sea salt that created lingering taste memories. What was once a joint for area residents coined the “Dustbowl” (due to its patrons’ penchant for bringing in the dirt from their trade) is now a destination wine-and-dine establishment that is looking beyond its borders (both geographically and culinarily) in an attempt to change its image. 



I caught a glimpse of the cooking skills of Chef Townsend Wentz in June at the annual Taste of the Nation fundraiser held at the Loews Hotel, where he wowed me and guests with a whole roasted pig that stole my award for the event’s top dish. This wasn't just a jolt of genius that happened to be cooked up overnight. Wentz has a solid kitchen pedigree that connects him to the haute-dining spots Fountain at the Four Seasons and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel. Don't let his down-to-earth charm, casual approach and “guy's guy” personality belie his talents. He delivers a sophisticated bent in his dishes that only a year ago would have incited raised eyebrows and reactionary guffaws from those expecting fried pub-grub from the bar stool. This isn't to say a burger or the famous wings have disappeared from the menu. They have just been elevated up the gourmet scale. The 8 oz. grilled dry-aged patty from Creekstone Farms, which is a custom blend from NYC meat purveyor Pat LaFreida whose name is synonymous with ‘tradition,’ ‘quality’ and ‘flavor,’ is a relished rendition served on a toasted ciabatta roll with fries dusted with piment d'espelette, a Basque pepper. It may not have the overt fatty juiciness and grandiosity of a Village Whiskey offering, but it’s a tender and tasty sandwich offered with multiple ‘add-ons’ like a fried egg and caramelized onions. It’s simply the perfect accompaniment to a craft beer, nothing more, or less. Wentz isn’t looking to re-invent an American staple or turn the establishment into a glorified gastropub, a term too often utilized in today’s label-incensed jargon of the fooderati.




An avid sailor, Wentz understands that he cannot captain the ship alone, fully aware of the required team approach to stay on course and avoid sinking. He has brought in Lauren Harris as GM, beverage director and sommelier, a wearer of many hats who is as approachable as Wentz. She weaves in and around the bar and restaurant with ease and a smile, willing to converse about the wine program to defuse any diner’s fears or intimidation. They met while both toiled at the now-defunct Twenty21, where Wentz was the Executive Chef. Harris then spent some time in the Australian wine trade, and her enthusiasm for the grape is infectious without any airs of snootiness. She is literally changing the face of the place by making wine (and beer) a focal point, not just an after-thought, boasting a strong and varied list of sparkling, white and red wines from both the Old and New worlds. The always solid, ever-rotating craft beer options have been maintained and even bolstered with reliable local favorites like Yards ESA, seasonal draft brews like the summery Allagash White from Maine, the newly-introduced autumnal (and local) Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and Ayinger’s German-inspired Oktoberfest, in addition to large-format bottles like Troegs Perpetual IPA & Victory Helios Saison. Harris keenly introduced the Summer of Riesling on June 21st, a three-month love affair with the white varietal that is offered by-the-glass and displays its wide ranging profile from dry to sweet. She has also spearheaded special monthly country-themed dining events focusing on wines, cheeses and food with a global perspective. In conjunction with famed fromagerie DiBruno Bros., four complementary wines, cheeses and plates are served for only $32, a true bargain that showcases a bounty of seasonal and place-specific specialties. Wentz, Harris and Rocco Rainone conjure up a menu of earthly delights for these casual gatherings where interaction is encouraged. Spain and France have already been explored; Belgium is on tap next, when beer will be the beverage of choice.



It may be a touch of irony, then, that bartender Jamie Brennan is a member of the McCrossen family (the property was originally purchased by the McCrossens in 1937) that counts among it a fledgling but promising winemaker for a son. Jamie’s brother produces single vineyard wines from New Zealand under the Decibel label, whose crisp and fruity sauvignon blanc just happens to be served here. It paired quite nicely with a recent watermelon, black olive and cucumber salad special topped with ricotta salata and tossed in a honey-thyme vinaigrette. Jamie is friendly and personable, demonstrates a solid beer knowledge, and literally “knows your name.” It’s all part of the welcoming nature and neighborhood vibe for which McCrossen’s is known.

Wentz has slowly steered this vessel since hopping on board in July 2010, choosing to gradually evolve rather than re-haul McCrossen’s concept altogether. This has allowed the faithful patronage to grasp his direction, while still enjoying the old standbys that now float in a sea of new offerings. Steamed clams and hummus swim next to veal sweetbreads and braised Berkshire pork belly served in a white-bean cassoulet. Pork meatballs stuffed with mozzarella share space with a brandade de morue, a poached cod and whipped potato spread served alongside toasted baguette slices. 

This less aggressive and timely approach with menu development doesn't mean Wentz lacks ambition. Quite the opposite. It's a foresightedness grounded in the idea that an improved food and beverage program will attract and retain new customers over time, a concept that is also being shaped for the opening of the new Barnes Foundation being built a few blocks away on the Ben Franklin Parkway. He realizes McCrossen’s is only one of a few establishments within walking proximity of a world-renowned multi-billion dollar art collection. This equates to a neighborhood Need, a place where museum-goers will want lunch or dinner before or after their visit. With expected demand comes the need for flavor-driven, sensible, and creative cuisine that is affordable and properly delivered in an atmosphere that doesn’t scream “bar” or “fussy.” One doesn't spend ten+ years of a career at the Fountain and Lacroix (three as Executive Sous Chef opening Lacroix at the Rittenhouse) lacking desire for achievement. Folding dishes into his menu as gently and smoothly as he does whipped cream into a recently-offered chicken liver mousse with Riesling gelée seems to be Wentz’s specialty. There are involved, complex steps in this preparation requiring oversight and patience, just as in his business model. 

Talking with Wentz, one gets every bit of his zeal for food science, rooted deeply in his two college degrees in Chemistry and Biology from Rutger’s University. He chose to pursue his culinary passion instead, finding the pull of the kitchen a stronger force than a laboratory. That isn’t to say his scientific background hasn’t been infused into his cooking. One evening we discussed the lengthy process of making that chicken liver mousse, touching upon the factors such as temperature and the composition of the cream that affect the creation of such an airy delicacy. Another night had us engaged in a step-by-step description of his preparation of bouillabaisse, the tradition-laden fish soup from Southern France that is steeped in history and flavor, and whose name is derived from the words “to boil” and “to simmer,” between which is a very fine line, especially on the stove-top. Undoubtedly a by-product of his days working under and with Jean-Marie Lacroix, including his two year stint as saucier while at the Fountain, the dish initially spent time on the specials board before being moved full-time as an entrée on his menu. He clearly enjoys producing such a course, which marries roasted cod, lobster, shrimp, clams, and mussels in a tomato-saffron broth, for only $22. Despite the laborious process, it’s a reasonable price for such a luxurious peasant dish. Given Wentz’s history, it’s no surprise to find this item here, along with two others I dove into on a Friday night: roasted bone-marrow with a trumpet mushroom salad, and a handmade pasta alla chitarra with roasted pork belly and maderia, which is painstakingly made from pasta sheets cut into strands by the friction of tight music wire, a dish and food instrument originating from the Italian Abruzzo region. All of this while listening to Foster the People and MGMT on the stereo system, and peeking at the Phillies game on one of the two TVs gracing the walls. It’s a nice interplay, really. But don’t expect any molecular gastronomy creations anytime soon - it’s not Wentz’s style, and it just wouldn’t fit.

Over the last year, the menu, in Wentz’s and Harris’ manner, has taught without intimidation, and continues to do so, as if slowly hypnotizing the customer base month after month, until suddenly a Sixpoint Sweet Action has replaced a bottle of Miller Lite, an obscure Riesling has been demanded over a Yellow Tail Merlot, and a beautifully prepared tripe stew with toasted bread crumbs is ordered in place of a Caesar salad. As in everything, education leads to knowledge, and it works both ways. Wentz and Harris have learned not to gorge a whole new concept down a neighborhood's throat the way a French duck's soon-to-be-foie-gras liver is fattened (Wentz recently offered seared foie as a special appetizer by the way!). Rather, a leisurely introduction to rustic, comfort food, wine and beer has proven to be successful. Once the servers here become as adept at explaining and selling the dishes as well as Wentz produces them, McCrossen’s will no longer be thought of as that corner spot to grab a shot and beer. It’s currently much more than that, thanks to a well conceived plan. There has already been some renovation to the front of the building, with new windows that open to the street and let in fresh air and light. A side alleyway has been lined with tables that add additional seating for ten, and an awning has been ordered to add exterior protection and appeal. It’s all in the nature of the place - to “welcome” anyone in, just as the original McCrossen family provided a respite for those during the difficult and turbulent times of the Great Depression.

Change and transition have come to this Art Museum neighborhood, and McCrossen’s is adapting. In addition to the standard weeknight happy hour from 5 to 7PM when a $3 beer, $4 snack, $5 wine and $6 martini are offered, Harris has initiated a “Late-Night” Wine Happy Hour on occasional nights from 10PM to 2AM, which is also specially designed for those who work in the restaurant business itself. Recently, French importer Stephanie Bourgeois poured two vintages from her family’s portfolio: a lively white Côtes de Gascogne and a lush red Côtes du Ventoux for only $5 apiece, paired with a few regional plates from France prepared by Wentz. A mainstay that has not been tampered with is the Saturday and Sunday brunch special, where diners can indulge in one food item and unlimited bloody marys and mimosas for only $20 from 10:30AM to 2:30PM. While some reforms are required, one just doesn’t mess with a sure thing.

In an ocean as vast as the Philly dining scene, the makeover of McCrossen’s is to be applauded. Rather than float idly in shallow water, Chef Wentz, Harris and the Brennan family have decided to test the deep-end, albeit with life-jackets. It’s a smart, rational business approach, where the diner is the ultimate winner (if one chooses to be adventurous, open-minded and trustworthy of the kitchen). I appreciate an industry veteran like Wentz who has maintained his approachability (and likability!) while delivering memorable, delicious and creative food that is on par with kitchens triple the size and a lot shinier (and more expensive). I love that I can walk into McCrossen’s, be greeted by name with a cheery “hello,” all while having the opportunity to dive into a special of Blue Point oysters with mignonette and a Hudson Valley duck breast topped with a blueberry-balsamic glaze paired with sauteed snow peas and a potato galette. It’s a collision of two worlds for some, but one fusion for which Wentz can surely provide a scientific explanation that will, in the end, result in an easily understood satisfaction.

Note: This Tuesday, September 20th, starting at 6:30PM, McCrossen’s will be welcoming Matt Pushinksy from Belukus (US importer of specialty UK and Belgian brews) and Rocco Rainone from DiBruno Bros. to demonstrate the power of the beer/cheese pairing. The beer selection will include a special Belgian keg making its debut on draft in PA and a brew crafted in the same style as Champagne. Chef Wentz will serve up 4 unique, seasonal dishes alongside 4 cheeses specially selected by Rocco. Pricing is $16 for beer and $16 for cheese/food. Reserve by calling 215-854-0923 or online at Open Table. 

McCrossens can be found on Twitter @mccrossenstav

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philly's Top-Tier Tasting Event Aims to Leave No One Hungry

Taste of the Nation, an annual culinary benefit organized by Share Our Strength to raise charitable funding for the fight against childhood hunger, was held in Philadelphia on Monday, June 20th at the Loews Hotel. This year's fête took place in the Millennium Ballroom, which served as a perfect entry point for guests who rode the escalator up from 12th & Market Street. Top Chef contestant and local kitchen icon Jennifer Carroll of 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert acted as the event's Chef Chair, organizing and directing an all-volunteer squad from over 30 restaurants. Phoebe Esmon, Head Bartender & Cocktail Bar Manager at the Farmer's Cabinet and founding president of the United States Bartenders' Guild Philadelphia Chapter, led a team of talented mixologists who presented creative, refreshing drinks using Finlandia vodka, Plymouth Gin, Woodfood Reserve bourbon, Herradura tequila, and Veev Açaí.  All ticket proceeds contributed to Share Our Strength's efforts, while providing support to local organizations Philabundance, The Food Trust, The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and The Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

While incorporating a utilitarian ambition, Taste of the Nation also employs a serious focus on    the preparation and delivery of memorable bites and sips. Some of the city's most acclaimed chefs stand elbow-to-elbow while offering their flavorful creations to patrons who may not typically enjoy such close proximity to the "kitchen." Standing in front of one of your favorite bartenders also yields insightful feedback on a drink's origin and recipe. In either scenario, the chance to casually chit-chat with the talented denizens of Philly's dining establishments while learning about a dish's or cocktail's inspiration is worth the ticket price. General admission was a fair $85 while VIP entry cost $135 to access the room an hour early. Philadelphia Magazine's Foobooz offered a 15% discount on online purchases, as did Punch Media, the Public Relations firm that handled the media and press buzz for Taste of the Nation. 


I arrived at the Loews just as the event was getting underway at 5:30PM, immediately immersed in the energy that permeated the entry area to the intimate ballroom. Most of the tables outside the doors were showcasing desserts that heavily emphasized cupcakes. The Khyber Pass Pub was also offering its ridiculously addictive Benton bacon grease popcorn as a party-starter, but I passed it smilingly, nodding in homage to the city's top beer snack with which I have an ongoing relationship. I wasn't about to let chocolate and popped corn affect my taste buds so early in the game, although I willingly welcomed them in the second half.


Upon walking into the main space, music blared and tables hummed with excitement as cocktails were shaken and platters purposefully prepped for the onslaught of attendees. Arriving early is the optimum way to insure sampling from every establishment, as well as beating the heavy crowds that usually peak around 7PM. As soon as I began my walk in the far right corner where PorcSalt playfully served its trio of treats in a mini picnic-like box, I bumped into Jen Carroll. Despite her recent television fame, she remains down-to-earth, approachable, and extremely polite. I asked her about her role as Chef Chair for the second consecutive year, and she relayed that it was about giving her time to an organization she respected and admired. Her position demanded many meetings in which she provided culinary direction, and based on what I ate over the next three hours, Jen's focus was clearly on flavor and fun. The Philly native has stayed close to her roots, and that local upbringing is shown in her casual and friendly manner in conversation. Her food, however, speaks in a serious tone that requires full attention.


After meeting PorcSalt's Matt Ridgway and relishing his fried, red wine bacon cinnabun, foie-gras parfait, and whipped smoked potatoes Aligoté, all of which imparted porcine flavors in a clean, pungent and quite balanced way, it was only natural that I took a step to my left and immediately stood face-to-face with a laid-out, resting roasted pig that appeared in the middle of a nap. McCrossen's Tavern presented perhaps my favorite dish of the evening: a roughly 2 to 3 month-old oinker (slightly older than a suckling) that had been gutted and broken down, re-filled with the loins and house-made stuffing, and topped with a pan sauce comprised of the animal's liver, heart and kidneys. Carved in front of you by chef Tod Wentz and sauced by Bill Strobel, the pork was generously and theatrically portioned along with the crispy skin, the meat tender and tasty, with a bit of gaminess from the offal reduction. I literally ate three platefuls throughout the night. Gluttony prevailed on this evening: it started from the first bite, and McCrossen's was partly to blame. 



Proceeding in a counter-clockwise direction, I then enjoyed the tomato and spicy shrimp crostini served by Walter Staib of City Tavern and the television cooking show A Taste of History, both of which honor the cooking of 18th century colonial America. Khyber Pass Pub offered a pleasantly peppery crawfish étouffée (similar to gumbo) with a slightly dark roux base over white rice, a tip of the toque to the Cajun cuisine it has perfected at the restaurant. Scott Schroeder of  South Philadelphia Tap Room added a Mexican twist to his salmon tartare that was blended with red onion and guacamole, served atop a crispy tortilla chip and topped with sour cream. Gene Giuffi, the chef at Cochon, the Queen Village BYOB that pays tribute to the pig in its name as well as French-inspired menu, assembled a hearty, complex cassoulet blending white beans, house-smoked garlic sausage and braised pig head that transported me to southern France. Tashan, the sophisticated spinoff of Tiffin that translates to "style" in Hindi, paired a beautifully colored sweet mango lassi (a yogurt-based drink served in India) with a malai kofta (deep fried potato-based dumpling) lollipop that resembled the crunchy truffle-porcini arancini on a stick served by Ristorante Panorama on the opposite side of the room. 


Truffle-Porcini Risotto Lollipop from Panorama

Before making the turn to the next row, I stepped into the retro and modern pop-up lounge created by Mae & Company Productions where Plymouth Gin setup its bar stations and the DJ belted out funky sounds. Theo Webb of Mike Stollenwerk's Fish shook up a "sandia picante," my favorite liquid concoction of the night that blended gin, fresh watermelon juice, roasted jalapeno, mint simple syrup and lime juice. Served over ice in a rocks glass and tinted blue, this was a crisp, refreshing drink that cooled off Fish's salty and spicy pastrami-smoked salmon chips with which it was paired. Cocktail in hand, I visited SoleFood, the Loews Hotel restaurant that fuses soul into its cuisine and heavily emphasizes seafood. I devoured the rolled tuna topped with an aioli drizzle before snacking on a few sesame salmon tartare crostini from Fond, the tiny French-American BYOB on East Passyunk Ave in South Philly that boasts clean cuisine by Chef Lee Styer, delectable desserts by Jesse Prawlucki, and top-notch front-of-house service by Tory Keomanuvong. 10 Arts beckoned me with its own crostini, a truly addictive chicken liver mousse topped with a thinly-sliced grilled peach, perhaps my favorite hors d'oeuvre of the night for which I kept returning like a well-trained dog begging for more treats. 
The team at Fond 



Near 10 Arts, LaCroix at the Rittenhouse was serving its own haute cuisine treat: a strawberry, foie-gras macaroon. This party-popper worked as both a finger food and a dessert, walking the line between sweet and savory. It represented the creative approach most chefs took for the event. Funky Lil' Kitchen, an establishment offering "seasonal domestic cooking" in Pottstown, also deceived the eyes with a  strawberry soup that looked like gazpacho from afar. The vibrant red puree was balanced nicely with a black pepper cornbread and goat milk creme fraiche. Close by, Oyster House left no doubt as to what they were offering: freshly shucked Delaware Bay oysters presented beautifully on shaved ice. Sam Mink Jr., who has returned the business back to the family, refurbished the spot on Sansom Street into a modern, refreshing destination that shines with classic white subway tile and a seafood-centric menu that even makes an outstanding grass-fed burger topped with a fried oyster. 



Walking across the center of the ballroom floor, you could peruse and bid on the silent auction items that ranged from stays in Philly hotels to multi-course dinners at city restaurants. If cocktails were not your thing, craft beer was poured along with wines from Sonoma-Cutrer. San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna sparkling and still water were also provided to cleanse the palate and re-hydrate the taste buds. Philabundance had representatives on-hand to provide feedback about its mission as party-goers mingled and sampled.


On the left side of the room, chef Han Chiang of Old City's Han Dynasty brought his infamous heat to a noodle dish that attendees assembled at the table. Peter McAndrews of Modo Mio and the newly opened Sicilian joint Monsu offered a bite as large as his personality: a porchetta-tonnato, which combined braised pork, sesame tuna loin, apricot mostarda and caper mayonnaise on a thickly sliced piece of Italian bread. David Katz's Meme served up a playful Jewish deli bite of cool pastrami-spiced NY strip atop a pumpernickel toast with a dash of horseradish cream. DiBruno Brothers represented its heritage with an array of cheeses, along with a deceptively simple-looking but tasty ravioli filled with rapini. Nearby, Herradura cocktails were being shaken by Felicia D'Ambrosio (who shakes it up at Monks when time permits), Keith Raimundi of Village Whiskey, and Phoebe Esmon, who created a very memorable tequila libation topped off with micro cilantro greens that enhanced each sip by elevating the senses. 


Happy employees of Modo Mio & Monsu


Keith's co-bartender Stephen Seibert at Iron Chef Jose Garces' corner drinkery on 20th & Sansom mixed up Finlandia vodka drinks in tall glasses on the rocks a few steps away. Fish offered a unique deconstruction of its popular skate entree by transforming it into a crispy chip topped with shaved parmesan and truffle that resembled a chicharrón. Mike Stollenwerk told me the snack took three days to create, and I hope it shows up as a bar item at Fish or his new casual Fishtown bar Fathom Seafood House. The Capital Grille showed off its meaty side by searing filet mignon strips and topping them with sauteed mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Mark Tropea of Sonata in Northern Liberties, an under-the-radar BYOB destination serving contemporary American food, delivered a knockout corn ravioli tossed with generous chunks of blue crab and served in a red pepper broth. Across the way, Valanni cooled things off with a tomato gazpacho drizzled with a balsamic reduction and topped with a grilled shrimp that had me thinking of Barcelona. My mind stayed in Spain as I walked over to the table helmed by Bar Ferdinand, one of the original restaurants in the resurgent Nolib neighborhood that continues to shine. Chef Akiko Moorman delivered the drama by offering larger-than-life preparations of tortilla espagnole and seafood paella that contained mussels, clams, shrimp, and squid. The former was served squarely and topped with a fantastic aioli, while the latter was as colorful as an artist's palette, glistening with bursts of red and yellow. El Camino Real, the BBQ spot that is steps away from Bar Ferdinand in Nolib, slung a tooth-picked house-made smoky Texas sausage atop perfectly cooked braised lentils, a creative play on "franks and beans." The subtle heat in that plating was lassoed by the classic Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve and shaken by well-known mixology expert Katie Loeb of Oyster House. 






As terrific as the savory servings proved, the sweet samplings of desserts left their own impressions. Undoubtedly, the winner of the night for color, plating, and taste was the chevre mousse prepared by 10 Arts pastry chef Monica Glass. Served alongside a lavender-poached blackberry and roasted tomato, and topped with brioche streusel and a beautiful edible flower, the dish was a study in textures, both creamy and crunchy. Impossible to resist, I indulged twice. Nearby, Davio's offered a golden-yellow key lime pie that was sumptuously sweet and very hard to pass up when I strolled by early in the night. Not to be outdone, Trio, a BYOB located in the Fairmount neighborhood, delivered its own version of the Key West concoction that was lighter in color and density but just as delicious. Before exiting the ballroom to locate the cookies and cupcakes in the entry area, I visited Preston Eckman, a bartender at Opa who was making his own magic with VeeV, a spirit made with açaí, a Brazilian purple berry that is high in antioxidants. His "Red Mule" blended VeeV with cranberry juice, ginger beer and bitters, all of which combined to produce a cocktail that complemented the countless confections.






After I ventured through the doors, I first landed at Max Brenner, the chocolate haven in Center City where I indulged in a chocolate-covered praline that was small in size but loaded with flavor. Cupcakes are all the rage these days, so they were easy to find. Both A Cupcake Wonderland and Mad Batter Bakery presented tiers of mini creations that included red velvet, dark chocolate and buttercream frostings. The night could not be complete without a visit to Capogiro, the premier gelateria in Philadelphia whose flavors mystify each visitor and call for dozens of sample bites before making a final choice. This evening, there were only two options to make life easy: champagne mango and Cioccolato Scuro, a rich black chocolate. By the time I arrived, the former was all gone, so I "settled" for the latter, which was a cupful of decadence. The only thing missing at this point in the night was a double shot of espresso.


Before approaching the exit sign, guests were given the choice of four flavors of jarred DelGrosso tomato sauce, a nice giveaway that left every attendee hungry for more. Taste of the Nation remains my favorite food event of the year, in that it blends philanthropy and party-going perfectly. The recipe works, but it somehow seems to taste better every June. Keep an eye out for the 2012 lineup at www.strength.org

Friday, June 17, 2011

Taste of the Nation Philadelphia - Monday, June 20th

Throughout the year, Share Our Strength, an organization that has dedicated itself to battling hunger since 1988, conducts culinary benefits around the US and Canada. Every Spring and Summer, Taste of the Nation teams local chefs and mixologists in each respective city with other volunteers to offer culinary treats and specialty cocktails for fundraising efforts. This year, 100% of the proceeds are contributed to No Kid Hungry, the charity's effort to end childhood hunger in America by 2015. 

The event gets underway in Philadelphia on Monday, June 20th, in the Millennium Ballroom at the Loews Hotel on 12th & Market. This year's Chef Chair is Jennifer Carroll, a favorite Top Chef contestant and Chef de Cuisine at 10 Arts by Eric Ripert in The Ritz-Carlton. Representative restaurants include Fish, Fond, Davio's, LaCroix at the Rittenhouse, and Modo Modo. The cocktail shakers from The Franklin and The Farmer's Cabinet will be present, among many others. Craft beer and wine will also be served.  

Patrons may choose VIP Admission, which gains preview access to the event an hour early at 5:30PM at the cost of $135, or General Admission for $85 (entry at 6:30PM). Festivities last until 9:30PM. Ticket prices are increased by $10 for at-the-door purchases, so buy your passes before Monday.  Proceeds will benefit the city's local charities Philabundance, The Food Trust, The Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, and the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center.

Note: When purchasing tickets, use the code FOOBOOZ at checkout to receive a 15% discount. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Crafty Resource to Locate Artisanal Beers in Philadelphia

The descriptors earthy, spicy, floral, and acidic are typically used to reference the flavor profiles of wine, but in today’s hops-infused beverage market, they are as frequently spoken to describe beer. We live in a time where our father’s bottle of Bud or can of Schlitz are afterthoughts. While high-production labels such as these are entirely one-dimensional, the real beer movement in America right now is about skilled artistry, multi-layered tastes, and low-volume/high-quality output. It is defined by the crafting of a product that not only incorporates traditional techniques with innovative, distinct flavors, but is also strictly made for a palate-strong, inquisitive and discerning niche of consumers rather than for mass appeal. Brewers are now gaining the same recognition as winemakers, much like in the 1970s when California wineries Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena put American vintners on the map after the famed 1976 Paris Tasting

The craft beer industry in the United States is comprised of many small-batch producers who utilize local ingredients and wild yeasts to create artisan ales and lagers reminiscent of old-world European styles but with a more aggressive and unique edge. Beer is not just made of water, yeast, malt and hops anymore, like it had been done in this country until about 30 years ago. While Belgium, England and Germany have inspired certain styles, America is now becoming known for its own methods and non-traditional ingredients that produce aromas and flavors that are complex, rich, extraordinary and exciting. Much of this movement has even started in the home, a nod to the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that is clearly and historically American (i.e., Dogfish Head and Samuel Adams). 

Reflecting the growth of this revolution is the expansion of craft beer programs in the city of Philadelphia. Gastropubs like Standard Tap and Varga not only serve refined and eclectic bar food, but also local and national artisan beers that mirror and complement the flavor-driven cuisine. Craft beer dinners have grown so much in popularity that there seems to be a special food pairing with terrific producers like Mikkeller or Sixpoint each week. The city itself has seen a resurgence of breweries, from Yard’s to Philadelphia Brewing Company, reminiscent of its heyday before Prohibition, when a part of Philly was even known as Brewerytown. Frommer’s recently listed Philadelphia as one of the top fourteen cities in the world for beer, and Esquire named it as one of the top seven craft beer meccas in the country. 

Keeping track of where to find craft beers has unsurprisingly become increasingly more challenging, given that many of the existing and newly-opened establishments must incorporate a serious beer list and philosophy to survive a weak economy as well as a demanding clientele in search of specifically-stylized brews. Fortunately for us, a local website called PhillyTapFinder.com has been created in the last six months to assist the novice beer drinker and self-proclaimed beer-geek in their search for significant suds. Similar to the craft beer movement, PhillyTapFinder.com was started at home by creators Jared and Kristy Littman, married residents of the Queen Village neighborhood who not only make their own beer from homegrown hops, but also seek out distinct and specially-crafted beers in the city (when they’re not practicing law). Realizing an easy-to-use web-based resource did not exist for beer seekers to find a particular producer’s beer or what was currently on-tap at a new or favorite bar, the husband-and-wife team developed the website as that means to an end. PhillyTapFinder allows its users to easily search for a craft beer by name, style, bar, neighborhood or characteristic. All results are up-to-date, which is critical given that many craft beers tend to be small-batch and are rotated quite often. Over 60 member bars have been enlisted, and there are more on the horizon, which Jared attributes to the overall demand for beer knowledge and availability by those who browse (“brewse”) and frequent his site. There are even hopes of expanding into the Philadelphia suburbs and South Jersey, and eventually nation-wide. 

A recent coup by PhillyTapFinder is its selection to maintain all of the beer lists for the ever-growing and nationally renowned Philly Beer Week, which occurs at multiple city bars and restaurants from June 3rd to the 12th. Special tastings, discussions and beer dinners will be held throughout Philadelphia, requiring a go-to site that provides the names and descriptions of the beers to be presented and poured. Jared and Kristy are visibly and understandably excited and honored at having been chosen for such a task, but it’s all part of their vision and hobby. Being able to assist fellow craft beer enthusiasts while fulfilling their own quest for the perfect pint is clearly a “win-win.” 

I met Jared and Kristy at a very memorable Stillwater Artisanal Ales dinner at the now-closed James a few weeks ago. Stillwater’s beer-maker Brian Strumke is known in industry circles as a “gypsy” brewer, because he brews beer on the go rather than at his own facility.  He literally travels from one brewery to the next, in Baltimore or Belgium or Eastern Europe, renting out their excess capacity and using his own recipes (very floral-driven) to create limited edition batches and labels (which are themselves quite artistic). It’s a practice that is quite unconventional, and a nomadic subculture to the craft beer movement that is gaining both practitioners and followers. I personally had followed PhillyTapFinder to satisfy my own need for beer knowledge before meeting the couple, so I was excited to have been introduced to them. I loved their business model so much that I asked Jared to talk hops with me at the Khyber Pass Pub, an Old-City haunt that has recently been refreshed and refurbished. It now serves Southern and New Orleans-inspired cuisine with a serious draft list of craft beers that complements the menu quite perfectly. It's one of my favorite destinations for happy hour (when drafts are reduced by $2), Benton’s bacon grease popcorn (the ultimate beer-drinker's bar snack) and comfort food. As the Khyber’s sidewalk chalkboard states, there is “no crap on tap,” fitting beer lingo that can easily be used to describe the Philadelphia craft beer scene. I couldn’t have stated it more poetically. 

Check out my conversation with Jared Littman to learn more about PhillyTapFinder.com’s origins, how it is serving the local craft beer fan, and why he and Kristy are taking the burden off of the bars to bring you the most up-to-date information and insider tips on what they are pouring in town.

Many thanks to my friend Brett Kane of Lost Boy Entertainment for post-production services. 



http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsAlWxp6Ddo

Head to Osteria for a Tête-à-Tête with a Suckling Pig

In today’s restaurant scene, the pig is the undisputed king of meats. Maybe the ad campaign for the other white meat propelled its popularity, but I believe it’s the porcine versatility that has led to its great appreciation. Purists have always touted full utilization of an animal after its slaughter, and the pig may offer the most rewarding culinary experiences to those daring enough to try more than just the chops and ribs. Sure, there is belly, the tenderloin, ground shoulder for sausage, the butt for braising, and rib bacon - but once the trotters (feet), tongue, skin, tail, organs and head are in play, everything else just seems less appealing. Suddenly, the (in)famous [Philly] scrapple that is a mélange of this secondary set of pig parts is not as grotesque as it once seemed. Perhaps it is the result of the media-driven culture in which we live, where full exposure of a whole animal’s true merits from a gustatory perspective has made it worth the risk to try those cuts that were once deemed usable only in peasant dishes. Now, they’re the prized possessions that magnify a menu and sell out first.

In Philadelphia, as in many cities, dining out is more adventurous than ever. Twenty years ago, if you saw pied de cochon (pig’s feet) on a menu, you would probably sneer, then walk away in search of a ham sandwich. But today, put fried pig’s tails, lardo crostini, chicharrónes (pork rinds - visit Barbuzzo) and braised stuffed pig’s feet (à la Bibou) on the chalkboard and lines will form out the door. 

On a recent pizza crawl in Philly with a Baltimore restaurateur undertaking research for his own haute pizzeria, I stopped in Osteria, the rustic yet industrial space that is a member of the Vetri family. I anticipated a few traditional and Neapolitan pies as the centerpieces to our last meal of the evening, but little did I know that the singular pizza we ordered would be an afterthought. This is not to say that the wholly seasonal primavera with asparagus, ramps and fresh ricotta was underwhelming; we were simply seduced by an unforgettable pork dish that literally left us breathless. 

Chef and owner Jeff Michaud generously gifted us his fire-roasted baby pig’s head for our first course. Even as it was brought to the table, we gushed at its near arrival and sat slack-jawed momentarily. I had read about this intoxicating appetizer before our visit, and I relished it even as our server announced it as a special that night. Presented on a large platter surrounded by olive oil-drizzled bruschetta and homemade apricot jelly, the dish was a theatrical first-act that demanded applause before it literally opened its mouth. Chef Michaud’s suckling pig head is initially basted in a beer agrodolce - comprised of beer, sugar, garlic, chili flakes and orange zest - then roasted in the oven for ten to twelve minutes. It is rotated three to four times while cooking, and when finished, retains a charred texture and smoky aroma from the wood-fire. Upon presentation, the glazed skin was reddish-brown and crispy to the fork’s touch. Because the pig is slaughtered at such a young age, between the age of two and six weeks, the texture of the meat can be somewhat gelatinous due to the amount of collagen. However, this only adds moistness and a gusto to each bite, as fat equals flavor. Appearing as if sleeping, with its mouth shut and snout resting comfortably, the baby pig offered itself to us as we prepared to indulge and satisfy our bizarre, inner Andrew Zimmern

I attacked first and gently pried the tender meat from the right cheek, also known as the jowl. That initial bite was slightly dipped in the natural juices and sweet and sour sauce that melded together to create a delectable pool along the edges of the plate. The meat was ridiculously juicy and full-flavored. When draped atop the garlicky toasted bread and spread with the apricot paste, the result was a happy tangle of textures. The 2008 Vespa Bianco from the Bastianich Estate, a Friulian white wine comprised of 45% chardonnay, 45% sauvignon blanc, and 10% picolit, paired wonderfully with each mouthful. The high acid, structured tannins and citrus notes balanced with and cut the pork’s fat while matching its richness. 

The neck offered another source of gratification as well as a substantial bounty. Delicately tearing the crunchy skin away to combine with the velvety pink flesh became an artistic movement at which we quickly became adept. I’m sure other diners gazed at us begrudgingly as we nestled our forks and knives into the head’s cavity, seeking out the inner depths of soft meat that melted on the tongue like gelatin. We opened up the jaws to expose and devour the tongue, and were even tempted to savor the soft, jelly-like eyes - but we saved those for a future visit. Slowly the once colorful, shiny delicacy began to resemble a carcass discarded by giggling hyenas. We smiled in grand appreciation as we eyed the empty plate, realizing we were granted a privilege to relish the delicious rewards offered by that young creature. 

The rest of the meal arrived, including a fabulous porchetta tonnato with arugula, celery, and parmigiano, and a beautifully-made sweet pea malloreddus with lamb ragu and mint that expressed the passion and tradition of house-made pasta. Our minds, however, constantly drifted back to the beginning, reminiscing the flavors and aroma of that perfectly prepared pig that will surely resonate weeks from now. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Escape to the Greek Isles...in the Middle of the City

Upon entering Opa, the latest Greek establishment in Philadelphia from sibling owners George and Vasiliki Tsouris, you immediately feel that internal exclamation point of joy implied by the word itself. The colorful restaurant set on a dark, quiet stretch of Sansom near bustling 13th Street in Midtown Village sets the tone not only with its name, but also the cool interior design that invokes a hip Mediterranean nightspot. Hypnotizing hues of blue and geometric-shaped art displays of oversized water droplets have you feeling like Poseidon coming up for air.  Sensuous drapery descends from the ceiling as if unfolded from an Athenian god’s hands, surrounding a warm, square-shaped bar that is laden with smooth river rock and topped with a welcoming white acrylic counter. If only the metallic silver stools were as cozy and comfortable as the room itself. That slight furniture flaw gets quickly overlooked once the menu is delivered, though, making you weak in the knees, then thankful that you’re sitting underneath a soothing thatched canopy of birch branches to ponder your stomach’s fate.

There’s a collection of innovative and refreshing cocktails to tempt your tongue, some made with the Greek spirit Metaxa, which is a distilled blend of brandy, wine and an aged muscat from the islands of Samos and Lemnos.  An extensive wine list boasts Greek varietals rarely heard of and even harder to pronounce, but it pushes the welcome envelope to its guests and invites you ‘in’ for an education. The draft beer offerings are all refreshingly locally sourced and reasonably priced, while the bottled variety is primarily un-American, including Mythos, a light Greek lager from Thessaloniki. 

Sip on something cool while perusing the modernized Greek classics prepared by Andrew Brown, the former executive chef of the White Dog Cafe. Don’t expect over-the-top tourist-trap dishes here (but revel in the kitsch on the restaurant’s website) - there’s a refined touch to their preparation and presentation. Mezedes, similar to Spanish tapas, offer an opportunity to share lots of small bites, ranging from innovative zucchini chips with yogurt-based tzatziki, to keftedes, herbed veal meatballs served in an ouzo-infused tomato sauce. I opted for the spinach croquettes and grilled octopus, which had me wishing for an ocean-sprayed cafe in Santorini by the time they were devoured. 

Don’t let the simple names of these starters fool you - they are complex while still retaining a hominess that owes a nod to the owners’ mother, who apparently spent some time with Chef Brown during menu development. The four croquettes arranged on the diagonal had a dark, crispy exterior that contrasted perfectly with the soft spinach and feta filling. Colorful microgreens draped the fried cylinders whose crunch was accentuated by a smokey feta cheese ‘dip’ splashed on the plate as if stroked by an artist’s brush and served like orange-yellow paint on a palate. The octopus, an eight-legged cephalopod known for its intelligence, clearly lent some of its IQ to the kitchen before its demise. Served in pieces within a co-centric circle alongside a mound of chickpea ‘fondue’ that was spiked with coriander and perhaps cardamom (maybe even a dash of cinnamon), it was so tender to the fork that my knife had no reason to get dirty. Octopus is oftentimes over-manipulated and mismanaged to the point of chewiness and rubber, but Opa handles this creature with care and creativity. It undergoes a 2 day transformation, initially brined then braised for four hours and ultimately kissed by the grill, resulting in a finished product whose slightly-twisted and lemon-drizzled tentacles lend a charred texture to a bite that is meltingly soft to the tooth. Within  minutes, the canvas is returned to the studio as white as it once began. Without question, this dish reigns supreme with the potato-fennel-salsa verde octopus salad served at Stephen Starr’s Pizzeria Stella, while standing above the offering at Dmitri’s.   

My late-night swim at Opa did not allow for diving into the deep-end for main courses, but the wine-braised rabbit with house-made pasta and the feta stuffed grass-fed burger (bifteki) called to me in the way Andromeda may have cried for help while chained to the rocks. I’ll be happy to play heroic Perseus on my next visit, but I did cool off with an order of the baklava, the Ottoman Empire indulgence that infuses nuts and honey within layers of phyllo dough. Opa’s walnut-laden version, a triangular behemoth fit for King Zeus, was slightly dry despite its inherent sweetness, but it was blissfully paired with homemade vanilla-fig ice cream. The single-scoop tempted like forbidden fruit, and it was happily consumed without punishment. Other enticements like loukoumades, fried dough with a honey-cinnamon drizzle and spiced banana, and yogurt served with preserved fruit and nuts, kept my gaze like the eyes of Medusa and will surely lure me in when I decide to splash through Opa’s waves again. Luckily, my onlooking didn’t turn me to stone. 

Opa is a lively addition along the stretch of 13th Street that is becoming the most popular thoroughfare in the city for dining and playing. Bar service here was helpful, friendly and informative without being overbearing or obtrusive. The music on my visit was an odd collection of R&B and disco that seemed to clash with the overall vibe, but that can easily be remedied. Opa is the perfect spot to begin or end the evening with a cocktail, share a few small plates, or indulge in a full meal. If only the parking garage facing Opa on the opposite side of the street could be draped with the same fabrics near the bar or painted over by the city’s famed Mural Arts Department into a seascape, then you could easily close your eyes and imagine yourself overlooking the Aegean sipping an ouzo under a hot sun. After all, dreaming in Greek is so much more romantic.