Tuesday, March 29, 2011

James on 8th - A Sleek Oasis in Bella Vista

I walked into James a few weeks ago on a Tuesday night at 9pm, expecting a packed lounge and limited seats for their Tuesday night "Hours of Happiness" (8 -10pm), when draught beers are sold at half-price and two wines (a white & a red) are offered at $6. Unexpectedly, only four patrons sat at the long, inviting bar, leaving me freedom of choice in selecting any cozy leather-backed chair I wanted. I did eye the glowing fireplace as it beckoned me closer to a love-seat, but I kept that invitation in my back pocket for a future visit. I read the cocktail menu with a keen eye, seeing a mixture of signature cocktails made with house-infused spirits, top-rated draft beers and carefully selected wines by the glass. Hops were on my mind, so I immediately ordered a Central Waters Imperial Stout, a smooth and creamy brew with coffee undertones. One of the reasons I came to James on this night was the previous evening's Twitter announcement of FREE oysters, which Ali the bartender brought to me minutes after my arrival. Two pristine, perfectly-shucked mollusks were presented atop a mound of ice, their juices still intact. Topped with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of tabasco (provided elegantly in a tiny cup), the oysters were a refreshing opening to the evening. Slices of house-made olive and Italian bread smeared with a gorgeously sweet-and-salty butter also whet the appetite.

While I sipped my beer, I eyed the comforting and cool space surrounding me. Being inside James' restaurant is like lounging around your rich uncle's living room. It's a sexy, sleek, intimate oasis only blocks from gritty Washington Avenue, on the same stretch of road as Bibou, one of the most highly rated dining rooms in the city. Recently, James was strangely excluded from Philly Magazine's Top 50 Restaurants Issue, which puzzled me then and now, after being ranked in the top ten the previous two years. The space hadn't changed, it was as inviting as ever with its modern design and flickering bar-top candles, and the menu remained stocked with carefully-sourced, seasonal meats, fish and produce prepared expertly by chef Jim Burke. I ignored the publication's oversight, salivating at the lounge menu, and settled on the truffled potato gnocchi gratinata ($14) and the seared hanger steak with smoked potatoes ($18). While indulging in a Williamsburg AleWerks Washington Porter, a black beauty with hints of caramel and chocolate, the baked gnocchi arrived with a beautiful truffle aroma. This dish is the adult's version of mac-and-cheese, with pillowy puffs of potato nestled in cheesy goodness and a bread-sopping sauce. For the price, this was an outstanding course that delivered layers of smoky flavor. It certainly warmed up the taste buds and my spirit. Following my pasta love-affair was a beautifully-presented seared hanger steak atop a luscious mound of silkily whipped smoked potatoes and sauteed greens. The meat was prepared to medium-rare as requested, sliced on the bias, and meltingly tender. The simple-in-name only 'red wine sauce' brought all the players together with its richness and complexity. I devoured this dish. It was, as Ali stated, a great 'bang for the buck.' Other places could easily price this meal in the mid-twenties. My two courses were outstanding - they demonstrated the kitchen's strength in cooking techniques and delivery of flavor.

Truffled potato gnocchi gratinata. A serious mac-and-cheese. Pure indulgence.
Seared hanger steak with smoked potatoes in a red wine sauce.

After wiping the plates clean, I retreated into another porter for dessert, and reminisced about my first visit to James when it opened over four years ago. I vividly recall the beautiful space, the professional service and modern approach to the cuisine. The only remnant from that initial menu is the unforgettable hand-cut pappardelle in duck ragu with chocolate shavings and orange zest. That dish transported me to an imaginary Italy then, and even in thought today, it takes me back. I know what I'll be ordering next time. It will probably be on a Tuesday, and I'll be sitting by the fire. I applaud Jim and Kristina Burke for creating a place that acts as an elegant escape for many, many hours of happiness.

Note: After five years at the South Philly location, James’ owners have recently announced their decision to move to a yet-to-be-determined location with the expiration of their lease at the end of June. While the restaurant is a ‘go-to’ destination for foodies in search of finer dining, the current address really doesn’t provide the optimum amount of foot-traffic. A new space in a more central city location will certainly provide James the added exposure required to sustain this higher-end form of dining. I wish Jim and Kristina luck in the next phase of their business.

The owners are also big fans of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Their beers are largely featured at the bar, and the brewery has collaborated with James on a special brew called Saison du James that will be featured in a special dinner on April 27th. See the following link for details:

City Paper: Stillwatern ArtisannAlesnDinner at James

You can find James on the web here:

Beer knowledge can be found here:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dmitri's Northern Liberties: Same As It Ever Was...But Better!

As a diner, sometimes, one just wants simplicity on a plate. Consistent simplicity is better, and consistent, yet complex simplicity is best. When I am looking for succulent simplicity, I seek out Dmitri's. Yes, I know, it's an old standby, an easy entry on one's personal Philadelphia restaurant list that is doled out to friends and visitors upon request. But I am not referring to the original Dmitri's on 3rd and Catherine, which for many years endeared itself to me and many other patrons with its small, basic box of a dining room and even smaller kitchen that belted out Mediterranean staples on even smaller dishes that delivered huge flavor (and served by waitresses with even bigger tattoos but neighborhoodly goodness). It unfortunately started falling in quality the last two years so much so that my favorite shrimp in garlic became shrimp in a pool of unflavored oil! No, I am referring to the new (but old as in the 'way-it-used-to-be') Dmitri's on the opposite side of town, in Northern Liberties on North 2nd Street one block up from Poplar. Located in a former cafe, Dmitri's beckons with dim lights and that expected welcome at the crowded front door, with the hostess of the evening asking for your name to be scribbled on that pad, and those bar seats fronting the open kitchen that is theater-in-the-making for those patrons looking for visual stimulation throughout a meal.

Sauteed squid (front), garlic shrimp and octopus - the Holy Trinity!

The one thing about Dmitri's is expectations. Expectations of a very simple meal whose dishes are anything but simple in flavor. At this new location, the unnamed chefs, those denizens of the mini-crawl-space kitchen, coax such incredible, deep sapori out of the reliant plates one has always come to know of this place, that all seems totally fresh here. Upon sampling the food, one gushes quietly, then loudly, at the full forces of flavor that inhabit the cuisine, arising into a high-five with one's fellow diners, signifying that overwhelming satisfaction at eating just-plain-tasty food at such an affordable price.

The beauty of Dmitri's lies not only in its simplicity, but the formula that has survived successfully for so long: serve flavorful Mediterranean (i.e. Greek) inspired dishes without pretension at a very reasonable price, by servers who are just friendly enough, in a small, familial, stark open space where diners can happily bring their own liquor. It's a concept that may not seem so original now, but ten-plus years ago, small plates at a BYO establishment was genius. The staple dish at Dmitri's is certainly the octopus, undoubtedly boiled initially then char-grilled to perfection and served length-wise, slightly soft and chewy, in a simple oil-and-vinegar bath with olives, lemons and whole, tiny hot peppers topped with parsley. This was the success for years, because not only did Dmitri's prepare octopus the right way, the tender way, but also GOT diners to try it and always order it after that first experience. Here, at the new location, it remains the same-as-it-ever-was, and trying it again is like trying it for the first time, giving one a sensory moment and memory to be treasured until the next visit. BUT, there are dishes beyond this staple that mystify in their simplicity and comfort, so much so that the standbys have become new again. The shrimp in olive oil and garlic arrives in a sauce that is dark and caramel in color, giving off a punch of powerful aroma, that when eaten is like a heavenly experience. I always marvel at the amount of shrimp that fit on that plate, and how quickly they are devoured, because that sauce with those shrimp is a perfect marriage, with the baguette slice the perfect mistress to enter the fray (Dmitri's gets its baguettes from Le Bus, a very reputable bakery).

Always served on a table at Dmitri's is the grilled pita and said bread, now placed alongside a parsley pesto swimming in oil that shows off the small magical twists that have been employed here that provide that extra layer of taste to those items one always expected. To eat at Dmitri's is to dine as if al fresco in Greece, a meal to be reminisced as if sitting near the ocean, enjoying the sea breeze and the onslaught of tapas-style dishes that show off the bounty of the sea and garden. It's all about that freshness really. Start with a gargantuan plate of feta and olives to perk up the taste buds, followed by that simple-in-name only "Greek salad" that overflows with crisp cucumber, tomatoes, crunchy peppers and square feta that could be a main course. The hummus here is a tad bland, albeit creamy and slight garlicky, but it's fresh and house-made, so a few dashes of salt liven it right up, and slathered on blackened pita wedges, makes for yet another meal-in-an-appetizer that one cannot stop ingesting. Beet salad is another study-in-simplicity, not only adding real ruby red color to the vegetable spectrum, but also offering a perfectly prepared, vibrant, cool condiment with red onion, oil and red wine vinegar that is a great alternative salad. A new menu addition that has already become a favorite is the meatballs, a plateful of beef, pork and veal spheres served with a spicy tomato sauce that are addictive party-poppers, with a crispy exterior and soft inside that reminds me of my mom's treasures, only smaller. It's another meal-as-you-wish, meant to be shared really, but it proves hard to stop eating all on your own.

Once these initial courses are devoured, the kitchen's second act delivers another show begging for participation. Now, the original Dmitri's had always (and still does) served its "main" courses with a side of rice and escarole, but this new locale has re-imagined its menu, now offering sides to be served at the diner's discretion. All courses are now considered "small" plates (which is comedic in nature considering the amount of food that is offered) that can be delivered from the kitchen as they are prepared, or served in "acts" so-to-speak if one asks the server to course the meal out properly (as I prefer to do). Besides the aforementioned octopus and garlic shrimp, any meal at Dmitri's must include the sauteed squid, which is really an "off-menu" item that will become any diner's "go-to" dish if one had to be made at gunpoint. About eight rings of lightly-breaded whole squid rings arrive in that outer shell of salty goodness that when sprayed with a squeeze of lemon wedge is like a taste sensation similar to coming up for air after a mini-dive in the ocean. Steamed mussels in a bowlful of soupy white broth filled with onion, tomato and spinach (preferred over the shelled-then-sauteed mussels that are also offered) is another full square meal at roughly $10 that may be as good as those served at Monk's, where an empty shell acts as the perfect spoon to gulp up the juice as if it was a remedy for that winter cold. The fried calamari is another staple that may be the best version I have had in years, so light and crispy yet barely breaded so that the true flavor of the sea shines though. Mainstay dishes that are seemingly always offered as "specials" of the night are the bluefish ($13), which arrives as 2 to 3 filets topped with unforgettable roasted tomatoes, peppers and onions in a sauce that is as red as it is just-damned-tasty, and the whole grilled fish-of-the-day (think pompano or striped bass) that I prefer to filet myself (the server can filet quite expertly as well) for the pleasure of enjoying each toothsome, juicy bite of herbs, chargrill, lemon and white flesh at the cut of my own hand. These "main" courses pair extremely well with the newly-offered roasted potatoes with garlic, thyme and rosemary, grilled vegetables that include zucchini and peppers, or the original rice that the old-guard may prefer. This being a Greek establishment, spinach pie (spanakopita) and lamb are also offered, in addition to pastas, yet the seafood offerings are the primary draw here. Even a fairly uncomplicated salmon filet ($13) is perfectly cooked and moist to the fork.

By the end of the meal, dessert may seem like an outlandish idea, considering how one most likely ordered with eyes-bigger-than-one's-stomach (which is highly encouraged here), but it should not be missed, especially at a price point of about $4. The rice pudding has always been a favorite offering, a bowlful of creamy white wholesomeness, but if that is too heavy, the caramel flan is a simply light yet devilishly sweet concoction where putting down the spoon after a single bite is harder than may appear. Those brave enough for a caffeine high may venture for the dark, gritty and muddily-textured Greek coffee (similar to Turkish), but the regular 'joe' is always solid and strong. Or, skip the black stuff and reach for that last beer or final sip of wine, and toast to 'just another meal' at Dmitri's that ends as if it was the first time discovering the place, shaking one's head in pure surprise at just-how-good-that-really-was.