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.