Archive for the ‘restaurant review’ category

Can you do the Django?

July 7, 2008

There is something about the Restaurant Week format, with the typically smaller number of dishes being prepared by the kitchen staff in restaurants across the city that tends to lend the meal somewhat of a conveyor-belt feel, or at least that’s the opinion that I’ve come to after numerous experiences. There have been relatively few Restaurant Week meals that I’ve been utterly satisfied with, so much so that I don’t make the effort to plan to go out to eat when the time comes. But that said, there are a few places where I’ve had really excellent Restaurant Week experiences, and Django is one of those. This small, homey, almost French provincial BYOB near 4th and South Streets is definitely all that its been cracked up to be. When I ate there for Restaurant Week about a year and a half ago it was definitely impressed by the quality of the food they were turning out and I was not disappointed on a return visit last evening. Since I had been so impressed with the meal in the rather more constricted Restaurant Week format, I really wanted to go back to see what the kitchen was preparing on your typical Saturday night.

I have to say that one of the things I really appreciate about Django is how they embrace the feel of home and charm in both their food and decor. I mean any place that serves you bread baked in a flower pot has got a lot going for it from the get go, right?

The menu was filled with wonderful choices of seasonal, fresh, local foods (they change their offering frequently) that in their mere description made you want to gnaw on the paper menus, but then that could just be me. I would really have loved to be able to try one of everything, but we wouldn’t have been able to fit all that food on our tiny little table, not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to fit all that food in my stomach. My dinner companion and I decided to split an appetizer and two entrees and a dessert. We started with a goat cheese gnocchi with house made porchetta (a boneless pork roast), broccoli rabe and sweet garlic, topped with aged provolone and served with long hots jus. These were not your typical Italian BYOB gnocchi, they had a firmer texture than I was used to, but this was a better accompaniment to the porchetta texture-wise. I was surprised by the pungency of the au jus, which almost tasted beefy in origin. The broccoli rabe was a definite success. I may have mentioned on here somewhere before how difficult it seems to control the bitterness in broccoli rabe, it can often get to be way too overwhelming, but in this dish, that was certainly not a problem.

They surprised us with a little amuse bouche of smoked salmon pate and spicy avocado spread on top of, get ready for this, a round tortilla chip. I laughed when I realized that’s what the base was, I could just picture the servers in the back pawing through a bag of tortilla chips picking out the unbroken ones for the guests and chomping through the others if / when they could steal a spare moment. This was a surprisingly tasty little treat though, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

For one of our entrees we ordered a seared rare Hawaiian Big Eye Tuna with pink lentils, peaches, crab and basil in blood-orange and coconut curry broth. This was a definite flavor success! I love anything with coconut in it and since peaches are just starting to come into season, they lent a really wonderful freshness to the whole dish. I am personally still working on my love for lentils, I think I need to start making them more often at home. It’s mainly a texture dislike for me, I prefer smooth and mushy rather than grainy and crunchy. The appearance of this dish alone, however, was enough to impress, I mean carrying on the theme of the pinkness of the rare tuna throughout the other aspects, it was definitely a keeper.

The other entrée we ordered was an organic duck breast served with an arugula, cherry, and goat cheese salad, a confit-goat cheese cigar, a foie-gras torchon, and a port-cherry reduction sauce. I really appreciated the fact that they left the skin on the duck breast and I loved the foie-gras. Something about duck breast and foie-gras, the chewy meaty texture and the silky smooth, goes so well together. I did think that they could have played up the cherry part of this dish a little bit more, the flavors were a bit flat for my taste and I felt that if they’d either had a few more dried cherries in the port reduction or fresh ones in the salad, then it would have brightened up the flavors just the right amount.

Ah, to dessert, my perpetual favorite. We all know that Django is and has been known for their cheese plates and they definitely still have them on their menu, but no amount of polite hinting would convince my dinner partner that they wanted to try this, so we ended up going for the strawberry-rhubarb shortcake with an almond biscuit, vanilla cream fraiche, lavender honey and whipped cream. I do believe that this is the first time I’ve ever had a strawberry rhubarb shortcake and I really did not know what I had been missing. This was wonderful! The almond biscuit was light but also with some crunch and the whipped cream with honey was heavenly.

As promised in other reviews I’ve seen the wait staff were very polite and friendly, despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that we were almost the last table to be seated for the evening. The freshness of the ingredients that they’re using at Django really shines through in the brightness of the flavors they’re presenting. I would say that I was as impressed with them on the second visit as I had been on the first, so I really


The Joint

June 6, 2008

So here I am in The Big Easy, feeling, or perhaps feeding, my way through my first ever ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) Conference. What a perfect location for talking and thinking about food and I am certainly already feeling very inspired by simply being amongst so many wonderful people who have chosen to make food and food studies a central part of their life’s work. New Orleans, of course, is so defined by its food culture, food being one of the central touristic draws of the city and one of the main ways in which people here seek to define who they are. With that in mind, when you are here, your mission must be to try as much of the local cuisine as you can, for it seems that by ingesting these foods (and beverages) you can make a claim to a better understanding of the city and its people. It is so wonderful, in fact, to have food be one of the defining characteristics of a particular place because food is so approachable and accessible to anyone who chooses to participate in its consumption. That said, it is also very easy for the food to become more of a commodity than an actual comestible and therefore to focus more on drawing tourist dollars in, rather than maintaining a sense of self or perhaps “authenticity” (if there is even such a notion). There is a thin line to be tread in a town like this and that is why it is often better to stray away from the central districts of town and to go out and explore some of the smaller “Mom & Pop” places, which some would argue have more character and incorporate more true communal spirit because they are part of the community in a way that the tourist places are not, they exist to serve the community in which they are a part, rather than the transient crowd that is the tourist masses and whom will not be returning in the foreseeable future.

Several of the conference attendees and I decided that we had to get out of the French Quarter to explore some “real” New Orleans food last night and ended up agreeing on a barbecue place called The Joint in the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater part of the city. You have to pass through some pretty run down and not-yet-rebuilt areas to get there, so we were advised by the concierge at the conference hotel that we should take a cab to get there, though I personally would have been interested to have had more of a face-to-face experience with the devastation. But let’s move on to the actual restaurant and the food. The Joint was located right, and I mean right, alongside the railroad tracks in what was otherwise a strictly residential neighborhood. There was a train that went past during dinner and it shook the whole building for several minutes, not to mention making the owners dog (who was inside sitting in the middle of the dining area) howl like a wolf. The building was a long concrete block painted yellow on the outside and a tangerine orange in the inside. But the thing that stuck you most was the entirely intoxicating smell emanating from the place. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m nuts about barbecue (kind of like cookoo for cocoa puffs)! I love the passion of the people who make it their mission to produce the best barbecue possible, the commitment of time and resources and the lore and even the manliness of it (though obviously there are many women involved). But barbecue is not something to be taken lightly, it’s something that wars could be fought over and I’m sure many a family feud has arisen purely because of barbecue-related issues. This is serious stuff.

I am more of a sauce than a meat person when it comes to making my decisions about which kinds of bbq I like best, but there’s no denying a good piece of barbecued pork, beef, or chicken (though pork is really my barometer for barbecue, in this part of the country anyhow, certainly not in Texas where beef is king). The sauce at The Joint was not amazing by my standards, on its own that is. There were two options, both very watery, and I’m more of a one for thick sweet sauces. The redder of the two sauces was the one I settled on and when combined with the pulled pork (which was served without sauce so you could add it to your desired potency, I like about 1:1 sauce to meat, though I could even go up to 2:1 if the meat will hold all that sauce), it was stellar. We also had pork ribs which were, frankly, amazing! They had this thick crust of rub on them which was dark and sweet with a little kick. It was simply out of this world and the ribs themselves, the meat was juicy and tender and oh so flavorful, it was a flavor party in your mouth. Delicious!

Sides were also a strongpoint at The Joint. We had macaroni and cheese, baked beans, green salad with smoked tomato dressing, and coleslaw. The macaroni and cheese had just been made several hours before and was so creamy and rich! The baked beans had an unusual twist in that they included tiny little chunks of green peppers. They added another flavor layer to the traditional recipe that was appreciated. The smoked tomato dressing on the salad was creamy and wonderful. Apparently they smoke the tomatoes for the dressing themselves in the same smoker they use for the barbecue. No wonder it is such a success.

Between the owner’s dog howling like the world was coming to an end, the locals giving us ordering advice, and the laidback and welcoming feel of The Joint, there was really nothing more anyone could ask for! If you are ever in the New Orleans area, you must must must check out this place. It’s certainly proof positive that getting outside of the tourist district and exploring the local food scene can be so worth the time and effort!

Vegan adventures

May 9, 2008

So anyone who has perused this blog at any juncture is well aware of the fact that I am clearly not a vegetarian or vegan or any facsimile thereof, I mean have you seen the pictures of the deer heads and suckling pig? But even though I work with animal bones on a daily basis and am not at all afraid of meat on any level, I also am not on the carnivorous end of the omnivore spectrum. I do not eat a great deal of meat, but I don’t make an extra effort to cut it out of my diet either. I am equally happy to have chicken or tofu for dinner. For me, at least at this stage of the game, it is more about the experience of different flavors, textures, and cultural traditions, than it is about other aspects of food choices. (And believe me I am also well aware of the arguments for vegetarian and vegan dietary choices and I definitely support those people who decide that these lifestyles suit their personal goals and moral and political stances.) I, personally, am trying to move as far away from any sorts of restrictions or defined boundaries when it comes to foods as I can and so I choose to eat whatever might appear on my plate and to be more intrigued by the story behind the food.

With that information as a backdrop, I will admit that I definitely have an interest in vegetarian and vegan cuisine as such. I am very interested to experiment and experience the kinds of flavors and textures created with non-meat products. Following along this path, I and a few of my friends went to Horizons for dinner this evening. It was a special prix fixe menu that was a terrific deal and a wonderful opportunity to taste a few of the foods coming out of this well-known and well-loved Philly vegan hot-spot. Our menu included:

Jamaican bbq seitan with green jerk cabbage and scotch bonnet crema

Pan roasted tofu with exotic mushroom paella, english pea sauce, and tomato salad

Bittersweet chocolate cheesecake with balsamic strawberries
(ummm, yeah, so as is my wont, I got too excited when dessert came and I’d eaten the whole slice before I remembered that I was supposed to have taken a picture of it, but you know what cheesecake looks like, so just imagine it) ☺

The seitan appetizer, and this was the first time I’d ever had seitan, was a very unique texture. I described it as almost like a very fatty pork belly or some similar cut, but without the distinctly stringy texture of the meat and the overly disgusting feel of a big wad of fat in your mouth (I abhor chewing on large chunks of fat). The seitan was chewy in the way that pork belly is, but without all the associated guilt. The bbq sauce had a great punch, which was well balanced with the crispness of the cabbage and the crema sauce. The hot seitan also contrasted well with the cool cabbage and sauce.

Though the pan roasted tofu was a simple dish in and of itself, just add some seasoning on top and you’ve got your dish, the accoutrements were wonderful. The mushroom paella was more like a smooth creamy risotto and the pea sauce was fantastic! It added both a bright green color and an extremely fresh and bright flavor.

The chocolate cheesecake was also quite good, very light and fluffy. Not much to say there since I obviously liked it so much I forgot to take a photo. Chocolate in a dessert and I’m one happy woman.

Like so many others before me, I was quite impressed with the food at Horizons. The presentation was really nice, the colors were vibrant, and the flavors and textures were really well-balanced. The ambiance of the restaurant is also very pleasant and the staff were extremely congenial. At the very least I will have to make a return visit to try their mango crème brulée because it’s on the list of the top 5 crème brulées in the city (according to Citypaper), which I’m trying to, but doing a very poor job of, working my way through. But I’d want to go back anyway, this is a place you can take your vegetarian and vegan friends for sure, but also people who just like to eat these sorts of foods, to see, taste, and experience what is out there in all the various arenas of the culinary world.

Modo Mio – Italian food ‘perfection-style’

March 5, 2008

I had a nearly perfect meal for dinner last night at Modo Mio on Girard Ave. in Philadelphia. Everything about the meal made for a fantastic evening at this small, homey, welcoming restaurant in Northern Liberties. We went there on a recommendation of one of our dining partners who had heard nothing but rave reviews about the place and boy were those people right. I would really urge anyone who is looking for a great meal out on the town to head in that direction immediately. Now I know certain people who don’t think that going out to eat Italian food makes a whole lot of sense, yes you can make pasta at home, but there is no way you will be able to reproduce the quality of meal that you’ll enjoy at Modo Mio without a gargantuan amount of effort on your part, and unless you really want to go to all that trouble, why not let the experts do what they do best?
The restaurant has a prix fixe menu for $30 where you can order an antipasti, pasta, secondi, and either a dolce or contadini, they’ve christened it the “menu tourista.” I would really recommend this option. Not only do you get great value for your money, but there are no restrictions on the options, you can literally order anything on their menu when you choose the prix fixe. They have between 6 and 8 options in each of the categories and several specials each night. The menu also changes every six weeks.
I’m not going to get too much into the details of the actual meal here since I tried some of everything that landed on our table and every single dish was amazing, but I will give you a little run down of my own meal choices and then include the pictures so you can see for yourself the kinds of beautiful food they’re bringing out of the kitchen at this place. For antipasti I had an octopus salad with white beans, raisins, and slivered almonds. For both the pasta and secondi I ordered the specials which were a torteloni stuffed with broccoli rabe and some wonderful cheese, also served with raisins and then a lamb stew served with feta. The range of flavors that we experienced during the course of the meal was really wonderful. Everything from the little amuse buche at the beginning – their homemade bread with gorgonzola cheese, prosciutto, and aged balsamic vinegar – to the sambuca at the end was perfectly flavored and just danced on your palate.
Now we all know that any good meal out at a restaurant is not due solely to the powers of the chef, the ambiance and the serving staff are also critical players in how much you enjoy the night. Well you should have no complaints at Modo Mio. The staff were so friendly and welcoming and made you feel very comfortable, a great deal of laughing was done by all. Our waiter was particularly charming and made the meal that much more memorable because of his attentiveness and lighthearted conversation throughout the evening. The timing of the plates coming out of the kitchen was also quite well orchestrated, with pauses between courses to allow you to take a break and to get into some good conversation. The point of the prix fixe menu and the entire way the restaurant is set up is to allow friends to come out for a nice, leisurely meal and to enjoy the food, ambiance, and company of their dining partners. They have succeeded absolutely in this goal as far as I’m concerned, I have not had a more impressive or pleasant meal in recent memory. We even shut the place down on a Tuesday night and were able to meet the chef, Peter, who was born locally and extremely nice. He and our waiter, Ernesto, really made the night. As I said, you really should get yourself out to Modo Mio as soon as may be, you deserve to treat yourself to such a fantastic dining experience!

Modo Mio
161 West Girard Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19123

ph: 215-203-8707

Las Bugambilias

December 22, 2007

Let me start this review with a disclaimer… I am not extremely versed in Mexican or Southwest-style cuisine. Many of the ingredients are unfamiliar to me, though I recognize them and generally know what they are, I don’t personally use them very much in my own cooking. That said, I will stand on the fact that I can recognize good food, service, and ambiance when I experience it, so I don’t think I’m at all unqualified to offer my opinions about the relatively new addition to the “Mexican restaurant scene,” Las Bugambilias, located between Front and Second Streets, on South Street.

First of all, you may want to note that they do not take reservations, so if you’re thinking of going there on a peak evening (i.e. a weekend), you should plan accordingly and show up expecting that there may be a bit of a wait. My friends and I went on a Tuesday and it was surprisingly crowded, this may have been because it’s the holiday season and means that more larger groups of people are getting together to enjoy festive meals. I would say that the kitchen seemed a little slow that night (though not unbearably so) and this may have been because of the full dining room.

So now to the restaurant itself. Tucked away in a little house on South St. the ambiance is bright and sunny, with lots of yellow tones that certainly liven up the general feel of the place. I particularly liked the life-size figurine on the sidewalk outside, it seemed very Mexican folk art / Day of the Dead inspired. There’s a separate bar area immediately as you come in where you can just have a seat to order if you want to have a more casual meal. Their drinks menu includes both your standard tequila-based cocktails and bottles of wine. There are a large cocktails to choose from, all of which sounded fabulous, but I can’t vouch for their actual taste, we went for the wine.

We started with thick and crunchy chips served with two kinds of salsa, a pico de gallo and a spicy salsa picante. We also ordered some of their house guacamole, which came in a lava bowl. I thought the serving was a little small for the price, but it was definitely fresh and refreshing. The salsa picante was a great condiment to add to the other two dips, upping their intensity and bite, but it was also great on its own.

The food we ordered was all delicious and well presented. I apologize if the descriptions are not entirely accurate, but you should be able to get the general feel and the pictures will help as well. I had the pork tenderloin which was stuffed with whole almonds, roasted red peppers, and olives, served with fried plantains, in a tomato-based sauce, alongside some rice (though I do believe it was supposed to be sweet potatoes according to the menu) and corn on the cob which had lime juice and some chile sprinkled on it (delicious). The flavors in this dish were powerful and well-matched to each other. I think it’s unusual to find the saltier olives and peppers with the sweeter plantains, but this was a great success!
One friend ordered the salmon with sundried tomatoes, lime, cilantro, and scallions, served with whipped sweet potatoes that had a hint of coconut in them from coconut milk (ingenious!) and corn on the cob.

Anoimg_2591.jpgther friend had a filet mignon, cooked to absolute perfection, in a dark brown sauce, and here’s where my vocabulary will really fail me. The sauce was similar to what I think of as a mole, but I don’t believe that’s what it was called on the menu. The filet was served with rice, corn on the cob, guacamole, pureed refried beans, and tortillas.
I have one friend who makes it a habit of ordering a couple of appetizers rather than an entrée, following the trend of many restaurant-goers these days (see the recent New York Times article here). She had a crepe filled with “Mexican mushrooms” and guacamole topped with cheese and a salad with strips of cactus served on a trio of little tortillas. Both of these were extremely flavorful and generous portions for appetizers.
For dessert we had one of their tres leches choices, this one was a chocolate and Amaretto version served swirled with fresh whipped crème and strawberries, parfait style. We also tried a custard with Grand Marnier topped with caramel and fresh fruit. Where many restaurants seem to fall down on the dessert offerings, Las Bugambilias definitely did not. These two options were both light and sweet, the perfect ending to a relaxing and satisfying meal, and the other choices on the menu were worth going back for.

Overall, though the restaurant is new on the scene, the food they are bringing out of the kitchen is wonderfully on point and the service, though a bit lagging at some points (I would attribute this to the rush on a Tuesday night) was both friendly and helpful. I would highly recommend this place to anyone looking for a night out on the town with a bit of Mexican flare, you’ll find it in spades at Las Bugambilias!