Friday, August 30, 2013

Wanderlust | St. Louis

Amy and I squeezed in tons of things during my brief, three-day visit to the Midwest, so I wanted to make a little guide of where we ate and drank, what we saw, and what we did together in St. Louis.

Amy made appointments for us at Blown Away, a little blow dry-only salon in St. Louis. Its hairdryers are suspended in the air, with the cords plugged to the ceiling for easy of drying for the stylists. Here are our perfect coiffs upon leaving the salon!

Later that night, we hopped on over to Chef Gerard Craft's Pastaria (see review here) in Clayton for some crazy awesome risotto balls and fantastic housemade pastas.

Amy and I met up with her best friend Mel and her brother David at The Muny, the nation's older and largest outdoor musical theatre (largest meaning having the most amount of seats), to see Disney's Mary Poppins: The Musical. After 10-15 minutes into the show, there was a huge downpour of rain, causing the show to postpone until nearly 11 PM (when it was safe for the cast to return to stage without risk of slipping on a wet stage). However, by then, we had already bailed after being drenched in makeshift ponchos and tiny umbrellas to return back to Mel's apartment to watch Two Weeks' Notice. It was an honest effort, and the night ended up being really fun anyhow! :P

The next morning, we found our way to downtown St. Louis for brunch {1,2} at Rooster, where there was {4} a half hour wait already before 11:30 AM!

02A - Rooster
By the time we got our table (actually a lot quicker than the time estimate), we were starving, {5} so we toasted with peach bellinis and had homemade sourdough toast (ha-ha) with butter and fresh strawberry jam. Loved the thick slices! For our main course, Amy had the {8} goat cheese #2 with mushrooms, fresh spinach, and tomato jam, while I had the {6} bacon #2 with Vermont cheddar, caramelized onions, and a spicy mayonnaise.We also shared {7} a side of breakfast potatoes. An utterly and completely solid brunch -- I don't think I've had a breakfast crepe this good. Definitely worth the wait!

02B - Arch 1
After brunch, we headed over to {1-2,4} the Gateway Arch to how the wait was for the next ride up to the top of the Arch. The next available Journey to the Top up wasn't for another two hours, so we made sure to buy tickets for the next trip up and walked around for a bit before heading over to the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis for a little afternoon respite.

Quick panoramic shot of the Gateway Arch!

Underneath the Arch!

02C - FS
{1,4,7} The Four Seasons St. Louis was about a 10-15 minute walk from the Arch. As with any Four Seasons Hotel, the interiors were serene yet modern, providing us the perfect in between spot to cool down from the summer heat. {3,5} We had great refreshing drinks at Cielo Bar -- {6} Amy had a good ol' mojito while I had a cocktail that had pineapple juice and ginger beer in it I believe. We really enjoyed this nice break, especially {8} with the fabulous view of the Arch right out the window.

{1} We returned back to the tourist concourse at the base of the Gateway Arch. We still had some time to spare so we walked through the Museum of Westward Expansion right inside, which delved into the history of the American expansion into the Midwest and how Louis and Clark ties into it all.

02B - Arch 2
{2} Getting to the top took about a half hour (waiting in line, queuing up, walking through to the little pod entryway, riding a little pod for five to the top, etc.), but when we finally got up there, {3,5} boy, was the view gorgeous! We could see City Hall and Busch Stadium where the St. Louis Cardinals play. {4} I even got a photo of myself with the landmark sign inside the Arch indicating we were 630 feet above the ground!

02D - Jilly's
Before heading back to Amy's apartment, we made sure to stop at Jilly's Cupcake Bar. I had the {2}24-Karat Carrot Cake cupcake filled with vanilla whipped cream and topped with vanilla cream cheese frosting, toasted coconut, white chocolate shavings, and 24-karat gold dust. Amy had the {3}Twisted Pink Velvet cupcake filled with caramel and topped with cream cheese, caramel buttercream, and a pecan praline. The cake of the cupcake was quite moist and soft, while the toppings and filling are on the sweeter side. As they're quite big, they're best for sharing flavors among a group of friends -- that way you can try many flavors without filling up!

The colorful bakery window of Jilly's.

{1} Later that evening, I joined Amy and Mel for a cooking class at Kitchen Conservatory entitled Grills Gone Wild, where the entire menu focused on how to best grill indoors. {2} Kitchen Conservatory is a premier kitchen store that has a selection of more than 6,000 essential and useful cooking products in its store as well as {4} offers cooking classes of all genres and cuisines in the two auxiliary kitchens at the back of the store.

02E - KC 1
The evening's cooking demo began with {3}some mango mojitos, {5} a lemon herb dip with crudité, as well as {6,7} preparation for our salad and dessert. It was great we came to class hungry, both for food and knowledge. We certainly learned tons with our three-hour session at Kitchen Conservatory -- e.g., how to properly zest a lemon efficiently, how to grill fruit, how to make do with what's available, etc.

02E - KC 2
{1} The salad ended up turning into grilled hearts of romaine salad with blue cheese dressing and bacon, but I substituted the blue cheese for olive oil and balsamic vinegar (still delicious!). For our main course, we watched our instructor poach potatoes in butter (so much butter but OMG so good!) for the side dish, while simultaneously grilling a generously sized cut of salmon (with the pretty criss-cross charred exterior!). The resulting dish was grilled salmon with tangy horseradish-cucumber sauce along with a side of butter-poached and roasted potatoes. Dessert used the grilled peach sundaes with homemade vanilla bean ice cream, toasted pecans, and grade B maple syrup. Absolute perfection!

{1,5} After class, I wanted to be sure we hit up Taste by Niche before I was to head back to NYC, another spot run by Chef Gerard Craft. I first heard of Taste by Niche listed as part of Bon Appetit's Top 10 Cocktail Bars in America, so I knew we had to check it out.

02F - Taste
While there was an {1} inside seating area with bar, we decided to sit outside after arriving around 11 PM. It was the perfect decision as these musicians like to play live jazz on Laclede Avenue Amy had the {2}Curious Flowers Hendrick's gin, Fruitlab hibiscus, Mathilde cassis, lemon, house orange marmalade, Angostura, and Gruet brut. This drink was truly delicious, with a nectar-like consistency and finishing with a light herbaceous, fruity groove. I had the {3Nude Bomb with Plantation 5-Year rum, Rhum JM, St. Germain, Don's Mix, grapefruit, coconut water, and tiki bitters, which channeled sitting under a straw umbrella on a tropical island. Wish we could've tried more drinks here, so there's always next time!

{1} The next morning, Amy and I met my old college roommate, Dave, for brunch at Half & Half.

03A - HH
Half & Half has a pretty intense coffee selection -- three varieties potentially available in four different brewing methods! Amy got Finca Salaca from Costa Rica roasted by Kaldi's Coffee prepared in a cold brew method. Very concentrated, but very smooth! As for the main courses, {3} I had the salmon hash with potatoes, chives, sunny-side up eggs, and hollandaise. {4} Dave had the eggs benedict with poached eggs, hollandaise, spinach, and ham over english muffins and a side of potatoes. {5} Amy had the Brussels sprout and cheddar omelet with mixed greens. Although the service was unacceptably slow that morning (even after waiting 30-45 minutes for a table), the food was pretty decent and hit the spot for my brunch craving.

Later that afternoon, {1} Amy and I headed to Whole Foods to pick up the necessary ingredients for our homemade feast that evening that Amy and Mel planned to feature in their local St. Louis cooking blog, It Takes Two, with me as a guest chef!

03B - It Takes Two
On the menu: {2} white bean dip with homemade pita chips, a recipe from Food Network's Giada De Laurentiis; {4} tomato and watermelon gazpacho, a recipe from Food Network magazine; {3} an amazing stone fruit sangria, a recipe from Everyday Food; the boldest tomato-beet salad, a recipe from Everyday Food; a modified recipe of roasted salmon with a citrus sauce from Rachael Ray magazine with a recipe for a side of double-mint barley tabbouleh; {5,6} a modified recipe of peach and raspberry crisp (sans raspberries) served with vanilla bean ice cream by Food Network's Ina Garten.

Check out Mel's blog write-up on "Fresh Perspectives" over at It Takes Two!

Thanks again to Amy for being the best hostess -- what a great visit to St. Louis!

Price point: $35 for a blowout at Blown Away; $7.75-8.95 for each breakfast crepe at Rooster, $6 for each cocktail, $1.75 for each side, $2.50 for homemade toast; $10 cocktails at Cielo Bar; $10 per person for a Journey to the Top of the Gateway Arch; $5 per cupcake at Jilly's Cupcake Bar; $10 for each original cocktails at Taste by Niche; $8-11.50 per main course at Half & Half;

--August 2-4, 2013

*Blown Away
8815 Ladue Road
St. Louis, MO 63124

7734 Forsyth Boulevard
Clayton, MO 63105

*The Muny
1 Theatre Drive
St. Louis, MO 63112

1104 Locust Street
St. Louis, MO 63101

*Gateway Arch
100 Washington Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63102

*Cielo Bar
Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis
999 North 2nd Street
St. Louis, MO 63102

*Kitchen Conservatory
8021 Clayton Road
St. Louis, MO 63117

*Taste by Niche
4584 Laclede Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63108

Half & Half
8133 Maryland Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63105

Whole Foods Market
1160 Town and Country Crossing Drive
Town and Country, MO 63017

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dinner | Pastaria

Two weekends ago, I made a long weekend trip out to St. Louis to visit my dear friend Amy. I arrived early that afternoon, where we spent it catching up until it was time to go to dinner {1,2} at Pastaria, Chef Gerard Craft's latest culinary venture in Clayton, a neighborhood of St. Louis, which opened last fall as a no-reservations, "casual and family-centric fresh pasta/pizza joint."

01A - Pastaria
{4,6} As clear as it is in its name, the restaurant offers dishes with housemade pastas, which you can watch being made from the window display outside. You can also purchase fresh pasta and homemade gelati from the take-away counter. {5} The kitchen opens into {3} the dining room that has {7} cleverly mismatched rustic furniture and tableware to underscore the relaxed environment of Pastaria.

I love the logo (looks like a rogue piece of spaghetti) and the graphic on the menu -- very appropriate and fun!

As with any good Italian restaurant, there will always be bread, with the hope that it comes out warm, fresh out of the oven. With that, Pastaria certainly delivered!

To start, Amy and I made sure to have the crispy risotto balls with mozzarella and Grana Padano along with sides of herb aioli and marinara sauce. These were (ahem, excuse my word choice) AMAZEBALLS. You know that pleasant feeling you get when you bite into a just-fried mozzarella stick? Well increase that feeling ten-fold and you will be where I was when I tasted my first risotto ball. It is melty, nicely cheesy, savory, substantial, and crispy all at once. Dip them in some marinara, and you'll want to have another dozen of them. It was probably for the best that we each only had three each. Any more than that would be considered dangerous.

To counteract the greasy goodnss of the crispy risotto balls, we also shared the orange salad with green olives, red onions, tarragon, and extra virgin olive oil. Though a very simple preparation, it was very refreshing and a good mix of acidity to cut through the other savory dishes we would have that evening.

As my main course, I had the pistachio ravioli with pistachios, mint, lemon brown butter, and Grana Padano. The pasta itself was incredibly fresh -- you can undoubtedly taste the difference -- and quite possibly some of the best I've ever had, as fresh pasta done right can truly be had to find outside of Italy. These exquisite little pillows were a mix of that obnoxiously good, silky nuttiness you get from roasted pistachios with the sweet creaminess of browned butter. The subtle hint of mint was a nice touch, too.

Amy had the canestri cacio e pepe with pecorino, Grana Padano, and black pepper. The canestri were huge and ridged version of elbow macaroni-shaped pasta. Cacio e pepe is essentially "cheese and pepper" in Italian, and it is the simplicity yet genius behind this dish. A creamy blend of pecorino and Grana padano melts into the curvy ridges of the canestri while it all gets balanced out with the generous sprinkling of freshly ground pepper throughout. This dish is quite heavy (don't fill too much beforehand), but that doesn't make it any less great. The hollow holes within the canestri gave us enough surface area of pasta to really enjoy the cacio e pepe sauce.

We shared a side of the roasted Brussels sprouts with olive oil and chili -- freaking amazing! In my eyes, you can't really screw up roasted Brussels sprouts -- salt, pepper, and olive oil should be enough to do the trick. It's just a fun bonus when you have other things (like chili in this case) thrown into the mix. Loved the browned bits on the outer leaves of the sprouts, which gave them a light charredness to them. These went really well alongside our pasta dishes.

Dessert, on the other hand, didn't seem to be Pastaria's strong suit. We shared two desserts, including the cannoli with pastry cream, strawberry balsamic, and salted pistachios, which was pretty disappointing. I guess I had assumed pastry cream was going to be the authentic mascarpone typically piped inside a cannoli shell, but the pastry cream seemed deflated and just not what my Little-Italy-seasoned-palate is used to. Plus, where were the chocolate nibs?!

We also had the dark chocolate tart with whipped cream an candied hazelnuts, which didn't really seem to resemble a tart except in its shape. It was like a dense chocolate cake more than anything else. I did enjoy the candied hazelnuts here, but everything else was meh. I can't speak from personal experience, but Amy did say that their gelato was quite lovely from what she remembered from her past visits. So thinking back on it now, we probably shoud've stuck with multiple scoops of different flavors, and we would've been happier campers. But it's okay -- everything else shined so brightly, that it wasn't even an issue!

Findings: Given that this was my first real meal in St. Louis, I was pretty impressed (read: REALLY impressed) with what Chef Gerard Craft had cooking at Pastaria (little did I know, it would be indicative of the rest of my meals in this fantastic little city). Those crispy risotto balls continue to haunt me even now, and I dream about those pastas from time to time. Pistachios packed inside ravioli? Ingenious! Plus, knowing that every single pasta dish uses fresh, housemade/extruded pastas just enhances your dining experience that much more. The orange salad was also divine -- as I am sure the other salads are, too -- and even though dessert was pretty much a letdown, I left with quite the happy stomach. We really, really should've gone the gelato route (I mean, just from hearing flavors like toasted coconut, lemon verbena, fresh chocoalte mint, and raspberry black peppercorn, it should've been a no-brainer!).

That's the best part about summing up the experience, though. You can always say the right thing to alleviate any regrets -- there's always next time! I definitely know where Amy and I will be the minute I'm in town next. Pastaria, with no doubt in my mind! :P Oh, and be sure to show up on the earlier side to avoid a lengthy wait -- this place gets pretty hopping around 7 PM!

Price point: $7.95 for each starter, $13.95-14.95 for each pasta, $6.95 for each dessert.

--August 2, 2013

7734 Forsyth Boulevard
St. Louis (Clayton), MO 63105

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Wanderlust | Philadelphia

Lisa and I made a weekend trip to Philadelphia a couple weeks ago to visit our dear friend Dani (pretty much a girls' weekend :P), so I wanted to give a rundown of where we ate and drank, what we saw, and what we did during those two days.

We got in on a late Friday afternoon, where we settled into our hotel room (yay for corner rooms at the DoubleTree Hilton!) and {1,4} pretty much went straight to happy hour at restauranteur Stephen Starr's English pub, The Dandelion.

01A - Dandelion
Along with $4 house wines (we opted for rieslings), we got {5,6}$2 bar snacks (including bar nuts toasted in butter and and marinated olives with herbs, spices, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) and {2}chicken and duck liver parfait with grape chutney, cornichons, and brioche toast and rosemary (off the regular menu). The nuts were nicely browned and had a really distinct rosemary flavor. They were so good that Lisa wants to try to replicate this at home! The liver parfait was out of this world, as it was the perfect blend of paté together (even better with a sprinkle of sea salt  that came with the butter and {3} country white and stout bread). Not bad for happy hour!

01B - Barnes
After happy hour, we made our way to {1-4The Barnes Foundation (of Philadelphia) for a night of jazz (the Museum hosts live music performances on Friday evenings) and art. While the space alone is simply stunning, what an unbelievable collection of art it has housed in its merely-a-year-old modern walls! We saw the featured exhibit, Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture on the Wall, as well as the rooms filled with the Foundation's permanent collection.

01C - Alma
Whilst waiting in queue for dinner at Oyster House, {1} we had pre-dinner cocktails at Stephen Starr's Cuban restaurant, Alma de Cuba. {2}I had the Alma Colada with passionfruit juice, coconut milk blended with ice, Bacardi Superior, shaved coconut, and a drizzle of Myer's dark rum; Lisa had the Mango Martini with Ketel One vodka, mango liqueur, and mango purée; and Dani had the Black Cherry Caipirinha (Portuguese for "little peasant girl") made with muddled limes, sugar, and black cherry-infused Brazilian Leblon Cachaca. Delicious stuff!

We waited about 30-45 minutes at Alma de Cuba for a table {1}at Oyster House, where we eventually began with sips of {2} Mother's Ruin punch with gin, fresh grapefruit, cinnamon tea-infused vermouth, and sparkling wine,{4}a bottle of Narragansett Lager, as well as The Bloody Caesar with real clam juice, Sobieski vodka, spicy tomato juice, and horseradish. {3} Please also note the ginormous homemade oyster crackers Oyster House offers in lieu of a bread basket.

01D - OH
For our main meals, {5} Dani had the OH Burger made from grass-fed beef and topped with blue cheese, a fried oyster, and grilled onions with a side of hand-cut fries; {6} Lisa had the Fisherman's Stew with shellfish and fish in a spicy broth and saffron rouille; {8} while I had an order of fried Ipswich clams (essentially fried full-belly clams)! Mine and Lisa's were quite good, while Dani's burger was a little overpowered by the blue cheese (but had great elements like the fried oyster!).

And obviously we couldn't have gone to oyster house without ordering our fair share of oysters. Here was the rundown:
  1. *Chincoteague (Chincoteague Bay, VA): Pretty good, but not much after-taste.
  2. *Cape May Salt (Cape May, NJ): Buttery with a better after-taste than the Chincoteague.
  3. Naked Cowboy (Great South Bay, Long Island, NY): Briny.
  4. Little Shemogue (New Brunswick, Canada): Very briny.
  5. Beach Blonde (Charlestown, RI): Ehhh...just bland.
  6. Salt Pond (Point Judith Pond, RI): Nope. Too metallic.
  7. Mermaid Cove (Prince Edward Island, Canada): Not bad -- just okay.
  8. *Shigoku (Samish Bay, WA): FANTASTIC! Had a deep cup with a nice melon taste. These were our favorites!
One of my musts on this trip was stopping {1,8} at Federal Donuts for its supposedly {5} awesome donuts and drool-worthy fried chicken, which conquered the next day. I am so very glad that we were able to have both because {2} they sold out of wings within a few minutes after we placed our order for fried chicken!

02A - FD
As far as donuts were concerned, Lisa and Dani had one of the fancy donuts (pretty much glazed or dressed in something) -- {3}sticky bun and {6}strawberry-ginger -- while I had one that was recommended by one of the girls behind the counter -- {4} vanilla spice from the hot fresh section (essentially freshly fried and sprinkled with flavored sugar). While the fancy donuts had a denser interior and a heavier yet tasty glaze on stop that pretty much mimicked the flavor each had promised, the hot fresh ones just came straight out of the fryer, hot and melty with sprinkled sugar and the intoxicating tease of vanilla with each bite.

For the donuts alone, a detour here is worth it, but even more so if you can ALSO get your hands on some fried chicken wings. {7}We shared a half dozen of the honey-ginger fried chicken wings which also came straight from the fryer. The batter was perfect -- not too heavy or light, thoroughly enveloping the chicken and adding that savory, loose crunch with each nibble. The honey-ginger was mixed straight into the batter so there was no stickiness to it that you'd normally get with a glazed sauce. Finger licking is inevitable, but don't worry, they give you wet naps to clean off your paws upon demolishing your basket of fried chicken. Anyway, just be sure to get there early enough before the wings sell out or you will be immensely upset for yourself for not getting up earlier.

Blurred shot of us enjoying donuts and fried chicken at Federal Donuts.

02B - Jim's
A trip to Philly wouldn't truly be authentic to out-of-towners without a taste of a legit Philadelphia cheesesteak. This time, we stopped at Jim's Steaks, which Marcus highly recommended because they chop up the steak meat for easier eating (and in his opinion, tastier overall than slabs of meat).{1,7} The line wasn't too bad around noon when we arrived (and met up with Megan, one of Dani's good friends), and it moves pretty quickly as it's quite an efficient operation happening over there. {2} The menu is pretty straight forward -- just need to choose your cheese, decide whether you want your cheesesteak with or without onions, and note if you want additional toppings like peppers or mushrooms, too. {4,5} The chopped steak and onions are grilled on an open grill, where a large roll is lightly toasted against the browned bits from the meat and onions, followed with a dab of cheese (cheese whiz if you're going the legit authentic route) and a generous scoop of chopped steak and topped with whatever toppings you request. {3,6} Our resulting cheesesteak was one with mushrooms and onions, and it was pretty damn good!

On our way to Jim's Steaks, {1} I saw a tiny popsicle shop down the street called Lil' Pop Shop which looked totally adorable and sounded really good in the heat, so I suggested we pop in (har, har!) to see what was up. Turns out Dani had been to the shop's other location closer to UPenn and said that Lisa and I had to try it. {4,6} Reading off the first few flavors off the chalkboard menu had us sold, so much that Lisa tried two!

02C - LPS
{2} From the pretty array of colorful pops inside the freezer display, Lisa first had the {5} goat cheese with black raspberries (really creamy and rich with nice tartness to it) while I had the Earl Grey with vanilla bean and black pepper (like a cup of peppery English tea turned into a frozen treat). Megan had the Vietnamese coffee (tasting exactly how it sounded), and {3} Lisa encored with coconut hibiscus (which was refreshing, even if it was more coconut than hibiscus). Lil' Pop Shop, please find your way to New York City. We promise we'll be your most loyal customers! :P

02D - MG
After our morning/early afternoon eats, we took a stroll through Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, "a mosaicked visionary art environment, gallery, and community arts center that preserves artist Isaiah Zagar's unique mosaic art environment and public murals." The Magic Gardens site (Zagar's largest artwork) includes a fully tiled indoor space and a massive outdoor mosaic sculpture garden that spans half a block on South Street. And get this -- it took him fourteen years to create the Magic Gardens, having completed it in 2008. Quite astounding!

Lisa, me, Dani, and Megan at Magic Gardens.

Later that evening, Lisa, Dani, and I got drinks {1}at Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, another place on my must-do's on this trip, before our extravagant dinner at Vetri. In the late 1920s during Prohibition's prime, The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. served as the front of the largest alcohol ring in the country. Max "Boo Boo" Hoff (the "King of Bootleggers"and his crew ran about 10,000 gallons a day via truck, train, and bus. As "one of the best drinking establishments in America that assumes the same name in honor of the Jewish mobster who kept Philly wet through the Roaring Twenties," The Franklin "celebrates both the golden age of barrooms of the pre-Prohibition era and the skilled bartenders who fled their homes to pursue a noble craft banned and demonized in its country of origin." It is also crazy to know that the team behind The Franklin is the same folks behind Pouring Ribbons (one of my favorite bars!) in New York City.

02E - FM
{2} The bar is located down in the cellar with that appropriate ambient lighting that you would find in a speakeasy like this one. {4} I got the Julie Winters punch which had Duquesne Blanc and Wray & Nephew rhums, Tanqueray gin, Velvet Falernum, Creole Shrubb, Allspice Dram, lime and pineapple juices, and coconut black tea syrup. It was quite strong but had that comfortable quality that punches have about them. {3} Lisa had the Pie Plant Cobbler which had El Dorado 12-Year rum, Terranoble Carmenere, Zucca, Grand Marnier, muddled orange, strawberry basil syrup, and honey -- all served over crushed ice. This tasted like a fruit pie as a strong cocktail -- very deeply fruity and herbaceous. {5} Dani had the Sorry for Partying Punch with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Wray & Nephew rhum, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Creme de Cacao, Nux Alpina walnut liqueur, Campari, lemon juice, strawberry lychee tea syrup, and orange bitters. Also quite punchy, but went down quite easy. Love the tea-bases in the punches at The Franklin! So if you're looking for a stiff, pre-dinner (or post, even) drink, you will undoubtedly find it here.

Lisa and Dani at Franklin Mortgage.

Last, but not least, we had a phenomenal and magical six-course dinner at Vetri (see full recap here) -- one of the best meals this year. Definitely goes down in my books as one of my top dining experiences ever.

Other Recommendations from Past Visits

  • *Barclay Prime (see review here): Marcus and I had a wonderful experience here celebrating our second anniversary at this amazing boutique steakhouse. Not only were our cuts of steak top-top quality, we also got to choose our own steak knives out of an array of four or five different makes.
  • Il Pittore (see review here): Beautiful interior for an Italian restaurant opened by restauranteur Stephen Starr, playing off the chef's last name and turning it into a painterly masterpiece.
  • *R2L (see review here): While dining at this restaurant, you get one of the best views Philadelphia from the comfort of your table. Breathtaking, for sure! Plus the food is quite exquisite.
  • *Matyson (see review here): Really great value for a high-end BYO restaurant -- something you don't ever get to experience in NYC. Food is stellar and impressive with really fun cuts of protein (sweetbreads and foie gras, included) offered throughout the year.
  • *El Vez (see review here): Excellent fish tacos and cocktails here!
  • *Chhaya (see review here): You can find some solid brunch food, hands down -- particularly those classic dishes made from batter (i.e., waffles, crepes, pancakes, etc.).
  • Parc (see review here): Stephen Starr's French brasserie puts forth a decent brunch.
  • Café Estelle (see review here): You can find yourself a comfortable, unpretentious brunch here.
  • Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates (see review here): Fun chocolate boutique which pays homage to Philly in many of its designs and varieties.
  • *OPEN HOUSE: One of my favorite gift shops ever -- you can find the coolest, funkiest gifts here, including a dynamic collection of well-designed, well-curated Philadelphia paraphernalia.
  • *Philadelphia Museum of Art: A truly fantastic art museum which offers superb art exhibitions regularly. Plus, a trip to Philly isn't complete without having crossed off the "Rocky Steps" off your list.

Price point: $2 for each bar snack at The Dandelion during happy hour, $4 house wines, $13 for each starter; $22 for adult admission to The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia, $10 for student admission; $10-13 for each cocktail at Alma de Cuba; $9 for each glass of punch at Oyster House, $4 for each beer, $8.50 for each cocktail, $15 for each small plate, $14-21 for each large plate, $1.25-2.75 for each oyster; $1.25 for each hot fresh donut at Federal Donuts, $2 for each fancy donut, $9 for six chicken wings; $8.50 for each cheesesteak at Jim's Steaks; $3 for each popsicle at Lil' Pop Shop; $7 for adult admission to Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, $5 for student admission; $14 for each cocktail at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company.

--July 26-27, 2013

*The Dandelion
124 South 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

*The Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia
2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, PA 19130

*Alma de Cuba
1623 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

*Oyster House
1516 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102

*Federal Donuts
1632 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

*Jim's Steaks
400 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

*Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
1020 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

*Lil' Pop Shop
534 South 4th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

*The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.
112 S 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

1312 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Toasts | 3rd blogiversary

Guess what?! Four Tines and a Napkin is officially three years old today. I can hardly believe that all of my eating/cooking/food adventures have been thoroughly documented in that long of a span! Four Tines has come a long way since then -- photography and resulting skills slightly different (hope you're liking the more condensed, viewer-friendly grid format); dining experiences running the gamut; plus, a new header/logo -- and I hope it can only move on up from here (fingers crossed!).


I realize I have been more absent now than I have been during the first two years of Four Tines' life, but counting beans has demanded more of me than it ever has, and I've somehow found a happy balance between that and marauding for morsels. Thank you for being patient with this change of direction -- it really means so much that so many of you have maintained your readership loyalty after all of this time. This past year, I have been focusing on not just my current city (NYC, baby!) but branching out to include a more meticulous rundown of my travels this year, including Charleston (a WAY overdue post is in the works, I promise!), Washington D.C., Chicago, Maine, Philadelphia (coming soon!), St. Louis (also coming soon) and a couple other places I'll be visiting in the next few weeks. I've realized that it's something that I find myself to be quite good at -- that is, creating dynamic travel itineraries filled with great food and drink along with other noteworthy sights and sounds. It is with these Wanderlust posts that I summarize the highlights of things I did in a particular area/city that I hope to share with my friends, family, and readers so that they'd have the best experience in another city as I did, knowing what they NEED to see/do/eat and what they should most likely bypass.

With all that being said, I celebrated this three-year evolution of Four Tines and a Napkin with a few nearest and dearest to me with a Busy Bee cake from Black Hound New York, which is incidentally one of the bakery's best sellers and signature cakes.

It is comprised of three layers of chocolate butter cake, two layers of almond butter cake, two layers of bittersweet chocolate mousse, and one layer of marzipan -- all covered in marzipan and bittersweet chocolate and decorated with marzipan-and-almond petal bees. Yup, it was even better than it sounded and looked -- no wonder it's one of the bakery's bestsellers. And it wouldn't be the proper blog birthday celebration without sparklers!

Big, big thank yous to Marcus, Lisa, Jess, Jen, Linda, and John for helping me celebrate -- Four Tines wouldn't be where it is today without you! Here's to another fantastic year of eating! :D

Price point: $31 for a six-inch Busy Bee cake from Black Hound New York, $45 for 288 ten-inch sparklers from Sparkle.

--August 13, 2013

Black Hound New York
170 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Sparkle LLC

Monday, August 12, 2013

Chef's Tasting | Vetri

This past weekend, I was in Philadelphia with Lisa visiting Dani, and on this trip, we had reservations at the well-coveted and well-renowned restaurant, Vetri, near the Avenue of the Arts. It was a dinner that marked a very special celebration -- Lisa getting into business school and Dani getting into medical school! We made the reservation a couple months in advance (crazy, right?!) for 8:30 that Saturday evening, so imagine the hunger we experienced all afternoon into the evening when we had stopped eating earlier in the day at 1 PM!

Eponymous to its owner/executive chef Chef Marc Vetri, Vetri's namesake "was conceived in part in Chef Vetri's belief that people should strive to be their own boss. After years of working in some of the finest kitchens in Italy and the U.S., he returned home in 1998 to his native Philadelphia, took over the intimate townhouse restaurant that was once home to the lauded Le Bec-Fin and started to cook alongside his business partner, sommelier Jeff Benjamin." Vetri's debut proved to be stunning with "its outstanding rustic fare, handcrafted pastas, innovative flavor combinations, and artful presentations," gaining the restaurant a favorable following amongst diners, critics, and fellow chefs alike.


By 2000, the restaurant received the highest restaurant rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Chef Vetri was named one of Food & Wine's "Ten Best Chefs." Five years later, Chef Vetri won the James Beard Award for "Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic" which led to he and Mr. Benhamin to open three more restaurants in Philadelphia (Osteria, Amis, and Alla Spina). Originally opening and operating with a more traditional, a la carte menu, Vetri "moved to a tasting menu only format in March 2011 to fully showcase the constantly evolving, dynamic creativity of Chef Vetri and his kitchen staff and their desire to offer an unparalleled dining experience."

The restaurant's cozy space accommodates thirty guests, "making for a more intimate feel while allowing guests ample room to enjoy their dinner." The highlight of the dining room are two elegant hand-blown Murano glass chandeliers Chef Vetri had custom made by the famed artisans at the Formia glass factory in Venice, Italy.

Loved the water glasses we each had of a different color!

When we arrived at our table, with a much needed glass of the crispest prosecco in hand (which reminds me, I certainly need to ask the restaurant about it!), we were shown a copy of that evening's menu with four sections -- di pesce (fish), di verdure (vegetable), di terra (from the earth), and dolce (dessert) -- which deliberately allows us to peruse the best of the season's offering and broaches a meaningful "conversation with the restaurant's staff to shape the meal. From there, the kitchen works on crafting a personalized six-course tasting."

There was also a complimentary beverage program to consider. In its initial days, Vetri had a 70-bottle wine list that has evolved into a cellar that houses a collection of 2,500 bottles in present day. There were two wine pairing options available that evening -- the basic six-course wine pairing ($90 per person) and the grand wine pairing ($135 per person) -- as well as a beer pairing ($70 per person). Since we didn't realize that the six-course tasting wasn't identical for each person, Lisa was the only one who ordered the basic wine pairing, assuming the three of us would just share the pairing so we wouldn't drink too much. Looking back on it, I wish I had done my own pairing because the wine pairing for Lisa's dishes were stellar and unbelievably spot-on.

To start, we were given an assortment of aperitivo e assaggi: across the middle were three kinds of house-cured salumi, including three-year aged pork and prosciutto mostarda; an herbed vegetable torte at twelve o'clock; and pastrami foie gras (!!!) with with coriander and black pepper fennel moustarda over brioche at the bottom. All were divine, particularly the pastrami foie gras -- I haven't tasted something that shell-shocking in a while. Delicately rich, rugged with the spices of cured pastrami, there need not be any other explanation other than you need this in your mouth. This amuse was actually inspired by a visit to Spago in Los Angeles (run by Chef Lee Hefter) during which a foie gras pastarami (sweet, salty, rich, and creamy) floored Chef Vetri. The house-cured salami was unreal -- that personal touch does so much more.

Along with the little bites, we had a bowl of vegetable crudo with fennel, carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and fresh herbs alongside balasamic crema. A very hands-on salad sans the fork and fancy plate.

And of course, there was the focaccia filone (olives on the side) with French butter. Given how we'd been starving ourselves all afternoon, this made for a great satiating respite before the tasting menu courses would commence.

The first course plates started coming out, which landed me with the New Jersey tomato and corn tortino with corn salad. For such a petite savory pie as this, it sure packed in lots of flavors, playfully emulating the essence of the Garden State's precious produce. It made for light, nimble, and fresh morsels of a true Jersey summer. Can't beat a crisp corn salad like this one.

Lisa was served the soft shell crab with agrodolce (i.e., an Italian sweet-and-sour sauce). With soft-shell crabs still in the last stretch of its prime season, these molting crustaceans can pretty much speak for themselves. Juicy and tender with a loose crunch of shell and batter, the agrodolce merely added a rich tanginess to the already flavorful crab. The soft shell crab was paired with a 2011 Kerner produced by Abbazia di Novacella from Alto Adige, Italy. It was ripe and full on the palate with a bit of crisp acidity, working really well with the savory aspects of the soft-shell crab. Nicely done!

Dani was given a Piedmontese carpaccio with beets, figs, and goat cheese. Thin slices of raw beef lined the plate with quartered figs that had just ripened, making for one delicate but no less exciting carpaccio.

My next course was the whole fish "secondo il mercato" -- the catch that day was Alaskan salmon. The salmon was roasted whole, served and topped with zucchini blossoms (I think?) and some caviar. The broth was lightly sweet and had just the right amount of cream, with the silken flakes of salmon loosely coming undone. It wasn't as strong in flavor as I had anticipated, but it was still well roasted.

Lisa was served the sweet onion crepe with truffle fondue, one of the restaurant's long-term signature dishes, and we quickly grew to understand why. John told us that the onions in this dish are caramelized over the lowest possible heat for TEN hours (I know, right?!) -- this is done so that the onions get this rich, darkened color of being deeply browned, resulting in them tasting sweeter (more like an onion marmalade, per the restaurant's cookbook Il Viaggio di Vetri: A Culinary Journey) and even better with the cream and truffle. The resulting dish was like a crock of baked French onion soup, only brothless. It was truly the sweetness of the onions speaking so deliciously and the dreaminess of the melted truffle fondue that won us over in one fell swoop.

Oh, and don't get me started on the dynamo pairing with 2008 Dolcetto di Dogliani produced by San Fereolo ("Valdibà") from Piedmont, Italy -- flavors of beautiful ripe berries with layers of mint and spice that made it perfect for serving with a fresh pasta dish like this one and juicy burgers (I could see this onion crepe as a topping to a burger :P). The wine made this dish sing us not only a beautiful song, but a powerful ballad. There is a reason why this dish is a signature classic. I hope it never makes an exit off the menu -- that would just be blasphemous!

For her second course, Dani was given the Four Story Hill duck stuffed with chorizo. Cooked to a medium rare, pink center, the duck had soaked up all of the flavors and spices from the chorizo chunks stuffed inside it. Really tender with a little zestiness from the chorizo -- it can be challenging to find duck prepared to the nines, but I am glad we don't need to worry about that at Vetri.

The third course began the pasta portion of the dinner, which for me was almond tortellini with truffle sauce. This dish actually appears on the menu year round. Per Il Viaggio di Vetri, Chef Vetri shares that he first had an iteration of this dish at La Lucanda, a restaurant located in Bergamo originally owned by Chef Luca Brasi. Initially, Vetri used to fill the tortellini with ricotta cheese and toasted almonds, but he learned from Chef Brasi to use rice instead of ricotta, which gives the filling an amazing texture. Chef Brasi also likes to fill them with bitter almonds, which are difficult to find in the United States, but Chef Vetri has been able to track down a bitter almond extract that creates a similar flavor. This little tidbit from the cookbook explains a lot -- when I took a bite of the tortellini, I was expecting a rich, milky ricotta to ooze out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of what was actually inside -- a texture noticeably different than that of ricotta with a less creamy taste compensated with the playfulness of browned almonds and a dash of bitter almond extract. Together, the flavors created pillows of sweet and creamed delight that had that same fragrant aroma as toasted almonds right out of the oven. I now clearly understood why the almond tortellini has a permanent place on Vetri's menu through each and every season.

Lisa's first pasta course began with the spinach gnocchi with brown butter, another one from the restaurant's collection of long-term signature dishes. Although it was more like gnudi than gnocchi for us, that didn't make the dish taste any less fantastic. While most people associate gnocchi with potatoes, gnoccho is actually Italian for "dumpling" referring both to the food and also as a term of endearment. For Chef Vetri, he began to think of gnocchi as just about anything that is soft and tender, leading to his experimenting with making dumplings out of other ingredients besides potato and subsequently discovering that spinach worked beautifully. What makes these gnocchi "lighter than air" is in the thorough wiling of the spnich and puréeing it for a good long time. Funny enough, he and his staff got the recipe right just a few days before Vetri's opening day and has been on the menu ever since.

Upon sinking our teeth into these Italian dumplings, we didn't hesitate to say that they were almost godlike and pretty much "lighter than air" as described in the cookbook -- they melted against the warmth of the palate as the lightest creamed spinach I had ever tasted. It was sad to see these four dumplings go, but it was the perfect amount to bear witness to the whimsical talent that Chef Vetri has with pasta. The pairing, as  with the previous courses, was out of this world -- a 2010 rosso di Montalcino (a sangiovese, essentially) produced by Coldisole from Tuscany -- making the gnocchi even better than we could've imagined.

Dani had the agnolotto with pistachio vellutate and a zucchini salad. The pasta was really fresh filled with a beautiful nuttiness that you only get from toasted bits of pistachio. The zucchini was julienned into gorgeous strings embodying the fleeting weeks of summer we have left. The creamy broth was light and great for sweeping onto each bite. This is how pasta can be poetic here at Vetri.

The second pasta course for me was the culurgiones with corn, chevrot (i.e., goat cheese), and sweetbreads. Culurgiones are a Sardinian ravioli typically filled with potato. But like Chef Vetri did with the gnocchi, he tried something different here -- he instead made it with a mild goat cheese like chevrot. Like all of his pasta dishes, the dough is incredibly fresh (undoubtedly made that morning), and the corn was in prime season, juicy with the subtlest crunch. The sweetbreads were that extra savory this dish needed. I was concerned the goat cheese would be overwhelming for me, but it wasn't at all -- it was pretty subdued (in a good way, of course) and really added a fun texture compared to that of the expected potato filling. Vetri really knows what they're doing when it comes to pasta (and a lot other things, for that matter :P)! Plus, this dish had the same pairing as Lisa's next course (see below) -- a 2011 Grüner Veltliner ("Strasser Weinberge") produced by Martin Arndorfer from Kamptal, Austria. A solidly stellar pairing with goat cheese!

Lisa's second pasta course was the conchiglione with lobster dumplings, paired with the 2011 Grüner Veltliner I mentioned earlier. Great outer pasta, and well-poached lobster inside, only made better with this pairing.

As her second pasta course, Dani was served the lorighittas with frutti di mare (i.e., seafood). Originating in Sardinia, the pasta's name is derived from the original shape of the pasta which was similar to a ring as sa loriga is Saridnian for the "iron ring" that was once fixed to the walls of local houses to tether horses when menu returned from the fields. The process of making lorighittas is truly an art which takes years of training to perfect, taking about six hours to intertwine the rings required to make just one kilogram of pasta.One of the traditional pairings with this pasta is with seafood, which is what Chef Vetri has done here with squid, uni, and scallops. This made for a very delicate pasta dish, as everything was soft and fluid.

For our fifth course of the evening, we each were served the roasted lamb with preserved porcini and moliterno (an Italian sheep cheese from Basilicata). It was cooked to a perfect medium rare, where the texture of this cut of meat reminded me very much of a slice of beef from a rib roast, only with that distinct taste that makes lamb taste like lamb. The jus was a thicker glaze that blended well with the slices of vinegared porcini and the crumbled pieces of moliterno. This was paired with a 2008 merlot produced by Perusini from Friuli, Italy, which really brought the lamb to life, underscoring all of the great flavors that would've been otherwise tucked away.

Before the dessert course, we were served a fresh mango sorbet with Lancaster blackberry. It really helped cleanse our palates of the rich and savory dishes we had just eaten through together with the well incorporated tang and tart.

I really loved the porcelain china on which tea and dessert was served -- they're part of the Paola Navone collection by Richard Ginori.

After seeing that they had cannisters of Bellocq tea in their service buffet chest, Lisa and I had to treat ourselves to a cup of tea -- its No. 31 green tea blend called Siam Basil Lemongrass. It made for a light, fragrant, and soothing digestif that went nicely with our dessert course.

For dessert, I was served the Paris-Brest with hazelnut cream and blueberries. A Paris-Brest is a French dessert, made of choux pastry and a praline-flavored cream (in this case, it's of hazelnut). This dessert made for a nice and light cream puff, with the cream rich with that smooth nuttiness you get from hazelnuts as well as with the bursts of blueberry in the mix. Though the choux pastry was a little thicker than I expected, it was still lovely.

Lisa had the fiadone (typically a cheesecake from Corsica) with strawberries. Loved the sweetness of the strawberries with a thin layer of chocolate on top and an interesting curdled texture from the cheese made using sheep's or goat's milk.

Dani had the chocolate polenta souffle, which also happens to be gluten-free. Just as rich and luscious as a traditional chocolate cake made using flour, this dessert had more of a pudding-like texture. And of course, the accompaniment of ice cream just made it go down that much easily.

Along with our dessert courses, we had a small plate of piccolo pasticceria consisting of petit-fours including cubes of a lemon-almond cake, a flourless chocolate cake, an opera cake, and a plum cake.

And of course, Lisa and I got our hands on Il Viaggio di Vetri signed by Chef Vetri himself!

Findings: Our dinner at Vetri was easily one of the best meals I've had this year (right next to McCrady's, Atera, and The Modern: Dining Room) -- hell, it'd be one of the best ones I've ever had, especially if I'm narrowing it down to Italian cuisine. Until coming to Vetri, I had never had a chef's tasting focused around Italian cuisine, so I was quite impressed with the odes to tradition, the inclusion of unexpected ingredients, and the execution skills exhibited in the six-course dinner through which we had the pleasure of dining. Having been around since a bit before the turn of the millenium, it was refreshing to know that even a well-established restaurant like Vetri is still putting forth not only tried-and-true dishes but ones that are outside of the box of hyper-traditional Italian fare. The marriage of tradition and innovation is nothing but harmonious in the kitchen of Chef Marc Vetri, and the patrons in his dining room each and every night are no less content to be participants in such harmony. Most importantly, I see him as a sorcerer of pasta, knowing exactly how to bring out the best in each and every shape and size and make them shine on the plate.

The progression of the meal was deliberate and at a relaxed pace -- we weren't at all rushed through, permitting a thorough enjoyment of each course at our own leisure. I also liked that most of our courses were mixed, even though the meal was done in a chef's tasting format, so we could all play musical plates and really see a fuller repertoire of Chef Vetri's menu. Another thing I wish I had done for myself was opt for the six-course wine pairing. I was undoubtedly blown away by the glasses put forth by the sommelier for each of Lisa's courses -- quite possibly in the same way, if not more, in the way that sommelier Aldo Sohm did at Le Bernardin. Never has wine and the food for which it was paired, spoken to me like that since then, so I was relieved to know my palate is still capable of experience such surreal things whilst dining out.

Along with the extraordinary food and the mind-blowing wine pairings, the service at Vetri was quite exceptional, and simply put, seamless. Our captain, John, was unbelievably helpful and patient with us, particularly with our questions and genuine curiosity about how certain dishes were prepared. I really love it when we can have such engaging conversations with the service team about what's being served to us, especially when you see how enthusiastic they are in sharing those details that others dismiss right away and may not find as exciting.

All in all, I would say that Vetri puts forth a wonderful dining experience with all key elements (i.e., quality food and cooking, unparalleled wine pairings, and exceptional service) executed well past our expectations. Vetri was quite magical and impressionable on me, so much that I'm already scheming to bring Marcus here for our anniversary next year. Until then, Lisa and I may or may not be attempting to recreate some of these masterpieces (read: spinach gnocchi and sweet onion crepe) -- will report back when I know more! :P

Congratulations again to Lisa and Dani for getting into the professional school(s) of your dreams! I'm so damn proud of you!!

Price point: $155 per person for chef's tasting menu, $90 per person for the basic wine pairing.

--July 27, 2013

1312 Spruce Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107


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