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

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