For the next two Tuesdays, in NYC, the French Institute Alliance Française, John Mariani, and special culinary guests will be hosting films (with English subtitles) that celebrate the importance of food and wine in French culture. The series is as follows: Oct. 23: "Romantics Anonymous" (2010) with a chocolate tasting with Lauren Gerbaud (at 5:30 PM); Oct. 30: "Entre les Bras" (2010) with guest host chef Jean-Louis Gérin. All screenings will be held at at Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street at 7:30 PM, followed by Q&A with host. Tickets $10. For info click here.
The Swann Fountain
For reasons that have more to do with a sheer lack of awareness than an empirical knowledge, too many people don't give Philadelphia's restaurant scene anything like the credit it is due, despite a long history of restaurants dating back to the 19th century. Indeed, if you want to sense what it was like to eat out in Philly with some of the Founding Fathers back in 1776, you might try the replication of City Tavern on South 2nd Street, and to gauge just how varied the contributions of various European food culture has been to America, a trip to the vast Reading Terminal Market will show the indelible marks made by Pennsylvania Dutch, Italians, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Japanese, and others all in one marvelous place. Local entrepreneur Stephen Starr can rightly be called one of the real innovators in the restaurant business for launching Alma de Cuba, Buddakan, Morimoto, El Vez and others. In addition, never a year goes by when Philly doesn't have a bunch of fine new restaurants or some fine new chefs taking over at established places. Here is what's happening in the city right now.
440 South Broad Street
At a time when a few
media-fueled American cooks believe their customers’
discomfort is a way of “challenging” them, Kevin
is a chef who regards his clientele as guests who
deserve a genial respect for choosing to dine at his
place. You are greeted warmly in the kind of homey
place of which Mitt Romney might say, “The ceilings are
the right height.” You are then served a four-course
dinner you won’t soon forget, and at a
remarkable price--$49. (It was one of my top 20
New Restaurants for 2012 in Esquire
is open for dinner Mon.-Sat.;Dinner $49 plus
optional $35 wine pairing.
111 South 17th Street
Of all the chain concepts in America, none seems to do a more consistent job than the steakhouse genre. Maybe it's because the rubrics of the menu were set so long ago and because the expectations of manly customers are high when they're willing to pay top dollar for a piece of good beef. But the Davio's chain, started in 1985 by Steve DiFillippo in Boston’s Back Bay, goes a good deal further with the genre, by offering more of the kind of Italian dishes that are only on other chains' menus by default. There are now Davio's locations in Foxborough, MA, Philadelphia, and a new location in Atlanta.
The Philadelphia restaurant takes advantage of the city’s historic cast. Set on the second floor, the huge, long dining room retains an intimacy by being intelligently broken up but not closed off, and the Federalist-style windows, columns, and tapestry upholstery give you a sense of easy refinement, which is also part of the modus operandi of the staff, led by manager Ettore Ceraso.
kitchen veteran chefs David Boyle and Bennett
Hollberg oversee a menu that ranges widely, from
crispy fried oysters and Hawaiian tuna tartar to a
trademarked Philly Cheese Steak Spring Roll with
homemade ketchup (they sell these packaged), from
pappardelle with jumbo crab meat and artichokes.
It was a sumptuous meal,
beautifully served in a style that is often in
contrast to the machismo of many steakhouses still
bound to a 1930s tradition of decor and shrugging
hospitality. Add to that Davio's extensive
menu and you have a template for what a steakhouse
in 2012 should be.
Davio's serves breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner nightly. Dinner appetizers $9-$18, pastas $17-$33, main courses $27-$51.
For decades this has been the finest, most sophisticated restaurant in the city, excellent for business breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a superb panorama on the beautiful Swann Fountain. The décor has been modified over the years, brightened and given a bit more casual appointments (though the new servers’ outfits need rethinking), and there have been only a few chef changes in the last 25 years.
The new-ish guys are exec chef Rafael Gonzalez and chef de cuisine Peter Rosenblatt, who have cannily maintained the haute cuisine of the menu with American swagger, and the lunch menu, which enjoyed recently, is full of choices, including sandwiches and a burger rendered with the same sophistication as the entrees in the evening.
A must-try is “Lobster chopped” (below), brimming with poached Maine lobster, heirloom tomato, smoked bacon, avocado and a buttermilk biscuit you will want more than one of. There’s even a matzo ball soup here, of course, made with Amish chicken. Wild rick shrimp tempura is crisp and the right texture, with avocado, yuzu, sriracha rémoulade, and Truleaf purple cabbage.
If you are just up for a salad, your choice is well rewarded with a defining way with good old Iceberg lettuce, crisp and cold, with Maytag Bleu, pancetta bacon, grape tomato, sweet and salty pinenuts, and balsamic vinegar. Another of those Amish chickens is seared under a brick in a hot skillet, becoming crispy and juicy, served with Gouda-infused grits, baby spinach, buttermilk onions and a tangy caper jus. As for that burger, well, it’s way more than a mouthful—with truffles, mushrooms, Sottocenere cheese, and a black truffle aioli just to gild the lily.
noted, the sandwiches are terrific here, including
my favorite American invention after the hamburger,
the club sandwich, here done with crispy chicken
paillard, pancetta, butter lettuce, tomato, and chive
mayo on excellent toast. It’s all in the details, as
is the case with everything at Fountain.
Fountain is open for breakfast daily, for lunch Mon.-Sat., dinner Tues.-Sat. Lunch appetizers $11-$26, main courses $24-$37.
Opa is open
for lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon.-Sat. Dinner
appetizers $8-$14, main courses $13-$17.
Rittenhouse Tavern certainly has one of the loveliest settings in Philadelphia, inside the historic Wetherill Mansion, one of the grand houses left on Rittenhouse Square and now home to the Art Alliance of Philadelphia. As such, it takes advantage of all the decorous woodwork, lighting, and design of the majestic structure, with four indoor and outdoor spaces—a main dining room, salon, bar area and cobblestoned, al fresco garden. Do check out the beautiful 1920s mural of geese by Richard Blossom Farley in the main dining room.
The kitchen has impressive credentials, beginning with local chef chef Nicholas Elmi, who collaborates with NYC’s highly regarded Ed Brown (below), so the style is definitely contemporary American with some regard for the melting pot food culture of Philadelphia.
You may begin with some pleasant bar snacks like crispy frogs’ legs with Philadelphia cream cheese, or the white bean toast with Speck oven-dried tomato, and arugula. Among the appetizers, I liked best the roasted sweetbread salad with tiny carrots, mustard seeds, carrot butter, and sherry vinegar. An ivory-colored wild mushroom soup was lovely to look at, but didn't have much flavor, not helped by a cocoa nib or mild walnut milk. Nor was there much flavor in the polenta soup with ricotta.
Saltiness plagued several of the dishes I tried, which meant the more natural flavors were masked, but I loved the scallops with a rhubarb reduction, sweet white asparagus, and English peas, and wild bass was nicely cooked, with chewy Tuscan kale, mushrooms, and a hibiscus-red wine sauce. A rack of Berkshire pork with crisp belly, purple mustard, quinoa crust and endive was a splashy dish but it didn't add up to all that much in taste or texture.
There is a separate spot on the menu for “Sunday fried chicken supper” at a remarkable $18 per person, giving you half a chicken with buttermilk biscuits and, the night I was there, marshmallow sweet potatoes, a dish that need not be brought back. The fried chicken was good and juicy, as it should be after being salt-brined for many hours and cooked Sous-Vide, but frankly, I can't imagine going to all that elaborate process when most fried chicken cooks elsewhere would make a crispier, less salty dish than this.
For dessert, I recommend the dark chocolate tart with milk crumble, and caramelized milk ice cream.
The wine list is surprisingly short, only about 30 bottlings, when a place of this serious purpose should have a serious list.
The restaurant serves lunch, Tues.-Fri., dinner Tues.-Sun.; Brunch, Sat. & Sun. Dinner appetizers run $9-$16, main courses $19-$28.
181 West 10th Street (corner of 7th Avenue)
Charm is not so easy to come by these days, when cramped, loud, barebones lunch counters pass for restaurants, so sitting down to dine at Bobo is as restorative as it is delicious. Owner Carlos Suarez (who also has the new Rosemary’s across the road) was inspired to create at Bobo the “joy of having friends over for dinner,” and arriving at the top of the stairs at this Greenwich Village and entering the small dining room you may well think that us exactly the case.
Bobo looks like the dining room of a friend with impeccable, highly personalized taste, with family photos on the walls, crisp linens and napery on the tables, an ornate turn-of-the-century fireplace and mirror, tall windows with long curtains, and glass beads hanging from the ceiling. The tufted banquettes are just asking to be occupied all night long.
Add to this an extremely courteous waitstaff and a serious commitment to well-made cocktails, and you have the kind of place that one would like to think Greenwich Village is full of, which is no longer the case at all.
Suarez has brought aboard a fine, well-known young chef, Cedric Tovar, formerly at Town and Peacock Alley, and his cuisine is of a sort that he might well serve at his home on Sunday afternoons, especially now in autumn when flavors like butternut squash soup with cardamom whipped cream, salted pumpkin seed for crunch, and a sweet-sour huckleberry coulis come into bloom.
There are classics here like steak tartare (below) with fresh potato chips, frisée salad with crisp bacon lardons and pork belly, topped with an oozy poached egg. Ravioli is stuffed not with ricotta but with very rich Comte cheese, adrift in a creamy mushroom broth and dusted with Parmesan.
Main courses range from scallops that have been
crusted with pumpkin seeds, with braised spaghetti
squash, and a delightful ginger carrot sauce, to steak
au poivre very with French fries. I love
skate, and here it is à la grenobloise, with
parsley root, braised salsify, and preserved lemon
poaches lobster in butter and thyme and teams it with
sauteed mushrooms, watercress veloute, and grilled
broccoli di rabe, while the big splurge on the menu is
a piece du boucher,
a 12 ounce, 28-day dry aged strip steak with bone
marrow, bordelaise sauce, and your choice of a side
dish like pommes
purée of pommes frites.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
So You Wanna
Run a Wine Tasting?
Such a slog is not only hard work but palate fatigue sets in early, so that the 46th wine you taste is never going to have quite the luster of the third, and by number 75, you are in agony and in need of a shower.
Still, the idea of holding your own wine tasting at home or in a restaurant can be one of the most convivial of pleasures, as long as you go about it the right way, starting with whom you invite.
Basically, there are three kinds of people who drink wine: those who kind of like it, those who truly love it, and those who regard it as a study in one-upmanhsip. Only the second type is any fun at a wine tasting, especially if you’re going to be serving some expensive wines that the first group will shrug at and the third will sniff and go into discourses about the wines’ Ph level and the vineyards’ trellising techniques. Once you’ve chosen your jolly group (please skip the black tie request!), there are certain guidelines that make such tastings a great deal of fun.
1. Never serve more than six wines. Less is hardly worth the effort and more becomes a bore.
2. Will it be a blind tasting? If so, cover the bottles with a paper bag to hide the labels, making sure the shape of the bottle is not evident. (Pinot noirs and rieslings always come in distinctively shaped bottles.) Number them and keep the list out of sight.
3. If it’s not a blind tasting, rather than have a random selection of wines, choose one region, say Tuscany, or a single estate, say, Jordan cabernet. If the former, a horizontal tasting of a single vintage will give interesting insight into the differences of wines from the same region; if the latter, have a vertical tasting, that is, from different vintages of the same wine.
4. Use standard wineglasses for all the wines and pour only about an ounce or so to begin with. Later your guests can enjoy whatever they like most.
5. Have plain water available to help clear the palate between wines.
7. If you are serving the wines with dinner—and I heartily recommend you do so—keep the food very, very simple, like mild cheese, chicken broth, a steak, or, if you’re tasting white wines, fillet of fish.
8. You might have guests taste all the wines prior to dinner—remember, you’re only sampling six—then match them with dinner. For the real point of tasting wines is that they go best with food, and with few exceptions, aren’t worth much without food, not even a glass of Champagne without at least a canape.
9. During the discussion, try to keep the conversation lively (remember, you didn't invite the wine snobs to lecture anyone), and it’s a capital idea to have a few choice observations from great writers handy for toasts like these:
-“No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.”—Thomas Jefferson.
--“Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,/ Sermons and soda-water the day after.”—Lord Byron.
--“Wine, madam, is God’s next best gift to man.”—Ambrose Bierce.
--“It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I believe you’ll be amused by its presumption.”—James Thurber (left)
--“It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message.”—Ernest Hemingway.
10. Print out the names of all the wines for guests to take home.
11. Finish every drop of every wine you open.
John Mariani's wine column appears in Bloomberg Muse News, from which this story was adapted. Bloomberg News covers Culture from art, books, and theater to wine, travel, and food on a daily basis.
WELL, SO MUCH FOR
A British teenager named Gaby Scanlon had her stomach surgically removed after drinking a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at Oscar's Wine Bar in Lancaster after allegedly drinking a "Pornstar Martini," consisting of passion fruit, vanilla vodka, pineapple juice, Champagne, and Chanson, and liquid nitrogen, to create a smoky effect. . . . Meanwhile, in Miami, FL, a man collapsed and died after eating dozens of the live bugs like cockroaches and worms.
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