Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pam's Real Thai Food, Junior's (Friday, Oct. 26)

The last entry for our trip, despite the fact that we've been back for almost three weeks. Sorry, all. I've just been lazy about sitting down and cranking out these entries.

We spent Friday morning wandering around Central Park, then used the trusty Zagat guide to locate some Thai food. Our first choice was absolutely packed, so we crossed Manhattan to Pam Real Thai in Hell's Kitchen. For some bizarre reason, they have two locations exactly two blocks from each other. We went to the 47th St. location.

D. had his usual
pad see ew and I had my usual panang curry. It was very good... definitely on the better end of all the Thai food I've had. There were no downsides to the food, but there were a couple of nitpicky things on the restaurant/service. For one thing, the restaurant reeked of bleach-based cleanser to the point where it was mildly nauseating. The other thing was the service. We received perfectly good service, but it was obvious our waitress were serving other tables way better than ours. For one thing, she spent the majority of her time talking to the other customers. She was constantly checking up on them and refilling drinks. The kitchen runner brought all of our food and refilled our drinks. We saw the waitress less than the runner. I think it sucks when you see that the server is very obviously treating other customers better and others cover for them. The restaurant was nearly empty and while she seated the other two groups near the window, we were told to sit away from the window on the other side of the restaurant. Maybe they were regulars... who knew? It was such a huge difference that it affected the gratuity. Since she probably tips out the runner, we couldn't go lower than 15%, but I was seriously tempted to give the tip directly to the runner.

That evening, we met up with D.A., N.M., and N.'s boyfriend D. for dinner at Junior's in Times Square. It's a diner, albeit a very expensive diner. The food was awesome, though. D. and I were rather incensed, however, when they told us that there were no refills for sodas. Why was that not on the menu?! It was over two dollars for a mostly-ice-filled soda! Grr...

They bring out pickles (which sat on pickled cabbage... yum) and beets for snacks and as accompaniments to burgers and sandwiches.

I had the grilled cheese sandwich and as N.'s boyfriend D. said, "That looks like the best grilled cheese ever." It was. Hot and gooey on fresh challah. The cheese was a good cheddar that didn't become oily when it melted. The challah was fresh (i.e. really fluffy) and thick, so the grilling didn't over-crisp it.

We had their famous cheesecake for dessert. D. (my D... this whole initial thing does get confusing, I admit...) had the strawberry cheese pie:

And I had the strawberry shortcake cheesecake, which is a two layers of cake with a layer of cheesecake sandwich between them. If that sounds gross, it kind of was.

Nothing was wrong with it except for the gut-busting richness of the dessert. Well, that and the cheesecake being way too dense. It was basically a block of cream cheese and strawberry syrup. Not something I'd experience again.

It was great to see D.A. and N. and to meet N.'s D. They helped wrap up an excellent trip.

Cloisters, Bouchon Bakery, Grand Sichuan (Thursday, Oct. 25)

We began our first full day in New York with a trip up to the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art up in Fort Tryon Park. It's in Upper Manhattan and it's a rather long subway ride there. It's a collection of medieval art housed in a gorgeous building that looks a bit like a castle. The gardens are lovely and the walk up to the museum is rather scenic, especially on this rainy Thursday.

From the walk up to the musuem:

That would be the George Washington Bridge crossing the Hudson River. All in all, it was a lovely walk through a wooded area. At the top of the hill was the museum.

The museum has a few cloistered gardens, which are very lovely. They're recreated to look somewhat like medieval gardens, so they have a slightly overgrown, wild look to them.

The art was very interesting. It's organized in chronological order, so the earlier stuff was almost pagan in its style. Then it progresses to pre-renaissance stuff (I'm not sure if that's correct... I'll have to check with T. for dates).

After the museum, we headed to Columbus Circle for a quick lunch at Bouchon Bakery, which J. recommended. I also wanted to head to a mall-like place so I can pick up a restaurant guide for NY. Thank goodness Columbus Circle had both Borders and lunch. Bouchon Bakery is by Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se (among others). Cool tidbit: Pixar animators studied the kitchen of French Laundry and had Keller's input for the really adorable Ratatouille. Shocking tidbit: Dinner at the French Laundry is a $240 pre fixe meal. Holy cow.

D. had a croissant sandwich, while I chose a slice of focaccia. It was topped with pesto, eggplant, roasted red peppers, and red onion. There was cheese, but I wasn't sure what it was. Something like parmesan that isn't too runny and had a nice sharp flavor.

For dessert, a chocolate chip cookie and a peanut butter cookie (the picture show half of each, which is how we divided them). Very good cookies. The peanut butter cookie had peanut butter filling sandwiched between two thin and crispy cookies. Yum.

Afterwards, we wandered around Manhattan some more, then headed back to our hotel with a copy of the Zagat guide. We found Grand Sichuan in the East 50's (2nd Ave. and 56th St.). It was pretty good. Not outrageously fabulous, but decent Chinese food.

We ordered the scallion pancakes, which were deep-fried instead of pan-fried. That was weird, but it still tasted good. D. ordered his usual kung pao chicken. Since they had an "American-Chinese" side of the menu and "Sichuan Cooking," I felt the need to order from the Sichuan side. I picked the dried and sauteed shredded beef from the chef's specialties. It's salt-and-pepper crusted and no sauce. That's kind of annoying, as the coating does well with rice, but the flavors were strong and spicy overall.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Onward to NYC! (Wednesday, Oct. 24)

Our transition from Philly to New York started with lunch near the Wharton School of Business at UPenn. J. has a book of reviews from Craig LaBan, the food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and in it was this review. It's a Chinese food truck next to the UPenn campus and we were very intrigued by it. So, we stopped by for lunch before departing on a train to NYC.

I thought it was great. I had shrimp stir-fried with snowpeas and remember marveling at how crisp the snowpeas were. The article cleverly mentions that they do "typical Americanized choices" poorly; perhaps to keep too many newbies from approaching the truck. That is true, as the egg roll D. purchased was pretty bad. It was a good meal and hellaciously cheap. We walked through the halls of Wharton looking for a place to eat and ended up huddling at the end of a hallway on the fourth floor.

It was a much better deal (in both price and quality) than the bad Chinese meal we had in Manhattan that evening.

Afterwards, we parted ways with J. at 30th Street Station (pictured below). We took Amtrak to Penn Station in NYC.

I have to say I lost my cool a little once we walked outside of Penn Station, with tons of people and a malfunctioning internal compass. I was a little turned-around, too embarrassed to pull out a map, and frustrated at having to navigate very crowded sidewalks with luggage. We finally made our way to a subway train out to Queens, where we were staying in Long Island City Quality Inn.

Very nice hotel! A tad small and the neighborhood is a bit sketchy, but it was new and clean. That's all that mattered. Location-wise, we probably should have stayed in Manhattan, because we kept coming back to the hotel and not going back out to the city.

For dinner, we took the train out to Chinatown and decided to try the "stop at whereever looks good" method of food-searching. As Dr. Cox says on
Scrubs, "Bi-ig mistake!" Yeah. Bad Chinese food equals me in a very bad mood. Canal Street Seafood, y'all... right off the subway station (N train's station... there are several on Canal St. that serve different lines). Don't go. It was an inauspicious start to the NY segment of the trip.

To soothe the disappointment, we headed to The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

Very good ice cream and interesting Chinese flavors like lychee and durian (ick). I saw a sign for egg custard ice cream, but it wasn't in circulation. The rather sassy young man behind the counter said it might come back in a week, but that's too late for us. I had the mango ice cream, which was awesome.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Morimoto (Tuesday, Oct. 23)

This was the meal I'd been waiting for the entire trip. We spent the day exploring exhibits at the Mint and the Federal Reserve. Lunch was another trip to the Reading Terminal Market. It was a very relaxing day and I was really excited about dinner at Morimoto. Yes, as in Iron Chef Morimoto.

I have to apologize for the quality of the pictures, as I didn't want to use the flash in a dark restaurant. In hindsight, I should have said "to hell with it" and done it, since others were doing so. I used Photoshop to adjust for the lighting, but the pictures are still very dark. However, it seems their omakase menu hasn't changed in the last couple of years, so there are various food blogs with the same dishes on them. Google "Morimoto omakase" and there is at least one blog with similar dishes and much higher-quality photographs.

What is omakase? Well, the "omakase menu" is basically a chef's tasting menu. Omakase traditionally means that you entrust your meal to the chef and they make whatever they feel like making for you. It's an opportunity to show off their creativity. Thus, "omakase menu" is rather oxymoronic, especially in Morimoto's case, because it's a set menu. It's not advertised and it is creative, but it's set.

J. and I decided to go for the highest tier omakase and let our wallets take a beating for it. Holy cow, I have never spent this much money on a meal and am not likely to do so again in the near future. D. could only watch in vague horror. Well, he also ranted about the fact that the omakase menu was a static menu and didn't change at all, not even from day to day.

Here was our delicious meal, which began with a tuna tartare topped with caviar, chives, and sat in a pool of sweet shoyu (soy sauce) mixture (I don't know what else was in it, but it was kind of sweet). It came with a Japanese mountain berry (kind of tart, a bit like a raspberry, but not as sweet) and a dollop of wasabi:

The "bonus course" (bonus, my ass, everyone had this course) was oysters. From left to right was ceviche, Japanese salsa (it looked and tasted like Mexican salsa), and jalapeno fish sauce. As oysters have a very domineering salty flavor, that's pretty much what the dish tasted like:

Next was my favorite dish of the night, a scallop carpaccio. I didn't know it was possible to slice scallops so thinly. They were served in a flavorful pool of hot seared oil and soy sauce. They were topped with Japanese wild parsley, which are these tiny leaves that really pack a lot of flavor. I could seriously top anything with the parsley and enjoy it. The light pool of oil and soy sauce was so yummy that I almost licked the plate.

Next was a micro-greens salad, which I loved. It was topped with a bonito flake. Bonito is smoked and dried fish, so the flake was a bit like a chip. The salad had two slices of sashimi served with it. J. and I agreed that the sashimi was way too tough. It was halibut and snapper, I believe, but my memory is a bit spotty. I remember it was a sport fish and while sport fish like tuna and salmon certainly make great sashimi, these slices were too chewy. It took effort to bite into it, which defeats the delicate presentation of the dish. The dish was dribbled with a vinagarette, but the components escape my mind.

Our first savory course was lobster. It was five-spice and quite heavily flavored. I had to use a little elbow grease to free the meat from the claw, which isn't the most polite thing to do at the table. Thank goodness I only had to spend about a minute cracking the claw. The lobster was very good, but I thought the flavor was a bit overwhelming. It came with a yummy yuzu creme fraiche as a pallet cleanser.

Yuzu has totally become my new favorite flavor. It's Japanese citrus and tastes kind of like grapefruit/lemon/orange. Yeah... it's weird. Also, unlike most citrus flavors, I can't imagine it as a sweet, but rather a savory flavor. I'm thinking of trying to cook with it or even doing a semi-savory dessert. Anyway, I digress...

Next dish was Kobe beef slices. They were drizzled with chive oil and soy sauce and topped with micro-greens. I read in other blogs that this dish used to be served with foie gras and sweet potatoes... I feel vaguely robbed, but then again, I'm anti-foie gras. The beef was very interesting. I think J. and I were expecting to be blown away from highly-hyped Kobe beef, but we... weren't. Neither was D., who tried this course and generously shared chunks of his rib eye steak for comparison.

Compared to the rib eye, the most noticeable difference is the texture. The Kobe beef seemed to separate along the grain, whereas the rib eye was one solid chunk. The sauce was a little overpowering, so I couldn't taste too much of the beef itself, but I swear I tasted a bit of nuttiness to the Kobe (J. and D. disagree). Otherwise... it's beef. Expensive and rather delicate beef, but still beef.

The last savory course was a nigiri platter. From left to right: fatty tuna, yellowtail, snapper, albacore, and mackerel. Very classic and typical. The quality of the fish was outstanding. I do have to say that I'm not definitive on the identity of the yellowtail and the albacore. They were good, just not that memorable. The snapper was the same as the sashimi salad and it was meh. I liked the smoky flavor of the mackerel, but the fatty tuna was definitely the best. It was flavorful and literally melted in the mouth.

Dessert was interesting. It was a sweet potato cake topped with powdered sugar and served with a side of fluffy whipped cream (which was flavored with apricot, I think) and a slice of dried apricot. It was good and like many Asian desserts, wasn't overly sweet. It tasted like the classic Asian sponge cake with a hint of sweet potato.

Morimoto also has his own beer, brewed in Oregon:

After the intense sticker shock when the bill came, there are mixed feelings on whether or not it was worth it. I think J. and D. are on the side of "not worth it" and I'm on the side of "worth it just this once, but I'll never do it again".

This was our last dinner in Philly. Next stop, New York City!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

DiNic's Roast Pork, Brandywine Prime, Liberty Bell, National Constitution Center (Monday, Oct. 22)

We started the day with the Liberty Bell:

We spent most of our trip exploring Center City, so we had lunch every day at Reading Terminal Market. We met up with J. for lunch on Monday, with the market being a stone's throw from his office. Ironically, the one thing I really wanted to eat while we were there, the Philly cheesesteak, was not something we indulged in. However, I did have a roast pork sandwich from DiNic's in the market.

It was amazing, with buttery-soft shavings of pork piled on a toasted bun with sharp provolone cheese. The only thing needed to make this absolutely perfect was onions, which weren't an option. It's not a cheesesteak, but it was pretty good.

We explored the market for a bit. Here's a lobster clowning around:

A variety of cheeses at the Italian deli:

There were lots of produce stands:

And a pretty flower stand near one of the entrances. It's right by an ice cream stand called Bassett's Ice Cream, which was fabulous (we tried that on Tuesday).

After lunch, we stopped at Bread Top House, an Asian bakery, for some dessert.

On Monday, we spent the afternoon at the National Constitution Center, which is this amazing museum dedicated to explaining the Constitution. Through small shows and interactive displays, it explained the intricacies and intentions of the Constitution without being condescending or overly difficult to grasp.

For dinner, we met up with D.'s cousins and their spouses for dinner in Chadds Ford, PA. At the Chadds Ford Inn, there's Brandywine Prime. There was some initial panic because there were unfavorable reviews online, but they were from a few months ago. Apparently, the restaurant had a rough start. However, whatever issues they had were not evident during our visit.

I had the pan-seared sea scallops, which were divine. Per the menu:

Pan Seared Sea Scallops- shrimp & artichoke risotto, haricot verts, crispy fried onions, caramelized sherry vinegar

The risotto was perfect, with a creamy texture that still maintained the integrity of the arborio rice. The haricot verts (thin French green beans) were done exactly the way I like them, lightly blanched so they're still very crunchy. I couldn't get enough of the fried onions, which contained the bulk of the sweet caramelized sherry vinegar. The scallops themselves were seared to perfection, with the smoothest texture I've tasted on scallops. Like the sandwich from lunch, the bite into the scallop was buttery-soft... slightly springy to the bite, but smooth all the way through.

I had their homemade ice cream for dessert and it was very well-done. Nothing extraordinary, just very good, creamy ice cream.

Again, no pictures because of the dork factor.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rembrandt's, Zocalo (Sunday, Oct. 21)

After an eventful Saturday, Sunday morning began with a lazy meandering towards brunch. We headed out to the Fairmount district, bordering Kelly Drive and Fairmount Park, on the edge of the Schuylkill River. Lots of row houses here and we dropped by an open house. The house was incredibly narrow, but that's because I'm from California. It was large, but the space went straight back and straight up. I thought it was quite lovely and was rather taken with the room on the top floor that had a bird's-eye view of the street.

Anyhoo, we stopped for brunch at Rembrandt's Restaurant and Bar. Yes, it's named for the artist. D. and I had the Bananas Foster French Toast.

Very good French toast. Afterwards, we walked through the park, with its many boathouses and great views of downtown Philly.

That evening, we met up with D.'s cousin and her family for dinner at Zocalo, a Mexican restaurant near UPenn. It was quite good, but rather pricey. Again, I'm looking from it with a California viewpoint. $17 cheese enchiladas?! Oy vay. Still good, though. I chose the plato surtido, an appetizer sampler, as my meal. No pictures because I didn't want to look like an absolute nerd in front of D.'s family.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Reading Terminal Market, Valley Forge, Bistro 7 (Saturday, Oct. 20)

We decided that we'd spend Saturday at Valley Forge National Historical Park. We started with breakfast at Reading Terminal Market. Profi's Creperie serves some awesome crepes. Their crepes were crisp and with very little air trapped within them. I had one topped with strawberries and honey, but wished I'd ordered it plain with butter and sugar. Not that my crepe wasn't good with strawberries and honey, but the crepe itself was so good that I wanted one plain. Add a fresh cup of ceylon tea from Tea Leaf, Inc., and that was a good breakfast.

After breakfast, we decided to put together a picnic lunch. We went to Hatville Deli to buy sandwiches with their homemade potato chips. We also purchased a tub of spinach/artichoke dip from Hatville and went across the aisle to AJ Pickle Patch and Salads (which boasts a huge selection of pudding) for bagel chips. Dessert came from Beiler's Bakery, which is Amish. Their pumpkin jelly roll, shoofly pie, and carrot cake were quite good.

We went to Valley Forge, rented bikes, and rode around the park. It's a gorgeous park and quite empty, despite its fame as the bustling headquarters for the Revolutionary War.

Philadelphia has many BYOB restaurants, due to the state's strict liquor laws. For dinner, we decided to head to Bistro 7. I think we were somewhat underwhelmed by the experience. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures as it was too dark to take them with my camera. My dish:

Pan Seared Peking Duck Breast with Duck Confit, Sweet Potato and Roasted Apple Parmentier with cider-thyme gastrique and braised kale

I have one issue with the dish and it largely centers around the fact that it's described as a Peking Duck. I'm sure it was a Pekin Duck, the breed used for Peking Duck, but it was definitely not prepared in a manner that earns it the name "Peking Duck". For one thing, the skin was soft. The signature trait of Peking Duck is the super-crispy skin. The duck was seared and very lightly cooked. It was tender and a bit bland, but a good-quality duck, so there was some flavor to the meat. The skin was fatty with none of the fat rendered out, which was disappointing. It was served in a pool of the cider-thyme gastrique and with a neat cylinder of sweet potato and roasted apple parmentier (which is a fancy word for "mashed potatoes", see this link about the man who encouraged the French to eat potatoes). The parmentier was fine, it was a simple mash and delightfully sweet. It was topped with the braised kale and duck confit, which I loved.

It wasn't terrible, but very meh. D.'s dish was the pan-seared ribeye, as described below:

Pan-Seared Natural Beef Ribeye Steak Frites with Burgundy-Shallot Butter with duck fat-fried shoestring potatoes, watercress and roasted garlic aioli

Unfortunately, the best part of the dish were the fries and no one pays $26 for fries. The steak, which he ordered medium-rare, was medium-rare on one half and nearly raw on the other. I have no frickin' clue how anything cooks that unevenly, but yeah, that's how it was served. It was also gristly. Grrr. D. was too nice to say anything about it, but I think he should have sent it back. The menu lists watercress, but it was nothing but an unappetizing pile on one side of the dish. Too ugly to be garnish, too unadorned to eat.

J.'s scallops were the best dish of the night. He said they were a tad bland, but beautifully cooked. In fact, his choice of meal inspired me to pick the scallops two nights later at another establishment. Here's what the menu says:

Caraway-Scented Jumbo Day Boat Sea Scallops with French Green Lentil Pilaf Galette with creamy cauliflower gratin and bacon-brown vinaigrette

At the end of the evening, we were underwhelmed enough to skip dessert and head to The Franklin Fountain for ice cream. We received a little history lesson from the server, as they dish out their ice cream in the "Chinese take-out boxes". I've known for a long time that the boxes were never Chinese, but I did learn that they were originally designed to package ice cream. Ha! Thank goodness, because I'm really tired of people associating those damn boxes with my culture!

I digress... the ice cream was fabulous. There were a variety of flavors and I picked peanut butter. Yum. That's all I have to say about it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Monk's Cafe, Capogiro (Friday, Oct. 19)

Here we go with a series of posts from our trip to Philadelphia and New York. We flew in on Friday, October 19, arriving at 5pm. We took a cab into Center City and J. took us to Monk's, an awesome Belgian cafe. I ordered the rabbit terrine, which I thought was fantastic. The terrine was a little crumbly and not very smooth, but I don't think the texture was a massive issue. The menu describes it as:

Rabbit Terrine house made terrine with rabbit, kriek-soaked dried fruit & pistachio nuts. With whole grain bread, capers & our "hunters sauce" made with belgian cassis lambic ale

I think the overall theme of the flavors of this dish is "nutty". The game-y flavor of the rabbit paired nicely with the pistachio and the whole grain bread. The capers added a salty touch to the entire dish. All in all, a great dish.

My second dish was the Brussels mussels (hehe *snort* hehe), described as "
fumè, tomato, fennel, herbs de provençe & garlic". The fennel was the dominant flavor and I liked it a lot. It led the pack, but wasn't disturbingly overwhelming. It was a good-sized pot of mussels and the "sauce" was awesome.

To drink, I had the
Geants Goliath, which the menu describes as:

Geants Goliath
A tripel. Golden/Orange color. Medium body. A bit of sweetness in the front, but finishes somewhat dry. Hints of fresh stone fruit (peaches?). Yummy!

It was good, but finished too dry for my liking. Wikipedia has an entry on tripel.

After dinner, we stopped by Capogiro. Holy cow, this place is wonderful. I want it to come to San Diego. Oh, wait... they ship their gelato! Whoa... that could be deadly. We ended up there one more time before we left. I had the pistachio, dark chocolate, bacio (hazelnut/chocolate, white chocolate, and one of the coffee-based flavors. I think I had the pistachio twice. Incredible gelato and the flavors are very inventive.

Correction: D. tells me we went twice and since I had so many samples, I probably confused 6 flavors with three trips (2 flavors per cup). Oops.