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WHAT'S NEW IN PHILLY? by John
YORK CORNER: Café Boulud by John
THE WINE CELLAR: A
Super Tuscan Celebrates its 20th Anniversary with a Sotheby’s Auction
by John Mariani
3945 Chestnut Street
One wall is a pop art hanging of more than 600 shiny masks of ”lucha libre” pro wrestlers; another shows American westerns dubbed into Spanish then back into English subtitles. Chairs are covered in the bright tartan plaids of Mexican plastic shopping bags. Some seats swing back and forth, and booths swing in semi-circles. Downstairs the bar is a riot of color and neon, with a green and yellow Volkswagen Beetle parked next to a real, working jukebox that plays—by request--everything from James Brown to Tom Petty. The place is a hoot, but it is also one of the wittiest, savviest examples of prole food design you’ll ever knock back three cans of Dos Equis in.
Distrito, named after “Distrito Federal,” a nickname for Mexico City, could probably get away with serving merely good Mexican grub, but Chef José Garces (left), who also runs the excellent tapas eateries Amada and Tinto in Philly, has thrown everything he knows about the real flavors of Mexican street food into the place, from an avocado guacamole tossed with lump crabmeat and a ceviche of red snapper, olives, capers, and tomato to “huaraches” (sandals), which are masa cakes stuffed with carnitas of charred pork, chorizo, ham, potato, and Oaxacan cheese. All the ceviches are terrific, from spicy shrimp and big eyed-tuna to grilled octopus. There are tacos packed with juicy pulled pork; queso fondito melted with duck barbecue; You’ll love the charred carne asada strip steak sizzling with fried tomatillos and a creamy poblano chile-and-corn rice on the side, and Garces’ moles—duck breast, rabbit, and pork belly—are as unusual as they are good.
Then dessert--the formidably rich tres leche cake, and churros--those sensational long, golden-brown fritters served with hot chocolate dipping sauce. You won't leave hungry.
Distrito is setting a very hip mold for Mexican restaurants to follow in both food and decor—and that includes Mexico City. By the way, the bar stocks 60 tequilas. Good luck.
Distrito is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner lightly. Prices are quite moderate, with appetizers running $6-$12, main courses $6-$32, although this is a mix-and-match style of menu.
237 Saint James Place
Zahav means “gold” in Hebrew, which is what Chef Michael Solomonov hopes he will strike by offering people the food, flavors, even wines, of Israel and those European countries with their own Jewish food cultures. So forget any thought of this being a New York-style deli. Instead Zahav opens a wide umbrella of mainly Middle Eastern dishes that I found as well made, or better, than in many well-known restaurants in that region of the world.
The big dining room, mostly done up in browns, isn’t exciting in the way Dispirito is, but Solomonov brings just as much exuberance to the cuisine here—beginning with hot, puffy pita bread straight from the oven. I’ve never had better, creamier hummus than here, and both the cold and hot mezzes, like kibbe naya (spicy raw, ground lamb with bulghur wheat) and Moroccan pastilla of puff pastry, rabbit, prunes, and almonds could hardly be improved upon. Crispy haloumi comes with dates and pine nuts, and if you love deli-style chopped liver, wait to you taste the finer variety here, served on rye toast with baby onions.
The shipudim (skewered foods) cooked over charcoal are all aromatically seasoned so when they come off the grill, sizzling and smoky merguez sausage served with couscous, and baby eggplant with pistachios and rice, half the pleasure is in the scent of the food as it comes towards your table. At lunch, for $10, these are among the best bargains in town, and for $25 you can have a "party time" of four courses, including the skewers, while at dinner you may get together with friends for a Mesibah, at $50 per person, for salatim salad with pita bread and hummus (right), cold and hot mezzes, and choice of roast lamb, whole chicken, or whole fish cooked in grape leaves, then dessert. The winelist has many interesting labels from the Middle East worth trying, since none is particularly expensive.
God promised the Jews a land of milk and honey. Me, I’ll take the leg of lamb with saffron, Zahav serves in Philadelphia.
Zahav is open for lunch Mon.-Fri, for dinner nightly. There’s a secluded private room called "The Quarter" where Solomonov does extensive tasting menus for small parties.
1701 JFK Boulevard
Table 31 is a joint venture of Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio after years of working together at Brasserie Perrier. Georges, of course, is Philadelphia's most noted chef, who for three decades has symbolized haute cuisine at the great Le Bec Fin, which has scaled down (a bit) the opulence that always distinguished its décor, food, wine, and service. Now they have turned their sights on a genre so many others are doing--the American steakhouse--and done so in a multi-level space inside the new Comcast Center skyscraper--the city's tallest building. The visuals in the lobby are literally astounding.
Layered over three floors and 15,000 square feet, faced with the Center's huge windows, Table 31 gets its name from the most popular table not here but at Brasserie Perrier. You can go very casual at the outdoor Cafe here, where most items are under $15, although you need not dress up anywhere on the premises: this is a steakhouse. I'm not sure about the wisdom of a modern look to the interior, which looks like no other steakhouse you'll run across in Philly or anywhere else for that matter. There is some color in wall hangings and good lighting in the bar (above) but otherwise it's fairly subdued, almost corporate lunchroom décor, although of a higher style--bare tables, lots of dark brown. The middle level dining room (below) is somewhat more attractive than the upstairs, which seems a bit of an afterthought. There is also a banquet room for 250. This is a big operation. You are getting quality, though neither the raffish look of a traditional steakhouse nor the dash of a modern interpretation, and you will pay a high price for it all.
The menu, which goes from appetizers and salads to maki rolls to sandwiches at the Plaza Café, is wide-ranging in the main restaurant, with salads, pastas, apps, steaks and chops, bistro dishes, and sides. I found many of the starters the most enticing things on the menu, including savory pork trotters wrapped in crispy phyllo-like North African brik paper with rosy Serrano ham; a plate of Italian orrechiette pasta with braised rabbit that took on a French accent from white asparagus, a fava bean ragoût, and mustard jus--very tasty indeed. Pasta with littleneck clams and garlic was straightforward and good, and a New England lobster roll was enlivened, tastefully, with hearts of palm, smoked paprika, and a sesame brioche--a bit of lily gilding but pleasantly so. The pizza margherita here is pretty standard stuff, however; by definition, a margherita shouldn't have Niçoise olives on it, which makes it more a pissaladière. Whole roasted chicken came crisp outside and juicy within, dashed with rosemary jus.
I tried two of the steaks-- a New York strip at 14 ounces ($46), and a spice-rubbed Delmonico (a boned rib-eye) at the same weight ($38). The latter was nice and moist, as that cut usually is, well fatted, too, though the spice rub didn't do much for the beef. The New York strip, pegged on the menu as USDA Prime, was of good, not outstanding, beefy flavor. You can go up to 24 ounces for a bone-in "tomahawk" steak ($68). The optional Table 31 Steak Sauce, like all steak sauces, should be left off the table entirely. Side dishes include a crisp and buttery potato tarte Tatin with onions and bacon, sautéed spinach with not enough garlic, and mashed potatoes which you can ennoble with lobster and/or black truffles for a $10 supplement.
For dessert go with the ice creams and sorbets. The ultra-rich chocolate fantasy cake would be a real indulgence after this kind of fare.
The winelist, which started out of whack with too many expensive bottlings, has settled into better balance.
Table 31, in its various forms, outdoor and in, is open for lunch a and dinner Mon.-Sat. Starters range from $8-$16, entrees $25-$68.
at NYC's Le Bernardin and one of America's--oh, just make that
the world's--greatest chefs,
is not new to
the Ritz-Carlton management team, having helped open a fine seafood
restaurant at their resort in the Cayman Islands, and two new
under his name, one in Washington DC, the other in Philadelphia. He is
here titled as Culinary Director.
10 Arts is open fro breakfast daily, lunch
Mon.-Fri. and dinner Tues.-Sat.
NEW YORK CORNER
20 East 76th Street (near Madison Avenue)
For some years now Café Boulud has functioned as master chef Daniel Boulud's less formal dining venue (Restaurant Daniel was once on these premises), and through minor tweaks of décor and a succession of remarkably talented chefs trained à la Daniel, it has remained one of the Upper East Siders' favorite restaurants. You'll probably see the same faces their midweek and at lunch, then on weekends the rest of the world comes here to dine.
The place has a sophisticated swank to it--dark and light play off white tablecloths, flowers, and highly colored wall art. There's a slight Parisian art déco feel to it, with a communal marble topped tables ideal for cocktails or walk-ins who want a bite to eat. Nickel sconces and rice paper shaded lamps light brown, chocolate, and beige walls with ivory curtains and mirrored columns surround tables set with all the finest names, from Limôges to Orfé. It's about as far from the look of the original, rustic family-run Café Boulud that inspired it, where Daniel grew up in Lyon, as one can imagine, but the tastes of the food, even the more exotic food, seems as true to the original spirit of honesty and authenticity.
From the beginning the menu here has always been divided into four sections--La Tradition, with a classic French slant; La Saison, now autumn flavors; Le Potager, inspired by the market; and Le Voyage, "world cuisine." Nevertheless, there is nothing radically different stylistically among them; this is very much in the Boulud style, with strong input from exec chef, Gavin Kayen (below). On a recent evening I chose from all over the place, starting off with a delightful pumpkin-ricotta terrine, and a clean, sparkling fresh tasting of tuna tartare with a zingy scallion vinaigrette and yellowtail hamachi crusted with a chile spice mixture called togaroshi (obviously from the Le Voyage side of the menu). Wild mushroom risotto with pecorino, chanterelles, and watercress was good if not outstanding (and at $20 as a appetizer, a tad pricey). Pricier still was a marvelous dish of the most lightly scrambled, perfect eggs I've ever had with generous shavings of the tartufi bianchi, but you have to assume those truffles are not going to go cheap.
Seared wild striped bass was delicious, though the sum of kabocha squash puree, Brussels sprouts, bacon, porcini, and honey apple was a bit of overload. Very, very good indeed was pan-roasted saddle of lamb with pancetta, mushrooms, lovely Swiss chard and green beans.
For dessert there was the inevitable but excellent soft-centered chocolate timbale and addictive apple fingers.
Service at Café Boulud is a study in attentiveness, for despite the numbers the staff must deal with each evening, the cadence, the friendliness, and wine pouring, and all the other niceties remain in an impeccable balance of professionalism and cordiality.
The winelist is similarly balanced for each budget, with more than 50 percent priced between $30 and $80. and 20 wines by the glass.
The haute cuisine you will find at Restaurant Daniel on East 65th Street (now newly redecorated) is more lavish than that at Café Boulud, but Kaysen is nevertheless turning out a very sophisticated menu with amazing variety for a clientele who knows the differences and travels in both worlds with ease.
Café Boulud is open for lunch Tues.-Sat., for dinner nightly. At dinner appetizers run $17-$33, main courses $31-$47.
DEPT. OF AMPLIFICATION
In the Nov. 2 issue of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet, a review of Charlie Palmer's Aureole in NYC ran on the basis of my dining at the restaurant three weeks ago when the executive chef was Tony Aiazzi. It has now been announced that Mr. Aiazzi is to be replaced by Chris Lee, presently at Gilt. According to Nation's Restaurant News, Mr Aiazzi will be "going to be taking some time off traveling and expressed an interest in getting back to Paris." So, nothing I said in my article is now as it was then, and, therefore, the report should be dismissed as immediately out of date. --John Mariani.
FROM THE WINE CELLAR
Super Tuscan Celebrates its 20th
the name Ornellaia and most connoisseurs will start drooling.
So the opportunity to taste a retrospective of eight vintages back to
1988 at a pre-auction dinner at Sotheby’s New York (below) to celebrate Tenuta dell’
Ornellaia’s 20th anniversary was a dinner I’d move mountains to attend.
HE THEN CALLED 911 FROM HIS
JAIL CELL SAYING THE FOOD SUCKED
In Jacksonville, Florida, Reginald Peterson called 911 to complain that Subway forgot to give him sauce with his Spicy Italian Sandwich, then called again because police did not respond in time. He was then arrested for making false 911 calls.
CALL 911! AA GILL HAS FINALLY SNAPPED!!
"I think it’s important that we all keep positive, so
I’ve decided that this column will be a happy place. A happy, smiley,
look-on-the- bright-side haven of goodie-good news and cheery optimism,
born out of nothing more than an innate belief in the cosmic power of
babies’ laughter, crisp autumn leaves, hot chocolate and crossed
fingers. Think of this little hidey-hole as a pea-green lifeboat
bobbing in an ocean of tears. And as the bloated corpses of investment
advisors, dog walkers, kick-boxing trainers, your friends, family and
neighbours float past, we’ll sing uplifting shanties and born-again
hymns. Think of me as Noël Coward at the tiller. All together now:
`The Stately Homes of England, how beautifully they stand, to prove the
upper classes still have the upper hand.' Sing, you chavvy wretches at
the back! Remember: a sea of torment is never half empty, it’s always
half full."—AA Gill, "Table Talk," London
* Chef Fabio Hakill of Fabio
Fiore in NYC is introducing a new menu for his Pasta
Festival, with three separate tasting portions of pasta,
sandwiched by a selection of starters and desserts, for $30, available
between 5 & 7 PM each night. Call 212-922-0581.
*Beginning Nov. 16, NYC’s Bar Stuzzichini is featuring “La Famiglia Domenica”--Sunday
Family Dinner, with Chef Paul Di Bari serving 3 family-style courses
and supplemental dessert for $26 pp. He will also feature “porchetta,” a traditional and
celebratory dish in Italy. A daily happy hour offers a complimentary stuzzichino with every drink; lunch
prix fixe is $19.95. Call (212) 750-8100 or visit
* From now until Dec. 20 and from Jan .8-Match 31, Angsana Riads Collection Morocco, a
group of 6 riads located in Marrakesh, offers its “Romantic Escape
Package” that starts at $864 and incl. 2 night’s accommodation in a
Junior Suite; breakfast; Airport transfers ; Champagne on
arrival; Spa treatment; private dinner for two. Visit www.angsana.com
or call 1-800-591-0439.
* On Nov. 22 in Burlington, VT, Hemingway’s will host a dinner with
Martin Kolk, owner of Tramonti, a winery in the Chianti region of
Italy, and VINILANDIA USA, an importer of quality wines from small,
family-owned, Italian wine producers. $60 pp. for AIWF
members; $70. non-members. Proceeds will help fund the AIWF scholarship
for VT students. Call 802-422 -3886; www.hemingwaysrestaurant.com.
* ON Nov. 29 Westport
Rivers Vineyard & Winery will be holding its Annual Holiday
Open House at their family farm winery in Westport, MA, with wine
Tastings throughout the day, vineyard tours, hayrides and pony rides,
live entertainment and Christmas music, local vendors and baked goods,
children's activities, ornament decorating, and Christmas tree lighting
ceremony. Free admission. Visit www.westportrivers.com/events or call
* On Dec 1 in NYC, the 9th ANNUAL WINTER’S EVE at Lincoln Square, hosted by the Lincoln Square Business Improvement District, featuring family fun, children’s activities, live entertainment, and shopping throughout the Lincoln Square area. This year, Kevin Bacon and his band, the Bacon Brothers. Tastings will be offered free or for a nominal fee ($1-$4), to benefit City Harvest, from 6–8:00 pm, by area restaurants under Winter’s Eve canopies in front of Time Warner Center. Restaurants incl. Asiate, Bar Boulud, Bar Masa, Compass, et al. Visit www.winterseve.org.
* From Dec. 1-14 Marquis
Los Cabos’ “Blue Cabo Culinary Getaway,” hosted by food and wine
expert Anthony Dias Blue, celebrates Mexico’s prestige as a gastronomic
destination, as well as the food and wine landscape of Los Cabos, with
Chefs Thierry Dufour of Marquis Los Cabos; Margarita Salinas of San
Jose del Cabo’s Don Emiliano, and Dr. Jaime A. Villalobos Diaz,
founder of The Mexican Academy of Tequila-Mezcal-Wine Tasters. $1,485
pp. Visit www.marquisloscabos.com or call 877-238-9399.
* On Dec 5 in Washington, DC, DC Craft Bartenders’ Guild is
inviting area residents to Washington’s only Repeal Day party, taking
place at The City Tavern Club, priced at $80 pp. before Nov. 20 ($90
thereafter) ,with proceeds benefiting the Club’s Preservation Fund and
the Museum of the American Cocktail. A 1930s jazz band will set the
mood and provide the tunes for dancing. Visit repealday.org or
* The Tourist Board of the Turks & Caicos Islands
announced a line-up of top chefs and properties participating in the
second annual Turks & Caicos
Gourmet Safari, taking place Dec. 19–20, on Providenciales
(Provo). “The Gourmet Safari” will be a display of Turks &
Caicos cuisine and culture against the backdrop of Grace Bay
Beach. Space is limited, with costs per couple starting at
$500. Visit http://www.turksandcaicostourism.com.
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK: SMART DEALS--NYC AT CHRISTMAS.
Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio. He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at KNPR.org. Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.
Tennis Resorts Online: A Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991). THIS WEEK: WINTER TENNIS BARGAINS.
Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!",
is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with
children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle
McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family
travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide
its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and
practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy,
safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children
who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of
adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
Any of John Mariani's books below
may be ordered from amazon.com by clicking on the cover image.