August 28, 2014

6 Awesome Places to Ride Your Bike to During Labor Day Weekend in Philly

Holiday weekends are a great time to stick around Philadelphia. Sure, a lot of people migrate to the beach but that means smaller crowds and easier reservations here at home. Philly also has endless miles of trails and outdoor space to enjoy before another sub-zero winter settles in.

If you're around this Labor Day weekend, here's a fun idea: take yourself on a bike tour of the Delaware Waterfront. A lot of effort has been put into making Penn's Landing and other piers along the Delaware River the place to be this summer, and you're missing out if you don't take advantage. I made up my own Tour de Delaware Waterfront last weekend; it ended up a perfect way to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Here's my suggested route:

1. Washington Ave Park. Hop on your bike and head to Washington Ave & Columbus Blvd. If you're already hungry, grab a cheesesteak at Shank's. Otherwise, just to the right of the Coast Guard building is an opening in the fence and paved path leading toward the river. Look for walk/bike signs on the road to guide you.

About 50 yards back is the brand new Washington Ave Pier. It's not huge but makes great use of existing, abandoned space with paths, benches, a little rock beach kids can play at, a fishing deck, and an observation tower/monument honoring this location as Philadelphia's original "Ellis Island." Best of all? It was SO QUIET. I couldn't believe how peaceful it was back there. Worth a visit.

Entrance to Washington Ave Pier
The end of the pier, great view and so quiet

2. Trail to WalMart. No kidding, the same secluded, paved path actually runs further south a short bit to the South Philly WalMart parking lot, so take a quick spin down there for extra mileage and to check out some views of the water I guarantee you've never seen before.

3. Boats Galore. Head back north to the land of giant boats at Lombard & Columbus Blvd., where you'll find everything from Becuna, a WWII submarine, to Oympia, the oldest steel warship afloat in the world and the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War (who knew?!), to the Moshulu restaurant/bar and Spirit of Philadelphia cruises. Some ships you can tour on your own, others are part of the Independence Seaport Museum.

*If you're worried about the busy roads, bike paths and sidewalks keep you off Columbus Blvd. all the way but once you get to a crowded area, be nice and walk your bike.

4. Spruce Street Harbor Park. Just ahead of you is the beloved Spruce Street Harbor Park, the coolest thing in Philadelphia this summer next to Mo'ne Davis and one of the world's best urban beaches. Its closing date just got pushed to September 28 but you must go enjoy the hammocks, boardwalk games, floating beer garden, colorful lights and more one last time. And don't forget to walk around the Hyatt hotel and out the farther docks, where more interesting ships, boats to rent and great views await.

Becura and Olympia offer a touch is maritime history
Harbor Park's floating paradise and restaurant

5. Race Street Pier. If you can pry yourself away from Harbor Park, keep going north past Penn's Landing Great Plaza (unless there is a cool event there to check out) to Race Street Pier. The hard surfaced promenade was opened 2011 to give people spectacular views of the Ben Franklin Bridge and a way to get closer to the water. It's an all around happy place for reading, relaxing or spending time with friends.

6. Morgan's Pier. Hungry yet? At a minimum you deserve a refreshing beverage for all your hard work. Just on the north side of the Ben Franklin Bridge is Philly's trendiest outdoor bar/restaurant, Morgan's Pier, where you can relax over a cocktail or beer, grab a bite and see what's doin' at the marina. It's a welcoming place for families during the day but turns into a younger club-going crowd at night.

Race Street Pier, what a view!
Pineapple margarita at Morgan's Pier

Get through it all? Nice work, you'll sleep well tonight. Happy Labor Day!

August 24, 2014

Bank & Bourbon at the Loews Hotel

Admit it - you're a little biased against hotel restaurants, just like we are. Of course we had a superb meal at The Four Seasons but that's in a class of its own. And Lacroix in the Rittenhouse Hotel is supposedly excellent. But I won't deny that we generally have lower expectations for hotel food vs. the price and tend to avoid them at home and when we travel. Anyone else feel the same?

The popular Secret Knock
Bank & Bourbon, the new restaurant in Philadelphia's Loews Hotel, surprisingly exceeded our expectations on food but was a little rough around the edges on service.

It makes better use of the huge corner space than the last occupant, Sole Food, with dining tables, an open kitchen and lounge area, and a nice-sized bar extended out into the lobby. If I were from out of town and staying at the Loews, it would look like an inviting place to grab a drink.

Obviously bourbon is their "thing." Our bourbon-enthusiast friend enjoyed one of their bourbon flights and I was a big fan of the Secret Knock, a refreshing cocktail of house-aged whiskey, green tea, lemon and clarified milk. It's impossible to imagine what those ingredients taste like together so just trust me. The milk part sounds weird but it's practically clear, I promise.

Pastrami Short Rib
I'd advise the waiters to avoid freely admitting if they are "not a bourbon drinker," like ours did. No need for that awkward moment, just send over the bourbon master to help us choose. Service was also a little slow, bread disappeared just after the starters, and they never asked if we wanted second drinks... all a bit strange for having been opened a few months by now.

On the plus side, the food at Bank & Bourbon was pretty good. We all really enjoyed the beef short rib, pastrami-brined for something different and quite delicious, as well as the roasted corn salad, served with snap peas, parmesan, sesame granola and a citrus vinaigrette. Pea pierogies were a hit, but super tiny so if sharing among four don't expect more than two bites.

Roasted Corn Salad, great for a light starter
Pea Pierogies. One of the only ways to make me eat peas.

The best part about the wild king salmon entree was its bed of creamy yellow sweet potato mash; the rest of the dish was fine, no complaints. Our friends enjoyed the Alaskan halibut and the lamb trio (roasted loin, crispy belly and lamb sausage). Bradd went with the whole fish of the day, a porgy that came out in quite beautiful fashion, nestled in a large hot skillet with a ton of roasted vegetables and a succulent sauce underneath.

Whole fish of the day. Sauce underneath was actually pretty awesome, too.

For a few parting thoughts, it was interesting to note that most of the tables around us were drinking wine, cocktails or - gasp - Miller Lite. Maybe they were all out-of-towners who didn't pick Bank & Bourbon for its cordial list, but hopefully the restaurant will begin attracting the local bourbon-loving crowd. They actually do tastings every Wednesday as well as private events, for those who want to learn more about bourbon.

It would also be really cool to see Bank & Bourbon transition into a nightlife hotspot like some of the hotel restaurant/bars we've seen in London. Throw a good DJ in one corner, attract the young & beautiful locals as well as travelers, and it could be a prime spot to hang late night and enjoy a quality drink. 

August 16, 2014

Choose Your Own Taiwanese Hot Pot Adventure at Simply Shabu

One of the many great things about dining out is being able to sit back and let someone tend to your every hungry need. But sometimes it's more fun to take an active role in the experience. You can experiment with different combinations of flavors, rarely end up eating too quickly and in general have something to do besides just eat and talk.

That's why I liked Simply Shabu. Not only was the food good and cheap ($15 a person. Total!) but it was as engaging as an art class, where you can focus on your own creation and forget about the outside world while also enjoying the company of others. 

Tucked away from the Chinatown rush at 10th and Cherry Streets, Simply Shabu is a Taiwanese-style hot pot restaurant where customers choose their meats, seafood and veggies, cook them in private pot of boiling both, and make their own sauces for dipping. "Shabu shabu," the term for "hot pot," is a centuries-old tradition but varies a little by Asian culture. The majority of Simply Shabu's ingredients come from regional farms and its broths are made without MSG or gluten. 

Here's how it works:

August 9, 2014

Hoagie Quest: PrimoHoagies in Ardmore

What does it mean when two cops are known on a first name basis at your local PrimoHoagies? A high likelihood that you've come to a quality place.

Jokes aside, Primo (at least the Ardmore location) does make a darn good Italian hoagie. That’s a good sign for hoagie hunters because, with more than 80 franchise locations, an authentic, high-quality and convenient hoagie is never too far away.

The Italian comes with prosciutto, hot capicola, natural casing Genoa salami and provolone. Freshly sliced meat was a pleasant surprise and packed the flavor that the Italian hoagie at Pastificio lacked. The capicola stole the show as its spicy kick really came through on each bite.

The soft vs. hard balance of the bread was just about right and made for tasteful bites without the chewy feeling. I also liked the amount of oil that was used, which is too often underdone for my taste.

I would have liked more sharp in the provolone so next time I'll go with the sharp version instead of the regular. The tomatoes were also bland and it didn't seem like the onions were cut fresh. But, hey at least they didn't ask if I wanted mayo - not bad for a chain!

PrimoHoagies is not in the same class as Salumeria or Paesano's in our Hoagie Quest, but definitely one to keep on your short list depending on your location.

July 30, 2014

What We're Eating: Beiler's Donuts

If you walked through Reading Terminal Market recently and saw a lone female patron with a box of six doughnuts, a spork in one hand and camera in the other, that was me. I had to promise a lot of bystanders that I wasn't going to eat them all.

With a random weekday off from work, I was on a mission to try Beiler's Donuts. It opened just over a year ago, filling the doughnut stand void in Reading Terminal and expanding the Pennnsylvania Dutch family's corner operation full of breads, pies, salads and pickles.

And what a delicious mission it was, as in a suddenly-competitive doughnut town, Beiler's is right up there with Federal Donuts, Frangelli's and others in my book.

First tip: don't be scared off by the line. It almost always wraps around the corner stall near the 12th & Arch entrance but moves very quickly. You can watch the entire doughnut-making process from your spot in line as you get hungrier by the second. See photos below for some of that experience; they really are made right in front you.

Second tip: Order a lot. At 90 cents each or $4.95 for a half dozen, it's absolutely worth trying more than one!

But that begs the question: If you were going in for a half dozen doughnuts, among a counter of at least 30 different varieties, what would you choose? I had to go with a classic glazed, a chocolate with sprinkles (my childhood go-to) and a Boston creme. I couldn't pass up Beiler's most famous warm apple fritter, then added in an apple harvest and a salted caramel.

Warm apple fritter. A must-try.
Salted caramel perfection.

The outcome: The apple fritter is worth every rave review - so fluffy and warm with blended in apple flavor and a hint of glaze on top. Eat it first while it's still warm. The salted caramel is equally mind-blowing, with a heavenly white creme filling, caramel icing and added sprinkled salt. You can tell they are both handmade and fresh out of the oven.