October 27, 2014

Abe Fisher's Culinary Tour Through the Jewish Diaspora

At their newest restaurant, Abe Fisher, restaurateurs Steve Cook and Chef Michael Solomonov - a.k.a. "CookNSolo" - introduce Philadelphia to food inspired by cuisines of the Jewish diaspora.

Don't worry, I had to look up the word "diaspora," too. It means the dispersion of a people from their original homeland and is often used to describe the millions-strong Jewish population outside of Israel. So what's cool about Abe Fisher is that it incorporates cuisines from all over the world, as Jewish immigrants have settled in places from New York to Montreal to Moscow.

As he did so successfully with Zahav, Solomonov again introduces Philly to a food experience that we don't get anywhere else - especially if you're like us and have little-to-no access to Jewish home cooking.

Here's a look at several of the dishes we tried at Abe Fisher. They're all served as small plates, divided up on the simple menu by veggies, meat and fish. The menu changes frequently and not everything we ordered is currently available.  Be sure check out the menu online to get a sense for what you'll eat.

Kasha varnishkes seem to be the Instagram favorite among Abe Fisher patrons and were one of our favorite parts of the meal, too. Deliciously light poppy seed dressing covers ravioli-like pockets, which are stuffed with a seasonal ingredient. Ours was an English pea filling.

The Brussels sprouts were also grilled just right and a good choice for an early dish.

The hot-smoked sable cake with cucumber, dill and old bay seasoning had a strikingly strong flavor. If you haven't had smoked fish before, be prepared for a different and literally smokey sensation than you're used to. Not my preference but Bradd liked it.

More exciting was the shrimp fried rice - really a fried rice cake with shrimp on top and a runny egg. Why on earth was this on a menu of dishes inspired by Jewish communities around the world? Because Jewish people eat Chinese food on Christmas. We are not making this up, it's what the waitress AND the manager told us.

I insisted on ordering the sweet and sour meatballs, served with celery root, raisins and a dollop of boursin cheese on top. They weren't as great as I expected but did come out piping hot.

The pastrami'd pork belly with potato latkes was totally not what we hoped. The laser thin slices of pork belly with a paper-thin brine had an odd consistency and fell flat without the latkes. If yours look like the picture above, spread out the dollops of mustard; it is needed in each bite for full flavor.

Dessert was a pretty big hit for us at Abe Fisher. The "Black and White" is a twist on the classic Jewish deli cookie with lemon and poppy cheesecake and an almond cookie crumble. Loved the dark poppy half. The Jewish apple cake seemed like a must-order and certainly didn't go to waste. 

All this (two items per column on the menu) was plenty of food for two people. Overall, some dishes were better than others but overall Abe Fisher didn't quite "wow" us as much other CookNSolo ventures. 

One other disappointment was that neither the menu nor the waitstaff explained which parts of the Jewish diaspora were represented in each dish we ate. Given the focus on food influenced by cultures all over the world, I'd love to know where Solomonov got his inspirations to add to the overall experience of trying something new.

Doesn't have to be a sappy or long story, even just a country/region name next to each item on the menu or a quick note by the waiter would do the trick. We only asked about the shrimp fried rice because it seemed so odd, but how about those meatballs? I assume the smoked fish came from Montreal but don't know that for sure. And what the heck is a varnishke? Wikipedia tells me it's an Eastern European creation, though the name is rooted in a Russian word for dumplings.

Abe Fisher is still worth checking out, especially if you only want a handful of small bites for a decent price. Don't miss those varnishkes... whatever they are.

October 12, 2014

Have You Tried the New Orleans at Plenty Cafe?

Keeping up with best new and old sandwiches in Philadelphia is difficult with only one stomach and limited time. Without your recommendations to help prioritize Sandwich Quest, I'm merely a one man rowboat trying to cross an endless ocean of sandwiches.

Thankfully the recommendations come often, like this from a recent Twitter tipster:
Not only had we not tried the New Orleans, we had never been to Plenty Cafe. We took Tim up on the suggestion and headed to Plenty's new-ish 16th and Spruce Street location (the original is on East Passyunk Ave.)

Tim was right - the New Orleans is certainly a worthy subject for Sandwich Quest. Pressed between halves of a demi-baguette, the cured and smoked spicy tasso ham, sliced green apple, fig jam and gruyere make for a delicious sandwich.

I don't recall having tasso ham before, but the spicy, peppery flavor is the star of the show, making this sandwich stand out from others in Philadelphia. As I reported back on Twitter, the sweet fig jam combines perfectly with the spicy ham to make the New Orleans a must-try sandwich. It's expensive at $10.50, but the final product is worth the price of admission.

Since the first visit, we have also tried the pesto chicken, Texas brisket and Seoul sandwiches as take out. All were just fine, but none of them came close to the New Orleans and the brisket is the only one I'd recommend. Has anyone tried others or disagree?

Please tell us about your favorite sandwiches and restaurants via Twitter, Instagram, email, whatever. Hearing about all your food experiences is a big reason why we write this blog! Frankly, it's the interaction with all of you that keeps us going.

Also, check out a guest contribution from @TRappaRT - How to Make a Turducken. Just in time for Thanksgiving, it's an epic post full of humor and tips to make your own legendary monument of meat.

October 5, 2014

Fall Day Trip Idea: Wyebrook Farm

We visited Wyebrook Farm at the tail end of fall last year, so we held off sharing that experience until now. Just about an hour from Center City in Honey Brook, PA, it's a great destination to get your fix of fall colors, farm animals, hot cider and a delicious farm-to-table lunch.

Grab a burger and cider at The Café window and sit outside at one of the picnic tables. We got there early but by 12 or 1pm all the tables in the photo above were packed with families making a full afternoon out of their visit. As you can see, dogs are welcome, too.

The grass-fed beef, heritage pork, pastured chicken, lamb and goat dishes served are all raised at Wyebrook Farm and vegetables are sourced from other local organic farmers. Some days there is live music and you can always bring your own wine or beer. The Café is open Wednesday - Saturday, 11AM - 4PM.

September 30, 2014

What Every Neighborhood Needs: Society Hill Society

Society Hill Society (SHS) recently transformed the old Artful Dodger location at the corner of 2nd and Pine in Headhouse Square. My first reaction walking in the door was "wow, it's so bright!" If you'd been to the old bar, you'll be a little shocked to see how much bigger, more open and airy the space can be without a wall cutting it in half. 

SHS is now an appealing little neighborhood spot, which I'd recommend for anything from a first date to an outing with friends. Finished in a rustic copper, the bar is small enough to get close attention from the bartenders and immediately sets a tone of casual sophistication. 

Pairs or small groups are best at the bar but tables can accommodate parties of six or so. It was lovely to sit with another couple in the front corner picnic table, with fresh herbs growing in the window sill and the bustle of Headhouse Square just outside.

The menu made it tough to choose - go with a group so you can try a few dishes. Here's a quick tour through what we ate off the late summer menu. I would expect some items to change for fall. 

The pictures above recap the starter selection that we ordered. In the middle: refreshing Thinking Machine cocktail with bourbon, lemon, coriander shrub and montenegro, a bittersweet liqueur. 

Clockwise from top right: complimentary housemade pretzel and mustard for each table; Chicken pot pie croquettes (great app!); Chilled peach soup with goat cheese truffles, surryano ham and bell pepper; Market green salad with meyer lemon ranch (also a solid choice). 

September 14, 2014

Hit Me Banh Mi One More Time: Ba Le and Nam Son

"What's your favorite banh mi?" is the question that stumps us whenever we discuss Sandwich Quest with someone in Philly, considering our first banh mi at Q.T. Vietnamese more than three years ago was a big disappointment. The two sandwiches we tried there were just not good enough for us to recommend and we have not sought another since.

It was clearly time to jump back on the horse and try the banh mi again. This time we decided to tackle two - one each from Ba Le Bakery and Nam Son Bakery along Washington Ave.

Close-up of Nam Son banh mi
Thank the food gods that we did because the banh mi is squarely back on the list of things to try on Sandwich Quest. The shredded pork banh mi at Ba Le was the "a-ha!" moment, in particular. From the first bite, I began to understand why people love the banh mi. Just like any good sandwich it starts with the bread, and in the case of the banh mi - the French baguette!

The Ba Le baguette surpassed Nam Son although both were good. Soft and light on the inside with a crackly crust, every bite was a joy. And get this: you can buy individual baguettes for dirt cheap. At Nam Son they are 65 cents or 4 for $2.50. Compare that to Metropolitan Bakery, where a single baguette costs $1.25. The full banh mi sandwich is also a bargain at $4.50 at both places.

What really made the difference for both Ba Le and Nam Son was the freshness of the ingredients. Ba Le, where I tasted more of the cilantro flavor and the right combination of cucumber and carrots atop shredded pork, was a step ahead even though Nam Son was not bad by any means. Nam Son was a bit heavy on the carrots as you can tell from the picture.

Shredded pork banh mi from Ba Le Bakery

Shredded pork banh mi from Nam Son Bakery

And yowzers did the Ba Le version pack a punch of heat. It was just the right amount, though, as the jalapenos and spicy pork added much to the flavor without overpowering the rest of the sandwich.

If this were a banh mi smackdown, I’d give it to Ba Le with a late round knockout. However, the real winner was Sandwich Quest as both places more than proved that the "Vietnamese hoagie" belongs on anyone's list of Philly sandwiches to try. 

Let me know your favorite banh mi and be sure to tell us which type to order, too (barbecue pork, tofu, etc.).

And yes, the headline parody is the first and last Britney Spears reference that will ever appear on this blog.