June 20, 2016

A Sandwich Quest to Cleavers Cheesesteaks in Center City

On a recent Sandwich Quest we visited Cleavers, a new cheesesteak shop a few blocks from Rittenhouse Square. According to Philly Insider, the four partners come from families who run a meat manufacturing company and have been in the restaurant business for years. Sounds like the fearsome foursome of cheesesteak creators!

Cleavers is a classic, made-to-order cheesesteak shop that uses prime USDA ribeye (most use a lower grade beef) that is neither sliced nor chopped to bits, but a sort of combo of the two. You'll be hard pressed to find a cheesesteak with more meat, except maybe Ray's in Lansdale. It's truly a monster that deserves kudos considering far too many shops skimp on the meat.

Overall, it's a high-quality cheesesteak, but still has room to improve as the meat was a bit stiff and the fried onions did not add enough of a sweet, caramelized flavor.  While it's nice to have an above average cheesesteak option in Center City, we'll continue to suggest John's Roast Pork and Spot Burger as our two favorite cheesesteaks.

As an aside, the Parmesan waffle fries were a hit, served in a hefty portion for only $4. The rest of Cleavers' menu includes a variety of more creative cheesesteaks, chicken sandwiches and veggie options, a variety of fries and other fried sides.

*Kid friendly? Yes fine for kids, ours ran around and made a mess!

March 27, 2016

Hoagie Quest: Matt & Marie's Italian Stallion

Since opening in 2014 near Logan Square, Matt & Marie's has quietly built a solid reputation with their modern Italian take on sandwiches. Co-owners Nicole "Marie" Capp and Justin "Matt" Sapolsky are also expanding the concept to Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square. Apparently, the business plan they wrote at Wharton said to open locations near squares!

I finally visited the original location to find out if I missed Matt & Marie's glory days before the challenges of expansion hit home. The sandwich shop is set up similar to a Subway where you order at one end and the hoagie is passed along the queue. It's quick and efficient, but leaves you wondering if the pre-sliced meat is fresh and high quality.

No need to worry. After the first bite of their Italian Stallion, you know Matt & Marie's brings it with the meat. Their combination of Molinari fennel salami, Genoa salami and sweet coppa hits your tastebuds like a cured-meat Starburst. Unlike bland provolone used by so many other shops, Matt & Marie's uses Claudio's, which is actually sharp. Clearly, the foundation of the Italian Stallion has all the makings of a great hoagie. Unfortunately, a house needs more than a foundation and that's trouble with this place.

The bread lacked freshness and had a Wawa-like quality. Not, bad, but certainly not good enough match Hoagie Quest's best. My two biggest issues, though, were with the hoagie's construction and the pepperoncini aioli.

Good flavor but poorly spread 
As the pictures show, neither the cheese nor the pickled peppers, which were very good, were spread throughout the hoagie. That's a basic hoagie building block and a miscue that should never occur. The menu also says onions are included, but I only noticed a stray slice.

While the pepperoncici aioli tasted quite good, to a traditionalist like myself it's a sneaky trick to get around the no-mayo-on-an-Italian rule. The flavor also overpowers the quality meat and cheese. I would prefer to have a pepperoncini oil instead.

In the end, Matt & Marie's makes a good hoagie and I'd definitely go back to try others, but I'm leery of the expansion since the execution was already lacking at the original location. Also, be mindful of the "modern Italian" tagline and as you will want to hunt somewhere else for a traditional hoagie.

February 11, 2016

Federal Donuts vs Shake Shack: Fried Chicken Sandwich Throwdown

Forget the burger wars. It's time for a chicken fight between Federal Donuts and Shake Shack with both juggernauts releasing their own version of a fried chicken sandwich.

The chicken gods from FedNuts serve a double-fried boneless breast with buttermilk ranch seasoning, spicy sauce, American cheese and pickles on a Martin's potato roll. Shake Shack's boneless, spicy breaded Chick'n Shack comes with herb mayo and dill pickles on a potato roll.

Shake Shack took the crown by a hair with a slightly crispier and spicier breading that delivers a better overall flavor profile. The buttermilk ranch coating at FedNuts was lost in the mix so we'd like to see a version using the unique seasoning of their popular Za'atar fried chicken. That tweak could enable FedNuts to steal the crown away. 

Both are worthy editions to your sandwich hunting list. What are you waiting for? Go get one. Or both!

January 31, 2016

9 Restaurants That Should Replace L2

In February 2014 we wrote a post about eight restaurants that should replace Dmitri's on Fitler Square after it closed much nearby residents' dismay. Even though new tenant Tria Fitler Square has turned out to be a pleasant addition to the neighborhood, it was not on our original list.

With the former L2 space at 23rd and South available again after a pizza/growler concept fell through, we're revisiting our original list. It's a great location that, with some renovations, could help continue the growth in commercial vibrancy in the neighborhood and be a great corner spot to eat.

Without further adieu, here are many the original ideas we'd still like see move in, with some tweaks:

1. Koo Zee Doo. We have not been shy about claiming Koo Zee Doo to be one of our all-time favorite restaurants in Philadelphia. But it fell victim to rent hikes in Northern Liberties and slow weeknights, closing in 2013 to widespread outcry from fans all over the area. Chef David Gilberg is at William Street Common now, but maybe he and co-owner/wife Carla Goncalves will consider a resurgence. The neighborhood could use something unconventional like Portuguese food. Only question will be... is the rent still too high?

2. Manakeesh. Along the same lines, Lebanese fusion could be a nice "something different" for Fitler Square. Manakeesh Cafe at 45th & Walnut is a huge hit for its flatbread sandwiches, platters and baked goods (we are obsessed with the baklava). We'd love to see them create a casual sit-down dinner menu, while also opening for breakfast and lunch, reminiscent of the original cafe style.

3. Chimu. On a recent trip to Brooklyn, we were tipped off to try Peruvian restaurant Chimu. Holy cow was it good. Skirt steak, chimichurri, ceviche... Is there any Peruvian food in Philly? If so, please advise on where we can get this. And then bring it closer!

4. Girl and The Fig. Another transplant idea. If you've ever been to Sonoma, CA, and didn't try the fresh, locally-sourced French cooking at Girl and The Fig, you missed out. Best meal we had in wine country. Not to mention that its owner/chef was raised and launched her career in Philadelphia. Come back, Sondra Bernstein! Your East Coast outpost awaits!

5. Gayle: The Revival. Daniel Stern's byob off South Street was the first restaurant we tried after moving to Philadelphia that really made an impact. (blog post from 2009, yikes!) The creative twists he put on dishes like pork & beans, shepherd's pie and "breakfast" blew our minds at the time, and the fact that a chef came out to talk to us made a real impact on the way we looked at food.

One vote for dim sum! (photo at Bing Bing)
6. Bring back Pat! Friends had mixed experiences at 943 during its run on 9th Street in the Italian Market. Maybe it was the wrong spot? Struggled like other BYOBs to bring in enough revenue? We really liked the Argentinian/Italian blend at 943 and would love to see Chef Pascual Cancelliere (such a nice dude) give it another shot with a liquor license and new audience.

7. El Bulli. I mean, why not. Best restaurant in the world is now closed, so let's see it re-open in Philadelphia! A foodie can dream.

8. Dim Sum Anything. We cherish dumplings and would love to see an outpost outside of Chinatown. While we'd take a Dim Sum Garden or another Bing Bing, we'd be happy with anything serving up piping hot soup dumplings.

9. Anything Good AND Kid Friendly. As new parents our needs and wants have changed. No longer can we just show up and sit at the bar or count on sticking with reservations. We enjoy taking our son out but it's a lot of work at the same time, and expensive to hire babysitters. (And when we do get out, it's even harder to find time to blog about it!) So, how about a place that provides the best of both worlds. L2 is a big enough spot for families and highchairs, while still catering to the masses. Give us the chance to enjoy a great meal along with a kid friendly dining experience. We would thank you for it.

What we don't need: Brunch joint like Honey's, more Neapolitan pizza like Vetri or $27 entree bistro a la Fitler Dining Room. We're not criticizing any of those spots, just don't need another one so close.

What are your suggestions??

December 28, 2015

Warm Up Your Cold Winter Nights at Whetstone Tavern

Photo Credits: Whetstone's Instagram
Whetstone Tavern opened in July at 5th & Bainbridge in an inviting corner spot that has seen its share of restaurants cycle through. We were fans of the last tenant, Tapestry, so we're happy to see another solid restaurant take its place. The layout is similar to Tapestry but with lighter, trendy blue/gray/white scheme that sets a chic yet comfortable mood.

Executive Chef Jeremy Nolan's famed German cooking should be familiar to any Brauhaus Schmitz regulars. To Whetstone he now brings fresh, classy versions of American tavern fair and a bourbon/whiskey-focused drink menu.

Our party of four was satisfied with our choices and really impressed with some. Two appetizers really stood out: the highlight of my meal was an outstanding pumpkin bisque added to the menu for fall. A topping of pumpkin seed pesto, pumpkin seed oil, sherry wine and crispy garlic perfected the simple, light creamy soup.

Kung Pao chicken wings. Warning: Seriously hot!
The waitress warned that the kung pao chicken wings appetizer was quite hot and she was not kidding. Bradd loved their flavor and crisp, but wouldn't let my pansy tastebuds anywhere near the spice.

Each entree was $24 and seemed to me an appropriate portion size and quality for the price. Braised rabbit and fresh pappardelle tetrazzini was an excellent choice for a cold night. It is served with sherry cream, beech mushrooms, smoked almonds and shaved piave cheese.

Another item that will catch your eye and not disappoint is the Creekstone Farms braised short ribs, served with roasted baby carrots and cremini mushrooms, parsnip puree, red wine gravy, fresh horseradish and parsley. The pan seared scallops with braised cauliflower, chile infused fennel confit and crispy fingerling potatoes were perfectly fine but probably the least memorable dish of the night.

Short ribs always stand out during cold winter nights
I was drawn to the pan sauteed lump and claw meat crabcakes, which turned out to be cooked just right and very tasty. I wasn't in love with the old bay roasted potatoes on the side but the leeks and pickled vegetable remoulade sauce made a deliciously seasonal topping.

I just barely had room left for a bit of maple custard pie with walnut streusel on top. Thank goodness because it was awesome.

Whetstone touts its bourbon focus so for cocktails we tried the Burly Burch, which basically tastes like a (very) spiked root beer so get it if you're a big root beer fan, and the Apple Barrel, another strong, good drink with a bit of a bite. I'd go back to Whetstone Tavern for dinner any time, but would also enjoy just sitting at the bar for a few more cocktails and enjoying the atmosphere. And maybe another slice of maple custard pie.

*Kid-friendly? Like many restaurants, I could see Whetstone Tavern as an ok place to bring a baby or young child during the early dinner hours or brunch. As it fills up, the noise level rises but was never disruptive. Tables are close together but not so close you couldn't replace one seat with a highchair.

L: Apple Barrel with bourbon, Appelkorn, served on the rocks. R: Burly Burch with bourbon, birch beer, fresh lime, served long over ice

 All Photos Credit to Whetstone Tavern's Instagram.