Wednesday, February 18, 2009


After my all-too-brief visit to the Grey Lodge's Friday The Firkinteenth beer festival last Friday, good friend Gary Bredbenner and I made our way 11 blocks north to the newest destination cheesesteak shop, WIT OR WITOUT? (yep, that's the real name of the place), 7352 Frankford Ave., just above Cottman Ave. I saw a brief mention of the place in a recent Michael Klein column in the Inquirer, and from the sound of it, I had to check it out. The place was running a pricing promotion that was hard to resist: opened in January, they were pricing cheeseteaks at $3 in January, $4 in February, $5 in March, and settling to $6 in April. So, a $4 cheesesteak or two after a few hours of superb cask beer, how could we go wrong?

It's a bright, clean, tiled, shotgun storefront, with a few tables and stools and countertops all along the left wall of the place, cheery staff in black polos, good smell of onions and beef everywhere. Gary and I ordered two cheesesteaks wit' (if you're late to the Philly patois thing, that means cheesesteak with fried onions, and hence the clever name of the clearly franchise-ready place), an order of fries and some sodas. The steaks pieces on the grill, Gary and I concurred, were likely eye round, fresh and nicely red, and the griller clearly knew how to handle the meat with minimal grease and no chopping. Bread looked solidly good; American, provalone and whiz are the cheese options.

These are good, hefty cheesesteaks.
Fries were decent, frozen potatoes served in a styro cup, but with good greaseless execution.

Photos are courtesy of Gary, who learned that this place is owned by the fellow who started the Philadelphia Pretzel Co franchise operations. Expect to see a few more Wit Or Witouts soon.

Damn fine cheesesteaks!

Philly's Best Beer Festival. Period.

I was able to take in a few hours of FRIDAY THE FIRKINTEENTH at the Grey Lodge Pub this past Friday (the only beer festival scheduled by the dictate of an annual calendar, when Friday the 13th occurs), and by my arrival time at 5:42 PM, there were only 7 firkin (out of 20 served) left for sampling (they started tapping at noon, 7 firkins at a time). Grabbed a very impressive, creamy, silky Sly Fox Seamus Irish Stout for my first quaff, followed by an even more impressive Philadelphia Brewing JOE coffee porter, full of deep cocoa and strong coffee flavors. Sampling small glasses of each beer, I moved onto a Blue Point Oatmeal Stout, thin and pretty vague for an oatmeal stout, much less impressive than the one I sampled at the brewery in Patchogue, NY a few years ago. Took a growler home of the stuff back then, that's how impressive it was, but not last Friday night at FTF. My last beer was an Iron Hill North Wales Bourbon Porter, very rich, chewy and whiskey-like, a great "dessert" for the visit. As I began my second sip of the Iron Hill, the last firkin kicked, a great cheer went up among the assembled multitudes, and then a respectful group sigh, with the realization that the fresh cask beers were done.

But here's what I really love about Friday The Firkinteenth: it's wall-to-wall beer lovers, it's somewhat loud, and yet, everyone, to the last man and woman, are happy to be there, happy to pass glasses of beer along without complaint, happy to talk beer with out any pretense. The sheer vibe of simple enjoyment is everywhere. For me, the chance to see old friends whom I haven't seen in months and years was especially nice, bear hugs and hearty handshakes and laughter all around. Before the twins came 3 and half years ago, I was a weekly visitor to the Grey Lodge, despite its 40-mile distance from my home. Prior to FTF, I had not been to the Grey Lodge in 6 and half months. I've missed the place, and especially the many great people that are regulars there, but your life changes, and you try to make the most of it. It won't be 6 and half months before I'm there again; I'll be there for the NEXT Friday The Firkinteenth, next month!
(photo courtesy of Lew Bryson's website blog, Seen Through A Glass)

Friday, February 13, 2009

ESQUIRE Blows Breakfast Spots in Philly

Are you kidding me?

The latest ESQUIRE Mag is out, and once again, the Philly restaurant scene is given pretty short shrift. This issue's compilation showcases great breakfast spots across the country, and all Philly gets is a recipe from chef Steven Petrecca of Jones restaurant for "Eggs in Tomato Sauce," a miniscule photo reference for La Colombe's Corsica blend coffee, and a wierd, unappetizing description of a "Cypriot breakfast" from a new restaurant, Kanella, at 10th and Spruce. Only one problem, Esquire: Kanella doesn't serve breakfast.

Are you telling me that Francine Maroukian and the other Esquire writers, who compiled the piece, were not impressed by the Melrose Diner, Morning Glory, Honey's, Parc, even Carman's Country Kitchen (Carman does leave an impression with you....)??

I'm really amazed that the mag couldn't find a single spot to represent the city's breakfast culture. I think Esquire may have been the victim of an overzealous PR person, or worse, a totally clueless local "source". Sheesh.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"I'm always good for a beer," says Obama

Good beer buddy Tom Cizauskas took note of this first on his blog, as reported in the NY Times website, but it will always bear repeating, as far as I'm concerned. From a town hall style meeting in Elkart, IN, quoth our President in an exchange with a earnest fellow citizen:

“I’m one of those that thinks you need to have a beer with Sean Hannity,” she said.

“With respect to Sean Hannity, I didn’t know that he had invited me for a beer,” the president said to laughter from the crowd.

“But I will take that under advisement,” he added in a tone that suggested it may be a long consideration, prompting even more laughter.

“Generally,” Mr. Obama went on, “his opinion of me does not seem to be very high.”
More laughter.

“But I’m always good for a beer.”

The Caucus
New York Times on-line
By Peter Baker
9 February 2009

Gotta love the guy.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bread and Circuses, With Pizza!

It's been 25 years since I baked a loaf of bread.

It was Annapolis, 1984 and I was on my own, working as a regional manager for an insurance company, and I somehow acquired the Tassajara Bread Book, written by those kindly monks in Oregon that have made an industry for themselves in bread baking. And I started baking bread to pass the time. And then pizza. And I loved it.

I've continued to make pizza over the years, damn good pizza if I say so myself, but I don't know why I ever stopped baking bread. Perhaps it was the wealth of good bakeries in the neighborhoods where I have lived since those Annapolis days, Italian bakeries in South Philly when I lived in Center City, Marchiano's bakery in Manayunk when I lived there; now I have terrific bakeries like Barbero's and Franca's in nearby Trenton when I need a bread fix.

But good friend Bob Rescinito in Oklahoma City sent me a foolproof bread recipe that he favors, and it was so simple that I just had to try it:

(adapted for my kitchen)

one bottle (12oz) beer, and light or amber beer will do as long as it aint too hoppy!

1 T dry yeast

14 to 16 oz King Arthur All purpose flour

1.5 tsp salt

Pour beer into mixing bowl, add yeast, mix salt into flour, slowly stir flour into beer until a soft dough is formed. Do not knead. Turn dough into an oiled bowl or proofing container and let dough rise for about 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 450F . While oven is heating, turn dough out onto a floured bench/board, and knead just a few times, adding flour if needed. Shape dough into a boule. When oven is heated, take dough and carefully place it into a greased loaf pan. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, check, and let bake for about 10 more minutes until bread is golden brown. Internal temp should be about 180F, let cool before slicing. If you can wait!

Pretty easy and foolproof recipe. I use the same dough for pizza sometimes.

Well, the bread was fantastic, yeasty and almost sourdoughy, and yes, it was REALLY EASY to make. As you can see above, it looked pretty good too. Daughter Sophie loved watching it bake and really enjoyed her first slice.

Inspired by that new success, I got the baking bug back and decided to make some pizza for Super Bowl Sunday. I made a double batch of pizza dough, from a recipe adapted from an old Betty Crocker cookbook I found at a flea market during my college days. It's held up all these years, and makes a damn fine pizza dough:

My Pizza Dough

Makes 3 thin crust pizzas

1 cup tepid water
1 packet yeast
2.5 cups unbleached flour
1 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste
3 shakes of Mrs Dash's original seasoning
2 tbs extra virgin olive oil, extra for coating a bowl and baking
Corn meal for baking

In a large bowl (or bowl of a stand mixer) sprinkle yeast into water, add sugar, stir. As bubbles begin to multiply and percolate, add salt pepper and Mrs Dash's, and stir. Add olive oil, stir. Add flour slowly and begin stirring with handle of wooden spoon or begin stirring with mixer's dough hook on medium speed. When dough ball has fully formed and pulls away completely from the sides of the bowl or mixer, turn dough onto a floured board and knead several times, up to 20 or so folds of the dough. I often knead even more that that.

Rub a large bowl with extra olive oil and turn dough into bowl, turning to completely coat with oil. Cover loosely with damp towl or plastic wrap and let rise for about 4 hours. Watch dough and when it reaches top of the bowl, punch dough down with your fist and fingers until it has completely settled, re-cover and let rise again. Repeat this step 3 or 4 times.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle pizza pan (I use 12 in. pizza pans ) with cornmeal enough to cover at least half of the surface of the pan. Cut away 1/3 of dough and stretch gently with fingers and knuckles, taking care not to rip dough. Place dough over cornmeal and drizzle a small amount of oil on dough. Stretch dough with finger tips and press into and across pan. Sprinle with grated precorino or parmesan and top with sauce, mozzarella and toppings to taste. Bake 17-20 minutes , depending on amount of toppings.

"What's up with the Mrs. Dash's?" you may ask; actually I spilled some into pizza dough water once, and liked the resulting hydrated herbs and vegetables studding the crust so much. that I've made it that way ever since. Try it. Or don't.

Plain pizza before...

These are pics of three pizzas that I made the other night, with dough left over from Super Bowl Sunday; I made a plain tomato cheese pie, a pepperoni number, and one with roasted potatoes, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, celery, basil and pepper jack cheese, my take on a Calabrese-style pizza I once had at a gourmet store in Ardmore. Of the three, that last one was the winner. Took about 22 min. to bake thoroughly.

...and after

Pepperoni Pizza before...

....and after

Roasted potato pizza before....

....and after!

And they tasted as good as they look, I'm happy to say. Gonna be making a lot more, I think. Back to the ovens!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Year Of The Prix Fixe Meal Deal

I think it was on the foodie website/blog Foobooz that I read that "$35 is the new black," and I'm seeing that price point everywhere for pre-theatre ("early bird" for those of you in Florida) as well as standard time menu offerings. Restaurants are pretty openly scrambling for your business, as gastropubs, diners, bistros and taverns slowly erode the fine dining customer base in almost every city.
Frank Bruni, the NY Times restaurant critic, wrote an interesting chapter of his "Diner's Notebook" in the paper's Dining section yesterday, surveying some of the bigger players in town and how they are earnestly cultivating repeat and first-time business. Even in New York City, $35 seems to be a common 3-course bargain prix fixe these days. I saw a 3-course dinner at Lever House for $35---gotta go!

Same stuff in Philly. Everyone is touting a $35 pre-fixe; chic, romantic (at least to me) Matyson on 19th St offers a nightly tasting menu at $45, touted by many knowledgable foodies as an absolute steal.

Now I still receive a ton of press releases in my e-mail almost everyday, touting every manner of restaurant, brewpub, brewery, food product, etc. I'm grateful for most of them, because they keep me feeling connected when lately I'm not really getting out very much to drink and dine at all. And many of the most recent releases I've gotten have been about $35 prix fixes. Many of the offers seem meager, almost after-thought departures from the souls of many of the restaurants (no, I won't mention any names, I have enough enemies already, thank you). But the $35 early dinner at Alison Two in Ft. Washington, PA, really caught my eye; the menu reads like a lot of food (or food and drink , if you prefer) for the money:

Creamy Parsnip Soup, Cured Duck, Citrus Hazelnut Butter

House Smoked Trout, Caviar, Fennel, Lemon Crème Fraîche, Chive Potato Cake

Chopped Salad, Romaine Lettuce, Blue Cheese, Poached Egg, Tomato, Asparagus, Herb Toast

Arugula, Duck Prosciutto & Manchego Cheese Salad, Membrillo

Skate Wing, Cauliflower Puree, Fennel and Radish Salad, Cardamom Vinaigrette, Roasted Lemon

Grilled Hanger Steak, Bacon & Onion Frites, Tomato Chili

Grilled Pork Chop Al Pastor Style, Crispy Masa Cake, Pineapple & Salsa Verde

Roasted Chicken Breast, Caramelized Brussels Sprouts & Pearl Onions, Salsify Puree, Cider Reduction

Cinnamon Brioche Bread Pudding, Caramelized Bananas, Banana Crème Fraîche Ice Cream

Meyer Lemon Creme Caramel, Candied Kumquats with Basil, Lemon Tuile

Chocolate Brownie Sundae, Vanilla Ice Cream, Double Sauce

Choose a glass of wine instead of your appetizer or dessert course: Penfolds Cabernet or Luna Freakout.

Now, I'm not here to shill for Alison Two; they have the very best PR person in the business doing that job. I've never had a bad meal in Allison Barshak's hands; Alison in Blue Bell remains one of my very favorite restaurants; and Alison Two, open just a short time, shows some of the same common sense, value and creativity of the original. This new early menu makes me want to head there soon.

The $10 Growler

I was very fortunate on Tuesday night to get a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card and join 15 other foodies for an outrageous dinner of mostly Sechuan food at the new Han Dynasty restaurant in Royersford, PA (70 Buckwalter Rd., just off the Royersford exit of Rte 422 W). Now I've never been to the Royersford outpost of Sly Fox Brewery, so I thought it would be an especially good night for some outstanding beer to go with some outstanding Chinese food. Called SFR to inquire on directions and costs of a growler. The sweet voice on the other end of the phone informed me that on Tuesdays growlers are "just $10, $4 for the bottle and $6 for the beer." Woo-hoo!

Scored three growlers for our Sechuan dinner: Pikeland Pils, of course (my favorite beer style with Asian food), the Route 113 IPA and Dunkel Lager. Each one matched up perfectly during the dinner, consumed in pretty much that order, too. Pairing the Pils with Han Dynasty's Fish and Pickled Vegetable Soup and the Wontons in Chile Oil was just as tasty as it gets, until some of us opened up the Rte 113 IPA with the incendiary Spicy Hot Pot, Fish in Dry Pot, and Tea Smoked Duck in Beer Sauce. The killer pairing for me was the Dunkel Lager with the Taiwanese Sausage and Snow Peas and especially the Braised Bacon with Scallion. Transcendant. We went through 24 dishes on Tuesday night, and the dinner was so great on so many levels, I'm gonna deal with it in a seperate post.

But f'real: a growler of SLY FOX BEER for $10 on Tuesdays! Holey Shamoley!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pleasure and Pain in Royersford, PA

"Spicy Hot Pot"

OK, I caught your attention. And no, it's not the headline for a City Paper Personals ad, though I'd bet it's been used there before. Last night I was very fortunate to be able to join 14 other foodies for an outrageously deliciously incendiary repast at the new Han Dynasty restaurant (70 Buckwalter Rd, Royersford, PA, 610-792-9600), the second outpost of the very good Exton restaurant. I wrote about the Exton place and its food last year for a Chinese New Year article in a local magazine, and I think the new Royersford place is even better. We sat down to a 24-dish feast that was both notable for its scope and wonderful for its roller-coaster of flavors and textures. The dinner was organized by Jeff Towne, the co-producer and engineer for the nationally syndicated, ambient music radio show, "Echoes" heard locally on WXPN (88.5FM), but he is best known in foodie circles as Philadining, author of the Philadining Blog, and one passionate, dedicated photographer of almost everything he eats in restaurants.

En route to the restaurant, which was a near 60-mile trek for me, I stopped i nto the Royersford, PA branch of the Sly Fox Brewery and picked up three growlers of their superb beers, detailed in my post above. It was a good move. Some of the dishes we sampled needed the beer to moderate their considerable heat.
Fish in Dry Pot

The pictures I'm posting here are courtesy of Jeff and the foodie website, and are just a glimpse of what we had; you can read the entire recap, with complete photos, on this thread of egullet.

It was a roller coaster of a dinner; from the very first dish, a fish and pickled vegetable soup, our taste buds were put on alert. Great soup (cuttlefish, I think, was the fish), lip-tingling heat level. Quickly softened by some sips of Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, and the next dish, sweet potato cakes (think sweet potato latkes), thankfully mellow, sweet and greaselessly fried. Wontons in chile oil followed, a superb rendition with decent heat. I was almost too squeamish to try the Sliced beef and tripe, but I did, and it was quite good, served cold (it was actually beef TONGUE, and that limited my sample to a bite, thanks very much), and really spicy.
Smoked Bacon and Leeks

So much of the dinner was an ever moving blur of dishes, napkins wiping my ever-perspiring brow and neck, smart sips of beer and water, scoops of steamed rice (another good heat damper) and gasps of tongues a-tingling. Thankfully I was not alone in my reaction to this onslaught of spice, but I was just as astonished at the relative calm and dry brows of some of my tablemates. I could feel my lips, ferchrissakes, and they were pulsing.

There was rabbit with peanuts, a very nice sweetly spicy dish, mung bean "noodles", and cold shredded chicken in a sesame sauce. Then came the Mother of All Spicy Things, a dish simply listed on our hand-written menu as "Spicy Hot Pot" (pictured at top of this post). Damn. This. Was. Hot. All manner of beef, pork shrimp, squid, crabmeat, tofu, noodles and veggies in a ridiculously hot soupy stew. Route 113 IPA went into my glass and quickly down my throat. The hot pot was one of the spiciest things I have ever eaten, and I've eaten some serious old-school Thai food in my life.

Thankfully, Han followed the hot pot with a delicate sweet and sour fish dish that was very nice and very welcome. Equally tasty was a simple dish of smoked bacon and leeks

Sweet and Sour Fish Filets

Tea-smoked duck in a beer sauce brought back the heat, as did a whole Sechuan sea bass, blanketed in a zingy coating. Sechuan Sea Bass

Shrimp-stuffed eggplant was terrific, dark purple slices curled around chopped shrimp, as was fish in dry pot, stir-fried string beans, chicken with dry hot pepper (like tiny popcorn chicken taken to the tenth power in heat), deep-fried shredded beef (think searingly hot beef jerky), Taiwanese sausage and snowpeas, studded with garlic cloves (you wrap the sausage around a clove and pop it in your mouth, take a slurp of beer, and it's just terrific), delicate baby bok choy and black mushrooms, earthy, juicy shredded lamb with cumin (specially requested by our tablemate, Lauren), and braised bacon with scallions. The Dunkel Lager was opened for these last 4 dishes and it was an excellent companion. Especially with that braised bacon. Yes, braised bacon. Who knew?

Dessert was a mind-bender, at least for me (after 23 rollickingly good dishes, the mind was pretty much bent already): sesame dumplings, three white orbs floating in hot water. Restaurant owner Han instructed us to put each dumpling in our mouth whole, and when we bit into it, it was like a gooey, slippery, marshmellowy Reese's peanut butter cup, I swear. Totally messed with your mouth and taste memory. What a wacky way to go out.

It was a fabulous dinner start to finish, daring and dangerous and hilarious and absolutely delicious. And painful in parts. And I'd do it again in a heartbeat.