Thursday, August 29, 2013
I've had a few "whoa" dining moments in my life. Not as many as you'd think, given my food writing career, but enough to make each one distinctly special. My first bites of tomato pie from Delorenzo's on Hudson St. in Trenton in 1992. Escargot in Champagne Butter at the original Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia in 1980. Square pizza topped with porcini mushrooms from DiFara in Brooklyn in 2004. Buffalo shrimp from Frenchy's in Clearwater, FL in 1995. Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale and a plate of nachos at Isaac Newton's in Newtown, PA in 1996. Shrimp wonton noodle soup at NY Noodletown in NYC's Chinatown on more visits that I can count.
Lsst Saturday I had another startling "whoa" moment at a new restaurant in town, Inchin's Bamboo Garden, a new outpost of the 11-locations chain from, of all places, Georgia.
The restaurant concept boasts a fusion of Indian and Chinese cuisines (from which the fictional Inchin name is derived), with some Thai and Malaysian notes thrown in for good measure, But this food is nothing like any Asian food I've ever had before.
The backstory of this small chain is based on the 18th century Chinese migration to India, specifically to the ports of Calcutta and Madras. And it is the substantial Chinese population and influence in Calcutta that inspires the menu at Inchin's.
The photo above gives only a hint of the atmospheric decor of the places, housed in what used to be the decades-old Rider college hangout bar, The Carousel, and briefly a Chinese buffet restaurant.
Moody statuary exaggerated faces greet you at the entrance and vestibule, dark woods, bamboo and carved teak decorate the walls and help create several different dining spaces, and set the escapist tempo of the place. A solicitous host and waitstaff (maybe a little too solicitous) great you quickly and eagerly. OK, points for enthusiasm. They have a lot to be enthusiastic about.
The menu is huge and highlighted by an abundance of vegetarian dishes and options. The kids ordered egg drop soup and coconut soup with chicken, from a menu of 19 different soups (9 non-vegetarian, 10 vegetarian), and both bore no resemblance to any such soup in a Chinese or Thai restaurant that I've ever seen. The egg drop soup was snowy white with a rich chicken broth aroma and a tamarind note that elevated it several levels above the Chinese soup staple. The dark orange coconut soup was perfumed with galangal and had sliced dark mushrooms and dark meat chicken and a growing heat level courtesy of jalapeno threads that rested on the bottom of the bowl. It proved even a bit too spicy for my daughter, who can hold her own when it comes eating the heat of most Szechuan dishes.
An order of "veg coins" brought small pancakes, slightly bigger than poker chips, damn near drowned in a "hot garlic" sauce and shreds of onions, red and green peppers. On the menu the hot garlic sauce is billed as "spicy", which is on the lower end of the heat scale at Inchin's ("very spicy" and "fiery" are the hotter settings).The plump patties, made from shredded carrot, cauliflower and squash, were greaselessly fried and the sauce packed quite a punch, and was a preview of how hot things can get here. Chili Chicken, touted on the menu as the house specialty, was a definite notch higher in heat (and listed as "very spicy"---sweet Jesus, how hot can "fiery" be??)and the equal of anything I've had at notable Szechuan eateries such as Szechuan House in Hamilton and the Han Dynasty restaurants in the Philadelphia area. The sauce was sweet and tongue-numbing hot and studded with green and red peppers and scallion rings. Mongolian Chicken was white meat chicken tossed in a sticky sauce of caramelized sugar and onions over a nest of puffy fried taro root shreds, and the kids gobbled it up.I kinda liked it too.I ordered beef with hot garlic sauce and it looked to have the same sauce that graced the veg coins, but this dish's heat level was turned up quite few notches, which really enhanced the beef slices but put a serious hurt and sweat on my head.
My daughter really took charge of the menu here, showing her growing confidence in restaurant dining, and ordered Burnt Garlic Chili Fried Rice with Vegetables and Singapore Noodles with vegges for the table. Good choices for the most part. The rice was a nice departure, studded with browned garlic bits and crushed chillies, it has a spicy undertone which cut some of the extreme heat of the entrees, while the Singapore noddles were actually a bit dull, lacking the usual yellow curry punch that most versions have. But again, along with some bowls of white rice, the noddles were a good foil for the spice wallop of the chicken and beef dishes.
But the overall experience, the atmosphere, the vibrant color and composition of the dishes and the startling heat level of what we ate, combined with the fusion of Asian flavors in ways we had just never experienced before in any Chinese, Indian, Thai or Malaysian restaurant, were flat out dazzling.
There are 10 other Inchin's Bamboo Gardens in the US so far, from Atlanta to Austin, Cleveland to Columbus, Dallas (2) , Raleigh, Scottsdale, San Fransisco and Seattle. I would hope they would be at the same culinary level as we found this new one in Lawrenceville. Don't hesitate to get to one. You'll be dazzled.
But bring your best asbestos tongue.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
When you think of Oktoberfest, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Well, beer of course. But then, you also know it's about October, Germany, beer halls the size of airplane hangars, giant pretzels, giant liter steins, giant busty girls in dirndls, drinking songs, enormous pork shanks and all that malty, malty beer. Prosit!
The other day I got an e-mail invitation from Philly's most famous tavern, McGillin's Olde Ale House, the 153 year old establishment (2nd oldest in the country!) that has become a reliable destination for very good beer and food and an atmosphere like no other place I know. The invitation was titled "Oktoberfest Starts on August 26". You read that correctly. "Oktoberfest Starts on August 26".
Now, just to be clear, I have the ultimate respect for McGillin's and the Mullins family, who have taken the legacy of the McGillin clan and burnished it brightly while keeping the historic landmark tavern as one of the best in Philly, and for that matter, the country.
So when I wrote back to McGillin's asking why their Oktoberfest was starting so early (it runs through October 6, by the way), their response was: "When the Oktoberfest beer comes in, McGillin’s serves it. There’s no holding back – when WE get it/You get it!"
And therein lies the problem, I think. Beer companies are rushing both Oktoberfest beers and pumpkin beers to market WAY too early. The shelves of my local beer stores are already packed with dozens of craft brew Oktoberfests and pumpkin beers and it's still AUGUST. Someone needs to talk to these guys and beg them to hold off just a little longer. Let us have our summer. Oktoberfest beers and hot humid weather, sand in our toes and the sounds of summer just don't work. Think about it. It's like decorating department stores for Christmas in October. Yeah, I know, it's already happened.
The summer sun is far from fading, temperatures are still in the 80s and high 70s, mosquitos (at least here in the Garden State) are as abundant as ever, and backyard grills are still in full seasonal operation.
It's not time for beers best suited for the Fall.
McGillin's also sent me their lineup for Oktoberfest and it is damn impressive:
Flying Fish's Octoberfish,
Sly Fox's Oktoberfest Lager,
as well as international Oktoberfest beers.
My mouth waters at the thought of all those great beers, the jovial, old-school atmosphere, and a plate of sausages from the very very underrated kitchen at McGillin's.
But can we just wait until maybe mid-September?