Aldine

We were on our way to our annual beach trip in Margate and had some time in Philadelphia in between our Amtrak and NJ Transit trains. That meant that there was no better time to check out a new-to-us restaurant. We made the 0.5 mile walk from 30th Street Station to Aldine, located just outside of Rittenhouse Square in Center City.

Aldine, from owners George and Jennifer Sabatino, is creatively wedged into a second floor space between two storefronts. The front door leads to a staircase that takes you practically straight up into the restaurant. Inside, the space is airy, full of dark wood and surrounded by windows on almost all sides. From our perch, we were able to look out onto the bustling street life below.

Aldine restaurant interior in Philadelphia

When we first entered the restaurant, we noticed a plaque hanging outside the door. The plaque was from Philadelphia Magazine and it was the award for “Best Non-Vegetable Restaurant for Vegetarians”. I don’t know if we have eaten at enough Philadelphia-area restaurants to have an opinion on this, but I feel comfortable saying that Aldine is a good spot for vegetarians and pescetarians.

The restaurant was empty when we arrived, possibly a result of it being a summer Friday. In spite of the calm, Marnay and I got the party started with glass of Spanish rose and a truly interesting housemade cream soda. The sweet but not too sweet soda had vanilla beans floating on top and the server instructed me to stir them for maximum flavor.

Aldine Spanish rose and a truly interesting housemade cream soda

Aldine is a small plates restaurant and we want to thank them for flawlessly coursing out our meal without us having to say a word. The pace of the meal felt more fine-dining than small plates. There were two plates that we were most excited about ordering: the poached shrimp crudo and the corn custard. Neither disappointed. The custard was savory in the sense that there were no added sugars, but the fresh corn gave plenty of natural sweetness. The dish is topped off with crunchy hazelnuts and tart pickled corn kernels and pickled mushrooms. The shrimp crudo, made with chilled poached shrimp, sat on top of a crisp bed of fennel salad and aioli and then was topped with everything spice, the spice of the moment right now.

apps

The braised purple cabbage with black-garlic glaze was an example of how Aldine can make vegetables the star of a dish and was as good as any dish at Vedge. The thick slices of cabbage were layered in a broth that tasted like soy, mirin, sugar, plus a few other ingredients.

cabbage

We rounded everything out with a culotte steak. The steak came with grilled peaches, cucumbers and black garlic chips, and really, the non-steak components were the best parts of the dish. The steak was fine, just a little chewy. We are not against ordering steak at restaurants, but often times steak feels like a throwaway item that restaurants put on a menu, intended for less-adventurous diners. For more on this, I recommend this article from former Washingtonian food critic Todd Kliman on how to read a menu like a food critic.

That being said, you really can’t go wrong with anything that Aldine serves.

meat

Best Bite
Paul: Corn Custard
Marnay: Shrimp Crudo

Address
Aldine: 1901 Chestnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19103

Advertisements

Vedge

We had quite a weekend adventure in Philadelphia recently, which included visits to Martha for drinks, American Sardine Bar for snacks and beer and culminating in dinner at Vedge. Vedge is located in a historic townhouse in Midtown Village, Philadelphia. We were seated in a small side room in front of a fireplace and beneath whimsical chandelier made out of spoons.

Vedge in Philadelphia

The menu is divided into “The Vedge Bar”, mostly cold small plates, “The Grill”, which is the entrée section and finally “The Dirt List” which are sides. We started out with the beautiful “Fancy Radishes”, which were served sashimi-style. Four types of radishes: watermelon, spanish, meat and daikon are splayed on top of various accompaniments including yuzu avocado, pickled tofu, shishito and shredded zucchini along with a spoonful of smoked tamari for dipping. Of course, similar to sushi, we made sure to only dip the radish end in the tamari! Served at the same time was the avocado stuffed with pickled cauliflower “fried rice” and held in a rice cracker shell. It was pleasant, particularly the way the creamy texture contrasted with the crunch of the rice cracker.

Vedge: Fancy Radishes and Avocado stuffed with pickled cauliflower “fried rice”

From the grill, we got a gigantic wood roasted carrot and the eggplant braciole. Every time I went to take a forkful of the braciole, I expected it to be biting into an Italian sausage—the resemblance was uncanny. The rolled smoked eggplant is stuffed with cured olives and mushrooms, seared at what must be an extremely hot temperature and served with salsa verde. The eggplant tasted more like meat than meat does at some lesser restaurants.

Vedge eggplant braciole

The wood-roasted carrot is Vedge’s take on a Reuben. It’s a huge carrot cut lengthwise and served on top of a white-bean puree, garbanzos and pumpernickel toast with carrot kraut off to the side. This is the dish that we have been raving about since our visit. We noticed that our server brought out our entrees about a minute before our sides. We think that this was so we could fully appreciate the entrees and not get overwhelmed by all of the food on our table.

Vedge wood-roasted carrot

To keep our carrots & eggplant company, we ordered nebrodini mushrooms served in the style of fazoletti pasta with charred ramp butter and roasted cherry tomatoes as sauce. We also got the campfire potatoes and shaved brussels sprouts. The char from the nebrodini mushrooms dish was evident in the ramp butter, although the ramp flavor was a little more subtle. For those not aware, ramps are everyone’s favorite foraged vegetable. The fazoletti was very tender with a pleasant mouthfeel and had been truly transformed into pasta cooked al dente.

Our campfire potatoes with black garlic tahini and za’atar was good enough, but not transformed. That seems like a high bar to set for a dish, and admittedly it is, but it was just that all of the other things we ordered at Vedge were SO unique that a simple dish of potatoes didn’t quite cut it for us.

Vedge nebrodini mushrooms, campfire potatoes and shaved brussels sprouts

Dessert seemed like the most difficult dish to pull off without dairy, but Vedge knocked it out of the park. The Chocolate Uber Chunk, consisted of malt custard, pretzels and peanut butter and stout ice cream served three different ways. The ramekin filled with layers of custard and crunchy peanuts and pretzels was one of our best bites of the night.

Vedge dessert

One of my concerns about Vedge, and perhaps I was being naïve, was that we would walk away hungry. That CERTAINLY was not the case. Beyond just being delicious, it was inspiring the way that vegetables can be transformed into a hearty meal.

Best Bite
Paul: Fancy radishes
Marnay: Wood-roasted carrot

Address
Vedge: 1221 Locust Street Philadelphia, PA 19107

Serpico

We were in the Philadelphia area visiting family for Thanksgiving, and since we needed a break from the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and assorted sides, we took advantage by having dinner at Serpico. Serpico, from James Beard Award-winning chef Peter Serpico and acclaimed restauranteur Stephen Starr, is located on a gritty two block stretch of South Street. Inside however, the space is full of handsome dark woods and has a completely open kitchen, full of buzzing cooks.

Serpico restaurant in Philadelphia

If you have been reading this blog, you may know that we are big fans of the Philadelphia dining scene. In fact, the Monday before our trip, I received in the mail Craig Le Ban’s Ultimate Dining Guide which I read cover to cover in anticipation. Craig Le Ban, by the way, is the widely respected long-time Philadelphia Inquirer food critic and I was excited to check out another one of his favorites. It also gave us a chance to have a meal with my Mom and Grandmother, neither whom we had seen in some time.

Confit carrot in butter foam with crispy phyllo, ginger sauce and thyme is a stunner. You will want to cut a slice of tender root vegetable and scoop up as much foam as possible, the experience bringing back memories of buttered popcorn at the movies. Expertly crafted cocktails include a classic white negroni as well as walnut-infused mezcal with manzanilla sherry, smoked maple and mole bitters.

Serpico confit carrot in butter foam with crispy phyllo

A beet and goat cheese salad with pistachio, kohlrabi and thai basil showcases winter’s fruits and vegetables and is a beauty of a presentation, the best of the night. After these two dishes, though, it would have been nice to get new plates. I understand that restaurants do not have unlimited resources but this is a high-end restaurant and I didn’t want to eat the rest of my meal on a blood orange stained plate.

Serpico beet and goat cheese salad

Spicy rice cakes, accurately described by the server as being similar to gnocchi, are enveloped in a sauce of XO, gochujang, white sesame and scallion. The texture from the rice flour makes the cakes gummy and chewy and we enjoyed every bite. The sauce was a huge hit at our table—my grandmother actually scooped up spoonfuls of sauce long after the rice cakes were gone.

Serpico spicy rice cakes

The slow poached halibut with charred cabbage, pistachios and raisins gets its “skin” from a light breading and a quick detour to the frying pan, the real skin having been removed. Olives can sometimes be overpowering, but the green olive sauce shows that the kitchen understands this and correctly gives them a supporting role to the halibut.

Serpico slow poached halibut

A seafood stew with mussels, scallops, charred brussels sprouts and butternut squash in a tomato dashi has pleasantly chewy clams and squid and showcases more of winter’s harvest. But at a restaurant where food is meant to be shared, it would have made sense to give everyone bowls instead of plates for the broth. Eating soup from a bowl was futile and I just gave up trying to enjoy the broth.

Serpico seafood stew

We finished the meal with tender slices of short rib in a glaze of whole grain mustard with grilled broccoli and fried potatoes. I did not think much of this dish initially, but in the last few days since our meal I’ve had the taste and texture of the short rib on my mind. It’s actually become the second most memorable dish of the meal, after the spicy rice cakes. If you can get past the location, and really, it is not that bad…Serpico is well worth a trip. And if you enjoy good food, get the spicy rice cakes.

Best Bite
Paul and Marnay: Spicy rice cakes

Address
Serpico: 604 South Street Philadelphia, PA 19147
Closest Public Transit: Lombard South Broad Street Line Station

Le Virtu

Back when I was in law school, we lived just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, so we know that the city has lots of Italian restaurants. However, we were on a tight budget so we would mainly frequent pizzerias and red sauce joints. Now that we are older and wiser we are starting to explore more diverse Italian restaurants which focus on a specific region of Italy. One such place is Le Virtu in the East Passyunk neighborhood.

Le Virtu specializes in the cuisine of Abruzzo, located in Southern Italy just west of Rome and stretching from the Apennines in the east to the Adriatic in the west. Montepulciano is the wine to drink, and Le Virtu has 9(!) bottles of it. With that many to choose from, I asked our server for some assistance. He recommended the Cataldi Madonna Malandrino, a bold, flavorful red that set the tone for the entire meal.

Le Virtu Montepulciano red wine: Cataldi Madonna Malandrino

Arrosticini d’agnello, or grilled lamb skewers, is the best preparation of the night. This fatty, chewy (in a good way) roadside snack is served in a specially-made clay pot that says “arrosticini” on the side.

Le Virtu Arrosticini d’agnello, or grilled lamb skewers

For my entree, I was torn between the bucatini all’ amatriciana and the taccozzele all’aquilana, named after the capital of Abruzzo. I asked the server for advice and he said that the taccozzele was his favorite thing on the menu. I couldn’t turn that down! The thick folds of the spinach handkerchief pasta were coated with chunks of Abruzzese sausage, saffron, and earthy porcinis. Everything was then topped with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. By the end of the dish, we were planning our trip to Abruzzo.

Le Virtu pasta: taccozzele all’aquilana

Inspired by our pasta dish at Taglio in Milan, we ordered the Maccheroni alla chitarra con ragu d’agnello, or guitar-cut pasta in lamb shoulder ragu. At Taglio, we had also ordered pasta with lamb shoulder rage, but there was a clear difference between the Northern Italian version in Milan and the Abruzzese version at Le Virtu. That difference; tomatoes! Tomatoes can grow in the warmer climate of Southern Italy but not in Northern Italy. Most of the Italian immigration to America was from Southern Italy, which is why we tend to think of tomatoes as being an integral part of Italian cuisine.

Le Virtu pasta: all chitarra con ragu d’agnello, or guitar-cut pasta in lamb shoulder ragu

We ended the meal with semifredo (semi-frozen) chocolate bon bons and a housemade fennel digestif. If you are looking for an intimate Italian restaurant in Philadelphia with sublime cooking and cheerful, knowledgable staff, it is hard to beat Le Virtu.

Le Virtu dessert

Best Bite
Paul: Taccozzele all’aquilana
Marnay: Maccheroni alla chitarra con ragu d’agnello

Address
Le Virtu: 1927 East Passyunk Ave Philadelphia, PA 19148
Closest Public Transit: Snyder Broad Street Line stop

Vernick Food & Drink

This is not something that I say lightly, but our meal at Vernick Food & Drink was the best all-around meal we have ever had.  It started before we even got there.  We were running a little late for our reservation, so I called to let the restaurant know.  When we arrived, the hostess was genuinely thrilled that we let them know.

We were dining with Marnay’s good friend Tracy as well as Marnay’s Mom, who has joined us for a number of the dining adventures featured on this blog.  The hostess led us back through the bar to the narrow dining room in front of the open kitchen.  Our table was in the section of the dining room that was right in front of Chef Vernick.  It was actually a better location than the chef’s counter, at the opposite end.  The smell from the kitchen was intoxicating as soon as we sat down.

The menu is separated into toast, raw, vegetables, small plates, large plates and simply roasted from the wood oven.  Vernick is famous for its toast, so we knew for sure that would be an essential part of our meal.   Before we made any decision, though, we ordered some drinks.  Marnay’s Mom and Tracy got glasses of cava and Marnay had a glass of Sonoma Chardonnay.  I had a cocktail named El Chucho Roto, a mezcal and amaro based drink.  The amaro really cut out the smokiness of the mezcal.

After consulting with our server, we ordered the Maryland crab toast, the pumpkin and brown butter toast, the spaghetti squash salad with a crispy egg and mushroom leek vinaigrette, the pasta special with homemade spaghetti, olive oil poached Icelandic cod in a spicy saffron tomato sauce, brussels sprouts in an ancho caramel sauce and finally, half of a roasted organic Amish chicken in a lemon herb jus.  Our incredible server asked if she could take the liberty of pacing out the dishes for us, which the restaurant did beautifully.

First came an amuse bouche of celery root soup w/ spicy arugula oil in an espresso cup, for drinking.  Our first official course was the crab toast with a lemon aioli and the spaghetti squash.   The spaghetti squash had a breaded, fried poached egg sitting in the middle which our server suggested that we break open first.  That way, the runny yolk would become the sauce for the squash.    The toast, cut in threes, is intended to be shared.  When we started biting into in, the entire table fell silent.  The toast was thick but not so thick so that you couldn’t bite into it, with just the right amount of crunch.  The crab was extremely fresh and tasted like the sea.

Once we were done, the server brought our next course about three minutes later.  We thought that the pumpkin and brown butter toast might be sweet, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the rich pumpkin only had a touch of sweetness.

After we finished the toast, our server brought us a chili vinegar for the roasted chicken.  As an example of how great our server was, Marnay asked her what was in the vinegar.  Our server knew every ingredient, down to the toasted fennel.  It was as if she made it herself.

Before our next course, we ordered a second round of drinks.  Marnay got another chardonnay and her Mom and Tracy got more cava.  I, however, wanted to test our server.  I told her that I wanted a local beer—the style didn’t matter, but since we don’t live in the area, I want something local.  She stared at me for a few seconds and then asked, “Do you like sour beers?”  I love sour beers!  It was almost as if she stared into my soul.  She recommended a saison from Tired Hands that’s brewed with salt and citrus.

When the rest of our order came out, we received potatoes and shishito peppers “complements of Chef Greg.”  We had been praising him and pointing at the kitchen all night, mesmerized by what was going on, and he must have heard us!   He was so focused all night, though.  It was a wonder to watch.

The chicken was possibly the most perfectly seasoned roasted chicken any of us had ever had.  It went very fast.

The cod in the homemade spaghetti was broken into small pieces, which reminded me of shrimp.  The brussels sprouts were at once smoky and hot from the ancho and sweet from the caramel.  The flavors were intense, but they balanced out nicely.

When we first ordered, I mentioned that we could always take home leftovers if we were ordering too much.  That certainly was not necessary!  All that was left was a few brussels sprouts.

After a meal this great, of course we had to get dessert.  We got the toasted walnut maple pie with bourbon ice cream as well as the chocolate crisp ice cream.  The pie tasted like a much, much better version of a pecan pie and the bourbon ice cream was rich, dense and flavorful.

As we were leaving, we noticed that the Chef took a break from what he was doing.  He waited until we put our coats and then personally thanked us for coming.  We did not see him do that for anyone else.

A little touch like that just set us over the edge from a great meal to an exceptional meal.  All four of us agreed that this was probably the best all-around meal ever.  We felt like we were treated like VIPs.

Best Bite
Marnay: Crab Toast
Paul: Spaghetti Squash Salad with Crispy Egg

Best sip
Marnay and Paul: El Chucho Roto

Address
Vernick Food & Drink: 2031 Walnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19103

Dim Sum Garden

We took Amtrak to 30th Street station in Philly on a Saturday morning. When we arrived, we went with Marnay’s Mom to Dim Sum Garden, which is in Philly’s Chinatown. Dim Sum Garden is one of the places that Tom Sietsema went to on his recent trip to Philadelphia.

We had a little trouble navigating the narrow streets of Chinatown with our rolling suitcase, but we eventually found the restaurant. The place was packed—always a good sign. They shoved in a very tight space. To get into and out of our seats, the people next to us actually had to get up to allow us to pass. Dim Sum Garden is known for their soup dumplings. We were excited because we have never had soup dumplings, although we have heard a lot of about them. Dim Sum is still relatively new to us. We weren’t introduced to it until we moved to Maryland since it isn’t that popular in New Jersey.

The three of us ordered what seemed like a lot of food, but which ended up being quite reasonable. We ordered steamed pork soup dumplings, steamed shrimp dumplings, steamed vegetable buns and sweet red bean cakes. Red bean cakes are one of our favorite treats, and they were as decadent as expected. None of us had had soup dumplings before, so we had no idea how to eat them. One method was to just put the whole thing in your mouth. That was delicious, but there was more broth than I expected! The other method was to pierce the dumpling with a chopstick (no forks at this place) and just use the broth as a dipping sauce. Both methods were good!

The shrimp dumplings tasted extremely fresh, as did really everything at Dim Sum Garden. It’s usually a safe bet to go to a Dim Sum Place on a Saturday afternoon, since that’s when they are busiest. We now have a new favorite in Philly’s Chinatown!

Address
Dim Sum Garden: 1020 Race St, Philadelphia, PA 19107