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4 nights report - bassett's, amada, zahav / dimsum garden, capogiro / buttercream truck, bibou / vetri

in case anyone is curious, here's the original request:
http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/698495

i apologize for the length of my report.....

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Evening 1 - Bassetts/Reading Terminal Market, Amada, Zahav

Bassetts - my only inclination to try their ice cream was the one or two voices who spoke out against capogiro (which i think lacks the proper texture of gelato) and praised bassetts instead. the texture and richness was improved but it was a touch too dense and gummy. specifically mentioned was the coffee ice cream... the flavour was just ok. if you want a great coffee ice cream, get the old old city blend (they've swapped out the india A beans in the new version) from old city and hot steep that in the cream before churning your own... best ever. i also tried the champagne sorbet but found it a little too syrupy sweet with none of the best characteristics of champagne and terribly chunky as well. avoid.

Amada - i've been once before for lunch and enjoyed it, but wanted to sample some of the more complex items offered at night. turns out complex was more like overwrought. i didn't know dishes that could fit in the palm of my hand could contain so many ingredients! the waiter convinced me into the lechon con queso azul and it was just ok. individually the components were nice, but putting them all together showed a poor sense of balance. the coca was soggy from the melted cheese. the pork shoulder was poor in the portioning but more so got drowned out by the excessive use of pine nuts. the crisp, bright, refreshing sweetness i was hoping to get from the fennel never showed up, not surprising since i had about 4 slivers on the whole thing. good concept, not so great execution. the albondigas meatballs were perfection. well browned thin exterior, very tender interior, good gamey flavour, rounded out with light sharpness from the manchego. a shame they were drowned in a rich thick and intense creamy sauce overwhelmed with truffle oil. it was a lovely sauce, i enjoy truffles... but i was wiping it off because it added too much. a little dollop on the side would have gone a long way. it made me very thankful for the tiny mince of olive on top. under it all, i found peas.... they did nothing for the dish... starchy and a little dry. my prior lunch was lighter, simpler... delicious... i will go back to amada, happily, but ask for sauces on the side or just order the less complex items.

Zahav - sweetbread schnitzel was the reason i was there... why didn't the menu mention that thick sesame filled crust? it killed it for me. the sesame flavour was too strong and that crust was just holding all the tender lovely sweetbreads hostage. i tried to pick out the offal but it was futile. i did like the thin pickles as an accompaniament to the fried food. an order of baby eggplant puzzled me.... one 2" round of charred eggplant and one 4" round?! the server and i stared at it, "that isn't so baby is it?" ah well, how big of a difference could it really be. the pomegranate sauce tinged it with a nice sourness and provided a good counterpoint to the rich mild tahine. the rice underneath was creamy, tender, nicely spiced... gorgeous. too bad the gigantic bitter eggplant had seeped its juices into my lovely rice and spoiled half of it. i loved the charred skin and the supple yielding texture but it was bland. lacking sweetness and creaminess. as mentioned earlier... the big slab was acrid! i told the server and asked if a second small piece could be sent out instead and he complied, ensuring that they were there to fix any problems. a second small piece came out (with delicious rice) and matched the first small one, all was good. not great, but good. i like a sweet at the end of meal and adore cake, why restaurants don't offer cake more often confounds me.... they're easy and they keep quite well. pistachio cake with poached rhubarb and frozen salep... perfect dessert. ever so lightly sweet, lovely aroma of pistachio, a nice sharpness from the rhubarb (which could have been cooked less, but i love rhubarb in all textures), and frozen salep that was milky and quite soft. simple but perfect. a visual feast that was comped due to the eggplant. service was great.

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Evening 2 - Dim Sum Garden, Capogiro

Dim Sum Garden - xiao long bao were resilient sacks of soup holding lovely savoury pockets of meat. i did wish for the skins to be ever so slightly more tender but their thinness and sturdy structure were very good. they had a subtle and natural sweetness from the crab and pork and not overly seasoned. i was surprised that the "soup" itself wasn't very unctuous which made it very easy to eat many of them. a nice rendition. the other dishes weren't as successful to me. dan dan noodles had hardly any sauce that they were able to serve it on a plate. what i look for is virtually a soupy northern chinese ragu/bolognese sauce. no dairy of course but ground pork, a thick long stewed sauce, peanut in pieces and sauce, a little spicy, richness, and noodles drowning in a bowl... this was thin and super sweet. also got the cold sliced pork hock which was nice but a bit dry and any sauce was lightly drizzled on top and hard to distribute to the pieces underneath. the onion pancakes were crunchy, very very greasy, and thin. while they had a good scallion pungency, it lacked the soft layered texture i so adore from them. the people working there were sweet, in my minimal interaction, and i loved watching one of the ladies filling soup dumplings as we paid. to have her technique and dexterity... one day.

Capogiro - i needed dessert and figured i'd take my dining companion for a bit of exploration. as some of you may know already, i am not a fan of capogiro and i did make several attempts to understand them. things still stand the same. their flavours are quite good... they currently have a tangerine/mandarin (i think?) combination that is refreshing and delightful, but the texture is just all wrong for me. the creams lack richness and tend to taste milky while the texture is too airy... very light. my solution.... affogato. the "foaming" that occurs when liquid + ice cream combine makes ice cream texture irrelevant. it was delicious with the madagascar bourbon vanilla. perfect way to cap off the evening. someone had mentioned the granitas before, the list at the 20th location was on the far right end in a clear paper stand with a lot of hand writing on it. oh, and i love how enthusiastic the people behind the counter are... i never feel bad for wanting a taste of everything... if only i could figure out how to not waste so many little spoons.

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Evening 3 - Cupcake Truck, Bibou

Buttercream the Cupcake Truck - pure happenstance. she was down the street i was walking and without a line in sight, afternoon snack! the buttercream is more sugary sweet than buttery and the cake is moist and fluffy. there was nothing about it that was spectacular and nothing offensive, a decent fresh cupcake (you wouldn't believe how often people will sell stale ones in my home town). she also wasn't particularly pleasant which makes me less inclined to support the fun concept.

Bibou - organized by a chow friend, this was a lot of fun. i've seen mentions about charlotte's attitude and well, she seems like a busy lady with dry and/or brusque humour depending on the point on the evening. some diners might want a softer touch to their service but i think it fits the atmosphere of a french bistro. the tripe was good (tender, meaty, loved the crumb topping) but didn't stand out to me because it lacked brightness from more tomato or another form of acidity leaving it a rather heavy dish. i preferred my dining companion's velvety salsify and hazelnut soup with duck confit and loved the cold preparation. a very well balanced and flavourful soup, truly excellent. the terrine was also quite nice and very well executed with good spicing and a proper rough cut of ingredients, it just didn't fit my mood. being canadian, i suspect i'm a bit spoiled when it comes to foie gras. though the foie and poached rhubarb were well prepared, the foie just didn't have the full rich flavour i wanted from it. the dover sole special was cooked more than i like but there was a nicely browned exterior and good clean flavour. they offered to bone the fish but my dining companion declined and did a great job himself. with the offer charlotte mentioned it would come without the head either way, i would love to know what happens to the heads since i would be happy to pick at them. the buttered pasta side had a nice chewiness to it and i think... peas... but i could be wrong. a lovely spring dish. i could not resist the agneau and found it to be less gamey and more iron/protein/livery, which was a pleasant surprise. mild lamb is dull to me and this certainly wasn't that, but its flavour was unique and delicious. the quinoia was a touch salty for my personal liking (i tend to be a bit salt sensitive) but the sweet buttery ramps and bright cherry tomatoes were a great fresh side. one diner finished with the veal tongue special and it was marvelous. it had all the wonderful flavour of tongue without being as fatty or greasy as i am used to. i really enjoy the unusual and tender texture and this was no exception, it was almost custard like. this tongue did give off a bit more liquid than i'm used to though. the chocolate mousse was classic and expertly prepared - airy, rich, yet light. i was less keen on the peach pie which i suspected i was rolling the dice with when ordering. i found the crust and crumble topping dense for my liking and the peaches not as refreshing as i had hoped, too jammy perhaps? there was also a cheese plate inserted in there.... but my memory is a bit iffy since i nibbled on it while engrossed in conversation. bibou is definitely a restaurant i would adore to have on my corner at home. i almost hesitate to say that it shouldn't be recommended to tourists, it is just such a perfect neighbourhood restaurant that i don't think i'd be willing to share if i were a local.

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Evening 4 - Vetri

i was expecting something more formal, but the space was more on the side of charming, rather tight, and some patrons were clad in jeans and graphic t-shirts. the service and food very much lived up to my expectations though. while appearing simple, the dishes contained very well considered and sourced ingredients cooked with excellent skill. i started with a half portion of the spinach gnocchi and immediately considered ordering it again for dessert. the soft boules fell apart on my tongue and melted into nothingness, hinting ever so slightly at the flavour of spinach. its mild sweetness so perfectly complemented with the saltiness of the cheese and the nuttiness and richness of the brown butter. a stunning dish though i like my gnocchi to be a touch chewier. pig's foot ravioli turned out to be less unctuous and hearty than i expected. the filling was quite meaty and encased in lovely al dente sheets with its flavour perked up by lemon. oh so very easy to eat so many of these little pockets. i couldn't resist the roasted sweetbread pasta and found this to be the only loss in execution the entire evening. my sweetbreads were overcooked. rather than being creamy, light, supple... it was a tight morsel of meat. the flavour was not masked though and reinforced via the silky meaty sauce it came with and the tender morels. a truly earthy dish matched well with a pinot noir offered by the sommelier after noticing i wasn't completely digging his white match for the ravioli. baby goat was a surprising and delicious main. a long shard of crisped skin was so luxurious. the tender meat laying underneath it was spectacular in its mild goat gaminess and with so much natural sweetness and creaminess emerging. absolutely superb and unlike any goat i've ever had or likely will ever have. it was too rich of a dish though, paired with a creamy soft textured polenta and all the rendered fat hiding in nooks of the meat. what i wouldn't have given for a small pile of wilted bitter greens. the sommelier paired it with a lovely barolo that i spent a little while nursing. i opted to take dessert to go (a girl needs her sweets...) and eat it while finishing off some work, i won't go into much detail since i just picked "the one with rhubarb" and i recall it being too cheesy to be a pannacotta but i'm not entirely sure. it was delightfully not sweet, the rhubarb retained its shape, and the flavours were just so clean and in perfect balance. All of it looked so deceptively simple, but all of it was accomplished in perfect flavour harmony... such a far cry from so many high end experiences i've had and such a beautiful thing.

thanks philadelphia and i hope i didn't bore you to tears if you got this far ;)

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  1. Thank for your report as always, pinstripeprincess. I love hearing a visitor's opinion of the food scene here. A couple questions/points:

    Did you get the hummus and salatim at Zahav? That is an absolute must, and if you come back, you get it discounted at happy hour one day. It will probably change your entire perspective on the restaurant.

    Are you sure you are not getting the sorbet at Capogiro? About half the case, including many of the fruit flavors, are sorbet, not gelato.

    4 Replies
    1. re: barryg

      i didn't get the hummus and salatim, which i do intend to do next time because at the very least i'm going back to zahav for dessert. that dessert was just absolute perfection in my eyes. i did want to get the hummus, but knowing that i only really had room for two small plates and that i can't resist sweetbreads... i decided against it. the server felt it would have been a bit much as well. but... one dish does not a restaurant make, for me at least.

      i try both the sorbets and the gelatos every single time i'm at capogiro. do not like the texture of their gelato, do like their sorbet. i definitely walked away with their goat's milk, rosemary and honey gelato one time and while a little too piney/tree for me the flavour was still good, texture too airy and again not rich enough. i also would hope i know the difference between sorbet and gelato since i make a few sorbets and gelatos/ice creams throughout the year ;)

      edit: just wanted to add that i didn't make it clear in this post, but my thing with capogiro is that it is ice cream... not gelato. i will accept it as over run ice cream, but not gelato. everyone is free to their opinion, but on this board there has been little against capogiro... so i felt it might be good to offer my opinion in case someone will feel the same as me, it helps set expectations.

      1. re: pinstripeprincess

        Your comments about Capogiro exactly reflect my experience. I want to like it, and I think the flavors are good, but the texture is completely off, even for ice cream, I think. It almost tastes (and feels) like egg whites have been added.

        1. re: Nancy S.

          nice observation on the potential use of egg whites. the smoothness of the ice cream is enough to make me wonder if they do use eggs, but the richness and flavour indicate not. so perhaps rather than using whole eggs or egg yolks, they're using the whites to stabilize and add smoothness and then on top of that it's adding a "fluffiness" that makes it particularly airy.

          1. re: pinstripeprincess

            Many years ago, when I was in high school, I worked for the summer at Frog. The pastry chef added egg whites to her ice cream near the end stage of the churning process.

    2. Bassett's is not what it used to be. They haven't made their own ice cream in years. The ice cream is made in Johnstown, PA by Galliker's Dairy.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cheesewit

        i was a little dubious about bassett's... being in reading terminal market it could easily go touristy. thanks for the info, the suggestion might have been from an old experience.

      2. Beautifully written, you should be a reviewer. It helps that l agree with your ratings right down the line, especially Capogiro

        3 Replies
        1. re: Delucacheesemonger

          thank you, we'll just have to agree to disagree on turley ;)

          1. re: Delucacheesemonger

            Does anyone in Philadelphia do a more authentic gelato? (I agree that the texture doesn't give the mouth feel I remember from Italy.)

            1. re: Seeker19104

              The best gelato that I have had in the Philadelphia area is from a very small place called Toto’s Gelateria that is located in Ambler. Toto’s is a family owned gelateria that I have been going to after the movies for the past few years. It’s real nice and located in a big old house with a large front porch on Main Street, which is just off of Butler Pike. The family that owns Toto’s makes all of the gelato right there and uses fresh fruits in the fruit based gelatos. They also have myriad coffees and a few types of paninni.