Uhockey Reviews Day 3 Philadelphia - Carman's Country Kitchen, Osteria, Vetri
First, a word of thanks to all the Philly Hounds who made my trip great. All in all I spent about 2 hours doing work in Philly and 100 hours enjoying the sights, sounds, people, art, culture, and food!
Full reviews will be posted here with cross links to my blog for pictures.
Full text as below, pictures in the blog
With Amis and Osteria setting the stage, Marc Vetri's eponymous temple of contemporary Italian was "THE" destination restaurant of my visit to Philadelphia. Opened in 1998 and consistently named as one of the 40-best restaurants in the country by Gayot the intimate 40-seat space (occupying the original Le Bec Fin) serves as host to a Beard Award winning chef, wine program, and service staff...it has also been called the best Italian restaurant in America by both Alan Richman and Mario Batali. With such high praise Vetri had been number one on my "to visit" for approximately 8 months - in other words, since I dined at Per Se (although obviously there were many a great meals in between.)
Raised in Philadelphia and trained both locally and overseas Vetri's concept is the sort you cannot help but respect - high focus on bold flavors while utilizing the very best ingredients with the "simplest techniques to convey their purity." Combining this concept with award winning service and a menu of classics as well as seasonal updates plus an environment intended to replicate dinner at a friend's house Vetri seemed like everything I want from my dining experience. Explaining via E-mail that I hoped to experience as many signatures as possible I was assured that this could easily be accomidated whether I attended for the Degustazione or a weekday meal. Obviously opting for the signature Friday Degustazione the expectations were high to say the very least.
Making my way up to the tiny row-house on Spruce I couldn’t help but think of Babbo or VOLT, but on making my way in the door the feel was more French Laundry – a small entry way with a rather simple hostess stand and lovely flowers. Greeted promptly and pleasantly by one of the nearly entirely female staff I was led to a small table in the main dining room. Chair and table pulled out for me I took a seat and once my water selection was confirmed the hostess returned to station as the restaurant was already filling up despite opening only 5 minutes earlier.
Greeted next by one of the 5 female servers I was offered a glass of Prosecco to welcome me – while I don’t normally consume alcohol I’d never tried Prosecco so I agreed. Dry and sweet with hints of citrus; in my opinion better than champagne I have to say it was a welcomed flavor. Greeted next by the Sommelier he explained the wine pairing and when I stated I most certainly couldn’t handle that much liquor and asked what he recommended as something that would pair best with the later courses since I planned to nurse my Prosecco he surprisingly recommended the most affordable per-glass item on the menu, a lovely Rose title Librandi, Ciro Rosato 2008 with hefty hints of strawberry, cherry, and spice.
Greeted next by my captain for the evening the menu format was explained and my requests for “mostly” classics confirmed. For those unfamiliar with the Degustazione there is only one menu with 4 sections, each section containing 3-5 options. From that list the diner is served, at the chef’s discretion, 2 Antipasti, 2 Pasti, a Secondi, a palate cleanser, and a dolci. One can substitute a cheese course for the dolci or add it on for a mere $10. Both diners are not guaranteed the same menu, but likes and dislikes are accounted for. Stating I was not opposed to any of the options I was met with a smile and left with great anticipation.
Sitting solo my neighbors decided to chat with me, an older couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Nice folks I use them as a reference with regard to the sound level at Vetri – it is quiet enough that you can hear the table next to you, but loud enough that the buzz of the restaurant can provide more than enough privacy. Browsing around the room at the lovely florals, hard woods, and yellow walls everything felt very “Vetri,” after having been to the other two restaurants. Also similar to Osteria and Amis was the fantastic service; though obviously a bit more refined at the flagship it remained humble, conversant, and formal without feeling stuffy.
Seated for approximately twenty minutes my amuse du jour would arrive – or, actually four of them. Beginning right to left my first taste of Vetri would be spicy house made Calabrese salami with hefty porky flavors well tempered by pepper, paprika, and onion. Next up, a lightly fried Zucchini fritter with a supple and aromatic interior tasting of cinnamon and cheese – crunch giving way to creamy. Skipping to the end of the platter I next sampled the Rabbit Rillet – expectedly gamey and cut with just a hint of chives and toasted bread it was good, but unmemorable compared to the rest. The final bite, a Vetri classic, would be the Foie Gras Pastrami with peach mustarda on brioche. Smooth as butter, spiced precisely like pastrami, and accented by the sweet compote – a beautiful bite that I could have certainly tolerated in greater abundance.
With amuse plate cleared the bread man (always my favorite staff member unless there is a mignardise cart) arrived and presented a plate of freshly pressed olive oil along with three styles of olives. Salty and smooth I managed to go through 2-bowls of the savory fruits paired with the warm house made breads of the evening - Semolina Focaccia and Tuscan Wheat. The first salty and dense, the second airy and mildly bitter, but both a nice pairing with the olives and oil.
Almost as if reading my mind the tasting menu proper would begin with a seasonal selection - the Squid and Artichoke Galette. Fried gently and drizzled with olive oil and lemon the dish was as much fritter as galette and the creamy texture of the artichokes balanced nicely with the succulent and slightly savory squid. A solid opening act, but undoubtedly the weakest of the evening...which says a lot for everything that would follow.
Arriving next would be the first in a succession of Vetri classics (and per many his most wonderful,) The Sweet Onion Crepe with truffled parmesan fondue and parmesan gratinee. Utilizing caramelized golden onions rolled with cheese into the form of a crepe and then sliced the round is then topped with grated parmesan and broiled. Subsequently plated onto an inverted bowl in a shallow pool of truffle accented fondue the presentation is actually quite subtle – but the flavor is anything but. Aromatic without being pungent, salty without overpowering the nuance, crispy on the exterior and smooth within – perhaps the best thing ever done with an onion outside the famous “000” at Restaurant Eve…perhaps even better.
Having sopped up every drop of fondue with the focaccia it was a surprisingly short amount of time before my next course would arrive. Potentially my most anticipated dish since Achatz's Black Truffle Explosion the Spinach Gnocchi in Brown Butter was everything I'd hoped for and more. Having been told jokingly by a friend the day before that I should keep my hands above the plate to make sure these perfect dumplings didn't float away my first bite awakened me to exactly what he meant - light as a cloud yet so densely packed with flavor that they did not even seem real. Made of only sieved spinach, egg, and a "spot" of cream the four balls rested unassumingly in a pool of scalded butter with shredded smoked ricotta atop yet somehow the whole was much more than the sum of its parts - the best gnocchi I've ever had, even if they contained none of the ingredients of traditional gnocchi at all.
Again returning a clean plate to the kitchen and again receiving my next course within ten minutes, my second pasta would prove nearly as lovely as the first. Once again featuring a restrained and simple plating, Almond Tortellini was anything but simple and restrained - as a matter of fact, its complexity given the minimalist ingredients was perhaps more impressive than the gnocchi. Packed to almost bursting the pockets of pasta were soft and smooth while the interior of risotto and creamy cheese provided a nuanced contrast. Topped with crunchy toasted almonds and lightly sauced with a reduced white truffle sauce the entirety of the plate was everything Vetri promises about ingredient purity and simplistic technique of preparation - flawless.
Not yet nearing satiety (yes, I know...) I was a tad worried when I was told my main course would be arriving next - thankfully there would be a twenty minute delay and some more bread as my stomach caught up with my brain. Arriving shortly and impressively plated would be "Capretto" or Baby Goat on soft golden polenta. With crispy skin giving way to smoky grilled loin (I was told I got "the best piece") the flavor of the goat was much less meaty than the version at Komi and the skin was far less crispy - it was almost like a different animal. Pairing the mesquite grilled flavor with the buttery smooth polenta was a nice variation in texture, but overall I think I fancy a less refined approach for goat.
Having seen the cheese carte on entry I was somewhat disappointed when cheeses were selected by the staff and served on a cheese board, but with that said the selections were excellent. Served with local wildflower honey and fig marmalade plus raisin toast the board consisted of four selections in ample portion for the mere $10 supplement. Amongst the selections were Ubriaco del Piave (cow’s milk cheddar with red wine,) Pecorino Tartufo (sheeps milk with truffle shavings,) Verde Capra (Goats' Milk Blue cheese,) and Moliterno (raw sheeps milk with black truffle.) Usually a fan of mild fromage I have to say I was most taken by the Verde Capra and its creamy texture with pungent flavor and the Moliterno with its earthy aromatics and sharp taste.
The intermezzo of the day would be a watermelon Gelee w/ Prosecco. Instructed to make sure I mixed the two layers well I did exactly that and consuming the single shot of liquid provided a taste and texture not dissimilar from a jello shot with significantly more watermelon than alcohol.
Prior to dessert proper I was offered coffee - La Colombe once again. Stating that I'd love coffee, especially if dessert was chocolate based (after Amis and Osteria I knew this to be wise,) I was assured that the dish would indeed be chocolate. Consuming three cups from an elegant French Press La Colombe once again did not fail to impress with its bold caramel high notes and thick cocoa finish.
Having noted only one chocolate dessert on the menu I knew what would be next and I was not disappointed when the signature Chocolate Polenta Souffle with Vanilla Gelato arrived. Not technically a soufflé in presentation the dessert was fantastic in smell and taste, but most interesting in texture. Utilizing Italian cornmeal in the almost "lava cake" presentation the interior was not precisely molten, but more like the interior of a soufflé while the exterior possessed a crunchy coating not unlike a canele. Paired with creamy vanilla gelato that tasted almost as if it were yogurt based this was classic "chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream" done, like everything else, simply and expertly.
Happy and impressed but still wanting more I was very happy when the mignardises arrived with another refill of coffee. Featuring a dense Chocolate torte, Pistachio brittle, Blueberry pate a fruit, Yuzu tarts, Honey Macaroon, and Tiramisu opera cakes each option was quite nicely done but the brittle and macaroon stood out most - both were among the best mignardises I've had since Alex or TRU.
The final treat of the evening would arrive with the hand-written bill - a take home bag, signed and painted menu, and two lemon muffins for "breakfast" - or, the walk home. Surprisingly mild the polenta based muffins were actually quite lovely and their toothsome texture bested either of the table breads by some degree. Before leaving a veritable parade of persons including the chef du cuisine, sommelier, hostess, and waitresses would stop by to ask how I enjoyed the evening - a very nice touch indeed.
When it was all said and done I made my way from the final stop on the tour of Vetri very happy but at the same time thinking that when (not if, but when) I come back I would likely not go for the Degustazione again. While a great deal at $145 for 9 courses plus Prosecco, amuses, mignardises, and take home muffins (essentially the same number of courses and gifts as The French Laundry at $240 and Per Se at $275) there is a certain kind of "plate envy" that occurs when you see a menu with 15 options that sound great and you only get 8 of them - a nagging part of me that wished I'd have offered to pay double to try everything, or to go during the week and order the grand tasting plus multiple supplements. Some may call the previous statement gluttonous...that's okay, I'm fine with being labeled as such when every single course at three different restaurants was good to great while the service and setting was equally grand. Rumor has it Vetri will next be opening a spot in Atlantic City...I haven't been there yet...but I bet it will be excellent.
1312 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107
It has been a thought - actually, especially given my field of practice (endocrinology.)
All told I think what people fail to realize is that you can be a healthy person 315 days a year and eat like a king the other 50 days of the year with minimal adverse effects. The key is being good in the kitchen (not great, just competent) and realizing that life's cheap thrills (a Hershey Bar - McDonalds) are easily sacrificed if you enjoy the finer things. I'm not saying everyone can afford the trips I make - I'm a lucky man.....but 99/100 people should be spending more time eating at home. :-)
I love dining out - but I don't just go out for things I could do at home. I also don't go out for average. If I'm going somewhere, especially on vacation, I want the meals to be an event worth looking forward to.
Your diet sounds similar to my (somewhat) former plan of action. For the past 10+ years I have been dieting during the week (the food's not all that hot around where I live and I have to work) so I have been going "hog wild" on the weekend, especially Saturdays at Reading Terminal. It worked for about 10 years but I have found that as I get older I am starting to get some adverse reactions on Sunday that make me feel wiped out the entire day (think of what happens when you are very hungover) so I have had to be more careful lately. No more days of gaining ten pounds in a day only to work it off during the week. Hopefully this will not happen to you!
Full text as below, pictures in the blog
As a visitor to the City of Brotherly Love I guess I didn’t realize just how far the city itself spanned – as it turns out the walk from Carman’s Country Kitchen to the Art Museum is nearly three and a quarter miles. Happy for the morning breeze and an Ipod loaded with Interpol the walk went quickly and the museum itself (plus the Late Renoir exhibit) was exemplary…even if I didn’t run the steps Rocky-style like many other visitors. Full on culture and low on fuel I would soon turn east and march yet another mile to my lunch destination – the second Vetri establishment on my tour, Osteria.
Helmed by Jeff Michaud, a Beard Award winner who actually began his cooking career as a youngster at a pizzeria, Osteria has gathered quite a following since its opening despite being rather far from the rest of the city’s fine dining. With extensive training first at Vetri and then in Michelin Starred restaurants across Italy and especially fond of rich, bold, and rustic foods it was actually as much Jeff’s menu as Marc Vetri’s that I had enjoyed at Amis – that fact alone had me excited for my visit.
Making my way into the rustic stylized interior of Osteria I have to say it is a beautiful space. Highly polished woods, walls made of broken down boxes of wine, a vintage salumi slicer, and simplified table settings with rustic seating all lent to the feel of something vintage yet refined. Greeted by the hostess I was led to a nice table near the bar and shortly thereafter was greeted by my server, a pleasant and unobtrusive sort of fellow who filled my water and presented me with the menu.
In my traditional fashion of wanting to taste as many different dishes as possible while conserving stomach room I inquired about half orders I was assured that the pastas could be accommodated but told steadfast that half and half pizzas were generally not done. Having spoke to Shane James, service manager, via E-mail I found this strange as I was assured this was common practice and although I did not want to make a big deal of it I must note I had to insist on speaking to Mr. James when my server again refused. A friendly man both via e-mail and at the restaurant Mr. James happened to be in house and after a quick discussion I was assured that a half and half pizza could indeed be done - just not the Lombarda given the manner in which it bakes as compared to the other pizzas (due to the egg.) Misunderstanding resolved I was now presented with the arduous activity of deciding how to narrow my selection from twenty different things to a more reasonable amount.
While weighing the pros and cons of the myriad fantastic sounding pizzas and pastas my water was refilled and I was presented with a bucolic basket made of a hollowed log. Inside the basket would be warm slices of sea salted focaccia and semolina white bread and alongside an oil can of mildly sweet and glossy olive oil. Not wanting to fill up on bread I would invariably fail in the task – while the semolina white was good, the focaccia was superb; moist, oily, and salty with a great crumb.
Orders placed I would sit back and wait while reading a few e-mails via free Wi-Fi in the connecting building. Seeing my neighboring tables enthralled in their pizzas (a family of 3 on one side and a business meeting of 4 on the other) I grew more excited by the minute. With less than 15 minutes passed my pastas would arrive first. Presented plainly yet elegantly, my first taste would be that of Corn Tortelli with Ricotta Salata. A half portion consisting of six small packets of luscious corn and cream the pasta was more tortellini that tortelli (traditionally round rings) but honestly I did not really care – paired with a simple sauce of clarified butter and shaved pecorino the dish tasted like the creamy equivalent of fresh buttered corn off the grill – a perfect summer dish for the warm weather outside as each pocket burst with dazzling flavor.
My second pasta, served simultaneously with the tortelli, would be the Chicken liver rigatoni with Cipolline onions and sage. This time appropriately titled and served in a rustic bowl the handmade rigatoni was ideally prepared with just a bit of spring in it. Utilizing ground chicken liver sweetened by melted Cipollinie onions and heavy hints of sage the sauce adhered beautifully to the pasta while grated parmesan added the slightest bit of bite. At first somewhat grainy in mouth feel the sautéed liver actually melted on the tongue with minimal mastication and the entirety of the dish was decidedly rustic, but at the same time restrained despite using such heavy hitting ingredients.
With my pasta plates mopped clean using a piece of focaccia they were cleared and my server would stop by to check in and chat – moments later he would return with a refill of my water and seconds later with what was expected to be the star of the afternoon, one of Osteria’s “classic” style pizzas. Featuring a Romanesque thin and crispy crust that was lightly charred and slightly aerated despite its thinness I was impressed by the flavor the wood burning oven imbued. Beginning with the left half as it looked the most interesting I was greeted with a rush of heat, flavor, smoke, and brine as I bit into Polpo. Utilizing wood grilled octopus atop the wood grilled crust and pairing it with sweet tomatoes, coarse red chili flakes, and smoked mozzarella the entire dish had the essence of a hearty cioppino but in the form of a Pizza. Not subtle in the least each flavor fought for the palate’s attention yet none managed to overwhelm the others – a dazzling pie to say the least and I especially loved the presentation of whole tentacles both visually and orally.
The second half of the pizza was one suggested by Shane – he said it was the best pizza in the city. Entitled Pannocchia and featuring blistered corn, grilled scallions, bufala mozzarella and black truffles it would honestly be hard to say whether this or Tacconelli’s white was the best Pizza in the city – in reality they’re both amongst the top 5 I’ve had anywhere. Underlied by the faintly woody charred crust, the flavor of the corn and scallions were perfectly paired while creamy pools of mozzarella accented with olive oil and the aroma of black truffles rose to the palate.
Finishing my pie the server stopped by to ask if I might want to see the dessert menu. Having watched table after the table order gelato I was told that it was the house specialty but having read otherwise I did indeed request the menu – as expected, the item I’d heard a trusted fellow gourmand refer to as the most “shockingly good” dessert he’d ever had was there – I ordered it along with a cup of coffee. Brought without hesitation and refilled thrice the bold flavors of Colombe proved a wonderful brew once again – enough that I’d order it again at Vetri and take 3lbs home from their Rittenhouse store the next day. Aside from the house coffee at Daniel I can’t think of a better coffee to compliment chocolate desserts.
Arriving with my first refill of coffee was my highly touted and unassuming dessert – the Polenta budino with GianduJa mousse and candied hazelnuts. Different from my previous budino experiences this version was nonetheless an absolute masterpiece. Slightly gritty in texture and topped with the characteristic flavors of sweet chocolate and hazelnut in the form of an airy mousse the delicate pudding was sweet, salty, textural, and ethereal in mouth feel. Adding a spoonful of candied Hazelnuts for added crunch and texture completed the picture and formed what is undoubtedly a member of the top 10 things I’ve eaten in 2010 and on par with Vetri’s Gnocchi as my fondest Philadelphia food memory. As an added bonus I will note that after my meal I e-mailed Shane James a thank you and he sent me a copy of the recipe.
When the meal was all said and done it turned out that Osteria’s Credit card machine was down which forced them to run each card by hand (and led to jokes about being BYO and Cash only given the current trend.) A stellar meal from start to finish aside from a small miscommunication about the half-pizza I can only say that Osteria is a formidable contender in my mind for best food memories of the year and that the budino will definitely be making an appearance at a future family get together. With Amis and Osteria now in the books the only logical thing to do would be to complete the troika that night at the flagship.
Full text as below, pictures in the blog.
CARMAN'S COUNTRY KITCHEN (The Chowhound Spelling is wrong, btw)
Call me crazy – as much as I love fine dining breakfast kitsch will always hold a special place in my heart (and belly.) Having dined at some of America’s greats – Dottie’s True Blue, Griddle Café, Bongo Room, Miss Shirley’s, and Pamela’s to name few – I knew that Carman’s Country Kitchen was a must on my visit to Philadelphia. With lunch and dinner plans starring Marc Vetri and still sated from Modo Mio the previous evening I knew daytime snacking would be light and a solid breakfast would hold me the six hours to lunch – per usual I woke early and hit the ground running, arriving at the Country Kitchen before they even opened the doors.
With the truck-table parked outside I took a seat on the hitch for only a moment before the front of house man would open the door and say “she ain’t ready yet, but you can come in and take a seat and have some coffee or something.” Making my way into the restaurant the server introduced himself by name and asked for mine – he’d call me Mike for the duration of my meal. Browsing around the small diner I have to admit the décor is not exactly G-Rated, but it certainly is hilarious – pigs and tea pots with enormous genitals, pictures from God knows where, and the famous “Put the C*nt back in Country” signage.
Sipping my coffee – dark and solid, a bit acidic but not “bad,” I chatted with the server about what I was doing in town, the restaurant, and Philly in general – he had a lot of suggestions for interesting things to see and do. Around 8am Carman herself would come in through the back door with an enormous grocery bag full of ingredients that she picked up on her way to work – things to “experiment with for next week’s menu.” Browsing the big board I made my selection (remember, only 4 mains and 4 sides are available) and Carman introduced herself and conversed boisterously from the back kitchen while preparing my food.
Offered a selection of newspapers, magazines, and other assorted reading materials I browsed the sports section while we discussed the restaurant’s history and other spots Carman recommended in the city. Never short on words or opinions Carman held up her end of the conversation admirably with lots of anecdote – for a solo diner who would spend the duration of his meal at Carman’s as the only person in house it was actually very interesting. After 20 minutes and a couple cups of coffee my plate would arrive along with a dispenser of thick, rich, maple syrup.
Entitled Buttermilk Pancakes with White Figs, Dark Chocolate, Ginger, Ground Almonds, and Anise I tasted a bite solo and then added syrup. At $14 and cash only for an Aunt Jemima based cake I have to admit the price seemed a bit steep for the portion size, but what was lacking in size was more than made up for by flavor. Impressively well balanced I was shocked by the sweetness of the figs and the manner in which they were balanced by the bitter dark chocolate and aromatic spices of the fresh ginger and Anise. Well cooked and fluffy the pancakes were stellar examples as well – whatever Carman is doing to the base mix I need to figure out.
Finishing my pancakes and settling the tab I chatted with my hosts some more – parking cop lore, stories of the best places to go drinking in Philly, and her theory on why the Phillies were slumping all came to the table – I was also given a business card and told the menu would be changing the next day if I wanted to make a reservation because “it gets busy early on Saturdays.” With food and service so impressive I have no doubt it should.
Carmen's Country Kitchen
1301 S 11th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
i had those pancakes too!! i loved the topping and was impressed with how addictive it was- i found it a bit heavy on the anise, but i couldnt stop eating so i guess i didnt mind much. its funny that you thought the pancakes were 'aunt jemima based'- did you enjoy the pancakes themselves? i didnt think they were spectacular, def not fluffy, mine were a bit dry...but that topping was so good!! next time you should try the waffles.