Thanks for the advice - My trip report
I recently got back from my trip to Philadelphia and wanted to let you all know how it went. Thanks to all of the Chowhounds who gave suggestions for solo dining ( http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/788875 ), I had some amazing meals at a variety of fantastic restaurants.
I started off the trip at Zahav. I arrived at my Center City hotel at 8:00 on Saturday night and there was plenty of time for a leisurely walk to work up an appetite for my 9:30 reservation. I've wanted to eat at Zahav for a while, with my attention firmly placed on the lamb shoulder. I was dining solo, but rather than try to duplicate Uhockey's experience I decided to satisfy myself with the Tay'im tasting menu. It was fantastic. After the salatim selection and hummus, I continued with the smoked sable, which was served shredded on top of a fried egg perched on a crisp square of grilled challa bread. My second starter was the grilled duck hearts, which were crispy, salty, and delicious. I added the kibbe naya, which wasn't included in the tasting menu; it was tasty, but not super memorable. My main was the kofte, ground beef and lamb meatballs. They were soft and hearty and extremely flavorful!
During the meal, I was chatting up the maitre d' and my server asking details about each course and info on other Philly restaurants. When another party was served a lamb shoulder, I mentioned that I'd love to come back and try it. My server smiled and said "It is very popular." So I'm finishing up the kofte when a server sets a whole lamb shoulder in front of me with a flourish. I am about to tell him he has the wrong table when he says "Compliments of the chef" and leaves. I am puzzled and the server comes over and says "Oh drat! I wanted to be here when you got it. Enjoy!"
Now, this dish needs to be ordered three days in advance. The maitre d' had told me that they do make a few extra on Friday and Saturday for last minute parties. So I'm sure this was an extra that they weren't going to sell -- in fact the rice and chickpeas were kind of dry and it was already 10:30 so there weren't any more seatings. But I didn't care. The lamb was heavenly! And there was no way I was going to eat it all (remember, it serves four people and I had already had a full seven-course meal). The server said I could take it with me, but I have no refrigerator. Instead I asked the table next to me if they wanted to try it, and they thanked me profusely saying "We love lamb!"
The trip was off to a great start.
Unbeknownst to me, while I was eating dinner at Zahav, a mob of 100 teenagers was rampaging through a neighborhood just north of Center City. Had I known, I might have been a little hesitant about going up to Osteria later that week, only blocks from where a journalist was beaten and hospitalized.
Anyway, Sunday was the first day of the conference I was attending, but I managed to get away for lunch at DiNic's at the RTM. The roast pork with provolone and broccoli rabe was everything I had been promised.
Sunday dinner was a disappointment, but I knew that was a risk. I wanted Baltimore-style crabs and decided on DiNardo's Seafood. I'd heard mediocre things but figured I'd chance it. Had I known, I'd have rented a car and driven down to Obrycki's. The crabs at DiNardo's were large, but at $10 each they were way too expensive -- they were flown in from the gulf, so I could have had the same meal cheaper at Joe's Crab Shack in Kansas City. The crabs were bland and under-spiced -- which was surprising because the side of french fries were smothered in a seasoned salt. All-in-all it was disappointing, but as I said I knew that was a possibility.
For Monday lunch I had a reservation for two at Morimoto at 11:30. My dining companion was more interested in the celebrity chef than the food (she doesn't like sushi), but I was glad for the company. We arrived as they opened and were the only guests in the restaurant. It was a beautiful space, the design of which seemed to be inspired by water and wood.
I ordered the tuna tartare appetizer. We had both seen it on the tv show "Best Thing I Ever Ate" and were looking forward to seeing the dish shown on the show. It came out in a very different presentation. Although still beautiful, we were a bit disappointed. The flavor was fantastic, however.
I had the sushi lunch set, which was unsurprising but clearly superior to any sushi I've ever had. My companion ordered the tempura lunch set. She was presented with a delicious variety of different bites. It was an expensive lunch, but incredibly memorable.
Dinner Monday was a corporate banquet at City Tavern. I was very disappointed that it was a set menu. No chance for me to order the pepperpot soup, the lobster pie, or the rack of lamb, all of which were recommended to me. The mushroom soup was flavorful but over-thickened and floury. The green salad was bitter, and the chicken was convention hall quality. The fruit cobbler was pretty good though.
Tuesday lunch was back to RTM. I wasn't sure where I wanted to eat, but as I was walking past the long line for DiNic's a seat opened up at the counter. Fate was calling so I sat down. This time I ordered the brisket sandwich. It wasn't as flavorful as the roast pork, but i piled on the banana peppers and it was certainly a tasty meal.
Dinner on Tuesday was a big meal with the members of my team. This was supposed to be the group that went to Amada, but we canceled that reservation when they told us that the suckling pig was unavailable (my report of that is here http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/791746 ). With not a lot of time to get consensus on a replacement destination, I decided to go for classic Italian and settled on Ralph's.
Most of the party opted for the gnocchi or the veal. I got a lot of comments when I ordered the sweetbreads, but I was very proud as most of my companions were willing to at least try them. they were lightly breaded and served in a lemony mushroom sauce.
All in all, it was a good meal. The server was charming and funny and we all had a good time. the only real problem was that they don't take credit cards and don't split the bill. It was a nightmare to accommodate nine people all chipping in cash. And three people needed receipts, so they had to ask the waiter to make copies on the restaurant's fax machine.
Lunch on Wednesday was at Matyson. I don't know why, but I had gotten it into my head that Matyson had a tasting menu for lunch. However when I got there I was informed that it was dinner only. Ouch! The tasting menu that week looked awesome, but there was no other opportunity so I had to be satisfied with lunch. And I was.
I started with the calamari, which was coated in an incredibly light and slightly salty breading and served piled over a small pool of a lemony cream sauce with capers and dill. I followed that up with the PEI mussels and chorizo stew. It was spicy and packed with tomatoes and white beans. It was thoroughly enjoyable.
I had a plan for dinner, really. Had I known that just four days earlier a gang of teenagers had savagely beaten a journalist while rampaging through the neighborhood, I might have been nervous about going to Osteria. As it was, I strolled casually there from the Spring Garden station. It was a beautiful night and I was really looking forward to dinner.
Osteria boasts a wood-fired oven and is said to have the best pizza in town. Of course I was going to try one. But I was really more interested in the pasta.
I was going get a couple of appetizers -- I hadn't decided but figured I'd talk to the server and make a decision. Then I knew they could do half orders of pasta, so I planned on trying two: the rigatoni with chicken livers and either the octopus or the rabbit, or maybe there would be a special pasta of the day. OK, it wasn't much of a plan, but it was a plan. Two appetizers, two half pasta orders, and a pizza just to sample. Oh, and they have a dessert called a budino that one reviewer called the best dish he'd ever had in his life. How could I pass that up?
I arrived at 8:00 and was told my table would be ready shortly, or I could sit at the counter or the bar. I'd been told to avoid the counter -- even though it overlooks the kitchen, the space is awkward and cramped and the servers approach you from behind so there is little interaction. After confirming that the full menu was available at the bar, I happily made my way back there. The bartender greeted me and I ordered an Ex Gratia beer. This limited release beer is a partnership between chef Michaud and Stoudt’s Brewing Co. It is brewed using Michaud's lemon marmalade, and proceeds from its sale go to benefit Alex's Lemonade Stand to fight childhood cancer. I have been involved with this charity for a few years and I was thrilled to support it while drinking this delicious beer.
After talking to the bartender about my tastes and the menu, I ordered my food. I was told that the pizza only took five minutes or so to prepare (the benefits of a very hot wood oven), so I held off on that until I could see what I was in the mood for after my pasta. While I was waiting, a couple of young ladies sitting next to me asked the bartender if they could send a drink to a guy on the other side of the restaurant. The bartender replied that they didn't do that, and the ladies were disappointed. I asked them what they were doing and they pointed out actor Danny DeVito sitting at a large table with some of the cast of his tv show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia". I had walked right past him on my way to the bar and never even noticed! However, I would quickly forget about him as my food arrived.
I started with a couple of appetizers. The wood-grilled octopus was beautifully presented on a plate with cured lemon, cubes of potato, and parsley (although the menu specified chives). It was crisp and not at all chewy, some of the best octopus I've ever had. The char at the tips of the arms added a smoky, meaty taste, and the nicely cleaned body was soft and delicate. The second plate was even better. It was a house-made cotechino sausage in a pool of soft polenta, topped with a sunny-side up egg. The sausage was amazing and the runny egg yolk mixed with the polenta to make a sauce unlike anything I've ever had. It felt like a breakfast dish -- sausage and eggs and grits are on plates every morning -- but I would eat this any time.
As I'm reflecting on my appetizers, a server places two dishes of pasta in front of me. Now I was expecting two half orders, but these were full plates. And a quick glance tells me that it is not what I ordered. Both plates are ravioli, neither of which were mine. The bartender looked over and said "Those are the specials of the day. They were extra. I thought you'd enjoy them." Yum!
The first of the two raviolis was stuffed with kale and ricotta, with a scattering of diced tomatoes. All of the pasta at Osteria is sauced simply with butter. It was delicious. The raviolis were so light and airy I could see through them. Each was like a little tissue packet filled with cheese and greens. They were nothing like the thick gummy frozen raviolis that I usually eat! The raviolis on the second plate were just as light, but stuffed with a tangy robiola cheese. The sauce included thick, meaty mushrooms that complemented the cheese perfectly. I tucked in, wondering how on earth I was going to be able to eat all this food, considering I had two more dishes coming. In the end, I passed the plates down the bar for everyone to try. The timing was perfect as my own dishes arrived. I was glad they were half orders.
The fettuccini with rabbit and morel mushrooms wasn't much to look at. The plate of pasta was presented very simply, but the taste was earthy and delicious. It couldn't compare to the other dish, the one I had really been looking forward to. The chicken liver rigatoni with Cipolline onions and sage. It was served in a beautiful, rustic bowl that matched the simple yet intricate flavors of the dish. The ground chicken livers were sweetened by the onion and melted on my tongue, and the sage gave it a hearty, peppery flavor. Even after eating two appetizers and most of two entrees, I felt like I could have kept eating the chicken liver forever. It is definitely in my top five dishes of my life.
Despite my fullness, I still had two things that I had come to try: the pizza and the budino. I knew I couldn't eat a whole pizza, but I had to see if it lived up to the hype. I ordered a "lombarda" pizza which was topped with flavors similar to one of my appetizers. It had the cotechino sausage, bitto and mozerella cheeses, and a runny egg right in the middle of it. The edges of the wood-grilled crust were lightly charred. The egg in the middle was seeping down and making most of the crust a bit soggy, so it didn't have the crisp, cracker-y feel I had expected. The flavors were terrific, and reminded me of the appetizer I had enjoyed. I'm sure the pizza would have been a highlight had I not been so full. Still, it was delicious. I ate a bunch and thought about taking the rest back with me, but realized it wouldn't keep very well.
There was no way I was going to be able to order dessert. Osteria's budino is made with polenta and topped with chocolate mousee and candied hazelnuts. I considered taking an order to go -- how could I pass up something that had been described as the most "shockingly good dessert ever"? -- but in the end I was just too full to commit. Next time I am in Philadelphia, I know what I will be eating.
I strolled over to the bus to catch a ride back to my hotel blissfully full and unaware of the violence that had swept through the neighborhood just a few days prior.
My flight out was noon on Thursday and I planned on grabbing breakfast at the Dutch Eating Place at RTM before I left. I walked over there in the morning but I guess I was still full from the night before. I really had no appetite. I saw the apple turnovers lined up and they looked amazing, but I just wasn't in the mood. I walked around the market -- it wasn't very busy since the convention had ended the day before. In the end I grabbed a delicious apple fritter at one of the bakeries and walked back to my hotel and a shuttle to the airport.
All in all it was a fantastic trip. I would love to come back and try some of the great places and dishes that I missed. Thanks again, Philadelphia and Chowhound.