Friday, December 13, 2013

#26: Zahav

Okay let’s get a few things out of the way first. This is Ryan’s cousin Kenny, guest blogging for our trip to Zahav. I was quite honored when two days before we went, Ryan asked me, or more so told me that I would be doing the write-up/review. Thanks for the heads up by the way, Ryan. To be honest, this should have been done over a week ago, but subconsciously I think I was procrastinating because of the following that 52 First Meals has developed, I did not want to disappoint. She was so annoyed at how long it took me to write this that she took to Facebook and publicly shamed me. 

Ryan invited me to go to Zahav with her because I am the more…adventurous of eaters and the menu offers some not-so-normal eats. She of course arrived before me because it took just about two hours to go 20 miles (man I do not miss driving 76 one bit), almost costing us our reservation. But Ryan adapted well and had herself a glass of wine at the bar (shocker) while waiting. Once we were seated, we both felt a bit overwhelmed by the menu and the options.

Our waitress was fantastic. She offered us a complimentary bottle of sparkling water, which we graciously accepted. Then we were asked if we had dined at Zahav before, which we had not, so she made a recommendation to do the Taymin – Salatim & Hummus, Two Mezze (small plates), One Al Ha’esh (grilled over coals) and One Dessert. It was ample amount of food for the two of us.

The Salatim and Hummus was outstanding. I had never tried hummus before, but Ryan assured me that I would enjoy, which I did. This course was served with House-Baked Laffa (basically an oversized tortilla). Pickled Beets, Cucumber and Dill, Eggplant, Asparagus, and an Israeli salad. Cannot rave enough about what a great starter this was, a good way to dip your toes in the water. Truth be told, we needed a second Laffa to finish off the Salatim & Hummus.


We each chose two Mezze. This is where we decided to be audacious, but ordered one “safe” Mezze’s…just in case. The Fried Potatoes were what you expected, a solid choice - Kashkaval Cheese, Crispy Okra, Shifka Peppers.

Our other safe choice was the House Smoked Sable which was fish and a fried egg served over Challah with poppy seeds. Loved how the yolk broke open as we ate this dish. The sable looked like and also tasted suspiciously like crab...

Next, Crispy Lamb’s Tongue, served with – Snap Peas, Smoked Grapes, Pistachio Tehina, Peaches. For me, the best Mezze we had. To put it simply, it was comparable to a jerky. I did not try it with the sides it was served with, but the Tongue had great flavor.
No picture, sorry kids! Use your imagination......

Finally, Grilled Duck Hearts, served with - Green Chickpeas, Falafel, Amba Tehina. Yes, duck hearts. This was brave and I give Ry all the credit for giving it a chance. The taste itself was great, with a nice smoke from the grill. Our only drawback was that you had to work through chewing it, because with each jaw movement you started to think about what exactly it was that you were chomping down on. 

Onto our Al Ha’esh. Ryan went with the Veal-stuffed Grape Leaves - Pine Nuts, Tomato, Snap Peas. I think I startled Ry a bit when I said that I had eaten grape leaves before and was not a fan. I of course waited until after she put her order in, so there was turning back. But she quickly found out on her own that she enjoyed it. 

I went with the Kofte - Ground Beef and Lamb, Cumin, Peppers, Carrots. Lamb again right? But this was tremendous. If you don’t like spicy, I would not recommend this dish. There were a lot of layers of heat to this plate, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The chickpeas provided a nice balance from the heat.

Somehow we were able to muster up the energy to order dessert as well. I decided on the Carrot Basboosa - Cream Cheese Mousse, Candied Hazelnuts. Basically a fancy carrot cake. A perfect ending to the meal for me.  

Ryan went with the White Chocolate Cake - Poached Pears, Vanilla, Cardamom. A little sweet tooth ending to an out-of-the-box meal.

Overall, I could not encourage you more to go and experience Zahav. The server was one of the best I’ve ever had. She knew she was dealing with a couple of rookies and she took her time when explaining everything and made sure we fully understood. There was perfect timing between each course, which I know Ry is a stickler for. We did not feel rushed one bit. We took our time and enjoyed the food to the full extent.

If you’re still reading, I give you credit. My apologies for being longwinded, it’s a nasty habit of mine. Finally, I know Ry gives a final price. All things included, the bill was $102. Thankfully she had that $50 gift card or I was leaving her there to wash dishes to pay off the rest of our bill.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

#25 Smith & Wollensky

After a semi nice dinner in Rittenhouse we decided to stop by Smith & Wollensky for a night cap. I know, all of you out there, scoffing at me for going to Smith & Wollensky to just sit at the bar for drinks and dessert and not a steak. But, I'm poor. And, if you take a look at all of the other steak houses on my list, you'll notice I will have just a few more chances to enjoy an expensive steak dinner in the city.

Smith & Wollensky was basically empty on a Friday night at 9:30pm. Immediately when I walked in I loved the atmosphere. They were decked out with Christmas lights and it had warm and intimate feel. Perfect for a rainy night. The bar was a decent size and there were a few other people sitting around it. The crowd at the bar that night was.... diverse, you could say. One couple eating dinner, one man sitting by himself, and then 3 drunk young attorneys attempting to drink martinis. Needless to say they provided our entertainment for the night.

We ordered 2 drinks and a dessert. The dessert menu was pretty extensive, but I decided to go with the New York Style Cheesecake since I am obsessed with cheesecake and it is pretty much my go to when I can't decide. However, the bartender quickly talked me out of that one. He said it was too small and that we would finish it in 2 minutes. He gave me a few other suggestions and we decided to go with the Apple Crisp. It was amazing. Not only did it taste amazing but the presentation was amazing as well. Am I saying amazing too much?

I have to say that I felt pretty classy sitting at the bar at Smith & Wollenksy for a drink. But then the bill came out to $42 and I realized why we don't do this often. We gave him our gift certificate, which was basically a letter written on Smith & Wollensky letter head. He wasn't able to give us change and made no indication if we could use the left over $8 for a tip or not. Probably because he doesn't typically come across people who are as cheap as we are. Since we were too embarrassed to ask if the left over money could be used for tip, we decided to just leave cash. Par for the course, I only had $4 in cash and Brendan had none. Not enough to leave a decent tip. Stressing about what to do (order another drink, leave the $4 and run?), Brendan went inside the Rittenhouse Hotel, which is connected to the restaurant, and tracked down at ATM. Problem solved! Lesson learned: take out cash before you use a GC at a bar.

#24 Melograno

With the holidays right around the corner, Brendan and I were looking for an inexpensive date night (aka, gift card & byob). We decided to go to  Melograno, an Italian BYOB on 20th and Sansom, fairly close to his apartment.  We made these plans at about noon on the day of, pretty typical. Can't get Brendan to plan anything in advance. However it was pretty easy to make a reservation for 8:30 on the night of, which surprised me.

So, as the day goes on, it begins to pour. And then it doesn't stop. All. Night. The last thing that we wanted to do was trek out in the rain but, Friday night is date night and that is what you do. Luckily we got a cab immediately as we walked out of his house, which doesn't happen often. During this cab ride we discovered  that I cannot for the life of me say 'Sansom' correctly. It usually comes out 'Samson', 'Sanson', 'Samsom' or some other variation.

We arrived at Melograno about 15 minutes early and they were able to seat us right away. Now, you all know how much of a stickler I am with wait staff, so when this waiter came to our table to open our wine without introducing himself or asking how we were and avoided any attempt to create small talk, I wasn't pleased. Crickets as he was opening our wine. Like, hello, anybody there? Then, he left us for about 20 minutes. I mean the place was full, but come on! This was how much I had left in my first glass before we ordered:

When he finally came to our table to order he just stood there looking at us, waiting for us to speak. After more awkward silence we ordered our meal. This guy. Anyways, I will cease my rant about the waiter and talk about our food. Before I begin, I would like to apologize for my picture quality. Melograno was dark and my boyfriend gets embarrassed when I use my flash.

To start, Brendan ordered calamari (which, by the way, has been a central theme of 52 First Meals- maybe I should write a sister blog called '30 First Calamari Dishes'). His calamari came with cannellini beans, diced tomato & lemon over baby spinach. The calamari was not fried, so I kept mistaking the beans for squid. It was good though. I ordered the Prosciutto di Parma e Rucola salad which was arugula, prosciutto & shaved parmigiano with lemon vinaigrette dressing. I enjoyed this dish, it was light enough to leave me hungry for dinner.

Now on to the main dishes. Brendan got the Pappardelle Al Ragu di Cinghiale (braised wild boar ragu) & I got the Ravioli di Patate (sweet potato & leek ravioli, brown butter sage sauce). I liked my raviolis but ordered the dish solely based on the sweet potato and brown butter sage and those flavors weren't really coming through for me. The entrees were fine. Just fine. Nothing really special about them, but coupled with the wait staff, we weren't overly thrilled with Melograno. No wonder it was so easy to get a Friday night reservation!


I am not going to say that I won't go back to Melograno because it is a super convenient BYOB, but there are way more quality BYOs in the city that excite me much more than Melograno did. Thankfully, the night was not over yet - on to gift card #25 ;-)

Friday, November 22, 2013

#23 Audrey Claire

I just.. don't know where to start. I could start with the location, the amazing wait staff, the bill, the food, the atmosphere, how Audrey Claire met all of my expectations and more. I guess I'll start with the beginning.

Coll and I were looking for a BYOB spot to go to on a Thursday night and we both simultaneously suggested Audrey Claire. I have heard nothing but good things about Audrey Claire, other than that it is hard as hell to get a table on the weekend since they don't take reservations. Luckily, they do take them Sunday- Thursday, and making one 24 hours in advance was sufficient to get a table for 2 at 7:30. We sat down right away. The place was packed for a Thursday night, so I was happy we decided to make that reservation. The seating area was very small, we were basically sitting at a table for 4 with 2 other girls. Honestly, didn't even care. The reason for that could've been our amazing waiter. It just makes such a difference when you have good wait staff. He really took care of us. We ordered 4 small dishes instead of getting entrees and he asked if we wanted them in any particular order or if we were in a rush. We said no to both- and he timed the dishes out perfectly. We never felt hurried, even when there were people waiting for a table. After going to 23 different restaurants in the past 6 months, I realized how important it is to not have a waiter on your back the whole time. Coll made a good point last night- sometimes  you go into a restaurant and they push the food at you and you leave not even knowing what you ate or if you liked it. Audrey Claire- you've perfect the art of timing, and for that, I love you.

We started our meal with wine, obviously. They had the tiniest little wine glasses, but we decided it made us drink less, which is always a good thing for us.

Then we ordered the bosc pear and gorgonzola w/ toasted sunflower seeds flatbread. So that was amazing. I love the fruit & gorgonzola cheese combo and they nailed it.
Then came out our baby arugula salad w/ candied figs, fresh berries, french lentils and warm goat cheese. Another delicious dish, I don't think I've ever had candied figs, but I loved them. The warm goat cheese really made the dish.
Then, our most exciting order, butternut squash risotto w/ sweet mascarpone. Just, just, no words. Not too heavy or too sweet, just perfect.
Finally (by the way at this point I could barely breathe I was so full, but we marched on), the hummus platter. We originally had to choose 3 of the 5 types of hummus, but the waiter said we could choose 4 (adding to my love for him). We went with the spicy hummus, tzatziki,. pumpkin hummus, & sun-dried tomato and basil hummus. I felt a little bit more informed about these from my trip to Estia (see post #4). I wish we could've dug into this a bit more but we were pretty stuffed at this point.

Then the bill came, and it was $47. We only had to pay tip. Now this is the kind of place I am looking to spend my gift cards! No extra cost to me. People- go here and begin your love affair with Audrey Claire (wait does that rhyme?)






Wednesday, November 6, 2013

#22 Xochitl

Everyone  keeps asking me "Ryan, how many gift cards do you have left?!" After I sigh and complain about how much work they are I usually respond with "like 30-ish". So to clear that up, as of today, I officially have 30 gift cards left to use. Crap.

I love Mexican restaurants. I love gauc and margs and the atmosphere that comes with an authentic Mexican restaurant. I've actually eaten Mexican one night a week for the past 3 weeks (overkill?). Unfortunately, I only have 4 on my list, which is just not enough. So I have been strategically trying to space them out. Good thing Lolita is closed for renovation until January, so that buys me some time to use my last Mexican gift card.

Xochitl, pronounced " So-Cheet" (I was pronouncing it like Zoc-a-til- not even close) is a cozy bar/restaurant located at 2nd and Pine. Beautiful part of the city that I definitely want to venture back to. Every time one of these gift cards brings me to a new neighborhood of Philadelphia I immediately picture my life there and decide that I want to move. Not only have these gift cards expanded my palate, but they have also enhanced my love of the city. Okay- I'll stop!

The seating area in Xochitl was pretty small, but there was a large bar. There was a good amount of people sitting at the bar watching a game on TV. I could definitely see myself going back there to enjoy the bar room instead of the formal dining area.

The first great thing I noticed about Xochitl was their "Make your Own Guacamole" option. Like, yes. My dream.

The second thing I noticed was that their margs were strong. Holy cow. I think its funny how every Mexican restaurant "specializes in tequila". The waiters always go into so much detail about "their favorite margarita" and rave about the specialty tequila. I also know that the waiter's "favorite margarita" is going to be the most expensive drink on the menu. I've been around the block enough times to know their trick and I never buy in. After their long winded, detailed spiel about the $15 special margarita, I always go with the basic $9 margarita. Better luck next time, guys.

The third thing that I noticed about Xochitl was that the wait staff was on the pushy side. It was a Friday night at 8:30 and I was out with my roommates, Regan and Mal. I was in absolutely no rush to scarf my food down. We ordered the margaritas and guacamole and were enjoying the night. The waitress asked if we were ready to order and we told her we wanted a few more minutes. Then about 5 minutes later, the head chef comes to our table and asks us if had any questions about the menu and if we were ready to order. The waitress sent out the big guns. I felt slightly intimidated, so we started to order. We all got tacos, Regan got the chicken and Mal and I got the fish. The chef asked if wanted sides, well maybe I shouldn't say asked, he basically told us we needed sides. "The tacos don't come with side dishes and they aren't very big so we would definitely need something else." We weren't even that hungry, but he bullied us into ordering two sides for the table. The tacos came out and they were huge. We definitely did not need the sides. I'll say it again, we got bullied.

Lucky for us, the sides were hands down the best part of the meal. We got the Rice & Manchego (cheesy rice goodness) & the Esquites (Mexican street corn). If you ever go to Xochitl, please get these. Mal & I weren't fans of our tacos. The fish tacos were surprisingly spicy and had more slaw then fish. Mal said hers had an overly fishy taste. Regan said her tacos were "amaze". Guess I will go with the chicken tacos next time.

I was pleasantly surprised that with tip and my $50 gift card we each only paid $34. For 2 margaritas each, guacamole, an entrée, and sides, this isn't too shabby. One of my very, very few posts that I don't complain about the check!


I am excited to go back to Xochitl to sit at the bar and avoid any pushy wait staff. On Sundays- Thursdays they have a $28 Molajete Dinner for 2, which is right up my alley!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

#21 Capital Grille

Another race to the finish- using a gift card on the day before the expiration date. Capital Grille was not a place I had been super excited to try. I know the prices, I've been to Capital Grilles before, just unenthused. I was even more unenthused because on the night we went, we had plans to go to a bar in Northern Liberties later. 13th & Chestnut and Girard & Frankford aren't exactly neighbors. But, alas, we do what we have to for the fans.

We went into Capital Grille with the mindset of sitting at the  bar- having a drink and ordering appetizers. So that is exactly what we did. Well, actually, we couldn't get a seat at the bar. It was filled with what seemed to be Friday night regulars. The bar crowd was what you would expect it to be, overdressed women, men in suits, etc. Luckily, we got a small high top in the bar area, right near the entrance (ideal spot for people watching). We had access to the full menu and to a waitress as well, which was exciting since we weren't actually sitting at a table.

We ordered the Calamari & the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella with Vine Ripe Tomatoes. They were both what you would expect- amazing. The calamari had hot cherry peppers intermixed into the dish which really made the flavor pop. Plus they give you a huge portion. This was good since we were replacing appetizers for our dinner that night.

The prosciutto wrapped mozzarella doesn't look pretty in the picture below- but let me tell you- it tasted pretty. I go back and forth with my feelings on prosciutto, but this dish sold me. It was like bacon, but lighter and better.

And folks, that's all about what we could afford so we were outta there. 4 drinks, 2 apps, $70. Cannot avoid paying more than $50 anywhere I go! I will say that I really liked the atmosphere and that this gave us a chance to experience Capital Grille when we most likely never would have before.


Friday, October 4, 2013

#20 Amuse at the Le Meridien

I have been scrounging around lately because a number of my gift cards decided to expire in the fall months of 2013. Even though I have heard from multiple sources that gift cards are not allowed to expire, I didn't want to take any chances and force my blog followers to miss out on any life shattering, world changing posts. So with 1 day left on my gift card to Amuse at the Le Meridien, my mom offered to come down and take us out to lunch. WHEW.

Amuse is such a hidden gem! The Le Meridien hotel is located in an amazing location, right near Love Park. It was a beautiful day and in that moment I was happy that this gift card with its pending expiration date dragged me out of bed on a Sunday afternoon to experience Center City.

We walked into the beautiful hotel and noticed that Amuse was basically the Le Meridien's dining area. It was a small cozy area with a fireplace and beautiful city views. I do have to mention that it was a bit of a struggle to get a table for 5 people. The host was being very indirect and said "I just don't know if we will be able to serve you". Not, "there is a 15 minute wait", not "let me find a table for you", it was more like, "please leave, we don't want you". So we hung around the bar area (closed bar, btw) until this man figured out  how to serve us. We waited about 15 minutes and sat at a table right by the window.

There isn't much to say about the food, it was all very good. Pretty basic hotel food, but the service was on point. They even gave us a little free sample of a little tart filled with some goat cheese mixture. Collectively we got the Cesar salad, French onion soup, the spring quiche (I applaud Regan for this out of character order!), the chicken club, the French omelette, and the cheeseburger.



One of my shorter blogs, the most memorable thing was that my self proclaimed wine snob mother ordered a $7 glass of Oak Vineyards Chardonnay. She also guilted me into getting a glass which led me to pass out for an hour after I got home.

Oh and how could I forget our trip to Love Park. Such a wonderful spectacle on a warm Sunday. The smell of urine and homeless people just made my day! For some reason, in my head I had a prettier picture of the park. The woman voluntarily directing pictures in front of the Love sign while asking for tips really threw me off. Not enough to snatch one, though :)


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

#19: Alma de Cuba

Alma De Cuba, post 2 of my restaurant week series.  So pumped to write this. I've heard how great Alma De Cuba was, I've walked past the place many times, nestled on Walnut street among the shops, but I was still curious what it was all about. When I say that I've heard how great Alma De Cuba was, I mean mostly through my cousins, Melissa & Jeff's, raves. So I thought it would be a perfect idea to invite them down for restaurant week to join us at Alma De Cuba! I also prefer going to new places with people who have been there before. Sometimes these ethnic menus confuse me and its nice to have some back up.

Alma de Cuba was surprisingly big. It looks pretty small from the outside, but there were 3 floors with plenty of seating. The restaurant was dark, with candles and red lighting all around to make the place feel intimate and trendy.  Their restaurant week menu was pretty limited, only about 3 or 4 choices per course. That being said, I would have liked to order every option.

Melissa and Jeff talked up Alma de Cuba's El Jefe Mojito all summer, so clearly had to get that. It was worth the hype. The only complaint I have is that the glass was pretty small for being $12. (Are you shocked that I am complaining about a drink being too much money and too small?) Just a side note, you are not supposed to eat the sugar cane stick in the drink. Chewing it and then having to spit it out on your bread plate is not a good look.


During restaurant week you typically have to order your 3 courses up front. This is a lot of pressure. I slightly panicked and ordered the black bean soup, the Panca Glazed Chicken with yucca fries and plantains and the Tembleque for dessert. After I avoided saying any word that I didn't know how to pronounce to the waiter, I thought, do I even like black beans? What even is black bean soup ? I am going to get sick? Fortunately, it was delicious. I don't want to go ahead and say that I would order black bean soup from anywhere else just yet, but baby steps.

Other starter items we got were the Smoked Albacore Tacos and the Plantains. I didn't get a chance to try the tacos, so I am going to go ahead and assume they were good since everyone ate them pretty quickly.  The plantains tied the black bean soup for my favorite part of the meal. They were perfectly sweet with a buttermilk sauce. I basically ate most of my meal in plantains. Ugh, I miss them.


Melissa got the Cuban Shrimp and Grits for her meal and Brendan and Jeff got the Vaca Frita (skirt steak with rice and beans). I got to try both entrees and they were basically amazing.  


For dessert I was the only adventurous one and got the Tembleque when everyone else got the Alfajores (boring cookie sandwich). Tembleque is a Puerto Rican custard with a mango sorbet. I didn't love this. The custard tasted like flan to me, even though I've never had flan. It had a spong-ey texture and stood straight up on its own.

Overall, we had a great time at Alma de Cuba. Once Melissa & Jeff got over me taking pictures of their meals before they could have a bite with my obnoxious camera flash, we were good. We basically tried everything on the restaurant week menu, and if you know anything about my aversion to ordering the same thing as anyone else at the table, you know that this made me happy.

My advice for Alma de Cube: get the mojito, get the black bean soup, get the plantains, expect to pay a pretty penny!