My two days in the city of Philadelphia passed very quickly, as BT and I bounced from hotel, to feeding destination, to museum, to drinking destination, and right back to feeding hour once again. Each activity, for the most part, was bridged by a cab ride. How else does one explore a city on foot in single-digit temperatures? (Did I mention the blustery winds?) A couple years back I wandered the streets of Berlin in January, and because that was painful enough I feel as if I’ve done my time (hard life I lead, I know) and I have zero guilt in eating and not running, but slipping into a heated taxi and exploring the city as best I can, depending upon the next destination and the driver’s chosen route. Call me a wimp. I don’t care.
Anyway, first stop on the Philly recap tour was brunch. We had arrived late Thursday night, enjoyed dinner and drinks with one of BT’s friends, and woke up on the late side on Friday, finally arriving at Sabrina’s Café around 1PM. I usually cross-reference my chosen dining spots in new cities with multiple “best of” lists on different websites. Sabrina’s seemed like a trusted local spot, and I think I nailed this one. Kudos to me. Below is a picture of the scene, after the lunch rush left. When we arrived, every table was full, as were all the seats at the kitschy diner-style bar.
My dining partner was slightly less amused by my picture-taking habit. The boy bought me the camera as a birthday gift, so he has no right to complain.
Our cheerful waitress brought us coffees and approved our menu choices off of the specials list. BT ordered some sort of a chicken-chorizo-tex-Mexy wrap kind of deal sans wrap and swapped the home fries for a salad. Yeah, he’s been spending too much time around me. I’m a good/ bad influence.
I got an absurd omelet special that had roasted pear, caramelized red onion, goat cheese and some other star-quality ingredients with a side of multi-grain toast and salad. This was a monstrous plate of deliciousness that I, the hungriest little girl around, managed to finish. Needless to say, no afternoon snack was necessary, and it’s good we were travelling by cab because I may have wobbled out of the restaurant in a food coma. It happens to the best of us.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, taking in culture and whatnot. Yeah, we’re college grads who like to exercise our brains (not just our stomachs) every once in awhile.
I’m always impressed by these reconstructed rooms at museums. And pretty colors, like the rendition above of the Four Seasons. I’m like, so cultured, I know. After returning to our hotel, we relaxed for a bit (cough) before our late dinner reservations at Zahav.
Zahav is, according to their website, a modern Israeli restaurant that brings the authentic flavors of Israel’s culinary heritage to Philadelphia. The head chef, Michael Solomonov, was born in Israel, grew up in Pittsburgh, and moved back home in his late teens, taking a job at a restaurant where he learned to cook. Like many American Jews, I went to Israel on a birthright trip, but don’t remember the food being this tasty. I guess modern here translates to Israeli food slightly modified to appease the new-American-influenced-American taste buds? I honestly feel as if every restaurant I go to these days is more “new-American” than anything else, but Zahav certainly sets itself apart from the rest with authentic spices, legit ovens for baking laffa, and some of the tastiest hummus I’ve had since my trip to Mimi’s in Brooklyn.
Because we were super early for our 10:15PM reservation (restaurant week made getting an earlier reservation three days before impossible), we sat at the bar for awhile. I ordered the British Mandate, an inventive mixture of black tea-infused gin, lemon, and orange bitters. The tea taste really shined and this was unlike any drink I’d had before. A good start to a solid meal.
Restaurant week involves five courses, so when we were seated (30 minutes early!) we had to order a bottle of red to pair with all the food we were about to enjoy. Obviously this was necessary, right? We went with a light-ish Pinot Noir, Undone. Not my favorite, as something bolder may have matched the spicy flavors better, but give me wine and I’m a happy girl. I got over it, especially after the first course, the hummus-tehina with house-baked laffa arrived. The hummus had a creamier texture than most “authentic” hummuses (hummai?) I’ve ordered at restaurants, and it paired perfectly with their house-made chewy bread.
After the salatim (Israeli salads) arrived, I delighted in the array of laffa-hummus-salatim sandwiches I could make. There was twice-cooked eggplant, tahini-beets, spicy cucumbers, carrots, and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t remember at the moment. The waiter explained the details to us. I should’ve taken notes, but that may have been a bit off-putting. Just a little.
For the second course, we chose two (per person) of eight or so choices. First pictured is the fried cauliflower: labaneh with chive, dill, mint and garlic. The waiter encouraged us to order this over the salmon, and these cauliflower bites did not disappoint. Next pictured dish is the crispy haloumi: sheep’s milk cheese, apple, pomegranate, and Serrano. I’m not much of a fried-food kind of gal, but these were phenomenal. Cheese? Fried? Dear. God.
Next up was BT’s choosing, the crispy sweetbreads: chickpeas, green Chile and lemon. I took a bite of chickpea, but I don’t do cow thymus glands. Again, not my style, but it looked rather appetizing, I’ve gotta say. Finally, we finished course two with Brussels sprouts al Ha’esh: whipped feta, Ramadan bread, or Brussels soaked in a ton of olive oil with cheese on top. Why must restaurants douse vegetables in absurd amounts of oil? I mean yeah, it’s delicious, but I do love the vegetable sans olive oil. Oh well. Vegetable-beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.
For our entrees, BT ordered the braised beef cheeks with chestnuts, celery and pumpkin rice. I ordered the crispy branzino with local potatoes, peppers and poppy seed. Thank goodness this entire menu is composed of small plates, because I was running out of stomach space by the time what was supposed to be the main course arrived. The fish was delicious, yes, but I was kind of fooded-out at this point.
But there’s always room for dessert, right? We chose the hazelnut and date rugelach with quince and hot sachlab and the almond semifreddo with chocolate crisp. And coffee, just because.
Overall, BT and I were blown away by this meal. Sure, I question roots of “authenticity” of many ethnic spots I eat at, but who am I to judge? I just spend a ton of money at nice restaurants, and if the food and service is great, I’m more than likely to return. The food was spiced wonderfully, exuding bold but not abrasive flavors. The salatim and hummus starters were my favorites of the five courses, along with the amazing rugelach at the end. The interior of the restaurant was rustic, homey and classy all at the same time. This was by far one of the best dining out experiences I’ve had in awhile (and I wasn’t even in New York!), and on our way out we felt the need to let Michael know. When he found out we’re New Yorkers, he told us to check out Traif in Williamsburg, where his friend Jason is the head chef. One glance at Traif’s entirely non-Kosher-friendly menu and I’m totally down, so lookout Traif, I’m on my way, as per Mr. Solomonov’s suggestion.
Bellies full and just a tad drunk, we hopped a cab over to the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. to discuss our mortgage and lending options. Or rather, as this speakeasy so eloquently hides in its basement entrance, to drink. Our Philly friend had taken us here the night before, where we were impressed by its elaborate menu on par with Little Branch, Death & Co., Cienfuegos, and a couple other New York City speakeasies we’ve frequented. And so we returned, already significantly buzzed but ready to get our drink on. BT had read all about this Philly speakeasy in Boozehound, an informative and fun foray into the world of fine spirits that I bought for him, on a whim, as a Christmas gift. It’s nice to be an informed consumer… er, boozer.
We were lucky enough to get Richard as our waiter, who had greeted us on our way out the night before. Richard is the kind of cocktail waiter everyone wants: he knows the menu and you totally wish he weren’t waiting on you so instead you could drink with him. He made some quality recommendations for us on our second night, starting me off with a drink so aptly called the queen bitch, which was a near-lethal combination of guyanese rum, cocchi americano, genever, blanc vermouth, and absinthe, served up. Pictured above on the left, this small but mighty bitch of a drink had a strong flavor, as Richard promised, despite my dulled and drunken taste-bud-state. Later, I ordered a drink off of the menu that Richard thought I might need called the restraining order. This drink (pictured above right) was a fine mixture of reposado tequila, aperol celery bitters and orange peel. I’m super excited to channel Colin Shearn, the vodka-averted bartender and owner of FM&I Co., and recreate this one at home. It was simply that good.
BT and I happily exited the bar at Philly’s 2AM-ish closing hour, drunk enough to go home without complaints. I’ll still argue that New Yorkers have way more drinking stamina than inhabitants of any other city, as our 4AM curfew wins over everywhere else. Regardless, with drinks such as those I consumed over a five hour period, 2AM is a good time to go home. Besides, we had another day ahead of us in Philly. Stay tuned for a briefer recap of day two. If you’ve made it this far, kudos to you, blog readers. I’d mix you a fancy cocktail if I could.