I just got back from a long weekend in Philadelphia, and I didn't see a single nettle on the menu. It was a very enlightening trip. Traveling to other cities is one of the most important aspects of a critic's education. When we don't get out, it's easy to take for granted what we do well in the Bay Area, and not focus on the things we're missing.
There's a lot of excitement on the dining scene in Philadelphia these days, and it was impossible to cover all the new places that had opened. I was there with friends and colleagues from around the country, so we'd go out at night and compare notes the next day.
I could write several posts on my meals, but I'll cut to the important part: the elements of the dining experience that made me wish we had something similar here.
First thing I'd do if I had my way is to plunk Zahav down South of Market near my house. Michael Solomonov offers his interpretation of Israeli food, in a space that has an industrial edge with large windows overlooking Society Hill, an open wood oven and a kitchen sequestered behind paned glass, where diners can sit at the counter and watch the heated action.
On entering, diners see Solomonov warming his back in front of the oven as he rolls out flatbread and places it in the oven where it quickly puffs and browns. He then removes it and loosely drapes the hot bread next to the creamiest, most intensely flavored hummus I've encountered. The small plates menu also includes such items as cauliflower that's browned to a mahogany hue and accented with yogurt flavored with chives, dill, garlic and mint; crispy haloumi with dates and pinenuts; and grape leaves stuffed with veal.
Chifa showcases Jose Garces Peruvian/Cantonese food in another stylish restaurant that features a collection of blue and white jars covering the walls and huge industrial fans hanging from the ceiling. I'd love to see his red curry with king crab, tofu, eggplant, coconut and jasmine rice show up on a menu here. His ceviches are pretty special too, but at least we have similar items at places like La Mar and Limon.
From Amis, which is Mark Vetri's new Roman trattoria that's been open only about two weeks and has a very San Francisco vibe, I'd love to transport the mortadella mousse, where the whipped charcuterie has the texture of whipped butter, served with slices of toasted baguette. I also long for someone to recreate the artichokes, where the frilly ends are browned and crisp, giving way to a nutty, soft interior.
At the sister restaurant, Vetri, I had the tasting menu that included a haunch of baby goat. Vetri procures animals that are between 16 and 21 pounds and slow roasts them over mesquite. They're strongly flavored but the sweetness of the meat still shines.
The polished, knowledgeable service orchestrated by Kristina Burke at James is another thing I'd like to send to San Francisco. In fact, at all of the places I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff. When it comes to food, I longingly remember Jim Burke's tender ribbons of pasta lightly tossed with duck ragout, shaved chocolate and orange. We ordered it as a challenge, and gave up any pretense of doubt about his talent with the first bite.
And then there are the local specialties: the soft, buttery pretzels that are the best I've ever tasted from Miller's in the Reading Terminal Market, and John's Roast Pork, where owner John Bucci, Jr. carries on a tradition started by his father in 1930.
The seasoned meat is sliced thin and piled into a soft bun with sharp provolone. I also fell in love with the cheesesteak and the fried chicken wings, generously coated with fine bread crumbs mixed with paprika, cayenne and salt, and then fried to a resonate crunch. These are a relatively new addition and found their way onto the menu when the restaurant added a fryer in 1988.
Yet, something like Philly cheesesteak connotes such a strong sense of place, it may be one of those dishes best preserved in its own locale. It only gives us another excuse to go to Philadelphia.
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