Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Off the Map: When Italians Lost Ownership of the Tiramisu

Tiramisu a la Mexicana -- Lolita, Philadelphia, PA

For two fools who claim to eat everything, we sure do use the disclosure "We don't normally like this dish/component/texture" quite often.  And Vodka is about to employ it again:

I do not normally like tiramisu.

For lack of a more logical reason, I tend to find the dish slobbery and dripping in burnt coffee flavor.  I would go so far to say that I have never encountered a tiramisu I have enjoyed.

Until I tried the one at Lolita in Philadelphia.
The Outlier in a Long Line of Tiramisu Failures
Dragging my accommodating Philadelphia-residing friends along to another Philly Best Thing I Ever Ate location, we arrive at the BYOB Lolita clutching a bottle of wine.  Still suffering from our Thanksgiving gorge-fest the day before, plus the half of the Sarcone's Deli sandwich we have managed to wolf down, we are not in the mood for heavy entrees, and we are especially not in the mood for dessert.  All of this ambivalence only makes our later lapping up of the tiramisu all the more astounding.
A Scene Out of the Biggest Loser Reject Pile
But first, we have to make our way through dinner. 

First up is the guacamole, which is served with a healthy portion of corn chips, plantain chips, and sweet potato chips, along with homemade salsa.
"Homemade Salsa" is an Assumption. That Could Be Out of a Tostitos Jar
Vodka, who cannot stomach sweet potatoes in any form (as opposed to our opening line cop-out, they are truly one of five foods she despises), sticks to the corn chips, which she finds salty and perfectly crunchy.
Also, Plantains Just Seem Like Sad Bananas, No?
The guacamole, too, though less chunky than other restaurant varieties, is also quite good, if a bit heavy on the avocado itself.  (And yes, Vodka recognizes the fact that, as Ginger pointed out, this is a ridiculous statement, being that guacamole is, in essence, avocado).
But This One Is Particularly Grinch Green, Right?
For our "entrees," Vodka orders the romaine and asparagus salad, and her friends share the shrimp enchiladas.
And Now, for the "Thrifty Eating" Portion of the Blog
The salad is ten times heavier on the romaine portion than the asparagus (the hunks of lettuce on the plate are so large that James should keep them in mind for any potential Giant Peach sequels), and it is also spicier than one would expect a salad to be.
Salad from the Garden of the Jolly Green Giant
The part of the enchiladas that my friend manages to not dump all over the table in an effort of "sharing" are awash in cheesy goodness, and best of all, our waitress does not seem perturbed by the fact that we are eating like certifiable cheapskates.
Clearly, Lolita is Fond of Their Green Foods
And then we come to dessert.

The tiramisu a la mexicana is Robert Irvine's choice from the IN A BOWL episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, and based on his liking of, say, over-pureed mashed potatoes, I am skeptical of the variety of baby food that is about to appear before us.  Instead, the waitress brings a small serving bowl with a mountain of cake, chocolate, nuts, and oodles of whipped cream piled in the center.
Well, Hello There, Friend, May I Call You "Tira" for Short?
Scooping up the first bite, I expect a coffee-laden dessert a la the worst barista Starbucks ever hired.

And instead I find heaven.
Vodka's Personal Image of the Pearly Gates
First of all, there is the whipped cream.  There is just so much whipped cream.  Having been known to squirt Reddi-Wip directly into my mouth during college, I am a certifiable sucker for whipped cream, especially the homemade kind, which Lolita's appears to be.
But Much Like Their "Homemade Salsa," This Could Also Have Come from a Can
Sprinkled on top of the whipped cream is a smattering of toasted hazelnuts, which balance the mushy texture of the rest of the components and bring a comforting snap to the spoonfuls.
Snap, Crackle, Pop, Then Moan "THIS IS FIVE STARS"
Praline mascarpone cream mixes in with the whipped cream, and the lady fingers, which have been soaked in kahlua and espresso, have become so moist that they are downright layer cake-like.

This tiramisu is a wonder.
At the Rate We Were Going, I'm Surprised We Didn't Eat the Garnish
Despite the fact that the tiramisu is very rich, we reach the bottom of the bowl sooner than anticipated, assured in the knowledge that even though the Italians may have invented junk yard special hoagies and rectangular tiramisu, the Mexicans have improved the latter dish by leaps and bounds.

Perhaps now they can take on those pesky sesame seed-covered, jaw-breaking Italian rolls.... 

Lolita's Tiramisu a la Mexicana: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate

Monday, November 28, 2011

Off the Map: It's Not Even 4 PM Somewhere

Junk Yard Special -- Sarcone's Deli, Philadelphia, PA
Sarcone's Deli

Admittedly, the day after Thanksgiving is not the ideal day to go on a culinary rampage.  But Vodka is, if nothing else, mission-oriented, so stuffed like a turkey or not, she is putting on her elastic waistband pants and heading into Philadelphia to eat.
The Pilgrims Would Be So Proud
Because Vodka is persuasive (read: bossy), she has talked a Philadelphia-residing friend into doing a mini-Best Thing I Ever Ate food tour with her in an effort to check off a couple of Philly eateries we had missed on our previous jaunt around the city.
Here's a Tip: Only Befriend Accommodating People
First up, residing deep within the heart of South Philly, is Sarcone's Deli, which features Adam Gertler's chosen AT A DELI hoagie, the junk yard special.
Vodka Came to Philly and All She Got Was a Sandwich Named After the Dump
Now, here's something to keep in mind about Sarcone's Deli: they close at 4:00pm.  Every day.  No matter what.  Even to early bird diners like us, this timeframe is a bit geriatric.  For this reason, Vodka flies towards the front door of Sarcone's at exactly 3:37pm, anxious to get her paws on this Food Network delicacy before the closing bell rings.
Adding to the "Charm," They're Apparently Closed Mondays
"You got here just in time!" a worker greets me.  "We just started packing up shop."

(Note: It appears Sarcone's closing time is actually 3:45pm).

I order a medium junk yard special, without having the time to look into what I'll be eating or, more importantly, to care.  The price comes to $8.63, which would seem high if I weren't in the midst of alleged Best Thing I Ever Ate greatness.  This hoagie has to be ten times better than any $5 variety served at a corner bodega across the rest of Philadelphia, right?

Well, no.
Gourmet Philadelphia Eating
Trotting out of Sarcone's, I make my way to my friend's apartment, where outside, I am greeted by a few of South Philly's finest residents.  Permeating booze (clearly, they're our kind of people), they are on a diatribe about the faulty address labeling along the block, a tangent they refuse to come off of even when I attempt to make a hasty retreat into my friend's (allegedly mislabeled) building. 

Thanks for the heightened sense of ambiance, South Philly.  You're really adding to the Sarcone's experience.
Now Please Excuse Me So I Can Start Documenting a Hoagie
Opening the package at the safety of my friend's dinner table, we find a large hoagie, its components sandwiched between a hearty Italian roll sprinkled with sesame seeds.  Inside resides fresh mozzarella, provolone, turkey, prosciutto, sauteed Spinach, roasted red peppers, red wine vinegar oil, dried herbs, a parakeet cage, a ball of yarn, and the kitchen sink.

Well, it is a junk yard special, after all.
One's Writing Grows Less Clever After Dining in South Philly
Last three points aside, the hoagie is chock full of unending yet seemingly miscellaneous ingredients.  Widening my jaw as much as possible, I rip a hunk away from half of the hoagie.

And chew solemnly through approximately a loaf of bread.
Can You Tell Me How to Chew, How to Chew Through Sesame Bread?
Now, Sarcone's Deli is apparently known for their bread.  It seems to be their thing.  And I, admittedly, am not the biggest fan of quintessential Italian bread: the crunchy and crumbly on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside loaves that form the "best" Italian sandwiches.  I like my bread pliable and easy to bite, two features that Sarcone's bread is just not meant to have.
It's All About the Bread but Not About the Teeth
And generally speaking, I don't like seeds, so the sesame sprinkling does little to appease me.

The ingredients within the sandwich itself are all tasty and fresh, though not a combination I would order again.  Additionally, because some are sliced (turkey, prosciutto) and others are chunky (red peppers, mozzarella), it has a tendency to fall further and further apart with each bite.
Uniform Slicing, This Is Not
Because, like Ginger, I am never one to refuse a condiment, I think the hoagie could stand for some mayonnaise, but even the creamiest Hellman's available would not have pushed it into 5 star-status.
Though the Bread Could Have Certainly Used a Mayonnaise Moisturizer
Overall, there is nothing remotely wrong with the sandwich.  In fact, if you are in the area at dinner time, you should absolutely stop by to quench your hoagie craving.

Except, of course, Sarcone's Deli will not be open.

Sarcone's Deli's Junk Yard Special: 3 stars

Monday, November 21, 2011

Once, Twice, Three Times at Buddakan

Whole Peking Duck -- Buddakan

And so completes our accidental tour of the North American Buddakan restaurants.

For two people who are not wildly fond of Buddakan, we seem to be spending an awful lot of time here.  First came the mysterious (and awful) non-Best Thing I Ever Ate doughnuts at the Atlantic City outpost.  Then, mere days ago, we acquired the correct dip sum doughnuts at the Philadelphia location.  And now, for purposes of consuming Bobby Flay's BIRD IS THE WORD chosen dish of the whole peking duck, we have made our way to the New York Buddakan.

This, for the record, is about three too many Buddakan experiences. 
And Our Doctors Would Say Too Many Doughnuts
Stumbling through the giant door located just north of Chelsea Market, it takes time for our eyes to adjust to the inevitable dreary (verging on midnight-black) lighting that inexplicably fills each and every Buddakan.  Sounding entirely too much like our mothers (or, in this case, grandmothers), we debate whether or not we will be better off sitting at the bar or at a table, the subtext being "Which will make us feel less like we're eating in a dark tunnel?"  We decide on the bar, at least until the hostess points us into the adjacent room -- the one we could barely see due to the aforementioned bleak lighting and were therefore trying to avoid -- when we change our minds and ask for a table.
Where;s Thomas Edison When You Need Him?
The hostess still points us to the dreaded "lounge area," which seems to have only one lightbulb functioning for the entire room, in order to wait for our table "to be ready."  Now, this charade seems ridiculous to us, as we are now forced to awkwardly stand around this "lounge," filled with people who clearly do not need night-vision goggles to survive in this place, and wait for our "seater."  Said seater arrives moments later, rechecks us in for our reservation (WHY, Buddakan?!), and proceeds to recite her directions to follow her as if reading from a script.  She leads us down the (thankfully better lighted) stairs, Ginger smirking all the way at her Shakespearean recitation of our instructions, and into a room featuring a table built for King Arthur and his knights.
We Wonder How King Arthur Felt About Lo Mein
"You sit at one end and I'll sit at the other," Ginger suggests, and the situation seems merrily ludicrous because we can finally see ourselves in more than shadows for the first time all evening.

Until we are lead to our actual, non-Beauty and the Beast-sized table, which is located, naturally, in a electricity-lacking corner.

Being that we are starving, we try to make the best of our twilight-decor location and get down to the business of ordering.  Ginger chooses the Fever drink, featuring tequila, lime jalapeno, and pomegranate, which she finds enjoyable but Vodka thinks is deathly spicy.  Vodka settles on the less biting choice of the Charm cocktail, featuring prosecco, passion fruit liqueur, and fresh berries. 
Because There's Nothing Like Alcohol-Laden Berries to Get One Through a Third Trip to Buddakan
When we choose the whole peking duck and minced pork lo mein as our entrees, our waiter suggests that we order an appetizer because the duck will take a while to prepare.  We decline and then discuss how this phrase ("Do you want something to start because that will take a while?") seems to be one of waitstaff's favorite things to say to us (We're looking at you, Barbuto).  This ploy could be rendered moot if all restaurants would simply provide their guests with their culinary version of a bread basket: give us something to nosh on and stop trying to pawn off your lame appetizers, you cheapskates.

Plus, the waiter's whole suggestion is proven to be a farce when both of our dishes arrive, literally, five minutes later.  Very sneaky, Buddakan.
Fast Food Duck
Unfortunately, our ability to start eating immediately is hindered by the fact that the Buddakan "seaters" insist on placing one party and then another at the tables adjoining ours, despite the fact that dozens of other open tables are visible.  We find this practice annoying, not just because the constant movement of these interlopers is hindering Vodka's picture documentation (to say nothing of the effects of the ill lighting), but because the people seated next to us are SO LOUD that they manage to increase the volume of the entire restaurant by entirely too many decibels. 
Poor Picture Quality Courtesy of Buddakan's Electricity Department
"What is their problem?  It's too dark in here, it's not too loud," Vodka complains about our neighbors, and we wonder how we always manage to get strapped with the diners who never learned how to use their indoor voices in elementary school.

Eventually, we dig into our plate of duck, which features three small dishes of scallions, cucumbers, and hoisin sauce beside it.
Peking Duckie, You're the One
The pancakes for our duck tacos are located in a small round basket, with a layer of filmy paper separating each.  This paper becomes a nuisance within seconds, as we pile it up in the middle of our table as if dining at The Hillbilly Cafe.
Next Time, Hold the Coffee Filters
Piling each pancake with the duck breast, crispy skin, and the accompaniments, we dive in.

And we chew silently for enough time to know that this dish is not the best thing we ever ate.
We Give It Three Quacks
Neither of us make a habit of eating Peking duck dishes, but we're aware enough to realize that this version is simply okay.  The duck itself, if tasted without the hoisin sauce, has absolutely no flavor.  It's barely even bland -- it's just not there at all.  The crispy skin of the duck is a slight improvement, though it, too, is helped greatly by smears of hoisin sauce.  The scallions do not taste remotely onion-like, and there are barely enough cucumber sticks for the amount of crunch we'd like to add to our duck creations.
Flock of Blah Duck Meat
Plus, the whole thing is a whopping $44.  For that price, you'd think they could have spared another cucumber.

Our minced pork lo mein is also on the mediocre side, though Ginger finds it more enjoyable if only because it tastes better than the monstrosity of a noodle dish that we had at the Atlantic City Buddakan.
And When Compared to "Gross," Most Things ARE an Improvement
The noodles themselves are so slippery that Vodka has to resort to lapping them into her mouth with her fork rather than the more festive chopsticks, and they feature so many red peppers that every other bite leaves her mouth scalding (Ginger, whose cocktail seems to have strengthened her palate, does not experience this death-by-pepper issue).
Noodles Playing the Slip N Slide
Just for kicks, we decide to order this Buddakan's featured doughnuts for dessert, which have been changed to the apple cider variety for the season.
The First Buddakan Doughnuts Featuring Holes
The doughnuts themselves are cakey -- almost too chewy -- though the creme fraiche ice cream which is provided with them is fairly delectable (most likely because its sauce features some sort of ingrained alcohol).
Here's a Tip, Buddakan: Start Infusing EVERYTHING with Alcohol
We request our check in order to get out of our final Buddakan experience as quickly as possible.  After all, if after three times, three separate tries, three different opportunities, Buddakan has still failed to win us over, we know there is no hope for the situation.  As we ease our way out of Buddakan's black shell of a building, Vodka expresses our final decision on Stephen Starr's Chinese trifecta: "No more Buddakan.  Ever."

Buddakan's Whole Peking Duck: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Off the Map: We Would Like to Issue a Retraction

Dip Sum Doughnuts -- Buddakan, Philadelphia, PA

It should come as no shock that we are not always the sharpest tools in the shed.  Sometimes we get confused, usually when the bill arrives.  But we also find restaurants of the same name that feature different menus at their various locations completely confounding.

We're looking at you, Buddakan.
And Your Little Doughnuts, Too
Many months ago, we had ventured to the Buddakan in Atlantic City in search of Marc Summers's chosen Best Thing I Ever Ate WITH MY HANDS doughnuts.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, Stephen Starr serves different kinds of doughnuts at the Atlantic City, Philadelphia, and New York locations.  We had assumed that even though they had a different name (Zan-Ful Doughnuts), the ones in Atlantic City were the same concept as the ones Marc Summers had talked about in Philly.

They were not.  And they were also awful.
Never Trust a Doughnut with Corners
Stuffed with cream filling and the overwhelming taste of banana, the doughnuts at the Atlantic City Buddakan were a sore spot in our early culinary adventures. 

So here we are, to try again.
And We Don't Like to Give Second Chances, So You're Welcome, Buddakan
We arrive at Buddakan at the end of our Philadelphia eating journey, looking to sit at the bar.  Of course, the downstairs bar is packed with a crowd of revelers that we have taken to calling the Real Housewives of South Jersey.  We take ourselves to the bar upstairs, which is slightly less packed but still devoid of empty seats, and order the dip sum doughnuts.  Between the atmosphere and the clientele, we decide that Buddakan reminds us almost exactly of TAO.  It is "sceney" (a word Vodka is trying to add to the English language lexicon, like Paula Abdul accomplished with "pitchy"), and we hate a scene.

As we wait for our doughnuts, we have time to observe the various dates taking up the bar stools.  First of all, we decide that all of the dates are instantly horrendous, because if the guy were good, he would have reserved a table.  Second of all, we spend most of our time trying to determine which of the couples are already married, and our ring-spotting eventually confirms that the ones who look the most bored are the ones who are betrothed.
Perhaps They Should Order Some Doughnuts to Spice Things Up
One of the recently-judged couples departs just as our doughnuts arrive, and we cuddle up to the bar for Buddakan's second shot at It's Not Even Noon Somewhere glory.

And these doughnuts, as Marc Summers promised, are much, MUCH better.
Upscale Doughnut Holes
Our main issue with the Atlantic City variety had been the distasteful cream filling the dough.  These doughnuts, in contrast, are like Dunkin' Donuts holes, only larger and fluffier, but with no banana-flavored cream to disrupt the proceedings.  Spiced on their exteriors with sugar and cinnamon, they are almost better alone than they are with the provided sauces (blackberry jam, chocolate sauce, and gingered cream cheese).
Though Ginger is Naturally All Over Her Candied Cream Cheese
So Buddakan, we apologize: your actual Best Thing I Ever Ate doughnuts are not as bad as we had initially feared.  They almost make up for the random men (on their own failing dates) asking us first if we were VIPs and then for the names of Vodka's pets and other such "sceney" invasions of privacy.  Almost.

And so with Buddakan, our day in Philly draws to a close.  We calculate that based on our schedule, we consumed a cocktail approximately every two hours -- "a steady flow of alcohol" -- and a Best Thing I Ever Ate dish every 90 minutes.  While yes, Philadelphia had its definite moments of "Fail" throughout our day, it certainly had its winning moments as well.  And we have therefore determined that Philly, while never completely down for the count, rarely quite reaches the top of the podium either.

Buddakan's Dip Sum Doughnuts: 4 stars

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Off the Map: Here We Come A'Wassailing

West Indies Pepperpot Soup -- City Tavern, Philadelphia, PA
City Tavern

By this point, our "Win, Fail, Win, Fail" pattern has ceased to exist, and we feel we have encountered too many Fails in a row.  Not helping the situation is the fact that we now have to walk from South Street to Olde City, a journey that is not that far but inevitably will now be completely desolate and dark and thus, creepy.  This desolation is our main issue with Philadelphia, generally speaking: we don't like to feel isolated, and in Philly, particularly after nightfall, one almost always feels alone.  It's not that we pass such unsavory characters on our walk from Creperie Beau Monde to City Tavern; it's that we don't pass anyone until we reach Walnut Street.  And this phenomenon never ceases to feel eery.

For this reason, Vodka is walking at her normal brisk clip, to which Ginger, who is now seriously regretting the Parc bread basket, has to trot to keep up (especially ridiculous because Ginger is at least four inches taller).  Relieved when we reach City Tavern, we are eager for our first experience of the admittedly tourist destination.  While this dinner is West Indies pepperpot soup-specific, as per Adam Gertler's choice on the OLD SCHOOL episode of Best Thing I Ever Ate, we are looking forward to encountering Ben Franklin and Friends in the meantime.
We the People of Manhattan Have Come to Philly In Pursuit of Soup and Street Lamps
Unfortunately, it looks like everyone who works at City Tavern is authentic to the 1700s in costume only.
They Also Clearly Skipped the John Hancock School of Neat Penmanship
We are expecting the waitstaff to speak to us in what we're calling "foreign tongue," to at least feign lack of knowledge of anything that has happened past the eighteenth century.  Instead, we encounter worker after worker that could very well be working at the Cheesecake Factory, were it not for their chaps and petticoats.  We naturally ask if we can sit at the bar, and we are lead to the "Dispensary" (which Vodka keeps accidentally calling the "Dysentery," a la Oregon Trail).

On the drink menu, we are ecstatic to find "wassail," as we love any and all references to a Christmas carol.  Some type of red wine spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and the like (including a real cinnamon stick), it is served warm and we fall instantly in love.
Love and Joy Come to You, and To You Your Wassail, Too
As we wait for the arrival of our pepperpot soup, Vodka comments that the large group of college students at the next bench looks bored.  "Egh, so do we," Ginger answers, shedding light on the fact that our blog behavior makes us seem completely disengaged with one another for large portions of our "meals."  There is just so much to contend with, what with the picture snapping, the note taking, and the Googling of "wassail."

Plus, there's the little fact that we have already been in each other's company for no less than 14 hours.
And There Are Only So Many Christmas Carol-Based Beverages One Can Drink in a Day
Thankfully, Vodka's reaction to Ginger's first taste of the soup reveals that we are not yet sick of each other.  Upon scooping the first spoonful of this mysterious pepperpot substance into her mouth, Ginger makes some incomprehensible noise of satisfaction that sends Vodka into a raging fit of the giggles.  Practically lying down on our entirely-too-large-for-our-party-size booth, Vodka is ravaged by laughter for so long that the soup is practically chilled before she manages to take her first taste.  At which point, she understands Ginger's reaction.
Ye Olde Spoon O' Soup
The soup, which features hunks of potato and beef, taro root, and leafy greens that remind of us kale, is entirely likable (and entirely salty, which obviously thrills Vodka).  Much like the wassail, it has a distinct kick of spice at the end of each taste, and we find the whole thing fairly scrumptious.  While we later learn that pepperpot soup usually features tripe, we do not find any stomach pieces floating among the broth, so City Tavern either does not include it or does a fine job of hiding this particular component from the tourists.
And By "Tourists," We Mean "Us"
"I've taken a liking to soup this week," Vodka repeats to Ginger no less than five times, causing Ginger to contemplate a nap on our booth bench.  Indeed, despite the fact that yes, we are nursing our glasses of delicious wassail, we are at City Tavern an exceptionally long time, because we cannot get our non-Olde English-speaking waitress to bring us our check (why is this always our issue?  Don't people want us to pay them?!).
Or Is City Tavern a Soup Kitchen?
Finally emerging from City Tavern, we decide that we probably could have lived in revolutionary times, as long as we managed to keep straight the difference between "dispensary" and "dysentery".

City Tavern's West Indies Pepperpot Soup: 4 stars