You may remember I wrote a dispatch from NJ last year around this time, when Jill lived in Lambertville, and we crossed the bridge for some fun times in New Hope, PA. This time, we began and ended our weekend with delicious, casual Jersey eats, using upscale Philly cuisine as the meat in the sandwich.
On Friday night, after a wee bit of GPS-related shenanigans – Shawn and BLD changed the voice on my beloved GPS and now she sounds like a transvestite. I’m too lazy to change it back, and the whole thing is just annoying – we arrived at Jill’s and promptly freshened up so we could hit the local ‘burb shops in Marleton: Black House/White Market, Sur La Table, Blue Mercury, Ann Taylor, and Trader Joe’s. At TJ’s, which is soon opening stores in Rochester and Albany, if you want to visit, I procured a 70% cacao dark chocolate bar jammed with dark, rich caramel and dusted with coarse sea salt. It was fantastic, and I was able to share it with two of my co-workers, K and A, at our meeting in New Hampshire this week. They agreed it was delicious.
After shopping up such a storm, we grabbed pizza and trucked on home. Do you know about Jersey pizza? First of all, it is universally good. It’s fairly safe to pick any one of hundreds of mom and pop-run shops with an Italian name and take home a great, thin-crust pie. This time, we enjoyed our pepperoni and mushroom ‘za from Vito’s Pizza on Browning Rd. in Cherry Hill. It was thin crust, lightly sauced with a pretty neutral tomato puree, and topped with excellent pepperoni and OK canned mushrooms. It would have been excellent with fresh ones, but I’m not bossing around a guy named Vito, so I ate it and was happy. The next day, Jill reheated us slices for a late night snack:
Jill sports her bag o’ pizza
I can’t wait to tell you about lunch on Saturday, but first, a mid-morning snack. We took the train into Philly for the day, walked around the fun Italian Market and South St. all morning, then hiked up to Rittenhouse Square. On the way, as hunger pangs started plaguing our trio, Cookie Confidential appeared like an oasis amid the city blocks. Melinda ventured inside and returned with three perfect chocolate chip cookies, awash with bacony goodness. That’s right, my friends, this dastardly bakery makes cookies with bacon fat instead of butter. They are crispy, and leave your lips glistening after you bite into them. And once I did, I swear to God I felt the last five years of age and stress lift off me like a shroud. Those years flitted away into the Philadelphia skyline as I swallowed my first bit of chocolate, sugar, and pork fat. I am not kidding, I think wrinkles actually smoothed out of my face – it was that good!
Melinda ages backwards thanks to bacon cookie
So, you know, if you’re in Philly, you might want to go there. The baked goods may have magical healing properties. Like fountain Cokes from McDonald’s when you’re hung over.
Finally, tired and tempest-tossed, we found Rittenhouse Square and the incomparable Parc Bistro. This Stephen Starr-run mecca of French everything has long stood as one of the goliaths of Philly food. I’ve been wanting to dine there for ages, and was thrilled when the real thing was as good as all the hype. First of all, the atmosphere is tres Parisienne: all subway-tiled, bread-stationed, and brass-railed. Second, we had two servers, a busboy, and a manager all lavishing attention on us that was helpful, cheerful but not intrusive. Even when I mistook whatever the manager was actually trying to ask us for him wanting to take away our menus, he was gracious. Dude, I’m hard of hearing, I have trouble in bustling spaces!
Jill and I had worked out some must-order items ahead of time from the online menu: the petit plateau seafood tower and the chicken liver mousse. We also loaded our table with the wild mushroom tart, macaroni au gratin, pommes frites and onion soup. We shared everything, tapas-style, and still left groaning. While I enjoyed a kir royale, the others loved the romarin cocktail, which employed elderflower, rosemary and grapefruit.
Hi! I’m Shelby, I like towers of seafood
The petit plateau was a beast, in a good way. Shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels, tuna carpaccio, scallop ceviche, and squid salad were piled high on an elevated, silver tray with ice and lemon wedges. The abundance of it all is tied in with the appeal of the gorgeous seafood and savory preparations. To break it down, I actually didn’t care for the clams or shrimp, which were both a little fishy for me. Melinda and Jill did enjoy the jumbo shrimp, though, and attacked the mussels with gusto. My favorites were the scallop ceviche, which was clean and bright with subtle citrus and chile, and the oysters, which were creamy and huge. The vinegary mignonette sauce was perfect with a squeeze of lemon on those beautiful, briny, bi-valves. Melinda made sure to pronounce her affection for the scallops with the assertion that she’d like to take a bath in them. I'm not sure BLD would care much for that, but OK. The tuna carpaccio was very simple, showcasing the velvety tuna, which almost dissolved on the tongue, it was carved so thinly. The octopus was the final highlight – a salad of the tender seafood, savory, earthy, with garlic and herbs – fantastic.
I’m not sure even this bounty of the sea, though, could compete with my absolute favorite dish of the meal: the chicken liver mousse, accompanied by grainy mustard, country bread, pickled shallots and port wine gelee. OMG, you guys. I schmeared some of the pate on the bread, topped it with the shallots and jelly, ate it, and then just melted into a pool of thoughtless pleasure in my seat for at least 20 seconds, unable to speak or write down coherent words. This bite of food was the perfect balance of salt, fat, sweetness, and that elusive umami savoriness that makes life worth living. We don’t need to have a chat about chicken liver pate, do we? I mean, you ate giblet gravy as a kid at Thanksgiving, right? You’ve had dirty rice in Cajun joints? If so, you’ve eaten liver and liked it, so stop freaking out. It’s not at all gamey, mineral-y, scary, foreign or gross. What it IS is salty, meaty, creamy, and flavorful. Basically, this is the kind of dish you should seriously considering dropping everything you’re doing right now for, hopping in the car, driving to Philadelphia, getting at table at Parc, and chowing down on. The port jelly was genius with the salty mousse – its sweet, winey lightness countered all of the rich unctuousness of the pate and worked with the tart, sour, pickled shallots in perfect harmony. Plus, with the crunchy bread, crisp shallots, luscious pate and dollops of delightful jelly, you had all your textures working as well.
The mushroom tart, while being probably the weakest dish on our table, was still quite good. It was not what I was expecting, which was a thick duxelle or mixture of finely diced mushrooms cooked down with lots of butter and wine in a traditional tart shell, but was more like a shitake pizza with a puff pastry crust. The flavor was very deep, though, and it was good enough.
Tart, sans duxelle
The mac and cheese, masquerading on the menu as macaroni au gratin (aha, I sniffed you out!), also sported a depth of flavor with which I was impressed. The gruyere cheese incorporated into the thick sauce was yum-city, and the pasta was perfectly firm – a solid and sturdy dish.
A gratin is a fancy French term for a cheesy casserole
The onion soup also was gratineed, or topped with cheese. Again, it was the terrific gruyere, which I always feel is almost winey in its flavor profile. The soup base was complex, hinting at apples, beef, chicken and roasted vegetables. I asked if there was calvados (apple brandy) in the broth, and was told no, but I don’t believe them. It was too complex not to count some kind of unique spirit in its mix.
What is lurking beneath your gratin depths?
Last but never least, pommes frites. There’s a reason we call ‘em French fries, folks. These fries were, simply, perfect. Hand-cut, double-fried and well-salted, these beauties were addictive. Just slightly crunchy on the outside and thin enough to be potato-y but not too starchy inside. A must-order.
I would like fries with that!
Look, there was nothing to give Parc but a 10 on the BHS scale. Even the fishy shrimp and clams didn’t subtract a millimeter from the pleasure I experienced here from tip to tail. I wanted to hang out much longer and eat much more, but my pants wouldn’t hear of it. Jerks! While we were at the table with our tower, we garnered lots of attention from other patrons, two even taking pictures of our table. Who knew the food you ordered could make you famous? I have to encourage you to visit Parc during your next Philly encounter. It’s busy there, but totally worth the wait.
To cap off our Jersey weekend, we hit Ponzio’s Diner in Cherry Hill on Sunday morning. Another showstopper on the New Jersey diner trail, Ponzio’s makes its own spicy Italian breakfast sausage and slammin’ corned beef hash, and get this, they deep fry their French toast. Seriously, you guys. Get some.
Corned beef benny
If you need a weekend escape during this glorious early spring we’re having, why not hop in the family truckster and hit up the Greater Philly area? You’ll eat well, that’s for sure. Plus, there’s plenty of junk to, like, learn and stuff. While we were strolling along in the area of South St, I saw a house where Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother used to shack up. Who knew?
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