Dispatch from Philadelphia: Secret Food Temple

My good friend Big Hungry Jill and I have suffered from too long an absence from one another. The remedy finally came last weekend, when we met up in Philadelphia for two days of eating, shopping, drinking, laughing, and a lot of walking. Note to self: just stay in Rittenhouse Square next time.

I jest! Our hotel, The Franklin Hotel at Independence Park, was just a few steps from the Liberty Bell, and our room had a view of Constitution Hall. We also had a big bathroom and comfortable beds, so I would definitely stay here again.

There's much ado online about the food cities of NYC, LA, New Orleans, Charleston, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, but I don't think there are nearly enough Cooking Channel shows and Chowhound articles about the City of Brotherly Love. Philly is secretly the food city of your dreams, full of slammin' ethnic and new American fare, and for most Upstate New Yorkers, it's just a couple hours away. For me, it's foodie paradise: 

We began our indulgent weekend with lunch and day drinks at Amada, which is just a block from the hotel in which we stayed. You might remember my review of Amada at the dearly departed Revel in Atlantic City a couple years ago, but this PA location is its original. We sat at the bar and ordered a couple small plates and excellent cocktails to kick start our weekend.

Ham croquettas with romesco sauce were earthy and savory, not too salty, with the mild, porky ham balanced by the slightly sweet, nutty, creamy bell pepper sauce.

Sweet, white shrimp with softly scrambled eggs, wild mushrooms and black truffle-smeared toasts was our first of many truffle dishes of the weekend, and incredibly decadent. 

Patatas bravas were pretty standard, hand-cut, double fried potatoes, topped with a mayonnaise spiced with lots of paprika and some chile powder. 

These three small plates fortified us nicely until just a few hours later, when it seemed prudent to tuck in again, in funky, rich duck prosciutto and gorgeously creamy fresh ricotta cheese from Di Bruno Bros., with some rice crackers for one of the most deliriously wonderful pre-dinner snacks of all time. I'm a little bit obsessed with Di Bruno, the nearly 100 year old specialty food importer and cheese shop that dreams are made of. I'll tell you more about our experience at its location in the Italian Market later, but first: Dinner.

Abe Fisher is the newest restaurant in Michael Solomonov's Cook N Solo empire. His other joints include Zahav, perhaps my favorite restaurant in the country, and the excellent Percy Street BBQ, also in Philly. While Zahav's cuisine is modern Israeli, Abe Fisher concentrates on foodstuffs passed down through traditional Jewish communities elsewhere in the world, like Eastern Europe and even NYC. We began our meal with an amuse bouche of smoked kampachi and a thin, crunchy slice of cucumber on a housemade salt and vinegar chip, the taste of which granted instant recognition that this meal was going to be something out of another stratosphere. The kampachi (a fish often found in Japanese preparations) was smoked with a light hand, and smooth as silk mixed with what I expect was a mix of mayo and sour cream, though it could have been sour cream and schmaltz, for how utterly luscious its mouthfeel was. I often find commercial salt and vinegar chips too salty/acidic for my taste, but this one was thicker, crunchier, with a wonderfully smooth vinegar tang and perfectly tempered salinity. A bit of fresh, minced chive on top made it into one perfect bite that hit every taste bud with equal, but satisfactory success.

Immediately after this groaningly good mini-appetizer, the same fellow brought over what looked like a wooden box for tea bags, but which was instead filled with tiny, savory rugelach. I know my Southern Tier friends are familiar with this puff pastry cookie, often filled with apricot or chocolate. My favorite here was the one made with chicken fat, AKA schmaltz, apparently a staple of the Abe Fisher kitchen. So a chicken fat cookie sounds gross, I realize. But you know what it tasted like? If you dipped one of the Danish butter cookies we used to get in the blue tin at Christmastime in the 80s into a bowlful of homemade chicken noodle soup - that is exactly the flavor of this diminutive amuse. It was buttery, very slightly sweet, delightfully crispy with whisper-thin layers of pastry, and savory without being salty at all. I adored it, and would have asked for five more if I thought I could get away with it.

Chopped liver was necessary and delicious, but not the most remarkable of the dishes we tried. Jill enjoyed it with sliced cucumber and red onion, while I had rye toasts, and the onion jam under the butter-free, schmaltz-full, super silky pate was rumored to be flavored like pastrami, but I didn't really get that smoked, peppery flavor. It was definitely the whipped, gorgeous texture of the chicken livers that starred in this rich dish.

What was remarkable? Our other starter: Brussels sprouts Caesar salad. We ordered this without much enthusiasm, as the menu absolutely undersold this dish. In fact, salads like this are why I generally don't trust salads - so few are this good, and the ones that are have ruined me for the boring lettuce and sad tomato with bottled dressing jokes you get at most restaurants. I would name my firstborn after this salad, if it had a more interesting name. They should have called it Magnificent Sprouts Roasted by Unicorns Salads. Then more people would order it.

The Brussels sprouts were roasted on one side, for a toasted, charred, caramelized flavor, while the romaine remained raw, crisp and cooling. Halved red grapes provided a sweetness that completely balanced the richness of the egg and anchovy dressing, as well as the salt of the pecorino cheese, while pine nuts and pumpernickel croutons finished the dish with earthiness and depth. There were literal worlds of flavor in this dish, and while I don't typically associate Caesar salad with Jewish food, I'm happy to going forward if this is how good it is. Each bite altered ever so slightly in flavor, this one more cheesy, the next sweeter, then creamy from the nuts or buttery from the croutons. I will be striving to replicate this fabulous salad in my own kitchen for some time, I imagine.

Potato latkes were another dish I wasn't especially amped up about when ordering, and then completely charmed by with my first bite. In college, I spent a summer in charge of making nova cream cheese for the bagel shop at which I worked, and the fishy scent of smoked salmon still haunts my dreams. The cream cheese, avocado, smoked salmon and pickled onions topping these delicate, fried potato bundles had zero in common with the slap dash condiment I slaved away on all those years ago. 

The salmon was, much like the hamachi, smoked in a light, refined manner, rendering this fish more akin to salmon you might find in sushi than in a typical lox situation. The cream cheese was less tangy than most, which I attribute to the fatty, lush avocado mitigating the sour flavor of the cheese. The salty, crunchy potatoes underneath supported all that creamy goodness and the delicate fish perfectly, while the pickled onion on top and a razor thin slice of radish played up sour notes to counter the other flavors. This dish was not just a potato latke - it was a masterpiece. I still can't believe these ingredients tasted that good.

Pork belly Reuben sliders were the perfect two bites of pork, sweet/creamy thousand islands dressing, sharp cheese, and picked green tomato for a bright, sour component. The pork belly leant this riff on the classic Reuben a luxurious personality a much larger sandwich wouldn't usually have, and I liked that the pumpernickel base remained crunchy despite all the gooey ingredients piled on top. 

Kreplach are the Jewish version of potstickers. The chicken potstickers at Abe Fisher are tiny dumplings full of tender, pulled white meat chicken floating on top of a velvety celery veloute sauce and garnished with crunchy, fermented celery slices and then blessed with ethereal black truffles, apparently crafted by angels. I ate one, which tasted like the best chicken noodle soup you've ever eaten while floating in zero gravity right after a six hour massage while also riding a Pegasus. I swear to God, I became five years younger eating the very first bite. Hello 33. I missed ya!

I don't know who the genius was that figured out that two preparations of celery would take chicken dumplings and make them awesome, but I'm super glad that person went for broke and grated truffles all over the top. The celery flavor and yet more schmaltz created a comfy recliner for my taste buds to sink right down into, and then those unholy, musky, sexy truffles were just like a fluffy blanket to keep me warm. I cannot overstate how delicious this dish was, or the galaxies of flavor it unleashed upon my senses; I can only recommend that you get them in your life, and quick.

Hangar steak with bone marrow, carrots and manischewicz steak sauce was perhaps less exciting than the kreplach, but the steak was beautifully cooked, red in the center and super juicy, the flavors heightened by the meat-butter essence of the marrow and the sweetness of the expertly-prepared, tender but not mushy carrots. Solomonov always gets me with his carrots, you guys. 

Ordering the bacon egg cream for dessert was a forgone conclusion before either of us stepped foot in this place. I didn't even care what else was in it, but then our waitress told us there were Oreo crunchies! I may eschew a lot of processed foods, but Oreos are always, always an exception. They are just yummy.

That whole chocolate part on top, that was a light as air foam, like mousse whipped with seltzer, separated from the creamy base by a hearty layer of pulverized Oreo cookies and super crunchy minced bacon. It was much lighter than I was expecting, which was good, because our waitress also brought us each a gratis mystery shot that was boozy, delicious, and massive:

...as well as two raspberry fruit squares coated in sugar that were gooey and rich, bursting with fresh berry flavor, and robustly sugary.

This meal was a 10, except that if I could give it a 15 or a 4,926, I would. Our waitress was spunky and attentive, the amuse bouches and thoughtful extras were wonderful, and while all the food was expertly crafted, many of the dishes we ordered blew our minds completely. After the rugelach, salad, latkes, and kreplach, we both sat back in our seats and just marveled - they were that good. I can't even tell you if I liked this meal better than those I've enjoyed at Zahav, or if I liked it the same - I just wish I could eat at these two places forever, constantly. The fact that Philly is three hours from where I live seems cruel and unfair.

Maybe it was the dim interior and the cool 70s, 80s, and 90s soundtrack; maybe it was the service so good that every member of the staff who brought something to our table was informed that Jill was gluten free, and adapted plates automatically so she didn't have to ask; maybe it was the fabulous company; or maybe it was all that schmaltz - but Abe put a spell on us. It was a splendid meal, and one that is simply not available anywhere else I've been. It's singular.

I had planned to tell you about the rest of our trip, but this post has gotten a lot longer than I intended. Stop back next week for killer hummus, Cuban lechon, Di Bruno Bros., and Hong Kong beef wonton soup with chile oil that you'll crave - it's part two of my Philly foodventure! I can't wait to prove definitively that Philly is a food town just as much as all those other foodie darlings. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Abe Fisher Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1 comment:

  1. I should NOT have read this before lunch. Now nothing will taste good. Can't wait to go to Abe Fisher's!