Monday, May 31, 2010

Philly’s Phinest New Restaurant

Photo credit: M. McClellan

Iron Chef Jose Garces has taken the popular market-café concept and turned it on its head, taking it at least five steps above anything that’s available in Philadelphia. In fact, there may not be a place like this on this side of the Atlantic.

The Garces Trading Company has been the place I’ve been waiting for. I already told Maria that I’m leaving home to move into the restaurant. I’ll admit upon further review I was too gushy on The Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic’s Craig LaBan’s chat (last post). But I still stand by my statement that this restaurant, café, market, whatever you want to call it, is easily the best new restaurant in Philly and may be the best restaurant in the city in terms of concept, quality, execution and value (value isn’t something one normally thinks of when it comes to a Jose Garces establishment).

On the market side of this food concept there’s cheeses and meats from Spain, Italy and France. There’s house made salami and country pâté. Included in the selection is Jamón ibérico, from the black Iberian pigs who roam free and live off a diet of acorns, herbs and roots. It’s the most expensive ham in the U.S. and until 2007, unavailable. Here, they serve it was a fine housemade mustard but it doesn’t need it. It melts in your mouth. There are canisters of infused olive oil, including black and white truffle oil (the real deal). They provide tiny throw-away cups and croutons to taste the selection. There’s nothing like earthiness and richness of truffle oil. You can buy the oil in branded, 12.8-ounce bottles. To go with the oil, there’s a vinegar bar. There are takeout meals, an on-site bakery with bread, pastries and desserts; and they have their own selection of blended coffees.

But what has everyone talking (and in the case of rival restaurateurs, fuming) is the state-leased wine boutique inside the market. The state-controlled wine system in Pennsylvania is as archaic as it is inefficient. It deserves its own story. To try to make it brief most people have to buy wine and spirits at a state controlled liquor store. The result is expensive wine with poor selection, unless you buy volume. Restaurants have a better selection but they pay nearly as much as customers, so, ultimately the customer pays even more. In addition, a liquor license for food and bars businesses is very expensive in Pennsylvania. The one good result out of this is chefs opening their own small BYO restaurants, where you can get great food in a casual atmosphere and pay retail for wine.

While restaurateurs have been complaining about this for years, Garces and his enormous brain figured a way around it where everyone wins. He convinced the state liquor control board to lease a space inside his restaurant. Inside the glass-enclosed boutique is a wonderful selection of 200 wines in a temperature controlled environment, almost all of them unavailable for retail in state liquor stores. You can select a bottle, pay for it at a dedicated cash register and then sit a table in the restaurant and enjoy it in the restaurant with fine stemware with your meal.

We’ve had lunch and dinner inside. We’ve had the Plats du jour twice for two: The bouillabaisse on day and the paella valenciana (with rabbit, gambas (shrimp), chorizo and fava bean salad) another. For lunch we've enjoyed the duck Lyonnaise duck salad (poached egg, duck confit, lardons and a mustard vinaigrette along with an omelet with a perfect custard-like texture. Without getting caught up in adjectives everything was exceptional in ingredients and execution (although I needed a magnifying glass to see the baby artichokes).

If you’re really fortunate, then you will have Brandon as a server, as we did for two of our three trips.

Enjoy it all you want. But you can’t move in. It’s taken.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Hungry Caterpillar?

After an early dinner recently Maria and I were walking down Fourth Street in Old City where we saw one of the more unusual sites that we’ve ever witnessed in Philly. Two men and five children were on bicycles balancing a large metal frame with crossbars. At least one of the bikes had a flat tire. They were moving very slowly trying their best to ride in unison but it was a struggle. When they turned onto Vine Street they came to a stop unable to balance it. This is where the following conversation took place:

Maria: What’s that?
Man: A prototype.
Maria: For what?
Man: We don’t know.
Maria: Where are you going?
Man: Around the block.
Maria: What do you call yourselves?
Boy on bike with flat tire: The Hungry Caterpillar (referring to the popular children’s book).

The mystery continues….

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Day at the Ballpark

Baseball should be played in the afternoon when the sun is shining and the skies are blue in a stadium designed to bring people together and bring them close to the action on the field.

Ryan Howard awaits pitch. Above, Roy Halladay finishes a pitch while Plácido Polanco playing third base is in position to field a possible hit toward him.

It was exactly this type of day on May 6 when the Phillies battled the St. Louis Cardinals in a sold out Citizens Bank Park. The only thing disconcerting about the day is the corporate name of this beautiful stadium in South Philly.

Fans watching the game.

The game provided plenty of hitting, quality pitching and some dramatic tension as the Phillies won 7-2 in a game played at a brisk pace. Jayson Werth hit an opposite field home run and Raul Ibáñez hit a towering shot into the right field upper deck.

The upper tiers of the stadium between innings.

The tension came in the seventh inning with two outs when it appeared that Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay was going to be replaced. Halladay, currently the best pitcher in baseball, prefers to finish the games he starts, a rare feat in these days of specialty pitchers. He was not going to be finishing this game, as he already too many pitches. But it appeared he wasn’t going be finishing the inning with runners on first and second when Phillies manager Charlie Manuel jogged out to the mound and the infield players crowded around for the familiar routine that means a new pitcher was about to be replaced. The crowd stood up waiting to applaud Halladay’s effort but instead broke into cheer as they saw Manuel jog off the field without making the change. Halladay needed just one pitch to finish the inning.

The backdrop for this otherwise routine game was a sea of red and white, representing the Phillies colors worn by nearly everyone in the stand-room-only crowd that appear on every angle of this fan-friendly venue.

The standing-room-only crowd.

Of course, a Phillies game isn’t complete without that big green furry thing roaming around the stadium known as the Phillie Phanatic. Described on his Wikipedia page as being “overweight” with “clumsy feet, extra-long beak, curled up tongue, gawking neck,” he has been the official mascot of the Phillies since 1978 and one of the most recognizable sports mascots in the country, if not the world. A figure very similar to the Phanatic named “Slyly,” serves as the official mascot of a professional Japanese baseball team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Below is a video of the Phanatic taunting Cardinal players on top of the Phillies dugout followed by a promotion for fans to vote for Phillies players in the upcoming Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

The game was played during a promotion known as the Business Persons Special. It’s an afternoon game played on a weekday. The games almost always start just after 1 p.m. The Phillies schedule a handful of these games each year. It serves several purposes: For the fans, it gives them an excuse to skip a half-day of work to go to the ballpark. For the visiting teams, it is always played during the last game of a series, so it gives them the opportunity to skip out of town early to their destination on a road trip. Even for the home team players, staff and umpires, it gives them a rare evening off. It’s best when the weather cooperates and the home team wins. I guess you would call it a win-win-win-win-win situation.

Ryan Howard's image on the Citizens Bank Scoreboard.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival

Sunshine and blue skies on the first day of May provided the perfect backdrop for the annual Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival. The center city neighborhood of luxury retail establishments, world-class restaurants and high-end housing makes it the premiere place to live, work and play in the city.

Each spring the five-block retail district on Walnut Street (from Rittenhouse Square to Broad Street) is closed to traffic and tents are set up by merchants to celebrate the food, fashion and services that are available year round. There are cooking demonstrations, fashion shows, and music and dance acts set up at various places along the street. Philly is a food town and the tents from restaurants in the area are the most popular attractions and often sell out before the event ends. What follows are videos from the event.

The crowd during the event

The Philadelphia Boys Choir sing Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There"

A glimpse of the fashion show on the street

A dance troop whose name I did not get.

More videos can be found here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Obtrusive Sound of the CityCenter

At first it sounds like a tuning fork has been struck, the ring-like tone pulses throughout the vast outdoor space. When it really gets going it becomes more like ear-piercing feedback causing people to stop in their tracks, hold their ears and turn their heads around trying to locate its source.

The true source of the noise is the wind. It whips across the Nevada desert and enters the brand spanking new CityCenter project on the Las Vegas strip. Where the wind becomes the sound is the tricky part. Even among the employees of the complex's stunning 47-story Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas where I stayed there is debate. Some believe the sound emits from an overpass and underground tunnel that leads to the below-grade entrance of the Mandarin and to an underground parking garage. Others point to the awe-inspiring leaning towers of the Veer condominium project. My money’s on the space between the Veer towers (pictured) and where it connects to the futurist metal-cube and angular Crystals luxury shopping mall.

Whatever the source, it’s hard to not think that it is a serious design flaw for the $11 billion, 76-acre luxury, retail, entertainment and residential complex that boast no fewer than eight world-architects.

The complex itself is an architectural and engineering marvel that I will write more about. But for now I’m trying to find out the source of the design flaw. I accidentally recorded the sound on my iphone and as soon as I can figure out how to convert it to a file that could be placed on the Internet, I will. But for now imagine what it would be like to purchase a $1 million condo in this complex and having to listen to the sound of an amplification system going wild with no way of controlling it.