January 23, 2008


Agar RS-100 Powder

In my latest City Paper article, Foam Over Function, I explore why Philadelphia doesn’t “get” molecular gastronomy (some chefs I spoke with prefer the term “modern” or “forward” cooking). In writing the article, I managed to score an interview with Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago. According to Achatz, he was “the first one in the U.S. to start cooking in this style” when he was at Trio in Evanston, Illinois.

It’s tempting to ask whether a restaurant like Alinea or Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 in New York would ever work in Philadelphia. But, in many ways, that question misses the point.

The truth is that Philadelphia chefs are already using the techniques and structural ingredients associated with forward cooking in “regular-looking” dishes right under our noses. They’re just not advertising it. One person I spoke with at a certain Philadelphia restaurant (which will remain nameless) admitted that they use one particular modern cooking technique, but the person said they "don’t want to be known for that.”

According to Shola Olunloyo of Studio Kitchen, “You can either do or talk about doing. And sometimes you just need to do. I like to be transparent and let the food speak for itself, as opposed to selling the technique before I sell the flavor.”

In some ways, there is no such thing as “molecular gastronomy.” Rather, there is only good cooking and bad cooking. These modern techniques and structural ingredients are simply additional tools in the culinary toolbox. Some may disagree, of course. But the one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that, regardless of technique, the food has to taste good. Perhaps that's all that really matters in the end.

For those Philadelphians who remain skeptical of this new cookery, Achatz has some advice: “They shouldn’t be afraid of it,” Achatz said. “Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

There is a slideshow online that accompanies my City Paper article. For even more pics of my kitchen experience at Snackbar with Chef Jonathan McDonald check out my Snackbar Set on Flickr. And for more pics of my experience at Lacroix’s Chef’s Table with Chef Matthew Levin (not all of which was molecular), check out my Lacroix Set.

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January 12, 2008

Congratulations Deborah

Menu for Hope

Deborah Szajngarten, writer of the blog The Culinary Adventures of Deb Szajngarten, won the two-class gift certificate to The Wine School of Philadelphia that I donated to Menu for Hope.

Many thanks to Chez Pim for organizing the charity event, to Serious Eats for being the East Coast host, and to everyone who participated. The raffle raised $91,188 this year.

Close to home, I would like to thank April White of Philadelphia Magazine, Mac & Cheese and David McDuff of McDuff’s Food and Wine Trail for plugging my prize. David, whom I met last night at the second Philly Food Blogger Potluck, offered a spectacular prize himself—his private sommelier services and wine for the night.

Again, congratulations Deborah. Looking forward to seeing you in class.

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January 09, 2008

Livin' La Vida Locavore

Focaccia with Local Cherry Tomatoes

Because “locavore” was named 2007’s word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, I thought it would be fun to research and write an article about the history of Philadelphia’s local food system and how Philadelphia has become a model for other communities around the country. The article is called Cult of Seasonality and you can find it in this week’s City Paper.

Philadelphia’s local food system is more advanced than you may think. For example, in researching the article I learned about a unique business called Farm Fresh Express—which, in some ways, is a more flexible alternative to CSAs. First, there's no commitment. Second, they have a wide variety of choices each week because co-owners Mary Ann Flaherty and Pam Nelson source from many local farms and other local food purveyors. Third, they offer the flexibility to order in any quantity you choose. Fourth, they will even have the food delivered straight to your door, even in Center City, for a mere $10 delivery fee. According to Flaherty, “Some of our customers have told us that they’ve basically stopped going to the grocery store except for toilet paper.”

Photo from James's Buy Fresh Buy Local Happy Hour, July 2007.

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January 07, 2008

Dock Street Brewery

Dock Street

If you’re like most people, you believe that restaurants live or die on the merits. You believe that if a restaurant has great service and makes great food, it will succeed. And that if its service is poor and its food is mediocre, it will fail. After all, that’s how the marketplace is supposed to work, right?

But every once in a while a restaurant defies this model. Much like the creatures that lumber over the rocks of the Galápagos Islands, sometimes a restaurant is isolated from the process of natural selection that otherwise would (or should?) cause it to become extinct.

Dock Street Brewery is one of those restaurants.

Rosemarie Certo and her husband founded Dock Street Brewery in 1985. Five years later, they opened a brewpub and rode the crest of the microwbrew trend to nationwide popularity. After selling the business in 1998, they repurchased the bottling division and the brand in 2002. The brewpub, operated by other owners, closed in 2002. Last fall, Certo decided to give the brewpub another go in a former firehouse in West Philly.

Dock Street

The décor of the reborn brewpub aims for a hip minimalism, one that’s characteristic of the mostly post-grad crowd it tends to draw. However, the result—raw concrete floors, dim lighting, and lawn furniture mismatched with chairs from Target—is less than welcoming.

Flammenkuche Pizza

But Dock Street’s issues are more fundamental than décor. First, the service is inconsistent. On one visit the service was well-paced and efficient. On another, though, it was an obscene train wreck. Inexcusably, it took over an hour and a half for the food to arrive after ordering. Often you can tell whether blame lies with the servers or the kitchen. Here it was both. The food was hot when it finally came out, indicating that the kitchen was at fault for the delay. And we’re not talking complicated entrées here—it’s pizza. At the same time, the servers were mysteriously absent for long periods of time while dirty plates were stacked high on several adjacent tables—a makeshift SOS by stranded diners.

Provencal Pizza

Second, contrary to the early hype, the pizza is nothing to crow about. The pizzas may sound compelling on the menu, but most fall short of expectations. The sweetness you expect from the layer of fig jam on the Fig Jam Pizza, for example, is virtually undetectable, overshadowed by bacon. The pizza isn't the only letdown. The signature Dock Street Beer Battered Fish & Chips also misses the mark—the batter was thin and the fish itself was bland. Not everything is disappointing. The Flammenkuche Pizza is worth repeating; its sweet caramelized onions and bacon balance nicely with its crème fraîche and gruyère. And although the leeks were overcooked, the French Fry Trio makes a half decent bar snack.

Dock Street Beer Sampler

Most of last fall’s drafts tasted like beer with training wheels. Light on hops and heavy on malt, they were ideal for people who normally don’t like beer. The Imperial Stoudt, for example, made with organic fair trade espresso beans, was a fun pour. But it belonged on a breakfast table not a bar. However, Dock Street’s first brewmaster recently left, and Eric Savage, Dock Street’s original brewmaster, is now consulting. This change should be a good thing.

Vegan Chocolate Cake

Despite its shortcomings, Dock Street may survive. Poor service and mediocre food would doom a restaurant in Center City. But, as they say, it’s all about location. And a built in market. West Philly needs Dock Street. The restaurant brings energy to a struggling neighborhood, and the locals show their appreciation by returning night after night. Dock Street also has a menu that caters to vegetarians and vegans, segments of the dining population that are often ignored by restaurants.

For now, Dock Street looks like a creature that isn’t supposed to exist. But given enough time, who knows, maybe it will evolve.

Dock Street Brewery
701 South 50th Street
(215) 726-2337

For more pics, check out my Dock Street Set on Flickr.

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