September 29, 2006

Restaurant Week Wrap-Up

Another Restaurant Week here in Center City has come and gone. As always, the draw of this event is the chance to get a three-course meal at a chic Center City restaurant for only $30. Getting a good meal, though, can be a serious challenge. The reason this is so is because not all restaurants take the same approach to Restaurant Week. Some restaurants see it as an opportunity to shine and showcase their cuisine. Others, however, are only trying to cash in. In addition, some restaurants, for whatever reason, serve only their limited Restaurant Week menu (which I previously complained about here), depriving customers of the opportunity to experience their more celebrated fare. And, of course, there’s always a chance that the hungry throngs will overwhelm the restaurant’s staff, affecting the quality of both the service and the meal.

It’s hit or miss.

Chez Colette

During this Restaurant Week we decided to try Chez Colette, a French restaurant located in the Sofitel. Chez Colette wasn’t necessarily my first choice (I waited a little too long to make reservations), but I had heard some good things about it so we decided to give it a shot. As soon as we arrived at 7:00 p.m., though, we immediately noticed two things: (1) the place was empty; and (2) they were only serving from their Restaurant Week menu. These were not encouraging signs.

French Onion Soup

We both started off with a cup of the French Onion Soup. The soup was light and not too salty. It was topped with a mix of Gruyere and some other type of “Swiss cheese.” However, the other “Swiss” took something away from the punch I’ve come to expect from a French onion soup topped only with Gruyere.

Lemon Chicken Breast with Mushroom Risotto

The server recommended the Lemon Chicken Breast with Mushroom Risotto. The entire dish, as you can see, was swimming in an overwhelmingly rich butter sauce, making it rather one-dimensional. Unfortunately, the chicken was dry and overcooked. The Mushroom Risotto, which I assume was the focus of this dish, also was disappointing. It was gummy, and although there were several sliced pizza-style mushrooms mixed throughout, it had virtually had no mushroom flavor at all.

Seared Tilapia, Grilled Asparagus Israeli Couscous in a Beurre Blanc Sauce

My wife picked the Seared Tilapia, Grilled Asparagus Israeli Couscous in a Beurre Blanc Sauce. The tilapia was fresh; however, it, too, was dry and overcooked. The couscous had a nice texture and was well prepared, but unfortunately it was bland. Even just a small amount of spice could have added some depth to the couscous.

Raspberry Sorbet on top of a Meringue Cup, a Lemon Tart and a Coco Loco

Finally, we each received a festive dessert trio: Raspberry Sorbet on top of a Meringue Cup, a Lemon Tart and a Coco Loco. The sorbet—my favorite of the trio—was an explosive burst of fresh, juicy raspberries. The meringue underneath was crisp and airy. The Lemon Tart was light, tasty and refreshing. The Coco Loco, a small wedge of cake densely packed with coconut, had a bit too much coconut for me.

My second Restaurant Week experience was unplanned (hence, no pics). A friend of mine and I grabbed a drink at Washington Square after work. In February I enjoyed Washington Square during Restaurant Week, so I wasn’t planning to hit it this time. But we got hungry at the bar and decided to order from the Restaurant Week menu. Here’s a tip for the next Restaurant Week: If you weren’t lucky enough to get reservations, grab a Restaurant Week menu and just eat at the bar.

I started with the Romaine Salad, which tasted just as good as it did in February. This time, for the entrée I tried the Merguez Orecchiette with Spicy Lamb Sausage. The meaty sauce was lightly accented with a touch of cumin, which added a bit of sophistication to this unassuming dish. For dessert, a thick, creamy dollop of silky milk chocolate mousse with a side of rich whipped cream delicately infused with coconut.

So, over all, Chez Colette was a miss this time around. Washington Square, once again, was a hit. Ultimately, Restaurant Week may not be the best way to find out what a restaurant is really like. But it definitely will answer this question—Is the restaurant able (or willing) to pull off a good meal under abnormal conditions? Is that information useful? Who knows? But it certainly is fun keeping score.

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September 19, 2006

Mandatory Tipping in Philadelphia Restaurants?

The Inquirer ran an AP story out of New York on Sunday entitled “Strategies for Getting All Waiters Their Due.” It discussed the measures some are taking to ensure that restaurant servers are being tipped adequately. As an extreme example, the article noted that the restaurant Per Se in New York caused a public outcry last year when it began the practice of automatically charging a 20 percent gratuity, or “autograt” as it is sometimes called, on every single check, not just on checks for large parties.

Apparently, at least one Philadelphia restaurant employs the practice of automatically charging a 20 percent gratuity on every check. What troubled me, though, was the way I learned about it.

On Labor Day, my wife and I had dinner at Pizzicato at the corner of 3rd and Market. It was just the two of us. Pizzicato is located in a heavy tourist area, so you might not expect that the food would be anything to write home about. But the food at Pizzicato, in fact, is quite good (the sausage ravioli in a rich cream sauce was impressive). When the check came, though, I noticed that a 20 percent gratuity had automatically been added to the bill. I was surprised because I do not believe the menu disclosed that a 20 percent gratuity would automatically be added to every bill. Given that this practice is uncommon, one would expect that a restaurant would take extraordinary care to make sure its customers are fully informed of the policy long before the check arrives.

What happened next was even more interesting. Normally, when the server returns with the credit card slip for you to sign, he or she leaves the check in the jacket. In this instance, when the server returned with the credit card slip, the check had been removed from the jacket. The check was the only evidence showing that we had already been charged a 20 percent gratuity, and we did not have it when we were presented with a credit card slip that had a line for a tip. Had I not examined the check carefully when it was first presented, I would have left what would have been a second tip. Granted, there could be perfectly reasonable and innocent explanation for why the server removed the check from the jacket. But the fact that it was missing when it came time to the fill out the credit card slip was troubling to me in light of the apparent failure to disclose this uncommon tipping policy earlier in the evening.

I’m sure I’ll return to Pizzicato; the ravioli was good enough to get me back in the door (it was in a cream sauce, after all). Going forward, though, here are a few suggestions for restaurants and customers.

For restaurants:

  • Fully disclose your tipping policy. If, for example, you charge a 20 percent gratuity automatically on every check, make sure your customers know about it before they place their orders. Set forth the policy clearly in your menu. Instruct your servers to tell your customers about it. Whatever it takes. You don’t want your customers to be surprised; there are too many other restaurants out there for us to choose from.

  • Keep the check in the jacket when you return it to the customer to get his or her signature on the credit card slip. If you have an uncommon tipping policy, it will help to remove the appearance of any impropriety.

For customers:

  • Make it your responsibility to learn the restaurant’s tipping policy. Ask about it when you make reservations, ask your server about it when you are seated, and/or review the menu for disclosures about the restaurant’s tipping policy.

  • Carefully study the check to determine if a gratuity was added automatically. If it was and you feel that the gratuity is sufficient, just write the word “included” on the tip line of your credit card slip.

  • Finally, leave a respectable tip. The 2007 Zagat guide says Philadelphians are the nation’s highest tippers (19.4 percent of the bill), so I know I’m preaching to the choir. But this reminder may help to keep your name out of databases like this one.

Photo credit: Gothamist

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September 14, 2006

Kosher Wines for Rosh Hashana

Planning to celebrate Rosh Hashanah next week? Concerned that the kosher wine may not be up to par? You may be pleasantly surprised.

In an article in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Elizabeth Downer talks about a kosher wine tasting she participated in at Pinsker’s Judaica Center in Squirrel Hill with owner Schlomo Perelman, his wife, Chana, and Dr. Barry Levine. According to Dr. Levine, “today’s wine lovers do not have to lower their wine standards to keep kosher.”

Ms. Downer discusses seven of the wines she tasted and recommends three others:

  • Baron Herzog Chardonnay from California (PLCB No. 005757, $12.99), which should be available in the PLCB’s regular stores;

  • Golan Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Israel (PLCB No. 027082, $14.99), which can be found in the PLCB’s Specialty stores; and

  • Mt. Tabor Merlot 2003 from Israel (PLCB No. 027055, $12.99), which also can be found in the Specialty stores.

Ever wonder what makes a wine kosher? Ms. Downer breaks down the Jewish laws courtesy of the Oxford Companion to Wine:

  • No wine may be produced from a vine until its fourth year.
  • The vineyard, if within biblical lands, must be left fallow every seven years.
  • Only vines may be grown in vineyards; no other fruits or vegetables are allowed.
  • There must be a symbolic ceremony in which just over one percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of the tithe set aside for Levites and priests in the days of the Jerusalem Temple.
  • From arrival at the winery, the grapes and resulting wine may only be handled by strictly Sabbath-observing Jews and only 100 percent kosher materials may be used in the wine-making maturation and bottling processes. (This applies only to those who handle the grape must or the wine itself.)
  • For a wine to be mevushal, a higher level of kosher designation, it must be cooked or pasteurized.

If you try any of the wines Ms. Downer recommends, leave a comment to let people know what you think. Shana Tova!

Photo credit: Andy Starnes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Palate Ballot Winner - September 2006

And the winner of the inaugural Palate Ballot is: Pumpkin.

Pumpkin won in a landslide, receiving 6 of the 9 votes. I have reservations for next week. I’ll expedite the review.

Thanks to everyone who voted. The Palate Ballot will return next month.

'Tis the season, indeed.

Photo credit: Fan Zone

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September 06, 2006

PhilaFoodie’s Palate Ballot – September 2006

I’m going to try something new here at PhilaFoodie. It’s called the “Palate Ballot.” If it's successful, hopefully it will become a monthly feature.

Here’s how it works:

  • At the beginning of each month, I will list four area restaurants in a post (i.e., the Palate Ballot).
  • In the comments section of this post, you will vote for the restaurant you want me to review. One vote per person, please.
  • After a week of voting, I will count the votes and review the restaurant that received the most votes.
  • If there’s a restaurant you want me to review that’s not listed, send me an email and I’ll put it on the next Palate Ballot.

Here is the September 2006 Palate Ballot:

1. Patou (French, 312 Market St.)
2. Hosteria Da Elio (Italian, 615 S. 3rd St.)
3. Bistro 7 (New American, 7 N. 3rd St.)
4. Pumpkin (New American, 1713 South St.)

Voting ends on Wednesday, September 13, 2006 at 11:59:59 p.m. EDT. So, chews or lose.

Photo credit: Alan Diaz - AP.

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September 04, 2006


Aqua Sign

Over 90% of the population of Thailand practices Buddhisim. One of the guiding principles of Buddhism is the Middle Way or the Middle Path—the practice of non-extremism, moderation and avoiding self-indulgence. However, after seeing the menu at Aqua, even the most devout Buddhist would have a hard time practicing restraint.

Aqua is the new Malaysian and Thai BYO on Chestnut near the corner of 7th. For those who like a little oat soda with their Thai cuisine, the location could not be more convenient. The Las Vegas Lounge, which is right across the street, sells six packs to go. (In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I are friends of the owner of the LVL.) A friend and I grabbed a six of Dos Equis Amber and we were off to Aqua for what would be my third of many visits since it opened.

Aqua’s menu is huge—over sixty tempting entrées (not including appetizers, soups and salads), all at reasonable prices. The size of the menu, I’ll admit, concerned me at first. It seems as though it would be hard to do that many entrées and do them all well. But owners Jim Tran and Mr. Long (also the Chef) have proven otherwise. All of the dishes I’ve tried at Aqua so far (and there have been many) have been polished, sophisticated and consistent.

Rice Net Spring Rolls

My friend and I got two appetizers to start. First, we had the Rice Net Spring Rolls—five fried spring rolls with shrimp, crab meat, glass noodle skin and taro crusting served with plum sauce ($6.75). The netting is crisp and light; a refreshing change from the traditional rice paper. The crabs and shrimp are rich and well balanced. The plum sauce is on the lighter side, but it has a welcoming bite.

Shrimp Puffs

Our second appetizer was the Shrimp Puff—lightly fried shrimp cakes wrapped with bacon and served with a mayonnaise-based sauce ($6.95). This appetizer is on the heavier side. The fried bacon flavor is prominent, but it works well with the shrimp. I have heard of this dish being served in other restaurants with a chili sauce. But the mayonnaise-based sauce Aqua uses is a smart choice; it balances out the salt in the bacon and brings out the shrimp in ways a light chili sauce could not.

On another occasion, I had the Tom Yum Gai, a spicy lemon grass soup with chili paste, lime, mushrooms and chicken ($3.95). This soup is comfortingly addictive. The snappy, healthful broth with its robust chilis can give you enough warmth to ride out the roughest of Philadelphia’s Winters.

Beef Rendang

We decided to taste three entrées. First, we had the Beef Rendang, which is tender beef cooked with a paste of ground onion, lemon grass and chilies in a spicy aromatic curry ($12.95). This, by far, is my favorite dish at Aqua. The beef is tender enough to cut with a dull chopstick and it practically melts in your mouth. But as good as the beef is, it doesn’t hold a candle to the curry. The curry is deep and fulfilling, with a slight hint of sweetness to compliment the savory beef. The heat from the chilis is rich and mature—it sustains at a hearty, consistent level beyond the initial bite. Rice, I should note, is a side order at Aqua. The Beef Rendang goes well with the Coconut Rice ($1.25).

Thai Lettuce Wraps

Next, we sampled the Thai Lettuce Wraps—crumbled chicken mixed with Thai basil, green peppers, house sauce and fresh lettuce leaves ($8.95). This is a light, healthy dish that screams freshness. The Thai basil and peppers tasted improbably fresh; it was as though they were picked only moments before we were served.

Pad Thai

Finally, we tried the Pad Thai, which consists of stir-fried thin flat noodles with shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts topped with crushed peanuts ($8.95). Aqua’s Pad Thai is a rich, filling staple. Fresh and flavorful, this dish is an excellent balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.


Aqua’s windows open to the sidewalk, making it a notable place for people-watching from any seat in the house. Like most restaurants, the tables are cozy enough for privacy, yet close enough for friendly conversations with your neighbors should you choose to engage them (or eavesdrop on them). Believe it or not, I actually overheard someone at the next table announce to his friends that he did not like my blog. But a few minutes later a family who saw me taking pictures asked me for my website. So, maybe it is possible to find some sort of Middle Path here, even if you do overindulge—which is all too easy to do at Aqua.

705 Chestnut Street
(215) 928-2838

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