Archive for the BYOB Restaurant Reviews Category

WEST SIDE GRAVY – (BYOB)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, West Side Gravy, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by ballymote

 We finally made it. After reading F Scott and Zelda’s reviews and spending countless hours drooling about the menu, our group of eight hungry diners converged on the Collingswood eatery, the second “label” for renown Chef Alex Capasso of Blackbird fame.

It may be difficult to secure reservations at Blackbird on a Friday or Saturday evening. It will not be difficult to get a table at West Side Gravy on those same nights. In a way, that’s a shame. Let’s begin by explaining what West Side Gravy is NOT. It is not a full service, fine dining restaurant. That’s what Blackbird, Nunzio’s, Il Fiore, Casona and a host of other Collingswood restaurants are. West Side Gravy is a fun place for some interesting and well-prepared comfort food, served by some very nice people at reasonable prices.

 Our server, Allie, was one of those very nice people and she made us feel comfortable from the very beginning. She was attentive and charming and after opening our wines and puzzling over why we open four bottles and none of us share with each other (a story for another day), she recited the evening “specials” from every category on the menu. We pointed out to Allie, that first time diners at West Side Gravy should not be entitled to evening “specials” as there is plenty to choose from on the regular menu.

 My wine for the evening was something that was recommended by Charlie Beatty at Canals BottleStop in Marlton. The 2007 Fidelity, Alexander Valley, Crazy Creek Estate, Red Wine was a nice blend of 81% Merlot and 19% Cab Franc. Both my wife, Kathy, and I thought it was excellent with the cab franc giving a little bite to the softer merlot. It’s not a fruit bomb it’s just filled with nice cherry and chocolate flavors and at about $15.00 this one drinks like a wine at 3 times it’s cost. Tom and Barbara T. had just returned from a vacation in WIlliamsburg, VA and they had with them a wine they wanted me to try. I agreed and was prepared to try and find nice words to express my dislike for virtually any U. S. wines from outside of  California, Oregon or Washington State. However, this one, 2008 Williamsburg Winery Susan Constant Red Wine wasn’t bad. It wasn’t very complex but the taste was pretty good with some nice fruit flavors and a soft mouthfeel. Unlike other local wineries who charge big bucks for their wines, this one is under $10.00.

We all had a hard time making our selections but the guys decided to split a couple of appetizers.

We split the West Side Fries with Pinot Noir gravy and the Cheesesteak Eggrolls. The fries were nicely done with a portion size that would be fine for two people. The gravy was great but I should have poured it on my fries instead of dipping each one. The cheesesteak eggrolls were really good. There were four nice sized pieces so we each had one for ourselves. Four of them would almost make a meal and they came with a tasty horseradish sauce for dipping..

A couple of folks ordered the Sweet Potato Soup which they voted OK…but nothing special. The Fried Green Tomatoes were also seen as having too much breading.

 Gerry B. and my wife both went for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, potato salad with smoked bacon dressing and house-made cole slaw. Kathy asked them if she could have all white meat and they complied with her request. Both thought the chicken was tasty and the potato salad and cole slaw were good.

Joe and Carol both had one of the “specials”, the braised short ribs with mashed potatoes and baby spinach. The dish was topped with crispy onion rings and a nice gravy and both enjoyed it.

 I always have a hard time staying away from any meatloaf dish I see on a menu and this time was no exception. This one came served over creamy mashed potatoes and I had them replace the peas with the baby spinach. Three generous slices of excellent house recipe meat loaf was topped with the delicious West Side Gravy. I was happy with my choice.

Barbara had the West Side Club, house-roasted turkey breast, smoked bacon, lettuce, marinated tomato, herb mayo on cranberry-pecan bread and served with house-made waffle chips. Barb liked her sandwich but she loved her waffle chips, We all sampled them and agreed they were very good.

 Sue C. had the Mushroom Sandwich, grilled portabello with baby arugula, grilled onions, marinated tomato served on a multi-grain bun with a side of macaroni salad

We had pretty much eaten as much as we could when Allie began to tempt us with offerings from the dessert menu. We gave in and decided we would split two items between the eight of us when all of a sudden, a bevy of desserts appears, many compliments of Alex and Siobhan, the two talented chefs who both stopped by to say “hi”. This was a very nice gesture and we all got to try several of their creations.

I don’t have a copy of the dessert menu so I can only accurately describe the one I spent the most time getting totally familiar with and that would be the “Snickers” dish above which was sinfully delicious. Allie’s favorite, the butterscotch pudding with caramelized bananas also drew a lot of compliments from our group.

In writing this review, and even prior to our first visit, I had read a lot about West Side Gravy. Almost every article and blog post I have seen mentions the same bewildering fact. There is a distinct lack of patronage on most nights. I am at a total loss as to why that is. A few theories I might offer would be, having dined at Blackfish patrons are expecting a similar meal. It’s not that kind of place. It could be that the place is a little too big for what they are doing. Most of the restaurants in Collingswood are fairly small and tables are crammed together. West Side Gravy is in the old Woolworths 5 & 10 Building and it is cavernous. If  they were just opening I could understand the sparse crowds but it’s been a few months now and the reviews are good and they certainly deserve a better fate. Personally, I think this type of dining has a place in a town with so many eating choices. At the very least, you should give it a try. The food is good and the prices are even better.

TRE FAMIGLIA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Tre Famiglia (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2010 by ballymote

 A surprise call from our friend’s Gerry and JoAnn B. led to the four of us gathering last Saturday evening at Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield, NJ to celebrate my wife, Kathy’s birthday. We hadn’t seen them since our return from Napa as they were an integral part of our wine country sextet. We had some of the wines that Gerry had bought in Napa with us and I dug up something from my cellar.

Gerry had two bottles from Mayo Family. This was one of the places we visited during our week in Napa/Sonoma. The first bottle was the one that was awarded the “Best in Class” Award at this years Sonoma County Harvest Fair. We actually tasted this wine during a visit to that fair back on October 3rd. This was the 2007 Mayo Family, Sonoma Valley, Los Chamizal Vineyard, Meritage. This one is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cab franc and is a very nice wine at its $30 price tag. It was not Gerry’s favorite, however, that award went to his other wine, the 2008 Mayo Family, Russian River Valley, Ricci Vineyard, Zinfandel. My wife, Kathy, now has company as prior to this, she was our only true, blue zinfandel lover. I have to admit, this one is very tasty and worth the $50.00 price tag. My contribution, which I thought finished third on this evening, although I think Gerry preferred it to the “Meritage”, was the 2000 Simi Reserve, Alexander Valley, Canernet Sauvignon. This 10 year old cab took some time to open up but when it did it had a nice array of black fruits with smooth tannins and some chocolate notes on the finish.

Kathy and I have been to Tre Famiglia a few times and I reviewed it very favorably on our last visit in May. At that time we had a nice round table in the side room. Gerry and Joann are from the western suburbs of Philly and this was their first visit to this classy Italian bistro (can a bistro be Italian?). Tonight we were seated in tight quarters. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed.

 Our server, Joseph, recited a laundry list of specials that may have included more items than the actual menu. I have to confess that in the beginning I felt rushed. We had a lot to talk about. I had pictures to show them from the trip and it just seemed we were hurried to place our order. The feeling went away as the night progressed and it may have just been an unwarranted notion on my part.

With so many choices I chose the Mozzarella Fritti, Panko breaded wedge of mozzarella, pan seared on a bed of pomadoro sauce. One word….DELISH! Great texture and lots of flavor. This was not your usual fried mozzarella sticks.

Kathy had the Mussells Possilippo, steamed in a white garlic sauce. I don’t think Kathy has ever met a mussell she didn’t like and these were pretty good.

Gerry ordered something from the “special appetizer” list and it appeared to be a charcuterie type of dish with some tomatoes, olives, red peppers, mozzarella, and prosciutto on a bed of arugula. This looked like a nice presentation and a great way to start off his meal.

I believe Joann’s starter was also one of the “specials”. It appeared to be fresh greens with scallops and olives with a topping of shaved pecorino romano. We discussed our trip, sipped our wines and looked forward to our entrees which were soon to appear. Once again, I believe all four of us made our selection from the many evening “specials”

Gerry had the Shrimp and Pasta Fra Diavolo. This was a perfect match for his zinfandel with nice big pieces of shrimp in a tangy sauce.

Joann had the veal chop Porterhouse topped with shrimp and crabmeat and served over black truffled red bliss mashed potatoes and veggies.

Kathy also had a big veal chop. Hers was char-broiled and served over a bed of polenta with a side of broccoli rabe. She finished as much as she could and, lucky for me, there was enough left over that I was able to combine my leftovers with hers for another meal on Monday evening.

I had the Braised Short Ribs which was also served over polenta with a side of veggies. The meat was very tender. Perhaps, not quite as flavorful as I would have hoped, but still very good. The fact that we saved half our meal left us room for dessert.

 Kathy had the Apple Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream. Looked good. Tasted good.

    Gerry had the Chocolate Chip Cannoli and, unlike the last one we had, this one had plenty of chocolate chips.

 Joann had the Chocolate Tartufo, the familiar hard shell chocolate with vanilla/chocolate gelato and a cherry in the middle. It’s one of those desserts that is impossible to screw up because ALL the parts are great.

       I had a simple dish of banana gelato with crisp sugar cookies. It was good but it was too much banana. I should have ordered the Tartufo!

Overall, it was a nice dinner experience and Joseph was kind enough to write out the specials so that I wouldn’t draw a complete blank without menu support to help me when I wrote this review.

Tre Famiglia has a nice following and it’s one of those places where you can always count on a good meal.

   
 

AUGUST RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in August Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2010 by ballymote

The first good thing I can say about August is that for some reason, unbeknownst to me, you can always find a fairly convenient parking spot despite its location in the 1200 block of South 13th Street in the Bella Vista section of South Philadelphia. It also helps that the food is pretty damn good. This cash-only BYOB isn’t fancy but there is an atmosphere of congeniality and care that owners, MaryAnn Brancaccio and Maria Vanni have managed to create.

Our server, Adrienne, was both patient and attentive, especially in light of the fact that half of our party of 6 were nearly 30 minutes late in arriving. She opened our wines and when we were finally settled, recited the evening specials. I would describe the offerings at August as Italian with a twist. There are always a few items that seem to stray from the heart of Italian cooking yet they receive an infusion of the country just the same. We had a bevy of nice wines for the evening and much to discuss over our meal as we went over our itinerary for our San Francisco/Napa trip which is now less than seven days away. I brought with me a 2007 Ancient Peaks, Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, CA. I had read a lot about this wine mostly from e-mails sent from a west coast wine shop. I had been looking for it here on the East Coast for over a year and I stumbled across it at Wine Works in Marlton, NJ. It has all the full flavors of a fruit-filled cab without those big Napa Cab prices. Joe had stopped at Salina Liquors and picked up a 2006 Bodega Renacer Punta Final, Riserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina. This one offered great value with full Malbec flavors and a smooth finish. Gerry had two wines. His first was a 2006 Perrin et Fils, Vacqueyras Les Christins. I loved the sweet nose on this one with strawberries and roses coming through. On the palate there was plenty of red fruit in a silky smooth package. His other wine was another California Cab. This one was the 2007 Rush Vineyards, Napa Valley Cabernet. Once again, a nice dark cherry and chocolate nose and the taste pleasant enough but with all of the really good Napa Cabs that Gerry drinks this one falls a little short of the others.

Left to right are Carol B.’s “August rolls”, two vegetarian spring rolls with a tangy dipping sauce, JoAnn B’s Spinach Salad and Gerry B.’s Shrimp sauteed with garlic and chili oil. All of the choices are just the right portion to serve as a nice prelude to the main course.

My wife, Kathy, ordered the raviolis with mushrooms and brown truffle butter sauce and I was happy with my choice of the angel hair pasta aioli with capers; made even better when Gerry poured his left over sauce on top of the remainder of my dish adding a potent garlic flavor to the pasta.

Adrienne was nice enough to write down the “specials” for me as one of the difficulties of writing a food blog is trying to remember what went into the specials. It’s easy enough to go to the restaurants web site for entrees from their regular memo but those specials always create a special problem. Hey, maybe that’s why they are called “specials”!!

Kathy and Carol both had the Pan Seared Pork Chop with maple mashed sweet potatoes and broccoli rabe. The chop looked to be cooked perfectly and seasoned well and I think both of them enjoyed their selection.

Gerry was thinking “Steak” all the way as there was a pepper-crusted filet as one of the “specials”. He changed his mind at the last-minute, most likely because it was a filet rather than a sirloin or T-bone, and went with my 2nd choice, and Joe B’s first choice, the Pan seared striped bass with a chipotle buerre blanc with shrimp and chorizo risotto. It sounded delicious and would have most certainly been on a plate in front of me had they not tempted me into selecting the Meatloaf  served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes and sauteed zuccini. I’m a sucker for meatloaf on any menu. It’s just something about the good old American comfort food of meat and potatoes. I realize it’s not very adventurous but it’s something that when done well, makes for a great dinner. This one was done well and I was totally happy with my choice

JoAnn had the Penne pasta with jumbo shrimp sauteed with garlic, white beans and asparagus in extra virgin olive oil with a touch of tangy marinara sauce. Yikes, I take back what I said about this not being a true Italian cuisine. She thought the dish was full of flavor and well prepared.

We spent a lot of time discussing our trip and what we would be doing each day. We have some great winery visits and some spectacular dinners planned and I will be posting the final update here on my blog in the next day or two. Meanwhile, as we chatted, Maria Vanni was out front making sure everything was good with our meal. That’s the kind of personal touch that so many places forget and it’s one of the things that builds loyal and repeat customers.

We topped off our meal with most of our group sharing a couple of pieces of the house signature dessert, Aunt Leena’s Cheesecake, a very light cream cheese cake dusted with a cinnamon. I was the lone wolf who opted for the Affogato, vanilla ice cream served in a shot of espresso and topped with a sambuca whipped cream. I’m not sure if I ordered this because I thought it would taste good or I just liked saying “AFFFFogatttoooo”. Whatever the reason, I was pleased with my choice. It was delicious and unique; great flavors and the perfect ending to a good meal.

There are many choices for dining in South Philly. August can certainly be recommended as an excellent pick for fine food and service.

BECCA’S RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in Becca's Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on September 23, 2010 by ballymote

It was back to Phoenixville, PA last night for a spur of the moment dinner at one of the many fine BYOB’s that have sprung up throughout the gentrified town. Gerry B. and myself were disappointed that our friend, John G. would not be joining us but we were determined to make the best of it without him.

Becca’s occupies the site long-held by Twin Bays Restaurant, a local fixture for many years. Gerry, and his wife, JoAnn, have been here many times. He even claims to have his own “secret” parking spot in the lot outside and I must confess, he just may be onto something.

As usual, we had a couple of nice wines with us to compliment our meal. I brought the 2001 Coudoulet de Beaucastle, Cotes du Rhone. I had read a review on this wine from 2005 and it ended with the words, “good now, should be terrific in four or five years”. Well, that would be now and it was, terrific, I mean. It certainly needed some time in the glass as it appeared soft pink on the rim when first poured. Thirty minutes later a sweet nose of lilac and dirt intermingled with black cherry made each sniff a pleasure. This wine was creamy soft on the palate with nice fruit and tobacco and a super smooth lingering finish. Gerry’s contribution was equally appealing. He brought the 2008 Ty Caton, Caton Vineyard “Tytanium”, Sonoma Valley, Red Wine. This one had a lot going for it; a powerful nose of ripe fruit. Checking in with almost 15% alcohol it still manages to maintain an elegance with hints of dark chocolate and herbs. A nice blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah, Syrah and Malbec. It was a nice contrast to the French wine.

Our server, Ray, has been here quite some time as Gerry remembered him from the Twin Bay days. Ray was very professional and made sure we were taken care of all-night without being intrusive. He sold Gerry on one of the evening “specials” and we will talk about that in just a bit. We both found appetizers that we thought we would enjoy and I went with the Lobster Bisque.

light, creamy bisque of lobster with sourdough croutons. The tiny croutons were a nice, crunchy touch. The soup was tasty with nice pieces of lobster.  It was served at the proper temperature and provided a nice start to the meal especially with the warm raisin rolls dipped in olive oil.

Gerry selected the Jumbo Lump Crabmeat “Martini”, tossed in a vodka infused green olive vinaigrette. This was another tasty starter that had nice pieces of crab meat in a tangy mix of greens. He gave me a taste of his and although it was good I was glad I chose the bisque.

When it came time to select our entrees it was a difficult choice. The menu at Becca’s has lots of tempting fish dishes and Gerry couldn’t resist the steak that was the “special for the evening .

His steak came with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and some nice baby carrots. It was smothered in mushrooms and onions and the sauce added to the flavor of this  Grade A steak flown in that day from Oregon, I believe. The full-bodied Ty Caton Tytanium was a perfect wine for the hearty red meat.

I was definitely in the mood for seafood and was torn between the Atlantic salmon, the Japanese sea bass, the diver scallops and the Halibut steak. I finally settled on the halibut, with a summer truffle risotto and a chive nage. The halibut steak had a beautiful char, was cooked perfectly and the flaky white fish was only enhanced by the creamy truffle risotto which was excellent. The subtle creamy feel of the Beaucastle wine topped off the dish and made the meal a total pleasure.

We took out time and discussed our upcoming trip to Napa and Sonoma which is now less than 10 days away. We skipped dessert and headed back to Gerry’s where John G. was waiting for us with some great cigars.

Becca’s was quite busy for a Wednesday evening and with such good food and fine service, it’s no wonder the place does well even on weeknights.

CASONA – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Casona (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2010 by ballymote

There is something about Casona that appeals to me. Certainly, part of it is the uniqueness of the spicy Cuban influenced menu. It’s also the enticing wrap-around porch that on a balmy, breezy summer evening can be the perfect setting for a meal. Another part of the draw is the building itself; an imposing Cape May style Victorian that stands alone and seems to serve as a guardian for the many other Collingswood eateries further along Haddon Ave. Some, or all of this, brought us to Casona on a gorgeous Saturday night of Labor Day Weekend. Unfortunately, scores of others had the same idea and we were unable to secure seating at an outside table. We did have the next best thing though, a nice table by the open doorway where the soft breezes were still evident.

Our server, Ivan, was both personable and enthusiastic. He chatted while opening our wines and told us of the lone special for the evening. The regular menu at Casona is chock full of interesting offerings and I don’t think they really need to have many “specials”. These were the wines that the six of us would share with our spicy food.

Joe B. had the 2007 Marchesi De Frescobaldi, Tenuta di Castiglioni, a Super Tuscan. We all liked this wine a lot. It was very food friendly with hints of blackberries and minerals and a velvety finish. It deserves the 93 point rating it received from Wine Spectator. I brought with me one of my wife, Kathy’s favorite wines. The 2007 Angel’s Landing, Stag’s Leap District,  Napa Cab. We had this a few months ago at Sonata in Northern Liberties and she had been wanting to try another bottle since then. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and the smooth taste of red and black berries and ripe cherries with a hint of licorice and chocolate make this a tremendous value at under $20.00. Jerry C. always has something a bit unusual and tonight was no different with a 2007 Chateau Morrisette, The Black Dog, Red Blend. If you guessed that Chateau Morrisette was in Bordeaux you’d be off a little as it is located in Floyd, Virginia. The Black Dog is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chambourcin and is light with smooth tannins. One of the problems with the fare served at Casona is that the spices tend to overpower the wines and if the food wasn’t so good that would be a very big problem.

Kathy and I each chose as our appetizer, the Cuban Pizza, – Chicken, Creole  tomato sauce, chorizo & cheese 6.95. Kathy thought it was very good, I felt that very good didn’t go far enough in defining just how REALLY good this was. I could have gone with a 2nd one as an entree. The flavors were awesome.

What Kathy thought was even better than her Cuban Pizza was Carol B.’s Empanadas de Carne, – Ground beef with
peppers  & onion  6.95
Carol wasn’t terribly phased that she had actually ordered Empanados De Pollo because the beef was tasting great. Her dish came with guacamole and sour cream for dipping.

Jerry and Joe were persuaded by Ivan to try the  Tomato Soup, served with toasted bread and parmesan cheese $6.50. They both thought it was good but I saw them eyeing our other appetizers and felt they might wait for Ivan outside and end his career as an Appetizer Suggester.

Sue C. went with the Pico di Gallo, Tomato, red onion, cilantro, roasted jalapeno, lime juice & olive oil served with corn tortillas or mariquita $5.95. I didn’t take a picture because it was only chips and salza but the salza was spicy hot and required keeping your water glass within reach. Speaking of which, not to nitpick but, with food as spicy as that served at Casona, it becomes very important that the servers and busboys keep an eye on water glasses. On this night, they were not attentive to this chore. On a previous visit we were told that there would be a $1.00 charge for additional chips. They have since, thankfully, done away with this infuriating charge.

For their entrees, both Kathy and Carol selected the Lechon Asado Citrus-marinated pork, slow
roasted Cuban-style with white rice
& maduros 20.95
I think I had ordered this on our last visit. I didn’t hear any complaints on this choice but, by the same token, I did not hear either of them gushing ecstatic over their choice.
Sue stayed in the pork family and ordered the Chuletoe de Cerdo Pork Chop with mashed sweet potato,
guava sauce & asparagus 21.50. Her chop was nicely done and she enjoyed her dish. It looked like a very nice presentation; colorful and appealing.
I stayed with chicken after enjoying the pizza and went with the Chicken Moluteno Grilled chicken breast marinated in
mole sauce with chilaquiles queso fresco topping with cilantro, cherry tomato
& red onion sauce 20.95
There was a nice blend of flavors in this semi-spicy dish and it didn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t rank it up there with the great chicken dishes of all time but it was fine.Jerry and Joe put their heads together and decided they were in the mood for a little bit of everything. The perfect choice for them was the Paella, Casona Signature Dish
Saffron rice, bay scallops, clams,
mussels, shrimp, chorizo &
 chicken breast, calamari,
green peas, lobster
for one   28.95
for two  52.95
They both worked diligently at the huge dish and did their best to finish as much as they could. They still had some to take home. Joe put a little on my bread dish and I think I shared their view that, although it was good, it could have been better with an addition of flavor. For as many things in the entree, it was lacking in bright flavors and slightly bland.

Overall, it was  a nice experience at Casona. A beautiful night, good wines, good food, good conversation in a nice setting. Nothing wrong with that.
 

CHRISTOPHER – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Christopher, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by ballymote

Open only three weeks, Christopher, on Kresson Rd (just off Brace) in Cherry Hill, had already drawn some nice reviews. Our little group of six hungry diners were anxious to see for ourselves what it was all about and that is what brought us there last evening. Nicely designed on the inside, Christopher features an alcove in the center that is unique and provides a more roomy feel to the room. With Sinatra-type music playing softly in the background, our server, Michaelangelo, painted us a picture of the evening’s lone “special” (sorry, couldn’t resist). It was a stuffed flounder with a three cheese sauce. It sounded pretty good. As our wines were opened, Michaelangelo suggested some appetizers and you could tell he took pride in being a part of this new culinary adventure. In fact, the entire staff seemed to work as a team in re-filling water glasses, removing dishes, stopping by to see if everything was OK.

As usual we had a few bottles of wine to go with our food. I had the 2007 Cameron Hughes, Lot 125, Pinot Noir, Carneros. I found this at Monster Beverage in Glassboro a few months back and I was pleasantly surprise how well this showed for a $20.00 Pinot Noir. Excellent notes of cherry and strawberries with a soft, smoky nuance. Joe B. has a very interesting wine, the 2007 O. Fournier, Centauri, Maule Valley, Chile. I have to confess, I have never been a big fan of Chilean wines but this one could convert me. It had loads of red and black berries with hints of tobacco and chocolate. It was exceptionally smooth and had a nice lingering finish. Jerry and Sue B.’s daughter, Katie, had just returned from a summer holiday in Greece and they had a .375 bottle she had brought home with her. The only word I could read on the label was Kastelli. The rest of the words were all Greek to me (I know…I know…I’ll stop). Anyway, it was from Santorini, on the island of Crete and it was light and, as stated on the label, dry and red.

One of the signature dishes at Christopher is the appropriately named, Christopher’s Signature New England Clam Chowder (cup 4.95…bowl 5.95). Five of the six of us opted for this as our appetizer. I was glad to see Carol B. show some individuality and order what would have been my choice had I not felt like I had to choose the soup. Carol ordered the Pot Stickers. Wontons filled with pork, garlic and ginger, served with a honey-soy dipping sauce. She shared one with me and they were very tasty and a good value for $6.95. The soup was excellent. It was served at the perfect temperature and was chock full of nice pieces of clam, potato and veggies in a yummy broth with a couple of secret ingredients that Michaelangelo made me take a blood oath not to reveal, so I won’t. I have had some really good soups and chowders during the past year and although Christopher’s was not the absolute best it certainly does not have to make any apologies.

Joe B. and Jerry C. both ordered the Christopher Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Portabello, a portabello musroom, basted and grilled then topped with a jumbo lump crab cake (actually TWO), melted provolone and served over spring mix and drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had the Crab Cakes without the Portabello and it was like a Tale of Two Cities. Jerry and Joe enjoyed theirs very much. Carol found her crab cake to be mushy with a distinct absence of crab and a preponderance of filler. It could have been she just had a bad batch. I actually tasted both and the addition of the portabello definitely was an added plus for the dish (and this from an avowed mushroom hater). Bottom line recommendation, for three more bucks get the Portabello!

I was totally pleased with my choice, the Spicy Crab. Linguine with jumbo lump crab meat in a homemade spicy marinara sauce. The sauce was good and the amount of crab meat was generous. I was able to take half home for another meal and I am looking forward to it.

My wife, Kathy, chose the Scallops & Shrimp, served over a bed of linguine with mushrooms, scallions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. She enjoyed the shrimp and scallops but felt the linguine was over-cooked. I might add that most entrees are served with either a baked potato or a serving of summer veggies. They had run out of baked potatoes and so we settled for the vegetables.

Sue C. can’t eat a lot of seafood so she searched the menu and found an 8 ounce Angus beef filet which is normally served with shrimp or crab meat (add $1.00). Sue passed on both of the seafood items and thought the steak was good.

Michaelangelo came by to tempt us with his dessert tray and although we tried to be strong we were simply unable to utter the words “No Thanks” and consequently sampled the Chocolate Cake (light and luscious) the Carrott Cake  (sweet and creamy goodness) and his personal favorite, the Key Lime Pie (excellent thanks to the addition of Meyer Lemon). We did pass on the Double Chocolate Strawberries so it’s not like we had NO willpower.

Overall, I’d have to say that Christopher is off to a good start and that it shows lots of potential. Certainly, it merits another visit in the future.

BLACKFISH – BYOB

Posted in Blackfish, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2010 by ballymote

Not too long ago, as I was working on a post about the Top FIVE Restaurants I had been to in the first year of my blog, I ran into a problem. Two of my favorites did not live up to expectations on a second visit. That’s what prompted me to change the title of the post to the top FIVE Restaurant Experiences of the past year. It’s difficult to be consistently great and lots of really good restaurants struggle with this challenge. There are a few who manage to meet and exceed expectations time after time. These restaurants are usually mentioned by many in any list of BEST restaurants. I have not been to all of them, or even most of them. From my own experience, a few notables come immediately to mind; Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, Gilmore’s in West Chester, and Shanahan’s on the Green in Dublin, Ireland (pre-blog days). All three of these places stood out from the culinary crowd by creating an ambiance that radiated confidence. It wasn’t just the presence of a great chef, it was a pride reflected in the entire staff. From the busboys to the Maitre’d, everyone involved was intent on making sure your dining experience was first class. On Sunday evening, following a wonderful afternoon of art at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, our friends Gerry and JoAnn B. joined my wife, Kathy, and I at Blackfish in Conshohocken. I knew it was a highly regarded dining spot but I went without expecting to be overly impressed. They surpassed my expectations.

The exterior of the Fayette Street restaurant is totally inauspicious and belies the elegant black and white motif on the inside. We were the first patrons at 5:30 P.M. and our server, Emily, seated us in the back room and opened our wines. Naturally, the stemware at Blackfish is excellent and extra glasses were readily provided to accommodate our three different wines.

Good wines are a given when Gerry and I meet for dinner and this evening was no exception. Gerry delivered with two interesting reds from the current Chairman’s Selection list at the PA State Store. The first was the 2004 Erba Mountainside Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. A great example of a Napa Cab at a great price. Gerry was so impressed with it from an earlier tasting that he tried to get in touch with the winery to see if we could visit in October. I could tell from my research that the distinct possibility exists that this winery is no longer in business because the 2004 vintage seems to be the only one I can find available on the web. Also, after a week he has had no reply to his e-mail. Nevertheless, the wine was excellent with smoky berry flavors mingling with tobacco and chocolate. Wine Enthusiast Magazine bestowed a 94 rating on this once $40.00 cab and they weren’t far off. He also brought with him the 2007 Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro. This spicy red fruit-filled bottle from Portugal was a perfect blend for the food we were enjoying. Another 94 pointer, this varietal is used in the famous Port wines and was a welcome addition to the meal. I chipped in with a 2004 Chalk Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, CA. This one also deserved its 92 rating and delivered lots of blackberry flavors with plum and lavender. Three very nice wines to go with a bevy of lovely dishes.

Emily informed us that there were no specials this evening and that was probably just as well as the menu made it difficult in itself to make final selections. Amazingly, all four of us chose different appetizers and four different entrees. In retrospect, it’s hard to say who made the best choices and the nice part is that we may each feel that our meal was the best.

 I started off with the sexy concoction on the right, Carnaroli Risotto with this morning’s sweet corn. Carnaroli is the very best of the Italian rices, very white in color and it blended so well with the sweet corn. I lingered over this dish savoring each salty, sweet kernel of its melt in your mouth goodness. Others were raving about their own choices and they were as adamant as I was but, nothing could have been better than this.

Kathy had what would have been my second choice from the menu, Agnolotti, ricotta salata, brown butter and sage. Agnoloti is a distant pasta relative of ravioli and the cheese filling, I believe, also had a hint of pancetta. Whatever it was, Kathy was delighted with it and she truly felt that she had made the best choice of all of the starters

Silly me, in my rush to get to the appetizers and mains, I neglected to mention that our meal started off with an Amuse Bouche, tonight’s offering was a Curried Squash Soup with some Smoked Salmon with scallions. It was a tasty beginning to our feast.

All of our appetizers were chosen from the second course offerings. Our only selection from the first course, which we passed around amongst the four of us, was the Montgomery County Tomatoes, burrata alla panna, basil, xeres. Fresh tomatoes topped with a close cousin of mozzarella and finished off with xeres, an 80 year old vinegar. Mmmmmmm.

You could have bet the farm that Gerry saw nothing else on the second course portion of the menu outside of the Foie Gras. In this case, a Liquid Center Foie Gras Terrine, sour cherries and pistachios, brioche. It was an interesting concoction and he found it absolutely delicious. My sample that he offered me seemed to confirm his evaluation.

Nobody can make more satisfied noises when she is pleased with something than JoAnn and she was making plenty of those noises while enjoying her Buffalo Ricotta Cavatelli, zucchini, summer truffles. It looked and tasted equal to her enthusiastic exaltations. All four of us were impressed and we still hadn’t seen our entrees.

The attentive service continued unabated throughout the meal as hands appeared out of nowhere at the appropriate time to refill water glasses, remove empty wine glasses and assure that our meal was proceeding at the right pace.

Once again, I have to correct a statement that I made earlier. I had stated that all four of us chose separate entrees. That was incorrect. Kathy and I both selected the Scottish Salmon, young beets, charred romaine, sorrel and creme fraiche. Kathy had hers done medium while I opted for a less pink medium-well. Half-way thru I noticed that the plates had been reversed but it wasn’t a big deal and we made the switch at that point. The dish was beautifully presented and was very good. In my estimation, though, it took a back seat to the sweet corn risotto. Kathy enjoyed hers but I did not hear “the best salmon I have ever eaten” which she stated during a previous meal.

Gerry decided he would have the Magret Duck Breast, compressed endive, bing cherries and chantrelle mushrooms. This is a special “cut” of duck with “magret” meaning literally, “breast of a fat duck”. It is referred to by many as “duck steak” as it is the most savory and flavorful portion of duck. It’s no wonder Gerry felt it tasted not unlike beef. Another creative presentation and we could safely add Gerry to the “happy diner” category.

JoAnn was equally pleased with her Lancaster County Poulard, ratatouille, fairy tale eggplant and thai basil. It may have been a “young chicken” but it didn’t die in vain as the intense flavors had JoAnn raving about her entree. Her thumbs up made it four for four and our expectations had been exceeded.

Because Blackfish had performed so well on the appetizers and entrees, we couldn’t leave without trying one or two of their desserts. We chose the Cinnamon-Sugar Beignets, spiced anglaise. These tasty pastries were every bit as good as you’d find at Brennan’s in New Orleans. The nice part was that with four of them we were each able to enjoy our own. Our other delectable post-dinner treat was the Warm Chocolate Cake, Coffee Gelato and Malt Powder. Four quick-moving forks made speedy work of this yummy concoction and our meal was complete. Kathy had asked me in the car on the way to Blackfish if we would still be hungry when the meal was over. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure. Suffice to say, our hunger was abated and we left totally impressed with the ambiance, the food, the presentation and the service. It’s easy to see why Blackfish is one of those places that makes a lot of people’s “Best of Philly” lists. Congratulations to Chef Chip Roman and his entire staff.

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