Archive for the Philly BYOB Reviews Category

TALULA’S TABLE – BYOB

Posted in Talula's Table (2nd review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2011 by ballymote

 A lot of mushrooms have been picked and packed and shipped all over the world since our last visit to Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, PA. A great deal has changed, too, at this highly regarded food emporium in Chester County since we dined here in November of 2008. Let’s begin by explaining a little about Talula’s Table. The restaurant/gourmet food market was the brainchild of Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikura, husband and wife team who sold their immensely popular  BYOB, Django, of South Street fame, several years ago, and headed out to horse-farm country to continue their passion. During the day, Talula’s Table (named after their daughter) sells gourmet meats and cheeses, luncheon sandwiches and a wide-array of sometimes hard to find foods that the locals have come to enjoy. When the store closes at 7:00 P.M. each evening, the epicurean feast begins.

 This is the table that Conde Nast Magazine called “the toughest dinner reservation in America”. It seats 8 to 12 and can only be reserved by being the first caller each morning at 7:00 A.M.; and if you are fortunate enough to be THAT caller, you now have the table for the exact same date……NEXT YEAR!! Of course, looking on the bright side, that gives you time to round up friends and work up an appetite for the eight courses that will be presented. The menu changes several times each year to match the seasons but, aside from allowances for specific food allergies, you will be eating just what they give you. There is no selection other than that specific evening’s menu. Not to fear, you’ll be pleased with their choices.

 I mentioned earlier that there had been several changes at Talula’s Table in the past few years. Primary among them would be that Aimee and Bryan are no longer together as spouses or business partners.  He has re-married and is in the process of opening a new restaurant in Rittenhouse Square. Aimee has partnered with restaurant guru, Stephen Starr, and has opened a new place, Talula’s Garden, on Washington Square. Bryan’s former role as chef at Talula’s Table is now being held by Matt Moon.

Matt was the sous-chef when Bryan was doing the cooking and based on what we enjoyed on this Spring Friday, Matt was paying attention during his time in the kitchen because everything he prepared was fantastic. The food was perhaps even better than on our first visit. Thank you, Matt for a great evening of excellent dishes. Aimee was not there on this evening as she was in the city over-seeing her other restaurant. Both she and Stephen Starr have a lot invested in the Philly project and I can’t wait to give Talula’s Garden a try.

There were nine of us for dinner and we were looking forward with great anticipation to the evening. We had ten bottles of wine between us so each course would have an appropriate vino to enhance the dining experience.

As I mentioned earlier we had ten bottle of wine with us. Time and energy do not permit me to list them all but I will mention that the absolute star of the night was Gerry’s 2007 Merus, Cabernet Sauvignon an absolutely stunning wine that he generously shared with the table. We had some nice Chardonnay’s with the early courses including a 1999 Chassagne-Montrachet and some Malbecs, a Barbaresco, a nice Pinot Noir and a 2002 Inniskillen, Vidal, Ice Wine to go with our dessert course.

and now for the main attraction…….the FOOD !

 The evening began shortly after 7:00 P.M. with a little amuse bouche, three of them to be exact. The first was a very tasty octopus salad served on a slice of cucumber. Ironically, as part of the pre-dinner preparation the staff inquires a couple of days prior to your reservation if anyone in your party has any specific food allergies. We had one person that we reported to them with a cucumber allergy. The chef evidently remembered and his salad was served wrapped in a lettuce leaf (about 11:00 o’clock in the picture above).

Next up was an excellent mushroom ravioli, each served on its own individual spoon. Two bites and we were ready for our final pre-course offering of the night.

 We were treated to a refreshing pineapple cream soda with sugar-coated rim. Aside from tasting delicious this helped cleanse our palate and prepare us for the first of our eight courses for the evening.

Don’t ask me how it happened but I totally forgot to take a picture of our first course. What you would be looking at had I not been so neglectful was the Fava Bean Custard, Louisiana Crawfish, Local Watercress and Sauce Nantua. The crawfish were tasty, the custard surprisingly good and we were off to a good start.

 This might have been my favorite course of the evening. Spring Potato Soup, Abalone Frites, Wild Fennel, and Green Garlic Toast. The soup was outstanding and the garlic toast went so well with it. I think all were happy to see that the portion was more than any of us would have expected. The entire table was very pleased with this particular offering.

Next came another crowd favorite; Morel Risotto, Sweet Peas, Charred Ramps, and Fresh Pennsylvania Goat Cheese. The rice was cooked perfectly and the combination of flavors with the peas, ramps and cheese was memorable. Right about this point we have nine happy diners.

 I won’t speak for the others but I stayed very happy with course number four, King Salmon, Petite Rye Kugel, Smoked Sour Cream, and Pickled Egg. This unusual combination clicked and the smoky flavor made the salmon and the entire dish a real culinary treat. High marks to Chef Moon for this course.

Very nicely presented on the plate was the Roasted Boar Loin, Rhubarb Glaze, Asparagus and Bacon Lardons. Parts of this dish were fine, there is never anything wrong with bacon, but the boar was, for me, a little too chewy. It may be that is just the nature of boar meat but this was not one of my favorite dishes. I think from speaking with some of the others that they had a similar reaction.

 I felt much better about the next entree, Lamb Baklava, Swarmbustin Honey Glazed Turnips and Gold beets, with Nettle Puree. Lots of good flavors in this offering with the beets and turnips adding just the right tastes and textures to the lamb.

Course #7 was the Spring Picnic: Artisan Cheese Collection, Candied Nuts, Berries, Talula’s Sausage, and Mustard. Very creative and the little slices of sausage and dabs of mustard in combination with the variety of cheeses made this a great prelude to the dessert portion of the meal.

 Almost too pretty to eat was the dessert course of Steamed Lemon Pudding Cake, Rhubarb Sorbet, and Lavender Anglaise. Everything on this plate was delicious and how often do you get to have rhubarb sorbet?

Our very capable server, Kate, and her entire team, did a fantastic job all evening presenting and explaining the intricacies of each course. Water glasses were kept full, wines poured as needed with extra glasses appearing without prompting. It’s obvious that the entire staff at Talula’s takes pride in their performance. It must be nice for Aimee to know she can devote the bulk of her time to making sure her new project gets off to a good start and that her staff back at Talula’s Table are doing a great job in maintaining the high standards she has set.

 Our meal was not completely over because as we finished off the last of our wines, out came a taste-tempting array of chocolate candies to make sure that we ended our night on a sweet note.

Even this was not the final offering. As we were presented with a little something for tomorrow.

The final offering was an individually wrapped chocolate brownie. It went perfectly with coffee the next morning at home.

I would have to say that this second visit to Talula’s Table was even better than the first. It seemed the portions were larger and flavors were better all around. I would suggest you call some morning at 7:00 A.M. and catch one of these hard-to-get reservations. The year of waiting will go by quickly in anticipation. Meanwhile, do as I am doing and make plans to try Aimee’s other dining spot at Talula’s Garden in Philly.

FLEMINGS PRIME STEAKS AND WINE BAR – NOT A BYOB – (2ND REVIEW)

Posted in Flemings Steakhouse and Wine Bar (2nd review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on May 5, 2011 by ballymote

Flemings, just off Lancaster Ave (Rt. 30), in Radnor, does a brisk business almost every night. It’s in a great location on the Main Line for business dinners and is a perfect spot for celebrating almost any special occasion. We were there last week for our “Sibling Dinner”, five brothers and sisters, along with spouses enjoying an evening of good food and wine and plenty of crisp conversation.  The menu at Flemings is quite extensive but there is little doubt that this is a steak restaurant and they take great pride in the beef they serve. They also have a very decent wine list and boast of offering 100 wines by the glass. I had previewed that list prior to arrival and I was a little disappointed to discover that several of the wines I had my eye on were not available at Pennsylvania locations (something to do with the state’s outdated retail wine and spirits laws.)

 I went with a 2008 Haymon & Hill, Reserve Selection, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands which was a decent pinot with cherry and raspberry notes with a little spice and a medium finish. To go with my steak I stepped up to a heartier red, the 2008 Hess, Allomi Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark blackberry flavors with a hint of smoke and cedar, smooth tannins and a lingering finish made this a good choice for the filet mignon.

 Most of our table split the Wedge Salad, crisp iceberg lettuce, grape tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese.

I had the French Onion Soup baked with swiss and parmesan cheese. This had tons of great flavor and was the perfect pre-steak starter.

 My filet was cooked medium and we shared several sides. The most notable of the extras was the Fleming Potatoes with cream, jalapenos and cheddar cheese. This gooey concoction is the perfect match for the USDA prime filet served with peppercorn sauce and a touch of butter. We also shared some cream spinach and asparagus spears.

Flemings can be counted on for a consistently good meal and top-notch service.

CUCINA FORTE – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Cucina Forte, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on April 7, 2011 by ballymote

 As I mentioned in the previous post, we have a cruise coming up shortly and so on this Saturday evening in early April the four couples who will be on the Allure of the Seas met for dinner at Cucina Forte in South Philly. As usual, parking in the area was at a premium and it’s no small accomplishment to finally secure a legal spot within walking distance of the restaurant. 

Inside the restaurant, we looked over our menus while our server, Vinnie, (I know, how would a South Philly waiter ever have a name like Vinnie) recited some of the many special appetizers and entrees for the evening. I had looked at the menu online earlier in the day and was already pretty damn sure I knew what I was going to be having for my starter. Before I get to the food though, I want to talk about the wine.

 I have been anxiously awaiting the right time to open my first 2008 Bedrock Wine Co., The Bedrock Heirloom, Sonoma Vally. This interesting blend by Morgan Twain-Pederson is quickly becoming a cult classic that distinguishes itself from the other cult wines by being eminently affordable. The Bedrock Heirloom is made from 120 year old vines, some of the oldest in California and it’s spicy, full of flavor fruit has great structure and balance and drinks well now and will be even better with more time in the bottle. Just a yummy wine but only 228 cases made and it’s all gone now.

 Maria’s Dream Soup. Maria is Maria Forte, Chef/Owner of Cucina Forte. I spoke with her on the phone when making our reservation and I told her about my blog. She sounded genuinely excited that we were coming but unfortunately, she had a death in the family and was back in Italy on this Saturday evening. Very sorry for your loss, Maria. Her Dream Soup was created with love for her late husband and features grilled chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms (I took them out), broccoli rabe, home-made bread cubes dipped in a light egg batter and all served in a chicken broth. I thought it was great. Kathy thought it was just OK,  but I don’t think she sampled enough of mine.

 Some had the mussels, others split a seafood appetizers with grilled shrimp, scallops, calamari and lagostinos over broccoli rabe. There was also an antipasto consisting of roasted peppers, olives and assorted premium meats and cheeses. All of these were tasty and a great way to start dinner.

 For my entree I went with the Lobster Ravioli, in a cream sauce with four nice-sized shrimp circling the dish. I thought the dish was very nice without being overly filling as these dishes can sometimes be.

Tom had the Chilean Sea Bass served in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and capers while Kathy ordered the Veal Saltimbocca, veal medallions with prosciutto sauteed in a wine and sage cream sauce served with potatoes and asparagus spears. She thought the veal was nicely prepared but could have used additional flavoring.

 Joe and Carol both ordered one of the specials, the Sacletti, little purse shaped pastas filled with fontina cheese and prosciutto and served with tomatoes, mushrooms and shrimp in an olive and garlic sauce.

Tom had a side order of the house-made gnocchi and I managed to taste a few of these tiny pasta creations and I thought they were very good.

We decided to skip dessert  went back to one of the couples house to discuss our upcoming trip. We thought dinner at Cucina Forte was a very nice event.

ZACHARIAS CREEK SIDE CAFE – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners, Zacharias Creek Side Cafe with tags , , , on April 2, 2011 by ballymote

 To celebrate my friend, Gerry, having a cast removed from his arm, and also because we look for just about any reason we can find to drink some good wines and sample fine food, three of us headed to Worcester, PA on Rt. 113 for dinner at Zacharias Creek Side Cafe this past Tuesday evening. What should have been an 18 minute ride from my office in King of Prussia took well over an hour as I fought the 422 traffic.

After the torturous journey I was ready for some wine.

 As usual, we had some nice choices to sample. I had brought with me a 2004 Chateau Leoville las Cases, St. Julien. This wasn’t the greatest of years for Bordeaux wines but this one still managed to grab 95 points from the Wine Spectator and 93 from Robert Parker. Gerry, John and myself could not find it in our hearts to be quite that generous as we all felt this one didn’t quite do it for us. I think we’d probably come closer to a 90/91. Don’t get me wrong, it was fine, we just expected more. John’s 2007 Mollydooker Blue Eyed Boy, Shiraz was just as I had remembered from previous times; deep dark fruit mixed with hints of tobacco and chocolate, a great sipping wine . Gerry delivered the wine of the night with his 2008 Alpha-Omega Proprietary Red Wine. Gerry has become such a huge fan of everything Jean Hoefliger is producing at A-O that he has become an A-O Wine Club member. The Proprietary Red is a 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot and it’s just silky smooth and rich in fruit, perfectly balanced with a 60 second finish.

 Speaking of silky smooth, our server for the evening, Alli, certainly fit that description. She displayed charm and professionalism all evening. She instinctively understood that we were not in any hurry and she allowed us all the time we wanted before ordering. She also made certain we had several glasses each so we could properly enjoy our wines. Thanks, Alli, you done good!!

Zacharias Creek Side Cafe offers a Prix Fixe dinner Tuesdays thru Thursdays at $29.95. I was the only one of the three of us who opted for this choice. I started my meal with the Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque. It was served at the perfect temperature and the combination of fresh veggie flavor with the hint of fruit made a nice taste combination.

 Gerry and John went with some items that were a little more exotic for their starters. Gerry’s chicken livers were, I believe, a special of the evening and John’s plate of cured meats included prosciutto, bresaole and soppressata looked wonderful. I really should have tried some but I passed and that meant more for each of them.

We conversed over our wines as we awaited our entrees. I was slightly limited in my choices as I has selected the Prix Fixe menu but there were certainly enough enticing items there to allow me to settle on a selection.

 I went with the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes served with potatoes and parsnip puree, brussel sprouts and roasted garlic aioli. The crab cake was filled with fresh meat and very little filling, the puree was a nice touch and the aioli brought out all of the flavor in the tender crab meat. I may have done better with a lighter wine than what we had with us but that did not deter from a very enjoyable entree.

Gerry chose, from the regular menu, the roast duck. In looking at the menu now, I don’t see it listed so I wish I had jotted down what accompanied the dish because it all looked so good. It was not one of the specials, so I am a little bewildered as to why it isn’t listed on the current website menu. Anyway, he liked it but did mention there might be a tad too much salt in the dish.

 John was thinking like me and went with the jumbo lump crab cake except that he was craving a little meat with his meal and therefore had a four-ounce filet to complete his dish. Both the crab cake and the filet were excellent and John had no complaints whatsoever.

We still had some room for dessert and I was about to write that the desserts weren’t listed individually on the website so, although they were very good, I can’t adequately describe them…..BUT..I just had a flashback to Alli handing me a piece of paper so I went and dug out the shirt I wore that evening and there, in excellent penmanship, on the back of one of Zacharias red comment sheets, is a complete mouth-watering description of what we had for dessert. 

 John had the Creme Brulee. It was fine. Gerry and I went a much more adventurous route.

Here is Gerry’s Pavlova, almond meringue topped with lemon curd, blood orange and strawberry salad with white chocolate shavings and toasted almonds. Looked good, tasted better.

 My little totally low-cal item was the white chocolate passion fruit mousse cake with a deep chocolate glaze. This one was perfect with the cup of coffee I had to conclude my meal.

The three of us enjoyed our dinner at Zacharias Creek Side Cafe. Owner Andrew Gallo stopped by more than once to make sure we were enjoying our food. It is evident that he cares about what is being served and he has good reason to be proud of what he and his wife, Nancy, have created.

SYCAMORE – BYOB (2nd Review)

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Sycamore (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , on March 24, 2011 by ballymote

 It had been almost a year since our last visit to Sycamore in Lansdowne, PA. It’s hard to believe that this dining spot, located within walking distance of where we all grew up, is now listed by Philadelphia Magazine as one of the Top 25 Restaurants in Philadelphia.

We had each enjoyed our previous meal there and I was anxious to pay even more attention now that Chef Sam Jacobson had achieved a certain notoriety.

 Our server, Jamie, had a terrific personality and was efficient and professional in seeing that we enjoyed our evening. We never felt rushed despite the fact that we spent way too much time chatting before even looking at the menu. It was a Wednesday evening which meant the Casual Prix Fixe Menu for $29.00 was available. It was essential that all five of us opt for that style of dining and in the end we decided to just order separately from the regular menu.

My wine for the evening was one that I had heard mentioned often on the wine boards but had never been able to find in any of our local wine shops. I think I finally found this one a few weeks ago at Wine Works in Marlton. It’s the 2008 Educated Guess, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. It’s hard to find Napa Valley cabs under $20.00 that deliver as much flavor as this one. I was totally impressed with the balance and structure of this wine and would score it 92 points and I am making a note to add more of this to my cellar.

After we placed our order Jamie brought us an amuse bouche, herb roasted wild boar with sweet potato ricotta puree. Excellent way to start a meal and certainly not something you have every day. There was not a lot of variety in our choices as four of the five selected the same appetizer.

 Everyone but myself chose the Pancetta and Goat Cheese Tart, phyllo crust and deep caramelized onions. I had this on our first visit and remember it as being wonderful and the four who silently devoured it seemed to be in complete agreement. I would have ordered this again except that I wanted to try what seemed like a very simple, basic dish.

I selected the Spahetti alla Carbonara, cream, bacon and locatelli.  This is absolutely a case of words not doing justice to the food. Trust me, I know it sounds simple but every morsel of this dish was absolute perfection on a fork. The flavors were subtle yet intense. The pasta prepared flawlessly. Quite possibly one of the best starters I have had in the past year. Kudos to the Chef!

 Once again four of the five of us went with the same entree, making for a dearth of pictures at this meal. Only Ange did not go with our selection of the Seared Sea Scallops, potato, chorizo and chantarelle hash, creamed swiss chard. Another simple dish turned into culinary magic at the hands of Chef Jacobson. Just an absolute delight. The hash seemed to be married to the scallops and every bite was enticingly good. It was becoming quite apparent as to how Sycamore had achieved its lofty ranking.

Ange was nice enough to share a taste of his entree, the 12oz. Green Meadow Farm Pork Chop, molasses, smoked paprika and cumin brined, French lentil and bacon cassoulet, local sauerkraut and apple butter gastrique. Beautiful presentation and sweet and spicy flavors dancing off of every bite of the tender chop. I couldn’t help but wonder if everything on the menu was as good as the two dishes our table had consumed.

 We still had room for dessert and our three choices were all very good. I think our favorite was the Sticky Toffee Pudding with dates, caramel sauce and fresh cream. Runner-up was the Rum Butterscotch Budino, graham cracker crust, creme fraiche and crisp local bacon. Last, but not least, was the Ginger Poached Pear, filled with dark chocolate orange ganache.

As we were finishing our meal Chef Jacobson stopped by to see how we felt about our dinner. He is understandably proud of what he has created at Sycamore and we shared with him how good we thought everything was tonight.

 Chef treated us to an extra dessert of sugar glazed clementines drizzled with chocolate and served with creme fraiche. They were yummy.

You could see by the crowd on a weekday evening that Sycamore is no longer a secret gem hidden in the Philly suburbs. If you have not yet had the pleasure of eating here I would strongly suggest adding it to your MUST DO list.

CHICKIE & PETE’S – SOUTH PHILLY

Posted in Chickie and Pete's - South Philly with tags , , , , on March 21, 2011 by ballymote

 It has not been my practice to do reviews on these types of restaurants. If it had, there would be lots of reviews on PJ Whelihan’s, Chili’s, Friday’s, Applebee’s, etc. I have decided to do just this one on Chickie & Pete’s because it has become such an icon on the Philly scene. The concept has proven so popular that they are opening new locations throughout the Delaware Valley. The original Chickie & Pete’s is located in the Northeast on Robbins Ave. and has been there since 1977 known only, for most of that time, as a local spot to watch sports on multiple TVs.  Owner, Pete Ciarrocchi, in 1998 was able to get a franchise for his concept inside Veteran’s Stadium and the growth explosion had begun. They opened in 2003 at their present Packer Ave. location within walking distance of all of the Philly sports venues and drew crowds from the very first day. People came from far and near to eat wings, drink beer and watch sports on giants TV’s. The one menu item that gets the most attention are the Crab Fries.

My sons and their friends all rave and often crave the crab fries. Seasoned crinkle-cut fries with a white cheese sauce. To many, one of the best things they ever ate. To me, their just OK. In my humble opinion, the fries are too small, too skinny and the cheese, although tasty, can be messy. I much prefer a thicker, meatier fry (see wedge fries or steak fries) but I do confess to being in the minority.

My wife, Kathy, and I met our son and his wife there (Packer Ave.) for lunch last Sunday. I had the Roast Pork with Provolone Sandwich and I must admit that it was excellent. The roll was nice and soft and the meat and cheese blended perfectly. We had the crab fries for the table.

Kathy had the Mussels in a very spicy white sauce. I actually dipped some bread in the sauce (not a mussels fan) and thought it was pretty good. My son had the Chicken Cutlet Italian with roasted peppers. He and his wife are big fans of all things Chickie and Pete’s so neither had any complaints.

Their small children had little cut up pieces of a Cheese and Tomato pizza which I sampled and found to be virtually inedible. Again, this may be a personal dislike as it is much more of a tomato pie than a typical pizza. The cheese on this one is under the sauce and almost unnoticeable.

Overall, I did enjoy my sandwich. There is a huge selection of draft and bottled beers and almost everyone agrees it is the perfect spot to meet friends before or after a Phillies, Flyers, Eagles or Sixers game. Congratulations to Pete Ciarrocchi on his award-winning restaurant concept. You can pretty much rest assured there is a Chickie & Pete’s coming soon to your neighborhood.

MAGGIANO’S LITTLE ITALY – (2nd Review)

Posted in Maggiano's (2nd review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on March 7, 2011 by ballymote

  About a year ago we had dinner at the Maggiano’s near the Cherry Hill Mall in NJ. That review is available in the column on the right. This time, we had a group of visitors at work that we were taking to dinner at Maggiano’s near the King of Prussia Mall.

Our table of seven opted for the “Family Style” dining which, I believe, the restaurant almost insists on for parties of four or more. We chose the “Classic Family” over the more expensive ‘Chef’s Choice” because it seemed to offer plenty of selections without the additional $10.00 per person cost.

 It’s not likely the wine list at Maggiano’s will be mentioned in Wine Spectator’s Honor Roll but there is enough to find a couple of decent offerings in a few different price ranges. I settled on a 2008 Louis Martini Sonoma County, Cabernet Sauvignon. At about twice the retail price it wasn’t a bad markup and this one always provides good value. It went very well with many of the rich pasta dishes. I also zeroed in on something a little lighter and one that I have long wanted to try. Belle Glos makes some really good Pinot Noir in the $45 to $50 range but I ofen see another of their Pinot Noirs at about half the price. The 2008 Belle Glos, Meiomi, Pinot Noir. Using grapes from Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara they have managed to produce an excellent value Pinot Noir in its price range. It went well with the lighter chicken dishes and was tasty all by itself.

 Our server, Matt, was attentive and efficient all evening and made sure that the courses appeared at the right intervals and that we had plenty of everything.

Here’s the way the “Classic Family” works. You get huge portions of two appetizers, two salads, four entrees and two desserts. They keep bringing more of each until you tell them to stop. You may take home any leftovers. It’s a system that doesn’t allow you to go home hungry. The only problem with a group of seven is finding a consensus on what to eat. We used a semi-democratic type of voting system and selected the following appetizers:

Mozzarella Marinara and Calamari Fritte. Both were huge portions that we passed around the table until all of us decided we were ready for our two salads. There were five to choose from and we opted for the

Maggiano’s Salad and the House Caesar Salad. The Caesar was your typical Caesar with crisp Romaine and just the right amount of dressing. The Maggiano was a little more unique with Iceburg and Romaine lettuce, crumbled blue cheese, crispy prusciutto and red onions with a signature house dressing. The starters and salad had done nothing but whet our appetite for the four main courses which were now appearing at the table.

 The first member of this culinary quartet was the Chicken and Truffle Tortellacci which even sounds good. This is a very rich dish and I hardly made a dent in it before deciding this might be a dinner for tomorrow night (as it turns out, it was just so heavy that I barely could finish a few of the Tortallacci’s the next night).

One of our group just totally had his heart set on the Gnocchi in a Vodka Cream Sauce. The rest of us went along with his choice and our second entree was soon being passed around the table. It was fresh and the sauce was flavorful but it really wasn’t anything special. There was quite a bit of this dish remaining when we were finished and some got taken home for later consumption.

 The third of our four entrees was the Braised Beef Cannalloni, braised short ribs, Asiago cheese in a balsamic cream sauce. This one sounded much better than it tasted as the edges of several of the canneloni were hard possibly indicating  that they were micro-waved before serving.  Perhaps not everyone agreed with my evaluation as I don’t recall many left on the dish at the end of the meal.

I did enjoy our final entree, the Chicken Pesto Linguine, linguine tossed with roasted chicken, pesto and pine nuts in a parmesan broth with a hint of lemon. Aside from being just a tad short on chicken, this dish was tasty and had lots of flavor. The pesto was rich and added a nice touch to the pasta.

The food is not gourmet fare but as I mentioned in the beginning, you are not going to go home hungry and everything is pretty good. We still had two desserts to share and we topped off our meal with….

 Apple Crostada, Granny Smith apples baked in a pastry crust dipped in cream and crystalized sugar and served with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce. Sound good? It was! We also went with the traditional Tiramisu and it was light as a feather with lots of chocolate shavings surrounding the delicate creation.

I think the entire group felt that overall we got our moneys worth and that the wines were a nice compliment to the entire meal.

SOLA – (2nd Review)

Posted in Sola (2nd Review), Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2011 by ballymote

 Dinner for four on a Saturday evening at a very classy BYOB on the Main Line. My friends Gerry and John and I had just visited Sola a few weeks ago and we were impressed enough that Gerry and I were returning with our wives for a 5:30 P.M. reservation. It wasn’t very crowded when we arrived but the tiny dining room quickly filled as the evening progressed.

Our server from our previous visit ( Marie) remembered us but on this evening we had Tom taking care of us. Tom proved to be equally capable and he did a nice job all evening being attentive to our needs, which almost always requires additional wine glasses. Sola, by the way, features nice stems and charges a $2.00 corkage fee per bottle, which is certainly reasonable and I thought I read somewhere that the money is donated to a local charity.

 Speaking of wines, we had some good ones with us. Gerry had brought two of our recent Napa trip favorites. The 2007 Del Dotto, Vineyard 887, Cabernet Sauvignon. This was the special blend that Del Dotto had created for a Las Vegas party hosted by Donald Trump. We liked it when we sampled it at the Del Dotto caves in Napa and it was just as good with dinner at Sola. Gerry also had another bottle of the monster  wine in the monster bottle, the 2008 Alpha-Omega Era. This ia A-O’s top of the line offering and even though we could easily be accused of infanticide for popping these so early it’s actually hard to believe they will actually be better in years to come. I went lighter just in case we had some dishes that cried out for something slightly less hearty and went with an excellent 2006 Antill Farms, Demuth Vineyard, Pinot Noir. The light strawberry and floral notes were perfect with several of our items.

 One of the highlights of Sola is their food presentation and it was evident in virtually all of our dishes. Gerry began his meal with the Pan Seared Foie Gras, medjool date wrapped in cured duck prosciutto, apple butter, toasted pistachio and port reduction. He loved it.

His wife, Joann, chose the Carmelized Onion & Gruyere Cheese Tart, baby frizee, pancetta lardons, aged Jerz-hazelnut vinaigrette. She really enjoyed this appetizer and raved about the flavors. Nobody can make something sound better than Joann does when she gives compliments.

 My wife, Kathy, went the simple route and selected the Sola Chop Salad, cucumber, avocado, tomato, blue cheese, bacon and Fuji apple with petite mixed greens in a honey Dijon vinaigrette. Even this not-so-simple salad was beautifully presented and Kathy was quite pleased with the start to her meal.

Only I was slightly disappointed with my appetizer and it was certainly not Sola’s fault. For some silly reason, I decided that I wanted one of the “specials” as  my opening treat. I chose the Quail with sausage and field greens. I should have thought it out more but obviously, I am not a quail guy. I don’t care for several foods that, in my estimation, require too much work for too little food. We can now add quail to that list. I might add that the sausage was good and what little meat I inefficiently pulled from the bone wasn’t bad. Just not the right choice for me.

 I fared much better with my entree, the Seared Diver Sea Scallops, carmelized salsify golden raisins, Meyer lemon, Israeli cous-cous, with a smoked tomato butter, pine nuts and shaved botarga. Beautifully presented, the sauce was wonderful, and the scallops perfectly done. Just a real first-class dish that shows off the obvious skills of the chef.

 Gerry, showing no imagination at all, except for a passionate love of good lamb, selected the same entree he had when we first visited Sola a few weeks ago, the Australian Lamb Two Wats. braised shoulder, hand-made gnocchi, English peas, ricotta, grilled loin-ratatouille and maple chutney. Gerry was raving about the dish before it even arrived at the table and continued with each bite. No doubt this is one of his favorite dining spots.

 The ladies both chose an entree that I was giving serious consideration before I settled on the scallops. They ordered the Hawaiian Butterfish, Jerusalem artichoke puree, fingerling potatoes, lobster fritter in a lobster reduction sauce. Kathy gave me some of hers and I agreed with both of them that the fish was delicious and everything on the plate worked well with each other. Each of us was thrilled with their entrees and the wines were just an extra plus to this great meal.

We each finished off our meal with a different dessert, Gerry chose the Individual Key Lime Tart, graham cracker crust, meringue and gingered blueberries.

 I had the Chocolate Gelato with strawberries and a caramel dipping sauce. Perfect ending, in my opinion.

 Joann finished with the Warm Chocolate Gateau, malted milk ice cream and raspberry coulis. What’s not to like about that?? Another nice presentation.

 Last, but not least, Kathy ended her meal with the Frozen White Chocolate Hazelnut Mousse, dark chocolate cake, Valrhona chocolate ganache.

Another great meal with great friends and great wine in a great atmosphere.

BONA CUCINA (3rd REVIEW)

Posted in Bona Cucina (3rd review), BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on February 8, 2011 by ballymote

 Bona Cucina, the little Italian gem hidden away in Upper Darby, is not the same place without the sassy Frankie, waitress and wife of the Chef, in residence. So it was on this cold 1st day of February that my friend, Frank D., and I dined here and discovered that Frankie had the night off. Her absence may have deterred from the overall ambiance, but the food was just as good as ever.

We shared a bottle of 2008 Pillar Box Reserve. This wine with the black label is the big brother of one of my favorite value wines, the Pillar Box Red. This one is in the $20.00 range and well deserves its 91 point score from the Wine Advocate. Inky black, with hints of tobacco and spices on the nose, the dark berry fruit and notes of leather are well-balanced and soft on the palate.  I think I still feel the “red” Pillar Box is a better value when you can catch it on sale.

Frank and I caught up on what had been happening since our last dinner while we looked over the menu that we virtually know by heart.

 Frank selected as his appetizer, the Portobello mushrooms stuffed with crab meat. Five huge portions appeared and were gone in no time. He didn’t think he would be able to finish them and almost made me promise to take at least one even though I detest mushrooms. Once he started eating though, he had no problem devouring all of them.

Quite honestly, I don’t think I would have been in any position to help him as I was in food nirvana with each spoonful of my Seafood Chowder. Something this good deserves a better, more exotic name than simply “seafood chowder”. It was absolutely delicious. I had our server ask the chef what was in it and she returned and told me “seafood”. My fault for asking dumb questions.

 Frank ordered the twin crab cakes, which he has done in the past, and I know he feels they may be the best around. There certainly isn’t much filler in these two perfectly baked mounds of rich, succulent crab and most of our conversation came to a screeching halt as we gave all of our attention to our dinners.

I almost went with the orange roughy from the list of evening “specials” but I gave in to the very same temptation that I always succumb to when dining at Bona Cucina and went with the Chicken Celeste. Two very generous and perfectly cooked chicken breasts in a wonderful cream sauce with peppers and melted mozzarella. Just as good as ever, and enough to take home some for another dinner for the following night.

It may be that a wine of somewhat less body would have provided a better companion piece to our meal but that’s not really a complaint. Once again, Bona Cucina, even without the help of Frankie, proved it’s a great spot for a memorable meal.

HOSTARIA DA ELIO – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Hostaria Da Elio, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on December 14, 2010 by ballymote

 Hostaria Da Elio, just off of bustling South Street in the 600 block of S. 3rd Street is a Philly BYOB that does not get nearly the mention that it deserves. My wife, Kathy, and I, along with our good friends, Gerry and Joann B. have been there on several occasions but this was our first visit since I have had this blog. We were coming from a show at Society Hill Playhouse and knew this was the perfect opportunity for a return visit to this excellent Italian bistro.

Our server, Bonnie, reeled off so many “specials” in each category of the menu, and each one sounded better than the previous, that we knew it was time to put the menu aside and choose from her list. With all four of taking this culinary route it makes it difficult to remember what each of us had since I can’t go to the website to re-check the menu. Bonnie was nice enough to write down everyone’s selection. That’s the sort of “personal touch” that makes this place such a pleasant place to dine. And hey, great food doesn’t hurt, either!

As usual, we had some excellent wines to match the food. Gerry had brought the 2004 Tenute Silvia Nardo, Brunello di Montelcino, this one was very closed upon opening and opened up considerably as dinner progressed. Smooth flavors of cherries and blackberries with a hint of tobacco. This was a solid 90 pointer once it came alive. Gerry stayed in Italy with his second wine, the 2006 Tenuta di Nozzole, La Forra, Chianti Classico Riserva. This wine was a favorite right from the start with a deep red color, deep flavors of currents and raspberries and a smooth lingering finish. Another 90+ wine. My contribution was a 2004 Chateau Vieux des Rochers, Montagne St. Emilion. Not much of that barnyard funk that my wife feels is a characteristic of French wines, just some nice forest floor, black currants and spices, well-balanced with great structure. This one went well with many of our dishes.

 We each began our feast with an appetizer. Kathy and Joann split the Eggplant Melazana, eggplant layered with marscapone and mozzarella and baked in a fresh tomato marinara sauce. Joann declared it the “best eggplant I ever had”. They even tempted me to try it and I never try the eggplant. I had to agree that this was delicious.

Gerry had the mussels in White Sauce a mixture of white wine and garlic. He told me I had to mention that the mussels were outstanding. mussels are another food item I have failed to gain an attraction for despite their obvious popularity. I hope I don’t find out after I die that mussells and eggplant and mushrooms are all fantastic!

 I went with the Mozzarella and Peppers, fresh mozzarella with roasted peppers, tomatoes, fresh basil served with extra virgin olive oil. Each bite of this was a taste treat. Just a very well done dish that sounds simple enough yet, so few do it right..

We each had the Arugula Salad and this one was a really nice presentation as the crisp greens were topped with parma prosciutto and shaved parmesan romano cheese. The first two courses were so good we couldn’t wait to see what they did with our entrees.

We didn’t have long to wait as our four entrees arrived hot and succulent. Kathy had the home-made Lasagna, beef-bolognese, mushrooms topped with bechamel served with a marinara sauce. On a previous occasion one of our party declared that this was the “lightest and most flavorful lasagna he had ever tasted.” Kathy really enjoyed this classic Italian dish.

Joann had a lovely dish of home-made fettucini with shrimp in a fresh pesto sauce. This one had great flavor and was  perfect with her Chianti Classico.

 Bonnie, our server, had mentioned that the combination of carmelized onions and goat cheese that topped my chicken breast was an excellent blending of unique flavors. She hit it right on the head. Each bite was delicious and the rice and snow peas were the perfect accompaniment to this flavorful dish.

As much as I totally enjoyed my chicken dish I must confess that I believe Gerry made the best selection of all with his choice of cannelloni filled with a veal and cheese mixture served in a blush sauce. I got to sample this one and it was really fantastic. The sauce was perfect and the filling was out of this world. I have no regrets about mine, but, next time, I’m going for the cannelloni.

We were pleased that Elio came out and spent some time with us. He had some interesting stories to tell about his sixteen years here in America since arriving from his native Rome. He is very proud of Hostaria da Elio and very much appreciates our patronage. In fact, we left with cards entitling us to 15% off our next visit.

We ended our meal with each of us enjoying a different dessert. I had the yummy Chocolate Ganasch with walnuts on a bed of raspberry sauce. Joann had the Tartufo, chocolate ice cream with a vanilla center served with cocoa and hazelnuts.

 Kathy topped her meal off with a Chocolate Chip Cannoli which she declared to be one of the best cannolis she has ever had. Meanwhile, Gerry was quite content with his Hazelnut Mousse Cake which was light and airy but full of flavor.

There is nothing more enjoyable than knowing the restaurant you are headed for has proven itself to be not just very good but consistently very good. That is one of the great things about Hosteria Da Elio. You can be assured of good food and great service on each and every visit.

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