By Marsha Fottler.
Visitors by the thousands travel to Philadelphia and famous surrounding communities every year to experience America’s dramatic struggle for independence in the places where it happened more than two centuries ago. But they also come to discover great art, world-class gardens, historic homes, major league baseball and, of course, exceptional regional food. As early as the 1780s Philadelphia was the largest English-speaking city in the world after London. The sprawling city still impresses with its size, diverse population and wealth of things to see, do and taste. (Web sites for everything discussed are at the end of this story.)
The city’s most famous street food, the Philly cheese-steak sandwich is the area’s most renowned hand-held food and if you’re going to try one make the trek to Pat’s King of Steaks where 9th Street crosses Wharton and Passyunk Ave. This informal place is open seven days a week, 24-hours a day and it’s always busy. Pat’s menu of cheese-steak offerings is the best, although even the best is not among my personal favorite sandwiches of our nation. This city’s signature sandwich doesn’t rank in the top tier with the oyster po’ boy of New Orleans or a New England lobster roll, but it does have legions of food fans and should be experienced if you’re determined to fathom authentic Philly food.
At a much higher price point is Le Bec-Fin, an elegant and intimate French restaurant at 1523 Walnut Street, which has for more than 25 years held a premier cuisine position in the city. We made our reservation weeks in advance of arriving in Philadelphia last month and the afternoon that we checked into the boutique hotel Rittenhouse 1715 (which I recommend with confidence for its location, period charm and modern amenities) the headline above the fold in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 24 screamed “Au Revoir, Le Bec-Fin.”
Yes, 66-year-old chef/owner Georges Perrier has decided to shutter his haute chic establishment and move on with his long-time staff to three other (as yet) undisclosed locations where he will experiment with a less formal ambience and perhaps more modern French cuisine.
I hope certain preparations remain on his new menus such as the misocured black cod with chanterelle, apricot, sweet onion and mustard jus. It’s a revelation in fish. And you do want to try the poached rabbit loin and also the duck confit. You can dine at Le Bec-Fin until May of 2011 so if you’re traveling to Philadelphia before then, make a reservation and go. The place is legendary.
Vetri has been proclaimed by food critics all over the country as America’s best Italian restaurant and young Marc Vetri is riding high on public adulation, critical acclaim and James Beard Foundation awards. You can see the plaques on the wall in the tiny foyer of the restaurant which is located in a narrow townhouse that is a short walk from Rittenhouse 1715 (another good reason for staying at this hotel) at 1312 Spruce Street.
Vetri seats about 40 in a dimly lit room that casts a lovely glow from the Venetian plaster on the walls. Everybody looks rosy and happy seated at tables and banquettes so close that you can touch and hear the diners around you. No problem; we’re all concentrating on the food and chatting about each amazing dish as it emerges from the kitchen. The plates and the presentation are art, but they don’t upstage the food. Everything finds perfect balance.
Marc Vetri says he learned to cook from his Sicilian grandmother in south Philadelphia. He cooked his way through college (degrees in business and music) and then honed his skills at name restaurants in California before deciding to get really serious for a few years in Bergamo, Italy where he studied all facets of Italian cuisine, including butchering. His food is simply prepared using fresh local ingredients. He aims for the shortest amount of cooking time, letting the rich flavors inherent in his ingredients shine through. His menu is contemporary Italian – creative and completely enticing.
If it’s your first time opt for one of two tasting menus ($115 or $135 per person, not including wine) and you’ll experience things off-the-menu that chef wants to cook for you that night. I hope you get to experience the foie gras pastrami with fruit mustard or the almond tortellini with white truffle sauce or the rigatoni with lamb Bolognese, all of which I can recommend. Then there’s the guinea hen stuffed with prosciutto and served with local mushrooms or the roasted baby goat with soft polenta. And on it goes, one delicious dish after another. If your stay in Philadelphia is long enough, you’ll go back to Vetri because one visit isn’t enough. However, if you didn’t make reservations at least a few weeks in advance, you may be out of luck.
For something less expensive and soul-satisfying in the comfort food category, you’ll want to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner at Parc, (237 South 18th Street), a big, bustling interpretation of what a successful Paris bistro would have looked like in the early 1900s. This place has great ambience and a wide variety of toothsome food.
This is your place for pommes frites and steak, trout almandine, braised lamb shank with couscous, beef Stroganoff (the homemade noodles are divine), a perfect gruyere-herb omelette, onion soup, country pate, bouillabaisse, escargots, or coq au vin. The bread is fresh baked on site and the breakfast pastries as well as homemade ice creams and sorbets for dessert are intense with natural flavors. Because it’s so moderately priced and because the menu is so varied and the food so delicious, you’ll seek out Parc more than once during your Philadelphia stay. And the carefree theatricality of Parc just makes it totally embracing. I loved this place.
Out of town near Chadds Ford where tourists stay who want to visit Longwood Gardens, Winterthur or the Brandywine River Museum (where three generations of Wyeth artists are showcased in a gorgeous building that was once a grist mill) there’s an exemplary American modern bistro called Sovana that is well worth finding.
Chef/owner Nick Farrell relies on local seasonal produce and meat to compose an ever-changing menu that celebrates Pennsylvania as farm country. Try his vegetable medley of mushroom tart, leek-spring garlic
puree, English peas, grilled zucchini, wilted spinach and preserved lemon vinaigrette. The pan seared crispy chicken or wild boar Bolognese or corn soup or hanger steak with creamed spinach and Lyonnaise potatoes all create a party in your mouth of fresh flavors.
A standout on the appetizer part of the menu is tuna tartare. The sushi grade raw tuna pieces are mounded atop a round of avocado, basil, black olive aioli and lime vinaigrette. It’s served with house-made potato chips. I had this dish two nights in a row and if I lived in Chadds Ford or Kennett Square or any on the other delightful surrounding towns I’d eat at Sovana at least once a week. Sovana is located in a small shopping mall at 696 Unionville Road in Kennett Square. Get reservations and you can bring your own bottle of wine ($8 corkage fee) or order off the spirits menu.
And if you need a picturesque and convenient place to stay in the area, I can vouch for the Fairville Inn bed and breakfast because my husband and I stayed there last month. Vintage and oh so charming. The owner Rick Carro (a retired lawyer who found a satisfying second career) is a terrific cook and baker. His hearty breakfasts and tea-time pastries will make you happy you’re lodging with him and his knowledgeable and friendly wife Laura.
Rick’s Bourbon Onions
A topping to omelets, these onions are also especially good on hamburgers and steaks (grilled tuna or swordfish steaks too). This recipe makes about 1-1/2 cups of intensely flavored cooked onions. These onions take some time, but the taste is well worth it and the onions will keep refrigerated for several days.
4-5 medium yellow onions (sweet onions also work great)
½ stick butter
1 tablespoon sugar
½ – ¾ cups beef (preferred), chicken, or vegetable stock or broth
½ cup bourbon, or more to taste
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Cut the onions in half length-wise, and remove the skin. Place them flat side down on a cutting board, and slice cross-wise into half-rings. Separate the rings as best you can. Melt butter over medium-low heat in a 10 or 12-inch skillet. Add the onion rings and cook very slowly, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to soften and get limp. You don’t want to brown the onions at this point. When the onions are softened, sprinkle in the sugar and stir well. Raise the heat to medium (no more) and continue to cook the onions, stirring a bit more frequently, until they become a nice medium golden brown. This takes time and patience. Add the stock and continue cooking until it is almost evaporated. Now, add the bourbon and pepper, and cook until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Add a final splash of bourbon and stir. Check to see if it needs a touch of salt if you did not use a high-sodium stock or broth.