Philly by Food, Part 1

Recently, I spent a week in Philadelphia for work and for play. When you spend a week out of town, living in a hotel room, you eat out pretty much every meal. That’s a lot of eatin’ out, folks. The good news is that Philadelphia makes it verrry easy for you to have good eats all week. Additional good news is that I’m here to tell you all about the good eating I did all week long. Believe you me, I did not have any idea that Philadelphia had such good food. There was so much good food that to tell you all about it will take two blog entries. I promise you, it’s worth the reading! The food in Philly was pretty much an unknown for me so there were pleasant surprises all week long…and then there was scrapple. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first night in Philadelphia, my girlfriend and I were trying to decide where to go, and every restaurant website we pulled up had music playing. I said to her, “What is it with restaurants in Philadelphia that they have to have music on the websites??” What I didn’t know at the time is that all the restaurants we looked at were owned by this fellow named Stephen Starr. Turns out he’s a big deal restaurateur in Philadelphia who apparently believes in music on his websites. You can check out his overview website here: http://www.starr-restaurant.com/ to see his many endeavors. I ended up visiting three of his restaurants while we were there, and they were all muy delicioso! Mr. Starr also knows what he’s doing in terms of ambiance and decor – all his restaurants were very visually engaging.

El Vez was the first Starr restaurant I went to, full of skepticism for eating Mexican food north of Dallas. Bless their hearts, people who live up north (or even just outside of Texas) always say, “I know this really great Mexican restaurant. You’ll love it!” *cricket, cricket* It’s just not the same, and we both know it. Every now and again, there is a surprise gem, but on the whole, this Texas girl judges Mexican food outside state lines, at least a little bit. Now the specialty of El Vez is their guacamole. They have six or so varieties from which you can choose. I did order one, and I judged it to be quite delicious. It was the Cesar Chavez: tomato, basil, onion, Oaxaca cheese, with a pasilla-basalmic reduction on top. All for the reasonable price of FIFTEEN DOLLARS!!!!! People. It’s guacamole, not goldamole. El Vez surely does think their guacamole is quite special. I had a hard time stomaching the $15 price tag for guacamole, but it really was oh-so-tasty. It was a fairly large molcajete of guacamole, to their credit, and we ate it all. I also had the adobo tuna tostadas to round out my meal. They came from the appetizer portion of the menu, but it was just the right size to go with the mountain of goldamole I was consuming. They were light and quite delicious. I was quite glad I wasn’t obligated to share them. Alas, I didn’t think to take any pictures, but here are some I found online of the goldamole and the tostadas.  Judge’s ruling is that the goldamole is worth it at least once. Heck, if I’m back there again, it’s likely I’ll splurge for a different type. In the meantime, I may start experimenting with my own guacamole.

Super Good Guacamole

Adobo Tuna Tostadas

The Continental Mid-Town was my second Starr restaurant, and I actually went to this one twice. It is that good. I did only have dessert there both times. Drool. So Good. One of my favorite food genres is tapas. I love small plates of food. This place has dessert tapas! How great is that?!?! The second time I went, my girlfriend and I ordered several of them to share so that we didn’t have to pick just one for ourselves.

All four desserts together were impressive.

The first time I went, my other girlfriend and I did solo desserts. Either way is a delightful experience. The desserts really are single-serving-sized so you can eat the whole thing and not feel like you over-indulged.

Four Desserts?? Yes, Please!

I think my favorite of the four I’ve sampled is the s’more. The bottom layer is a graham cracker cake that is way more delicious than you can even imagine it to be. I was picturing a graham cracker-esque item. No siree. It’s a soft cake that tastes like graham and cinnamon. Next is a chocolate layer covered in a warm, melty, toasty marshmallow. Seriously, they torch the marshmallow before it comes out to you. Hello, attention to detail!

S'more!

I also really enjoyed the milk chocolate Guinness and Earl Grey ice creams. This is a big deal for both as I don’t particularly care for the original beverages in either case. But the ice creams were surprisingly tasty. Homemade pretzel balls with caramel sauce were also a hit for me. The baklava was tasty, but I always find it tricky to eat. The peanut butter cup was like an expanded Reese’s peanut butter cup so that’s pretty much deliciousness on a plate. It’s all soft peanut-butter-chocolaty goodness. That’s all that needs to be said about that, right?

Milk Chocolate Guiness Ice Cream, Pretzels, and Caramel

Baklava and Earl Grey Tea Ice Cream

Peanut Butter Cup

This is the place to go for desserts, y’all. It’s also the place to go check out the bathrooms downstairs and then make conversation with your tablemates about why on earth you think they’d make the mirrors like that? Oh yes, you can see through the mirrors into the bathroom from outside. It’s a little strange and disconcerting to be washing your hands at the sink, knowing people could be watching you from the other side. There are also stuffed animals upstairs by the bar. I made a photo op out of them. Twice. Enjoy. 🙂

You'd do it too.

We sure did rock it!

There are also crazy "chairs" upstairs.

My third Starr restaurant experience was Jones. It didn’t have the fancy chairs or crazy stuffed animals that Continental has, but the food was still quite delicious. We were there on St. Patrick’s Day, so we had some apple martinis with caramel sauce on the rim. I’d never had an apple martini before, but this was quite the marvelous green beverage. The caramel sauce on the rim was a nice touch that made it taste pretty much like a caramel apple. Stacey had the most ginormous chicken pot pie I’ve ever seen in my life, and I had the ALT: avocado, lettuce, tomato, and mozzarella on multi-grain toast with lemon aioli. YUM! It was delicious.

It was so very tall!

I ate the first half of the sandwich and then took the guts out and mixed them with my side salad greens for an equally delicious “second course.” Go, me and my creative thinking! It was fresh and totally satisfying after a week of a lot of less-than-healthy foods.

Yummy sandwich and salad!

Stacey gave her pot pie two thumbs up as well. We were seated next to a fireplace which totally provided delightful ambiance while we ate and enjoyed our after-dinner coffee cocktail with Bailey’s. Sheer deliciousness. Stephen Starr takes his food and his ambiance verrry seriously, y’all. The least you can do is go see what he’s all about. You won’t be disappointed.

Delicious food, drinks, and ambience!

I hope to get back to Philadelphia one day and make it to more of Stephen Starr’s restaurants. So far, the man has not steered me wrong, so I feel good about setting foot and fork in more of his restaurants. I encourage you all to give his establishments a try if you are ever in the area. Stephen Starr only accounted for three of my evening meals whilst I was in the city of Brotherly Love, so there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy food outside of the Starr empire. I’ll share those foodie experiences with you all in the next blog installment. Y’all come back now, ya hear? It’ll definitely be worth it. After all, you haven’t even heard about scrapple yet. 🙂

To be continued…

Baked Pesto Shrimp

This dish is pure baked deliciousness. It’s easy (4 ingredients if you don’t count the ingredient you use to grease the pan) and is done in the time it takes you to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Well nearly, anyway. The point is that this dish rocks my world, and I think it will do the same for you. It’s also pretty versatile. If you aren’t a shrimp eater, scallops would work as would cubes of any kind of firm white fish. I’ve served the dish for special occasions like Valentine’s Day and made it when I’m the only one eating it. It’s that fancy and that simple, all at the same time. Give it a try; you’ll be glad you did.

Soooo tasty!

Baked Pesto Shrimp (adapted from Going Solo in the Kitchen)

Ingredients
3 tablespoons Panko breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons pesto
1/2 teaspoon Parmesan cheese
5 ounces peeled and deveined shrimp
wee bit o’ butter or non-stick spray

Steps
1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees and grease your baking dish. Typically, I use a smidgen of butter and smear it around the dish with a paper towel.

Smidgen of Butter

2. In a roomy bowl, mix together your pesto and 2 tablespoons of your breadcrumbs. It will be sort of crumbly, and that’s okay.
3. Add in your shrimp, and mix together. You want the pesto-breadcrumb mixture to coat around all the shrimp.


4. Put into the baking dish, in a single layer as much as possible. A little overlap is okay, but overall, you want one layer. Top with the remaining tablespoon of Panko and your Parmesan cheese.
5. Slide it into the oven for about 5 – 6 minutes.  When you take it out, give it a minute to cool, or it will scald the top layer of your tongue off, which will prevent good eats in the coming week. Just don’t leave it on top of the warm oven to cool. 🙂

Headed Into the Oven

A note about cooking shrimp: The bottom line is two-fold. Shrimp cook crazy fast, and overcooked shrimp taste crazy bad. You are looking at two indicators when discerning if the  shrimp is cooked or not. The first is color. As shrimp cooks, you’ll see it turn opaque and either a white or pink. You aren’t looking for a super dark or super bright color though. If it’s too bright or dark, chances are that you’ve overcooked it. The second is shape. Most raw shrimp are a loose sort of question mark or barely curved line shape. As they cook, they curl or tighten up. You want to watch for a C shape. The key to a C is that the ends are still kind of far apart. If the ends of the shrimp curl into each other so it’s closer to an O, that’s not a good sign. I’ve read and heard that overcooked shrimp tastes like a pencil eraser. I can promise you that I’ve never taste-tested a pencil eraser, so I cannot confirm that. However, overcooked shrimp are rubbery, chewy, and sort of challenging to eat. You’ll probably know it when you bite into it. Typically when I’m pan- cooking shrimp, I’ll leave them on their first side the longest, and then the flip side never gets more than 2 minutes. They are usually 2/3 – 3/4 of the way done when I flip. I’m hesitant to give you specific times as there are so many factors that can influence time. However, you are probably looking at 4 – 8 minutes, on average, for cooking time. It may take some practice, but don’t be intimidated. You can do it!

I used pesto that I made with this recipe, and I had tablespoon cubes in the freezer so it was super simple to pull out two cubes to defrost while I was at work. I usually keep a bag of frozen shrimp in my freezer also. The shrimp always defrosts while I’m at work, and if I forget, it is a protein that will defrost quickly while I’m prepping other parts of dinner. It just takes a little bit of cold water in a bowl, and presto-changeo – it’s defrosted! This recipe comes together so quickly that it’s a great go-to even if you’ve forgotten to plan ahead or if you’ve had a tough day and want a special meal. Even if you don’t have the recipe in front of you – remember: equal parts Panko and pesto for the mixture plus one tablespoon Panko for the topping and a sprinkle of cheese. It’s that easy.

Who Needs A Plate??

Let’s talk about Panko, people. Panko breadcrumbs are a Japanese-style breadcrumb that is rougher and has more texture than your traditional, run-of-the-mill breadcrumb. It’s not as fine as traditional breadcrumbs so you get more crunch bang for your breadcrumb buck. Because they are a more substantial breadcrumb, items that are coated with Panko hold up better under sauces before going mushy and goopy on you. They won’t keep their full crunch under a heavy sauce or under a large amount of sauce, but they will do quite nicely with a light sauce, a pan fry, an oven bake, or any other preparation where you would use breadcrumbs. Substitute Panko, and you won’t be disappointed. I’ve found Panko on the lower shelf in the breadcrumb aisle at my grocery store as well as near the sushi station. You may also want to check the Asian or international food aisle of your store. Since I’ve made the switch to Panko, I can’t think of a time in the last three years when I’ve used the regular breadcrumbs. They are just that good.

If you want to make Baked Pesto Shrimp for two people, I don’t think you necessarily need to double the whole thing – just add a couple more ounces of shrimp and one more part Panko and pesto plus serve some side dishes. Just my two cents on that. I have made it with scallops as well as a mix of shrimp and scallops. I’ve never made it with the cubes of fish although I believe it will work just as well. You may need to adjust the cooking time a little. Test the fish with a fork to see if it flakes to tell if it is done before you take it out to serve. If you try it with the fish, let me know how it goes for you. And to everyone, happy eating!

Nutritional Information – the whole thing (if you eat it for one, like I do!)
Calories: 393
Fat: 20 g
Carbs: 14. 6 g
Protein: 35. 8 g
Calcium: 23.5%
Iron: 19%