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Restaurant Chat: Cask-conditioned beer and po-boys

Craig: Hello, my hungry friends, and welcome back to the Philly food chat that'll make your stomach growl.

Hello, my hungry friends, and welcome back to the Philly food chat that'll make your stomach growl. What's been on your plates this week? I've been busy eating, of course, as you can tell from today’s Crumb Tracker Quiz. Name these three dishes in order, and win a signed copy of my book: 1) hand-shaved noodles with seafood soup; 2) tortilla Espanola (and “caramellos de morcilla”); 3) roasted sturgeon kabob. Ready, set…start crumbing!

Also, I wanted to mention something that has nothing to do with Philadelphia restaurants, but everything to do with one of America’s great young chefs. I was thrilled to hear from a good friend last week that one of my most favorite cooks from New Orleans, Anne Kearney, has resurfaced with a new restaurant near Dayton, Ohio. For those that new her wondrous country French-creole cooking at Peristyle, it was a great disappointment when she sold the restaurant a few years ago and decided to move back to her home state of Ohio to farm veggies. Of course, Kearney had suffered from a brain aneurism, which sidelined her for a while, and really put the hard-pace of restaurant life into perspective. She had cooked for a while at Peristyle afterwards (some devotees actually thought her food was even better after the incident), but she understandably needed a break....(MORE>>>)

Kearney's departure from the NOLA scene stoked a disappointment, the closest to which I can imagine here in Philly was the departure of the original owners of Django. Well, I’m so glad to hear she’s back in the kitchen, healthy and happy (and cooking in my hemisphere of the country, no less!) She is one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever reviewed. So, if anyone happens to be swinging through Dayton this holiday season, please, stop in and give report back.


Well, Mike, there aren't many restaurants these days that aren't within a half-block walk of an ATM. So, if that fails you, put your dish washing gloves on!

Craig, As a server in a local independent, I've been getting requests for temperatures of "medium, medium rare", "medium plus" etc..This phrasing seems to be chain speak, who's doing this?? The five choices seem to have worked for decades, what's with this new trend? Support your local independents!

Hi John - your response to that chain lingo reminds me of the look I had recently at an independent cafe when I accidentally asked for a "tall" coffee. It was withering. Anyway, our lexicon definitely evolves over time for better or worse. That said, I think restaurants have a hard enough time agreeing over the old words. How many times have I argued with a waiter at a steakhouse chain that a steak still cold and blood red in the center was NOT medium rare? On the flip side, I'll never forget the time a manager at Loie tried to tell my guest (the Inquirer's food editor) that her steaming gray and juiceless burger was "Medium Rare."

Hey Craig- I'm Philly transplant now in DC; the food here just does not compare. Do you travel to other cities to do comparisons with Philadelphia?

Dear Philly in DC - this sounds familiar.....did you do an apartment swap withe the fellow from DC who came complaining to this chatroom about Philly restaurants last week? Seriously, I do travel from time to time, but it is so hard to know another city as intimately as I know Philly. You can only scratch the surface in New York. I'd say I know New Orleans as well - because I worked there. But true comparisons are hard to make unless you plan on staying for a few weeks with a major eating budget.

This guy again!?

Down, Tonyjlive! I think it's his Philly-centric cousin!

1) penne 2)cafe apamato 3)golden gate

Hank - you nailed #2, Apamate, where I had a great meal last week (the churros with chocolate and dulce de leche are otherworldly good - but they would have been too easy a clue). The other two, I'm afraid, are incorrect.

it's a looooong half block from the Birchrunville Cafe to an ATM! (cheap shot! sorry!)

Scott - Birchrunville is in horse country, of course, so there will be plenty of other unpleasant chores for you there, I'm sure. At the very least, you could prune the chef's herb garden out back.

Craig I wanted to give a shout out to some places I've enjoyed over the last week. We can't seem to get enough of the Royal Tavern. Great burger, beers and homey atmosphere. Pumpkin suppied us with an incredible meal as I was very impressed with what the kitchen turned out. And lastly Fiorella's, who continues to provide me with quality sausage week after week.

Tonyjlive - thanks for this list of highlights from the past week. Glad to hear the good reports on Pumpkin and Royal Tavern, two old favorites that are still doing well. As for Fiorella's, I love their sausage, too, especially the provolone one. They also are a source for some of the most tender pork cutlets I've cooked. You've got to love the century old ambiance (brass scales, deeply divoted cutting block), as well as the Old Wold world approach to business - despite the limited hours. Those are treasures that make Philly unique. And the Italian Market is full of them.

Craig, Do you know of any bars in the city offering cask-condition beer?

Sam - that's a great question. I believe you are asking about beers that are hand-pumped through gravity and carbonated with softer nitrogen, rather than CO2, which gives a creaminess not unlike Guinness. I'm sort of blanking off the top of my head, but this is really a growing trend. I've seen beer engines at all the obvious beer destinations, like the Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda's, of course, but so many other restaurants are starting to install them, too. Which is especially great for local beers, like Yards, which show their freshness and subtlety with a little less carbonation and a slightly warmer temp. If anyone out there can fill in the blanks - who has beer engines and cask conditioned ale?

Hi Craig ... As a young chef in the city I am becoming disillusioned by the number of restaurants that are less about the food and more about the event (like the large one I'm a Sous Chef in). Where in or around the city cna I find a place or open a place that is more about the food quality and flavor?

Hi Young Chef - I understand what it's like to be in the middle of a big, busy, all-consuming place. But if you manage to look up, I believe this city's scene is tailor made for ambitious young cooks like you. The whole BYOB, wine bar, gastro-pub scene has provided plenty of outlets from good young cooks to express themselves - far more than a scene dominated by corporate restaurants and high-ticket expense account places, which, increasingly, are fading into the woodwork. This isn't always true, of course. There are a lot of major restaurants where the chefs are serious about food, and have mentored entire generations of new talent. Maybe it's not so much the format, but the place you're in and the folks you're working for that don't fit. Let us know, on occasion, how your search for the perfect place turns out.

O'neals on third street & south has a hand pump

for cask conditioned beers: almost, if not all, local microbreweries that have restaurants (victory, general lafayatte,iron hill, lancaster brewing, etc.), and as you say, any serious beer bar (e.g. drafting room, flying pig, tj's everyday, teresa's next door). TND's casks are in the same room as the other kegs so their cask beer is served colder than a purist would like

thanks for this, Scott, and I totally agree with you on the temp at Teresa's Next Door. Their cask conditioned ale is too cold for the genre. You get the creamy texture, but not the warmer cellar temperature that really highlights the flavor. (Otherwise, though, I think TND is a very worthy new addition to the Main Line scene...)

Sounds like Eric Ripert is opening a more casual restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton. Your Thoughts?

Sam - I won't be able to comment on Ripert's restaurant until it actually opens. What, exactly, does "casual" mean in the Ritz-Carlton rotunda? And what does casual mean for Ripert? He is certainly one of the best French chefs in America, and I look forward to tasting his venue here. I do fear it will be just a "branded" cafe where Ripert rarely shows up (like a Casino restaurant) but that will be his challenge. The Ritz, IMO, could use a reimaging for its foodservice anyway. I'll be most interested to see how they fit a dining room into the rotunda. Their two current dining spaces - in the grill and behind the pillars, has always been just a little off center.

Nitrogen charged beers are actually different from cask conditioned beers. Cask conditioning is simply the process of allowing the fermentation to continue in the keg. But you do get a finer carbonation and they are typically served either via a hand pump or by gravity. It would be easier to say who does not have a hand pump in Philly these days - 700 Club, the Abbey, The Grey Lodge, Standard, JB's. I'd avoid the Yards though - it's certainly gone down hill since the break-up - shame really. FYI - most of the beer served on a hand pump is not actually cask conditioned.

Bubbles - I'm still working on my degree in Beer U., so thanks very much for this quickie lesson, as well as the suggestions and clarifications.

I shouldn't have had that cheesesteak! I might have played better if I opted not too!

The real question, Yao, is did you order that cheesesteak at Geno's in Mandarin, or English, like you were supposed to?

Hi Craig - I had a cask-conditioned Hop-Devil at London Grill - very nice!

Craig, since you worked in New Orleans is there a place in Philly to get a good Po Boy and what exactly is in one?

No, Sophie. New Orleans food is one of those elusive things that is a perpetual disappointment to any native eating abroad. There are a few decent fried oyster sandwiches in town, like the one I had years ago at Grace Tavern. But with po-boys, the major problem is always the bread, which in Philly, is too crusty to be a real po-boy. A NOLA loaf is so delicate, it's almost a cloud in a crust, and while that may not be great for some things, it allows something very delicate like seafood to not be squished. Sometimes, though, I can overlook bread. The Countryside Deli in Swarthmore, for example, makes one of the best muffuletta-type sandwiches I've had outside New Orleans, though their crusty country bread isn't right either. It's worth stopping over in Swarthmore for lunch. And it's HUGE!

Or for that matter a good etouffee?

Brett - It' s almost impossible to find a good etouffee, even in New Orleans. You'll have to travel a couple hours west to Cajun country where they really know how to cook a crawdad. The secret, of course, is the crawfish fat.

I'm runnning over th Swarthmore now. Thanks

The Countryside also makes a sandwich called the "Countryside" that has a homemade olive tapenade. It is unbelievable.

Actually, Marty, the "countryside" is exactly the sandwich I was talking about. It's inspired by the muffuletta, the Italian meats and olive salad, but they are correct not to call it a muffuletta because the bread is different. Still, it's as close as a Yankee can get.

Every Wednesday at the Standard Tap they are now putting a cask conditioned firkin on the bar.

crumb tracker. 1) Nanzhou, 2) Cafe Apamato, 3) Piroshki. Second. I'm going to the Standard Tap shortly after Christmas for lunch with some college friends. Guess I'll have to look forward to the cask-conditioned ale to see what's it about.

John - you've added one correct answer to the quiz - Nan Zhou, the wonderful little Chinatown joint where they stretch noodles by hand, and also shave little noodle ribbons from dough straight into a pot of broth. They also, by the way, make what is perhaps the thinnest-skinned wontons I've ever, ever, ever eaten. They look like little noodle ghosts floating in the bowl (with an aroma of sesame oil and cilantro wafting up) and I just have to restrain myself from snapping them all up in one gulp. As for number 3, sorry, that isn't it.

I got back from nola last week where i was tripping over amazing po boys at every corner it seemed. Craig, My family is from LA and I can only eat gumbo etc. from my own kitchen, do you keep the roux going in your kitchen?

Did you eat po-boys at the Parkway Tavern in Bayou St. John? they are the best - especially those roast beef ones. I'm also a huge fan of the seafood gumbo over at Liuzza's by the Track nearby. As for my own roux? I'm afraid I've been weaned off the flour and oil in Philly. As your blood thickens to stand the cold, there's no need for such thick roux.

On the po-boy question - I've found the baguettes (sold for $1.45) at O Sandwiches (on 9th st south of Pat's & Geno's) to be very similar in texture to New Orleans french bread. You're right, there is nothing exactly like it, but O's baguettes are the closest I've found here.

Hello, fellow New Orleanian - THANK YOU for reminding me of these. Actually, yes, I have to say that the rolls you'll typically find with the Vietnamese hoagies have a crust that is just about as delicate as a New Orleans loaf. I think O is pretty good, but actually, I prefer the rolls most of the other hoagie shops use. Ironically, they get them made specially from....Sarcone's.

1) penne 2)cafe apamato 3)golden gate

Sorry, Hank, Golden Gate isn't it, either, though you're getting warmer.

I recently tried Mercado at 12 and Spruce and found it very enjoyable. I heard the place accross the street is owned by the same person - any truth to that, and if so how is the food there?

Yes, Frank, Mercato and Valanni are both owned by George Anni, and Mercato's chef, Evan Turney, has cooked at both. Honestly, I haven't been to either in years, but I've been hearing a steady positive buzz, and they are both brimming with a lively scene ever time I pass by. Maybe it's time for a couple revisits? Next year....

Is #3 Emperor?

Nyet...Sorry, John. But you're still warm.

Two weeks ago I had the best crab cake of my life at North 3rd. It had a great crisp outside with plum tomato, pinnapple, greens and a light dressing. But my question is, who has the best gnocchi in the area. I'm partial to Jakes, and then Snackbar and Osteria.

Brian - thanks for the crab cake report, but the "best gnocchi" challenge is worth an entire discussion. So, I'm going to call this week's chat perfectly cooked, and take on that dish at a future date. Perhaps we'll find another Crumb Tracker in a week, or so. Until then, may you all be well, and eat something worth bragging about!