Monday, February 15, 2010

My Days Of Wine, Chocolate, and Art in Philadelphia

I will forever recollect our Valentine's stay in Philly through sparkly champagne glasses. We arrived in a city covered thick in snow- but to me it was more like the light and frothy whipped cream that tops my favorite desserts. Upon check-in at our luxe accomodations, I was graciously handed a flute of champagne along with sweet and juicy chocolate covered strawberries to nibble on. Later that evening, after admiring our bathroom and enjoying another glass or two of champagne, I zipped up my new beribboned knee-high boots (so coquettish!) and slipped on the black woollen sheath with the bejewelled collar and sleeves that I bought in a Maine thrift store during the summer (what foresight I had). We traversed the fair city of Philadelphia in order to meet Noemi and her friend David for dinner at Buddakan. We strode past stately City Hall, the famed Liberty Bell, and about half a dozen statues of Ben Franklin before arriving at the restaurant.
Buddakan was dimly lit and spacious and filled with fun nighttime energy. A waterfall to the right of us as we checked in, and a huge Buddha statue taking up an entire wall- this place was cool. I got a head start as we waited for David and Noemi to arrive by ordering a champagne concoction they referred to as Guilt, and was completely fabulous.
How lucky were we when at the last minute Noemi (our much appreciated house guest of a few weekends ago) decided to visit David? Time spent with her is always amusing and real and totally enjoyable, much like sipping a really great cocktail. By their arrival I was feeling as light and sparkly as the champagne I was drinking. We ordered well, but to be honest I don't recall each dish as sharply as I'd like- I was quite Guilty by the second course. The standouts for me was the Asian Caesar Salad with 5 spiced cashews and wonton skins fried to a crispy crunch. The Sesame Crusted Tuna was also great; seared perfectly and with a lemongrass sauce to zing things up just a bit. And dessert- I remember dessert, with the clarity I reserve for a really juicy story. It was a story, this dessert- Milk Chocolate Caramel Tart- an engrossing tale of culinary pleasure; The first chapter began with creamy caramel ganache, followed by a few notes of smooth milk chocolate mousse, and the happy ending included an dollop of classic vanilla ice cream- the unexpected twist came in the form of caramelized bananas. The evening ended happliy ever after at that point.
Sleeping in our king size bed with a million thread count sheets and fluffy marshmallow pillows was voluptuous, but it didn't ensure me waking up past my usual
7:00 AM internal alarm clock time. I took advantage of the quiet to let Hub sleep and to luxuriate in the roomy marble tub and read the novel I was saving especially for my Philly weekend a deux: Paris For Lunch- a love story wih recipes. After Hub roused we set out for the Reading Station Terminal, vowing to be measured in our brunch choices this time around and not fill up on the first thing that strikes our fancy. After an efficient walk through I settled on a cup of Matzah Ball Soup from Hershels on the East Side, which was just what I wanted and needed. The matzah ball was dense and soaked up some of the vestigial champagne still bubbling through me. I then hit the sweet spots. I started at the Metropolitan Bakery stand and was rather dissappointed by the banana walnut bundt cake- too dry. The Chocolate Layer Cake was moist, and really, anything that chocolately cannot be bad, however, it was not great. Undeterred I went to a stall filled to the brim with downhomemade cookies and yummy state fair type chocolates. I tried three different cookie varieties: peanut butter, caramel pecan, and chocolate chip. The Peanut Butter cookie should be the role model that all peanut butter cookies aspire to. Soft and perfectly peanutty- sweet and salty and moist and perfect. The other two were pretty damn good too. Hub was curled around his fresh squeezed grapefruit juice (he also enjoyed Buddakan's cocktail menu), and even ordered a second round. Our last stop was at Big City Cheese were we ordered an assortment to be enjoyed later.

We emerged to a bright and thawing Philadelphia and detoured through Old Town on the way back to the hotel. I love the old Colonial architecture of the city, and whenever in Philly I fantasize about relocating to Old Town Philly and taking up residence in one of these charming buildings.
We were seated promptly at 4 for afternoon tea downstairs at the Mary Cassatt Tea Room. Champagne was sipped as we waited for Noemi and read the menu describing afternoon tea fare such as tea sandwiches and petit pastries, scones with accompaniments. The choices for tea was varied but not overwhelmingly vast. Pretty soon, Noemi was sitting across from us enjoying a bloody mary. My favorite was the egg salad tea sandwich which is odd because I hardly ever eat egg salad. The miniature scones were totally rad-ified by the lemon curd made in-house. My choice of vanilla bean tea might've been a bit nouveau, but screw it! It was comfort in a china cup with a little milk and sugar.
Cut to Noemi's friend David's cool lofty apartment. After a little refreshment, David struck up the Beatles Wii and I indulged in one of my most secret yet utterly cliched fantasies: being a rock star. I was John Lennon in jeans leggings, Frye boots, and a 60's style tunic dress! I love the Beatles, the Beatles got me through a lot of highschool boredom and unpleasantness, so I know the music well- word by word really, and it was really hard! But really fun. We closed with Love Me Do, and then dropped Noemi off at the train station before catching our 9 o'clock reservation at Zahav.
Zahav is a hot new restaurant that the food world has embraced. It features the cuisine of Israel with an emphasis on the sephardic. It was a large attractive space. The front-end chicks weren't especially friendly, but not unfriendly either. Our waiter was sweet and smiled knowingly when I shooed away the cocktail menu. My father's side of the family is Iraqi-Israeli, this is the food I grew up with on Passover and Friday Nights, so I guess it's not fair for me to judge this restaurant's food. My grandmother's food was homey and spicy and slightly rough. Zahav is a fine restaurant so it strove for the highest end of this rustic food. I didn't love it, the best things I ordered was the spicy fried cauliflower with the tangy yogurt sauce. Dessert tasted like the chocolate spread you get in Israel, made into ice cream- which was perfectly pleasant. The salads were either too salty or too vinegary.

I let Hub sleep in a little the next morning, not as much as he would have liked. We had to be at Barnes Collection by 10:30 and I had no idea if they were strict about their appoinment policy or not. We found parking a few blocks away and dug our way through the snow tunnels in the beautiful old suburb of Merrion. I have been very excited about our outing to the Barnes Collection. It was incredible. Dr. Barnes collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art is highly impressive. He had very many Renoirs and Cezannes. I like Cezanne, Renoir's paintings are beautiful but too frothy, fluffy, and blurred for my taste. He also had quite a few paintings by Matisse, I love every stage of Matisse's style evolution, so it was so exciting to see different pieces from different times in his career. He had a few Van Gogh's which I was drawn to like a magnet- I got up as close as they would let me to study his brushstrokes and dabs. And it thrilled me to know I was witnessing a creative burst up close. I always get a little sad when I think about Van Gogh and how he was so sick and so talented and so unappreciated and so dead. Being up close to his canvases had a mixed reaction in me. In the Barnes I discovered Jacques Lifshitz's sculptures. I also loved the Modigliani's, something about his palette and his angular slightly Asian looking European women really interests me. Hub seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.
Our Jours de la Bon Vivantes was nearing an end, but not before we drove through Philadelphia's oldest and most refined suburbs. And then we got lost in a part of Philly that was old but not refined and not rich. After finding our bearings we broke out the cheese from the Reading Terminal Market, and enjoyed a moveable feast. My favorite was the Taleggio, Hub liked he Pardou from France best. The Raclette was good but probably better when melted.
And then before you knew it we were back home to our own snow covered street. It was good to see the kids, and my mother was amazing in her energy and creativity with them. As soon as I got back they were telling me all about Backwards Day, how they had dinner for breakfast and slept in their clothes. Genius that she is, she got my little moppets to happily take a bath as soon as they woke up in the morning.
I have the rest of the week with them as it is mid-winter recess, a placement in the calendar I'll never understand. I have a Passover sweets article to write by wednesday and the one recipe I've tested failed miserably. Also need to figure out cooking class plans for the two kiddie coooking collectives I have the week before the most festive and kid geared of Jewish holidays- Purim. I'll have to get my Bon Vivant fix in snatches- a smear of taleggio on a water cracker here, a cup of sweet milky tea in a china cup there, a chapter or two of Paris for Lunch before I fall asleep. Lemon curd on a muffin for breakfast. Frame the Matisse print we got at the Barnes gift shop. Gotta get it however you can.

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