Distrito

Jose Garces makes his way into University City with his brightly colored journey into Mexican Tapas.  Distrito, unfortunately, is like POD: all color and no flavor (read: designed for college students).  We went for University City Dining days, so we got a deal on food, but unfortunately that price included a lot of noise, bad service, and tasteless food.

The Drinks

If you scan for cocktails and beer selections on either the regular menu or the happy hour menu you won’t find much of a selection as wine seems to be the drink of choice at most Garces restaurants. The “drink” menu has around 100 different tequilas on it, but other than being used in a few flights most of them just sit there–versus the real drink menu at Dos Segundos that features a dozen different margaritas, each with its own (different) tequila upgrades.  Even the flight offerings at Dos Segundos make more sense than those at Distrito as they are paired by or in contrast to styles, production regions, or aging techniques rather than just by distiller or  blanco, reposado, or anejo.

I started off with a Michelada (cerveza with salt, lime, and spices) which is something I’ve always wanted to try. I liked it, but its hard to judge it since I don’t have any thing to compare it to.  Holly and I both got a special drink pairing which consisted of 3 cocktails matched with the 3 courses offered in the UC Dining Days menu.  We started off with a basic margarita that was well made and had the proper balance of ingredients, but was without any salt on the rim (Not that Holly minded). The second cocktail was a hard lemonade made with Tito’s vodka that was refreshing and tart, but I was expecting tequila in all the drinks since this is a Mexican restaurant (a symptom of theme park restaurants is to make vodka cocktails as the lack of flavor in vodka makes them more universal).  Lastly we had white russian (Mexican-style) with vanilla vodka and Patron xo substituted for the Kahlua, which may as well have been normal vodka with Kahlua because it tasted essentially the same.

On a final note, drinks come out at different times from food which is always fine, except when those drinks are advertised as course pairings. All of our drinks came out way too early or way too late which completely defeated the point of them being pairings and lead to a lack of quality in the drinking experience.  I great and unnecessary disappointment, as the drinks were actually well-made and tasted alright despite their intended universal appeal.

The Food

The University City Dining Days menu consisted of a wide variety of offerings.  each course got to pick two items, which allowed for a great variety and should have provided a great experience.  Unfortunately, the variety may have actually been the downfall in this case as very few of our dishes were actually satisfying.

Josh:
Ceviche de Camarones:
I was excited to have ceviche in the first time in over a year, but my hopes were dashed as this was basically butterflied shrimp in a fancier version of cocktail sauce.
Frejoles Refritos:
One of the few highlights of the night, the re-fried beans had a sprinkle of cheese over them and were the perfect texture and flavor. The chips provided by the restaurant to go with this and the guacamole ordered by our friends were half the reason I enjoyed this 1st course tapas as much as I did.
Tacos de Carnitas:
I’ve been on a big pulled pork/roasted pork bend for the past month our two when we go out so I jumped on the chance to get these carnita tacos, but I was severely let down. The pork wasn’t very juicy and both it and the accoutrements in the tacos lacked and strong flavors to mix or standout.
Los Callos:
The best thing I ate the whole night and something I would definitely like to have again. The scallops were perfectly cooked and the habenero reduction had tons of flavor, but none of the heat that could have overwhelmed the scallops. Add to that the chopped onions and greens underneath to cut the richness of the scallops and you have the only balanced dish I had all night.
Tres Leches
Having recently visited  Dos Segundos a week before this and eating their Tres Leches I was again let down by Distrito. It was small for the UC Dining Days menu, but the main issue was again a lack of any strong or standout flavors which couldn’t stand up to the super milky tres leches from Dos Segundos which came with uber-fresh strawberries and blueberries.

Holly:
Ceviche de Pulpo:
I love octopus.  I order it everywhere I go.  Don’t order it here, unless of course you just want three slices of unseasoned cephalopod with some guacamole at the bottom of the bowl.
Gazpacho:
This was the only really good part of my meal.  Cool and refreshing watermelon and cucumber, with a fun kick of chile oil.
Squash Blossom Quesadilla:
Just because it’s vegetarian, doesn’t mean it can’t taste like anything.
Mole Amarillo:
This wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t the bold flavor of mole I expected.  The sauce was citrusy and well seasoned, but the (rabbit) meat was as flavorless as chicken breast and it carelessly sat on boring plain white rice.
Los Frios (Flan):
Bite-sized now has a whole new meaning.  A spoonful of flan, a teeny tiny crouton, and a microscopic piece of mango.  Not enough flavor to be so small.

The Design

The walls are pink and the bar top is highlighter-yellow resin with real scorpions in it.  Need I say more?  This place is exactly what I meant by “Disneyland” in the Bar Ferdinand review.  It’s definitely meant to be cheesy – like an overdone version of stereotypes of Mexico – but if I am being asked to accept tiny little food portions for a 5 star price, I don’t want to be sitting on plaid vinyl surrounded by strange plastic dowel dividers and teaberry-pink wood paneling.  I love a cheesy design if it’s done right, but the decor at Distrito just makes me want to punch a Penn student and then go to Dos Segundos for some good old-fashioned Tex-Mex.

The Overall Experience

Not only were we disappointed with our meals, but the service was awful.  It was incredibly slow, and the waitress even had the nerve to be rude to one of our friends at the table for not wanting to order food.  Lady, he wanted to order a lot of drinks–don’t you see that means more money for you?  If your restaurant doesn’t have a policy about not ordering drinks at tables, you can’t give your guests crap when they just want to drink (ESPECIALLY if 4 other people are ordering food).  As Josh mentioned before, the timing of drink arrival was a joke– and besides that there was a ridiculously long wait between each food course arriving as well. The place wasn’t actually all that busy, either.  It just seemed careless and like the wait staff was poorly trained: NOT what I would expect from the restaurant of a celebrity chef.

The Receipt

The only good thing about this experience is that we got to sample a wide variety of food and drinks for the UCity dining days price. 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, and a dessert each, plus 7 drinks (because of the $15 drink pairing menu), was about $120 after tip.

Our Ratings

Drinks: 2/5

Food: 2/5

Design: 3/5

Service: 2/5

Budget: 3/5

Overall Experience: 2/5

Will We Visit Again:

Definitely not.  It’s unfortunate because we are big fans of Jose Garces, but  Distrito just left us with a bad taste in our mouth (literally and figuratively).

Bar Ferdinand


Located on 2nd Street across from the Piazza at Schmidt’s, Bar Ferdinand draws its name from the bull in The Story of Ferdinand and that inspiration features heavily into the restaurant’s design and cuisine.  Scenes of Bullfighting and roses throughout the restaurant and the tapas, like the word itself, are definitively Spanish in origin.

The Drinks

The drinks are nothing if not interesting for their names, but like most cocktail menus at restaurants the options listed are for the ladies. There were some exceptions though and I ordered the Barcelona (Bulleit Bourbon, Licor 43, bitters, brandied cherries) which was just a really well-made Manhattan. I also ordered a Throwback Lager (Victory Brewing) on draft which was refreshing. Holly had the sangria and said it was quite good, but beyond that they did seem to have a large wine selection which makes Bar Ferdinand a great place for the wine and tapas crowd. Currently there is a gin drink in the cocktail line-up that sounds very intriguing as well so if you go, try the Seville (Tanqueray, Pimm’s, fresh muddled blueberries).

The Food

Tapas:

Almendras de Marcona

We started off with these lightly roasted marcona almonds. The sea salt and the olive oil made these a great snack while we had our first drinks and waited on food. I’m a sucker for any kind of roasted or spiced nuts at bars.

Plato de Queso & Surtido de Carnes

Two separate small plates that had to be paired together for maximum satisfaction. Charcuterie and cheese boards are one of the main reasons Holly and I go out to restaurants.  The cheese plate selections are seasonal, but the meats are always Serrano ham, chorizo, chorizo blanco, and lomo. Both selections came with specific jams, sauces, or spreads to compliment the flavors of the cheeses and meats and most importantly of all they actually gave us the correct amount of bread. One of the greatest disappointments when we go to a restaurant and order charcuterie is that often we only get 4 slices of bread off of a french loaf for an amount of charcuterie that requires double or triple that in an effort to skimp or to nickel and dime customers.

Cerdo Frito – Josh
Consisting of  slow fried pork, Mahon cheese, roasted peppers & onions,  with whole grain mustard this tapas sized sandwich had a flavor profile very similar to a cuban sandwich.  The bread was nice and crispy and the cheese was gooey and the pork had so much flavor.

Queso de Cabra Cocinado – Holly
Baked Caña de Cabra goat cheese, roasted garlic, honey, pinenuts, sage, toasted bread. Unfortunately we lost our notes on this one, but I remember Holly enjoying it at the time.

Dãtiles con Tocino

This was probably the favorite food item for both of us that night. A perfectly fried empanada filled with dates, bacon, cream cheese, honey and almonds.  This dish tasted like a rich and hot version of a baklava with some added smokiness from the bacon.  All the varying textures and flavors meshed and I would happily revisit Bar Ferdinand just to order some of these delicious empanadas again.

Dessert: Churro con Chocolate

I love churros, but when I say that I’m talking about the really commercialized giant sugary twists that you buy from little trucks in theme parks.  This was not that, but was more delicious and quite nice. The plate came with 5 or so perfectly cooked little churros about the length of a finger accompanied by a small dish of chocolate dipping sauce.  I’m not normally a big fan of chocolate but it was had great flavor and paired really well with the crispy churros.

Torrija de Manzana

Holly’s desert choice consisted of cider soaked fry bread, cinnamon ice cream and candied orange zest. This type of desert was right up her alley and I really enjoyed the taste I got of it as well.  The juicy crispness of the cider-bread was really complimented by the creamy cinnamon flavor of the ice cream with the candied orange zest making a nice edible garnish over the whole dish that added some flavor.

The Design

Ole!

Most theme restaurants leave me with feelings of being in Disney Land, without all of the magic.  Bar Ferdinand, however, is a classy take on a theme.  The restaurant is distinctly Spanish: from the bar adorned with dried roses reminiscent of those thrown to a successful Matador, to the Moorish-inspired gold leaf ceiling and arched doorways, to the warm golden hues in the tile mosaics on the walls.  The design is just right for a place that serves classy tapas, and it made me feel good about spending money on small plates.  The design was elevated and refined.  So was the food.  This is a mistake that so many restaurants make: either the decor is too casual/crazy for the prices, or the decor is so over-designed that it feels out of place.  It was refreshing to eat at a place that held in balance the ideas of their food and their decor as a unit, rather than trying to accomplish too many schemes in one small restaurant.

The Receipt

For just over 100 dollars (pre-tip) we got two drinks each, an appetizer, 5 different tapas plates, deserts for each of us and cappuccinos. You could get less and spend as much at Bar Ferdinand but there are lot of tapas options that are nearer to 5 dollars than 10 that let you experience more flavors for less with no loss in quality.

The Overall Experience

Bar Ferdinand had great service, a great look, and great food.  The seats were comfortable (gasp!), the lighting was perfect, and although the air conditioning was a little over-zealous, I couldn’t have been happier with the whole package at Ferdinand.

Our Ratings

Drinks: 4/5

Food: 5/5

Design: 5/5

Service: 5/5

Budget: 4/5

Overall Experience: 5 /5

Will We Visit Again: Yes.  While Bar Ferdinand didn’t have the greatest selection of drinks, the skill of the bartenders and the wide and well prepared selection of tapas more than made up for it.  The restaurant was pleasant and the service was excellent.

Visit Bar Ferdinand’s Website

University City Dining Days

Credit Crunch Alert:

Hey Folks, this is just a quick heads-up that University City Dining Days is coming up–yep, your favourite downtown event just moved out west!

UCity Dining Days

The event features close to 30 restaurants at 3 different price points. for $15, $25, or $30 you’ll get 3 courses and a great, cheap, restaurant experience.

There are some great deals there.  Josh and I will be trying to check out Distrito (5 items for 30 bucks) and Midatlantic (one of our local favourites for its tongue-in-cheek treatment of local favorites, including veggie scrapple and Tastycake bread pudding).  Other places to try include Vietnam Cafe for some tasty Asian fare, and Biba Wine bar, the baby sister to the ever-loved Tria family.

Go forth and enjoy your eats for the cheap!