University City Dining Days

Chef Garces Likes it!

The time is upon us again.  We may be a little bit behind, but FYI: It’s UC Dining days!  So head out and try one of the many fabulous options, right in your ‘hood!

www.ucdiningdays.com

Tinto

Tapas is  a style of restaurant, one where you eat various small dishes and share them with friends over drinks, originating in Spain. Much like Bar Ferdinand, Tinto takes the Spanish origin of Tapas to heart in both its decor and in its menu offerings.

The Drinks

Tinto, like many tapas restaurants,  puts a heavy emphasis on their wine selection (see logo above).  If you discount sangria as a cocktail (which I do) there were only 4 cocktails on the menu and a meager selection of beers.  This was to be  expected, however. Wine List, Beer & Cocktail Menu

Seasonal Sangria

This summery beverage was a sweet mix of rosé wine, melon liqueur, and fresh fruit and was a perfect accompaniment to my meal.  It was incredibly girly, but delicious.  So delicious, in fact, that I had two.

Iraty
I wasn’t particularly wowed by the cocktail and beer selection. They seemed like good safe choices, but no stand outs in a restaurant which is obviously all about the wine. The Iraty consisted of Bourbon, campari, muddled lemon, and soda water (fizz on the menu) and basically ended up tasting like an old fashioned with more citrus. It could have been really watered down like the cocktails from Barbuzzo (review perhaps to come later), but it thankfully wasn’t. I felt no inclination to have a second drink when the server asked, however.

The Food

1st Course

Mahon

I like cheese a lot, but will often steer clear of cheese plates at restaurants as they usually feature blue cheeses and goat cheeses (goat cheese is way too funky for me), but I am quite often willing and ready to try almost any firm cheese that is not from goats. This was a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese that was a firm, buttery, and salty cheese that reminded me of a manchego and went great with the honey, apple slices, and quince paste they provided with it.

Jamon Serrano

I really like Serrano hams and this andalusian mountain cured ham did not fail.  It had a great chew and flavor, and a fairly lean cut. The Serrano came with an egg yolk salad that was really rich but went great with it. Both my cheese and my charcuterie came with a decent amount of bread. Not as much bread as we got at Bar Ferdinand, but an adequate amount which is more than you get at most restaurants when you order charcuterie.

Figs
These tasty little bites were serrano ham-wrapped–the perfect combination of sweet and salty.

Gazpacho
I have developed a taste for gazpacho recently, and although this combination of heirloom tomato and avocado was tasty, it wasn’t as delicious as the watermelon gazpacho at Distrito (that’s probably the only good thing we had at Distrito, however).

2nd Course

Pulpo
I am a huge fan of octopus, and I pretty much order it wherever it is available on the menu.  This beautifully composed plate also contained confit potato and stripe of piquillo pepper paint, and a delicious but slightly strange lemon “powder.”  The textures, colors, and flavors were all beautiful and very fun to look at and eat.

Merluza en Salsa Verde
I have been itching to try sea bass for a while.  This was perfect–the crispy outside was a great textural contrast to the perfectly soft fish.  The plate also had  cockles with salsa verde, which were an interesting counterpoint to the very simply prepared fish.

Butifarra

This combination of house-made garlic sausage, lentils, and pedro ximenez was probably the most interesting thing I ordered (though most interesting thing I ate was holly’s octopus), the sausage and lentils went great together and I slurped (quietly) down the broth when I was finished.

Moules Basquaise

These were really great mussels. They came with chorizo and sauce basquaise, which was delicious, although the chorizo was really in it more for flavor than for eating. This dish also came with bread for which I was pleasantly surprised and this time it was toasted to better stand up under the sauce.

Dessert

Chocolate
A simple, but delicious, flourless chocolate cake with  chocolate mousse and passionfruit sorbet.  As always, I picked up the chocolate dessert on the restaurant week menu, and although this wasn’t exactly memorable, it was tasty and a nice way to finish a meal.

Torrijas

This was dulce de leche, caramel mousse, and orange supremes–A great dish combining fresh citrus with lots of caramel flavor. It seemed that every restaurant week menu had a chocolate dessert and then some other kind of dessert and these options eventually helped us decide where to go based off of would I like desert or no as the 2nd factor. This one stood out and helped us pick Tinto and it lived up to being interesting.

Food Menu

The Design

Tinto feels moody and actually kind of “sexy” due to an interior lavished with warm woods, charcoal greys, and custom candle-lit accent walls.  We ended up being sat downstairs in what is probably usually their private dining area, which felt cozy and private (even though we were technically in the same booth as another couple).  The booths actually felt more like couches–they were soft and you actually sink into them (which may or may not be a good feature.  I have yet to decide).  The design makes you feel as if you’ve been whisked away to some exotic and somewhat undiscovered foreign locale without feeling like some Disneyland theme restaurant.  It is a very successful mood for a tapas restaurant, and I enjoyed the interior for this reason.  I will only give it a 4/5 however, because the basement area really could have been more fully realized in the concept, but hey, no one’s perfect, right?

The Overall Experience

The service was great: fast, and the tapas plates came out at all the right moments during the course of the meal.  As the hostess led us to the basement stairs I had some real trepidation about our seating arrangements, but the basement was cooler than the rest of the restaurant. It was a great date night with lots to talk about just from the food and would be a great place to take a first or second date.

The Receipt

With it being a restaurant week night, the food was only 70 dollars. the Receipt total was around 100 since I had a cocktail, Holly 2 sangrias, and we each had coffee with our dessert.  It was definitely affordable and I’m glad we went, but I know the prices are higher normally and I’m not a big enough fan of Spanish cuisine to make a return until the next restaurant week.

Our Ratings

Drinks: 4/5

Food: 5/5

Design: 4/5

Service: 5/5

Budget: 5/5 (due to restaurant week)

Overall Experience: 4/5

Will We Visit Again

Hard to say. The service and food were great, but it’s probably too expensive to not go during restaurant week (and we really like to use restaurant week to try new places).

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).