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

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Pho and Cafe Saigon

I wanted to try Pho and Cafe Saigon, upon the recommendation of our friend Jake and the pre-tested menu by Josh.  It’s also only a few block from our house, so it was the choice place to impulse buy dinner before I had to jet off to roller derby practice.

Since this was my first real foray into ANY kind of truly Asian restaurant, I was a little intimidated by the curt service and the fact that the people who frequent this joint really are Vietnamese, and speak the language.  I can only imagine how obnoxious us whities are to the owners (who did set up a restaurant in the middle of Penn-land, so I guess I can’t feel too sorry for them).

Josh and I kept it safe.  He got a rice flake platter, and I went for the brisket Pho.  I like “nasty-bits” so I probably would have really enjoyed some beef tendon, but I will just have to go back for it.  Not that going back is going to be a problem: This Pho was delicious!  The brisket was tender, and actually what I am always expecting when I order brisket at a BBQ place.  The condiments we enjoyable.  The noodles were chewy, had a nice texture and really soaked up the flavor of the broth.  And that broth!  I also really enjoyed how hands-on Pho is.  It’s kind of cathartic to go through the ritual of adding the noodles, hot sauce, meats, and bean sprouts into the broth, letting them soak, then eating slowly with chopsticks and a spoon.

We got take-out this time, so no opinions are really necessary on the decor or service (although they had some pretty sweet looking fish tanks in there).  All I can say is, if you haven’t gotten in on the Pho craze yet, you definitely should try it out at Pho and Cafe Saigon.

Menu (from menupages)

Midatlantic

Midtatlantic takes University City to the next level in regards to cuisine.  Chef Daniel Stern (of R2L) has fun with the foods of the Midatlantic states and creates a restaurant the encourages exploration.  With items like crab or vegetable scrapple, Tastycake bread pudding, and a multitude of local craft beers, this restaurant has an original and delicious menu that gives a West Philadelphia foodie a chance to come up for air from all the pizza and freezer burgers in the area.

The Drinks

Josh: The Stovepipe

Basically an adult root beer float, but way classier than those words sound. Made with Bourbon, Navan, Drambuie & Root Beer, The Stovepipe was designed by head chef Daniel Stern.  The drink definitely had bold root beer flavors and was a great way to start the meal while we waited for our food.

Rumspringa 2.0

I had the Rumspringa in its first version around when Midatlantic had recently opened. I enjoyed the drink at the time, but it was hard to find the bite of the rye in the cider it was mixed in (really great cider though). RumSpringa 2.0 is made with Rye, Aita Snap, Bitters, Maple & Burnt Orange and was a much more potent and enjoyable drink. All of the flavors complemented one another and it was nice to have a cocktail with Snap in it (vs. the much more proliferated Root by Art in the Age).

Holly: Shrub

I always have the shrub when I got to Midatlantic.  It has gone through a few evolutions.  it has always included fresh fruit, vinegar, and a little sugar with a spirit.  Originally you could choose the spirit, but they learned that the best of us order gin drinks.  The newest variation has gin with fresh muddled berries and tarragon in the mix, and the sweet and sour profile of the drink is very refreshing.  It is a unique drink that I have not seen made in other bars, so when at Midatlantic I jump at the chance to have it.

The Food

Appetizer: Meat and Cheese Board

Now THIS is what charcuterie should always be like. 3 different kinds of meat (plus a terreine), 4 kinds of cheese, condiments, and a pickle jar!  Plus they serve it with a varied assortment of breads in an amount appropriate to the size of the plate.This enormous appetizer is recommended for 2-4 people, and it could easily feed more.  The actual items will change out frequently, but this time we had the pleasure of sampling a house cured summer sausage that was pleasant (if not a little bland) and a chorizo with a great kick. The cheeses, much to Josh’s chagrin, included a soft goat cheese (which actually was quite clean tasting rather than the usual funk of a goat cheese) and the local “Tommenator“, a Tomme style that is brined with Troegs Troegenator double bock.

Main Courses

Josh: The Midatlantic (Burger)

I’ve had this burger before, but there’s about the flavor combinations that keep me coming back. The burger is always cooked exactly how I order (medium rare for me, thank you) and comes with their house made summer sausage sliced on top with horseradish cheddar and pickles.  The Ma Chips are a must. These house made kettle crunch chips are perfectly cooked and fresh and really help the burger to standout from the crowd.

Holly: Corned beef and Cabbage

Rich and delicious!  Corned beef and cabbage is one of my favorite meals (thanks to my father) and this variation was perfect.  The meat was incredibly tender and rich, the cabbage was well cooked but not soggy, and the cute assortment of multicolor potatoes, baby beets, and long slices of carrot were not only delicious but really beautiful to look at. It was topped with a horseradish cream and a couple of croutons (which I could have done without, truthfully).  The whole thing was buttery, savory, and incredibly satisfying.

Dessert:Simmons Chocolate and Peanut Butter Pie

Okay, so this specific time we didn’t get dessert (that meat and cheese board is a beast) but you MUST try this peanut butter pie.  Each little pie is made in an individual (sharable) portion, which is filled with a rich chocolatey -peanutty mouse, and topped with pretzels!  Sweet and salty–feeding our stereotypical foodie nature to its very core.

The Design

Midatlantic has a great interior.  It takes the industrial vibe that is ever so popular in this city and makes it just refined enough that it is appropriate to the level of cuisine it accompanies.  The floors are of polished concrete, which always looks great in my opinion (and it’s really easy to keep clean).  The lights are custom pieces made from bundles of fluorescent tubes with wild looking red wires escaping from the tops into the ceiling, which was left uncovered.  Along the back wall, sheets of wood in various shades of yellow, red, and green create an interesting texture that also draws attention to the open kitchen area and bar, which also had the keg room exposed to draw attention to the plethora of craft brews available.  There is also a private room that is separated from the main dining floor by a sheet metal wall with tiny windows punched through, giving a small peak of any parties that me be planned.  Besides  the fact that the now-ubiquitous Emeco Navy chair was used, this interior is highly original and very successful.

The Overall Experience

This visit the place was actually pretty busy (which is not usual during dinner time as Midatlantic seems to do its biggest business at lunch) so the service was just a tad slow.  But our waitress was polite, very knowledgeable, and eager to help us make good choices in both food and drink.  We also sat outside this time, which was very pleasant due to the glass division protecting us from people on the street and the swanky firepit in the middle of the outside patio.

The Receipt

Midatlantic is definitely not the cheapest place around (especially not in the proximity of its University City neighbors).  This trip we go three cocktails, an appetizer, and two entrees for around $100 before tip.  The great thing about this price range, however, is that the restaurant wont become overrun with rowdy college students during game time, and the quality of food and portion sizes are really worth the slightly higher price tag.  It’s not a place to go every couple of days after work, but it’s great for impressing a date or a quiet evening with a friend or two.

Our Ratings

Drinks: 5/5

Food: 5/5

Design: 5/5

Service: 4/5

Budget: 3/5

Overall Experience: 4/5

Will We Visit Again

Yes, and we already have a few times.  This is one of our favorite places due to its proximity to our home, the fact that it is usually quiet, and the great selection of interesting food and drink.

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).

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!