If I’d been asked about my expectations of Philadelphia’s food scene before my first visit there, I probably would have confessed I didn’t have any: I’d heard about the cheesesteak and pretzels, but not much else.
So I was definitely in for a surprise when I visited for the first time two years ago, and left raving about the meals I’d had. And given that I’ve lived in New York City for years, the bar was set high.
I returned to Philadelphia for the third time last weekend on a trip with three girlfriends from college. Like I always do before a trip, I researched the best restaurants in town and we set up reservations.
My friends and I did some sightseeing, but a lot of our weekend involved catching up over really great food.
We started off with afternoon tea at The Dandelion Pub, a British pub by Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr. We spent at least three hours there catching up, and they never rushed us.
The afternoon tea menu included specialty cocktails. One favourite was the Summer Beer Flip: Bacardi rum, apricot marmalade, chocolate bitters, a whole egg, prima pils, and cinnamon.
The deviled eggs were an afterthought. We saw them pass by en route to another table, and had to add them to the order. They tasted of curry, Old Bay, and Tabasco, and we all agreed we'd never had better.
Since it's a British pub, I expected The Dandelion to do fish and chips right — and I was not disappointed. They came with house-made tartar sauce and triple cooked chips.
The Queen Victoria's Chicken Coronation Sandwich with tandoori curry mayonnaise, cucumber cilantro yogurt, and a watercress apple salad was also excellent.
Afternoon tea had drawn us here, so we couldn't pass up the cookie plate that accompanied tea. It included vanilla shortbread biscuits, scones, devon cream, lemon curd, and homemade raspberry jam.
We started with a cheese plate. The accompaniments were unique: Truffled Lavender Honey with aged Manchego, Garlic Dulce de Leche with Garrotxa, and Chocolate Hazelnut Purée with Ermesenda (which won our vote).
Next came gazpacho with a twist. This version was made from yellow tomatoes and came with jumbo lump crab and avocado. An extremely refreshing cold soup.
We followed with the Lechon Spanish Flatbread: Braised Pork Shoulder, Broccolini, Pickled Guindillas, and Fig Mustard. Guindillas are a medium-hot Spanish pepper.
Reviews I read before dining at Amada said the Piquillos Rellenos, or crab-stuffed peppers, were a must-try. They were loaded with seasoned jumbo lump crab (no filler) and topped with paprika aioli and toasted almonds.
The next morning was brunch at Beau Monde, a creperie south of Independence Park. Their cast-iron crepe makers are imported from Brittany, the French region known for crepes since the Middle Ages.
Beau Monde's menu lists individual ingredients and sauces that can be combined and made to order. This is strawberry with creme Anglaise. If you're wondering what creme Anglaise is, imagine melted vanilla ice cream.
The menu also includes suggested combinations. I always opt for something that I'd have difficulty making myself, so I chose smoked trout, leeks, and creamed spinach with poached eggs in a savory buckwheat crepe.
For dinner we headed to Barbuzzo, the reservation I'd been anticipating most. Barbuzzo is one of six restaurants and boutiques located on 13th street and started by entrepreneurs Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran in a (successful) effort to turn around the neighbourhood.
Everyone said to try the sheep's milk ricotta with grilled country bread. The ricotta was whipped and creamy, and came flavored with olive oil, vin cotto (a liquid of slow-cooked grapes), herbs and sea salt. It was amazing.
Barbuzzo's pizza is accompanied by fresh dried oregano and a red pepper paste — with more kick than your standard red pepper flakes.
Barbuzzo's fresh spinach ravioli have a mascarpone cheese filling, with sautéed leeks, nettles, and charred carrot in almond brown butter.
An entree called Tonnarelli Nero made me curious, so I had to order it. It turned out to be clams with smoked chourico sausage, chiles, mint, and manzanilla sherry over black linguine.
If you look up Barbuzzo reviews, not one neglects to mention the Salted Caramel Budino dessert. What's the big deal? This decadent dessert consists of layers of chocolate crust and vanilla bean caramel pudding laced with sea salt, and a whipped tart cream on top.
Barbuzzo's Salted Caramel Budino definitely lived up to the hype. We took turns eating it and jealously eyeing each other. We almost ordered three more (I still regret that we didn't!).
The next morning we continued to satisfy our sweet tooth at Federal doughnuts. Philly natives are so crazy about the fresh doughnuts at this mini-chain, with three locations around the city, that they sometimes sell out.
Despite the name, Lemon Cream was not actually cream-filled — the tartness seemed to be infused in the sugar coating. It was my favourite flavour. The menu also includes coffee, doughnuts, and chicken, but this time I stuck to doughnuts.
The grand finale to our Philadelphia dining tour was Capigiro Artisanal Gelato. The gelato from this Philly mini-chain is some of the best on earth: National Geographic named it the #1 place to eat ice cream.
The menu offered a gelato with brioche, a scoop inside a toasted sugar-encrusted brioche. I went for the Amarena gelato, made from a sour black cherry grown in Italy that's frequently made into syrups and liquors. I've had Amarena gelato in Florence, but for me, Philadelphia is a lot more convenient.
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