Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vetri, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways...

It's restaurant week (er, weeks) here in Philly, and what do I do?

I have a surprise birthday dinner at one of the few restaurants not participating in restaurant week.


What could I possibly say about this four-bell restaurant that hasn't already been said? As such, I'm going to try to highlight the details of my dining experience that set this restaurant apart from everyone else in Philadelphia.

This was my second visit in the past year, and it did not disappoint. From start to finish, from food to service, Vetri is near perfection. It lives up to the hype, and is worth every penny.

And so, Vetri (the restaurant, not Marc), how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

1. If making a reservation online, you call me within 5 minutes to confirm. It makes me think you pay someone to stare at open table all day long. And, hey, if you're okay with that, so am I.

2. Your phone etiquette. You want to know how my day is before we move onto the typically more important details.

3. You have a cheese trolley in your vestibule. If I ignore the press on the walls, cheese is the first thing I see. And that, is most excellent.

4. You take my coat without handing me a coat check tag. And, you're the only restaurant in Philly I trust with my hat and scarf.

5. I love your server's uniforms. While I'm not a huge fan of uniforms, I love black pencil skirts paired with neatly pressed solid colored button-downs, black stockings, and black Dansko clogs. No aprons necessary.

6. Your small, 40-seat dining room is gorgeous; Venetian plaster above wood paneling. Your ornate hutch, complete with espresso machine and grappa display, makes for a beautiful focal point.

7. Your water situation. Whether sparking, or still, I get a whole carafe on my table. While I never have to pour it myself, it's nice to know it's there.

8. Your grand tasting menu. Sometimes, I don't want to think at dinner. I trust you to present me with whatever you want, in whatever order you want.

9. 3 oz. wine pairings with the grand tasting menu: even less thinking. Your wine list is fantastic. But, I don't want help picking one or two bottles to pair well with unknown dishes. I want to taste something different with each dish. These pairings truly brought the meal to a new level of perfection.

10. Your sommelier. I wish I knew your name. No, not Jeff Benjamin. You have an incredibly unassuming table side manner. You temper your level of information based upon guest interest, repeat the crucial information twice, and convey your passion for wine, all at the same time. Not to mention that your selections are fantastic.

11. Three amuse-bouche. Unheard of. Three tastings of homemade charcuterie, prosciutto wrapped beignets, and house-cured foie gras pastrami with fruit mostarda. Really Vetri, you had me at amuse-bouche.

12. Spinach gnocchi with shaved Ricotta Salata and brown butter. While they have become larger in size and smaller in number than my last visit, they are still just as heavenly. Their light and airy texture is truly unparalleled.

13. Golden sweet onion crepe with white truffle fondue. When you tell me its really truffle shavings, I believe you.

14. Rigatoni with veal sausage and bitter greens. I'm in awe of your homemade pasta. I don't care about portion size, it's about quality.

15. Chestnut fettuccine with wild boar ragù. Fettuccine bolognese will never, ever, be the same again. And I'm okay with that.

16. Local veal cooked on a stone. "If you'd like your veal cooked more, you can simply turn it over on this very hot stone." Rare is fine by me, but the stone presentation is awesome.

17. Dessert. Okay, so my note taking ended sometime before dessert. The best part of dessert was actually the wine pairing; a glass of Brachetto D'Aqui. Slightly sweet and lightly carbonated, I'm in love with this fresh, fruity, strawberry flavored after-dinner beverage.

18. Homemade petifores that I am inevitable too full to eat. But, I can take them home, eat them at 2 in the morning, and remember this amazing meal all over again.

Vetri is truly an incredible dining experience. Moving beyond the food for just a moment, it's the service that sets this restaurant apart from the rest of Philadelphia. It's no surprise that they were nominated for a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Service Award in 2008.

As birthday dinners go, unless I spent 26 in Napa, or Catalonia, this one will be hard to match.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Femme Fermental Goes to Washington

Okay, give a girl a break for one cliché on her birthday.

These past few days I was lucky enough to head down to DC for some inaugural/birthday fun. On election day in November, my best beer geek girlfriend, Jess, invited me to come down to DC for the inauguration, and my birthday, on January 20th. Being a beer geek and history dork, I could not resist.

Our first mission was to seek out Ommegang Obamagang. How could we not?

Luckily, Pizzeria Paradiso's relatively new basement beer bar, Birreria Paradiso, had tapped it Monday night. In 2006, Pizzeria Paradiso's second location in Georgetown decided to get in on the craft beer trend. They converted their basement party space into a bar, lounge, and table seating area, complete with fireplace.

With 16 drafts, 1 hand pump and 80 bottled beers, this place seems very serious about it's beer. The feel was very suburban basement house party; add in some Georgetown yuppies, a few North Face jackets, a clueless couple ordering margaritas, and, well, you get the idea.

After a short wait for bar seats, we sat down to enjoy our Obamagangs. Poured into a tulip glass, it was deep mahogany with a light brown frothy head. Medium-bodied with notes of figs, raisins, chocolate and roasted coffee, it reminded me very much of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence Stout (without the dried cocoa powder flavor). Overall, I was happy with the beer, and thought it was worth the hype.

Moving to the bottle list, we selected Brewer's Art Le Canard. Brewer's Art is a small production brewery with a cult-like following out of Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, they have a brewpub in Baltimore. However, their bottled beers are being brewed and bottled at Sly Fox, in Royersford, PA.

Since Brewer's Art pulled out of the PA market more than a year ago, my opportunities to sample their beers have been few and far between. Brewer's Art Resurrection, their dubbel, and Brewer's Art Ozzy Ale, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, were formerly available on draft. They are both incredibly good Belgian-style ales.

Le Canard, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale at 8% ABV, poured a medium copper hue. Medium-bodied, a fruity yeasty character with notes of apricots, apples, pears and citrus dominates the palate. The fruitiness is somewhat balanced by a nice bready malt backbone. Overall, it's a good Belgian-style ale by a small brewery.

As for Pizzeria Paradiso, I'd certainly make another trip. It had the best draft and bottle list that I found on my trip to DC. The pizza was, as always, excellent. The service and atmosphere left something to be desired, but I'm willing to put up with a lot for good beer.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ommegang Obamagang: Beer You Can Believe In

On Tuesday, Ommegang Brewery, located in Cooperstown, NY will be releasing a beer to celebrate the inauguration. Since the feds nixed the name "Obamagang," it's officially being called "Inauguration Ale 2009."

Apparently it'll be a porter/stout with a touch of kriek and chocolate. You'll have a chance of find it if you live in Philly, Chicago, DC, NYC, Syracuse or Boston.

I happen to know that Tria, Teresa's Next Door and TJ's will have kegs of this hard to find beer.

I myself will be in DC for the inauguration. Hopefully one of the beer bars I stop in will have a taste for me.

Friday, January 9, 2009

I Wish I Was Local, Local 44

Yesterday afternoon, at about 4pm, my lovely dining companion and I stopped in the new Local 44 prior to dinner at Distrito (and a quick stop at Dock Street). Since it was Thursday afternoon, we had no trouble parking at 44th and Spruce.

The bar was empty, save one local musician and the owner Leigh. I was happy to see it without people, because it is a very beautiful, sleek, space. The bar area has tables as well, but the main dining room is separated from the bar by a wall with a large rectangular gap in it.

The focal point of the entire place, decor-wise, is a beautiful old fire door that the owners found behind dry wall during construction. It makes for the coolest drink shelf.

After taking a look around, we grabbed seats at the bar and started off with what else, a Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise ('06). It's a little young and fruit forward, but finishes sour with a touch of dryness.

The 20-tap list, as a whole, is well selected. Most beer styles are covered and there's a nice balance between Europe and American craft brews.

My second beer was Fraoch Heather Ale, a Scottish Gruit, on the hand pump. With sweet gale and flowering heather added to the boil, and fresh heather flowers added as it cools, this beer has a lot going on. Served at nearly room temperature, it was medium-bodied, creamy, sweet and malty with a touch of espresso or coffee in the finish.

Moving on to the food, we sampled the Mini Corn Dogs. After only 9 days of being open, the Mini Corn Dogs already have a good reputation, and we weren't disappointed. Two hot dogs are cut into 8 small pieces, battered with cornbread and deep fried. Served with spicy Dijon, they were perfectly simple and delicious.

Trying to save ourselves for Distrito, we only ordered one more item, the Spinach Croquettes. There are other items on the menu I'd like to sample next time; specifically, the Cuban and the Oyster Mushroom Po' boy. Currently, the menu is mostly sandwiches and bar snacks. I'm sure it will evolve, as most newly-opened restaurant menus do.

Besides the beautiful fire door, the next coolest thing is a note at the bottom of the tap list announcing that they only serve 1 bottle: Orval. Leigh said that since it's not available on tap, they just didn't want to be a bar without Orval. I have to say, this is a creatively calculated move. It solidifies the bar as a tap house and avoids all of the issues of a bottle list (coolers, dry storage, cold storage, an updated/accurate list, bottle selection, cost).

I won't bicker over the choice of Orval. It's a classic that doesn't fit into any specific beer style. How perfect is that? You don't have to stylistically justify picking Westmalle Dubble over Westmalle Tripel (also not available on draft).

After such a short visit, I'm certain that I will be back soon. I only wish I was Local...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Weird + Wonderful Brews

Tonight at Tria Washington Square, Tom Baker of Earth Bread + Brewery will be taking his beers outside of his new brewpub.

Some of you may remember Tom Baker from his old Heavyweight Brewery Co. Seems as though he's made the switch from brewing big and bold beer to those of a more session beer weight. "Not that there's anything wrong with that"; there's a place for session beers, and there's certainly a place out there in beer world for reviving old styles.

If ancient beer styles are something you're curious about, I highly recommend Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner. The book includes some good historical information, and a ton of recipes for you homebrewers.

Tom will be hanging out at Tria for happy hour prior to teaching a Fermentation School class at 6:30. I was just on Tria's website, and two tickets are still available.

Beers on tap are:
1. The Bradley Effect Black Gruit Ale
-Based upon an ancient style using herbs instead of hops for flavoring
2. Da Raine Pore Sahti
- Traditionally Finnish brew using Juniper and baker's yeast
3.Terra Fumé Smoked Wheat Ale
- Smoked wheat beer inspired by the Polish Grätzer (Grodziskie)

6 oz tasting portions for $2 1/2 each.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Beers of The Times"

I must thank my friend Jess for diligently reading The New York Times (and other papers) everyday, and letting us all know about beer related articles. Sunday's article, "Roll out the Barrel, Open Your Wallet," in the Dining and Wine Section is just begging for a response. Well, maybe not, but I'm compelled to comment.

I love The New York Times, I really, really do. I am pleased that these beers are even on the nytimes' radar. After all, barrel aged beers are the wine snobs' most likely entrée into craft beer.

I'm curious to know all of the twenty-five beers that they blind-tasted. In background of the picture, I see J.W. Lee's, Allagash Curieux, and Captain Lawrence Smoke From the Oak. But where's Russian River Supplication, Temptation or Beatification, New Belgium La Folie and Lost Abbey Angel Share or Cuvee de Tomme? I have a hard time thinking they could have tasted them, and not ranked them pretty high.

I'm guessing they tasted 25 more easily purchased barrel aged beers. This somewhat misses the point, as the best barrel aged brews are the most difficult to find. They give us beer geeks something to dream about, driving miles and miles for, and to trade other rare beer for, on Beer Advocate.

In terms of what they did taste, I have to make a few points. I'm a little surprised that Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien 2006 was their first choice. Granted, I haven't had it since last year, so maybe it's improved. I just had the Pennichuck Pozharnik Espresso Russian Imperial Stout on New Year's Day, and while yes, it was a delicious funky stout, I can't say I'd place it above Jolly Pumpkin's La Roja Amber Ale. Finally, Petrus Aged Pale (no, not Château Pétrus wine people, calm down) is a classic; it will always hold a special place in my beery heart as the perfect go-to slightly sour ale.

I guess I'd just like full disclosure. Maybe I'll send them an email, and ponder my own top 10 Barrel aged beers. I'm refraining from creating such a list because I'm in love with Russian River, and their beers would take up at least half the list.

Instead maybe I'll ponder the number of beers I've spent more than $35 a bottle on...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Monk's Café on New Year's Day!

Having worked on New Year's Eve until 1am, I was very excited to go to Monk's on New Year's Day for 20 stouts and 1 delicious lambic. Only Tom Peter's would, or could, do something so awesomely rare and extreme.

Dr. Joel, my lovely dining companion and I arrived a little after 12:30, and the front bar was packed. Luckily, we grabbed a table, and had a quick brunch. We sampled the following:

1. New Holland Dragon's Milk Stout
2. Pennichuck Pozharnik Russian Imperial Stout
3. High and Mighty Two Headed Beast Chocolate Stout

Alright, beer geek confession time: Stouts have never been my thing. I know, I know, you don't have to tell me, I'm crazy. I must admit though, they are growing on me. (See Black Albert entry) It was refreshing to try them side-by-side. It allowed me to compare and contrast flavor profiles. I would have tried more, however, time was not on my side, and one very special beer at the back bar was calling my name.

Back in late November, when Tom's Cantillon Monk's Café Cuvee Kriek was rumored to be coming into the country, I stopped by Monk's daily. Yes, I really did. I found out when the kegs got to the wholesaler, and when they had likely arrived at Monk's. On November 28th, they tapped the first keg, and I was there.

While I wasn't in love at first, it's growing on me. It's not that I didn't like it, I just wanted it to be more complex and more sour. Since Tom drinks it everyday (hey, I would too), we asked him if he had noticed any variances in the kegs. He said he didn't think so, but I think it's becoming more delicious.

After several stouts, it was truly the perfect palate cleansing beer. Personally, I'm glad that Monk's has quite a few kegs left of this fantastic creation. I can't stop in without having one, or two, or...

Here's the full list of stouts for those of you who are curious:
1. Founder's Breakfast Stout
2. Hercule Stout
3. High and Mighty Two Headed Beast Chocolate Stout
4. Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout
5. New Holland Dragon's Milk Stout
6. Southampton Espresso Stout
7. Arcadia Imperial Stout
8. Bear Republic Big Black Bear Stout
9. Bell's Cherry Stout
10. Bosks Monster Mash Imperial Stout
11. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 2007
12. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 2008
13. Hitachino Next Espresso Stout
14. Legacy Nor'easter Oatmeal Imperial Stout
15. North Coast Old Rasputin
16. Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout
17. Pater Lieven Buffalo Stout
18. Pennichuck Pozharnik Russian Imperial Stout
19. Southern Tier Choklat Stout
20. Stoudt's Fat Dog Imperial Oatmeal Stout

And here's to a Beery Happy New Year!