Taste Testing with Chef Jose Garces

Slamming my phone into my pocket, I raced out of the office building. I scanned the street and, as luck would have it, spotted the trolley pulling up along 36th and Market. Flashing my SEPTA pass, I hopped in and prayed for a quiet ride to 22nd Street. Time seemed to be moving too quickly, the trolley too slowly, for this to ever work. But I jumped out the vehicle, scampered up the stairs, and dodged snow piles and construction as I made 23rd Street my 40-yard dash (ok, more like my 500-yard walk-sprint, but who’s counting?) I collected myself for a moment, hoping I didn’t look exactly like the sweaty mess that I knew I was, and walked inside.

“Donkey Sauce.”

And, just like that, I was in.

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Nestled in the back of 24, Garces’ newest Philadelphia venture (“Italian-inspired wood-fired fare”, overlooking the Schuylkill River), is Estudio, the test-kitchen of the Garces Group, the restaurants that make up the Chef Jose Garces EMPIRE!

In this kitchen, Garces and his team get to play mad scientists with menu items for any of the 16 restaurants in the family. And, in a brilliant move, Chef Garces decided to open this kitchen up to four lucky fans using Instagram to give out a secret password (hence the rushing to be one of the first four and the breathless gasp of DONKEY SAUCE.)

My sprint through Philadelphia was handsomely rewarded, though, with a special treat: we were testing the early stages of brunch development for Distrito, Garces’ modern take on Mexican taqueria fare.

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Chilaquiles verdes with chicken, crema, queso fresco, avocado, and egg

I’ve gotta say, food always seems tastier served out of its own cast-iron skillet.

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Sope benedict featuring poached eggs, guajillo hollandaise with just a slight hint of heat, and chorizo

Whoah. New favorite take on an eggs benny.

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Torta ahogada (“drowned sandwich”) – this torta was stuffed with carnitas, glazed onions, and eggs, then smothered in a red chile sauce 

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Huarache Desayuno (sort of like… a Mexican breakfast flatbread, topped with black bean puree, crispy potato, egg, tomatillo/poblano salsa and queso mixto

Though I did not partake in the alcoholic portion of the breakfast cocktails, even the virgin versions were tasty enough to tip back with enthusiasm!

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Yup, that’s MORE chilaquiles – This time served with a Mezcal Maria (hold the Mezcal) – Typical garnishes include shrimp AND olives.

Also on the cocktail menu:

  • Carlito XO – Garces & Sons Espresso, Patrón XO Café, Kahlua, Brown Sugar, Canela, Mexican Chocolate and Crema.
  • My TOP choice A Mango Bellini (or was it with vodka? Hard to recall when you don’t choose the booze!) PLUS a smoky spicy rim

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Throughout the experience, Chef Garces answered questions AND took constructive criticism. In fact, he welcomed it. When one of us suggested an ingredient or flavor, he not only noted it, but chased our commentary with some other ideas of how to best incorporate the concept.

One of the first meals I had in Philadelphia was a lunch at Amada in Old City. I was hooked.

When Bar Volver opened, I visited five times in one week, bringing different friends and family each time to share the amazing concept and cocktails. Village Whiskey serves the drippy, finger-licking burger of my (and my sister’s) dreams. I remember eating a birthday dinner at Tinto and periodically adjusting my tiara, because I kept tilting my head back in pleasure with bites of tantalizing tapas.

My experience at Estudio was exceptional. However, the opportunity to dine one-on-one (well, four-on-one) with the man who’s made so many of my culinary dreams come true… That was extraordinary.

Cheers, Chef. Thanks for the memories.1334x1334.jpeg.jpg

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Cinder-eat-a: A Night Out at #PhillyCooks

As far as princesses go, I’ve never identified much with CInderella. Sure, I’m blond and my whistling skills have been known to call woodland critters to my side (though, in Philly, it’s mostly pigeons and Rittenhouse rats. Gross.) But I can’t stand house cleaning, I get along famously with my siblings and mother, and I’m rubbish on heels, glass or otherwise.

Last night, however, I think I had my Cinderella moment. Instead of a fairy godmother, I had the team from Philadelphia Magazine as my benefactor. My pumpkin coach was an UberX, and my gown was a hastily thrown together number sourced from Athleta and Nordstrom. Most importantly, instead of seeking out a dance with the handsome prince, I was here for one reason.

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Philly Cooks.

One of the city’s premier dining and drinking experiences, this soirée is put on every year by Foobooz, my go-to for all Food and Booze news in Philly. Tickets range from $85 for the early birds to $100. This plucky princess managed to win a pair, due to some sort of pixie dust I’m sure. And so I grabbed my date (read: my mom) and headed to the castle Marriott.

Imagine an enormous room with vaulted ceilings, complete with warm lighting and the dull roar of live music, chock full of Philly foodies, sprinkled with some of the top chefs in every genre of edibles from neighborhoods far and wide.

Yup, I was in paradise.

Yup, I was in paradise.

From ceviche and smoked salmon to pork, pizza, and potatoes to more terrine than you could shake a stick at (seriously…. what’s with all the terrine, chefs?) With a gauzy, tent-like speakeasy stationed in the middle of the vast space pouring cocktails from Franky Bradley’s, Olde Bar, and Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. (my personal favorite was a Reverse Valencia from Olde Bar – Tanqueray, Oloroso Sherry, Manzanilla Sherry, and apple bitters), the party was in full swing by the time we arrived around 7pm.

Cocktail line-up looking so fly

Cocktail line-up looking so fly

After we obtained our beverages of choice, we began to loop around. Laurel’s Nicholas Elmi (who all Top Chef fans know as a winnnnnerrrr and all Philly folks know as proprietor of restaurant you can’t get reservations to) started off my night the right way with duck confit and foam, and the party kept going strong from there.

I’ll shoot you straight, when you’re surrounded by ravenous hoards of hungry folks all queueing up for tiny plates, whipping out your phone for photos becomes low on the priority list. In fact, I kinda forgot about it for some standouts. Like, sure I can’t recall EXACTLY where I consumed the most divine lobster (maybe) grilled cheese and tomato soup, when my mother thrust it in my hands (Maybe… The Hunt Room?). But I guess when I went back for my 2nd 3rd, let’s be honest here, slow roasted boar and foccaccia panino with pickled red onion, I deemed it worth for a photo (SERIOUSLY SOMEONE TAKE ME TO CAPOFITTO POST HASTE!)

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I want to fall asleep on this soft focaccia next to a pile of that boar. Is that an appropriate way to describe food?

Probably.

Weirdly enough, though I rarely have much of a sweet tooth, the dessert area was my dream-come-true last night. Wonder why….

Sweet Box glory

Sweet Box glory

Goat cheese ANGLAISE?

Goat cheese ANGLAISE?

Huge up to The Master’s Baker, who have given a new lease on my concept of goat cheese’s LIFE.

But then, I reached the mecca.

Oh, what's that? JUST A S'MORES BAR!

Oh, what’s that? JUST A S’MORES BAR!

Yup, 10 Arts brought the HEAT quite literally. Because, in case you didn’t know, s’mores are my favorite dessert. Want proof?

YOU GOT YOUR PROOF

YOU GOT YOUR PROOF

That’s unbridled joy at the thought of consuming a s’more consisting of graham cracker, housemade marshmallow, AND A REESES CUP.

The rest of the night was a blur of snacking, sipping, spinning around in awe, and sadly seeing some spots sans sustenance. By 8pm, a TON of vendors were fresh out. Made me wish we’d come early, but no one wants to be THAT Cinderella. Princesses need to make an entrance. And as my stomach swelled happily, and the clock struck midnight (JK it ended at 9pm but all that eating tuckers a gal out), my mother and I raced down the escalators, pausing only for one farewell photo.

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Foobooz and Philly, you know how to feed a gal. And you just let me know if you spot any glass slippers in a women’s size 12. I’m not saying they’re mine or anything…. but you wouldn’t believe the blisters those puppies give ya!

My First Mixology Class at Spy Raleigh

Even when the deck seems stacked against you, you can always mix something. -Josh from Spy Raleigh

And, just like that, I was introduced to the World of Mixology. You know me, I’m normally a beer gal. But, let’s be honest, a lady can’t live on beer alone (Well, actually, that might not be true… this guy did it for 46 days.)  But, every now and then, when I’m feeling adventurous, I like a good cocktail.

Lemon or Lemon Drop? Now you don't have to choose!

Unfortunately, my cocktail-drinking abilities are far greater than my cocktail-making abilities. When a Living Social deal popped up for a mixology class, I couldn’t pass it up! And before I knew it (read: this weekend), I was parking outside of Spy Raleigh and rushing in to secure myself a spot in the front row.  Thank goodness I did, because I got one of the last “good seats” at the bar.  Why was I so late?

Is this class BYOB?

I may have been the first lady to check out this Mixology class toting my own beers…  I couldn’t resist stopping at Tasty Beverage Co. across the street!!

Beers aside, though, it was time to get mixing. The bar featured a number of fancy liquors which were all wearing party hats!

All ready for the party!

Josh, our fearless leader, started off by explaining to us how a good cocktail should, like a fine wine (or fine craft beer!!), be experienced like a roller coaster of flavors. You taste one, then the next, and they all merge together in a beautiful, exciting experience for your mouth.  As he was regaling us with tales of mixing gone right, he whipped up a quick and dirty drink that I decided to name the Juicy Fruit (because he said it tasted just like JUICY FRUIT! I’m brilliant.)

Ingredients:

  • 3 Olives Bubble
  • Splash of Cranberry Juice
  • Splash of Ginger Ale
VOILA! And he was right as rain, it tasted like the brief-flavored gum of my childhood.

A whole juicy bunch!

We shared our favorite cocktails, as well as the experiences that made them so special.  I mentioned my Jalapeño Quencher from the Aqua Grill with my cousin on my trip to NYC!  I said that it was the perfect drink to pair with all the smooth, chilled oysters and creamy risotto.

Up next was a crowd pleaser: The Strawbasil Mojito!

Collins is my favorite cocktail glass

This drink, which should be poured into a tall, skinny Collins glass trades the traditional mint in a mojito for an earthier herb: basil! He showed us the importance of muddling and gave us the wise tip: when using fresh fruit, less is more! No reason for a fruit salad in your cocktail, and a little goes a long way.

Here's the recipe, if you're interested!

This light and fruity cocktail was delicious! He used organic fruits, twisted the lime to release the oils inside, and it was just what the doctor ordered.  If the doctor was a bartender.

Up next? A bourbon drink!

Normally, this would make me say BLECH! But when the drink looks like this…

So pretty!!

I tried to have an open mind, because even though Maker’s Mark makes me feel a little ill just saying it, this drink, the Blackberry Blueberry Blast (he said the blackberries at the store looked gross), looked promising. Bitters, blueberries, lime, and cranberry juice. What could go wrong?

Mmmm!

The answer is NOTHING!

This drink made me rethink the use of bourbon in cocktails.

The recipe for all you cocktail aficionados!

Though we didn’t get any real hands-on experience, I loved the idea of opening my mind to mixology, and (if I had a batch of adventurous friends) I’d totally try Josh’s advice, “If you’d like to really try out mixology, get all sorts of liquor and mixers and make a party out of it.”

Anyone wanna throw a party with me?

I swear, I'm a fun guest (despite hating board games)

We can bring party hats for all the liquor bottles. I think I could ask Josh at Spy where we could get some…

Have you ever tried mixology? 

What’s your favorite fancy cocktail? (YOU ARE FORBIDDEN FROM SAYING SODA + VODKA/RUM/WHISKEY/ETC)

 

 

NYC Take Three: Cousins Club Takes Aqua Grill

So in case you missed them, here are a few recaps from this weekend’s trip to NYC:

Saturday night, though, was for family.  If you’ve been reading for a bit, you may remember my cousin’s NYC wedding last month!  Well, the happy couple just recently got back from a glamorous honeymoon in Turkey, and offered their home for a little happy hour before dinner.

Ted and Whit, the happy couple!

The title of this post actually references to the “Cousins Club” that all of my younger cousins had growing up. My mother’s one of 8 kids, so you can imagine there are quite a few cousins in that club.  Well, this past weekend, I felt like we were the grown up generation of the Cousins Club!  And what’s more grown-up than a bit of a cocktail hour for the Cousins?

Whitney and Ted were fantastic hosts, and really pulled out all the stops for their guests (namely, Claire and me).

Quite the spread.

Quite the spread.

We got to tour Whitney and Ted’s apartment, which was adorable and perfect and totally reflected them.  Whitney even picked up some tasty craft beer, knowing how much I love it!

Clearly I was a fan.

Clearly I was a fan.

It was the Smuttynose Imperial Stout, and it was rich, malty, and oh-so-drinkable (perfect to go with all the salty cheeses and meats!)

After a quick photo op, we were on our way to one of their favorite restaurants, Aqua Grill.

Tiny tiny tiny

Tiny tiny tiny

Aqua Grill, located in the Financial District, is one of the newlyweds’ favorite spots and, the moment we walked inside, I could tell why.  The atmosphere was infectious. Even though it was a late dinner (around 10pm), the joint was bustling. There was a din of chatter and laughter, the lighting was warm, and they had a gorgeous display of raw oysters as we passed the bar.  I could tell we were in for a treat.  I ordered a Jalapeno Quencher, the spicy cocktail I mentioned in this week’s Six Pack Sunday. It was delicious and, after careful deliberation, we decided to order four different kinds of oysters for the four of us (16 oysters. MATH!) I even took a picture so I wouldn’t forget which ones we ordered.

Ah, memories.

Ah, memories.

We did an impromptu “oyster tasting”, which was actually my first opportunity to taste the different types of flavors that you can get from different types of oysters. They were creamy or briny, and we also ordered my first “wild” oyster. Maybe it’s because I date a fellow raised in the Cajun tradition of loving all things oyster, but this was just an awesome experience. We let our tongues do the tasting, and it was an exploration of flavors before the main course.

I'm selfish for shellfish

I’m selfish for shellfish

Ted also ordered us a little sushi type dish but, I’ll be totally honest, while it was tasty, it almost paled in comparison to the oysters and the main course.  For moi?

Heavenly

Heavenly

Seared Diver Sea Scallops with Dungeness Crabmeat Risotto and Sugar Snap Peas in a Tomato Shellfish Emulsion

MY GOODNESS!! This was to-die-for!  I’ve only had scallops once before and these were so on point, matched perfectly with a creamy risotto and the sugar snap peas were a surprisingly crunch every time I bit into one. I think my favorite was putting a little bit of each piece on the fork before eating to merge all the flavors and textures in one divine bite.  I can’t speak highly enough about this dish.

Aqua Grill certainly did not do us wrong. Although there was a bit of a wait for some of the dishes, it was a packed Saturday night, so I kind of expected that. No worries, as the company more than made up for the wait.

My tummy was so stuffed and sated by the end of this meal, I felt like I should either float or be rolled back to the apartment. We made a quick attempt at “going out” but, after weighing our options (and pushing through the crowds at another crowded NYC bar), we thought it might just be more pleasant to fall blissfully into bed, dreaming of salty oyster shots and luscious scallops.

I’d say that if the younger generation wants to compete with this cousins club, they have some work ahead of them.