From Dubai to Cape Town

by artfuldiner on January 13, 2024

in Uncategorized

Dubai - SkylineI recently returned from a six-week journey and cruise that took me from Dubai, UAE, through several other countries in the Middle East, to India, with diversions to the famous Taj Mahal and Red Fort, to Tanzania, Madagascar, and Richards Bay, before disembarking in one of my favorite cities, Cape Town, South Africa.

There were several interesting dining experiences along the way, as well as a visit to the Klein Constantia Winery in South Africa. (Pictured: Dubai’s majestic skyline)

More to come soon.

Best regards,

TAD

 

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The 25 Best Restaurants

in Philadelphia Right Now

 … at least according to the New York Times.

The article first appeared on October 23, 2023, as part of the Where to Eat: 25 Best, a series highlighting the paper’s favorite restaurants in cities across the

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U.S. I won’t bore you with a complete recitation, as the chosen 25 may be noted from various sources online. And, needless to say, the Times’ take on Philly’s dining scene has raised some eyebrows and a touch of ire here & there as well. (Pictured: Dining Room at Friday Saturday Sunday)

Michael Klein of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, noted that the Times’ article was “heavy on South Philly.” He went on to specify that “fourteen of the Times’ top 25 are in South Philadelphia… only four restaurants are located in the rapidly growing Fishtown-Kensington area, while six are in Center City.”

Of particular interest to this writer was not only the restaurants that were included, but those that were Vernick Fish - Interiorexcluded. Among them, a number of highly-regarded upscale establishments that had received excellent reviews and were all-too conspicuous by their absence. This also caught Mr. Klein’s attention, but he blithely tossed it off as inconsequencial: “As Mason said to Dixon, ‘You have to draw the line somewhere.’” (Pictured: Dining Room at Vernick Fish)

Yes, Mr. Klein raised several significant questions… but failed to follow through. In fact, right from the outset, or so it seemed to me, his comments with regard to the Times’ article appeared to be self-consciously solicitous, studiously avoiding stepping on anyone’s toes. He did bring up a minor point of contention with regard to restaurant Friday Saturday Sunday, but never seriously questioned the general tenor and/or content of the article itself: “As the Times is writing for an international – or at least New York – audience, there are few surprises to those who follow the Philadelphia restaurant scene. Philadelphia readers may insist that their favorites have been overlooked as the Times writers have included a breadth of cuisines and price points. Such lists are conversation-starters, anyway, and are purely subjective.”

Subjective, indeed… “Food writing’s shameful secret,” chef/author John Thorne once remarked, “is its intellectual poverty.” And empty enumerations such as John ThorneThe 25 Best Restaurants in Philadelphia Right Now are glaring examples of that searing indictment. They represent, in my humble opinion, the worst of culinary journalism.

… And the New York Times should have known better – although, apparently not, as numerous other cities have already fallen (or will fall) victim to their top 25 as well. In this regard, Mr. Klein had ample opportunity to make a relevant contribution here… Unfortunately, he chose to remain mute, and/or refused to answer on the grounds that he might incriminate himself (as the Inquirer is by no means immune to the “listing” syndrome… ditto Philadelphia magazine and a number of local sources online).

In June of 1980, Jeff Weinstein, then restaurant reviewer of the Village Voice, penned a thought-provoking article entitled Learning to Eat“The 25 Greatest Restaurants in America,” which was subsequently included in his book Learning to Eat, published in 1988. The article was brief and to the point; its major thesis even more relevant today than the moment it was written: “If anything can kill the possibility of spirited and serious food writing, it’s the list.”

“Most lists are nothing but menu information and prices, with a few adjectives like silky or pungent tossed in as camouflage. Not only is this an impoverished way to describe experience, it presupposes that all experience is available to this predigestion.”

Lists can also be deceptive, Mr. Weinstein asserts, as they lead us to expect perfection. However, “(lists) don’t have moods, memories, ambivalences. They won’t refund for disappointments.” In addition, lists have a deep structural connection to fads. Lists help create fads and are also subject to them. “The same editors,” he notes, “lick their chops at both.”

Another of Mr. Weinstein’s comments that I found particularly intriguing – but also completely valid – is the fact you can’t have a restaurant list without an expert. Conversely, anyone not an expert is basically a dimwit. And here he is definitely right on target: “Other kinds of media games can reinforce feelings of inadequacy, but the list does it without even trying.”

When it comes to the media’s fetish for lists, as you would undoubtedly surmise, profit motive plays a major role. “A list,” Mr. Weinstein concludes, “is a fundamentally lazy way for a newspaper or magazine to fill space and woo as many advertisers as possible. Modern restaurant reviewing was born as advertising copy that snuck onto the other side of the page. It may die there.”

His final word on the subject: “Ships list – before they sink.”

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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The Wines of Bodegas Manzanos

by artfuldiner on November 15, 2023

in Uncategorized

Manzanos Wines - EntranceBodegas Manzanos is a large Spanish wine producer, founded in 1890 by members of the Fernández de Manzanos family. The original production capacity of the small winery was 50,000 liters of wine. In the 1940s, a new facility was constructed, expanding the capacity to 350,000 liters.

Between the 1950s and 60s the estate was consolidated with the creation of the Viña Marichalar winery, the first attached to the Rioja Qualified Denomination of Origin, increasing the output to more than 1.5 million liters.

In the 1990s, after obtaining a Master’s Degree in Viticulture & Oenology from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Victor Fernández de Manzanos Pastor joined the family business. He then built the Marqués de Butrago winery and fulfilled his life-long ambition with the construction of Bodegas Manzanos.

In 2020, the reins of the winery were turned over to brothers Victor & David Fernández and Victor’s wife, Laura Mateo Manzanos Wines - 4th Generation(pictured). The young entrepreneurs, while still maintaining a deep respect for family tradition, have turned Bodegas Manzanos into a prosperous, modern facility equipped with the latest technologies. In 2020, when COVID was preventing industry professionals from visiting Spain. They took the bold step of establishing a U.S. office and tasting room in Miami, Florida.

I recently had opportunity to sample two red wines from Bodegas Manzanos, which are not only of excellent quality but also readily available and quite reasonably priced.

Manzanos 111 Red Blend 2021: Hailing from the estate’s winery in Navarra, this is an interesting red blend of 85% Manzanos Wines - 111 Red Blend 2021Grenache & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon… and it hits all the right notes. Mike DeSimone of Wine Enthusiast bestowed 93 points, noting its “vibrant acidity and plush tannins,” before launching into the usual ad infinitum, ad nauseum pontification of aromas & flavors.

Forget the usual palaver. Bottom line… this is a very likeable wine. It’s medium-bodied, offers a nice tinge of black fruit on the palate and is, above all, eminently quaffable. I happen to think it’s overrated (see more of that below)… but if you’re a red wine lover in search of that perfect everyday libation, trust me, you’ve just found it.

But there’s more. The price is quite likeable as well… a paltry $8.99 at your local State Store. And you can’t get much better than that. Well… actually you can. Please check out the wine below.

Manzanos 111 Reserva Red Rioja 2018: The red wines produced in Spain’s leading wine region, Rioja, are also blends. Tempranillo is the predominate grape, supplemented by smaller percentages of Garnacha, Mazuelo, and Graciano to add body and color.

The phylloxera blight (the invasion of an insect pest that attacks grapevines) in the 1870s brought an influx of Bordeaux winemakers to the Rioja region. Manzanos Wines - Reserva Rioja 2018These winemakers introduced many techniques from their own region, including the use of new oak barrels for long-term aging. Thus, the tempranillo-based red blends take on new complexities, depending upon their time in oak. Crianzas have the shortest aging requirement of two years (one of which must be in barrel); and Gran Reservas have the longest requirement of five years (two of which must be in barrel). Reservas, such as the 2018 Manzanos 111 Red Rioja, occupy the middle ground of aging: three years (one of which must be in the barrel), which means they are generally characterized by the subtle hints of baking spice, vanilla, and chocolate.

However, I tasted both Manzanos’ wines side-by-side; and what struck me was not only the difference in flavor – which was infinitely more subtle – but also the difference in texture. The Reserva was incredibly opulent, and as smooth as silk on the palate.

Interestingly enough, Mike DeSimone of Wine Enthusiast bestowed the exact same score – 93 points – on this wine as he did the wine noted above.  A ludicrous case of over/under rating, in my opinion. Especially since 2018 Manzanos 111 Reserva Red Rioja, which retails at $45.00, is currently on sale for $12.99 at your local State Store. While a tad higher in price than the 2021 111 Red Blend, it is definitely worth the few dollars more.

By the way, the Manzanos 111 Reserva would make an excellent complement to your Thanksgiving table.

Cheers!

 TAD

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Trimbach- WineryAs you may recall, I’ve mentioned Trimbach on several occasions; and I make no apology for the fact that this estate produces some of my favorite wines. For three centuries, across thirteen generations, the Trimbach family has produced wines that are fruity, elegant, and beautifully balanced. Its vineyards surround the picturesque village of Ribeauvillé in the Alsatian region of France. And the area’s shared history between France and Germany has created a unique approach to the styles of both wine and cuisine.

… Recently, however, as I scanned the vintages in my favorite PA State Store, it occurred to me that Trimbach produces a series of wines that are the perfect complement for the Thanksgiving table. I say this because, given the diversity of the foods served on this particular holiday, the wines chosen must be extremely versatile. With white wines, for example, the pairing priority is finding vintages with well-balanced acidity, such as Riesling, Sauvignon Grigio, and Pinot Blanc, etc. (in other words, over-oaked chardonnays are a definite no-no). When it comes to reds, you should be seeking out wines with fairly subtle tannins that will support the flavors of the food rather than overpowering them. So whatever your preference may be, red or white (or both) Trimbach has you covered.

2021 Trimbach Pinot Blanc: Pinot Blanc is the white grape variety that is most associated with Alsace region of France. Although its heritage is Trimbach - Pinot BlancBurgundian, today it is rarely found there; instead, it is grown primarily in Germany & Austria, where it is known as Weissburgunder, and in the Alto Adige region of Italy, where it is called Pinot Bianco. Trimbach’s 2021 Pinot Blanc is completely approachable, aromatic, and plush on the palate. Highly rated, it has received 91 points and 90 points, respectively, from the Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling. It is priced at $20.79 in Pennsylvania State Stores… And for those who think that Total Wine in Delaware, always has better prices, think again: $22.99 in the Claymont store. The lowest price I have seen online is $13.90 (plus shipping) at Saratoga Wine Exchange in New York State.

2020 Trimbach Riesling Reserve: Structured and delightfully fruity, the 2020 Reserve is a wine characterized by finesse. The winemaker notes: “Characteristic of the geological richness of the limestone terroir of Ribeauvillé, it expresses itself with a beautiful width in the mouth. Always in balance, it is of course dry and chiseled with a gourmet and charming side.” Wine writer James Suckling bestowed 94 big points, referring to the “super-ripe lemon, fresh pineapple and herb aromas… of this medium-bodied, concentrated and sophisticated dry Riesling… and the excellent balance at the long, very clean finish.” Priced at $33.99 at your local State Store. Lowest price I have seen online is once again from the Saratoga Wine Exchange: $27.94 (plus shipping). If you’d prefer to the lower the price a bit, I would suggest the 2020 Trimbach Riesling, $23.89 at State Store; lowest price online: $19.99 (plus shipping) at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in New Jersey.

2021 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile: All of the above-mentioned white wines are of excellent quality. However, if you really want to “put on Trimbach - Cuvee Frederic Emilethe dog” for those once-a-year relatives, or simply enjoy the finer things of life every once-in-a-while, I highly recommend the incomparable Cuvée Fédéric Emile. Outstandingly-rated year after year, this is truly one of Alsace’s greatest Rieslings. 94 points from James Suckling; 93 points from Wine & Spirits; and 93 points from Wilfred Wong of Wine.com, who also added: “The 2011 Cuvée Fédéric Emile Riesling is evocative and delicious… This wine brings a potpourri of aromatic flowers, earth and ripe apple to the fore.” I have personally tasted numerous vintages of this wine, and it never fails to impress. It is simply superb. The 2011 is available through Pennsylvania State Stores at $72.99. Lowest price online: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace: $58.99. If you would prefer a slightly younger version, the 2014 may be purchased online through Empire Wine at $74.99.

2020 Trimbach Pinot Noir Reserve: When you’re considering red wines for Thanksgiving, as I noted above, you want a wine with fairly subtle tannins that will support the flavors of various foods rather than overpowering Trimbach - Pinot Noir Reserve 2020them. Without doubt, the wine of choice is Pinot Noir. And, in point of fact, it is the only red grape variety that is authorized in Alsace. Grapes for reserve wines are the result of a rigorous selection process, mostly from old vineyards in Ribeauvillé and the surrounding villages. Grapes are selected at maturity and, after de-stemming, undergo a gentle pneumatic pressing followed by an eight-day cold maceration to extract color and fruit. The juices are then blended in the cellar in stainless steel vats and old casks for malolactic fermentation. The Pinot Noirs are the only Trimbach wines to undergo malolactic fermentation. They are bottled after three months ageing and then spend a minimum of one year ageing in the bottle before release. The 2020 growing season experienced a mild winter and spring followed by a very dry and hot summer. When rain finally appeared, it allowed the grapes to ripen under optimal conditions. Acidity was preserved by surprisingly cool nights throughout the summer and early fall, resulting in an exceedingly fresh, structured, and balanced Pinot Noir. The 2020 Reserve Pinot Noir was reviewed in Antonio Galloni’s Vinous in January 2023. Anne Krebiehl, MW, bestowed 91 points, praising its “lovely sinuous, flowing nature.” Alive with delicate aromas of red and black berries; the palate is velvety and light as a feather. An excellent vintage that is best served moderately chilled. Priced at $26.99 at Pennsylvania State Stores, slightly less online.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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Failla’s Pizzeria & Ristorante

2669 Charlestown Road

Phoenixville, Pennsylvania

(610) 255-2828

https://www.faillaspizza.com/

 

Situated on the corner of Charlestown & Coldstream Roads, the former home of Stables Bar was recently reincarnated as Failla’s Pizzeria & Ristorante, a family-owned restaurant rooted in the rich culinary heritage of Sicily. And it certainly hasn’t taken long for word to get around. Judging by the enthusiastic crowds observed during my two recent visits, good news obviously travels fast.

Failla's Pizzeria - InteriorThe interior – as you will note from the photograph – is strictly utilitarian. There’s a small dining area as you enter, beyond that, the takeout counter and kitchen. The tables are bare, the lighting exceedingly bright, and there’s a constant stream of human flora & fauna picking up orders to go. Anticipating a romantic little tête-à-tête…? Forget it, you’ve come to the wrong address…

… There are, however, several significant compensations: Since the restaurant does not accept reservations, this is a great spot for one of those last-minute dine-out (or take-out) decisions; the food – not a minor consideration – is very good, indeed; and the prices are incredibly easy on the wallet (especially since you may BYOB).

Failla's Pizzeria - PizzaPizza, of course, is the name of the game, and the choices are legion. Both Traditional and Gourmet Pizzas may be ordered as personal 10”, large 16”, Sicilian 16” square, or by the slice, all with a slew of assorted toppings.

Even if you’re not a pizza fan, however, don’t be shy about checking out some of the entrées, as the kitchen does an excellent job with these as well. Yes, all the usual suspects are present and accounted for – Veal & Chicken Parmigiana, Saltimbocca, and Marsala; Shrimp Scampi, Salmon, and Seafood Linguini; Lasagna, Manicotti, and Baked Ziti, etc. – but all are well-prepared, generously proportioned, and served up with garlic bread and choice of spaghetti or a tossed salad.

If I had to choose a favorite, though, I’d go straight for the Eggplant Parmigiana (pictured), a good test for any Failla's Pizzeria - Eggplant ParmItalian kitchen.  Something of a no-brainer, you’re thinking. True. On the other hand, it is a dish that is so straightforward it is easily – and frequently – mucked up. No worries here, however. The breading is light & irresistibly crisp; the eggplant thinly sliced and just the proper texture (neither too hard nor too mushy); the pasta spot-on al dente; and the sauce a delightful blend of sweetness and acidity. Simple… yet sublime.

But in addition to the pizzas and regular entrées noted above, the restaurant also offers numerous other options to assuage your hunger pangs. There are Salads, Sandwiches, Wraps, Hot & Cold 12” Hoagies, Burgers, Quesadillas, and assorted Cheese Steaks… All worthy of consideration.

Failla's Pizzeria - Stomboli SupremeBut if you’re a die-hard pizza fan, allow me to suggest a variation on the theme: Stromboli (pictured). A stromboli is essentially a cylindrical, rolled up pizza filled with layers of cheese, meats, and/or vegetables that is baked to a crispy, golden-brown finish, then sliced and garnished with marinara sauce. Interestingly enough, stromboli was invented by Italian-Americans living in the Philadelphia area.

While there were numerous choices with regard to suitable fillings, my dining partner and I settled upon the Supreme, a luscious combo of pepperoni, sausage, black olives, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, bacon, and extra cheese. It was, in a word, outstanding. And, as you will note from the photograph, massive. Doggie bag…? Something of a must.

Whatever your gastronomic predilections on a given afternoon/evening, you’ll want to start things off on a positive note. And, once again, appetizer choices are abundant: Bruschetta, Garlic Knots, Mussels (red or white sauce), Fried Calamari, Mozzarella Sticks, Onion Petals, Mac & Cheese Bites, Jalapeño Poppers, and Fries (cheese, pizza, loaded, nacho) are all present and accounted for.

Failla's Pizzeria - Tour of Italy 2However, if you happen to be dining à deux, and wish to appease your palate (and your partner) with something a tad more sophisticated, be sure to give the Tour of Italy (pictured) a try. This colorful combo of roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, burrata, Italian meats & cheeses, and eggplant caponata, all set on a pillow of arugula and drizzled with balsamic fig glaze, succeeds in dazzling the eye as well as tantalizing the taste buds.

As you have undoubtedly noticed, portion sizes here are quite ample… but do save room for dessert, as they are Failla's Pizzeria - Limoncello Cakedefinitely worth the additional calories. There are, of course, the ubiquitous Tiramisu & Cannoli, as well as other Italian specialties, including Gelato. I have personally tasted the restaurant’s Strawberry & Pistachio Gelato, and both are excellent. And even though they are not made in-house, they are still made off campus by a member of the Failla family… The real show-stopper, however, and my absolute favorite, is the utterly delicious Limoncello Cake (pictured). Fluffy, smooth as silk, and downright addictive, it is simply not to be missed.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

 TAD

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The Orangery

Tuscan Cuisine at Glen Isle

130 South Lloyd Avenue

Downingtown, Pennsylvania

(484) 401-5554

https://www.orangeryatglenisle.com/

Orangery - Exterior 2It had been nearly two and a half years since we first traversed the narrow gravel lane and parked in the unpaved lot adjacent to the stone ruins of an old dairy barn… From there, it was just few brief steps to a secluded little restaurant retreat known as Orangery, which is also the residence of head chef Sabrina Lutz and her husband, Paul. As though caught in a time warp – tucked away in Glen Isle, a bit of bucolic bliss just off bustling Business Route 30 on the western fringe of Downingtown – it remains very much a world apart, a hidden gem from another age.

The 40-seat enclosed sunporch, is both cozy and romantic. On the other hand, in warmer weather, nothing is Orangery - Patioquite so pleasant as dining alfresco on the restaurant’s comfortable patio (pictured).  The five-course set menu of hearty Tuscan fare changes fortnightly; so, as I also noted in my first review, the items I mention here may be somewhat different from what you will experience. However, this intro will still give you some idea of what to expect (to discover precisely what Orangery will be serving during a given week, please consult the restaurant’s website).

Dinner here generally begins with Crostini, which means “little toasts” in Italian, and consists of canapés Orangery - Vegetable Quicheadorned with a savory topping. During our first visit, Sweet Peppers Crostini was quite delicious; the second time around, the Shrimp Crostini was less so – and infinitely more filling (more on that later). In lieu of a second course salad, the kitchen served up a Mini Vegetable Quiche (pictured), which was quite good, although – falling victim to a not uncommon faux pas – inordinately bland.

Once again, however, the pasta course – in this case, Gnocchi with Salmon pictured) – proved the weakest link Orangery - Gnocchi w Salmonin the culinary chain. Bathed in an unctuous cream sauce, to say that this dish was exceedingly rich would, indeed, be an understatement. It was simply too much of too much of a good thing… But, more than this, several misgivings voiced as a result of my first visit, I note verbatim: “In the midst of a five-course meal, unless you happen to possess the appetite of a starving yak, the portion size was entirely too large”; and, in addition, “as you may note from the photograph, it was not terribly attractively plated.” Even a modest sprinkling of parsley or other herbs would have gone a long way toward significantly improving this dish’s bland dropped-onto-the-plate-from ten thousand-feet appearance.

The Chicken Pizzaiola (pictured), though, was right back on track. This is a variation of carne alla pizzaiola, or Orangery - Chicken Pizzaiolapizza-maker style beef. Legend has it that, because they were so busy, pizza makers in Naples needed a dish they could easily prepare with ingredients they had on hand. And this is one of those dishes that is absolutely sublime in its simplicity. The chicken breast is lightly breaded, gently fried, and then topped with a sauce comprised of tomatoes, olive oil, oregano & basil. The finishing touch, a tiara of fresh mozzarella. And all is as it should be… the chicken is moist & tender and the sauce has just the proper interplay of sweetness and acidity.

My only quibble is that, once again, I consider the organic green salad with asparagus and parmesan cheese a rather odd, and not particularly well-chosen, plating companion. My preference definitely would have been for a wild rice pilaf and a nicely arranged green vegetable, sans superfluous greenery.

The sweet ending…? A moist and flavorful chocolate cake garnished with strawberries.

One or two closing notes… What I mentioned in my first review continues to hold true… Your ultimate opinion of this restaurant will very much depend upon Orangery - Entrance Signyour expectations. If you’re looking for a sophisticated Michelin-starred experience, you’ve definitely come to the wrong address. The cuisine here is hearty homespun Tuscan and, on the whole, quite good. The service is not professional; however, it is young, friendly, well-meaning, and has definitely improved since my previous visit.

If you have never dined at the Orangery, it is, in my opinion, certainly worthy of a visit. Given its pastoral setting and homey, unpretentious ambiance, it is a delightfully restful step back in time. Just keep the above-mentioned caveats in mind, and you will not be disappointed.

Be sure to consult the restaurant’s website for current hours of operation… Reservations are de rigueur.

 Bon Appétit & Cheers!

TAD

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Estia Restaurant

1405-07 Locust Street

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(215) 735-7700

https://www.estiarestaurant.com/

Flagship of the Estia Group stable of Greek/Mediterranean eateries – which includes outposts in Radnor, PA, Marlton, NJ, and Naples, FL, as well as Estia Philly - Interiorseveral Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizzeria locations – the interior of Philadelphia’s Estia Restaurant resembles a cozy Greek taverna (pictured). The ambiance is unobtrusively rustic, the lighting subdued, and there’s a discreet hint of romance in the air. Stepping outside following your evening’s repast, you could very well expect to catch a glimpse of the Acropolis of Athens rather than the Academy of Music.

So much for atmosphere… Our visit to Estia Restaurant coincided not only with an afternoon orchestra concert at the Kimmel Center, but also Center City Restaurant Week. And during this time, Estia was offering a three-course dinner menu for $60.00 per person (plus beverages, tax & gratuity), which we planned to take advantage of… However, since the three-course theater menu contained more interesting choices and was $20.00 less per person, we decided to take that route (something to keep in mind should  you be contemplating a future visit).

But on to the food, which, unfortunately, was something of a mixed bag. To start things off, I choose the Horiatikiv (pictured) – which also carried a $5.00 Estia Philly - Greek Saladsupplement – a country Greek salad that is comprised of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, feta, and olives (sans lettuce), splashed with a red wine vinaigrette. This was quite good. The tomatoes were, as promised, vine ripened. They reminded me of Jersey tomatoes in season. However, as I know I’ve mentioned on several occasions, the key to a great Greek salad lies in the dressing – the proper proportions of oil, vinegar, herbs, and other seasonings – and, in this case, the extraordinary red wine vinaigrette is enough to turn heads.

Conversely, my dining partner’s Spanokopita – spinach, leeks, scallions, and feta cheese baked in homemade phyllo dough – a traditional Greek appetizer that should have been right on the money, suffered from an excessively dry crust and flavorless interior.

Estia Philly - BaklavaDitto the Salted Caramel Baklava (pictured). In addition, the promised caramel sauce was conspicuous by its absence, and the presentation was hardly what one would call photogenic. As if to add insult to injury, there was a $2.00 supplemental charge for this dessert. My dining partner and I have tasted baklava in numerous Greek-Mediterranean establishments (both here and in Greece), and this bland-leading-the-bland variation on the theme certainly left a great deal to be desired.

When it came to ordering entrées, in a most unusual move, we both happened to choose the Moussaka.  This is Estia Philly - Moussakaa savory combination of cooked potatoes, tender eggplant, seasoned ground beef, a rich Kefalograviera béchamel, and splash of tomato sauce. And although this traditional Greek dish should have been a no-brainer, the kitchen somehow managed to muck up both orders. My dining companion’s (pictured) was nicely presented – but also a good deal less than lukewarm – and had to be sent back to be reheated. My presentation, while sporting the proper temperature, had obviously incurred significant structural damage, either during or immediately following the freefall to its final resting place.

Estia’s food can be quite good; in my humble opinion, however, not as good as it could be or should be… especially given the prices. The above-mentioned theater menu is something of a bargain, true. But, depending upon your gastronomic proclivities, ordering à la carte certainly has the potential for putting a major dent in your pocketbook. Take the Country Greek Salad pictured above, for example. It carries a $5.00 supplement as part of the theater menu. On the other hand, if ordered à la carte, it will set you back a cool twenty-dollar bill, which, to my way of thinking, is more than just a little over the top…

… Ditto the Estia Chips (pictured), another $20.00 a shot starter. These are lightly fried wafer-thin slices of eggplant & zucchini accompanied by a dollop of tzatziki – a blend of plain yogurt, cucumbers, olive oil, and garlic – that is perfect for dipping… No question, the Chips are simply irresistible. They are also, Estia Radnor - Estia Chipshowever, heinously overpriced, as it costs the restaurant a mere pittance to turn them out. Interestingly enough, both the Estia Chips and the aforementioned Country Greek Salad go for $12.00 during the restaurant’s “Happy Hour” (3:30 – 5:30 p.m. daily; at the bar and high-top tables only), which, from my point of view, is a good deal closer to what should be their actual price point. With regard to the Chips, an even better idea would be to serve them as an amuse-bouche, a complimentary gift from the chef, presented to all diners, including patrons sipping cocktails at the bar.

When it comes to entrée prices, the above-mentioned Moussaka ($26.00) and Pasta a la Grecca – rigatoni with oven-roasted tomato sauce, sautéed spinach and feta cheese – ($23.00) I consider quite reasonable. From there, however, you begin moving into the high-rent district: Halibut and Tuna go for $40.00: Lobster Linguini, $45.00; Chilean Sea Bass, $50.00; Lamb Shops, $52.00; topping out at $62.00 for Prime Filet Mignon. By the way, under the “Whole Fish Selections” that sweet & flaky Dover Sole will set you back $54.00 per pound; Jumbo African Prawns $55.00/lb.; and Langoustines $58.00/lb.

Estia’s recommended wines – particularly their Greek wines – have their own unique pricing peculiarities… The Argyros “Atlantis” Assyrtiko, for example. Atlantis AssyrtikoAssyrtiko wines are produced from the indigenous Assyrtiko grape, which is cultivated in some of the world’s oldest vineyards, dating back 3,500 years. The grape originated on the island of Santorini, but is now cultivated throughout Greece. In terms of quality, it is one of the most important native varietals. It produces mainly elegant and distinctive dry white wines, some of which are aged in oak. When I was in Athens two years ago, I did sample, on several occasions, the Estate Argyros Assyrtiko from Santorini… and it was utterly superb.

But while many Greek wines are of impeccable quality, they are still quite easy on the pocketbook. The average retail price for the above-mentioned Argyros “Atlantis” Assyrtiko, for instance, is a paltry $24.00… Which is why Estia’s price – $22.00 per glass/$85.00 per bottle is so outrageous.

… And the price tag placed on the Domaine Skouras Saint George Agiorgitiko is equally appalling. Of Greece’s more than 200 Agiorgitikoindigenous grape varieties, Agiorgitiko is the most widely planted and among the most commercially successful. It produces red wines that are bold, complex, and alive with dark fruit flavors. Sampled at both Estia and in Athens, this wine is supple & generous on the palate and beautifully balanced. The best part, though, is the price. The average retail price is $18.00; $18.99 if you’d like to take a short drive to Total Wine. Guess what it’s going for at Estia: $19.00 per glass/$76.00 per bottle.

Dining within restaurant precincts, you naturally expect a hefty mark-up on wine (and other alcoholic beverages)… But Estia truly pushes the envelope. Most people – even knowledgeable wine lovers – tend to be unfamiliar with Greek wines (with the possible exception of the infamous Retsina). So you would think the restaurant’s owners would make a special effort to acquaint diners with the wines of their homeland – especially those like the two classic vintages noted above – by making them more accessible pricewise. Instead, they go in exactly the opposite direction. Apart from one California Cab, the Assyrtiko and Agiorgitiko are the most expensive wines on the restaurant’s menu. Additionally, during happy hour, when several wines are reduced in price to $8.00 per glass, there is not one Greek wine among them. Something here simply does not compute. And it certainly sends a message – and not a positive one – that I find it difficult to ignore.

Which leads me to the bottom line: underwhelming and overpriced… I will not be returning anytime soon.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

TAD

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Limoncello Ristorante & Bar

499 East Uwchlan Avenue (Route 113)

Chester Springs, Pennsylvania

(610) 524-3112

https://www.limoncellorestaurant.com/

Nestled snugly into a corner of the Lionsville Shopping Center, Limoncello opened its doors a little over a decade ago – and has been packing them in ever since. The younger sibling of the restaurant of the same name in West Chester, both establishments are owned and operated by members of the Mingrino family.

Limoncello - ExteriorI’ve dined at the Chester Springs outpost on numerous occasions over the past ten years (this is my third review), and I freely confess that very little has changed in the interim. To the right as you enter is the contemporary Tuscan-esque dining area replete with nooks & crannies specifically designed for small gatherings; to the left is the bar/lounge awash with high-top tables and four flat screen TVs. This latter space is exceedingly comfortable and, to my way of thinking – especially should you be dining à deux – preferable to the main dining room, which can be overrun by extended families, large parties, and noisy, ill-behaved progeny.

The cuisine remains solidly and unapologetically southern Italian, comfortingly familiar and very good, indeed… Limoncello - Bruschetta 2And from the moment the complimentary Bruschetta (pictured) hits the table, you know you’re in good hands. The bread is properly crunchy, yielding a satisfying “bite” without causing any possible permanent damage to your outrageously expensive dental work; the olive oil, diced tomatoes, and onions are properly proportioned, which is to say not so generous as to dislodge from their perch and land unceremoniously in your lap; and the seasonings – especially the garlic – are just right.

When contemplating your luncheon/dinner order, please keep one factor firmly in mind: Entrée portions here tend to Limoncello - Caesar Salad halfrun on the humongous side (and I do not exaggerate; please note the photograph below). So, unless you happen to have the peristaltic capacity of a starving yak, appetizers – which are also quite generous – will be entirely superfluous (and doggie bags something of a necessity). On the other hand, if you simply must have a starter – I would highly recommend – as my dining partner and I did recently – sharing a Caesar Salad. The Caesar is especially good here, and the chef will be happy to halve your order before it leaves the kitchen (pictured).

Pastas run the gamut… from the sublime simplicity of Spaghetti & Meatballs adorned with South Philly Sunday sauce… to Lobster Ravioli… to the strikingly innovative Pear & Cheese Sacchetti, sweet pear & ricotta stuffed pasta purses with mascarpone cream & toasted Limoncello - Chicken Messinapistachios. Likewise, entrées proper traverse a similarly intriguing culinary terrain… A marvelous rendition of one of my favorite dishes, Veal Saltimbocca… a delightfully delicate Branzino Scampi, companioned by shrimp and kissed by a white wine lemon butter sauce… and a restaurant favorite, Chicken Messina pictured). The parmesan-crusted chicken breast is stuffed with asparagus, Prosciutto di Parma, and fresh mozzarella, consummated with caprese cream sauce, mixed mushrooms & pancetta, and served up with a generous tangle of linguine. Not terribly photogenic, but the various elements work very well together – the chicken is perfectly moist, and that irresistible caprese cream will keep you coming back for more. Definitely worth the price of admission.

On this most recent visit, however, my dining partner and I initially decided upon the very same entrée: Eggplant Parmigiana, which both of us had enjoyed Limoncello - Eggplant Parm Flatbreadon previous occasions. But once she spotted the fact that Eggplant Parm could also be ordered as a flatbread… that sealed the deal. For while the Eggplant Parmigiana, like the above-mentioned Chicken Messina, wasn’t exactly a unique photo opportunity, the flatbread version was a totally different story. Beautifully adorned with splashes of tomato sauce, fried eggplant, mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, basil, and rosettes of Grand Ricotta, the presentation was a delightful feast for the eye as well as the palate (pictured).

Limoncello - Choc Peanut Butter GanachePlenteous entrée portions notwithstanding, desserts are certainly worth saving room for. There are – but of course – many of the usual suspects: Chocolate Soufflé, Crème Brûlée, Cannoli, and Tiramisù. However, if you are something of a dessert fanatic, take my advice: Go for the gold. Which means, when they are available, Bananas Foster Cheesecake, creamy New York-style cheesecake topped with caramel drizzle; and, a personal fave, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Ganache (pictured), homemade velvet chocolate cake filled with creamy peanut butter mousse and a rich icing of semi-sweet chocolate & whipped cream.

Despite my obsession with the chocolate peanut butter combo, however, the real star of the show here is Limoncello - Lemoncello Cakeundoubtedly the incredibly wicked Limoncello Cake (pictured). The rich, buttery cake is splashed with – you guessed it – limoncello liqueur, filled with chunks of white chocolate, consummated with a limoncello glaze, and topped with a dollop of vanilla ice cream… Don’t even think about the calories!

Oh, by the way… the mixologist here is quite adept, as my dining partner’s Cosmo and my Negroni were both prepared to perfection. The restaurant also boasts a select wine list with a number of interesting options available by the glass.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

TAD

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FROM THE BOOKSHELF: Marisa Huff, Aperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy… Recipes for Drinks and Small Dishes

Aperitivo - Front CoverWhat, precisely, is aperitivo…? Aperitivo – or apéritif – is a preprandial libation. Derived from the Latin aperire, the tradition is meant “to open” the stomach before dining.

Today, however, all over Italy, this simple libation has evolved to encompass those few hours – generally between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. – when people meet to relax over a glass of wine or light cocktail and a variety of finger foods. Since most Italians eat lunch around 1:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m., and dinner around 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., this is also a good way to stimulate one’s appetite for the evening meal. Traditionally, aperitivo cocktails tend to be light on alcohol and bitter in taste, so as to pair well with salty snacks.

Marisa Huff’s Aperitivo explores this uniquely Italian phenomenon in depth, transporting readers on a fascinating travelogue from Turin (where modern Italian aperitivo began) to Venice (which the author describes as an aperitivo “wonderland”). And while aperitivo has often been likened to American “happy hour,” the author sets the record straight right at the outset:

“Unlike American happy hour, an Italian aperitivo has little to do with dollar tacos and drink specials. It consists of a glass of wine or cocktail and a bite to eat, the goal of which is not to get tipsy or spoil your appetite for dinner. Plus, bars in Italy may actually charge you more, rather than less, for a drink between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. (9 p.m. during summer). The markup is justified by the cornucopia of sophisticated Italian bar snacks that accompany your drink in more upscale watering holes (often at no extra charge).”

 Aperitivo - CrostiniEach chapter of the book focuses on a different city or region, and includes recipes inspired by the cocktails and small plates served in specific bars or simple variations on classic regional appetizers or ingredients. As noted above, with the arrival of vermouth, aperitivo made it debut in Turin with such libations as Vermouth Neat (served cold in a chilled short-stemmed wineglass or cordial), Vermouth Spritzer, or Vermouth on the Rocks with accompaniments like Oven-Roasted Eggplant and Fresh Goat Cheese with Pink Peppercorns. In Milan, it’s the invention of Campari that made the big splash, with cocktails like the Garibaldi (with fresh-squeezed orange juice), Americano & Vintage Negroni. Accompaniments include such delicacies as Lemon Potato Croquettes, Baked Mussels with Spicy Mayonnaise, Fried Shoestring Vegetables, and Lamb Chops alla Milanese. Venice is the final stop, savoring a Bellini, the classic combination of sparkling wine and white peach purée, made famous by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar… various Crostini (pictured) and Harry’s Bar Polpettine (small Italian meatballs) adding their own unique culinary contributions.

Aperitivo is a fascinating book for a variety of reasons… If you’re planning a party, it contains a slew of recipes for stylish & sophisticated cocktails (and intriguing variations thereof), as well as the innovative small plates to accompany them. But it is also an incredibly valuable travel resource, as it contains an appendix that provides the addresses, phone numbers, and hours of operation of each of the bars and restaurants mentioned.

Apperitivo: The Cocktail Culture of Italy is readily available from Amazon.com as well as numerous other sources online.

Bon Appétit & Cheers!

TAD

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Vernick Fish

Comcast Technology Center

1 North 19th Street

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(215) 419-5055

https://www.vernickfish.com/

I must confess, I entertained decidedly mixed emotions about dining at Vernick Fish. Why…? Because just a little over a month before this writing, my dining partner and I had enjoyed a truly memorable luncheon at the Sanctum Sanctorum of piscatorial pleasures: New York City’s Le Bernardin… And, once you’ve dined in the clouds, sometimes it’s difficult to come back down to earth again.

That being said, however, while Vernick Fish is certainly not Le Bernardin (nor does it attempt to be), there is absolutely no question that Chef Greg Vernick’s newest brasserie-like seafood enterprise acquits itself with considerable aplomb.

Vernick Fish - InteriorThe dining arrangements are somewhat unusual but also quite pleasant. The room is large (142 seats) and bustling; but because of its length and narrow width, you don’t feel crowded or closed in. Tables stretch in a leisurely array past the zinc-top bar and open kitchen, eventually spilling into the space at the rear that is generally reserved for private parties. The piped-in classic rock may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly adds an energetic note to the proceedings.

The service also deserves mention. Our server was attentive without being annoyingly solicitous… he made eye contact with all three members of our dining party… and he was obviously intimately acquainted with the menu.

But on to the food… which titillates the palate under four main headings – Raw, Small Plates, Large Plates, and Dessertsplus a number of side dishes.

The Raw category offers a host of intriguing possibilities. In addition to East Coast Oysters with house accompaniments, you will also find such Vernick Fish - Tuna Tartareitems as King Salmon Crudo companioned by roasted pineapple, lime & mint; Snapper Ceviche spruced up with coconut broth, red onion & lime leaf; and Tuna Tartare on sourdough garnished with avocado and Fresno Chili Oil (pictured); which, although listed as an appetizer, a member of our party thoroughly enjoyed as his main course.  And at this juncture, perhaps, a few words of explanation are in order. What, for example, is the difference between Crudo, Ceviche and Tartare?

Crudo is the Italian and Spanish word for “raw,” and it refers to uncooked dishes – usually fish, shellfish or meat – adorned with some sort of seasoning. Ceviche is made up of raw seafood that is marinated in citrus juice, which cures or literally “cooks” it. Tartare is another type of Crudo that consists of raw meat or seafood that is chopped and bound with sauce, dressing, and/or other seasonings. Like Carpaccio, Tartare is defined by the shape in which the raw fish is sliced: Carpaccio is thinly sliced, whereas Tartare is usually minced or diced.

Among the small plates, you discover such worthwhile starters as Spaghetti with Blue Crab and Crispy Octopus, along with a bow to landlubbers: Vernick Fish - Broiled Oysters PhiladelphiaEndive & Baby Gem Salad splashed with tarragon vinaigrette… But, as far as our party was concerned, the Marinated Shrimp on a seabed of shredded napa cabbage & Thai basil sprinkled with peanuts appeared to be the star of the show… That is, until the incredible Broiled Oysters Philadelphia (pictured) hit the table. Gently caressed by breadcrumbs seasoned with Genoa salami & provolone cheese and presented in a cast-iron tray usually reserved for escargot, they were a superb feast for both eye and palate.

When it came to the large plates, it wasn’t long before overchoice (also known as choice overload) – a term first introduced by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock – reared its ugly head. Not that there were too many possibilities… but all five of the seafood options looked so good that it was difficult to come to a decision.

As I mentioned above, the other gentleman in our party opted for the appetizer of Tuna Tartare as his main course. My dining partner thought about the Blackened Sea Scallops, but she decided to pass… I briefly considered the Panko-Crusted Swordfish with Korean/kimchi flair but did likewise.

We also considered sharing the Whole Roasted Branzino, but the tomato & watermelon salad, yogurt & pine nut relish didn’t ring any bells. Dover Vernick Fish - Black Sea BassSole, a special unlisted on the printed menu, is always a favorite; but since we had recently enjoyed this delicacy at our above-mentioned luncheon at Le Bernardin, we decided to pass on that as well. We finally agreed upon the Grilled Black Sea Bass (pictured). And a very wise choice, I might add. Especially since the accoutrements – tomato sauce, gold bar squash & crispy eggplant – proved to be perfect complements.

The restaurant’s bar turns out some pretty spiffy cocktails; and the bartender obviously knows his stuff, as my Vesper Martini was right on the money. There is also a very nice international wine list… However, the wines by the glass – quality as well as quantity – leave a great deal to be desired. Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, produces some excellent pinot noirs… but the Lemelson I tasted was pale & wan and quite weak with regard to flavor as well. And, as if to add insult to injury, the restaurant’s website listed the Willamette Valley as being in Washington State rather than Oregon. Evidently someone’s geography, or so it appears, is just as poor as their oenological knowledge.

If Vernick Fish has a weakness, however, it is surely their desserts – Chocolate Espresso Cake, Key Lime Pie, Marscapone Cheesecake, Peach & Vernick Fish - Peach Almond TartAlmond Tart (pictured) – which are basically standard issue. Were they bad? No… but, given the carefully crafted dishes that had preceded them, we expected a great deal more in the sweet endings department… and it simply was not forthcoming. And this, unfortunately, placed a decidedly negative pall over what – up until this point – had been an extremely rewarding evening at table. I say this because Mr. Vernick would do well to remember that the last thing diners experience within restaurant precincts is likely to be the first thing they remember.

 Bon Appétit & Cheers!

TAD

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