Philly’s Best New Cheap Eats: Ekta and Zhi-Wei-Guan

Joe and I are headed to Kitty Hawk, NC for a week of internet-free relaxation on the beach.  If you’re in Philly, though, two new spots to try:

Ekta

I posted about Ekta’s opening, so you know I was in a hurry to try the food.  I’m happy to report that Chef Raju Bhattarai has matched the quality that his fans came to expect at his former post, Tiffin, at his new restaurant a few blocks down Girard.  [where: 19125]  I ordered one of the few dishes I hadn’t seen before, Murg Pahari, described on the menu only as “chicken cooked in a village’s style.”  It arrived hot and on time, and it was comfort food– the chicken was cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of onions, tomatoes and herbs.  No heavy cream thickening the gravy here, just fresh vegetables and a low level of heat that allowed the flavors to shine.  Peshawari naan and onion bhajis were tasty, but the real standout was the freebie “chef’s accompaniment” that arrived labeled “semolina.”  It was a dessert semolina porridge with golden raisins and toasted almonds, its subtle sweetness cut by a hint of black pepper.  I hope it makes it onto the menu– I’d order it for dessert or for breakfast.

Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant

I’ve posted a lot about Race St. between 9th and 10th: Wong Wong, HK Golden Phoenix and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles all live on this blessed block. [where: 19107] Between Nan Zhou* and HK there’s a new neighbor: Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant, the Magic Kingdom of Dough.  (That’s what it says on the business card.)  Zhi-Wei-Guan is named after a famous restaurant in Hangzhou, China, and Hangzhou dishes are proudly featured throughout the menu.  We had an amazing Hangzhou-style duck noodle soup with bok choy, and noodle dishes are clearly a specialty.  The real star here, though, is the juicy buns.  When we arrived, around 9:15 PM, our server welcomed us cheerfully** and told us that the pork/shrimp/mushroom buns ($7.50) were almost sold out.  There were only five left, but she’d round out the order with some beef buns.  Who could say no to that?  The buns were indeed juicy, fresh and full of flavor.  The beef buns were very lightly cooked, still pink inside, but delicious, with a lighter flavor and texture than you might expect from a beef dumpling.  Definitely worth the price.  We also ordered a noodle soup with fried tofu and stewed spareribs, and found it deeply satisfying.  Unlike Nan Zhou down the street, which is known for its noodles, the amazing, knock-your-socks-off component to Zhi-Wei-Guan’s soup is the broth.  Both of the soups we tried were all about the complex, rich flavors of the broth.  The way it permeated the fried tofu– oh, man, you’re just going to have to try it.  The soups, by the way, are all in the $5-7 range.
They’re open until 10, and the service is amazing.  Our server was a friendly, personable woman in her twenties who chatted with customers, recommended dishes, brought us freebies (sliced cucumber with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce, yum!) and even took our pictures for the wall.  I wish I’d caught her name.  I’ve worked as a server and in retail, and I’m not a fan of the classic servile style of restaurant service– I’d rather talk to a friendly fellow human being who knows and cares about the food they’re serving.  I loved the food, but our server gave us such a good experience that I know I’ll be coming back regularly.
With that, I’m disappearing for the week– off to enjoy the tasty treats of Kitty Hawk.  Have a nice week, folks!

*a.k.a. Lanzhou (兰州/蘭州), not to be confused with Hangzhou (杭州).  Chinese transliteration is a complicated business; I’m not about to hazard guesses about what’s right or wrong.  Chinese speakers, please feel free to chime in.

** This is a welcome contrast to the dumpling house that briefly occupied this space before Zhi-Wei-Guan– I stopped in one night half an hour before closing time to order takeout and was shooed out by a surly server.

Dinner on Girard: Ekta and Sketch Burger Joint Opening Today

Good news for Fishtowners!  Chef Raju Bhattarai, formerly the executive chef at Tiffin, has opened his own restaurant, Ekta, at 250 E. Girard [where: 19125].  I stopped by the small storefront space yesterday, and Chef Bhattarai and his staff were busy putting on the finishing touches.  They greeted me warmly and handed me a menu.  Most of the choices are indistinguishable from Tiffin’s menu, no surprise there, but the prices are much more affordable.  One intriguing difference is in the bread section.  In addition to the usual suspects like garlic naan, roti, and the heavenly fruit-and-nut-stuffed Peshawari naan, Ekta offers basil naan, mint naan and rosemary naan.  Hours are also a bit longer than Tiffin’s: Ekta is open until 10 pm Monday-Saturday and 9 pm Sunday, good news for those of us who work the twilight shift.  City Paper reports that a second-floor dining room is in the works as well.  Opening day is today, so drop by if you get a chance– and send me a report!

The other restaurant opening today on Girard is Sketch Burger Joint, a brightly painted pink-and-yellow space run by the owners of Canvas Coffee Co.  The menu advertises itself as vegan-friendly, and wagyu burgers, high-end condiments and vegan milk shakes are on offer (check out the menu over at Foobooz).  Oh, this is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t talk about Girard without mentioning its unquestioned king, Johnny Brenda’s.   We had dinner at Brenda’s the day we moved to Fishtown, and haven’t stopped dropping by.  The new venue space on the second and third floors is a great place to see bands like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, but what I’m really happy about is the expanded dining room, where the seating is much more comfortable, and you can hear your dinner partner talk.  Brenda’s menu is updated regularly, and the innovation hasn’t stopped yet– my latest favorite is the crab cake salad, three perfect, slightly spicy crabcakes with a creamy dressing and a pile of dark, flavorful salad greens.   I’ll really be happy when the Greek-inspired lamb sliders Brenda’s offered at the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival finally make it onto the menu.  I’ve been craving those for months.

Simple Dal for Winter Nights

It’s February, and you just spent an hour driving home from work in a treacherous ice storm. You’re cold and tired, and there’s not much food in the house. What do you do?

Here’s what we did: ad libbed from an already-easy dal recipe. This requires a bit of time but very little effort, and the results are warming, comforting and satisfying (not to mention gluten-free and vegetarian). This is our version, but you can throw in some vegetables or whatever you’ve got around the house. This serves 2, with some leftovers.

Simple Dal

Throw into a pot:

1/2 lb lentils (use your favorite kind)

1 1/4 pint water

1 bay leaf

3 cloves garlic, broken up a bit but not chopped

about 1 tbsp chopped ginger

1 cinnamon stick

large pinch of turmeric

Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 35 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Then add:

Juice of 1 lemon

pinch of salt

pinch of pepper

pinch of cayenne

Simmer for 5 more minutes.

In a small pan, heat about 3 tbsp of ghee or vegetable oil. Add:

pinch of black cumin

pinch of regular cumin seeds

pinch of asafetida

Let it sizzle for a few seconds, then stir into the dal.

Serve with rice. That’s all there is to it. By the way, this process will leave your dal studded with tender, sweet pieces of garlic.

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Baingan Bharta (Eggplant Curry)

I asked for good vegetable recipes, and you, my lovely readers, delivered. This gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian recipe comes via my foodie friend LeftyProf.

Vineeta’s (LeftyProf’s sis-in-law’s) Baingan Bharta

Ingredients:

1 lb. Indian eggplant (these are small, bulbous eggplant, smaller than the size of an apple). Alternatively, you might use purple Chinese eggplant, the long, thin variety.
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3-4 medium tomatoes, diced (about the same volume as the onion)
A 3-inch piece of fresh ginger root, finely julienned
6 fresh Indian green chillies, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Method:

1. First, brush the eggplants lightly with oil, or spritz them with cooking spray. Roast each eggplant over a low open flame, turning constantly, until the outer skin is charred and nearly falling off. The smoky flavor of the charred skin should seep into the flesh of the eggplant as it softens. When fully roasted, set them aside, and allow to cool. Extract the pulp of each eggplant, and discard the charred skin.

2. In a pan, heat two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and add the sliced onions. Sauté the onions until they begin to brown, then thrown in the ginger. Continue to sauté until the mixture becomes a mellow golden brown. Then add the green chillies and stir for a minute more.

3. Add the tomatoes and the eggplant, mash the whole thing together with the back of a spoon, cover and simmer. Add salt and cook until done, about 10-15 minutes.

4. Garnish with chopped cilantro and salt to taste.

Serve with any Indian bread—best with chapatis or rotis.

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The 2007 Potato List

It’s that time of year: your office is filled with sugary treats, pop divas are murdering ‘O Holy Night’ on every radio station, you are tempted to drop five bucks on an eggnog latté, and every blog, magazine and newspaper is filled with ‘Best of 2007’ lists. Why should the Real Potato be any exception? Here are a few of my favorite discoveries of 2007, in no particular order.

1. Tiffin

www.tiffinstore.com, 710 W. Girard Ave. (between 7th and 8th Sts.), Philadelphia, PA
I can’t believe I haven’t written about Tiffin yet. Not only is this the best Indian food in Philadelphia, but my friend LeftyProf and his partner, both from Bangalore, swear this is the best Northern Indian they’ve had in 15 years in the US. In fact, I know several Indians who have gone out of their way just to get more of Tiffin’s food. We even had them cater our wedding. I am grateful to live in their delivery zone. They’re that good.

Tiffin is a multifaceted operation– they’ve got a dining room on Girard; they do regular old takeout; they have a catering business; and they also have an Indian-style lunch tiffin system. You order a light, healthy lunch online from a fixed menu in the morning, and they deliver at lunchtime anywhere between Fishtown and University City. Make sure to check out their specials, which change constantly and tend toward the fresh and seasonal.

2. Spring Garden Market

Spring Garden St at the corner of 4th St.

This is a brand new discovery– Spring Garden Market just opened its doors this week. This new addition to Northern Liberties, just north of Chinatown, is a cavernous, colorful, sparkling new Asian supermarket. The produce section is huge, and filled with all sorts of specialty produce (five kinds of sweet potatoes, anyone?) for Asian cooks. There’s a butcher and a fishmonger: their prices are low and the quality is quite high. You need pork belly? This is the place. Blocks of fresh tofu are 5 for a dollar; fresh noodles, whole water chestnuts, gigantic sheets of bean curd, you name it. The groceries are comprehensive, from Vietnamese noodles to black sesame oil to a huge range of canned fruits and vegetables, bags of rice, and 99-cent cans of rice congee. This is my new favorite grocery store.

3. The Les Halles Cookbook

OK, we all know I love Anthony Bourdain, but seriously, this cookbook is great. It’s not just the food, though there’s definitely plenty of food porn here. It really delves into Bourdain’s philosophy of cooking, and it’s filled with passion on so many things. It’s also written in Bourdain’s actual voice, so expect cooking instructions that swear at you, tell you that you don’t deserve good steak if you’re going to overcook it, and instruct you to roll your herb butter in plastic wrap “just like you would roll a joint.” Hee. The style doesn’t veer into the gimmicky, though, which is a hard balance to maintain. And the FOOD, oh my god. I’m going to get some pork belly at Spring Garden Market and try my hand at rillettes de porc, oh yes.

4. The Hot Sauce at Taco Riendo

It’s not red, guys. It’s a deep, velvety maroon, with a flavor that penetrates into the dark, smoky heart of chipotle flavor. And it’s totally amazing on al pastor tacos. If they bottled this, I would buy it and give it to everyone I know. (Aside to Taco Riendo: Seriously, have you considered bottling it?)

5. The Headhouse Market

This farmer’s market (which closes this weekend!) appears on Sunday mornings in the historic Headhouse pavilion at 2nd St. and South St. It’s sponsored by the Food Trust and features deliciously fresh produce, breads, dairy products and even wines. And some of the vendors are fellow Philly food bloggers!

6. Country’s Barbecue

3137 Mercury Drive, Columbus, GA

I was down in Columbus on a business trip a few months ago. The highlight of the trip was getting to see my cousins Maggie and Sheryl, but the culinary highlight was Country’s. My client’s directions involved the phrase ‘you can’t miss it, with all the barbecue smoke.’ He wasn’t kidding. The parking lot is full of fragrant black smoke from the barbecue pits– and it’s a wonderful sign of things to come. I went with some fellow translation project managers and shared achingly tender pork barbecue sandwiches and the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. (They also had fried pickles, which I hear are amazing if you like pickles– but I hate pickles with a furious passions, so I passed.)

7. Serious Eats

I first checked out this site after hearing that Alton Brown reads it religiously. It’s great– filled with food news, good recipes, and essays by serious chowhounds who share a passion for real food. They like to give away prizes, which is pretty awesome– I keep trying to win those Peter Luger steaks, believe me.

8. Lagavulin

This is Joe’s influence– he’s turned me on to the joys of good scotch. I’ve been a beer nerd for many years now, and one of the things I enjoy about scotch is that it uses the same sort of palate, with malty, smoky flavors. Lagavulin, though, is the scotch that turned me into a scotch snob. It’s a single malt aged in sherry casks, and its dark, complex, smoky flavors just make other scotch seem kind of pointless.

9. Paizano’s Pizza

Baker City, Oregon

I’ve never been to Oregon, but I’ve been reading KeenEye’s blog for months now. In the time I’ve been reading, she’s renovated a building, opened a gourmet pizzeria and started to thrive. Her posts about the joys and pitfalls of running a restaurant are witty and sharp, and the food looks amazing.

10. Peking Duck

Yes, I realize that I’m years late to the party on this one. Until recently, I’d had Peking duck only once, on a college trip to London. I loved it but it never occurred to me to seek it out in the US. Thanks to Philly’s Chinatown, though, I’m a convert. We get ours at Wong Wong on the corner of Race and 9th. One whole duck feeds two people. You get tender duck with crispy, outrageously flavorful skin; fluffy little rice pancakes; fresh scallions; and plummy, tangy hoisin sauce. Make a little taco out of that and abandon yourself to the decadent glory of duck fat. Oh yeah.

Your turn: what’s your favorite food discovery of 2007?

I’ll be headed home to Pittsburgh this weekend and will probably be internet-less, so until then– merry Christmas, Eid Mubarak, happy Kwanzaa, blessed Yule, and if you don’t celebrate any of those, have fun on your day off. And thank you all for an amazing year!

Sarah

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Tiffin in Philadelphia

Eggs Moghlai

This is a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbook An Invitation to Indian Cooking, the cookbook that inspired me to start this blog. The recipe is a fancy, rich dish- most Moghul dishes we in the US are exposed to are ‘royal’ recipes. There are two versions in this cookbook, one with chicken as the protein and one with hard-boiled eggs. Since eggs don’t need to be browned first and then simmered until they’re tender, the egg version is a whole lot quicker.

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Chana Masala with Bhaturas: Vegetarian Indian Goodness

My friend Diana is in town for a couple of days, and I promised her a vegetarian feast.  There’s nothing she loves more than Indian food, so I broke out my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook and made this chana masala for her and our friends Peter and Cat.  It turned out really well, and was less difficult than I expected.  It was spicy without being overpowering, and the lemon really gives it a fresh, tangy taste. 

(Incidentally, I realized about five minutes before my guests arrived that we were out of lemons– Joe used them all making lemon curd!  We only have small corner markets in my neighborhood, none of which carry produce, and I don’t have a car.  Fortunately, the neighborly folks at Ida Mae’s Bruncherie, reviewed here, spotted me a lemon!)

Chana masala, for those who haven’t tasted it, is a vegetarian dish of chickpeas simmered with onions, garlic, ginger, tomato puree and spices.  It’s topped with lemon juice, tomatoes and chopped onion and served with fried bread– in this case, bhaturas.  My friend LeftyProf gave me a real-deal recipe, from his best friend’s mom in Delhi, but when I raced home from work and started cooking, it emerged that we didn’t actually have all of the ingredients!  So I’m going to try that this weekend, and last night I made Madhur Jaffrey’s bhaturas instead.  Props to Peter for doing an excellent job deep frying these– I’m excited to have successfully produced another new (to me) Indian bread!  Read on for the recipes.

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