after dinner sneeze

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Posts Tagged ‘Chifa

Chifa and Sampan: Battle Pork Banh Mi

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t says: On Saturday, g and I had a hankering for Sampan’s Pork Banh Mi.  By the way, it has come to our attention that although Sampan spells it “Bahn”, it might actually be “Banh” – so we apologize for mis-spelling it and will slowly go back through our old posts to fix it.  Regardless of how it’s spelled, we wanted it again, as we’ve had it twice so far <#1, #2>, and were happy both times (although we liked it better the first time).  Then I remembered that Chifa also has this  sandwich on their menu; we’ve never had it, but it’s Jose Garces – could his be as equally as awesome?  We felt the storm clouds gathering, casting thick shadows on the grassy field upon which an epic battle was to take place … could Iron Chef Garces beat out Challenger Michael Schulson in Battle Pork Banh Mi?  Furthermore, because Chifa’s more known for its Bao buns (steamed buns with pork belly), should that dish also be taken into consideration – perhaps as an exhibition match?  Thus, we devised a pig-centric three-way battle.  Here we go …

Chifa: 4/2010, Saturday 6pm, Party of 2.  We decided to go to Chifa first.  We did this for a couple of reasons.  The first is that clearly Chifa was going to be the challenger with regard to the sandwich, as we knew that we liked Sampan’s already; Chifa deserved the advantage of being eaten while we were the most hungry.  Furthermore, we wanted to end up at Sampan because it was closer to home (thus a shorter distance to walk afterward on a full stomach) and because if we were still hungry, we knew there were plenty of other delightful items on Sampan’s menu (overall, we and our wallets liked dinners at Sampan more than those we had at Chifa).

We were seated promptly (without a reservation) and we apologized in advance to our waitress that we wouldn’t be ordering a lot as we were doing a pork banh mi face-off.  She seemed amused by and was happy to entertain our ridiculosity.  We ended up ordering a spicy margarita, the pork belly bao buns (Chifa’s signature dish), and the pork banh mi (which apparently was added to the menu around January).

The first dish that was brought out was complimentary “bread”.  When it first hit the table, I was highly suspicious.  I didn’t recall them having a bread basket the last times we went.  In the back of my mind, I reasoned that it was obviously the chef’s attempt to fill us up so that by the time we got to Sampan, we’d be too full to eat.  Obviously, I was too smart for him/her.  Well, whatever the reason/delusion, that was some fine bread.  These were the size/shape of the steamed buns, except that they had more of the baked-brown look with the smell of cheese.  They were served with a spreadable brown spicy sauce.  When I bit into it, the first thing I noticed wasn’t a taste, rather, a texture; it reminded me of slightly undercooked Pillsbury dough.  Sounds gross?  Nope.  It brought back childhood memories of home baking experiments – awesome!  The bread was savory and soft and warm and gooey, and when coupled with the spicy sauce, it was a flavorful way to start our meal.  I eventually reasoned that this obviously must not be the chef’s intention to sabotage our perception of Sampan’s food, as to do that, he would have had to given us more than four of these … because if there were more, we would have definitely eaten them all throughout the course of the meal (our other dishes had some sauce “smears” on the plates that we would have also sopped up with the bread).

The bao buns were next.  You know – that Jose Garces is always so slick with presentation.  I just don’t know how you can make pale-looking buns and brown-colored meat look that appetizing on a plate, but he [or whoever is actually in the kitchen constructing it] does it superbly – it looks like it’s ready for a photo shoot.  Of course, I had to re-structure the components so that it could be handled and eaten more easily (a pretty stack isn’t always the easiest-to-eat), but I appreciated the effort to appeal to my eyes.  Like my eyes, my mouth also appreciated the buns immensely.  The very tender pork belly screamed sweet and savory.  The daikon and carrot added some salty sour.  Mix all of those with the texture of the light, fluffy, pillow-y bun and it was even better than the first times we went!  I did notice, however, that the pieces of meat I had weren’t as fatty as pork belly can be – which is good or bad depending on your stance (I kinda like the fat).  In any case, these really make me want to taste Momofuku’s …

The pork banh mi came out last.  Although of a similar size, Garces’s sandwich isn’t wrapped in craft paper like Sampan, rather, is presented naked, cut in half, and accompanied by yet another sauce smear.  The first thing I noticed was that the bread looked particularly delicious – it appeared golden brown, crusty, and not the least bit squished from cutting.  And you know what – that was some good bread, with an awesome outside crust that resembling a Tony Luke’s cheese steak.  As soon as my teeth broke past the bread, I inhaled a breath of vegetable/herb freshness – there was cucumber and carrot with some mint and cilantro.  As my teeth chewed on the pork pieces (the waitress said it was pork shoulder), it released sweet, but was quickly followed by another salty, savory, mushy-textured experience: the pate!  Apparently Jose likes to add pate to the sandwich, which was only so-so in terms of taste (the flavor of the pate is kind of muted versus the rest of the ingredients in the sandwich, so I didn’t want it to dominate).  Furthermore, with later bites, I found that it’d aid the pork in sliding out the back of the sandwich as I chomped on the bread by acting as a lubricant – that was annoying.  Finally, upon swallowing, I noticed a bit of heat.  At first, I thought it was the spicy margarita, but it was not; sliced jalapenos were hidden among the greens.  The heat was nice just so long as you didn’t happen to get an overwhelming piece of chile.  Overall, the sandwich was good – the vegetables were very bold and up front, the bread and sauce were excellent, and the meat was tender.  I deduct points for the pate (just leave it out!) and too little sauce (put it on my sandwich, not a smear on my plate).  Not bad a bad showing …

After concluding these tastings, we paid our bill and walked over to Sampan.  I was no longer “hungry” but “I could eat” …

Sampan: 4/2010, Saturday 7pm, Party of 2.  We were seated promptly at the “bar” the faces the open kitchen.  This time we were further from the salamanders, and closer to the appetizer prep stations.  As we sat, we watched a pork banh mi being made – it looked simple enough – take some bread, slice it, add some sauce, add the meat, add the veggies, add the herbs, sprinkle some ?nuts? on top, wrap it up, and send it out.  As we watched this one being made, we placed our order, and lo and behold, the one we had just watched was delivered to our table!  It was like they were expecting us!  I guess the reality is that they probably always have one ready to go because they have to make it so often …

First things first – how’d it look?  Well, it was wrapped in paper emblazoned with “Sampan” … I kind of like the old school craft paper they had used the very first time we went.  Furthermore, gone was the blue painter’s tape – they were now using masking tape.  Once again – give me the blue painter’s tape!  I don’t like change, damnit!

I opened up the paper and saw our victim.  While it looked similar to Chifa’s, the bread definitely appeared softer – likely because there was some squishing in the wrapping process and the warmth from the meat was softening the bread.  To be honest – I liked the bread at Chifa better because I like a nice hard outer crust – but if you want soft, then Sampan is the way to go.  But when it comes to flavor, there’s a slightly different story …  Sampan’s veggies and herbs and meat didn’t give me clear distinct notes, rather, a single harmonious flavor, including sour and sweet from the pickled vegetables, light heat from the sauce, a zing from the cilantro, and savory from the pork.  Yes, all the flavor components were the same as in Chifa, but they all worked together at once – there weren’t phases of evolving flavors, rather, one big flavor up front that eventually gave way to the individual components later on, after you swallowed.  It was so good.

After some thought, g and I felt that it was definitely better this time than at our last Sampan visit (and almost as good as our first).  Why?  Well, as we watched from our seat, we realized that the woman making the sandwich with “Fernandez” embroidered on her coat did an excellent job ensuring the right veggie:herb:meat:sauce ratio; this time was near perfect (maybe a little less sauce as our sandwich was a little drippy towards the end), but last time there just wasn’t enough meat.  Thank you Chef Fernandez!  You the woman!

We concluded our meal at Sampan with dessert – the chocolate banana “tart” in which a chocolate crust filled with bananas that were bruleed.  It was an excellent idea, but there were some flaws in execution.  The torch definitely burnt some of the exposed crust, so after the first accidental taste of burnt-bitterness (it’s hard to see the burnt parts as the chocolate crust was a dark brown), we had to seek out and remove the burnt areas.  Also, there could have been some other sauce or ganache or something to bring together the mushy bananas (they were mushy in a good way!) and the firm, somewhat dry, crust.  The waitress did recommend the ice cream to go with this dessert when we ordered, but we ignored her, and now we wished we hadn’t.  Like each time we’ve been to Sampan, the desserts are theoretically great, but taste only “good” – int his case, it wasn’t quite good enough to order again (but they keep rotating the dessert menu, so I’m sure I’ll find something new to order next time).

Conclusions:  Ok – super long post – let’s summarize …

1)  I prefer Sampan’s pork banh mi to Chifa’s primarily because of the bold, harmonious flavor that hit you from the very beginning.  While Chifa did have superior bread and more of a “freshness”, the pate subtracted from the dish, and perhaps adding more sauce and allowing the ingredients a chance to meld together (perhaps wrapped in some kraft paper with blue painters’ tape?) would help it?

2)  Chifa’s pork buns, however, are superior to Chifa’s banh mi – the way the flavors are integrated makes this dish hit you with flavor the same way Sampan’s bhan mi hits you – you get a nice strong, combined flavor up front that eventually gives way to subtler flavors later.

3)  Sampan’s banh mi vs. Chifa’s buns … gee … that’s really close …  I think it’d have to come down to what kind of mood you’re in … do you want bread or buns?  Ceviche (Chifa) or Brussels sprouts (Sampan)?  Personally, I think that Sampan might have the edge because the rest of the menu (or at least, the things we like to eat) are priced more aggressively.  We only wish they could execute the desserts a little better – there’s untapped potential there …

Epilogue:  As we got up to leave Sampan, g tried to direct my attention to the kitchen.  Eventually, she succeeded in doing so (I’m not too good with picking up on her non-verbal signals, and she didn’t want to say aloud, “Hey – look at the guy with the fish.”)  I looked over just in time to see Chef Forneas (the real person in charge at Sampan) pull out this huge fillet of fish (looked like yellowtail) and do some trimming.  He was showing another one of the kitchen staff how to cut the fish [I think].  Then, he attempted to slice off a piece, but was disappointed and left, hurriedly, to the back of the kitchen.  I was psyched because I thought he was going to get a sharp, Japanese knife (one of those single-beveled ones known as a yanagi) and show this fish a thing or two.  This was going to be so cool to see him do some sashimi slicing right in front of us (I’m a little obsessed with kitchen knives)!  After a few seconds, he then came back into sight … with one hand holding the same knife he was holding before … and the other holding a honing rod …  He then proceeded to hone his knife, Gordon Ramsey style, as he walked towards us (and the fish).  I counted the offenses …  He was going to slice this beautiful fillet not with a yanagi.  He was going to use a knife that he was clearly abusing with a honing rod (any knife that you should be using to cut sashimi should not be honed as such).  He appeared satisfied with this solution, as he walked with an air of pride in his honing technique.  With those three strikes, I had no choice but to leave in utter disgust.  Condoning such practices is abominable.  I fought back the urge to reach across the bar, snatch the fillet, and run out the door in an attempt to rescue the meat.  I vow to you here that I will order sashimi from Sampan nevermore

Written by afterdinnersneeze

19 April 2010 at 7:32am

Oh the places we’ve gone …

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We were trying to become foodies long before deciding to start a blog.  We kept track of our experiences at a lot of restaurants through the reservation-making website  Unfortunately, they impose a very low character limit (which actually was one of the primary reasons we started this blog – limitless space!).  We’ve copy-pasted these reviews (actually, they’re mostly t’s impressions) below so both we and readers will be able to remember and know the places we went in the pre-blog era.

Some of the more recent visits will migrate into actual posts.  We’ll also try to add on several other reviews of restaurants we’ve visited for which we did not provide an opentable review – our memories will likely be fuzzy, which is most definitely a shame, as we kind of wished we had recorded those experiences to revisit.  It’s funny how sometimes we even forget the things we swore we’d never forget …

29 Jan 2010.  Tinto. Fri, 8:30pm, Party of 4, Restaurant week. I find that Jose Garces restaurants are among the only ones that perform very well during restaurant week in Philadelphia; go with a group ready to share and you’re guaranteed a fun time.  There were too many dishes for me to evaluate – highlights included sea bass (cooked perfectly), mussels, and the cheeses.  Meats were done well – nothing extraordinary, but good.  While not every dish was mind-blowing, everything was consistent; I still prefer Amada (guess I’m a sucker for flat bread and bolder flavors).  Also, the red sangria was better than usual!

20 Nov 2009.  Supper. Fri, Dinner, Party of 2.  We were searching specifically for an excellent burger, especially after visiting Devil’s Alley the weekend before.  The hostess, waitress, and support staff were all excellent: prompt and pleasant.  We started off with the deviled eggs of the day, a sampler including one each of truffled, sriracha, tandoori, and bacon.  While all were unique, well-executed, and tasty, the siracha one was AMAZING.  The charcuterie plate wasn’t to-die-for like at Vetri, but respectable.  We each had the Supper Burger (which ended up being a mistake – we only needed one to satiate us).  For only $14 we got perhaps the best burger I had ever had!  It was fancy, but not too fancy; it still had soul.  It’s our new standard by which to measure all other burgers.  Now if only their charcuterie plate was better and they started being BYO …

13 Sep 2009.  Chifa. Sun, Dinner, Party of 4, Restaurant Week.  Unfortunately, for me, this is the weakest of the Garces restaurants that I’ve visited (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa).  If Asian flavors are new to you, then this place may pack enough novelty to warrant a visit.  It’s tough to do soups and curries as sharable food items, which is supposed to be the theme of this small plates restaurant.  That said, Chifa does a dynamite ceviche – perhaps the best I’ve had in the city – somehow the super-bright citrus comes out just enough to balance, and not overtake the fish – amazing.  My second favorite dish was the fabled pork buns – I think they’re a little overhyped (I’m sure Momofuku will blow these out of the water – I’ll let you know if/when I ever get to go), but they are at least “very tasty”, with a good amount of salt and sweet and savory, in a package you hold in your hands.

01 Aug 2009.  Zahav. Sat, Dinner, Party of 3.  We opted for the tasting menu x 3.  The multiple course “salads” (a variety of pickled and lightly sauced vegetables) and choice of hummus were an excellent way to start the meal – a multitude of unfamiliar but delicious tastes.  The rest of the dishes were all very good, but nothing was really mind-blowing with either big/unexpected flavors (which is surprising given how unfamiliar I am with this cuisine), rather, a lot of subtle flavors.  The raw ground lamb was only “ok”, while the standouts were the lamb kibbe and some sort of melted cheese concoction (sorry, I forgot which meat was featured).  My dessert which featured baklava and panne cotta was dynamite – I wish the whole meal went like that one dessert.  The service was adequate, but our waiter wasn’t personable and didn’t look me in the eyes once, almost exuding arrogance.  The wine list was ok, but I’d like it more if it were BYO or offered more Israeli wines by the glass.  Because it’s not, and the food by itself wasn’t consistently mind-blowing, I’d really only go back with good company.  (N.B.  I did go back for lunch in January 2010 and the food and service were much improved.)

28 Jul 2009.  Distrito. Tue, Dinner, Party of 4, Restaurant Week. This was my second visit to Distrito, and it was even better than I remember.  However, I advise that you order a nice mix of super-tasty dishes with others that will provide more ‘filling’. For instance, we ordered ceviches and scallops (which were executed perfectly), but foiled it with orders of guacomole and short rib flatbread (which were also delicious but had larger portions).  The rosemary orange margarita was delicious.  (I apparently forgot what I had for dessert, but I’m sure it was as good as the rest of the meal.)

09 Jul 2009.  Fig & Olive – Meatpacking.  NYC. Thu, Dinner, Party of 2.  They have a great selection of olive oils (they offer three when you first sit down).  The wine list was not huge, but the wines they did offer were VERY good.  The charcuterie plate was delicious and worked well with the included fig-olive tapenade (I find some tapenades a little too strong).  For dinner, we had filet and lamb (with sides of spinach and olive oil mash) – they were good, but definitely did NOT shine through as the best ever entrees we’ve had – the seasoning was a little off (some too salty, others bland).  Service was excellent.  I would say that this would be an EXCELLENT place to go if you made a meal of the wine, appetizers, and smaller plates – pass on the entrees.  From where we sat, it seemed like they have a great bar scene (and a nice open space) given the location and excellent snack-esque offerings.

21 Jun 2009.  Little Fish. Sun, Dinner, Party of 3 (FTC), $28 5-course meal.  Food was tasty – everything was superbly executed – the chef knows how to cook seafood.  However, I would have appreciated it had they pushed the creative boundaries a little more, which I’m not sure is the goal of Little Fish.  For them, it’s more ’safe’, (although is cooking seafood really “safe” given the slim margin of error?)  g thinks that I’m being too harsh and that every dish she had was superb.  Service was top-notch. As critical as I was, I must admit that a 5-course, $28 meal is a superb value!

24 May 2009.  The Melting Pot.  Atlantic City. Sat, Lunch, Party of 2.  We went during memorial day weekend – it was empty.  Service was very good – it has to be given that the format of the restaurant.  I feel that the price of the food was a bit higher than warranted – however, the price of the food is in line with the polished interior design and well-stocked wine list (including half-bottles).  So, either the food needs to be better, or everything else needs to come down.  Keep in mind that the food wasn’t bad.  We had the swiss cheese fondu which was tasty, however, the vegetable assortment was a little bare, and adding some fruits as well as toasting the bread (for a little more flavor than plain bread) would have been nice.  The ‘French quarter’ entree fondu was ok – but the spices overpowered the meat.  I guess for a gimicky chain, it was “not bad”.

25 Apr 2009.  Cochon. Sat, Dinner, Party of 3 (FTC).  We went to Cochon before it joined, thus I have no written review.  I’m trying to piece together what we had from emails in order to capture why it was SUCH a great meal. Cochon is small and cozy.  We were seated close to the “kitchen” and were intrigued by the aromas that came forth.  The appetizer I remember the most is the escargots – they were tender and full of flavor; the sauce was the most delicious garlic-based sauce I have ever had.  We ordered three different pork dishes, 2 of which came from the menu (one was a tenderloin), and one of which was a special (24-hour Berkshire Pork Shoulder with a Mushroom Madeira Sauce).  I actually remember asking the waitress if she preferred the pork shoulder or some lamb special – she recommended the pork without hesitation.  This pork was the best pork I had ever had.  The tender texture of the meat and silky texture of the sauce was a one-two punch that completely overshadowed the two other dishes.  Part of the reason why I can’t remember what else we ate is likely due to how strong a memory I have of just that pork shoulder.  (N.B. Even by the time we started afterdinnersneeze, it’s STILL the best pork I’ve ever had).

17 Apr 2009.  Chifa. Fri, Dinner, Party of 4.  For anyone who is already familiar with Asian-fusion dishes, the cuisine at Chifa will not blow you away with uniqueness.  So, while the dishes were all “good”, nothing really made me sit up and take note.  Service and ambiance were as they should be for a Garces restaurant.  Unfortunately, of the four that I’ve been to (Amada, Tinto, Distrito), this one is my least favorite (but it’s not “bad”).  Interestingly, the noise level was low, but that might have been because the restaurant was surprisingly empty!  Maybe it’ll be louder for you!  (N.B.  I revisited Chifa in September 2009 and, while the food was better, it still can’t outdo the other three small plate Garces joints.)

21 Mar 2009.  Ruth’s Chris Steak House – Philly.  Sat, Dinner, Party of 2.  This Ruth’s Chris is rather stuffy (vs the one in AC) with the diners being either older or families.  The food was tasty – nothing special or earth-shattering (I still stand by the lamb as their best dish) – very nearly on par with Morton’s in taste/texture (although inferior in presentation and service).  Although the waiter was intially far too eager to ‘help’ with our drink order – he stopped after we demonstrated our wine knowledge (all you have to do is pimp them on Bordeaux vintages).  All in all, the food is good for a steak-house chain, but maybe not worth the price, as I’d probably choose an inventive Philly BYOB to it any day.  But if you want a no-frills steak (or lamb!), I have no beef with Ruth’s Chris.

13 Feb 2009.  Bistro St. Tropez. Fri, Dinner, Party of 2.  We were hoping that this restaurant would be a hidden gem among Philadelphia restaurants.  It was not.  The menu mentioned reasonably priced entrees that sounded very good, however, when the food arrived at the table, I was completely underwhelmed.  Technically, the dishes included all of the ingredients listed in the menu, and everything seemed like it was cooked ok, but there was no soul in the food.  For instance, meat can taste like meat or it can taste like meat.  When I eat out, every dish MUST be better than what I can make at home if given access to those ingredients.  This expectation was not met.  I do want to mention that its location is both weird (it’s in a building of showrooms) and cool (the views of the river at night are phenomenal).  The decor was ridiculous (in a bad way).  Why can’t a good restaurant (preferably BYO) move in here?

Ancient History:

Morimoto. Great food, although pricey for what it was.  The fish was superb.  The atmosphere is unique and definitely is a place to go at least once (or more if someone else is paying).

Morton’s. I’ve been here a number of times throughout high school and college, and it’ll stand in my mind as having the best “classic” steak.  Nowadays, I’m more into “unique” foods, so I don’t know when the next time I’ll go will be.  Their flourless Godiva chocolate lava cake still stands as the best lava cake I have ever had.

Django. When I first came to Philadelphia, this BYO was tauted as “the best” in the city, having received four bells from Craig LaBan.  By the time I got there, it was supposedly “on its way out” as the owners Sikora and Olexy had moved on (I had just missed them!).  Nevertheless, those meals we had at Django in 2005 and early 2006 were some of the best we had ever had in Philadelphia (on par with the best dishes we’ve had at Bibou and Cochon).  That said, Django did slowly decline over time, eventually closing its doors in either late 2008 or early 2009.  May it rest in peace.

The Helmand. Having spent some time in Baltimore (early 2000’s), I had the great fortunate of visiting some of the best restaurants (with the exception of the Charleston – the one that got away).  In the end, the Helmand is the one that I remember the most fondly.  Completely unpretentious (no fancy plating, no weird cuts of meat, no bizarre techniques), it served the best food in Baltimore.  It’s been several years since I left, but I hope it’s still going strong.

Towson Best and Sushi Hana. In Towson, MD are these two Asian restaurants.  One is a chinese takeout joint that also does sushi, while the other specializes primarily in sushi.  Towson Best has some of the best fake Chinese food you’ll ever have (this is not being sarcastic at all – it really does taste delicious!).  Go for the “Veal Mimosas with Orange Lest” (a funny typo on their menu) or any of the fried chickens (e.g. General Tso’s, Orange, or Sesame), and I’d like to see you try and stop yourself from eating yourself into a food coma.  Couple this with some nice rolls (Dragon Roll, Red Phoenix Roll, Birthday Roll), and what you have is a very satisfying meal.  I mention Sushi Hana only because some might criticize Towson Best as maybe not having enough turnover to consistently have the freshest sushi (although I’ve never had a problem).  For these critics, I suggest Sushi Hana around the corner – but you won’t get the awesome fake Chinese food!