Monthly Archives: March 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Moving and Mouthwatering

I just got back from seeing Jiro Dreams of Sushi, an exceptional documentary about 85-year old sushi chef Jiro Ono.  Considered one of the best sushi chefs in Japan, and the oldest chef in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars, Jiro continues to run his critically acclaimed restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro–a 10-seat jewelbox of a restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station.  Jiro can count culinary heavyweights from around the world as fans, including Joel Rubuchon and Anthony Bourdain, who has said his meal at Jiro was “the best sushi of his life.”

The movie touches on many subjects: work ethic, culture, generation gaps, class, family, life, death, and even environmentalism.  But the theme that struck me most throughout the film was dedication to one’s craft.  Jiro truly has a passion for making sushi–a lifelong passion that continues to drive him to this day.  And his passion, perfection, and persistence seemed to rub off on everyone around him: his son Yoshikazu, his apprentices, his fish dealers, his rice dealers.  He inspired others with his dedication, and pushed them to elevate their own skills and passion as well.  Every element of the sushi–the technique and quality of the fish, the preparation and particular variety of rice, the final presentation and timing of the meal–involved countless hours of training, testing, and tasting, to get that one perfect umami bite.

In an age where sushi is ubiquitous around the globe, we forget that sushi making is really an art form.  But Jiro Dreams of Sushi reminds us that artisans like Jiro are still out there, elevating the craft that they love and bringing joy to eager diners one nigiri at a time.

(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Philadelphia Mobile Food Association Rolls Out

It’s not often that The Unpaid Gourmet has a breaking news story, but I am happy to report one today.  The Philadelphia Mobile Food Association (PMFA) officially launched on Tuesday, hosting their first general meeting at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  With over 100 people in attendance, the meeting was quite a success and offered a glimpse into the opportunities and challenges facing Philly food truck owners.  Prior to the meeting, food trucks Lil Dan’s, Smoke Truck, Sweet Box, HubBub Coffee, and Zsa’s Gourmet Ice Cream congregated outside the school and sold gourmet fare to curious students and passersby (pictured above).

Though food trucks and carts have been ubiquitous in Philadelphia for decades, they have surged in popularity over the past couple years nationwide.  But today’s food trucks aren’t your typical roach coaches or street meat.  Today’s food trucks are sleek and new, retrofitted with modern kitchen equipment and painted with flashy designs.  They offer high-end, gourmet fare ranging from Korean tacos to wood fire oven pizzas to cupcakes.   And they broadcast their locations via Twitter and Facebook, so diners can easily find out where the trucks will be.

Operating a food truck, however, is not always easy.  Food trucks have faced opposition in some cities from brick and mortar restauranteurs, who claim they are unfairly taking away customers.  Zoning restrictions and scarce parking also limit where food trucks can go.  But often the most difficult part is navigating outdated municipal regulations for everything from permits to health inspections to how far away you can park from the curb.  PMFA was created to address these issues by bringing together the collective resources, expertise, and voices of local Philly food truck owners.

At Tuesday’s inaugural meeting, PMFA founders Andrew Gerson and Daniel Pennachietti explained the organization’s goals and benefits of membership.  Its goals include creating new market opportunities for food trucks in Philadelphia, advocating against unfair legislation and zoning restrictions, and providing business advice and mentorship to developing food trucks.  They also discussed developing alternative eating spaces throughout the city, where several food trucks can congregate, and hosting events like a Philadelphia food truck week.  Membership benefits include access to PMFA events, business advice, and participation in advocacy efforts.  (Click here to view a recording of the meeting.)

Having only recently incorporated as a nonprofit, PMFA is still in the nascent planning and recruitment stages.  But it seems like the organization is on the right track, especially given their representation by Penn Law’s Entrepreneurship Clinic (full disclosure: I am a student at Penn Law) and support from The Food Trust.  Similar food truck organizations have formed in other cities as well (like LA, NYC, and DC), so it’s about time Philly started its own.  The inaugural meeting was well-organized and well-attended, as was the food truck gathering prior to the meeting.  Let’s hope these mobile events are just the beginning of good things to come from the PMFA.

Audrey Claire Lives Up To The Hype

It’s been over a month since my Restaurant Week meal at Audrey Claire, but I still find myself reminiscing about it, even now.  I was skeptical going into the meal, convinced that Audrey Claire would not live up to the high praise it had received from foodie friends of mine.  But, I will happily admit that I was wrong, and that Audrey Claire did, in fact, live up to the hype.

Located on a quiet corner near Rittenhouse Square, Audrey Claire appears low-key and unassuming.  There is no sign displayed outside; just a small, nondescript white building, usually with a line of people waiting to score one of the coveted tables.  Despite the minimalism, Audrey Claire still manages to be warm and inviting.  Large bowls of green granny smith apples provide a touch of color to the otherwise monochromatic interior, and low-lit candles give the small dining room an even more intimate feel.  And every now and then, a burst of flame or a loud sizzle will come from the (tiny) open-air kitchen, located in the back of the dining room.

Given the tiny kitchen, I was impressed by the quality and volume of food turned out by Audrey Claire.  Almost every dish was presented beautifully and executed perfectly, a testament to the skilled cooks manning the kitchen that night (and if I remember correctly, there were only 2-3 people in the kitchen).

Because I went with a large group for Restaurant Week, I got to sample several dishes (restaurant week 3-course prix fixe, $35).  All of the appetizers were outstanding.  Grilled tiger shrimp with baby arugula was certainly a crowd pleaser, as was the baby arugula salad with fresh berries, french lentils and warm goat cheese.    Though simple in preparation, both dishes really showcased the freshness and quality of the ingredients.  Bosc pear and gorgonzola flatbread with toasted sunflower seeds was very pungent from the gorgonzola, but balanced out nicely with the sweetness from the pear and crunch from the seeds.

But my favorite starter had to be the seared haloumi with candied dates and sesame seed compote.  Haloumi is a hard Mediterranean cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk, and is very similar to Indian paneer.  The exterior of the cheese was crisp and golden, while the interior was pilllowy and soft.  I especially love anything with dates, and here they imparted a nice fruitiness and sweetness to the dish.

The award for prettiest entrees of the night definitely goes to the chicken milanese topped with arugula and the potato crusted ahi tuna with crispy beets and black truffle vinaigrette.  As with the starters, both entrees really highlighted the high quality of the ingredients and excellent execution in the kitchen.  The chicken milanese was lightly breaded and lemony, and I loved taking a bite of the cold arugula after a bite of the hot chicken.  The tuna was seared to a perfect medium rare, served atop a bed of Israeli cous cous.  Though I was skeptical of the crispy beets and black truffle vinaigrette, they provided an earthy flavor that accentuated the tuna.

Desserts, unfortunately, were uninspiring compared with the rest of the meal.  Maybe I was expecting too much–that I would be blown away by the dessert, just as I had been by the previous dishes.  Regardless of my high expectations, I was disappointed with both the warm chocolate cake and white chocolate bread pudding.  Neither was decadent or very memorable, and both seemed a little dry to me.

Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly recommend Audrey Claire.  Its understated elegance, congenial atmosphere, and refreshingly simple cuisine have won over legions of fans.  And now, they can count The Unpaid Gourmet as one of them.

Audrey Claire
276 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103
(215) 731-1222
Open for dinner 5pm nightly, BYOB, cash only
Audrey Claire on Urbanspoon

Aksum: A Hidden Gem in West Philly

Apologies for the lack of posts as of late, readers.  After 2 weeks stuck in bed with the mother of all colds, I am finally well again, and doing some much-needed catch up on blogging before heading off to spring break.  Reflecting back on the many meals I’ve had over the past few months, one that continues to stand out in my mind is brunch at Aksum, a new(ish) Mediterranean BYO in West Philadelphia.

As a resident of West Philly, I think Aksum is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.  The space looks polished and new, brightening up an otherwise nondescript block of Baltimore Ave.  The Mediterranean-inspired menu is also very appealing, as are the BYO and hookah options.

But what really drew my friends and I to Aksum was the promise of brunch–with free mimosas, as advertised on a sign outside the restaurant.  And Aksum delivered on both those promises.

I ordered the shakshouka ($11), a Middle Eastern brunch dish that I’ve been dying to try.  Shakshouka features eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce, served with pita bread to soak up all the deliciousness.  I’m not yet a connoisseur of shakshouka, as this was my first taste of the dish, but I was expecting it to be much spicier.  I thought the sauce could have used some extra heat, and the eggs a little less cooking (as the yolks were powdery).  But overall, it was a pleasant, albeit mild introduction to shakshouka, a dish I hope to be having more of.

My friends ordered the egg mezze platter ($9) and the sweet corn griddle cakes ($13, not pictured).  The mezze platter looked very refreshing, and from the bites that I stole sampled from my friend, it tasted that way as well.  My other friend really enjoyed her sweet corn griddle cakes, which were not overwhelmingly sweet and came topped with a blueberry compote.  And best of all, the three of us were able to wash down our meals with delectable complimentary mimosas.

I will definitely be back for more mimosas, and perhaps for a BYO dinner and some hookah.  With an appealing menu, inviting atmosphere, and affordable prices, Aksum remains a hidden gem in West Philly–and hopefully with more buzz, it won’t be so hidden anymore.

4630 Baltimore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19143
(267) 275-8195
Aksum on Urbanspoon