These days, Chef Jose Garces might be best known for his winning victories on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, but his winning Philadelphia-based restaurant empire and hometown outpost in Chicago have been busy gracing “Best of” lists. Taking advantage of a visit to the City of Brotherly Love, I decided to try out what I thought was going to be just a few of his six restaurants in Philly. Well, a couple turned into five – get ready to be hungry!
I pulled up to Chef Garces’ baby, his original restaurant, Amada. I sat at the chef’s counter and informed my server that I would only be trying a few small dishes because I had more damage to do throughout the evening. He asked me for my rundown of restaurants and quickly mentioned more places I needed to go and must-have menu items. He went on to ask me about my food allergies or sensitivities, to which I answered that I was not a big oyster fan.
My preferences noted, Amada’s kitchen started me off with a nice little garlic flatbread amuse with tuna caper aioli. Lucky for me, I had forgotten to mention that I’m not a big tuna fan, because it was fantastic. I only took a few bites to save room for my dishes that were to come. Next was the simple, fresh, sweet and flavorful Scallops a la Plancha. Along with that, I ordered the Spanish Octopus, which was tender and smoky and served with sliced potatoes – the Spanish classic, spot on.
Convinced by the server to try the Revuelto, a very rich egg dish, I was not disappointed. A soft scrambled egg with wild mushroom and delicate rock shrimp on top, the Revuelto was served with crostini with truffle spread alongside. One word: genius.
Next, and to my surprise, the server brought out an oyster with strawberry escabeche and cava granita. I told him that this was a bold move, considering that I had mentioned earlier that I’m not an oyster guy. But he seemed confident that I would enjoy it, and once again, he chose well. Last up was the Melón con Jamón with cumin yogurt and sherry reduction, a take on classic prosciutto with melon, kicked up a bit. With that, my night was off to a great start.
(Amada, 217 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, 212- 625-2450, www.amadarestaurant.com)
From Amada, I headed over to Chifa, a hybrid of Peruvian and Cantonese cuisine (yes, you read that right!) infused with other South American and Asian flavors. Catching the vibe of the menu, I knew I was going to enjoy the food. Plus, you know that a restaurant is good when there are employees from other restaurants run by the same owner are dining there.
I was greeted at the door and the host seemed to be aware that I was on a Garces mission. At the manager’s suggestion, I ordered the Medai Tiradito, a Japanese butterfish served with yuzu, candied orange and sesame tuile.
Thank goodness I agreed to this recommendation, because I now have a new addition to my Top 3 Ceviches of All Time. I also enjoyed the Duck Bao Bun and the Chicken Wings with Spicy Garlic Ginger Sauce – I’m a chicken wing guy, what can I say?
(Chifa, 707 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA, 215- 925-5555, www.chiferestaurant.com)
Next was a short walk over to Garces Trading Company, the newest restaurant of the bunch. As they make most of their charcuterie in-house, something told me that I would like the salami here even though I’m not usually a fan. So I ordered the Toscano Salami, made with red wine and black pepper, and thoroughly enjoyed its spice and flavor.
I also ordered the Ricotta Gnudi with wild mushroom and morel cream and the Vichyssoise Chaude, a chilled soup of potato, leek, scallops, chives and bacon that turned out to be one of the best soups I’ve had in a long time. I rounded out my visit by tasting one more excellent creation, the Lamb Terrine served with cranberry chili gelee and micro arugula.
Garces Trading Co. also features a mini market that sells much of what they make in-house, including desserts. For the road, I purchased a white chocolate pistachio French macaroon and a fruit-filled tea cake. These tempting treats didn’t last long!
(Garces Trading Company, 1111 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 215- 574-1099, www.garcestradingcompany.com)
After the Trading Company, I walked up to Tinto, a Basque-style Spanish restaurant. I sat at the bar and was under strict orders to get the Duck Montadito. I did, and it was excellent. It was a crostini spread with a soft blue cheese along with tender cooked duck, Serrano ham, and a black cherry. I also tried the Lamb Brochettes wrapped in bacon with eggplant and sherry onion jus. Each eye-catching brochette was served on a stick, popping out of a tall shot glass.
They also sent out an order of Prawns with chorizo, grape tomato and espelette chile, which was probably my favorite choice at Tinto. I finished up there and headed next door to Village Whiskey.
(Tinto, 116 South 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 215- 665-9150, www.tintorestaurant.com)
Almost everyone I had talked to said that I needed to go to Tinto’s next-door neighbor, Village Whiskey. As the name suggests, it’s a bar concept, but it has excellent food! I met a friend and we started with the Pickled Beets with whipped ricotta. We also had the Tater Tots served with vidalia onion crème fraiche. I was a little skeptical of the tater tots at first, since every place I have gone to that tries to replicate a frozen tater tot delivers tots with the consistency of mashed potatoes. These, on the other hand, did tater tots justice. I capped things off with the Village Burger because it seemed like everyone in the city of Philly said I needed to try it, and indeed, it was a pretty darn good burger that practically melted in my mouth. We both shared the Duck Fat Fries with Sly Fox cheddar sauce – a homemade cheese sauce made with local beer. Village Whiskey is what bar food should be.
(Village Whiskey, 118 South 20th Street, Philadelphia, PA, 215-665-1088, www.villagewhiskey.com)
*To note: While something like a food crawl might sound a bit gluttonous, my company and I always respect the food we are served. Where possible, we order smaller portions; if we meet a neighboring table, we let them try our food. Sure, there may be some leftovers here and there since we are essentially sampling the fare, but overall, not much goes back to the kitchen. And, we always look forward to the opportunity to come back to these restaurants with loved ones and enjoy a full meal.
Andrew “Kappy” Kaplan loves food. A professionally trained chef, these days you’ll find him on the road talking up kids and cooking as Director of Yum-o! and keeping special projects running smoothly for Rach, all the while taking a bite here and a bite there as he samples and shares local flavor from across the country, from taco trucks to fancier finds. Follow Kappy on Twitter to see what’s On Kappy’s Plate!