I was really charmed by Philly, I have to admit. I've been before - in high school for the usual tourist spots, in college to visit friends at Drexel, but this time we pretty much stuck to downtown. Husband had to laugh when we were driving our gas-a-saurus into the city and crested a hill - "There's Independence Hall! Just sitting there!" (We don't have that sort of history in Columbus, and if we do, we take it for granted.) I suppose it's similar to going to DC for the first time and realizing that indeed, all of those monuments are clustered together and huge, just like in the Catastrophic-End-of-World movies.
Driving around Rittenhouse Square and the surrounding neighborhoods, we were impressed by the number of dogs! Everyone had a dog, it seemed, and we had fun pointing out the cutest and the wieneriest. Philly was also a pedestrian-heavy city, which again, is pretty cool coming from a place like Columbus, where we will drive from one neighborhood to another less than a mile away and then drive around cursing the lack of parking. (Just in case you were wondering, we were actually staying in King of Prussia, which is why we were driving.)
The best thing about Philly was the bustling downtown, after work. Again, for those of you who don't live in Columbus - we have a rather lackluster set of options after hours in downtown Columbus. Everything pretty much happens slightly south (Brewery District), slightly northwest (Arena District), slightly north (Short North Arts District) and north (University District, which the locals call "campus," but I started with the districts and thought I'd just keep going). I'm just letting non-locals know, in case you're thinking about coming to Cbus for a visit.
What am I discussing here? Oh! Of course, our second dinner.
Friday, our last night in Philly, we stopped first at Monks for our disappointing mussel & frites experience, and, based upon our stellar dinner at Amada, we thought we'd try their Basque sister restaurant, Tinto. Now, Husband and I are restaurant folk, which means we are never in the position to be trying to eat in a restaurant at 7:30pm on a Friday night. As we were walking over, I said "you know, we might not be able to eat without a reservation." Sure enough, our only option was waiting until 10pm. We hoped to be heading back to the hotel by that point, so we decided to take a reader suggestion and visit Alma de Cuba, which we had walked past earlier.
Alma de Cuba, despite its rather unassuming facade as a three-story townhouse, is an enormous, rambling, maze-like structure (to get to the bathroom - two flights up, down a hallway, and down another wrap-around, catwalk-like set of narrow stairs: don't ADA laws apply in Philly?). Alma de Cuba was happy to accommodate us at one of their last tables, in the lounge. The restaurant is meant to feel light and airy, like a bar in Havana, where one might be dining with a man in a seersucker suit. No seersucker for us, alas. The lounge did feel Havana-like (I'm guessing here, of course, because I have not yet had the pleasure of traveling to Cuba), but the effect would have worked better if it weren't so dark. Can I really be getting that old? It was so dark there wasn't a hope of a picture turning out with my little camera.
We decided to go with a selection of appetizers and salads, and with the generous portions, we didn't even need the black beans and rice I thought we needed to sample.
We started off with a caipirinha - a cocktail made from cachaca, a sugarcane-based liquor, which is muddled with lime and sugar. Too sweet for me, but it matched the decor. Then it was all about the food. Our server encouraged us to try the ceviche, which was very wise, but I'll get that later.
The bread at Alma de Cuba was amazing: sweet little crumbly rolls. I don't know how they make those, but I'm going to try to find out.
First up, dueling empanadas. The first was filled with veal cheeks (powerless to resist veal cheeks), which were rich (veal cheeks are incredibly marbled, which equals tasty, and rich) and delicious. My only complaint was the misplaced hit of truffle oil. Not only did it seem completely un-Cuban, it was totally superfluous in the face of the rich veal. I might have actually hit it with lemon juice or another acidic component. All things considered, though, it was really good. I was glad we started with it and moved on to the lighter ceviche. Our second empanada was filled with smoked tuna and peas. It was my first experience with smoked tuna, although smoking tuna makes perfect sense. The empanada was presented on a bed of tuna tartare, which made a lovely juxtaposition, although the flavor of the raw tuna was a little lost behind the rich hot empanada. A pea shoot salad also garnished the dish, and I thought it was a neat touch - the hot smoked tuna and peas, and the cold tuna and pea shoot salad. Overall, a clear winner.
And then it was on to the ceviche. We chose a trio of tastings, which came on a big, ice-filled boat. It was super cool, and I had to at least try to take a picture of it, but it didn't turn out at all: all apologies. The ceviche was definitely solid. We chose an Ecuadorian ceviche of shrimp with roasted tomatoes and corn nuts, which provided a surprising textural component. Next was a big-eye tuna Tiradito with oranges, wasabi espuma (foam), avocados, and soy. This was the only one I wasn't crazy about - there was a lot of sesame oil-laden wakame (seaweed), and the flavors were too overpowering for the tuna. The hands-down favorite was the lobster and crab coconut ceviche, which was amazing. Large chunks of sweet lobster and crab were bathed in chiles and coconut milk. It was really great. A little bit of ginger and lime sorbet accompanied, actually serving the purpose of adding extra tang and acidity. Too often, when served with savory dishes, sorbet is added for some sort of weird wow factor, and doesn't actually play a part.
We also had an interesting "sarsa salad," peppery arugula and watercress were served with queso frito (fried bits of fresh cheese) and peanut dressing. I loved the queso frito but I was getting really full by this time. A side of black beans and rice was properly executed, but I couldn't eat another bite. Fortunately Husband is a bean man and pretty much took care of those.
The Alma de Cuba space, as I mentioned before, is huge - it must seat 300 people or more. There are about 4 different dining rooms on three floors, including a loft-like space which, with a little fireplace, seemed as though you were eating in someone's home. It added a coziness which could have been lost in the vastness. An interesting design touch in the lounge was the bright red pressed tin ceiling peeking from under the false ceiling of wooden panels - made to look like a tobacco-drying barn. At first, I was scandalized that they would cover up such a treasure (I'm a total sucker for a pressed-tin ceiling), but I grew to love it, just that hint of red around the edges of the room. Service was well-polished, helpful, and knowledgeable. In addition to our server, we had a foodrunner who stayed at the table to announce and describe each dish as it was presented - no mean feat on a busy Friday night. One interesting note, all of the staff members were listed on the menu, along with their position in the restaurant. There is certainly no shortage of proper training, a refreshing change of pace.
And that's it for our dining in Philly experiences, but we'll be back - I didn't get to go to the Mutter museum or the Reading Terminal Market this time around, so I have to go back. Not to mention, Philly is only a $58, 1.25 hour flight away (on Southwest, anyway); it's also a really charming city - it's not the dirty Philly I remember (well, the drive from the airport is like driving into Cleveland to the 5th degree); it was relatively clean and walkable. The Walnut street area is full of shops, restaurants and people. Our fair city could learn a thing or two from Philly. We can only hope.
Oh, and just for the record, our trip was a success - Husband passed his second Master Sommelier test! so, you can feel free to buy him drinks and pat him on the back. And when he takes the third one next year, I'll be sure to keep you posted on wherever we eat on that trip, too.
info: Alma de Cuba 1623 Walnut St. Philadelphia, PA (downtown) 215.988.1799