When you think of the culinary scene in Philadelphia, two prominent names come to mind; Stephen Starr, restaurateur-extraordinaire whose empire here in the city boasts thirteen restaurants, over 1,000 employees and Scrooge McDuck-style revenue.
When you think of the culinary scene in Philadelphia, two prominent names come to mind; Stephen Starr, restaurateur-extraordinaire whose empire here in the city boasts thirteen restaurants, over 1,000 employees and Scrooge McDuck-style revenue. On the other hand, thereâ€™s flashy Ecuadorian superchef Jose Garces, newly-knighted Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner, a man whose chefâ€™s jacket is decorated with more awards and accolades than an Eagle Scout.
These two men own the Philly dining scene; pick your poison. Whatever youâ€™re craving, one of these guys does it, and does it well. Want a burger? Look no further than Village Whiskey, where Garces serves up what Craig LaBan calls his â€œsingle favorite Philly burger.” How about sushi? Better make it Starrâ€™s Morimoto, where youâ€™ll find some of the most exciting Japanese dishes this side of Mt. Fuji.
Always looking for an opportunity to dine in style (and perhaps instigate a bit), I decided to take advantage of University City Dining Days promotion, of which Starrâ€™s Pod restaurant and Garcesâ€™ Distrito were taking part. Both restaurants offered a prix fixe menu for $30, which included appetizer, entrÃ©e and desert. This seemed as good a time as any to decide a true Culinary King of Philadelphia.
Stepping into Pod is like walking into a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The all-white walls, ceiling and furniture was interrupted only by the effervescent neon lighting illuminating the walls and the equally colorful martinis leaving the service bar. Easily the coolest restaurant dÃ©cor Iâ€™ve seen in some time, I was disappointed only to arrive while the sun was still in the sky and losing the opportunity to fully appreciate the true ambience of the design. Alas, if only as much consideration was put into the food.
To begin, we were only informed after weâ€™d taken our seats that their participation in University City Dining Days came with an asterisk: We were only allowed two appetizers and two entrees for the three of us to share (although we were allowed three deserts). Their menu, too, was a bore. With the only sushi option a California roll, we opted for the vegetable tempura and chicken potstickers with mustard aioli. The tempura was greasy and, carrots aside, completely disguised any flavor present in the vegetables. The potstickers were tasty, with the hot mustard sauce providing a sharp pop.
For entrees, we split a grilled teriyaki salmon and szechuan lamb chops, both dishes experiencing their own ups and downs. The stars of each plate were just that; the salmon didnâ€™t succumb to its typical fishy, overpowering nature, instead remaining subtle and letting the sweet teriyaki glaze do most of the talking. The vegetables were nice and crispy but not exciting, an only slight-improvement over your garden variety obligatory take-out Chinese vegetables. The lamb was cooked wonderfully and remained succulent and plump with a lot of great, musky flavors. The noodles were tasty but a bit heavy.
As for the deserts, all three were hits, especially the crÃ¨me fraiche cheesecake, which struck a fine balance of flavor and texture. The butterscotch brown sugar cake was wonderful but inappropriate for July. Save that for Halloween and football season.
Stay tuned for Part II later this week, where David discusses Distrito and picks a winner!
David Valiante brings his love of food and cooking to his freelance writing. He is currently enrolled in Culinary School and writes for Philly2Philly.com’s Culture and Cuisine.