Tuesday, March 10, 2009

DINING OUT: Philadelphia: City Tavern

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

How do you get two six-year-olds to eat a rabbit? List it on a large menu under mysterious candlelight nestled among foot-high pewter goblets already filled with ice water and have it served by a man wearing breeches and a ponytail offering musketball butter with your sweet potato biscuits.

If you are looking for one dining experience that will make a lasting impression on your little ones when you take them on that eventual pilgrimage to the Liberty Bell, there’s no doubt about it, City Tavern is the place to go. As an adult, I have had the opportunity to dine at City Tavern numerous times under varying conditions—lunch, dinner, parties—and one thing has always held true: it is an exquisite adventure through time as much as it is a delightful experience for the palate.

You will want to dress the gang a little extra special for a night out at City Tavern, for the moment you enter, you will be greeted with elegant chandeliers, stately furniture, costumed hosts and servers, and even a live period performance by their resident harpist. Despite all the formality, rest assured kids ARE welcome, as is evidenced by their award-winning children’s menu.

In its time, the original structure (which partially burned down and was subsequently demolished in the mid-1800’s but emerged from the ashes according to the original architect’s plans in 1976) played host to our country’s political forebears including George Washington, whose pre-inauguration dinner was hosted in the upstairs ballroom. The rooms are elegantly decorated and dimly lit as would have been true to the period, and the table setting is a veritable breeding ground for discussion from children who have never experienced true Colonial dining before. Take your time entering and exiting the building to appreciate all of the Colonial hardware, classic d├ęcor, period musical instruments, and one-of-a-kind gourmet gifts.

While a very admirable children’s menu is offered, I would highly recommend reading aloud all of the options off the adult menu to raise a few eyebrows and encourage the expansion of your family’s palate. Our youngest diners fell hook, line, and sinker, not for the Paillard of Salmon (though I’m sure it would have been an excellent choice), but for the Braised Rabbit legs served over a bed of wide noodles. Word of warning: Beware of portion sizes. Even an adult might find challenge with finishing the heaping rabbit dishes that graced our table as well as the incredibly sumptuous Tavern Lobster Pie that appeared to include the meat of an entire lobster and no less than a half dozen large shrimp in a rich buttery cream sauce baked inside a deep puff pastry crust and served in a steaming hot pewter casserole dish. If you are a lobster-loving family, I would highly recommend ordering this seafood masterpiece as a centerpiece for your table and serving it family-style. Otherwise, ask your server to take leftovers home in one of their delightfully playful yet elegant takeout creations. Never have I had so much confidence in a take-home container nor have I had such fun carrying one. Am I crazy for being so impressed? Though we did not have room for dessert, we had plenty of leftover appetite for the history lesson our server provided at the end of our meal, and we left feeling fully satisfied.

Be sure to pick up a City Tavern cookbook on your way out so that you can try your hand at recreating this fabulous fare at home. While I can only speak for the elegance of Chef Staib’s first published masterpiece, he has now amassed a collection of three historically significant cookbooks and has a fourth on the horizon this spring. History in the kitchen is such an excellent way of keeping kids interested in food as well as attaching meaning to what can sometimes just become boring date-memorization in school. If you want to impress your family and friends with a mealtime warmth they will remember forever, go Colonial.

Before you go, visit City Tavern's wonderful website at www.citytavern.com.

ROAD TRIP: Philadelphia: City Food Tours

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

Compared even with the Sky Bike at the Franklin Institute, City Food Tours’ “Flavors of Philly” tour proves to be a contender among the most entertaining educational experiences that Philadelphia has to offer. While it may not be housed under the roof of a spectacular piece of architecture or presented via an elaborate laser light show, it is a rather tasty success story of our nation’s hard-working immigrants and how their ingenuity spawned a cuisine. Stretching from the Shops at Liberty Place at Chestnut & 16th Streets to Reading Terminal Market at Arch & 12th, this tour is not only a lesson in local food but a masterpiece in multi-tasking (note to teachers seeking a good field trip): exercise, sightseeing, and a local history lesson all rolled into a two-hour lunch session.

Peppering our group with questions about the town and its most popular foods, our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide, Michelle Freeman, offered locally-made candy treats in exchange for correct answers to not-so-easy questions and even tested our local-food vocabulary at the end to make sure we were all paying attention. The grand prize? FOOD, of course! Local food. We found ourselves entirely stuffed by the end of our tour and were thankful for the chance to walk off those carbs between venues.  But make no mistake about it, we have no regrets, and neither will you.

Without giving too much of the tour’s secrets away, it all starts innocently enough with a slice of tomato pie and a few hungry first-timers making the dangerous mistake of reaching for seconds too early in the game. Then, according to our kid meter, the tour crescendoes with an authentic Philly cheesesteak and matching cheese fries (though for me it was the warm, heavy pretzel reminiscent of my working days in the city), and finishes off with a velvety smooth chocolate chip cookie hot out of the oven, but not before sampling one of the freshest hoagies you’re likely to eat in your lifetime. But there are many more layers to this Dagwood of a tour, and you would do well to bring a small bag to carry your leftovers.

The unique beauty of the “Flavors of Philly” experience is that while we have all sampled knockoffs of Philly fare in our lifetimes, City Food Tours takes its band of faithful food followers to the places that give this famous street cuisine its worldwide reputation, making it a suitable tour even for city natives who may have come to take for granted what a great food town Philadelphia really is (note, stick close to the natives on your tour—they know all the answers to the history questions). Even as a former 15-year resident of Philadelphia who frequently dined out (and clearly still do), I had never before patronized the well-respected traditional family establishments along this tour, making it as much a treat for me as it was for the youngest converts in our taste-testing cartel. Most of the excitement for me, in fact, was not knowing exactly where we were going, so for that matter, I will not ruin the surprise for you either.

All that being said, trust your tour guide. She knows where she’s going, and she has an expert eye for keeping a group together in a crowded market—and crowds are exactly what you’ll find at the Reading Terminal Market, which is the final stop on this tour. Even in the light of day, Reading Terminal has the instant feel of a busy nightlife with its glowing neon signs, lighted showcases, and the beehive buzz of frenzied anticipation. Here you will sample a number of sweet chocolate treats before bidding farewell to your foodie friends, but do try to avoid making a hasty exit no matter how little time you have left to squeeze in one more museum. Linger for a while at the Terminal even after your tour to muse over culinary sights you’re likely never to catch at your local supermarket and will probably remember forever.

If you are planning a trip to Philadelphia in the near future, check out City Food Tours’ website at www.cityfoodtours.com to book your tour online. With offerings also in New York City, this is one touring agency that Epicurean Family plans to sample again on its trip to the Big Apple.