Friday, 30 August 2013

Foodie Penpals: August Reveal

This month's Foodie Penpal parcel is brought to you courtesy of the amazing sunshine that we have been having here in Cornwall this summer. I didn't need to take photographs of the package out on our balcony, but it was too pleasant outside not to.

The parcel was put together by Saskia Jager of The Netherlands. I've now had several penpals from Holland, and I am amazed by how different each of their parcels has been (though all have involved sausage--the Dutch must really love sausage). I believe that Saskia is my first penpal from the Friesland area, which is on Holland's northern coast.

Saskia included both a handwritten note on a postcard and a lengthier typed message describing each of the items in the package and, where necessary, providing some explanation of how things should be eaten.

You might think that food is pretty straightforward and doesn't require any explanation, but actually I needed some help right away, with the De Ruijter Specials. I would have thought these were for decorating cupcakes or other sweet baked goods, but evidently they are for adding a bit of flavor to toast at breakfast or lunch. I haven't opened the package yet, but judging from the picture on the front, the Specials are basically chocolate sprinkles (or hundreds and thousands, as the British would say). How interesting. I will have to whip these out one morning when I hear my sweet tooth calling.

The Fryske Dumkes ('Friesland thumbs') are little anise-flavored biscuits, and they are lovely. I've been having a couple with my tea every night after dinner. I will be sad when the package is empty, but I suspect that I could hunt down a recipe and replicate these myself. The red, white, and blue heart pattern on the box is derived from the Friesland flag, which features seven little red hearts representing the old Friesian countries (or, at least, so says Wikipedia).

Also utterly delicious were the droge worst and Old Amsterdam cheese. I admit, I was a bit hungry when I opened the parcel, so I immediately sampled the sausage sticks...and just kept on going until they were done. They were so good that I got online and ordered several more packs from a Dutch shop. The entire website was in Dutch, and I kept copying the text and pasting it into Google Translate so I could figure out what was going on. Fingers crossed I actually ordered what I think I ordered, and that I sent it to the correct address!

The Old Amsterdam cheese is kind of like a cross between cheddar and Edam, only a bit harder and drier than both--more the texture of Parmesan. It is very tasty, and good with both savory things like crackers, and sweet things like fruit. Cheese is the main reason why I will never have six-pack abs, but when it tastes as good as this stuff does, it's totally worth the swap.

Saskia also included several potables. There was a box of Pickwick brand speculaas-flavored tea that basically tasted like Christmas in a cup. Speculaas are popular Dutch biscuits (I've received them before in previous Foodie Penpal parcels, and boy are they addictive), and Pickwick is the same brand that made the amazing caramelized pear tea that I received a couple months ago. So, right off the bat, I knew that this stuff would be good.

There was also a giant teabag meant to be brewed not in a cup or pot, but in a bathtub; it contains herbs that are supposed to help me relax. I'm saving that for when I'm feeling particularly stressed and need a bit of home spa treatment.

The last beverage is a pre-mixed alcoholic drink called Sonnema Cola. According to the company's website, Sonnema is a spicy drink that goes well with Coke because it is a "delicious combination of gin, herbs, and citrus." You are supposed to serve it with a slice of lemon, and although the website says it is good for drinking at the pub or disco, Saskia also mentioned that people often drink these cocktails when they've come in from the cold--after a day of skiing, for example.

As though all that weren't enough, the parcel also contained a little bag of hard candies, a small chocolate bar shaped like a peat brick (because it comes from a peat-harvesting region), and a pair of tiny ceramic clogs. Obviously the clogs aren't for eating, but my goodness are they adorable. (They've also inspired me to include a similar Cornish trinket in some of my future Foodie Penpal packages...)

Although I've still never been to Holland (outside the Amsterdam airport, that is), all my experience with Dutch food is beginning to make me feel as though I know something about the country. My FP parcels are no substitute for an actual trip to The Netherlands, but for now they will do the trick. Thanks very much to Saskia for giving me a glimpse and a taste of Friesland!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Where to Eat in Falmouth: Samphire

Samphire has long been my favorite restaurant in Falmouth, so I can't believe it's taken me this long to review one of my meals there. It's true that I have also sung the praises of Oliver's (which is a wonderful place, make no mistake), but Samphire has a special place in my heart because it is so close to our apartment and has been the site of many a delicious meal. Sasha and I recently visited the restaurant to celebrate our fifth anniversary--not our fifth wedding anniversary, but the fifth anniversary of our first date, which happened to also involve a nice dinner out. What can I say? We like food.

For this particular occasion, my appetizer consisted of wild mushroom bruschetta served with sorrel pesto, a cheese panna cotta, and kind of a hard candy made from caramelized red onion. I never can resist mushrooms, but in this case I was particularly intrigued by the concept of cheese creme brulee. The whole thing was tremendously tasty, and as I ate the last bite I couldn't help but wish that I could have ordered a giant version of the dish to have as my meal.

Luckily, my main course was also delicious, so I didn't feel sorry for myself for too long. I ordered the hake with a spicy lentil dahl and coriander dressing. Normally I pick off fish skin, even when it is golden and crunchy like the one shown in the photo above, but in this case I just couldn't bring myself to waste something that had been so beautifully prepared. Hake is one of my favorite fish (an opinion I formed after moving to Falmouth and experiencing a huge range of fish I had never tasted, or sometimes even heard of, before), and this was a lovely version of it.

It was no surprise to me that Sasha ordered the surf-and-turf, since that is a dish that consistently attracts his attention. The steak came with a peppercorn sauce and half a locally caught lobster. He was also brought some potatoes and cooked veggies, the latter of which I helped him eat.

Because I'd filled up on carrots and cauliflower florets, I didn't really have much room for dessert. However, it was a special evening, so in the spirit of celebration I ordered a single scoop of raspberry ice cream (much to the incredulity and amusement of our server). If I hadn't been stuffed, I would very much have enjoyed an entire bowlful. Another day.

Sasha, who always has room for dessert because he doesn't eat appetizers, ordered the vanilla and yogurt panna cotta, served with thyme-poached apricots and sticky orange cake. As you can see, it was a beautiful dish, and he enjoyed it very much. 

We also both ordered a glass of port so that we could toast our wood anniversary (insert joke here). Here's to five years of laughter and good food; may there be many more!

Samphire can be found at 36 Arwenack Street, Falmouth, UK.

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

The last tourist stop on Sasha's and my East Coast adventure was about as conceptually far away from Longwood Gardens as you could possibly get, though it featured alongside the botanical site on Philadelphia's list of favorite attractions. It was one of the more unusual places I've ever visited on a vacation, but also one of the more unique and fascinating. It was the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Exterior of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Image courtesy of Cheap Date Philadelphia, because I was too busy trying to take atmospheric shots inside the penitentiary to think about getting any exterior views of the facility. 
Prior to heading to the penitentiary, we told a few people about our plans, and the response was always the same: Why go there? Partly it was because of the site's inclusion on the city's must-see list (attraction #18 on the Visit Philly website), and partly it was because I thought I might be able to get some interesting photos there. Above all else, though, I was interested in doing something new and different; I've been in many historical and run-down buildings--castles, churches, asylums, and homes, to name but a few--but I've never been in a penitentiary, either new or old.

Lithograph showing an aerial view of the penitentiary, 1855. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Until Sasha and I began our tour, neither of us realized the historical significance of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP)--not only to Philadelphia, but to the US and the rest of the world. It was hugely influential in shaping an entire era (beginning in 1829) of penal reform--one focused not so much on punishing criminals, but on helping them to contemplate their mistakes so that they might realize the error(s) of their ways, and use the knowledge to improve themselves.

A typical individual cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. Image courtesy of Ideastream, which features a nice article about the benefits and drawbacks of solitary confinement.
To facilitate an appropriate level of thoughtfulness and penitence, reformers housed inmates in individual cells and forbade them to talk to each other. The cells were, predictably, quite small, and each one featured a little door leading outside to a private exercise "yard" (a glorified term for such a tiny space). During the day, inmates were expected to sit and meditate; their only diversion was a Bible and occasional visits from religious advisers and caretakers. At least, that's how it was in the beginning; later prisoners were given tools and materials for tasks such as shoe-making.

The penitentiary was quite large to begin with, but eventually grew to such a size that it was no longer feasible to enforce the strict limitations on contact between inmates; whole new wings had to be added to accommodate the expanding population, and the facility included all the sorts of places you'd find in a town--a chapel, a barbershop, a hospital and dentist, and so on.

Hallway where the interior portion of the audio tour begins
We learned these facts and more by taking an audio tour (included in the price of admission) around the facility. Amazingly, the tour is narrated by Steve Buscemi, who evidently visited the penitentiary to see whether it might be a good place to film. There are approximately a dozen or so "listening points" associated with the main tour, but you can also select a couple dozen extra recordings to hear details about issues that are a bit tangential to the main narrative (e.g., jailhouse hauntings). These recordings feature the voices of people who are experts on the topics they discuss, which adds some variety to the tour.

The penitentiary is a massive facility, and only a portion of it is open for touring. The public areas have, to some extent, been cleaned and fixed up so as to be safe for visitors, but the whole place is still pretty rough and eerie looking. I think this adds to the appeal of the site, since it makes the place dramatic and mysterious. However, it also does make you feel a bit like you're doing a ghost tour, when in fact there is some very real and interesting history there (though there is also a haunted house in the autumn). I think the nonprofit organization that runs the penitentiary would probably love to fix up more of the facility, and/or to do a more extensive renovation of the bits that are already visitable, but I'm guessing the funding is just not available. When we were there, we passed several signs advertising a fundraiser aiming to earn $50,000 for the preservation of murals in the chaplain's office. I'm sure that major structural changes would require quite a bit more money than that.

Unused, and unvisitable, portion of the penitentiary; I took this photo through the bars of a locked gate preventing visitor access.
One of the more popular portions of the tour is the cell that was inhabited by Al Capone when he was incarcerated in the prison for 8 months in 1929-1930. His stay at ESP was his first experience in jail, and, judging from the state of his cell, it probably wasn't too awful a punishment--more like staying in a very strict hotel.

Al Capone's cushy cell. Image courtesy of
Once you've completed the official tour, you are free to wander around the grounds or head back inside to spend more time in the cell blocks you've already visited. We did a little of both, allowing me to get some panoramic shots out in the yard. The site reminded me of a mixture of the Athens Asylum, a former mental institution in my hometown, and the Eastern State Hospital, one of my field work sites in Williamsburg, Virginia. It's weird to say that I felt "at home" at a jail, but there was a sense of familiarity and comfort thanks to my previous experience in those similar places.

Panoramic shot taken outside the cell blocks. Our tour occurred in the left-most building you can see in this image.

Recreational yard in between the cell blocks. The block at the right in this photo is the same on you can see at the far left in the photo above. The tent in the bottom right corner contained an exhibition on contemporary penal practices. It's depressing; the US has more prisoners than any other country, by a rather huge margin.

We wandered around for something like 1-2 hours, so I think we definitely got our $14 worth out of each of our tickets. Not only was the tour interesting and out of the ordinary, but it was also available on a Sunday and located within walking distance of restaurants, shopping, lodging, and other attractions. I realize that jail visits aren't everyone's idea of a good time, but I learned a lot and enjoyed myself, so I'd definitely recommend the attraction to anybody who has time to spare in the City of Brotherly Love.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Longwood Gardens: A Taste of Europe in the US

As lovely and rugged as Cornwall is, it lacks the 'wilderness' feel that you can experience in many parts of the US. I miss that unkempt lushness and always revel in it when I'm back in the States--particularly when I'm there during the summer. That is one of the reasons why Sasha and I literally took the scenic route--Skyline Drive--between Williamsburg and Montgomery Village. Even though it extended our commute by about two hours, it was lovely to see all the crags and trees and birds along the way. 

The view from Bacon Hollow Overlook
A male indigo bunting advertises/defends his territory
Given my fondness for these sorts of wilderness environments, I suppose it was a bit odd for me to suggest that Sasha and I stop at Longwood Gardens on our way to Philadelphia. After all, gardens tend to be rather cultivated--not to mention, we have our fair share of them here in Cornwall, so it's not as though I needed to go all the way to the US to spend time in one. Still, when I saw that the garden was listed as one of Philly's top ten attractions (despite being about 30 miles outside of town), I was intrigued. It wasn't far off our route, so why not give it a try?

Floral display near the entrance of Longwood Gardens
The gardens are open fairly late on summer evenings, so Sasha and I didn't have to worry about rushing even though we showed up around 4 PM. This was actually quite a nice time to go, because the crowds were relatively thin. The parking lot is huge, so I imagine the gardens can get fairly busy during peak tourist hours. Things were slow enough at the time of our arrival that we were able to park just a couple rows away from the gate.

Lily pads on the pond. There was also a green heron foraging on the bank, just out of frame to the left.
Entry prices are fairly high, but not National Aquarium high. Longwood has quite good deals if you become a member, which I think I would be tempted to do if I lived nearby. For someone who enjoys both plants and walking, the garden would be a great place to exercise; it's large enough to allow you to get in a pretty good hike, plus the terrain is forgiving and the scenery is pleasant.

The garden is located on land that was originally purchased from William Penn by the Peirce family, who went on to establish a large farm that persisted for approximately 200 years. Two of the Peirces created an arboretum on the site in 1798. The descendents of these trees were considered interesting and important enough to philanthropist Pierre du Pont that he purchased the land in 1906 in order to conserve both the plants and their habitat. He is also responsible for adding many of the more elaborate features that exist on the garden grounds today.

These include, but are not limited to, species-specific gardens (wisteria, rose, peony, etc.), a greenhouse, a waterfall, a meadow area, a woodland area, a little orchard and berry patch, and cafes and other man-made structures where you can get out of the sun and/or grab a bite to eat. At the time of our visit, one of these buildings was the headquarters for a wedding, and we caught glimpses of the party having their photographs taken amongst the foliage. Although I'm not really a white wedding type of gal (unless you're referring to the Billy Idol variety), even I can imagine that this would be a lovely place to have a ceremony and/or reception.

Sasha allowed me to take his photo outside the overrun walls of the Peirce-du-Pont House
One of the garden features that I was most anticipating was I the "Birdhouse Treehouse," but was a bit disappointed that there wasn't really much to see when we climbed to the top. There were, indeed, many birdhouses, but none of them seemed to be active during our visit; I suppose it was late in the season for that sort of thing. We could hear a few birds singing off in the distance, but there were no real opportunities for communing with wildlife. However, the house was full of binoculars and bird guides and even little listening stations where you could hear recordings of the various bird species that you are likely to observe. Assuming there are times when the boxes are occupied and the birds are a bit more visible, visitors would be well equipped to identify what they are seeing and hearing.

Treehouse offering a view of the forest and several birdboxes that had been hung therein
One of the things that Longwood Gardens is best known for is its selection of fountains. There is a main fountain section, an Italian water garden, a collection of fountains in the Open Air Theater, and various other fountains sprinkled around the grounds. We visited the garden during the Festival of Fountains, a time each year when the fountain jets are lit up in various colors and set to go off in time to music. As you might imagine, performances occur after sunset, so Sasha and I were long gone by the time this got started. Still, the garden is very pretty--though extremely well-groomed and "proper"--even without all the extra accoutrements. Sasha noted that the view made you feel as though you were standing somewhere in Europe rather than in the middle of Pennsylvania.

The two of us made a big loop around the outside of the garden, and one of the last major sights that we came to during our wanderings was the Chimes Tower and associated water features. The tower houses a 62-bell carillon, which was silent at the time of our visit. It overlooks a reservoir of water that flows down from the Eye of Water on the hilltop above.

The Chimes Tower, built in 1929 predominantly from stone unearthed on the land where the garden is found today.
The stream meandering away from the Eye of Water and down to the 50-foot waterfall that creates the reservoir at the foot of the Chimes Tower

The "Eye of Water" sounds like something out of a fantasy, but actually it is nothing exceptionally exciting. To be honest, I found it a bit weird. The photo of the Eye on the Gardens' website is much more attractive and appealing, and suggests that perhaps the feature is merely in need of an end-of-season wash. Still, there is something disturbing about the idea of a giant eye gushing water; it is more painful than poetic. I did, however, appreciate the pagoda-like structure in which it was housed.

The underwhelming Eye of Water
Once we finished our circumnavigation of the garden, I quickly popped into a little walled-off area we'd been unable to visit the first time around because of the wedding photos. I was able to snap a couple of my own pictures of the gigantic elephant's-ears that were growing there in pots:

The aptly-named elephant's-ear
By that point, we'd been walking for a little over an hour, and we figured it was time to get back on the road. (Plus, truth be told, it was uncomfortably warm and we were ready to return to the air conditioning.) I exited the garden via the gift shop so I could pick up some postcards and an unexpected little gift for one of my future foodie penpals. With those goodies in hand, we programmed our trusty sat-nav and began the final push towards Philly.

Longwood Gardens can be found at 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, PA, 19348.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Baltimore National Aquarium...and other MD wildlife

My in-laws' house in Maryland was the fifth destination of my recent trip, and, as Sasha and I discovered upon our arrival, Frank and Carmen really know how to welcome someone to their home. Some people roll out the red carpet; my in-laws cultivate a nest of barn swallows:

This is the cutest thing you will see all day
Sasha and I normally don't do many touristy activities when we're visiting the US, but this time around we were adventurous and headed into Baltimore to explore the National Aquarium.

The Baltimore Harbor
I've never really spent that much time in Baltimore, though I've heard many lovely things about the improvements the city has made to its waterfront area. I don't know what it used to look like, but it was quite pleasant and bustling on the day that we were there. Amazingly, Baltimore, like my in-laws, also rolled out some baby birds in order to welcome us:

Obviously, the city still needs to do a tad more cleaning up of its harbor
As you might expect, the aquarium featured many forms of aquatic life, but there were also a number of other types of animals. Our first destination was the Animal Planet Australia exhibit, which is designed to replicate an Australian river gorge. At the entrance, there was a replica cave painting that I immediately recognized, having shown photos of the original in my "A Brief History of Birds in Art" lecture:

This modern replica shows emu-like birds known as Genyornis--a species that went extinct approximately 40,000 years ago. Original paintings of these birds date back to the time when humans were first settling the Australian continent.

The Australia exhibit was full of free-flying birds, which, of course, were very distracting to me. I wanted to get photos of every species I saw, but was continually stymied by the relatively poor lighting conditions and the speed with which the animals moved. I did manage to snag a couple of decent photos before leaving the exhibit:

A galah, or rose-breasted cockatoo. Sasha and I saw many of these in the wild when we visited Australia in 2010.

Emerald dove basking under a heat lamp

After returning from Down Under, we briefly entered the arena where guests can go to watch the dolphin show. I found this too depressing for words and had to leave shortly after our arrival. It is one thing to keep captive animals that are relatively small, sedentary, and/or not in need of a great deal of mental stimulation. It is another to have cetaceans other species that are highly social, incredibly clever, and naturally inclined to roam around vast areas of space. It was heartbreaking to watch the dolphins repeatedly swim in circles around their tank--which had no topography or toys or any other form of entertainment for the animals. I really hope the dolphins spend the majority of their time elsewhere, and aren't forced to spend the bulk of their time in conditions that dull.

Much more tolerable was the exhibit on jellyfish, which are, literally, brainless. I'm guessing that these guys probably don't care where they are living, as long as there is sufficient food there.

It wasn't easy to photograph the jellies through the curved glass of their aquaria, but I think the photos do an adequate job conveying how graceful and elegant the animals looked.

Medusae of the genus Cassiopea. These guys earned their named from living "upside-down" on the sea floor. They were famously written about in Stephen Jay Gould's essay (and, later, book) "The Flamingo's Smile." In addition to the larger medusae grouped together in the middle, there are also lots of tiny ones sitting by themselves around the periphery of the tank.

After stopping for a quick cup of tea, we next went to explore the coral reef, which can be observed from multiple perspectives on multiple levels (literally, I mean--the reef sits in the middle of an atrium that is several stories high).

Reefs are notoriously hard to grow in captivity, so, like many museums and aquaria, the National Aquarium relies on artificial coral to provide the foundation for its reef habitat. The effect is pretty convincing until you get up close. None of the wildlife seem to care what their home is made of, however; they are just happy to swim around and nibble on food whenever it appears.

Fish like romaine lettuce. Who knew?

Unlike corals, there are many species of habitat-forming sea life that don't appear to mind living in artificial conditions. We encountered one tank in which an anemone was the site of a standoff between a couple of resident clownfish (a.k.a. anemonefish) and a small school of cardinalfish: 

A dramatic standoff between cardinalfish and anemonefish. The former are delicate and beautiful, but I imagine it is a bit threatening to have a whole group of them staring you down.

Nearby was a display of sea birds, including guillemots, razorbills, and puffins. Seeing these species always reminds me of our yearly field trips to the Isles of Scilly, when we see the birds in the wild just as they are beginning their migration back for the spring breeding season. The auks are so cute that it is always a delight to encounter them, though it's disturbing to see them behaving in ways that suggest they've begun to go a bit crazy from being in captivity for so long. It reminds me of the portion of Happy Feet where Mumble nearly loses his mind after being thrown in a zoo. On the up side, these are very charismatic species, and one conservationist recently wrote that puffins are so endearing that they can inspire people to become environmentalists.


After touring the North Atlantic and Pacific seas, we wandered over to the upland tropical rain forest section of the aquarium. There we found, among other things, some lovely frog species: 

Blue poison dart frog. It is hard to imagine that anything so tiny and beautiful could be deadly.

Amazon milk frog
Sasha and my in-laws encountered many species they recognized from their own experiences in the tropics, and there was much reminiscing and even some singing of animal-themed folk songs. We also wandered through a small indoor rain forest, where we encountered a sloth and a wide variety of beautiful, brightly-colored birds. I didn't manage to get good photos of any of them, which is understandable for the fast-moving birds, but pretty inexcusable for the stationary sloth.

Although there were probably a couple more exhibits we could have visited after this one, we had to take off before we ran out of time on our parking meter. One nice thing about my in-laws' home is that we could continue to do wildlife-watching once we got there; the yard is full of birds and bugs, and the house is brimming with my father-in-law's beautiful orchids.

A lepidopteran friend I made while having dinner on the deck
Some of my father-in-law's floral children

It is a rare thing for Sasha and me to visit Maryland at any time other than Christmas, so it was a pleasure to experience the area in the summer--and to do something other than go gift shopping. The National Aquarium is not a cheap destination ($34.95 per adult ticket), but it is definitely more peaceful, aesthetically pleasing, and educational than the mall!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Where to Eat in the City of Brotherly Love

It is not really possible to write an exhaustive post on the cuisine of Philadelphia; it's a big city, and we were only there for a couple of days. However, I can offer some advice on worthy cuisine in and around the Penn's Landing area where Sasha and I were based. My suggestions will be particularly helpful for people looking for Italian fare, since that is the genre of food we had for both of our evening meals.

The first restaurant we visited was completely un-researched; it just happened to be a place that we wandered past while looking for a late-night meal on our first night in town. There are usually only two possible outcomes of finding an establishment under those conditions: either you wake up the next morning really regretting your sense of adventure (also known as lack of discrimination), or you luck into a fantastic culinary treat. Happily, Sasha and I experienced the latter.

Our serendipitous find was La Locanda Del Ghiottone, a family-owned restaurant serving genuine Italian food. I can verify the validity of both of these facts because the owners were sitting out on the sidewalk at a table near Sasha's and mine; in fact, they were the ones who got us settled after we peeked at the menu in the window and decided that we would give the place a try.

La Locanda does not serve the sort of Italian food that you find at, say, Sbarro or The Olive Garden. Instead, it has the type of fare that is dished up in the homes of actual Italian people or, in this case, the homes of Italian immigrants and their descendants. It places an emphasis on fresh vegetables, light but satisfying sauces, and flavorful pasta cooked al dente. Can you tell already that I enjoyed my meal?

We started off by sharing a house salad, which consisted of a bed of mixed greens, fresh tomatoes, preserved peppers, and olives. Being the picky eaters that we are, Sasha and I both extracted all the onions and peppers and left them in a little refuse pile at the side of the plate. Otherwise, we practically licked the dish clean.

Our starter: a salad with tomatoes, peppers, olives, and little mozzarella balls

Sasha and I both ordered main courses (well, actually they were primi) from the specials menu. Sasha got spaghetti with a seafood sauce, while I had ravioli with sausage and tomato sauce:

Sasha's spaghetti

My ravioli
These were both excellent selections that had perfect portion sizes. Although everything tasted delicious, the food was also comforting and "homey," which made us feel as though we guests at a friend's house rather than patrons at a restaurant. That kind of experience (which is also facilitated by the overall atmosphere of the restaurant, and how your waiter treats you) is, in my opinion, the most enjoyable outcome possible when you go out to eat.

The dessert menu was incredibly tempting, but I was quite full. Sasha, however, made room for a crepe, which was stuffed with fruit and bathed in chocolate. I had a little bite, and I can confirm that it tasted as good as it looked. I have a real weakness for crepes (though I have only ever eaten them while traveling--e.g., at Montmartre and the Canterbury Cathedral), so it was hard for me to refrain from stealing the entire portion.

Freshly made crepe with fruit and chocolate sauce

After we got home for the evening,  I did a bit of research in order to locate a restaurant where Sasha and I could have breakfast the following morning. Although our hotel was by the river, we were planning to make our way northwestward in order to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary. This meant that there were quite a few restaurants that would be conveniently located near our origin, our destination, or our route of travel between the two.

Ultimately, I settled on Cafe Lift, a highly-reviewed establishment that serves brunch all day. It is located only a few blocks from the Penitentiary, so we were able to get a taxi to the restaurant and then do the rest of our commuting on foot. There are only two real drawbacks of Cafe Lift. First, they only accept cash, which I find to be terribly annoying since I never have any on me. However, there is an ATM in the lobby, so this is a situation that can be easily rectified. More problematic is the second issue, which is that Cafe Lift is extremely popular, but also relatively small. When we arrived at 10:30ish, every table was full--as were both the indoor and outdoor waiting areas. Happily, the maitre d' predicted that we could probably get a table within 30 minutes; even more happily, we were given cups of tea to drink while we waited.

Depending on your view of the world, there is another property of Cafe Lift that you might consider a third drawback: the fact that it is extremely trendy in a young, hipstery sort of way. As a group, hipsters tend to annoy me, but in my quest to be a nicer person, I am trying to think of them as "interesting" rather than "obnoxious." This is not entirely inaccurate, because they truly are interesting, and Sasha and I easily amused ourselves with lots of people-watching.

When we were finally seated, I had a very hard time making up my mind about what to eat. On the one hand, I wanted pancakes and fruit, but on the other hand, I wanted something savory and a bit more wholesome. I ultimately went for the latter, while Sasha chose the former.

My brunch: mushroom frittata with gorgonzola cheese, potatoes, and toast. I also had a side of bacon, because one cannot waste the opportunity to eat fantastic bacon while in the US.
Sasha's breakfast: buttermilk pancakes with fresh fruit. Cafe Lift also serves lemon ricotta pancakes, which would have been my choice.

Sasha was able to clean his plate, but my portion was a bit overwhelming and I had to leave some behind. We both felt so sated that, despite walking around for the rest of the afternoon, neither of us felt the need to have any sort of lunch or major snack prior to our late evening dinner. In other words, if you need a filling breakfast/brunch, Cafe Lift is the place to go.

The final stop on our culinary tour of east-central Philly is the one restaurant that I had researched before actually arriving in town: Ristorante Panorama. It is located in the Penn's View Hotel, which is just a couple of blocks down from where Sasha and I were staying. I chose the restaurant not just because of its convenient location, but also because it is featured on several different "best in Philadelphia" lists, and because Sasha loves Italian food (at the time I made our reservation, I didn't know we'd end up eating Italian food the night before...).

I was a bit surprised by the restaurant layout when we arrived because it looked quite different from the photos I'd seen on the website. I think my confusion arose from the fact that I was looking at images of the large dining room where they host more formal events, whereas Sasha and I were seated in the "Il Bar" section. Our reservations turned out to be completely unnecessary; only three other tables were occupied.

The menu was full of enticing things, and each of our dishes was delicious, but I think I actually enjoyed our meal at La Locanda more. Everything at Panorama indicated that the restaurant was trying very hard to be good--the waiters were extremely serious, the food options were sophisticated, the portions were moderate and artfully arranged, and the quiet, dimly lit dining area had very elegant decor. It was, without doubt, an upscale, high-quality place. La Locanda, on the other hand, was boisterous, casual, and relaxed--a bit rough around the edges, but with food that was every bit as good as what we had at Panorama. Both places had their merits, but there is just something appealing about a place that achieves without seeming to try too hard, and where you can hang out and be yourself without really needing to worry about etiquette. Still, it is nice that both sorts of places exist in the world, because sometimes you do want to dress up and act like an adult.

But enough of the social commentary. The real question is, what did we eat? As per usual, Sasha skipped the first course so that he could save room for dessert. I, on the other hand, ordered the smoked salmon salad with goat cheese. You can't tell from the picture below, but the rocket/arugula was dressed in some sort of light, citrus-y vinaigrette:

Smoked salmon salad

When I was younger, I used to think that lox was disgusting; I never imagined I'd grow up to love it. That is exactly why my mom used to make me take at least two bites of every type of food I was served: You just never know what you might find appealing.

Amazingly, Sasha decided to part from tradition and get a non-pasta dish. Instead, he ordered the maiale e rabe, which was a pork tenderloin served under veggies and shoestring potatoes, with a provolone cheese sauce. least, I'm pretty sure that's what this is. I forgot to photograph the menu, so I'm working off the one the restaurant has posted on its website. I do know for sure that the meat is pork, and that those are potatoes on top!

I ordered the tagliatelle con funghi e granchio, otherwise known as tagliatelle with mushrooms, topped with lump crabmeat. I loved all the flavors of this dish, though I thought that it was a tad dry.

Tagliatelle with mushrooms and crab

On a side note, it is possible that this may end up being the last crab I ever eat. That is because there is new evidence suggesting that shellfish are capable of feeling pain, meaning that they suffer during traditional methods of preparation (i.e., being boiled alive). As much as I love crab, I am not sure that I can bear to eat it knowing that some poor animal experienced a fate that I would not inflict on my worst enemies. I love science, but it can really take the joy out of life sometimes.

Sasha ended the evening with tortine di mele, which were little apple crisps with maple cream and vanilla gelato. I tell you, Italians really know how to do dessert right.

A trio of mini apple crisps
Of all fruity desserts, those involving apples are my favorite (followed by those involving lemons). I had a little nibble one of these, but otherwise left them all to Sasha. I did, however, partake in a glass of port.

Maybe one day, if I train hard enough, I'll be able to finish a whole glass of port without becoming tipsy.

Thus concluded our exploration of Philly fare--unless you count the continental breakfast we had the next morning at our hotel, which I most definitely do not. I was very impressed with all of our meals, especially considering that I didn't really invest that much time in planning. My only real regret was that we didn't visit my all-time favorite Philly establishment: Marrakesh. I was tempted to go, but Sasha isn't a big fan of Moroccan food. I also feel guilty that I didn't take Sasha to a place where he could sample a Philly cheese steak, which is practically a mandatory activity on your first visit to Philadelphia. There are probably at least a hundred other unique dishes and/or restaurants that we should have sampled during our trip, so obviously Philly is a place we'll need to return to at some point in the future.