(Philadelphia, PA) A couple months before our scheduled adventure to Philadelphia, we stumbled upon the 2010 James Beard awards. Among them was a Philly restaurant, a Roman style trattoria called Amis, run by award winner Chef Jeff Michaud. OpenTable helped secure a table on our first night in “city center” and we were excited to try such renowned Italian cuisine...
It is a gorgeous evening in Philadelphia. Our lunch of quickly eaten, subpar sandwiches is now but a distant memory, having been wiped from the slate by a pre-dinner rendezvous with old college buddies at nearby Tria. Quality charcuterie, fresh draught microbrew, and laughter with friends does wonders to erase the trauma of fast food. It is with heavy heart that we must depart from Tria and our friends. (I try to get them seats at our dinner table, but Amis is booked solid. Maybe word about the James Beard award got around?)
Juliet and I arrive after a very short walk, perfectly on time, and the server shows us immediately to our table. It is close quarters with nearby diners, but we’ve had tighter accommodations so it is not worrisome. The noise, however, is near-deafening. I struggle to hear myself, let alone the poor quiet-voiced server who tries to relay the evening’s specials. Juliet has to help translate. As the night wears on, the chaotic garble does ease slightly.
I begin with a generous pour of Prosecco, with a sidecar of red wine granita. A spoonful of the frozen red wine goes into the sparkling wine. Mix. Drink. Repeat. Enjoy. It is sweet and lively on my tongue, preparing me for the roller coaster of flavors to come.
Ever since dining at Joe Allen, I have been craving escargot again. As luck would have it, Amis offers braised snails in a scallion crema. They are bright green chunks coated in a thick cream sauce. Take a scoop and dump them on a toasted, burnt-edged piece of bread. Yum! These are not quite the full-bodied, wine-soaked snails I had in New York; they are more subdued and earthy, with a delicate onion taste. The combination of burned toast and creamy snails is decadent. Juliet also orders pan-fried artichokes (they are crunchy, oily, and tasty) and pork liver terrine topped with tomato marmalade (sweet, slightly greasy, and tastes much like any other pork terrine I’ve had).
There are so many captivating entries on the menu, I’m not quite sure what to order. I really don’t want to “meat it up” with a hunk of veal so I settle on seafood. Since Juliet doesn’t like peas, I seldom get to eat them at home...and I love peas! My eye gravitates toward the braised squid with artichokes and spring peas. Thick-cut circles of firm squid flesh bobble in a shallow, spicy tomato broth sprinkled with green peas. Islands of quartered artichoke hearts peek out from beneath titanic wedges of more crisp-black toast...which I use to sop up the soup when I’ve polished off most of the calamari. The dish is demonstrative, bold, and very addictive. My only criticism is the squid seems just a smidge too firm, as if it had been slightly overcooked or left under a heat lamp. I highly doubt the latter, though. Suffice to say, it is a good dish and one which I’d happily order again.
From good to great, now. While Juliet opts for crispy veal breast with marinated mushrooms, she had also been circling another plate: the fettuccine with lamb ragu and mint. Did someone say mint? As some of you might know, I’m a mint fanatic. Love it. Put it in everything, please. I, too, considered ordering the fettuccine but ultimately went the seaward route. A quick pow-wow, though, and we decide to order it for sharing. Because sharing is caring. Or something like that.
Man, am I glad we ordered that pasta. The noodles are perfectly prepared, not too squishy, but slippery and glistening with olive oil. Hearty bits of shredded lamb ragu mingle under a mound of shredded Pecorino cheese. Little green specks of mint add just a hint of color. It is imperative to gather all components on your fork, so you get the full effect—salty, meaty, with a surprising lightness from the mint. It is pasta like a sexy poem in your mouth.
I am full now. Dessert is totally out of the question...until I read the very bottom item on the menu: prosecco rhubarb granita with pistachio biscotti. Saving the best for last, eh, Chef? Surely there must be cracks in my stomach that need filling. The granita is sweet and very tart, actually quite refreshing. I get uncomfortably close to brain freeze as I use the biscotti as a spoon for the shaved ice. Time to stop. Time to go. Time for bed. From our little tour of Chef Michaud’s cuisine, it’s pretty easy to see how he earned his award. Kudos!
The walk to the restaurant is through a charming neighborhood filled with brownstones, shops and cool eateries. Thirty-somethings are spilling onto the sidewalks out of bars, fifty-somethings are strolling home for the night, and we're smack in the middle, on our way to dinner. The night air is chilly, not cold, but just enough to remind us it's only April. There's something a bit enchanting and adventurous about walking arm-in-arm with my husband at dusk down unfamiliar city streets toward a nice dinner for two.
We arrive right on time, check our coats, and are shown to our table. The restaurant is packed to the gills and frankly, it's noisy as hell. I can barely hear Jeremy and we end up gesturing, pointing at the menu, and mouthing words to each other. When our waitress tells us tonight's specials, she has to lean in and yell them to me, then I have to shout them across the table to Jeremy.
We decide to start with cocktails and appetizers. I order the pork liver terrine and an "Alto", a cocktail with Prosecco, ginger, and blood orange bitters. At the last minute, I decide to also order the fried whole artichokes too. I'm a sucker for artichokes in nearly any form and tonight I can't resist.
The pork terrine is dolloped with a tangy tomato sauce. It's good, but not great, and slightly reminiscent of meatloaf with a ketchup sauce. However, the artichokes are absolutely wonderful. The leaves are crispy and crunchy, like the best potato chips I've ever had. Once the leaves are gone, the heart and the stem are left, and I devour them quickly. The artichoke meat is flavorful and almost verdant with a springtime "greenness". My cocktail works with both apps, cutting through the richness of the terrine and complimenting the meatiness of the artichoke. I read once that there is no wine that pairs well with artichokes or asparagus, but this cocktail seems to play well with others.
As we're finishing our apps, the restaurant empties out a bit and the sound level becomes much more tolerable. We can now talk at near-normal level. I wonder if restaurant owners believe that strategically placing some noise-absorbing tiles will make the restaurant "sound" less successful on busy nights? I hate to sound like an old fart, but these blaringly loud restaurants are completely unappealing.
Even though we each order an entree, we decide to also split an order of the housemade fettuccine with lamb ragu and mint because our waitress gives it a high recommendation. She also steers me to the breast of veal, which I pair with a glass of the '09 Castel Sallegg, described as an ancient variety that tastes fresh with hints of watermelon and spice.
The wine is lovely. I'm enjoying the contrast of fruit with spice and I already know I will be ordering a second glass later in the meal. I move on to the fettuccine, which is simply amazing. There is nothing like the rich egginess of homemade pasta. It's in an exceptionally light sauce with little bits of lamb and shreds of mint. This is spectacular and I'm quite tempted to grab the dish out of Jeremy's reach and devour it all. As we're both oohing and aahing over the pasta, I remember I have my veal to attend to. Smothered in a meaty layer of sauteed mushrooms, the veal is thin, crispy and extremely rich. I'm not sure which I like better, the veal or the pasta and I find myself going back and forth between the two.
We are clearly delirious from overindulgence because when the waitress sidles up with a dessert menu we begin to decline and then both order. I order the vannila ice cream with a shot of espresso drizzled over top. I've always wanted to try affogato and tonight seems like the perfect time. As I pour the espresso over the ice cream, the resulting aroma is intoxicating. I've always been one to enjoy my ice cream a bit more when it's partially melted. Well, affogato raises the bar on slightly melty ice cream. Somehow when the bitter hot espresso meets the cold creamy ice cream a little spoonful of brilliance is born.
While the noise level was distracting at first, the meal was wonderful and an experience I won't soon forget. Our waitress was a sweetie-pie of a gal who knew her way around the menu. If Amis is a preview into the weekend, we are in for some good eats here in Philly!