Full Complement

Parc, Philadelphia: “Even artichokes have hearts.”

FAIRY TALES have long been objects of mild fascination for me.  My particular tooth fairy didn’t believe in leaving coins under my pillow; I’d wake up, gap-toothed and sleepy-eyed, to find editions of Trina Schart Hyman‘s illustrated fairy tales or volumes of folk tales from various cultures.  Celtic tales, Italian tales, Aesop’s fables…these were my tooth fairy’s idea of wealth.  To this day, I’m convinced that the heart of any culture lies in its stories.

Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain is a fairy tale built upon details: cups and saucers, extended frames where characters stare off into middle distance and consider the world around and inside themselves, reflections in glass windows, colorful vignettes of life in a busy corner of the world.

Parc, on Rittenhouse Square, is much the same.  The attention to detail is exacting.  You step through the corner door and find yourself transported.  Jessie and I, seated at a small round table by the window, kept finding ourselves throwing in small French phrases, simply because it felt right.  The atmosphere is so perfectly attended to that you’re swept up, as if in a modern fairy tale, and phraseology is just one of the symptoms.

In the midst of an embarrassing series of voilàs and je ne sais quois, Jessie and I noticed a Strange Trend.  We were sipping our coffees — hers a café au lait and mine a café vietnamese with a layer of sweetened condensed milk — and beside us on the street were strangely garbed people, walking mostly in groups, but all following the same path.  They wore large bunny-eared head pieces; some had backpacks, and most had pink water bottles.  Some waved, some peered into Parc, others marched right past as if on a ritual quest.  Circling the pack on a bicycle was a man in a spiny-fish headress.  (I still don’t understand that one; better visibility from a distance?)

It turns out they were part of Philly’s three day Breast Cancer Walk (sponsored by Energizer‡, hence the bunny ears).  So as we ate our egg white omelette (with herbes and raclette cheese) and omelette espagnole (featuring a scrumptious ratatouille), and dipped the excellent pommes frites into the accompanying sauce, we waved to the walkers and wondered where we’d been when the sign-up sheets had been posted.  Sigh.  Next year.

The thing about Parc is that by entering the restaurant’s doors you are not only stepping out of your own century, but you are also sidestepping the city and peering out from behind your café with eyes brightened by wonder.  The interior is spell-binding.  Lace curtains, floors tiled with mosaic-sized stone, yellowed lights, and long bistro-style menus only add to the sense of enchantment.  The addition of the pink bunny-eared Breast Cancer Walkers only added to the sense of mystique; it was a rainy Philly day, but inside Parc was a magical wonderland where everyone — from our waitress to the people outside — could be new friends, and every moment was filled with laughter and new realizations.

And like every good fairy tale, the ending was as satisfying as the beginning.  The two heroines — Jessie and I — snaked our way out of the restaurant, and began to make plans for the next adventure.  Apple picking, anyone?  Because if there is anywhere a fairy tale heroine goes after an enchanting afternoon of making new friends, it has to be going after the enchanted apple.

À la prochain!


Here’s a piece of trivia for you: this year is the Energizer bunny’s 20th anniversary!  As the website says, “Keep (the party) going.”

Brunch · Drink · Full Complement

Max Brenner, Philadelphia: “That’s my new favorite camel”

THERE’S decadence, and then there is decadence. There are curtains with valences; and there are curtains with velvet valences.  There’s hot chocolate, Swiss Miss style; there’s Ghirardelli hot chocolate, invigorated with one or two shots of espresso and covered with a froth of chantilly cream.  (In fact, pretty much anything with chantilly cream is, by definition, decadent.)  There are sparse, simple movies like Revolutionary Road; but there are also glossy, well-defined, lush productions such as  The Brothers Bloom.

Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) makes decadence its trade.  Truffles, Mexican hot cocoa, oozing chocolate cakes, chocolate-dusted crepes, pure chocolate licks…. Mmmm.  Eating here is a feast for the eyes, the nose, the taste buds–even your ears.  Fingers, too, can be dipped into the chocolate lick, luxuriating in the soft warm delight.  And, of course, there are the “hug mugs”–vessels designed to warm your cold hands in the winter even as they allow the nose to partake of the aroma of your hot chocolate or mocha cappucino (milk chocolate? dark chocolate? white chocolate? your choice).

The occasion of brunch at Max Brenner was twofold: we had a break in both the heat wave  and accompanying inexplicable rains that have been taking over the East coast, and my father flew into town just a few days ago.  This was his first Saturday on US soil in something vulgar like two years.  So naturally we had to go seek out the most luxurious brunch we could and let him seep into a culture of perks, delightful aromas, and understated presentation.

And Max Brenner delivered.  Good Lord, did it ever…!

We were ushered into the main body of the restaurant by our waif-like hostess and were presented with two menus.  One for brunch, one for the usual odds & ends offered by the chocolatier (cocoas, mochas, frappes, crepes, chocolate cakes, coffees, etc).  Our waiter came a moment later, and assured us that everything goes with chocolate.  We hemmed and hawed; but ultimately, upon his suggestion, I chose the decadent french toast; my mother ordered the “well-mannered omelet” and my father picked the grilled chicken panini.

Let me take a moment to address my parents’ choices.  There’s no need to go into my own; if the words “decadent” and “french toast” appear in the same sentence, you can bet your eyeteeth I’ll be having that.  My dad picked the panini mostly for the accompanying fries: “waffle fries dusted with chili and chocolate powder,” and they are heavenly.  My mom’s  really into goat cheese and is trying to eat more healthily, and the omelet with creamy spinach seemed ideal.  It was embellished with spiced homefries, a “diamond dusted sugar buttermilk biscuit,” and a “pure melted chocolate lick.”  G0t that?  Chocolate goes with everything.

The french toast, I am happy to report, was opulence defined.  Topped with cinnamon apple and white chocolate truffle bits, it was liberally covered with warm toffee sauce and brown sugared pecans.  I drizzled it with the accompanying white chocolate and milk chocolate.  Each bite was a novelty; every taste was a dream come true.  If you can handle that much sugar, this is the french toast to end them all.

One of the things I love about The Brothers Bloom (and I loved plenty about that film) was the detail to background, color, and sound.  In a similar way, Max Brenner has created a complex and layered experience.  The decor is done in muted colors, all collected around the central, signature chocolate brown hue.  A good portion of the restaurant is dedicated solely to selling chocolate: cases are full of small square treats, there are bags of delicacies to take home, and a staff is on hand to walk you through the offerings and samples.  The music, too, is designed to create an atmosphere of comfort and vaunted luxury.  Classic cover songs are mixed with the suave tones of Frank Sinatra; we enjoyed a line-up that included Roberta Flack, a Nina Simone knock-off, and “Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby” covered by some husky-voiced ingenue.

All told, I’m impressed with the experience at Max Brenner.  If this was a DVD I could own, I totally would.  The next best thing, of course, is returning.  Again and again, because there’s simply so much there to sample.  Chocolate fondue, anyone?  Or how about the “Three Layer Chocolate Concoction with Toffee Bananas”?  Lord, the options are endless!  And I am just getting started…


Full Complement

Bread Alone, NY: “We think by feeling. What is there to know?”

I HAVE been sadly remiss in joining in the documentation of The Great American Breakfast Quest. I certainly have had my fair share of amazing breakfasts in the past several months, but have not been faithful to my quester status. A shame, I say, a shame….

But no longer….

So, to re-enter the fray I will tell the tale of a breakfast brunch. There is something so special about brunch: lazy weekend days, taking our wakings slow, and tantalizing the tastebuds. For my mom, a woman who has eaten the same breakfast everyday for as along as I can remember, brunches are most definitely a treat.

We (my sister Claire, my mother, and I) decided that this year we would celebrate my mom’s birthday in upstate NY. Claire has recently moved into her first apartment in the tiny town of Red Hook and it was on a rainy Saturday that we all converged and headed out to the next town over, Rhinebeck. After some debate we chose Bread Alone over another equally tempting option (Another Fork in the Road).

The decor is a warm red and there are nice, solid wooden tables lining the walls. This is a place for fall afternoon cups of endless coffee and rainy day brunches. The heat had been unbearable the day before but the gray morning brought the wet cool of late summer showers–making the enjoyment of the brunch that more possible.

We all opted for pots of tea.  The tea was blended in the small town of Millerton by a family owned tea shop Harney and Sons. I had the simple breakfast of over-easy eggs, toast, and morning potatoes. The toast was a chewy dense whole grain smeared with fresh creamy butter and the morning potatoes has been fried with rosemary and red and yellow bell peppers to add some sweetness and earthy muskiness to your standard homefry. The eggs were done perfectly with the yolk spilling out from the thin white skin in a cascade of deep orange-y yellow. My mom had the Toad in the Hole–perhaps the more fun way of eating over-easy eggs. Claire chose the special omelette of the day: fresh scallions with melted brie. The scallions were sauteed just enough to sweeten them but not enough to take away their sharp, fresh, green bite. Claire’s boyfriend ordered the Bread Basket–a selection of muffins, scones, croissants, and toast from the bakery. The Bread Basket is an option I would love to see on more menus–there is something delighful about having a whole basket of bread, pastry, and butter presented to you.

We sat for a couple of hours lingering over our pots of tea, stories of the past several months, and snatching bites from each others plates. The wait-staff was patient and let us be.

When the last sweet crumbs of blueberry muffin and lick of butter had been consumed, Claire and I gave our mother her presents and sang a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday.

Then it was time to push back our chairs, give a big sigh of contentment and head out into the watery light of mid-morning.

So, if you are ever in Rhinebeck, NY and are hankering after simple, well-done breakfasts, turn your feet to Bread Alone.

Quest on, quest on.


Full Complement

XIX, Philadelphia: “What’s this room? I’ve forgotten my compass.”

THERE are places in every city that are pure magic, where form and design and light come together and create the perfect ambience.  In Philadelphia, one of these such places is XIX on the 19th floor of the Bellevue Park Hyatt Hotel, overlooking the city and yet somehow maintaining its own intact microcosm of preserved enchantment.

The Barrymore Room is a beautiful domed round room where the acoustics allow you to hear the conversations directly across the room from you at the same volume as your own chatter.  Back in the day, the Barrymore Room was the seat of the Bellevue’s High Tea.  Now, the hotel has opened up a balcony off the Barrymore Room, which is available for outdoor seating in warmer weather, and plays up the Philadelphia view at the weekly Sunday brunch.  The ambience of the room is soothing and reminiscent of old luxury.  It’s a marvelous place to sit and toast the end of one week and the dawning of another; it’s the perfect setting for concocting plans and reveling in dreams.

Passing from the Barrymore Room, you enter a tighter hallway with a cooking station to the right; beyond that is the bar, decorated with wine bottles and hosting the dessert display of the Sunday brunch.  Beyond that is another airy, light-filled room.  For brunch, this room is home to the Raw Bar, where oysters and shrimp await you, alongside fresh salads and little bowls of cocktail sauce.

While the ambience of XIX is commendable, so too is the display and the food.  At the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to partake of a multitude of pastries and fruits.  With a Nutcracker themed party going on elsewhere in the hotel, it was no surprise that the main decoration for the Barrymore Room was holiday-themed.  Silent soldiers, red berries in a beautiful vase, sprigs of colorful flowers and the aroma of nutmeg…Not to mention that the croissants and sticky buns were beautifully lit by the light streaming through the large windows.  It was all so appealing, like a Christmas delight long before gift-unwrapping time; guests coming in for the first time oohed and aahed, and stopped to stare appreciatively before inquiring politely after a table.

From the European Breakfast Table, you are invited to help yourself to the Asian Pantry.  Here, dumplings and sushi, dim sum and Asian salads await you.  Chopsticks, wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce all contribute to the experience.  And the Pantry itself, tucked into an isolated cooking station, looks as much like a cooking school master class as it does a part of the XIX experience.  I helped myself liberally to the sushi and the noodle salad, decorating my plate with the dumplings and a dash of wasabi.

Following the Asian Pantry, the Raw Bear Under the Pearls beckons.  There, you are greeted by two crescent-shaped bars filled with oysters and poached cocktail shrimp; they are complemented by red wine shallot vinaigrette, spicy dill mayonnaise, cocktail sauce, and a selection of fresh salads.

At this point in the brunch, you should have had a chance to gauge how full you are.  Your waitress will prompt you to look at the menu and decide on a main course, so be sure to save some room!  My mother ordered the Smoked Salmon Hash, our friend and realtor Mark Wade the American Breakfast, and I the Baked Farmers Omelet (I was after the cheddar cheese baked into the omelet, which beautifully set off the asparagus and potatoes).  Each dish was carefully presented; none bore the ostentation I had been expecting, instead allowing the rustic plateware to bely the flavors to come.

Ah!  Now that you’re settled in with coffee, your appetite happily sated and conversation lazily drifting around what the rest of the day will bring, well, now is the time to find some room for dessert.  Tucked in by the bar, XIX offers quite a dessert spread.  From gilded mini cakes and assorted parfaits to fruit tartlets and fresh berries, it’s your last hurrah.  Take the plunge and sample everything that captures your fancy!  Our table danced with the assorted flavors and colors; we laughed at the whimsy of the presentation even as we enjoyed the richness of the options.

Mmmm.  XIX serves up decadence with aplomb and vigor.  There’s a sense of Old Philadelphia here, a history remembered and delighted in.  Sure, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel is the hotel of Legionnaire’s fame.  But the memories evoked on the nineteenth floor of that hotel are now those of a city past memory: the city of the Barrymores, the Strawbridges and Parrishes; the city of the first Centennial Exposition.  There’s a sense of accrued wonder, of knowledge passed down.  Even as the hum of modern cash registers and elevators rise around you, there’s still a sense of magical displacement.

For one moment, for one meal, you’re as Tracy Lord or C.K. Dexter Haven, and the city is yours to enjoy.


Full Complement

The Weekend Retreat: Philadelphia

IT IS a well-known fact that when a friend comes to your town, it is your express duty to make sure they see the best parts of said town.  When they are coming in for a quick weekend–a retreat, if you will, from the day-to-day and the hard work of being alive–it is doubly more important for them to see the benefits of your city.  Especially if they might be coming back.

So when Lisa came down to Philly for the weekend, I decided to take her on a tour of the standards in brunch.  We had plans to meet up with college friends; we had plans to get absolutely toasted; we had plans to sit and talk and catch up and get to the meat of our own existential crises.  But more importantly, we had plans to eat.  And a weekend retreat equals two prime opportunities for brunching à la wherever you are.  The decisions we made were based as much on walkability (we wanted a minor trek) as on stomach (we both decided against heaviness; hangovers and weight aren’t a good match).  But I also wanted Lisa to see a bit of Philly, and so we ended up walking quite a bit and checking out some of Philly’s cute(r?) neighborhoods.

It’s one thing to be a college student at the outskirts of a major city: you go into “town” maybe once or twice a month, push that to three in birthday months.  You know the city is there but you don’t utilize it unless you have an assignment or a specific purpose (art history classes that direct you to the PMA; women’s studies courses with an internship component).  So you graduate, and you’ve spent, what? a total of 36 afternoons in a city that has an incredible amount of things to offer?

Tsk, tsk.  Obviously, the way to remedy that is to come back once the demands of paper-writing, club-running, thesis-drafting, etc are behind you.  When you can give time to the city that was there for you, even if you didn’t remember to visit all that often.  So Lisa’s visit was as much a glorification in Philadelphia as it was a reunion.  Making the most of her time was, therefore, a guilty necessity.

We decided on a sampling of Philly’s best.  Some may disagree with me here; that’s fine.  But in a quest for comfort foods, familiar faces, and places representative of the Philadelphia entrepreneurial spirit, I think Lisa and I hit all the right places.  On Friday night, we opted for a range of places: Raw sushi and sake lounge, Cuba Libre, Sugar Mom’s and Apothecary.  The food at Raw was exquisite; our waitress was eager with helpful suggestions and we waddled out, nicely full and ready for some exploring.  Cuba Libre granted us a pair of very sweet mojitos; Sugar Mom’s turned out not to be quite what we wanted at the time, but will be a place I return to.  (Though, truth be told, I prefer Tattooed Mom’s.  I’m just putting that out there.)  But we struck gold at Apothecary.

I’m always excited to see friends doing what they love.  Be that creating a show for the Philly Fringe and Live Arts Festival or building crazy new artworks, I like seeing people enjoy themselves in a way that supports them.  Maybe it’s because I’m still seeking out that perfect melding of passion and salary; whatever it is, walking into Apothecary and realizing the bartenders were college comrades was certainly an experience I was not expecting but one that I’ll treasure.  On the practical side, of course, was the fact that they knew their drinks inside and out and could tailor them to Lisa and my specification (don’t want ginger in a ginger-infused beverage? try elderflower instead).  So big props there.

Saturday was the Big Day.  Not only was there a party in Jersey–send-off celebrations in this age group inevitably turn into reunions; that’s the other reason people go to them–but Saturday was the day of Lisa’s first Philly brunch.  Heavy from dinner and drinks the night before (and recovering from a 5-week Brazilian getaway), Lisa wanted something light on the eggs.  Not easy to do when you’re talking brunch.  A walk was also determined as a “must” for the event, and so we bustled off in search of Beau Monde’s amazing crepes.  Lisa picked the Smoked Trout, Leek and Spinach crepe; I opted for the Mushroom, Bacon and Goat Cheese.  I cannot say this enough: I am addicted to Beau Monde’s crepes.  In fact, I would be there right now if, well, if a bajillion things weren’t waiting for me to do today.  Sigh.

From Beau Monde (where we enjoyed an Elvis medley) we wandered in the Italian Market a little bit; I bought plums and Lisa bought loose-leaf tea.  (Lisa also ended up with a new pair of mustard colored flats, too, for those of you seeking new ideas in footwear.)  From there, we made our way to Capogiro.  The idea was to get coffee, but I was quickly distracted by the luscious flavors of gelato.  Lisa tried a few but ultimately returned to her coffee needs; I, instead, went with a melding of the basil lemon and the kiwi gelatos.  Yum!

After that, the party In Jersey (which was suprisingly close; I sometimes forget how not far parts of Jersey are).  Which led to dinner at Good Dog.  Something about Good Dog is so fascinatingly comforting that I have a hard time remembering it’s a bar.  It’s become the place to go after an event–a happy hour, a party, a good conversation you/I don’t want to end.  It’s loud, certainly, but it’s homey and the food is surprisingly good.  What more do you need?

Sunday morning dawned, lush and lovely.  Lisa was heading out in the early afternoon but wanted to have a star Philly brunch before she left.  So what was I to do?  One thing, and one thing only: take the girl to Sabrina’s.  While the Buggles played in the background, Lisa had the Apple Cheddar Omelet and I the Eggs Benedict Florentine.  Though the cheddar wasn’t as sharp as she’d have preferred, the omelet nonetheless hit the spot.  As for me, this was my first foray into the Eggs Benedict realm.  With an avocado-tomato topping, the dish hit the spot.  Now I know: Hollandaise is not merely for D, who still gushes about her eggs benedict at Honey’s.

And that, it seems, is how to do Philly when you’re in for a satisfying, homey, retreat from responsibility.   Most of the weekend was spent on foot, and so Lisa got a tour of the Philadephia she’d missed in college and reacquainted herself with the parts of the city she had known.  I’ve always thought Philly was sort of like a childhood memory: it is present for you in some form, but not until you’re actually thinking about it or confronted by it does it seem real and true.


Brunch · Full Complement

The Dining Car, Philadelphia: “You always have the guys at the diner.”

SOMETHING magical happens at diners. From your first grip of the metal bar door handle to the moment you pry the syrup-stained laminated menu off the Formica tabletop, there’s a prickle at the back of your neck that has nothing to do with the population of septuagenarians nor the lack of haute cuisine descriptors for “omelet” or “hot cake.” No, this is a prickle of pure joy, of taking a step back and letting yourself sink into a world of jukeboxes and “good eats” and simple conversation.

There’s a sense of security and continuity to the diner; it’s an establishment that hasn’t changed much over the years. You can expect to hear “hit” music from a variety of eras, starting with the 50s and progressing forwards to the likes of Whitney Houston and N’Sync (if you’re lucky). The menus are laminated, with darkened font (for those older, bifocal-ed eyes); the waitresses have you-can’t-scare-me eyes and pursed lips, and write with an efficiency that would make a ranking military officer proud.

Lissie has been bemoaning the lack of diner fare in Egypt, and so the occasion of this particular venture was purely to satisfy her deep-seated need for diner coffee before she boarded her plane to the south. Because of her distance from the US, Lissie has to pack in a lot of people-seeing into her summer holiday; so far, she’s hit up the East Coast (including NJ, NY, and PA), the Midwest, and is currently in the Down South; and the girl has only been back in this country for about two weeks!

Not only did we get the diner coffee (served with half & half, of course) and diner orange juice (served with thick straws), but I also got to re-profess my love for laminated menus. Something about their sleek, shining lines makes my bones turn to jelly. Bonus: our waitress was named Angel, which is pretty much as perfect a diner name as you can find. “Babs” is the only name that could, potentially, top hers.

Anyhoo, we were delighted by the presence of the older folk. In our world–which may or may not be founded on worlds passed down to us by friends, family, and foe(s)–we figure that any diner that still caters to a crowd of white-haired, windbreaker-ed ladies must, naturally, be a “real” diner. As in, ‘this is the real deal.’ Here, the likes of Sinatra might have once eaten, before hitting it big. But he’d never forget a meal like the one he’d had at, say, The Dining Car (if ever he made it here). The point is, this is where memories for a lifetime are made.

There are some diner standards that you just don’t mess with. If they have specials, well, that’s a whole different party of fun. In this case, Malik went with the time-honored classic, Creamed Chipped Beef. He chose to have his on wheat toast, with a side of home fries and scrambled eggs. Lissie went for the banana french toast (soaked in banana sauce and even garnished with bananas), with 2 scrambled eggs. For me, the lure of the broccoli-ham-cheddar omelet with home fries and wheat toast was too much, and to that I applied my diligent fork.

This was also at the un-godly hour of 8AM on a weekend. We were famished, yes, but also more than a little groggy from weekend partying. DJ DeeJay at The Barbery played a set on Friday night that entirely consisted of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. The joy of hearing Like A Prayer at midnight while dancing with friends was a nostalgic two-step that nearly brought me to raptures. I controlled myself, and merely got elbow-friendly with the guy behind me. You know how these things go.

So we sat, and talked, and appreciated Angel’s thank you note on the back of our bill. We paid up front at the register, as you do at any “real” diner; but before that, we got our coffee mugs filled and refilled and talked about food and friends and movies and babies. There was time enough before running Lissie to the airport that we could both enjoy our food and then sit back, fully satisfied, and laud (again) the holistic diner experience. Oyez, this is where we all sat–this weekend–in anticipation of one day making it big.


Brunch · Full Complement

Carman’s Country Kitchen: What A Feeling!

NUMEROUS people have mentioned Carman’s Country Kitchen to me: my fellow students in my short-lived photography class at the Fleisher Art Memorial (short-lived because work caught up to me and sent me out of state for a time), my neighbors when I mentioned my life-long love affair with french toast, and even a New York friend who is considering moving to Philly and feels–as I do–that brunch is a deal-maker when it comes to choosing a new address.

But for some reason, I had avoided making my way to Carman’s. There’s something both daunting and exhilarating about the tagline “She puts the ‘cunt’ back in country,” not to mention reviews that bemoan lengthy waits for one of four tables. I like homey brunch places as much as the next person, but something about being served in a tiny establishment run by a woman so militant was a little frightening. I told myself I was waiting for New York Emily to come down and be the spine of our brunching operation; I told myself that I couldn’t really do justice to Carman’s unless Emily, who seemed to be inspired by the very tagline that secretly terrified me, was along to experience the enormity of Carman’s, um, cheek.

FacadeAnd I wasn’t actually planning to go to Carman’s this past weekend! The fact was that, since I’ve had to beg off of visiting a friend in Wisconsin for the 4th of July, I’ve been thinking about how awful it is that I have never visited her in Wisconsin… And, as she used to live in South Philly and once recommended Atlantic Pizza’s french toast to me, I thought I could–at the very least–honor her spirit by checking out her favorite french toast in the city.

But Atlantic Pizza was not to be. When Malik and I got there, the corner restaurant was dark; indeed, it was closed. Tragedy! Head in hand, I remembered that we had passed Carman’s on our walk, and tentatively suggested that we might do brunch there instead?

So, in all fact, it was Malik who finally got me to Carman’s. Not Emily, who I figured would be the natural brunch partner for such an establishment; not my neighbors, who were so enthusiastic about Carman’s culinary whimsy; and not even my classmates, who praised and extolled Carman’s gastronomic gift above all others in the South Philly area.

When we finally got to Carman’s, we were told to return in 40 minutes; by that time, there was sure to be a spot for us. True to its reviews, Carman’s has four tables, a series of counter seats, and a truck parked outside with a picnic bench and umbrella (this is the ‘Chef’s Table’). Around the corner, though, is a Rita’s Water Ice, and that’s where Malik and I waited out our time. (Malik had a milkshake; I mixed their Georgia Peach water ice with vanilla custard for an amazing gelato experience). I wouldn’t suggest this as a companion to the Carman’s experience: by the time we returned to take our seats at the counter, we were already half-full and my sweet tooth was in overdrive.

Chef\'s TableOne of the really interesting things about Carman’s–other than the sheer number of penises and phallic statues she has lying about & the other kitschy decorative touches–is that Carman herself presides over the kitchen. The eating space is limited because Carman likes it that way. It’s an intimate space; you share milk and jam with your neighbors, peek over at each other’s food, ask for recommendations, and let the conversation flow above and amongst you. Carman, too, offers a limited selection based on what she feels like cooking that day (which means that the menu is constantly evolving). The restaurant is open only four days a week, Friday through Monday, between 8am and 2pm. During the rest of the week, Carman buys her ingredients, plots her menus, and takes time to breathe.

Starting the day with gelati determined my brunch choice: nothing too sweet. I ordered the Omelet, stuffed with vidalia onions, Creole peppers, avocado, cheese; served with toast, the omelet also came with an optional side of chicken chorizo sausage. Malik went with the day’s catfish special, complete with two eggs and a side of bacon. The coffee was endless, the water replenished, and our appetites fully sated. The only change I would make to the day was saving the trip to Rita’s for the hot summer afternoon, as an afterthought to the meal rather than a prelude. As it was, I wasn’t able to finish the omelet. And next time I go, I’ll be trying Carman’s famous challah french toast.

Basically what it comes down to is this: I am a convert. Whatever I was expecting at Carman’s–a brassy, bold-faced Philly belle with a raucous hyena laugh and a faint scent of quarters–I didn’t find it. Like a good dance movie that has hidden themes of class struggle and identity crises (and I am not talking Step Up, people), Carman’s delivers.

To Emily, wherever I may find her (she’s slippery this time of year): let’s make this place a habit.