Tuesday, June 30, 2009
The old adage, "it's not what you know, it's who you know" certainly held true a little over a week ago when my friend Jess, from Fries with that Shake, totally hooked me up with a tour of the The Restaurant School's library! Did you even know the The Restaurant School had a library? I didn't either, but because Jess is a friendly and well-connect librarian, she was able to finagle this wonderful experience for us. Madeline Copp, the resident librarian at The Restaurant School was kind enough to open the collection to us one afternoon and I could have spent hours and hours amidst the food-oriented tomes.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Library at The Restaurant School is the historical volumes of cooking literature. Select years of Joy of Cooking and other popular all-inclusive cook books are preserved so that one can observe the change of a single recipe over time. (My inner sociologist imagined a lengthy and in-depth content analysis of Chicken Divan from it's earliest conception until the present). Regional cookbooks from around the world were organized together for easy reference, notice how the Irish cookbooks in the bottom right corner are all green!
A whole room is devoted solely to food-related periodicals. Here Jess and I swooned over the recent issues of Sauveur and Gastronomica and discussed for a quick second the possibility of sharing a subscription to Gastronomica in the near future.
I was feeling like a serious Foodaphiliac when I asked Jess to take a picture of me posing with The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, but I just couldn't let this tremendous opportunity pass me by. A few moments later I almost fainted when I saw the entire room devoted to baking cook books.
Were it not for the crowd of students actively using the library during our tour I may have just sat down and camped out for a while, but luckily Madeline was able to tear me away from her place of work by mentioning the food and drinks awaiting us in the dining room downstairs.
The restaurants portion of The Restaurant School has a few different rooms for various functions and group activities. We sat in the main courtyard area which is designed to make you feel like you're outside, but you're really tucked safely behind the library and administrative building and nestled right next to the Pastry Shop. The Pasty Shop is an amazing entity. Every day, for most of the year, it is stocked to the brim with goodies baked fresh every morning by students in the Pastry Arts program. The shop is closed from July 4th through September 7th when school is not is session, but the rest of the year it is open and they have a great selection of cookies, danish, cakes and pies. But before I jump into how wonderful desserts are let me show you what we ate for dinner that night.
Dinner at The Restaurant School is three courses for $21, a total steal for what you get, but of course it's prepared by students under the guidance of their Chef Instructors. You get to choose from a selection of appetizer and entree choices listed on the menu, and there are often two or three additional specials that your server will inform you about. To wet our whistles, the bartender, who was ridiculously attractive, whipped up a little grapefruit and vodka martini which I enjoyed so much I ordered a total of three during the entirety of dinner! The entire table was as smitten with the bartender, I mean the drink, as I was and we completely skipped our plan to order a bottle of wine and instead just drank these light and summery cocktails all through dinner.
I started with the appetizer special, an Italian white bean gazpacho with pesto oil. It was cool, smooth and perfectly thick with the natural texture of a perfectly cooked white bean.
I realized we were dining with a VIP when bonus dishes appeared at the table! It was a dream come true for someone who always has trouble deciding what to order, because I got to try three times as many things on one visit than is normally possible. It was nearing the end of the semester at The Restaurant School so the students were practicing a larger than average number of dishes. Here we got to try the curried vegetable fried dumpling and the vegetable and tofu summer roll.
Because we're good foodies, when Jess and I get the chance to share a meal together we often order the two dishes that interest us both the most and share bites so we can sample more without necessarily ordering more than we can handle. Here is the goat cheese salad that she chose as her starter. This goat cheese was slightly whipped to a super creamy state, infused with fresh herbs and drizzled with a vibrant lemon oil. I'm going to try to re-create this at home, I liked it so much.
For dinner I ordered one the evening's specials, a Korean BBQ pork chop with sweet BBQ sauce and sauteed veggies. The pork was perfectly cooked, it was a thick-cut boneless chop that had to been brined/marinated for at least an hour or two before grilling because it was so moist. The sauce on top was slightly sweet and complimented the salty kick of the marinated pork in just the right way.
The Pineapple Jerk Chicken was also moist and surprisingly well-cooked for a piece of boneless chicken breast. The sauce was simultaneously sweet, sour and spicy, just like a good Jerk sauce should be. The plantains were friend crispy and provided a nice starchy counterpoint of taste to the saucy chicken. I think this may have been my favorite entree of the night.
Jess ordered the Grilled Shrimp with "Moroccan" Pesto. Again, the Chef Instructors are doing their jobs well at The Restaurant School because shrimp are so easy to overcook and instantly turn rubbery, but these shrimp were cooked the point of barley-done so that by the time they arrived in front of Jess they were perfectly done and not the slightest bit chewy or overcooked.
When it came time for dessert, Jess and I encouraged the whole table to order something distinct so we could be utterly gluttonous and taste everything. The creme brulee was the only misstep of our entire meal. While the custard was perfect, thick and creamy, not grainy and highly vanilla-y, the sugar on top was thin and most disappointingly didn't snap as it should have when cracked with a spoon. This is the flaw with most creme brulees in the restaurant world.
Key Lime Tart with Blackberry Coulis had a freshly toasted meringue topping and decidedly tart filling that was cool and creamy without being too sweet. I'm a sucker for creamy key lime pie and this was a very very good version paired with a sweet berry sauce.
My favorite desserts of the night were these final two. The dessert of the left was a special for the night, a chocolate espresso fudge cake with coffee ice cream. I find it hard to pass up coffee-infused chocolate desserts because the combination of flavors is one that just makes me swoon, and this was no exception to that rule. Layers of chocolate cake were sandwiched between fudgy espresso icing and crusted with mocha chips. It was so rich I couldn't finish it even after sharing with the three ladies at my table. On the right is the Chocolate Peanut Torte with Concord Grape Gelee. This was the sleeper success of the entire meal, it sounded interesting on the menu, but I wasn't going to order it cause it sounded a little too, I don't know, conceptual. I was quickly smitten with this dessert. The peanut cream was smooth and nutty, the crust of the torte was crispy and crunchy and the grape gelee was the essence of Concord Grapes made into jelly form. It was delicious, and we ate it all, not a single crumb left on the plate.
It was a great experience touring the library, and a great meal followed the tour. I've been talking about The Restaurant School non-stop since. I can't wait to take my sweetheart there for a nice dinner, and you should too, just not with my sweetheart, find your own!
The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College
4207 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104