Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Octopus Salad and Mussels at the Good Dog Bar, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia is a city with a tough image. Many areas within it's sprawling borders are filled with old buildings that look like they have been slowly crumbling for decades, juxtaposed against a more modern downtown area. You get a sense of age from the place- similar to what you would see in Manhattan, and you also see the newer, more ambitious construction. Philadelphia is clearly a city with one foot in the old, and traditional, and one foot in the new and forward-looking. This combination of opposites seems to be fertile ground for good food - the kind that innovates and takes risks, while remaining respectful of the underlying traditions behind the food. Last time I was in Philadelphia on business, a tip from an old friend led me to a small pub and restaurant that captured that idea perfectly - the Good Dog Bar and Restaurant.

The Good Dog is an unassuming place- from the outside, it looks like just another little neighborhood bar in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square district. The bar area on the first floor is the main attraction, but there are also two upper floors containing dining room space. I was there on my own this time, so I simply occupied on of the small booths down by the bar, and started off with a pint of Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale- which went down like a lighter, less "hoppy" version of an IPA. The menu clearly was something more than your typical barroom eats- selections such as a Duck Pot Pie, a burger stuffed with Roquefort cheese, and a Beet and Bresola salad, made it clear that my friend's tip was right on the money- this place had the kind of good food in a casual atmosphere that does it for me.

The bar is dimly lit, and has a vibe that is part dive-bar, part hipster. The dark brown walls feature pictures of dogs of all shapes and sizes (go figure), and over the bar is a large wooden sign, shaped like a dog treat listing the featured selection of high-quality craft beers on tap- local brands such as Yards, Flying Fish from just across the river in New Jersey, and Ommegang- Belgian style brews from upstate New York. I could talk about the beers for a while- and the thought of bellying up to the bar and working my way through the list was tempting, but I was there for the food, so I stuck to nursing my pint of Flying Fish.

I'm not really a salad guy- they usually don't interest me much, and a salad that's really good is very hard to find. This night was the exception. I started my meal with a salad that was flagged as a new menu item. The description was intriguing, and I saw a few plates go by- it sounded like a winner. It was the Grilled Baby Octopus Salad- a salad of watercress, shaved fennel, and julienned green apple in a chorizo vinaigrette, adorned with a few chunks of chorizo, crispy fried chickpeas, and the star of the show- baby octopus, lightly grilled with a rub that had a bit of a spicy kick to it. This salad was easily one of the best salads I've ever had. It has it all- the spicy kick of the octopus balanced with the cooling influence of the fennel and apple. The acid from the apple and the vinaigrette balanced with the fat and saltiness of the chorizo. The crunch of the chickpeas played off the chewiness of the meats, and the watercress and the dressing tied all of them together. This salad had complexity and balance- and an interesting combination of unusual elements. It works, it's good. Get one.

After a large salad, I went for an entree off the "small bites" portion of the menu- little did I know that I would get a huge pile of mussels with three big chunks of toasted bread. The mussels were sauteed with capers, chipotles, and other aromatics, then steamed in a bottle of magic hat #9 pale ale. The mussels were all cooked perfectly- cooked through, but still tender and juicy. The broth had a little tang to it from the hops in the beer that played with the salty-brine of the capers in an interesting way. I caught the smokiness of the chipotle peppers, but only a hint of the heat- a smart balance that didn't overwhelm the mussels themselves. I definately felt the need to sop up as much of the savory broth as I could with the bread. All in all, a good dish- with the classic character of a traditional steamed mussel dish, with a clever modern twist found in the interplay between ale, capers, and smoked chili. One foot in tradition, one in the new, just like the city where  I found it.

All in all, the Good Dog Bar and Restaurant was a great find- a comfortable, unpretentious atmosphere, great food, and a contemporary, yet fun attitude. It is a must-visit for anyone who loves craft beer and good food.

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