‘Know where your food comes from.”
The statement adorns the labels of Philadelphia’s Green Aisle Grocery, whose creative takes on jarred goods – hibiscus peach shrub concentrate, vanilla mint maple syrup and triple plum lemongrass preserves – have me rueing carry-on liquid restrictions as I browse its stall at the Rittenhouse Farmer’s Market. But it could be the motto of Philly itself, whose rep as the home of cheesesteak and hoagies belies a fresh and pragmatic take on locavorism, where abundant area products are celebrated and then repurposed. It seems to be a very American ideal – the notion that there’s nothing that can’t be improved upon.
The market is overflowing with evidence of rich farmland in August: The variety of peaches and tomatoes, especially, is an Instagrammer’s dream. But given that I’m travelling and sans kitchen – and hungry – it’s the ready-to-eats that capture my attention.
A creamy, refreshing Vietnamese coffee ice pop – made with locally roasted coffee and local cream, of course – is just the beginning. I’m still eating it by the time I get to the Food and Ferments stall, so I skip the probiotic-rich sauerkraut and pickle-juice shots in favour of watching others partake.
I grab a bar of John & Kira’s chocolate for later – the mint, chili peppers and rosemary it contains come from urban gardens – sip some Blue Mountain Vineyards chardonnay (from about 110 kilometres upstate) and, finally, pick up a buttered-brown-sugar-peach ice-cream sandwich. I find a bench in sun-dappled Rittenhouse Square and ponder the relative merits of a peachy confection versus the fruit au naturel.
Later that afternoon, I head to vegan hot spot Vedge, this year named one of the country’s best restaurants – including the carnivorous ones – by GQ. Only a 5 p.m. reservation was available, so the sun is still streaming through the leaded glass windows as we dig into a series of sharing plates.
While the pickled cherry tomatoes, smoky corn-mushroom salad and yuzu peach tart with brown sugar miso ice cream have us ready to convert to veganism, it’s the booze that has us wanting more. Besides a respectable cocktail and beer list, Vedge focuses on additive-free naturalist wines – imagine the idiosyncratic, full-bodied flavour of apple cider as opposed to clear, filtered juice – and we call the waiter back to note the label of the effervescent 2011 La Stoppa Italian Malvasia.
For a nightcap we stop in at the brand new a.bar, which was included in a handwritten list of nearby watering holes kindly provided on the back of an old menu by the Vedge staff. While my companion samples a natural Beaujolais, I zero in on the Red Rum cocktail, made with cherry tomato shrub and lime juice. It’s edgy, tasty and not at all sweet.
The next evening, we find our way to the back corner of the Rittenhouse Hotel and its minimalist yet cozy Library Bar, which serves up trendy cocktails in a pleasing juxtaposition to the property’s popular English-style afternoon tea. The signature RH, a take on the whisky sour flavoured with fig bitters, is pricey at $20 but worth it just to watch the effort the bartender takes in preparation.
Our final dinner is at dreamy Talula’s Garden, where the walls are adorned with botanical prints, shelves of orchids and an inspirational quote by Alice Waters, that pioneer of plant-centric cuisine. Though it’s not a vegetarian restaurant, the chef here clearly loves vegetables, and the warm potato salad, tomato-and-arugula salad, creamed kale and green beans with almonds (served alongside perfectly prepared trout) bring to mind the best of summer picnics. Fittingly, just-opened sister establishment Talula’s Daily next door, a more affordable option, serves up fresh fare including takeaway lunches ready to be enjoyed across the street in Washington Square Park.
But it’s at Reading Terminal Market, a city institution since 1892, that I find perhaps the finest innovation of all. I’ve been told there’s a vegetarian cheesesteak to be found, and while my low expectations feature some sort of faux meat product (or maybe cheese on bread if I’m lucky), I’m game to seek it out. An inquiry at the front desk leads nowhere, so I follow my companion to “regular” cheesesteak seller By George. There, a small sign promotes a “veggie steak”: roasted peppers, mushrooms, broccoli rabe, onions, tomato, spinach and cheese on a sesame-seed bun. After a hunt for a table – it’s lunchtime on a weekday – I open the foil wrapper and take a bite. This sandwich is no half-hearted concession to the meatless crowd: The vegetables are flavourful and warm, the provolone perfectly melted, the bread chewy yet yielding. Turns out, even the humble cheesesteak is up for improvements. I think the founding fathers would be proud.
If you go
What to do
Book prix-fixe lunches for $20 and dinners for $35 during Center City District Restaurant Week, Sept. 15 to 20 and 22 to 27. centercityphila.org
Enjoy live arts performances and food from some of the city’s top chefs at Feastival on Sept. 12, a one-evening fundraiser to benefit the local Fringe Festival. phillyfeastival.com
Where to stay
The luxe Rittenhouse Hotel features spacious rooms and a prime location across from Rittenhouse Square. Rooms from $229 (U.S.). rittenhousehotel.com
Where to shop
The Rittenhouse Farmer’s Market is open Saturdays year-round and Tuesdays in summer. Additional markets can be found daily throughout the city. farmtocity.org
Besides cheesesteak, you’ll find food, produce, housewares, crafts and gifts at Reading Terminal Market, with most stands open daily, though Pennsylvania Dutch merchants are closed Sundays and Mondays. readingterminalmarket.org
For more information, visitphilly.com.