Longwood Gardens

The Longwood Gardens is a large botanical gardens in Kennett Square, PA, in not far from Philadelphia. The 1,077 acre gardens consists of 20 outdoor gardens and 20 indoor gardens within 4.5 acres of heated greenhouses. In 1906, industrialist Pierre S. DuPont purchased the property as a private estate, and over the years developed it into what it is today. On occasion, he opened the property for public tours. In his will, he left most of estate to preserve the gardens. After his death in 1954, the Longwood Gardens remained a private property managed by a Foundation, but it is open to the public year-round.

I first heard of the Longwood Gardens from a co-worker while working on a project in Philadelphia area. He mentioned about a wonderful botanical gardens in the area that holds many events, notable a month-long Christmas season celebration where they would have 500,000 lights lighting up the trees and plants in the gardens. I went to Philadelphia for a day trip a couple of years ago and ended the day with a visit to the Longwood Gardens as the evening set and the lights were turned on. It was quite magical; reminded me of the Tavern on the Green at Central Park in New York City, but in much larger scale. This event is very popular and it’s recommended that you purchase timed entry tickets for your visit, especially during the weekends. For safety reasons, they have to control the flow of people entering the gardens (especially the conservatories / indoor gardens).

The photo below was taken during the outdoor fountain light show. There are many other photos from around the garden that I took during this Longwood Christmas visit, but I picked this one for this post as it’s a good representative of the light feast for the eyes outdoors, and it’s not as Christmas specific (since Christmas was last week).

Longwood Gardens

Morimoto

If Philly cheesesteak is not your food of choice, or if you’re looking for a fine dining alternative in Philadelphia, at least there is a couple of names you can consider. One of the current Iron Chefs on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, Jose Garces, runs an empire of restaurants in Philadelphia area (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company, and JG Domestic). Not only that he won the 2nd season of the Next Iron Chef competition, but also he received the James Beard Foundation Award for the Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2009 for his work with these Philadelphia restaurants. So you have some options there to check out.

Another famous chef with restaurant in Philadelphia is the Japanese Iron Chef from both the original Iron Chef Japan and the Iron Chef America, Masaharu Morimoto. Several years ago he opened his own restaurant, Morimoto, in downtown Philadelphia. It was quite highly publicized; Food Network even ran a special documentary feature on the process of opening this restaurant.

A couple of years ago I was working on a project assignment in Philadelphia when I found out that an old graduate school classmate and work colleague was also going to be in Philadelphia for business. We decided to meet up for dinner, and also invited another classmate whom we found living in the suburb of Philadelphia. Both of us are foodies (back when we both lived in Dallas we used to do an expensive pastime, sampling restaurants in the Top Restaurant List from Dallas Morning News’ Guidelive), and when I mentioned to him about checking out Morimoto, there was no hesitation at all.

The dinner at Morimoto ended up to be one of the most expensive meals I’ve ever had, but it’s also among the most memorable. The ambience of the restaurant was unique, and the meal was exceptional. We had high expectations after seeing Morimoto and his creative creations on the Iron Chef shows; we decided to go with the omakase meal (‘chef’s choice’ / tasting menu). They had three choices of omakase, at $80, $100, or $120 per person. The difference is in the quality of the ingredients used. We decided to go with the middle one at $100/person. Our other friend decided to go with a chef’s combination of sushi, sashimi, and rolls.

So here was the menu line up for us: toro (fatty tuna) tartare topped with caviar and fresh wasabi to open with, whitefish carpaccio thinly sliced with yuzu soy, hot oil, and mitsuba leaf as second course, sashimi salad with kanpachi (amberjack), micro salad, and vinaigrette as third course, a glass of apple mint soda as palette cleanser, grilled halibut wrapped in tofu with seaweed salad and miso beurre blanc as fourth course, wagyu (kobe beef) sirloin steak topped with trumpet mushroom and micro salad with dashi soy and hot mustard aioli as fifth course, toro (fatty tuna), hamachi (yellowtail tuna), ika (squid), tai (red snapper), and kisu (japanese whitefish) sushi as sixth course, and mint chocolate mousse cake with chocolate and caramel sauce as dessert to close. All were very delicious and beautifully presented, just like what you see in the Iron Chef show. If you wonder how I could remember all of these menu items — I had to listen carefully to our server’s presentation of the dish when each gets to our table, and then frantically typed in notes on my Blackberry to make sure I get it captured. In the end, it was an expensive meal, but I think it’s worth it if considering that it’s not just a meal, but it’s a complete dining experience.

The photo below was the dining area, taken from the lounge area on the top level while we were waiting for our friend to arrive. You can see very colorful and cool ambient lighting; it was even cooler when we noticed that the light colors gradually changed every few minutes or so..

Morimoto

Philly Cheesesteak

If you ask a question to the Philadelphia locals about famous local food to try, very likely the answer is the Philly cheesesteak sandwich. The Philly cheesesteak sandwich consists of thinly-sliced steak meats with melted cheese served in a long roll. There could be variations on toppings, including different kinds of cheese, or the addition of sauteed onions.

While it’s likely the locals suggest that you try Philly cheesesteak sandwich, it’s not as obvious which place they would recommend to go to for the best Philly cheesesteak in town. Everyone has their own favorite place. The four popular places that are often mentioned are Geno’s, Pat’s, Jim’s, and Tony Luke’s. In some of these places, you would also be expected to know how to order your cheesesteak. There might be long lines of people waiting to order, so you need to know what you want by the time you get to the order window. And there is a particular syntax you need to follow.. you only need to say three words. First, how many sandwich you want. Second, what kind of cheese you want on it. And third, whether you want sauteed onion on it or not. So, if you want one Philly cheesesteak sandwich, with Cheese Whiz and with sauteed onion, you would order “one, whiz, with.” Or if you want one with provolone cheese and without the onion, you would order “one, provolone, without.” If you pause to try to decide, or worse, ask them questions or recommendations, the order taker might lose patience and tell you to step aside and go back to the back of the line while you’re trying to decide.

My first experience trying out authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich was when I was on a road trip between Washington, DC, and New York City with my family, and we decided to stop in Philadelphia for lunch. We went to Geno’s and I had the orders down before going to the order window. The cheesesteak sandwich was quite good, though I remember more about driving through narrow roads of South Philly to find the restaurant (this was pre-GPS era), then finding parking on the street, and after the quick ordering, we quickly went back to the car fearing that it might be unsafe neighborhood (the surroundings near where we parked looked kind of shady). We ended up taking some time to navigate through downtown Philly with a road atlas, and then once we got out to the suburb, found a parking area at a fast food restaurant and had our cheesesteaks there.

The photo below was taken several years later when I went to Tony Luke’s. I found out about Tony Luke’s from watching this place featured on some TV shows (Throwdown with Bobby Flay and Man vs. Food). The location is also closer to the Interstate, so it’s not much of a detour to go there when I’m on the way to get elsewhere. They also have good number of parking spots across the street at the restaurant/bar owned also by Tony Luke. The sandwiches were quite good, you can tell many folks eating there are locals, and the order takers were not as strict in expecting you to follow the ordering ‘protocol’..

Tony Luke's

Reading Terminal Market

The Reading Terminal Market is an indoor public market in downtown Philadelphia, PA. It has an interesting history. Prior to 1892, it was a site of an open street market, until the time when the land was taken over to build the Reading Terminal. Then the market was brought indoor into the ground and basement level of the trainshed. in the early 20th century, the railroad company introduced an innovative service where people who lived in the suburban areas could arrange for the grocery order to be filled in the Market and the basket placed upon a train bound for their town and held at the station until they picked it up. Then as horse-drawn carriage were replaced with refrigerated trucks, one could arrange for home delivery to the suburbs.

In mid 1970s, the railroad company closed its business and the market business dwindled, but in the mid 1980s, it was revitalized when the Pennsylvania Convention Center was built in the area. The trainshed was renovated; it’s no longer a train station, but now becomes the home for more than 100 merchants. Today it is a gastronomic destination for locals and tourists alike. You can find fresh produce, meats, seafood, ethnic foods, and restaurants, including some vendors from the Pennsylvanian Dutch Country selling traditional Amish goods.

I first heard of the Reading Terminal Market when watching a Food Network program where Bobby Flay challenged a lady named Delilah Winder for a macaroni and cheese throwdown. Ms. Winder owns a restaurant at the Reading Terminal Market called Delilah at the Terminal that servers Southern comfort food. Her macaroni and cheese was particularly famous, especially after Oprah named it the best macaroni and cheese in the country in 2003. During the program, there was a short segment mentioning about the Reading Terminal Market as a great foodie destination. A couple of years ago, I was doing a day trip to Philadelphia, and after visiting the Independence National Historical Park, I went to the Reading Terminal Market to check out the place.

One thing to note about visiting the Reading Terminal Market, there is a parking garage across the street where you can park your car if you drive there. When you do so, you should take your parking ticket and get it validated at one of the vendors at the market when you spend more than $10. That would get you discount for the first two hours of parking (otherwise the garage rate was very expensive).

The photo below was taken right in the middle of the market where another famous vendor, DiNic’s Roast Pork and Beef, is located. You can see the long line of people waiting to order food there. They’re famous for their roast pork sandwich. I’ve tried that sandwich, and it was indeed very tasty and worth the wait (and quite reasonably priced too). Oh, and about Delilah’s macaroni and cheese.. I also tried that, and it was quite delicious. And if you still have some room, try out ice cream from Bassetts — they claimed to be the oldest ice cream company in America (since 1861). Their ice cream was also very good — creamy, not too sweet, and there are many unique flavors available.

Line at DiNic's

Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell is another famous symbol in American history. The actual bell was believed to be the bell that was rung on July 8th, 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was publicly announced. It was originally placed at the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (now called the Independence Hall). On the bell there was lettering (part of Leviticus 25:10): “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell was adopted as a symbol by the abolitionist societies in 1830s (called “the Liberty Bell”), and later on during the Cold War it became a symbol of freedom. There were many stories about how the bell cracked, but the crack became the distinguishing feature of the bell that separates it from any other bells.

Today you can visit the Liberty Bell Center to see the Liberty Bell in person. It is located in the Independence National Historical Park in downtown Philadelphia, right across the street from the Independence Hall.

The photo below was taken during my visit to the Independence National Historical Park. Unlike the Independence Hall, you don’t need a ticket to see the Liberty Bell. But you may need to wait patiently if you want get a photo of the bell (or with the bell) alone, as there could be many people around wanting to take photo with this iconic historical artifact.

Liberty Bell

Philadelphia

In the next few days, I will post entries about places in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is one of the major cities in the northeast region of the United States. It’s located along one of the busiest interstate highways in the country, Interstate 95, in between two other big cities, Washington, DC, and New York City. The city was founded in 1682 by William Penn (who also founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania). It was an important city during the American Revolution, as it was the meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776 and the US Constitution on September 17, 1787. The city also served as the temporary nation’s capital between 1790 and 1800 while the federal city of Washington, DC was under construction. Today, Philadelphia plays an important role as one of the major financial centers in the United States, and it’s also one of the largest health education and research centers in the country.

I first visited Philadelphia only to stop for lunch during a road trip between Washington, DC, and New York City. A few years ago, I spent almost a year traveling between Washington, DC and northern suburb of Philadelphia as I worked on a couple of projects for large healthcare companies in the area. I spent most of the time at work, however, so I didn’t get a chance to do touristy things until later after the projects were done. Since the location is not too far away from Washington, DC, area where I live (about 3.5 hour drive), it’s possible to do day trip to visit the city.

The photo below was taken when I visited the Independence National Historical Park in downtown Philadelphia a couple of years ago. It’s a statue of Philadelphia’s most famous resident, Benjamin Franklin, outside the American Philosophical Society building. Ben Franklin’s name is commemorated in many places in Philadelphia area — Ben Franklin Parkway, Franklin Institute — and rightly so, as he played an important role in the city and nation’s history. Franklin was instrumental in establishing some of the cities important services (e.g., its first fire department, library, and hospital). He also played important role in advancing science (he invented the lightning rod, bifocals, among others), and he also served as the Governor of Pennsylvania and as US Ambassador to France. Today you can also find his portrait on the US $100 bill.

Ben Franklin Statue

Independence Hall

The Independence Hall is a building in downtown Philadelphia, PA, that is the centerpiece of the Independence National Historical Park. It was the place where the United States Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written in 1776 and 1787. Nearby you can also find the Liberty Bell (the bell that was rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776) and historic buildings like the First Bank of the United States.

I visited the Independence Hall on a day trip from my home in Washington, DC, area about two years ago. I had traveled to Philadelphia area for work many times, but the travels were mostly to the suburban area of the city, and I had never visited the historic area in downtown before. So this visit was educational as I got to see the place where two of the important documents in the US history were written (you can see the original copy of these documents at the National Archives in Washington, DC). To visit the park, you can drive and park at the underground parking garage located near the Independence Visitor Center right across from the Independence Hall. To tour the inside of the Independence Hall you need to get a ticket at the Visitor Center (it’s free of charge, but you need a ticket as they have limit on the number of people that can go inside the building at a time).

The photo below was taken during my visit. It’s the Assembly Room inside the Independence Hall building where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed. The chair in the middle was the chair where George Washington, the first President of the United States, sat as he presided over the Congress during the deliberations and signing of the Constitution.

Independence Hall