In the salty sea of conviction,
Are the waves of true direction.
That pretty much sums up my enchanting voyage out to Greece, which beckoned me to return annually over the last few years. And when I miss the crackle of filo or the salt that licks my lips as well as all forks from a sheer gush of ocean air, I look to finding authenticity of Greek food out in the other side of the Atlantic. And who would have thought, that my favorite cozy city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, would spring a sleepy surprise in the name of an authentic Cypriot meal laced with delicious desserts?
Kanella prides itself in being a Cypriot restaurant located in the southern part of Philadelphia, where foodies conjure divine stories of sumptuous meals tucked in sneaky pockets of this culinary city. Casual to the core and longer than it was wide, this was an essential modern foodie’s cubbyhole of delight, run by Konstantinos Pitsillides, with a good looking staff that was eager to accommodate any dietary needs.
A few fun factoids that I should have known in retrospect: many of my dishes constituted of phyllo – a dessert favorite for aforementioned reasons – and one of my favorite nuts: almonds, a mainstay in Indian cooking too. And more intriguingly, Philadelphia stems from Greek for “brotherly love” too: philos means love or friendship, and adelphos means brother!
I started with Bureki, and to my jolly surprise was faced with something that took me right back to my childhood. A honey spoon so fresh and syrupy it must have been plucked right off of Pooh Bear‘s hungry little arms! Once I gushed like a little boy over the whimsy of it, I got around to eating this succulent phyllo dough stuffed with salty feta cheese and aromatic thyme. Akin to a savory pastry, this was a textural bliss of crackly, falling-all-over-the-place phyllo with oozing hot cheese. To cool things down, warm and tangy roasted beets played tag with a drizzle of honey. Which, needless to say, was the part that kept me entertained for ages!
The manti were ground lamb dumplings which arrived simmering in a rich, bright red sauce, where the aromas were all I could inhale as my hungry comrades wiped the plate clean.
I got the pumpkin feta dumplings, which arrived looking remarkably like ravioli in pesto sauce! To my surprise, the herbs were not at all overpowering as the salty cheese and squash and pumpkin fillings (in what were indeed raviolos!) ensured that we stayed on the right side of the Mediterranean. The toasted pine nuts gave the starch-heavy dish the needed crunch component.
And then came time for glika, i.e. desserts. Keeping in sync with my multiple dessert rule clearly becoming a legacy after New York, Chicago and San Francisco, this time I had three too; albeit one of them was a dessert tasting of four, transforming this dessert feast into a feat of seven! Sneaky Greek ways!
The first was a fig and almond tart, a rather long sliver laced with visible globes of figs that retained their juice and texture despite being cooked. The almond was chopped and minced to granular textures, but the tartness of the dessert didn’t need an excess of crunch. It was supplemented with a vanilla kanella ice cream, a cold and sweet addition, which while very sumptuously vanilla, I could have done with less of. The figs were enough of a gift for my palette alone!
The traditionally named Galatopoureko was non traditionally so because it had an almond instead of a phyllo top layer, and came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. To say this was a cake soaked in citrus honey syrup would be erraneous: for it was drenched – so much so that it was in a sticky pool of the tangy sugary syrup which I could have gobbled in cauldron-like quantities! With an almond base and a custard filling, I could have done without the ice cream once again, for the authentic Mediterranean flavors were fresh in isolation.
The trio comprised of a bite size variety of my favorites, starting with an eternal keepsake in my Middle Eastern culinary calendar: baklava. Having inhaled baklava in every Middle Eastern inspired spot from San Francisco to Dubai to Utah to Rotterdam, I had several benchmarks to compare to. And this lived right up to expectation: bursting with walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon and nutmeg, the filling literally exploded out of the scantily covering phyllo. As a self professed vacuum for the baklava filling, the out of proportion ratio was a winner for my palette, for it was sans saccharine sweetness and with the crunch of sugar and cinnamon granules.
The stuffed date had mizithria cheese filling, a sweeter filling with a custard like texture, which did not disrupt the raw flavor of the date. Something that I could have even devoured as an appetizer.
There was an intriguing looking almond creme pastry with kataifi, reminiscent of a tasting portion of desserts at Chicago’s Spiaggia. Covered in Punjabi looking crispy phyllo noodles, it was a creamy pastry with an almond butter like consistency center, almost akin to an Indian barfi. One that I could have eaten in duplicity.
Well perhaps the dessert tasting had four portions, for I forgot about the preserved fruit. Apples and peaches in this case, a sticky, salivating finish.
While I didn’t taste much Mediterranean salt on this Greek trip, courtesy of its disparate sugary twin, I voyaged through my preferred culinary waters instead with a plethora of desserts.
One more reason to love the city of brotherly love.