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10/03 8 Moderate-Expensive 3336 Sansom St.
most anything old sushi

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Like all of Steven Starr's places, Pod is just so hip, so cool, so stylish, (and WHERE do these beautiful people come from?) that it's hard to believe that there could be any attention paid to the food. With so much energy spent on motorized sushi conveyors, light-up stools, and jeez, a uniform change for the staff after about 6 weeks!?! how could there be any oversight of the kitchen?

Thankfully, someone is paying attention. The food on all our visits has been quite good, with only a few missteps in service. I barely count our first visit, only a couple of days after opening, and even then the problems weren't with food, but with logistics that have (mainly) been smoothed-out.

At that early visit, we sat at the sushi bar because we were told all the tables were booked, although fully half of them remained empty throughout our lengthy stay. The conveyor that trundled sushi around this bar is an amusing touch, but I'll take credit for predicting that it wouldn't last long. These devices are very popular in Japan, but restaurants I saw in Tokyo that featured these conveyor systems were packed with people, all eating sushi, so there was a guaranteed turn-over, assuring freshness. Here, we could see that the plates were going around and around, and who knows how long they've been up there? The sushi bar area has already transformed to a more conventional set-up, with a low refrigerated case installed at the front, and chefs doing the slicing and rolling right there, as in most sushi bars. For now, there are still a few lonely plates orbiting on the conveyor, but I'll bet its days are numbered.

Now if they can just keep the drunken patrons from putting their empty drink glasses on the conveyor, and laughing and laughing at how clever they are....

Perhaps Pod's sushi has fallen victim to the chef's creativity. The non-sushi items on the menu are so attractive that many, even at the sushi bar, are ordering from the menu rather than grabbing fish from the line. We nabbed a plate of Unagi as it passed by us ($6), and I can report that it was very good, a nice char on the eel giving that characteristic sweet-rich feel.

While the menu does not feature traditional divisions of "appetizers" and "entrees", items in the section labeled "Dim Sum" feel a bit more like starters than main-courses. Servings are very large, but even so, some of the prices are a little steep: more than half of them are over $10. But I can't complain, everything has been really good. The one thing I will complain about is that the menu is continually being tweaked, so just when I get a favorite dish, it's gone the next time I go!

The Edamame Ravioli ($10) could be an entree, with delicate, soft pasta enrobing an inscrutable filling of--what? mashed edamame? ricotta? both? whatever it was, it was very pleasing, and a good mellow foil to the sweet shallot broth. A few slices of truffle raised the bar a bit, and a handful of the steamed edamame soybeans still in their pods were scatted around the periphery. OK, it was a little messy to pop the beans out of their pods after they had been floating around in the broth but hey, I wasn't going to let them sit there!

Curried Chicken dumplings ($8) are among our faves. Chicken can be a dull filling, but the assertive curry spices solve that problem, and stripes of creamy, mustardy sauce add yet another dimension. The Wild Mushroom dumplings ($7) were less successful, the coconut cream sauce too sweet, clashing with the earthy flavors of the good dumplings.

The Crab Spring Roll ($12) is a freak of nature, over a foot long, yet thin, delicate and crispy. It had a generous filling of almost pure crabmeat, an excellent non-greasy wrapper, and the dipping sauce was sweet, yet had a bit of a chili kick. I loved it.

The Panko Crab Cakes ($14) are excellent as well, basically all crab with some sort of mysterious electromagnetic binder, crusted with those wonderful panko breadcrumbs, nicely crunchy, and not at all oily. The wasabi cream that accompanied was a bit forward for the delicate crab flavors, but in moderation, it gave a nice twist.

A Potato Knish Spring Roll ($9) sounds a bit odd, especially in an Asian-themed restaurant, but it was delicious. A dab of sour cream, some crumbled egg, and a bit of caviar brought me right back to a kosher deli--transplanted to Tokyo?

Even the Teriyaki Arctic Char Satay ($9) was a winner, and I'm not that big a fan of the Salmon-y Arctic Char. The Filet Mignon Satay ($14) was even better, three spears of juicy beef, thicker than most satay servings, dusted with a light coating of spices. Dots of a spicy remulade-ish sauce were a nice twist, and the required peanut sauce was the perfect dip.

We had Vegetable Tempura ($10) recently, and it arrived super-fresh and hot, which is really quite crucial for tempura. An unusual array of vegetables, such as winter squash, eggplant, seaweed and lotus root, were encrusted with a very light and airy batter. The traditional dipping sauce was a bit vague, but a couple shakes of extra soy helped.

The selections on the page called "Plates" are roughly analogous to entrees. Pod is reluctant to play-along with our outmoded and dorky habit of ordering individual entrees, threatening to just send the food out as it is ready. I know that this practice is more typically Asian, and not a big deal if everyone is sharing, but hey, I think the Pod people might want to cater a bit more to their customers' preferences, and I think most folks are happier if the food is more evenly paced. At our latest meal, the entrees came out appropriately after the appetizers, but at rather large intervals from one another. Thankfully we were all friendly, and so just dug in and started sharing whatever came out, but it could be a bit off-putting for diners preferring to be more formal. I can't tell if this policy is really to encourage sharing or just the kitchen refusing to coordinate things so dishes come up all at once. Our food has always been nice and hot and fresh (if it hadn't been put in the charge of a disoriented runner wandering aimlessly around the dining room) and I'll admit I prefer this to food sitting under heatlamps waiting for everything to finish. So there are up-sides and downsides to this. I'd say, get in the mind-set and share.

Lemongrass Chicken has been replaced, which is a shame because it was a delightful if unexpected preparation: compact slices of pan roasted chicken, with an herby, lemongrassy pesto-ish accompaniment, but no other sauce. The chicken was very moist and juicy, the spicing intriguing, this was a definite winner. The meat was piled around a mound of parsnip puree which was an even bigger surprise. I had planned on going back and trying to talk the kitchen out of a big tub of the parsnips, they were wonderfully sweet, creamy, earthy and comforting.

I would be mad about its exit from the menu, but the Ginger Roasted Chicken ($22) that replaced it is quite good as well. A leg and slices of breast meat were balanced atop a large timbale of sticky rice, a sweet ginger sauce pooled at its base. The skin was wonderfully crispy and herby, the meat amazingly moist. But I miss the parsnips...

The Chilean Sea Bass ($22) has been tweaked a bit from the old menu (and even arrived a bit different than as described on the menu we were reading) but despite the surprises, this might be one of the best things here. A light glaze of miso and teriyaki adorned the generous portion of startlingly fresh-tasting sea bass. The fish was presented atop braised broccoli rabe, and two dumplings filled with the rabe as well. I'm not sure the dumplings were the perfect companions for this, but who cares? The fish was amazing.

The Miso Glazed Salmon ($16) was comparatively mellow, and the crushed fingerling potatoes that accompanied were unimpressive, but the quality of the Salmon, and the deep, salty complexity of the miso coating made this a satisfying dish. WTDP asked them to substitute the Wasabi Mashed Potatoes. This threw our server for a bit of a loop: you can tell that the kitchen has servers thoroughly intimidated, ummm... I mean, educated, and she said that she'd have to check because the chefs are very particular about how the plates go out. Thankfully, the kitchen agreed with WTDP's taste and happily subbed-in the wasabi mashed, and you know what? that's how this dish should be plated. Crushed fingerling potatoes? Why exactly do we want them crushed?

On a recent visit the Salmon had been changed to a Barbecue version, served atop a potato cake. DDP liked it, but I prefereed the Miso version.

The scallops have changed a bit too, at one point floating in a pond of sake "froth" along with wild mushrooms and a crown of pea greens. I found this a bit dull, and the scallops were even a little sandy. They were nicely seared, and had good flavor and texture, but then, a little grainy friction can really blow the effect. But the bigger problem is that aside from the pea greens, this dish was too monochromatic, to the eye and the tongue. The scallops are mild and sweet and white, as are the mushrooms and the sake sauce. And you know, I know it's tres chic, but foaming a sauce doesn't do anything for me.

And after eating at Pod and Tangerine in the same weekend, I've had just about enough pea sprouts for a while. Come on folks, there are other garnishes in the world.

On a recent visit we tried to order The Peking Duck ($22) which is not a traditional preparation, but a deliciously roasted duck, with a dark, mahogany skin in the style of a Chinatown duck house, accompanied by a fruity sauce and a wonderful steamed bun, filled with duck meat. FDP listed it high on his survey of Philly duck dishes on a recent tour. But as we ordered it this time, the waitress paused, then said "I don't like the duck." We did a double-take, and asked her to clarify, and she said she's been getting lots of complaints about it. We were sufficiently spooked to switch to something else, but I wonder what's up? It's probably fine and perhaps people have been complaining because it's not really "Peking" Duck. On another visit I did order it and it had morphed into a pretty conventional Peking duck, quite good, but for a straight version of this I'll go to Sang Kee.

PDP liked the Tonkatsu ($16) so much that he had it on both his visits. He had fallen in love with this dish in Japan, where the pork cutlets are a bit more reasonably-sized, but the huge, bone-in chop that appears here was a fine substitution, pressed in panko crumbs, fried to a nice crisp, atop a traditional teriyaki-like tonkatsu sauce.

Crab Pad Thai ($16) is a fascinating version of this traditional Thai street food. This is one of the most delicious versions of Pad Thai I have ever had, deep-flavored and full and satisfying. I didn't care that the first time I tried this the crab was not obvious. It evidently had integrated itself into the tangle of noodles, the white strands of crab indistinguishable from a rice noodle. The second try provided a bowl brimming with noodles and several big lumps of crabmeat, along with some more traditional trappings than before. It still arrives in one of those trick bowls: you know the ones, you eat a bushel of noodles and look down and see that you haven't even made a dent? This is certainly a communal dish. Or get it as an entree and then feed all of Delaware with the leftovers.

Scallion Lambchops ($18) were perfectly done, although the plate was SO HOT that I was in severe pain when the runner handed it to me (He realized his mistake as soon as he did it, and apologized several times, but still, dude, pay attention, you are using a towel for a reason, don't hand me something across the table that will sear my hands...) Oh yeah, as I was saying, the plate was so hot that the perfectly medium rare lamb got a bit overcooked and dry just from sitting on the plate. But the flavor was wonderfully delicate, a minty sauce was a great touch (although I could have used more-- sorry to digress yet again, but what is the deal with sauce-misers these days? I know it's terribly declassé to load a plate down with deep puddles of sauce, but hey, if it's good sauce, give me a little to taste will ya?)

A special of Thai Green Curry Chicken was unexceptional. It was a homey, workman-like green curry as you could find in most any Thai restaurant in the world, and as such, no complaints, except that I expect a little innovation at this place, at these prices. And it was served with big pile of the wasabi mashed potatoes, which are excellent here, as at the Continental and Buddhakan, but the sharp horseradish bite of the potatoes didn't really mesh with the curry, and the ceramic hotpot of coconut milk based curry was already full of potatoes.

The Filet Mignon is perked-up by a baste of teriyaki, and presented perched atop a dumpling filled with the famous wasabi mashed potatoes. Or it's sometimes crusted in wasabi. We also go the mongolian beef recently, thin slices of tender beef in tangy brown sauce, a bit hit at the table.

PCDP ordered an Ostrich special which seemed to be a little stingy of a portion, but the medalions of rare meat had a nice flavor an an interesting sauce, i wish I could remember it better....

Of course sushi ($3-6 per piece) is a big focus here, but the rest of the menu is so interesting that I have had no urge to get it. Plenty of big combo platters have marched past me so somebody is ordering it. Or maybe the supermodel-types are just looking at it.

I somehow managed to spend four days in Tokyo without partaking of a single piece of Sushi or Sashimi, opting instead for bowls of noodles, bento boxes, yakitori and other traditional Japanese foods. So I guess sushi is not much of a priority for me, although I do eat it, really...

VDP liked the vegetable sushi, one of only a few vegetarian offerings, veggie tempura and wild mushroom dumplings the only others that come to mind.

Try not to miss dessert here, although there's not much of an Asian spin in this course. The winner is the "Five Moods of Chocolate". It consists of a big plate with several small doses of intense concoctions: truffles, ice cream, mousse, slices of torte, and tiny crock of mind-blowing bread pudding. (It must be the same recipe as used for the stand-alone bread pudding at the Blue Angel.) As you might guess, this is perfect for sharing, (and ought to be at $10) especially as there are generally two of everything: a tiny white chocolate mousse cup and a dark one, a scoop of pure chocolate ice cream and one with mango, or passionfruit, or some such accent. If you are a closet Machiavellian, here's a tip--pretend to be magnanimous and offer the "exotic" ice cream to someone else (it's good, but seems somehow icy, and less intense than the "regular" chocolate. Same goes for the white chocolate mousse.) There's enough here to keep 2,3,4, people happy, perhaps more depending on how polite they are. For us, a group over three is certain trouble, because the maneuvering for the last bite of truffle quickly degenerates into a confectionery version of the game "Risk." I think this offering has been replaced by the chocolate bento box, an only slightly smaller array of chocolate confections.

The Sorbet Selection ($7) is another good sharing dessert, with 4 single scoops of a "chef's selection" of sorbets, each nestled into the apex of its own ice pyramid. We had mango, raspberry, coconut-lime, and chocolate-orange, all of which were excellent and refreshing.

The other offerings (about $8) are not as large, although waitstaff seemed shocked and even a little impressed that we were not sharing, but instead polished off several desserts among our group. The Lime Pyramid was a light yet intense mousse, molded in an attractive pyramid, with a foundation of unexpected tapioca beads. An intense, fruity sauce on the plate seemed like gliding the lily, but hey, sometimes nothing succeeds like excess.

The passionfuit brulée was a little odd, a classic creamy custard infused with tangy, sour, fruit essence, and crisped on top with caramelized sugar. I found it a bit too intense, the success of a creme brulée is the contrast both of textures and the mildness of the custard and the intensity of the burnt sugar top. I felt the custard was oddly too flavorful, but FDP liked it fine.

A caramelized pineapple tart was similarly concentrated with the flavor of the fruit, bound by a sticky syrup, browned on top as a tart tatin might be, with a thin but tough pastry bottom. It was OK, a little too chewy, although it made quite a spectacle as it arrived, coronas of desiccated pineapple forming a futuristic architecture. The cashew ice cream that accompanied was oddly bland, a plain-white not even very vanilla ice cream binding the rough-chopped nuts.

A dark and white chocolate mousse atop an almond cake was predictable, but still tasty. There are a couple more desserts to try...give me time...

This is a fun spot, although it certainly is suffering from, or benefiting from, a hipster quotient that makes it difficult to get a table at a reasonable time on a weekend. Even though Pod is located far from the super-cool neighborhoods of Old City or Rittenhouse Square, dropped right in the midst of the oddly un-hip, non-bohemian University City, the crowds are stylish, mixed with a bit of professorial frumpitude, and a tiny splash of undergrad grunginess.

The bar is quite a popular spot, and it's worth a trip out just to experience the retro-futuristic decor, like a 60s sci-fi movie come to life. And of course the cocktail culture is vibrant here. There are lots of odd and amusing things to imbibe, including an array of visually striking drinks that are named only by the bright colors that, swirled in a martini glass can make anyone look pretty stylish. DDP and MMDP like them, the menu descriptions of their ingredients make them all look pretty sweet. As expected there is a smallish, but decent selection of sake by the bottle, carafe or glass. They've finally added my fave: unfiltered sake, a milky drink with the sweet essence of rice.

Larger groups can reserve one of the seating Pods that give the place its name, and the adjustable colored lights add to the psychedelic vibe. (Although a distressing number of pod inhabitants resort to plain white light. I don't care if it's hard to read in deep purple or green light! Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the sake of style! If you are sitting in a pod, make it look cool!!!) We checked one out for MMDP's birthday and there are some really weird neuro-optical effects from some of the intendse colors, and especially from changing the colors rapidly, I'm surprised they don't provide airsickness bags in the pods...

And remember the rule: when in a Steven Starr restaurant, always check out the restrooms. Here they evoke bathrooms on airline service to the moon... and when you are completely flummoxed about how to work something...look down, there's probably a pedal or something.

But while you are marvelling at the design, and oggling the supermodels, don't miss the food, which should keep you coming back again and again.

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