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11/03 lots moderate-expensive 3420 Sansom St.
Chicken or Portabello Sandwiches in the Bar
most anything in the dining room

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The White Dog is really the perfect campus restaurant, it's warm and inviting, a little bohemian, politically activist, and oh yeah, they have good food. There are two very different ways to experience the White Dog. It has a sophisticated, yet informal dining room, with an inventive menu. And it has a super-casual bar menu with lighter, simpler offerings that are no less tasty.

The menu in the main dining room(s) traverses a wide range of styles, which could probably be subsumed under the "New American" genre. The kitchen uses fresh, often locally-produced and/or organic ingredients and a variety of techniques. They announced in the fall of 2002 that they would serve no commercially mass-produced meats, relying completely on organic and/or free-range products, such as those from the famed Niman Ranch. There are lots of choices for vegetarians and plenty of fish, so it's a good choice for diverse diners.

The service can be a bit uneven, but we've usually had good luck, with the occasional harried student giving distracted attention. I visited once on a holiday, and the slow service marred an otherwise fine meal. Our soups were cold, my grilled leeks had been sitting around so long they had gotten tough, and we waited for over 25 minutes for dessert. But this was unusual, clearly the result of a short-staffed dining room stuck with inexperienced waiters, who hadn't grasped that a little apology goes a long way.

If I have one common quibble, it is that my food has often arrived less than hot. I'm not sure if this is a problem with the basement kitchen, over-stressed waitstaff, or inattentive servers, but I've had some excellent meals reduced to only good because they had passed their peaks before hitting my table.

The menu changes often, but many of the selections, or slight variations thereof, can be expected on any given night.

DDP and I popped by one late evening and just barely managed to squeeze into the dining room, and I'm glad we made it, because it was a delightful meal. We started with two very different realizations of a similar concept: bivalves in a creamy sauce. DDP had oysters delicately stewed in cream, with bits of smoky bacon and croutons making it a hearty, satisfying dish. It might have been transcendent if it were HOTTER!!! My mussels came in a lighter coconut milk sauce, with Thai basil, tomato, and pineapple giving an intriguing Asian perfume. The 18 or so mussels were my favorite kind: small, tender and completely devoid of sand. Each of these dishes were just the right amount as a starter, and at about $10, reasonably priced.

DDP was feeling virtuous and ordered the "Vegetarian Round-Up" which is not a Stalinist pogrom to rid University City of earthy-crunchy types, rather it is a stunningly large conglomeration of vegetables, grains and starches prepared in just about every way known to mankind. Even the most single-minded carnivore could find something to like here. Good garlic mashed potatoes struggled for air beneath the braised greens, which were being threatened by spears of sautéed asparagus, which in turn were elbowing out the chunks of sweet potato, who were in a border dispute with the roasted beets. Some quinoa pilaf was lurking back there somewhere, obscured by a big braised celery root, or was it the grilled portabello?. Although this sounds like a big mess, the melange of flavors, textures and temperatures was truly enjoyable. It's an amazing amount of food: it could easily feed two, and at $14.50, it's a fantastic value.

Another fine vegetarian entree consisted of a riot of fresh produce, much of it tender baby vegetables, with linguini and goat cheese in an herby broth. The wide variety of vegetables were perfectly cooked, tender but with a bit of crunch, no smaall feat given the range of densities and sizes. Despite the light feel of this dish, it was so huge that i couldn't even make much of a dent in it before gfeeling full, although I somehow managed to eat all the goat cheese.

On the other end of the culinary spectrum, a rib-eye steak special, served in classic "steak-frites" style was satisfying as well. A thick slab of rib steak was seated in a simple pan-reduction, some very garlicky butter melting over the top. Some good fries occupied one corner, and a roasted tomato and some sautéed spinach tucked themselves in the remaining space. The flavors were wonderfully bold, and at least it arrived nice and hot. $23 might be a bit on the high side, but it was a generous portion.

Three Lamb Tenderloins arrived just a touch past the requested medium-rare, but that didn't impact the melting tenderness of the meat, nicely-spiced with cumin, although I didn't notice the promised mustard. No matter, as the tasty meat and its jus were plently flavorful, a little dip in the saffron aoli only amplifying the richness. The steamed jullienned vegetables were lackluster, and the "crispy" fried potatoes were actually hard, but despite that, I really enjoyed this dish.

DDP liked the lovely chili-spiced duck breast in a dried cherry sauce. Grilled monkfish in a lime marinade is delightfully tangy with a pleasing grill-char. Flank steak is appropriately hearty and chewy, with excellent gratineed potatoes.

I've always liked my meals here, so I can recommend a visit, even though I can't prepare you for exactly what they will be serving.

The food is not inexpensive: appetizers and salads can run from $5-$10, entrees in the mid to upper teens, some tilting into the twenties. Deserts are excellent: they do a fine creme brulee, and the soft-centered individual chocolate cake is worth waiting the 20 minutes it takes to bake-to-order.

Out in the bar, one can get food until 1am most nights, and while not as elaborate as the formal menu, it is still based on fresh ingredients and solid preparation.

The Mediterranean Chicken Sandwich is a large chicken breast, marinated in olive oil, garlic and herbs, then grilled. It is served on a good roll with bold basil pesto and cold roasted peppers and eggplant. It can be rather oily, but it is all good olive oil, so it's good for you, right?! The only objection I have is that late at night, one can never predict what kind of bread the sandwich will arrive on. It is sometimes an excellent sourdough roll, other times sliced country bread, other times pedestrian whole-wheat. Surprisingly, I always like it, even on loser bread.

The grilled portabello mushroom sandwich is very similar, and every bit as good.

LNDP likes the fried oyster sandwich. I had one of the best burgers ever here.

The oriental chicken salad used to be better, back when it was called "Vietnamese chicken salad". It used to have a thinner lime-y dressing over the generous grilled chicken, good greens, peanuts and crunchy noodles. A newer version was still good, but had a thicker, sweeter dressing. Tragically, I've seen no sign of it at all on recent visits, so it might be gone, or temporarily resting.

Actually, the bar menu has gotten much smaller, which is a shame, there had been a nice range of choices, and as one of the few places that actually serve decent food late at night, I always appreciated their diversity. We hope that's a temporary thing, and some of those unique offerings, such as the asian chicken salad, will return.

Soups are the same as the main dining room, and are always good.

There are some of the usual-suspects bar offerings: nachos, chicken wings, fries, and while not transcendent, they are all solid.

The only disappointing thing I have had here is the Caesar salad, somehow flavorless, although fresh and good-sized.

The bar has an interesting selection of wines by the glass, usually about $6-$7, and lots of good beers on tap. Get a Dogfish head or Flying Fish and feeel virtuous for supporting some inventive locals, while enjoying a tasty brew.

Sandwiches and salads average about $7.

This is a versatile kitchen, and I am rarely disappointed by the quality or imagination of the preparations. Now if they could just get them to me while they were still hot!

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