A few years ago, Mrs. Pincus and I began, what I thought would be, an ongoing family tradition, Yeah, I suppose it's odd to start a "family" tradition when it's just the two of us and we are well into our 50s. Despite that, a 2014 trip to the kitschy, though spectacular, holiday light show at the flagship Macy's location in center city Philadelphia, followed by dinner in nearby Chinatown, had all the makings of a tradition. After that 2014 visit — as well as one in 2015 and 2016 — I thought that this would continue for... well, for as long as we were able.
I was wrong.
A week or so before Christmas, we began to make plans for our annual outing to the holiday light display at Macy's (the former John Wanamaker's, most nostalgic folks over 40, still refer to the store by its original name). Mrs. P contacted our son E., and soon, our plans included E. and his lovely girlfriend Pandora. A rendezvous time on a Sunday was agreed upon. We would meet them at Macy's, as they live in center city Philadelphia and we still reside a short train ride away in the suburbs. Although it was never mentioned, I assumed that these arrangement included dinner at New Harmony, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant a few blocks from Macy's and the location of each post-light show meal for the previous three years. We assembled with the gathering crowd on the third floor of Macy's, overlooking the Grand Court. The show, once again, delighted the holiday shoppers just as it has for the past sixty years. When the show ended, plans for dinner were discussed, much to my surprise. E. and Pandora suggested a couple of their favorite eating spots, including a new place that featured falafel, a favorite of Mrs. Pincus. I smiled and remained silent, but it was obvious that we would not be feasting on vegetarian Chinese food within the next 30 minutes. Goldie, the falafel place, was voted as our destination. Not wishing to appear childish or obstinate, I "happily" went along with majority rule. Admittedly, the falafel at Goldie was really good and it proved to be an excellent choice for dinner (and I will definitely return). However, I really wanted to go to New Harmony.
On the ride home, Mrs. P revealed to me that she really doesn't like New Harmony. I was shocked. We had eaten there quite a few times, not just after the Macy's light show. She said she would rate the food as "just okay," but, in reality, she was a bit creeped out by the fact that we have always been the sole customers each time we've been there. She felt it was a reflection of the business that there was never another diner in the place. This admission took me by surprise. First of all — the food was just okay? Just okay?? Compared to our usual choice for Chinese food, a neighborhood place that is, at best, inconsistent — New Harmony is a four-star Zagat favorite. I love Chinese food and it has featured prominently on my personal menu since I was a kid. (In 2009, I even wrote about the role Chinese food has played in my life.) The Chinese restaurant around the corner from our home is like that pair of ratty old slippers you can't bear to throw away. Sure, they're comfortable, but they're not the best. They've just been around awhile. Plus, when you see a new pair of slippers, it becomes obvious what your tired old slippers are lacking. I wasn't mad at missing my chance at New Harmony, but now it was apparent that, if I wanted to eat there, I was gonna have to do it alone.
Mrs. Pincus went away for an extended weekend to visit Cousin Juniper in Virginia Beach. She had plans to leave on Friday afternoon while I was at work. Although I cannot cook, I am quite capable of fending for myself when left on my own. I can throw together a salad or a sandwich without much effort. I can also go to any number of restaurants or take-out places where a meal can be prepared for me. One of those places, I decided, would be New Harmony.
|Cold, noodle-y and delicious.|
After work, I headed — by myself — through a rain-soaked Philadelphia to New Harmony, a mere eight blocks from my office. To my pleasant surprise, I saw I was not the only customer when the host showed me to a table. Across the small aisle, a couple was just finishing up dinner, their table covered with empty, sauce-smeared plates and dotted with stray grains of rice. In the corner, a couple with a baby was dining with a guy who I momentarily mistook for my friend Cookie. As I perused the lengthy menu, another single diner was seated at the table ahead of me. Soon, a waiter filled my water glass for the first of many times and asked for my order. I requested hot and sour soup, cold noodles and sesame sauce and orange beef with broccoli — all enticing and all creatively made from meatless ingredients. My soup arrived almost immediately. It was a thick, brown broth, resplendent with crisp bamboo shoots, flavorful mushrooms and three enormous chunks of tender tofu. I happen to love tofu and this soup was delicious. As I polished off the soup, a large plate of vermicelli noodles slathered with a big glob of sesame sauce and accented with finely shredded carrots and sesame seeds was placed on my table.
|Crispy, crunchy and very orange-y.|
I thoroughly combined the two main elements with two provided forks and transferred a healthy portion to my plate. The dish was awesome and, while I could have easily wolfed down the entire serving, I refrained, deciding to focus on my entree. I picked hesitantly at the remaining noodles until my orange "beef" arrived. In spite of the prominent "imitation meat" disclaimers placed at various spots throughout the menu, even the most die-hard carnivore would be satisfied by the offerings at New Harmony. The orange "beef" was a concoction of seitan (a wheat-based meat substitute), breaded, deep-fried and covered with a light, slightly spicy, ginger-orange sauce, accompanied by huge florets of the brightest, freshest, greenest, crispest broccoli. As I ate, I could only compare it to the familiar sameness of every dish at our local Chinese restaurant. My old standby there — General Tso's tofu (a purely American recipe) — is good, but it includes thin, limp sticks of broccoli that should be embarrassed by the examples set before me now. I ravenously finished the entire plate (and the rice) as though I was a death-row inmate consuming his last meal.
|That's the way the cookie crumbles.|
(Click to enlarge.)
The waiter cleared the empty plates from my table and presented my with the check and a cellophane-wrapped fortune cookie. I snapped the baked confection open and read the enclosed message. This prophetic little cookie must have had some kind of insight into my love of trivia, Jeopardy! and all kinds of useless knowledge. I put on my coat, grabbed my messenger bag and started for the front desk to pay my ridiculously inexpensive check. I thanked the waiter and he returned a "thank you," as well. I noticed that the dining room had begun to fill up, with at least six tables occupied in the tiny dining room. Perhaps the secret is to come on a Friday evening and not on a Sunday after a holiday light show. I will try to convince Mrs. P to give New Harmony another chance. I think I am now equipped to make a pretty good argument.
And I brought home a souvenir, although I doubt it will still be here when Mrs. Pincus gets home.