My review of Buddakan in Philadelphia, an Asian-inspired restaurant in the historic district, can be summed up in a single word: Yes! From the outside, Buddakan doesn’t appear to be anything special; however, as you step inside, you realize that it’s no ordinary Chinese restaurant. The dimly lit interior throbs with club music. The wooden tables are set with white plates, folded napkins, and lacquered chopsticks. And a giant golden Buddha overlooks it all. Not surprisingly, since the restaurant is part of the Starr group, the cuisine caters to foodies looking for unique takes on traditional dishes.
I’ve been to Buddakan in Philadelphia several times, and I’ve been once to Buddakan in New York, which has a different vibe. (The Starr group has a third one in Atlantic City.) Since Buddakan is one of my favorite Philly restaurants, I took my mother there on a recent trip. We were staying at the nearby Renaissance Philadelphia Downtown Hotel, and the restaurant was only a half-block walk.
As with many Asian/Chinese restaurants, you are encouraged to order courses to share. You don’t have to do that, of course, but it allows you to sample more than you would otherwise. We chose to begin with the Crispy Calamari Salad with sweet miso dressing. Yes, it was a simple salad, but no, it was not ordinary. The lightly-breaded rings of calamari were extraordinarily tender. The sweet miso dressing added an eye-closing umami to the greens. Although we ordered the small size, we found it generously portioned, even for two.
Next, we moved to the Dim Sum sampler. Served in a bamboo steamer, the sampler included four of the restaurant’s most popular dumplings, two pieces of each. The Szechuan Pork Dumplings in a teaspoon of chili-soy broth were rich, flavorful, and slightly spicy. The Chicken and Ginger Dumplings were likewise full of flavor. The Edamame Dumplings, probably the most unique of the four, were stuffed full of soft purée and sat in a truffled Sauternes-shallot broth. The delicate shrimp dumplings with water chestnuts, ginger, and scallion were our least favorite.
For the last of our savory dishes, we ordered the pan-seared sea bass. I’m not a huge fan of sea bass; however, I thought I’d give it a chance since it had caught my mother’s eye. It was moist, perfectly cooked, and glazed with pan juices and truffle jus. Although the butternut squash wasn’t cooked quite enough, the maitake mushrooms were out of this world.
In the past, I’ve had the black pepper beef and the wasabi tuna tataki. Both were excellent. Hungry diners should order at least two items from the main course menu or order extra starters.
I knew we had to save room for dessert. Even though I have a sweet tooth, I can usually pass up restaurant desserts. Not at Buddakan. We went for my favorite, the “Dip Sum” Doughnuts. You get five square doughnuts, hot out of the fryer and dusted in five spice sugar. Served whimsically in a take-out box, they come with a trio of dipping sauces: seasonal fruit jam, chocolate, and gingered cream cheese.
Buddakan has a full-service bar. They have an extensive sake menu in addition to wine and cocktails lists. My mother ordered a mango lassi, and I had the Red Fleet from the signature cocktail menu: Bacardi 8-year rum, amaro, campari, and orange bitters.
Vegetarians should inquire about dishes before ordering. Although several items appear to be vegetarian and even vegan, sometimes a sauce can change everything.
Reservations are highly recommended, especially during peak times. Dress is urban casual. Because it can get loud, request a corner or side table. Also, the dim lighting makes it difficult to see the menu, so bring reading glasses if you are even close to needing them.
The restaurant is located two blocks from Independence Hall on Chestnut Street.
Recommendations: tuna pizza, crispy calamari salad, dim sum sampler, pan-seared sea bass, wasabi tuna takaki, black pepper beef, “dip sum” doughnuts, dessert bento box.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann