The Fourth Estate

Istanbul and Beyond

Early this week, I was invited by Robyn Eckhardt for the the book signing/dinner at the launching of her newly published cookbook “Istanbul and Beyond” (link) made visually alive by the wonderful photographs taken by her husband David Hagerman. Having been friends online with the food journalist couple and having tested a few of the recipes when the book was in the writing stage, I was more than eager in meeting them and partaking in this special dinner. The event took place at The Fourth Estate restaurant located at the top floor of the National Press Club at downtown Washington DC. For dinner, the various courses were taken from the pages of the cookbook, and we savored the myriad of Turkish flavors while the author and her husband regaled us with storied from their personal journey in the making of the cookbook. Here is a rundown of the whole meal:

Rice-stuffed Mussels - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Appetizer: Ari’s Rice-stuffed Mussels with All-Spice, Raisins, and Pinenuts.

Zucchini Dolma/Chile Cheesebread - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Appetizer: Zucchini Beef Dolma and Soft Cumin Pepper Paste Cheese Flatbread

Purple Basil Cooler - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Cocktail: Purple Basil Cooler

Lemony Okra Tomato Soup - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

1st Course: Lemony Okra Tomato Soup with Garlic Toast

Herbed Mackerel Cakes - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

2nd Course: Herbed (Anise/Cinnamon) Bluefish Cakes with Hot Pink Pickled Cabbage and Dill Garlicky Yogurt.

Apple Sorbet and Pomegranate Seeds - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Intermezzo: Locally-made Apple Sorbet and Pomegranate Seeds

Butter Lamb Onion Stew - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Entrée Course: Butter Lamb Onion Stew and Spinach Peas Rice

Creamy Fig Pudding - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC.
Dessert: Creamy Fig Pudding

Fragrant Orange Cookies - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Dessert: Fragrant Orange Cookies

Cinnamon Tea - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Digestif: Warming Cinnamon Tea

Throughout the meal, I was constantly impressed by the exotic yet alluring flavors of the various dishes that spoke of food beyond the usual Turkish fare that most of us are familiar with. The mussels were a surprise due to the sweet and allspice notes that one would never consider pairing with the seafood. The okra was devoid of slime due to a secret technique in the cookbook in handling this prickly vegetable, making the citrusy lamb-based soup even more appealing with its vegetal crunch. The fish cakes were another surprise with its pairing with anise and cinnamon which was an odd for fish, but somehow it worked. The lamb stew was buttery rich but completely delicious with the diners at my table wanting more. The fig pudding was deceptively simple in description, but it left us with a level satisfaction that any complicated French dessert would. Ultimately, it is the skill level of this kitchen that made each dish deliver the proper flavors with a level of refinement that kept the diner impressed and feeling properly bestowed upon throughout each course. Judging by the dishes we savored that night, I am definitely tempted to return to this restaurant for their regular fare which I can assume will live up to my expectation. It was a wonderful evening indeed, as I nightly leaf through Robin Eckhardt’s amazing opus to continue discovering this unchartered cuisine and to revisit that night’s gastronomic reveries.

Fourth Estate Restaurant at the National Press Club Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Blue Hill Tavern

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Well, my birthday is tomorrow, and so, over the past weekend, as a treat, I decided to pay a visit to a newly discovered establishment in Canton, just outside of Baltimore city. After I parked my car, I reached for my camera bag which felt lighter than usual, only to discover that I left the most essential equipment, the camera itself, at home. So, I entered the restaurant on a fairly quiet Sunday night with my phone camera, equipped with an antiquated 2-year old technology, and crossed my fingers on how the photos would turn out.

20171015_184528Located on the corner of a residential block, Blue Hill Tavern looks like a new condo building attached to rows of weathered brick houses. The decor is clean and modern, with smart light fixtures and above-grade furniture looking inviting to the customer. For my first course, I went for a daily special – Duck Confit Gnocchi. The well-plated over-sized dish looked appetizing but I was surprised by the amount of shaved parmesan dish sitting on it (I took two-thirds off for the photo). One bite into it pointed towards a richness packed into the small plate. The pieces of shredded duck were a bit firm and salty from a real confit cooking and paired with some lightly spongy proper gnocchi.  The rich sauce had the distinctive poultry note, reminding me of rich reduced demi-glace, made tangy by some hint of white wine and tomato. If weren’t for the slightly high sodium quotient, this would have been the perfect opener for me, but the dish pointed to some skillful attentive hands.

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The online reviewers were raving about the Mushroom Wellington and I knew what was going to be my main course. What arrived was an impressive dome that piqued my curiosity right away. One bite into it made my eyes roll backwards, and I knew this was a winner right away.  The base was a slice of meaty portabello mushroom, supporting a mound of chopped mushroom duxelles and tangy chevre cheese, and topped by a helmet of fresh spinach leaves and buttery flakey laced puff pastry.  Every element was perfectly seasoned that paired well with each other. The mushroom flavors were echoed in the sauce that tasted like gourmet mushroom sauce made sweet from some shallots. The side of carrots were unfortunately unremarkable, maybe due to the lack of quality or the boiling process, further compounded by a banal treatment of butter and bare seasoning. But that didn’t detract me from my euphoric moments with the Mushroom Wellington that hit the right notes in terms of texture, flavor, and the gestalt package. It satisfied this omnivore on all fronts and I couldn’t stop dreaming about it after the meal.

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Having perused the dessert menu early on, I saved room for the Granny Smith Apple Tart. With the first forkful, the flavors pointed towards the familiar but taken to a new direction. The apple slices were paper-thin sitting on an almond paste base, topped with vanilla ice-cream and caramel sauce. What made this successful was the attention and skill given to all the various quality elements: soft slices of sweet tart apple, an enticing heady almondy pastry, good real vanilla ice-cream, and slightly bitter but not overly sweet caramel sauce that was not the usual cloying stuff. I’m glad that I made room for this sweet ending as not only was it good-eats, but it gave me an indication of how well this kitchen can also master this course.

Blue Tavern Hill is worth a visit and a write-up. With every course, I got a sense of their mission and their kitchen skill level, from the rich tasting duck confit and light well-made gnocchi, to the to-die-for Mushroom Wellington that was the highlight of the evening and made for some gastronomic reveries, and to the Apple Tart that was something not out of the regular block. Aside from some minor missteps in a couple of the above dishes, this place is worth the trip to Baltimore, a city that keeps surprising me with its good food.  And to savor 3 courses for around $40, I will be making more trips northward, especially for that heavenly Mushroom Wellington.

Blue Hill Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Letena

Letena, Washington D.C.

Letena, Washington D.C.

Clove Iced Tea, Letena, Washington D.C.Sometimes you can get the sense of the quality of an eating establishment from very subtle clues, either be it online photos, the online reviews, or an instinctive reaction in finding out about its existence. This was my reaction when I read the reviews for an online offer for Letena.  What made it more interesting was that it was located in the heart of bustling Columbia Heights, an area that has gone through some serious gentrification, and away from the usual Ethiopian restaurant locations like U St. N.W. and Silver Spring.  Looking for its location was confusing since it was situated on the side of a large commercial block and not its listed address. Walking into the high-ceiling space, I was immediately impressed by the traditional decor set with a modern tone, and the well-furnished dining area that belies its self-service format. That peaked my anticipation as I looked through the menu that was easy to navigate, as I sipped on House Iced Tea that lured me with its exotic clove note, lemon tang, and a bare sweetness, just like how I like it.

Vegetable Sampler, Letena, Washington D.C.

My friend and I decided to go with the Vegetable Sampler since I wanted to savor an array of cooked and raw vegetable dishes, which this East African cuisine is known for.  For the cooked ones, we started with Fasolia. It is greenbeans and carrots cooked with some onions. The vegetables were well but not overly cooked, tasting properly seasoned, sweet from the onions, slightly pungent from garlic (a bit more would be perfect), and a slightly tanginess that lifted each bite. Gomen is sautéed collard greens that I have tasted in many establishment of this cuisine.  It was surprisingly more bitter than I expected and I was definitely craving for more garlic despite the presence of some onion.  Shiro is a chickpea puree stew that was quite thick and dense. It had a smokey note that added interest to the spiciness that was brought by some traditional seasoning, and it made up for the texture that most Americans find challenging. The last cooked one was Carrot Wot which is shredded carrot exuding its natural sweetness, made subtly rich by the use of butter, and spicy from its stewing with berbere pepper spice. With such good cooking, differentiated flavors and seasoning,  I was looking forward to the uncooked salads.

Beet and Potato Salad, Letena Salad, Letena, Washington D.C.The Beet and Potato Salad arrived looking like a plate of jewels. The beets were not too mineral-like but they tasted naturally sweet which was tempered by the pieces of boiled potato, all unified by a house sauce that tasted tempting. Its partner at the table was Letena Salad. One bite into it sent many happy notes to the tongue and mouth for its incredible flavors and textural combinations, as well as a note of healthiness. The broccoli pieces retained some good crunch despite being steamed (must be a quick one), and the avocado was gloriously ripe while it added its luxurious mouthfeel to the whole bite. Furthermore, pieces of onion provided some sweet crunch to the whole mix. Undoubtedly, these two cold salads were winners for us and high on my list.

Chef's Signature Tibs, Mushroom Dulet, Letena, Washington D.C.

The cuisine is also known for its beef dishes, for which I ordered the Chef’s Signature Tibs. The large platter arrived with pieces still sizzling from the pan wafting its tempting smell.  One bite into the first piece confirmed its visual and olfactory appeal. The pieces were a tender cut that retained its moisture in each morsel, smelling and tasting of the high-heat pan sear that takes beef to the heavens. There was a taste of incredible umami savoriness that hinted at a tinge of soy sauce that made each bite irresistible, which was later confirmed by the owner – what a great move. The side of Mushroom Dulot was the right choice. It’s “meatiness” was enriched with some butter, smokey berbera, spicy jalapeño, and had a tinge of tang that made each bite irresistible – thanks to the chef’s recommendation of this dish.

Red and Yellow Lentils, Letena, Washington D.C.The kitchen brought out a samples of other dishes for me to try. Yemisir Wot are red lentils that have been stewed in the Ethiopian ubiquitous berbera sauce.  The lentils were cooked until barely together that tasted both spicy and slightly sweet, with a slight tang from the berbera spice.  The yellow lentils, Kik, had a slight granular texture from the nature of lentils but it was fully cooked. They tasted creamy, slightly sweet, and incredibly savory especially being vegan. The side of Ethiopian hot sauce was smokey, tangy and spicy, but the dishes were already skillfully seasoned that it was forgotten by the wayside.

Letena, Washington D.C.

What I appreciate about my experience at Letena is manifold. The decor is visually strikingly fresh yet retains its African touch, making it very inviting for the guest, even though it is more a self-service place (I was graciously served during my visit). The direction of the kitchen is refreshing and health-conscious, with healthier and vegan choices (like the Beet/Potato Salad and Letena Salad), and the cooked dishes exuding less oil than usual – “Letena” means “to your health.” But ultimately, it is the flavors and fresh qualities that wowed me about the dishes. The flavors were traditional and differentiated, tasting well-balanced but with new directions like the soy sauce in the tibs, butter in the carrots and mushrooms, and clove in the iced-tea. This establishment deserves some attention from both Epicureans and the high-density diverse neighborhood. I’m glad I’m one of the discoverers of this new wonderful place.

Letena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ikaros

Ikaros, Baltimore, MD

As you may have noticed, I have been focusing more on eats in the northern parts of the DMV, and as of late, I have delved into the Baltimore area judging by my last few blogs. So, when a coupon for a Greek restaurant in the latter area showed up, I knew I had to get it, partly due to the incredibly high ratings online, but also to the lack of more reviews on this Mediterranean cuisine on my site.  With such knowledge in mind, I anticipated a worthwhile culinary trip to the heart of B’more.

Avgolemono Soup, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD

Eggplant spread, Ikaros, Baltimore, MDThe city has its sketchy history, and driving through certain parts of it seems a bit surrealistic at times.  But the sight of Ikaros in the middle of it all was assuring by its large corner lot size as well as its aura of having stuck around for some time.  Even the dining room and bar area speak of many hungry mouths having passed through its doors.  After placing our order, we received the classic Greek soup, Avgolemono.  The first sip of it betrayed my expectation of I thought it was going to be.  Instead of a thick sour soup, what I savored was a bit more nuanced, with bits of softened moist rice (reminding me of Chinese congee) tasting savory from a light beef stock, and a delicate lemon flavor to perk the bowl up – my table mate and I truly enjoyed every sip from the large bowl.  The other appetizer to land on the table was Eggplant Salad.  After hearing our waitress’ explanation, it looked like what I expected – a vegetable spread. Unlike the usual Babhaganoush, what I tasted was quite different: boiled pieces of eggplant covered with a tangy creamy thick sauce made pungent by a heavy dose of garlic.  It was a rich dip indeed but its flavors were alluring and we eventually kept coming back to it. Touted as “its best at Ikaros”, I’m close to concurring with them from our tasting.

Spanakopita, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD

I had to order a perennial Greek favorite – Spinach and Feta Pie or Spanakopita.  What arrived took us by complete surprise.  It was a huge pie that could have been made into a main course or enough to feed more than two as an appetizer.  Digging into it, the phyllo dough was crispy with nearly no trace of grease (quite an anomaly), and the filling was a mixture of spinach and cheese that was both savory and intriguing to me.  The greens were devoid of its usual bitterness, but the use some Greek herbs added some deep dark notes that were sending my taste memory bank into a Sisyphian loop. The judicious amount of cheese was a combination of the salty feta tempered by a milder soft cheese that rounded off its jagged edges.  Together, the filling elements made a wonderful Aegean couple sealed by the perfectly cooked phyllo.  I would say that this is a must-order here.

Roast Breast of Lamb, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD Peas and Rice, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD

My dining companion’s order was changed due to a slight mix-up.  Instead of his order of Roast Leg of Lamb, what he got was the breast version.  The plate arrived well-assembled and it looked quite appetizing.  The pieces of meat were well-seasoned, still moist but cooked well, exuding its mild game notes. The stuffing of carrots added a level of sweetness, and the light gravy was both meaty and slightly tangy.  With this level of cooking, one can expect the leg to be equally impressive.  The side of rice was beyond a simple starch with a cinnamon note running through the tomato sauce that brought some interest to each forkful.  The peas were interestingly tangy but, unfortunately, it tasted like it was from a can, reminding me of British high-school fud.

Stuffed Zucchini, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD Greenbeans with Tomato, Ikaros, Baltimore, MD

For my main, I was attracted to the Stuffed Zucchini on the menu.  Two long stuffed vegetables arrived that looked both attractive and alluring.  The vegetable was just barely fork-tender, tasting savory from its cooking in some flavorful stock. Its stuffing of minced beef, tomato, and rice was moist, made aromatic from both some wood spices and fresh dill weed that permeated through the whole mix.  The lemon sauce on top added more richness as well as the tanginess to uplift the whole mix.  Instead of usual roasted potatoes as its side, I opted for my favorite – Greek greenbeans.  The vegetable was cooked very well, as how it should be, but not until the consistency from the can. The flavors were slightly sweet, cooked with tomato sauce without being too tangy.  Again, the dill weed note made it more interesting beyond its appearance.  This cooking would make any Yaya proud of this main as well as its side.

Greek Desserts, Ikaros, Baltimore, MDMaking sure that we had room despite the plethora of dishes, we were regaled with a couple of Greek desserts on the house, which this cuisine is known for.  Kataifi is dough vermicelli wrapped around walnuts and soaked in syrup.  The dough was still a bit crispy, the walnuts fresh and not rancid, and the syrup exuded a slight floral note without being cloying sweet.  The other was Galaktoboureka. It is basically a custard with some phyllo dough on top and soaked in honey.  The custard was quite rich and eggy, the phyllo dough crispy, and the sweetness was not overwhelming at all.  These bites were the perfect ending to this wonderful meal and I would save room for these not-too-sweet endings.

Ikaros, Baltimore, MDIkaros is worth the trip up to Baltimore for some wonderful traditional Greek food. What impressed me about the whole meal experience was the sense that tradition is completely respected here by a skillful kitchen who doesn’t compromise on quality or freshness.  These touches were evident in the lemon soup, the eggplant spread, the spinach feta pie and our mains of lamb breast and my stuffed zucchini, as well as nearly all of the sides.  Watching the guests enjoy their meal, you get a sense that these are returning customers who know that they will get the right treatment coming back to their regular haunt.  With an impressive first visit, I think I will soon be joining that happy lucky group after making this surprising yet rewarding discovery.

Ikaros Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cazbar

Cazbar, Baltimore, MD Cazbar, Baltimore, MD

In 2015, I stopped over in Istanbul on my way to and fro Southeast Asia – see photos.  I fell in love with the city and the charming people, but I was quite disappointed by the eating offerings as I pretty much stuck to the touristy areas that was limited to kebaps. When I returned back, I brought back a bunch of typical Turkish spices from the Spice Market sitting next to the Bosphorus River separating Europe from Asia. The dried herbs and peppers were bought with the intention of helping a cookbook author test some of her recipes from this region. In the process, I discovered that there was a delicious unchartered territory that was definitely worth exploring. So, when I got wind of a Turkish restaurant located on a main street in Baltimore, I visited it a few times before writing this review.

Lentil/ Pumpking Soups, Cazbar, MD Ayran, Cazbar, MD

Walking into the Cazbar, you notice the rich-colored walls illuminated by the store-front window in the front and beautiful Turkish stained-glass lamps towards the back, reminding me of seeing them in a bazaar on my trip. The menu was easy to navigate and we honed on the set lunch specials that is available everyday including weekends for $14. After placing our order, we got our soups quite quickly. The first was Lentil Soup. It was made with red lentils and it was quite thin with the lentils pureed in it. It had a hint of dried mint that added some interest but it didn’t manage to wow us.  The Pumpkin Soup was interesting as it was quite orangy in color but its sweetness was a bit too much for my dining companion. It exuded a dark spice that was later confirmed as cinnamon, but not the usual American type. Not a bad start, but no surprise that these were not impressive since they were starters for the set lunch.  A glass of Ayra, yogurt drink, was quite refreshing as it was ice-cold, quite salty, and paradoxically light and creamy at the same time, and the brass container it came in exuded an Old World charm.

Babaghanoush/Ezme, Cazbar, MD

Hummus, Cazbar, MDThe appetizers were next. There was quite a variety to choose from but we focused on the familiar and a recommendation. The Babaghanoush arrived in a beautiful metal container, and one dip into it revealed its smokey, vegetable sweet, and smooth silky nature that has been enriched by some tahini.  The recommended Ezme was a surprising discovery. It is a vegetable dip made from finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and parsley, all brought together by some spicy pul biber pepper spice and sweetened with a recent discovery of mine, pomegranate molasses, that added a sweetness and tang to the delicious mix – my friends raved about it throughout the meal. The Hummus on another visit proved to be extremely smooth, tasting rather rich from the tahini and perfumed by a hint of cumin that didn’t overwhelm the palette, an opener that pleased everyone at the table. Worth mentioning is the fantastic bread that was used to mop up all the above goodness with its freshly baked, crusty, and pillowy light inside qualities. I have heard of good Turkish bakers, and this was an epitome of such standard.

Adana Iskander, Cazbar, MD Chicken Pirzola, Cazbar, MD

Kofte Kebap Sandwich, Cazbar, MDA trip to a Turkish restaurant would be amiss if one didn’t taste the famous Döner Kebap. The version here is worth raving about: crispy bits with a softer inside (an indication of the proper rotisserie cooking), and a well-seasoned mix of lamb and beef with a faint taste of the gaminess that was appealing. The side salad that came with most dishes was well-dressed with a vinaigrette scented with dried mint leaves, served along with a buttery rice pilaf studded with toasted orzo-like pasta that was good enough to satisfy. A supped up version of the above is Adana Iskander that is the same meat placed on pieces of light bread moistened by an amazingly light and fresh tomato sauce, and topped with a tangy yogurt sauce. The gestalt effect of each bite was extremely tasty and satisfying, making each forkful irresistible. An order of Chicken Pirzola arrived looking like Chicken Tandoori with its bring orange color as a result of its marination in fresh oregano, Turkish paprika and issot red pepper spice. No one spice stood out but the overall effect was a tasty one paired with the smokiness from the grilling that kept the chicken still moist while having a slight char. The side cucumber and fresh dill yogurt sauce was completely up my ally with its tangy, creamy and herbaceous quality. A lighter bite was Köfte Kebap Sandwich that composed of minced beef that has been seasoned with some spicy pepper, well-seasoned, but it was a bit tough. The french fries were a bit limpid but that was made up by the spicy French sauce-like dip that I couldn’t get enough of.  The kitchen really knows how to operate the grill properly judging by these well-executed dishes.

Cyprus Pide, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Moussaka, Cazbar, MDThere were a couple of non-grilled meat dishes that we had to try. The first was Cyprus Pide. I had the pizza-like long bread in Istanbul, but unfortunately, it was rather greasy and unimpressive then. The version here was freshly made and far better than my first experience. The baked dough was soft and light with a yeasty scent, with fresh slices of red onion, pickled artichoke, brined olives, fresh spinach, all held down by some soft stringy cheese. The fresh slightly charred vegetal qualities were perfumed by some fresh oregano or marjoram that made each bite interesting and equally satisfying – an order of only this bread would have sufficed due to all its goodness. The other order was Lamb Moussaka. It arrived baked in a metal ware looking like regular Italian lasagna.  Breaking into it, you could taste the meat that was coarsely ground, slices of soft potato, a slightly spicy tomato sauce that tasted rather fresh, and soft melted cheese that was not overwhelming in flavor or amount.  It was not the usual moussaka that the Greeks make, but my friend was happy with his selection and he disposed of it in no time.

Combo Kebap, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Three Way, Cazbar, MDA couple of Combo Kebap dishes were savored on the last trip. My order was a combination of whole shrimp and chunks of lamb. The seafood was well-grilled and the shells managed to keep them still rather moist while tasting well-seasoned and sea sweet. The lamb was a bit tough due to either the cut or its well-done state, which is common for cuisine from this part of the world.  However, the meat was well-seasoned paired with a smoky char that added a tasty dimension to the chunks. My friends order was Lamb Three Ways: lamb chop, lamb kebap (like above dish), and ground lamb köfte. The latter was a bit spicy and had a hint of sourness in the ground meat, and the chop was still moist and had a slight scent of lamb gaminess that is to be expected, along with some good smoky char from the grill. My friend seemed completely sated from this lamb heaven indicated by his gnawing the chops down to their bare bones.

Turkish Tea and Baklava, Cazbar, MDCazbar is a great find, even though it is not in proper DC region. I really like this place for its location on the main street Baltimore where parking is free after 6 p.m. weekdays and all of Sunday. But what makes it worth visiting is its strong suits of the well-seasoned grilled seafood and meats (not too salty like many grill establishments), the amazing appetizers of babaghanoush, hummus, and that to-die-for Ezme, the thoughtful sides and sauces that balance each plate well, and the pide stuffed-bread and moussaka that are worth trying. For $2 more, you can finish your meal with a glass of Turkish chai that was both slightly bitter and aromatic (reminding me of sitting by the Bosphorus sipping many cups of it), and the flaky nutty not-too-sweet Baklava that would give the diner a truly happy ending.  To boot, the decor and service were both charming and extremely appealing, especially the congenial waiters we had on our visits. Cazbar is definitely worth many more visits with expertly cooked food like this, and it is high on my recommendation list.

Cazbar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Judy’s Island Grill

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Finding good Jamaican food is a crap shoot sometimes.  Some places offer mediocre fare that seem to placate the average eater, and some of the dishes are not cooked in the proper fashion, thus making them inauthentic and characterless to the cognoscenti.  So, when I got a recommendation of a Caribbean restaurant from an expat at a birthday party not too long ago, I made a note of it and made plans to visit it not too long after.

Beef Patty - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDJudy’s Island Grill sits sandwiched in between used-car dealerships in Glen Burnie, MD. It is quite out-of-the-way, off my beaten path, but the call for good food will steer me in far-flung directions, within reasonable means, that is.  But its bright Caribbean colors sets it off from the drap establishments around it, and you know that you have arrived at your location with some extra help of the cabana-like patio set.  Walking in, the place is neatly decorated with an order counter with signs behind it advertising the day’s offerings. The dining area is quite ample and inviting with booths edged up to the windows.  After perusing the rather extensive menu, I ordered an appetizer of Beef Patty.  The stuffed pie was nothing out of the usual:  flaky greaseless pastry with its standard orange-hue tint and a tasty ground meat filling that was quite savorily beefy, with notes of chili heat and ground dry spices.  This was washed down by the perfect partner, Pineapple Ginger juice, that was very fruity and sufficiently sweet while the fresh ginger juice echoed the patty’s chili back throat burn.  This was a sign of a something promising yet to come.

Jerk Chicken, Calalloo, Plaintains - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Calalloo/ Plaintains - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDThe first order was Jerk Chicken which is the standard litmus test of any Jamaican kitchen. One fork piercing into the dark meat indicated the nature of its cooking.  It was quite firm and not watery, a sign that it was properly smoked and grill.  The skin was nearly devoid of any fat, which is another sign of the above cooking approach.  The flesh was quite tasty with strong notes of smoke and a moderate taste of the jerk seasoning marination.  But the sauce that I tasted was overwhelmingly sour and sweet, which, to my dismay, reminded me too much of BBQ sauce.  Later on, the waiter told me that the kitchen had served me the mild sauce and not the spicy one that I requested.  He later offered me the later version which tasted stronger in the allspice department and less BBQ-y. However, I like my jerk chicken with all the flavors inside the chicken like what I have tasted before in other places. The fried plantain was naturally sweet and soft, devoid of the unnecessary addition of sugar judging by the lack of over-caramelization.  The Calolloo was a definite hit for me with its natural vegetal sweetness and well-cooked stage, without any mushiness, and it made my taste buds search between spinach and Southern-style Kale while I enjoyed its comfort quality. Pretty good jerk chicken that was bolstered by the fantastic sides.

Escovitched Red Snapper - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD Rice & Peas, Cabbage Carnival - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

The other order, recommended by my amiable waiter, was Escovitched Red Snapper.  The fish came in three sizes, and since I was alone, I went for the 1-pound fish.  The whole fish arrived head intact and a sneering mouth with the teeth showing, just how I like my fish cooked (the Asian sensibility in me).  I took a bite of the fish to test its preparation, and it tasted fresh, quite firm without being dry, and the skin was quite crisp from a good frying without leaving much greasiness.  An adequate hit of salt was added that boosted the flesh flavors.  But it was the sauce that took the fish to another level with its notes of fruitiness, sourness, sweetness, and spice heat, along with the pickled carrots, sweet peppers, onions, and Scotch Bonnet peppers that made each bite a cornucopia of flavors and textures – this dish indeed kept me interested with every bite.  The side of Rice and Peas blew me away with its flavors and it was the best rendition I have ever tasted – prominent coconut milk note, salty enough (a common mistake by others) and a fragrant note brought about by a generous use of green onions, a similar technique of the use of Pandan leaves in Southeast Asian coconut rice.  The Carnival Cabbage was quite sweet and not mushy, but I would have loved a bit more fresh thyme in this simple side.  I would highly recommend this order judging by the freshness of the fish, the proper preparation, and the irresistible sauce.  For $17, I think this dish is quite a steal.

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Rum Cake - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDWalking into the space, you can’t help but pass by and notice the display case filled with cakes. Since I decided to only sample the main courses, I left enough room for their sweet offerings.  Most of them are your usual run-of-the-mill cakes, but I honed in on the Rum Cake when I heard its name called out.  What arrived looked quite dense and mysterious, which aroused my interest.  The first bite revealed its true nature of dark notes of dark molasses and dark rum, and its moistness of soaked raisins pureed into the batter, reminding me of Christmas Pudding served in former British colonies.  I was enjoying the level of raisin sweet stickiness, a la Sticky Pudding, and the dark notes of molasses coupled with the dark rum flavors that were present without overwhelming the palate.  This version is a good proper one, making me wonder how well-made the other cakes are.  Oh well, there is always next time.

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDJudy’s Island Grill offers some veritable Jamaican cooking to the discerning eater.  This was noted in the proper preparation of the various dishes, especially the Jerk Chicken (sans the mild BBQ sauce though) which I am quite fussy about since I have had it in different establishments.  But ultimately, it was the flavors of what I sampled that caught my tastebuds’ attention that I tasted in the Pineapple Ginger drink, the Beef Patty (wish they had a Calaloo Patty also), the delectable Escovitched Fish, and the sides dishes that took a formidable supporting role, notably the Rice and Peas, and Calalloo.  The Rum Cake must be a good indicator of the rest of the cakes as they sit proudly in the counter waiting for someone’s attention.  But you can sense the house’s pride and willingness to please the customer judging by my waiter’s attentiveness and his asking me for suggestions (a bit more whole thyme and allspice).  Based on my experience here, this place ranks quite high, and I will be back soon for some more of their Jamaican fare.  Thanks for the recommendation, friend at the party.

Judy's Island Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Indigo

Indigo, Washington DC

In my last blog, I quibbled about the logistical and parking issues that Washington D.C. poses to the suburbanite who wants to venture into town for a decent meal, hence my lack of blogs on its eating establishments as of late. After posting a photo of my meal at my favorite Indian eatery on social media, a friend of Indian descent invited me to join him for a meal at his favorite spot serving the same South Asian fare.  Having not heard about that locale and realizing that it was in a quiet neighborhood, I decided to met up my friend and his lover, as well as another couple, to sample their offerings.

Indigo, Washington DC

Taj Lager Beer and Condiments - Indigo, Washington DCIndigo is a corner townhouse that has been remodeled with a few tables on the ground floor as well as the rather cramped kitchen behind it.  But the appeal for the customer lies in the garden that is replete with brightly colored benches and tables, as well as a tikki-like bar to the side.  After perusing the slightly over-whelming board of a menu, we placed our orders and found a seat in the garden patio with a bottle of Indian lager beer and some typical condiments.  The alcoholic beverage was quite hopsy with a slight sweet aftertaste, reminding me of Southeast Asian lagers that I grew up on.  The Chutney was fruity and sweet, yet hinting of some spice notes.  The Achar pickles tasted house-made with the softened fruits and vegetables paired with some chili and seed spices, a good mix that made it quite proper.  The mint/coriander sauce was a bit sour-sweet, redolent with the herbal qualities of the leaves present in the sauce, making it irresistibly sippable.  As for our orders, here is the rundown of the different dishes that we savored:

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower.

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower - Indigo, Washington DC

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas.

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas - Indigo, Washington DC

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal.

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal - Indigo, Washington DC

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin, Flat Bread.

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin - Indigo, Washington DC

The main/meat dishes:

The Chicken Saag was a combination of tender pieces of chicken that tasted well-seasoned due to a marination, paired with a silky smooth puree of spinach that was devoid of any bitterness, spiked by a good dose of fresh ginger that brightened the mix as well as providing some spice heat.  This dish was very sumptuous and one of the best versions that I have tasted, making me return to it continuously.  The Goat and the Lamb Curries had pieces of tender meat, an indication that they were stewed long enough in a sauce similar for both meats, but without falling apart due to some skillful timing in the kitchen.  The tomato-based sauce was perfumed with the proper spice mixture that was well-balanced as not to overwhelm the natural meat flavors that managed to assert their presence without any extraneous gaminess.  As for the Chicken Tikka, I did not manage to be presumptuous enough to poke my fork into a newly-made acquaintance’s plate, but he seemed rather satisfied evidenced by the few morsels left at the end of the meal.

The sides:

All the orders came with a copious amount of Basmati rice that was light and fluffy, seasoned with salt (which some establishments omit, unfortunately), studded with whole cumin seeds, and was made healthy with ribbons of fresh spinach.

The Cauliflower came in large whole pieces that were not overcooked, seasoned with cumin, tomato and a good dose of turmeric judging by its rich yellow hue.

The Okra was still al dente and surprisingly not slimy at all, paired with some sautéed onion and fresh tomato, reminding me of the Southern-styled preparation.

The Mushrooms were quite firm and meaty, cooked in a tomato puree sauce, tasting spicy with chili heat, and fragrant from cinnamon, making it a very appealing hit for this mushroom lover.

The Pumpkin was surprising not sweet like most other preparations, but it had notes of squash along with chili heat, spiking ginger, and onion sweetness.

The Eggplant was wonderfully smokey, vegetable sweet, and silky smooth, reminding me of a properly prepared babaghanouj which made me return my fork often into my friend’s tray.

The Daal Lentils were cooked until very smooth and spiced with woodsy spices without overwhelming the legumes.

The Cabbage was cooked without any mushiness and made interesting with anise seeds, and garam marsala, with some chili heat that produced a back throat burn.

The Raita was quite thick for a yogurt sauce, tasting much creamier than the usual kind, quite salty, and having thin cucumber strands running though it, which became the perfect relieving foil for all the spices and heat in the other sides and meat courses.

The flatbread was not the usual fluffy Pratha or Naan Bread but more a wheaty textural bite that reminded me of Chapati bread or the Tamil-style Tosai.

Indigo, Washington DCMy friend was right, and thankfully so, to steer me to this place.  What Indigo offers is what superb Indian food is all about: interesting and differentiated spicing (not a monolithic seasoning approach like some inferior establishments practice), freshly cooked dishes with equally fresh ingredients (not reheated tired leftovers), and a good variety of dishes to accommodate the knowledgeable diner.  What I tasted that night exemplified the above qualities, which made the experience satisfying on many levels and pleasing to this diner who has found an Indian establishment in the city, albeit not downtown (a relief), worth mentioning and with high praises.  The place’s funkiness has a wonderful charm that makes good food the great equalizer, with the garden furniture making no distinction whoever sits on it to enjoy their meal.  Indigo is a great find indeed which deserves my many future repeat visits.

Indigo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato