Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

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Last weekend, I invited my gang to a dinner a la Chinese, Hot Pot style.  For them, one was familiar with it due to his visits with me Southeast Asia.  However, for the rest of the quartet, this was terra incognito culinary wise.  Located in Falls Church, VA, Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot is located in a strip mall off the main drag.  But finding it was quite difficult due to its ensconced location, and the fact that only the Chinese sign, not the English, had its lights functioning.  After the travel challenge, we entered its doors and after a slight wait, we got a table with a hole in the middle.

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Hot Pot Soup – mild (left), Szechuan spicy (right).

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Bean thread Noodle, Chinese Spinach, and Shrimp.

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Enoki Mushrooms, Soft Tofu, Flounder, and Lean Pork.

The heart of a Hot Pot meal is the stock that the raw ingredients are cooked in.  For that, we chose a ying yang of a mild bone stock on one side and spicy Szechuan on the other, much alike what I had seen on travel channels about this fadish dish in China.  The mild soup had pieces of tomatoes and green onions along with the common Chinese Goji berries that provided some mild sweetness as well as its antioxidant properties.  The spicy stock had bits of dried chili peppers and Szechuan peppercorns floating on a rather thick layer of fiery oil, a common trait of this dish.   The secret to partaking in this meal is cooking more or less one plate of ingredients at a time so that the diners could savor one type of dish.  After helping ourselves to the different sauces at the buffet table, we started the process.

The different ingredients were very fresh and most didn’t not take too long to cook due to their vegetable nature or the thinness of their slices.  The usual order of cooking the ingredients starts with the mildest tasting ones, proceeding to bolder tasting elements like meat.  So, we started with Flounder which was quite spongy from a thick coating of corn starch, followed by shelled shrimp (I prefer with shell) which was quite sweet. Following that was tofu which was silky smooth, and some Spinach leaves that were nice and turgid before wilting in the soup.  We ordered a plate of tomato pieces since the group was fond of it being cooked by the mild soup.  It was followed by the Enoki mushrooms with its mild and delicate taste, and some Snowpea shoots which imparted a mild yet discernible vegetal quality.  I introduced the lean pork earlier since I sensed some impatience on the part of the novices with the meat tasting mild for pork yet quite tasty.  The various sauces (Hoisin, oyster, sesame, bean) added the flavor to the naked flavors, and a special mixture of Hoisin, oyster, and green onions made by the owner was the highlight, but I still missed the Malaysian version made with crushed chilies, vinegar, sugar, salt and sesame seeds.  The noodles are usually cooked last so as to sop up all the richness of the stock after cooking the various ingredients.  This time we cooked them in the mild stock as my friend and I were getting bludgeoned by the searing dried chilies and numbing Szechuan peppercorns in the fiery stock.

This meal was an example of Cultural Gastronomic Relativity.  Firstly, the cooking in two stocks was the veritable cooking method, and the fiery spicy one was no way a dilution of the authentic version, although we were starting to suffer its effects towards the end of the meal.  The ingredients were fresh and the usual ones associated with this meal.  The cooking of single dishes was also the way to go, albeit a bit frustrating to some.  The serving of starch at the end is the common practice even though my friends were perplexed why they couldn’t have some of it earlier – they were tempted to order some rice which is not common with this style.  The meal was more vegetarian and pescatarian which was a bit difficult for the meat-minded eater.  All in all, we pretty much towed the authentic line with this meet-up.

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot offers the veritable thing.  It may not be everyone’s cup of tea especially for the uninitiated ones.  However, it did convert one of my friends despite his initial trepidation.  If you are willing to try a new gastronomic experience, an authentic one it is, here is the place to visit, and you may enjoy this new style of cooking/eating.  Don’t blame me for suffering from the fiery stock – you have been forewarned!

Uncle Liu's Hot Pot Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mele Bistro

Mele Bistro One of the dinner friends in my weekly Friday dinner group is travel-challenged since he would not venture past a certain point in the DMV, hence we tend to accommodate to his limitations when he is included in our gastronomic soirees. So, recently, when he made a new recommendation for the group, I did not question his suggestion and I quickly set up a reservation for the group’s meet-up that very evening.

Spanish Olive Oil - Mele Bistro

Mele Bistro is located in a short strip mall in Rosslyn, VA, replacing a run-down Bistro that my partners and I eyed over the years without stepping through its doors.  After the demise of its previous existence, the place took a name change and its decor updated.  Walking into its colorful, yet very dimmed, space, we took our seats towards the back of the room.  The menu is quite daunting to read with its wide offerings, and some dishes were divided into small or entrée sizes, which made for a lot of flipping back and forth the pages.  Compounding this was the lack of light which made it nearly impossible to read the listing.  After placing our orders, we attacked the basket of french bread that wowed us with its right-out-the-oven quality of a crispy exterior, its warm pillowy inside, and the tinge of sourness that belied its carbohydrate nature. The bottle of Spanish olive oil made it a good companion with its fruity and grassy notes, leaving behind a slight back throat afterburn.  Rarely have we ordered more bread for us mid-centurions who really can’t afford indulging on bread.

Chorizo Pata Negra - Mele Bistro

Caprese Salad - Mele BistroOur appetizers arrived rather promptly.  Mine was a plate of Pata Negra Chorizo from Spain.  One bite into it confirmed its exceptional quality that one should expect from this pork appetizer.  The meat, although still crudo, had a mild quality without any trace of porcine funkiness found in commercial meat, while its flecks of fat imparted an unctuous quality much like thin strips of lardo melting in the mouth.  Such flavors brought me back to days of living in Spain and having its Jamon Serrano for my lunches.  My friend’s Caprese Salad came with colorful slices of yellow and red tomatoes supporting shards of mozzarella.  The cheese was its expected creamy and slightly elastic quality but it yearned for some salt and pepper to highlight its flavor.  Unfortunately, the tomato slices was a total let down due it being out of season, and its hydroponic quality tasted of winter’s grey sky – seasonality has a great point after tasting this common restaurant faux pas.  The rest of the group had the French Onion Soup and the Soup of the Day, but both were lackluster and didn’t impress any of us.

Hapuna Seabass - Mele Bistro

Trout Almandine - Mele BistroA friend’s main course was supposed to be Suzuki Sea bass, but the kitchen ran out of it, and it was substituted with the highly prized Hawaiian Hapuka Sea bass.  One taste of it exuded a clean mild ocean-like quality that pointed to its deep-sea environment with the fillet perfectly cooked with a slightly crispy texture and flaky yet moist interior.  I was not sure what were the black pieces on top of it, but I did not detect its essence on the fish.  Another friend’s order was his perennial favorite – Trout Almandine.  My  first visual impression concerned me. The butterflied fillet was studded with almond slices that appeared blackened from the sautéing.  But a taste of it proved me wrong.  The trout was fresh-tasting and moist, with the almond imparting its gentle nuttiness with a bare hint of bitterness.  In both dishes, the mushroom risotto was not bad, but it could have been better with a stronger stock, more cooking (evidence: slightly chalky kernels), and a bit of richness from butter.  Overall, they were pretty good dishes that satisfied both diners.

Blackened Scallop - Mele Bistro

Wild Salmon - Mele BistroMy main course was a small plate version of Blackened Scallops.  The plump pieces of seafood were well seasoned, and cooked to perfection with a slightly crispy exterior and a melt in the mouth interior quality.  What I noted was the pieces were very fresh with no hint of ammonia that  made each bite quite perfect.  However, the same risotto was its companion with its flawed preparation, which only slightly detracted me from the main star.  My other companion’s order of Seafood Linguine was lost in the service confusion, which was prevalent throughout the night. After constant notification to the kitchen, what he got was something totally unexpected.  It was a fillet of Wild Salmon sitting on some sautéed vegetables and mashed potato.  One taste of the fish hinted of a mild-tasting fresh piece of wild salmon that was not overwhelming in Omega oils usually found in farmed fish. The vegetables looked freshly cooked and the mash was proper with slight chunks in the mix, tasting of olive oil instead of the ubiquitous butter-cream version.  My friend was not just happy to have received his meal but its quick disposal was an indicator of his satisfaction with it.

Dulce de leche, Pear Tart, Torta di Nona - Mele Bistro

Even though the small plates of entrée were a decent portion, we were tempted by the dessert offerings.  We managed to focus on three and we shared them among each other.  Dulce de Leche was definitely the rich one made richer with its caramel tones from cooked condensed milk, additionally feeling quite dense with each forkful.  Torta di Nona was a lemon curd pie that was quite good with a note of lemon juice and butter sweetened just right.  However, I needed more lemon acid note to balance the tart out, but my friend found it perfectly balanced.  As for me, I went for the Pear Tart.  The topping was a layer of the sweet fruit sitting on a rather thick crust made with crushed almonds with its almond essence wafting through each bite.  If the fruit-to-crust ratio were the inverse, it would have been exceptional.  But we all seemed satisfied with this sweet ending.

Usually not one to write about the service, I’m breaking with custom here because the tasty food was overshadowed by how things ran that night.  First, it was way too dark to read our menus, even for some millennials who had to resort to bright cellphone flashlights in order to read.  We never could figure out whether the helpers were the Maitre D’, the runner, the waiter, or….  Our main courses arrived without the appetizer plates cleared and we had to hold them as we were being served.  My friend’s order was not only forgotten, but another dish, although well-executed, arrived instead.  We barely got a check-in from the staff since they were frantically scrambling around keeping the ship afloat.  I must say that this is one of the few occasions in which the service was glaringly dysfunctional.

Mele BistroMele Bistro has many elements going for it: a beautiful well-decored space with parking located in a dense area, and pretty good cooking coming from its kitchen especially the fresh seafood paired with locally sourced ingredients. I am recommending this establishment, with some reservation, based on the above qualities that are a hit when the right choices are made. I would recommend you to go during the slower nights, or when you are in the right frame of mind to put up with the inconsistent service. But I’m quite sure you will find gastronomic delights like in the cold cuts, seafood, and the sweet offerings. Give it a try and you may come out quite satisfied.

Mele Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Appioo Bar and Grill

Appigo Bar and Grill

A couple of years ago, I visited a Ghanaian restaurant in my neighborhood that was known for serving authentic fare especially the well-known Fufu dish. However, I was not quite satisfied by the cooking in addition to the long wait for the aforementioned soup dish.  Recently, I came across an online offer to Appioo Bar and Grill located in the U St./Cardozo neighborhood, and judging by what I read on online reviews, I quickly snapped up the offer, and I made a trip to pay it a gastronomic visit last weekend.

Ghanaian Palm DrinkLocated on the basement level of a row house on busy 9th street NW, close to the U St. junction, I walked in with a couple whose husband hails from Togo to get some guidance from him on this little-chartered culinary territory.  The shotgun space is decorated with a beautiful mural exuding some West African charm with its bright colors and design.  Having made a reservation, we took our table next to the long bar that seems to attract quite a local crowd.  After we placed our orders, my Togolese friend ordered Palm Drink, a typical libation from the Motherland.  One sip of it reminded me of the liquor toddy that I had tasted years ago as a child in Southeast Asia.  This bowlful, yes, a bowl perhaps made from wood or a gourd, had a unique flavor of sweet with a tinge of sourness from a slight fermentation but devoid of the booze that I remembered this drink is usually associated with.  Alcohol or not, it was a good starting thirst-quencher to this visit.

Goat Kebab/Chinchinga

For our first bite, we ordered Goat Kebab or Chinchinga.  The sticks came filled to the brim with slices of meat, dark from its cooking, and slightly reddish from a sprinkling of seasoning powder.  One bite into it revealed what it was.  The goat was slightly tough with a bare hint of gaminess, nothing that belies its true nature.  What made it rise above it was the savoriness in the morsels due to a peanut sauce marinade and the spicy powder (called “kebab powder” according to my friend) that created a slightly masochistic tinge that beckoned for more bites.  Their tasty nature made for a quick disposal by the diners which created more anticipation at our table.

Croaker Pepper SoupThe next appetizer came in soup form.  Delicious Pepper Soup is well-known in this culinary tradition and I knew I had to give it a try.  A sip from the bowl pointed to a well-cooked broth that hinted of dried fish that I am familiar with, giving the soup some body and flavor interest.  The pieces of croaker were very fresh and moist, an indication that the fish was freshly cooked to order.  Unfortunately, it was that fresh that it could have jumped into the soup without being scaled.  However, I got around it by just removing the skin.  There was some good spice bite to the earthy broth, but I was hoping for something that was eye-popping like my grandmother’s pepper soup.  All in all, this was still good.

Goat Fufu in Peanut Butter Soup

My friend’s order was Goat Fufu in Peanut Butter Soup.  It came served in an earthen traditional bowl with a ball of the pounded plantain starch in the middle, sitting in a pool of peanut butter soup studded with pieces of goat meat.  The fufu was the powder form, judging by the lack of starch-stretchiness normally found in the fresh version.  But it didn’t detract from the wonderful soup that had a light touch of peanut butter goodness without being overwhelming.  The pieces of meat were tender, for goat that is, an indication of a good stewing in the sauce, which made the dish even more appealing.  My friend originally didn’t want to order this ubiquitous dish, but at the end of his inhaling it, he was more than satisfied as it hit home for him, and he was about to go into a food coma.

Goat and Rice JollofHis wife’s order was something lighter and is as equally well-known as the above dish – Jollof Rice with Goat.  A stab at the pieces of goat pointed to the meat that was initially fried to a slightly crispy exterior then stewed in a tomato-based sauce. I enjoyed the meat texture that was complemented by the sweet-tangy sauce that was aromatic and tasting mild spice-wise.  Equally competing for my attention was the rice that was well-seasoned, tasting slightly sweet from the tomato sauce and onions, exuding vegetal notes of sweet peppers, and a note that was root or wood-like.  Upon talking to the chef, I found out that he added ginger to the mix.  Even though it was still mild, its savoriness made me return repeatedly to the rice elevated from the melange of flavors and cooked to a perfectly light fluffiness.

Grilled Tilapia and Spinach

My order of Grilled Tilapia was nixed somewhere down the line.  It was forgotten amidst some confusion, and it was quite a wait as the kitchen was trying to make amends.  Finally, it arrived whole and grilled, along with a tomato salsa and some spinach as my choice side order.  One bite into the fish brought a smile to my face.  The skin was crispy and had a slight waft of ginger, perhaps from a rub of ginger juice, and the flesh was incredibly moist and sea-sweet, pointing to its incredible freshness as if just caught from the sea.  The belly was filled with a savory grated ginger stuffing that added more perfume to the whole mix.  Usually one that is not particularly fond of Tilapia, I was instantaneously attracted to the mild-tasting flesh, devoid of most of its inherent muddiness, and its alluring seasoning. A good partner was the tomato salsa that was really piquant, making it a ying-yang complement to the mild sweet flesh.  The spinach mix blew me away with its fresh flavors from the mild-tasting spinach leaves paired with sweet onions, a healthy dose of garlic, sweet peppers, and biting pieces of fresh ginger.  There was a note of an unfamiliar spice that confounded me, but the tasty mix constantly beckoned me to go back for more.  Undoubtedly, this fish dish was so good that it washed away any trace of my impatient wait, and I couldn’t stop exuding about it.  I stopped the chef, as he sheepishly passed by me, to personally thank him for such a wonderfully prepared dish, as he apologized for the dish’s tardiness.  All was well here after this scrumptious meal.

Appioo Bar and GrillThe dishes at Appioo Bar and Grill have given me a fresh perspective on what this Western African cuisine is all about. What impressed me about this visit was the completeness in the seasoning and the savoriness that each morsel or sip possessed, making one unable to resist having more of each dish. Additionally, what impressed me about the kitchen, despite the slight hitch in my order, was a deftly skillful hand that knows proper seasoning, the sourcing fresh ingredients, and that understands balance and ingredient pairing to produce wonderful authentic dishes that would not only satiate those with home-sickness but equally impress all including the novice like me. Yes, the reggae band was overwhelming in this small space (note: eat before 9 p.m. on Saturdays), but ultimately, such impressive cooking spoke volumes above the music. I will be back for more.

Appioo African Restaurant & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jaleo

Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

Jaleo, Bethesda, MDAn urge to watch the latest Pedro Almodóvar film last weekend chimed in at the same time the desire for a nearby place for me to  brunch with my friends.  My first visit to the Spanish restaurant, Jaleo, was to its mothership branch in the Penn Quarter many moons ago when they first opened, and I was quite impressed with their Tapas fare of which I became familiar with during my year abroad in Spain.  This time, the group and I headed to their sister restaurant in the busy Bethesda Row lined with boutique shops and swanky eateries. Walking into their festive-looking space, we took our seats and perused the menu, but our attention was quickly drawn to the Restaurant Week 4-course special that was quite a bargain.  After the whole table agreed to go with the offer, we placed our orders and nibbled on the crusty sourdough bread while dipping it into the grassy fruity olive oil supped up by fresh rosemary with its pine-like essence and a clove of raw garlic lending its slightly acrid bite.

Chicken Croquetas - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

My first course was Croquetas de Pollo.  Four of these pillowy bites arrived sitting on some decorative paper that offset these fried batons.  One bite sent me back to my college exchange program days in Madrid, Spain, where I would watch with anticipation my house lady preparing these classic Spanish appetizers.  These were perfectly fried, with little trace of oil,  tasting very clean.  Under the crispy exterior was a filling that was extraordinarily smooth, creamy, savory, and meaty from fine strands of chicken.  I was glad that the course came with the quartet since they were that good, and a lesser amount would not have sufficed.  It was definitely a good start indeed.

Catalan Bean Salad - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

What arrived next was Empedrat de Mongetes.  The menu lists the dish as a traditional Catalan bean salad with tomatoes, onion, black olives and sherry dressing.  The white beans were perfectly cooked with no chalkiness, the black olives briny and a bit oily but different from the Kalamata kind, all brought together by a dressing consisting of crushed tomatoes, sherry vinegar, and fruity olive oil.  The salad reminded me of a good gazpacho from the dressing, made heartier with the vegetable and beans that added the right brininess, body, and a slight crunch from the onion and green pepper bits.  Despite being winter, I quite enjoyed this summer dish that was both light and satisfying to the senses.

Pork Loin, Onion, Blue Cheese Sauce - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

The meat dish was Lomo de Cerdo con Salsa de queso Valdeón.  A piece of pork loin sat on strands of onion, topped with a brown sauce and bits of Spanish blue cheese.  The pork was a bit tough, having sat a bit too long on the grill, but it was mild tasting and devoid of any extraneous porkiness.   What brought more moisture and flavor to the loin was the demi-glace sauce that was thick and rich, tasting of a good reduced stock. The light crumble of blue cheese added the creaminess and the pungent notes that were on the verge of overtaking the dish – thank goodness for the light hand here.  The onions were not as sweet and tender as I expected, which would have added a counterpoint to the pungent cheese.  Overall, it was quite a good dish, but another note, maybe acid in nature, would have elevated it even further.

Flan, Catalan Cream - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD

Fruit Sorbet - Jaleo, Bethesda, MD
For the final course, I had to go with a Spanish classic dessert –  Flan al estilo tradicional de mamá Marisa con espuma de crema Catalana.  The title caught my curiosity since it purports to be the chef’s mother’s traditional recipe.  The first mouthful revealed it all: creamy, not too dense, silky, and just the right amount sugar in the custard, which was both sumptuous and decadent enough without excess.  The caramel was not cloyingly sweet with hints of cinnamon, a note that was echoed in the whipped cream thickened with gelatin to give it a pudding-like mouth-feel.  Across from me, I couldn’t help but to ogle at a friend’s trio of fruit sorbet due to its visual appeal.  The cold bite was very fruity and not too sweet at all.  The biscotti was chockful with crushed almond that complemented the fruit flavors well.  Definitely a satisfying and not too sweet happy ending!

Jaleo, Bethesda, MDJaleo was worth a revisit, and it was long overdue.  Despite some timing issues from the kitchen which made for an awkward moment for the diners who had to wait for their main course while another one and I dined on ours, what saved the occasion were the well-executed dishes that were full of flavor and made with quality products, all making a nod to the hallmark cuisine of this establishment without coming across as stodgy and predictable.  And at $16 for all four courses, it was quite a steal.  I suggest you grab it as soon as you can.

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

Highlights 2016

Despite a rather tumultuous year, personally, professionally, and politically, I managed to squeeze in some great restaurant finds during my moments of respite.  Here is a quick rundown of the top dishes that I sampled throughout the year. Happy New Year 2017!

1. Thai Orchid (read Blog)

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Seafood Prik Prao

Seafood Prik Prao

2.Taqueria Los Primos (read Blog)

Tacos Al Pastor/Carnitas

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Quesadillas

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3. Chez Dior (read Blog)

Thiebou Diene

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish

Accra/Black Eye Pea Fritters

Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

4. Panda Gourmet (read Blog)

Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

5. Evolve Vegan (read Blog)

Southern Fried Chick-un/Yams/Sweet Maple Kale Salad

Fried Chick-un

Raw Chocolate Cheesecake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

6. Woomi Garden (read Blog)

Jap Chae

Jap Chae

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

7. Great Sage (read Blog)

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

8. Jerusalem Restaurant (read Blog)

Hannet – Stewed Lamb

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

Makdous/Stuffed Eggplant

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, Garlic

9. Swahili Village (read Blog)

Grilled Goat, Beef, Chicken, Chapati Bread, Collard Greens, Spinach, and Rice Pilaf.

Group Platter - Swahili Village

Samaki Wa Nazi/Fish in Coconut Sauce Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

10. Yekta Kabobi (read Blog)

Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob

Chicken Soltani Beef Kabobs

Bastanee Nooni/Saffron Ice-cream Wafer

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

11.Baan Thai (read Blog)

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Northern Thai Pork Curry

Northern Thai Pork Curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading my blogs throughout 2016. Happy Eating in the New Year!

Baan Thai

Baan ThaiThe time was right to write another restaurant blog. My cousin was visiting from the other side of the world, literally, with his family and father-in-law in tow. I was tempted to invite them back to my place for some home-cooked food, which I’m sure they would have appreciated, but they couldn’t have fitted into my jalopy with 200,000 miles accrued. So, I decided on meeting them at a Thai restaurant near their hotel that I had heard about. Located on the busy and tourist-laden 14th St. NW corridor, Baan Thai sits on top of another Thai restaurant. But perusing through its online menu, the dishes hinted of a different direction that most Thai restaurants take with their dishes, a more notably Northern Thai one. So with this in mind, I was looking forward to my taste buds being challenged from their offerings. Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites
Thai Money Bags

Walking into the shotgun-style former row house, I was escorted to the floor above the restaurant level, to the bar/lounge area, perhaps used to serve to accommodate the overflow (glad I made a reservation). We quickly honed on a couple of appetizers. The first was an unfamiliar one to this diner – Pineapple Chicken Bites. The pretty dish arrived with pieces of beautifully carved fruit dressed with cilantro, a curious-looking ball, and a slice of red chili. One bite into it raised my eyebrows. The ball consisted of battered chicken pieces mixed with chopped peanuts and tasting sweet and savory at the same time. The fresh fruitiness of the pineapple echoed the sweetness of the nutty chicken ball and simultaneously added the counterfoil to it. This was an exciting bite to start off the meal. The next small bite was Golden Fried Pockets, also called Money Bags in other Thai joints. The dumplings were well fried and nearly greaseless to the touch. However, the mix, although quite savory, was nothing out of the ordinary and the filling a tad beyond its prime, especially the minced shrimp in the mix exuding a slight off-note. Anyway, it was just ok.

Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin and Shrimp

Since my folks were in the mood for food to remind them of home, the first main course was Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin with Shrimp. The dish arrived on a plate, rather than a bowl, with pieces of pumpkin, shrimp, and Thai basil, all sitting on a bare pool of sauce. The pumpkin was not too sweet, more a squash kind, cooked perfectly and tasting savory from having absorbed the sauce flavors, and the shrimp was cooked firm, all brought together by the flavorful and slightly sweet light chili garlic sauce. Things were made more interesting by the fragrant Thai basil and the use of slices of red and green chilies, adding more heat and their vegetal notes. My folks and I quite enjoyed this dish, and its quite fiery heat was warming us up in this cold weather.

Northern Thai Pork Curry

The other main course was a nod to the Northern Thai Eesan region that this restaurant takes its inspiration from – Northern Thai Pork Curry. The first spoonful commanded my attention. The large meat pieces were fork tender, tasting moist and replete with an unusual “curry” flavors of fragrant root herbs and chili heat. There was no specific spice or herb flavor that stood out, but the sum of it all produced an inviting je-ne-sais-qoui along with its tempting spice heat. I kept digging at the dish as I could not get enough of its unctuousness. To top it off, the pickled garlic and julienne of young ginger added some more bite and complimentary spikes to this dish. A beautiful Eesan dish indeed.

Norther Thai Pork Tomato Chili Dip

My cousin’s father-in-law honed in on another Eesan offering. Northern Thailand Pork and Chili Dip was a trio consisting of a mini mortar of minced pork dip, large batons of fried pork, and a traditional Thai basket of steamed sticky rice. The fried pork was quite savory from some seasoning but it was quite dry being it was pieces of loin, I suspect, that was lacking the touch of fat to bring back some moisture to the rather dry bits. This would probably be more appropriate for the North American but not for this Asian who loves a cut like pork belly. The basket of sticky rice was perfectly cooked, albeit lacking any seasoning, but it was the perfect vehicle for the pieces of pork. But it was the pork chili dip that grabbed my attention. It was moist and made alluring by  a tinge of sweetness, a blazing heat, and an interesting note that I could only attribute to the dried chili powder used to spice it up. The leaves of lettuce and tomato pieces were the necessary canvas to bring some freshness and relief to this fiery dip, which I kept coming back to. If weren’t for the lean cut of pork in the fried bits, this would have been a home run.

Glass Noodle Chicken

Not all dishes consist of curry or meat, and with this in mind, we had a tough time finding a purely vegetable offering on the menu; perhaps this is a trait of Northern Thai cuisine. Eventually we settled on Stir Fried Glass Noodle with Chicken and Shrimp. The plate came with a melange of bean noodles cooked with Napa cabbage, green onions, Chinese greens, eggs, chicken and shrimp. Although the ingredients were well-cooked with a fermented red bean curd sauce, it was a bit too sweet for all diners at the table. But it provided the necessary relief from the above spicy dishes that were doing a masochistic number on our mouths.

Baan Thai is  a breath of fresh air from your usual run-of-the-mill Thai establishment that offers mostly a Bangkok style menu with the usual well-known offerings.  What I appreciated here was the unapologetic spiciness and seasoning that whisked the diner to the Northern part of the Southeast Asian country with the authentic offerings like the Pineapple Chicken Bites, the Pumpkin Shrimp, the Pork Curry, and the Northern Thai Pork Chili Dip.  The dishes maybe a bit too overwhelming for the average diner, but if you are looking for something challenging yet tasty, beyond the usual Thai offerings, here is the place for your adventurous taste buds.

Baan Thai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Yekta Kabobi

Yekta Kabobi Restaurant

For the longest, I have been on the hunt for a decent Persian restaurant in the DMV.  My love for this Middle Eastern cuisine began with its introduction during my college days 30 years ago when my brother’s girlfriend would invite us over to her mother’s home for wonderful dinners followed by a night replete with traditional music and dancing along some youthful camaraderie. The closest thing to that experience, cuisine-wise, in the DMV area was a small eatery that I discovered a few years ago when I started this blogging business, but the place folded up due to the lack of interest and not to its scrumptious offerings.  So, recently, when an Iranian lady passed on a recommended eatery to me in a chance encounter, I was more than excited to meet this new place’s acquaintance.

Pomegranate JuiceDough/Yogurt Drink

Yekta Kabobi is located in Rockville, MD, on the busy Rockville Pike that seems to harbor many eateries that I have visited, including Joe’s Noodle House (read blog) a couple of doors down from it.  Walking up to the restaurant, I noticed an attached grocery store, both occupying the spacious corner lot of a strip mall.  Upon entering, one notices the well-decorated walls and the stain-glass doors that add ambience and color to the space.  After taking my seat at an inviting table in the corner of the room, I perused the menu which I found to be well-organized but fairly packed without overwhelming the diner.  While trying to make up my mind, I started things off with a refreshing Pomegranate Juice.  What arrived was a glass of ruby red juice that was a bit tart yet not cloyingly sweet like most juices in this country.  Every drop was worth its antioxidant dosage that just set the mood right for the upcoming meal.  A glass of the traditional yogurt drink, Dough (doogh), was house-made (noted on the bill) with its light creaminess made interesting with a sprinkling of dried mint and a touch of salt, making it another refreshing drink worth ordering.

Zeytoon Parvarde & Kashka-o Badenjan/Olive Paste & Eggplant Dip

Since it was a birthday dinner in honor of me, I was given reigns to place the order for the starters.  The first dishes were Kashka-o Badenjan and Zeytoon Parvarde.  The first was a dip made from eggplant topped with fried onions, mint and fermented whey.  The vegetable was not the usual smoky version but still silky enough with a topping of caramelized sweet onions, bright mint, and sour creamy whey.  The whole mix was the perfect spread with the flatbreads that made the perfect vehicle for all its vegetal goodness especially with the good hit of fruity olive oil it exuded.  The other appetizer was an unusual olive spread that peaked my curiosity.  Not quite a tapenade since the olives were still whole, but it was covered with a thick paste made from crushed pomegranate seeds and juice, walnuts, garlic and herbs.  For me, this was an eye-opener that kept beckoning me for more with its tart qualities married with the nutty texture from the walnut bits.  My friends and I were quite enjoying both these openers, and we quickly got a bit stuffed by them.

Tahdig & Khoresh/Crispy Rice & Lamb Sauce

A dish that recalled the many nights of my collegial wonderment with this cuisine was Tahdig.  It is the prized crust at the bottom of the pot of rice that is considered such a delicacy that a woman’s worth is judged by how she skillfully produces it, that is, in the Old World.   The rice rounds were served with a bowl of Khoresh or lamb bean sauce.   The rice crisp were indeed crispy but not as flavorful as those I savored many moons ago since they appeared simply cooked with water unlike the stock-based ones.  However, the lamb sauce was divine, made meaty-rich by the bits of lamb, full-bodied by the soft beans, and a bit citrusy by the tomato sauce and dried lime used to flavor the stew.  Eventually, I focused on the stew and viewed the rounds as a canvas for this awesome sauce.

Persian Stewed Lamb Shank

On to the main courses.  The Friday Night Special was Stewed Lamb Shank.  What arrived was a large piece of meat with the bone attached to it.  A taste of my friend’s dish revealed an extremely tender and moist meat, tasting mild from its gaminess, and mildly seasoned with salt or any other seasoning.  But a taste of the jus revealed the use of saffron that exuded that exotic floral note to the dish, which made the meat more tempting.  The side of Dill Rice reminded me of the one cooked 30 years ago that I always looked forward to at my friend’s abode.  Despite such anticipation, one forkful proved to be a bit disappointing despite being light and fluffy: the rice was a bit bland due to the lack of bold stock in the cooking, and the rice was too moist from some moisture added before serving.  However, the lamb was cooked just right enough for one to hone in during Friday and Sunday nights.

Chicken Soltani Beef KabobsA couple of my dining companions got a combination kabob platters – Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob.  The dish arrived with pieces of chicken breast flanking one side of some saffron Basmati rice and bits of ground beef kabob on the other.  The poultry wowed me with the seared breast pieces that were moist (a tall task) and seasoned just right with a judicious hand.  The beef was equally impressive, made from beefy Angus and seasoned with fresh herbs, onions and garlic, exuding the right flavors and moisture to make them sumptuous.  Both meats were battling the diner’s attention and one couldn’t determine which was better.  The charred pieces of tomato were sweet from the high heat but devoid of bitterness despite the burnt sections.  Quality and price-wise, this is a definite winner in anyone’s books.

Bagali Polo/Lamb Kabob

Being in a Persian restaurant, I knew I had to savor a lamb dish, thus my choice of Bagali Polo or Lamb Kabob.  My dish arrived with a ring of grilled tenderloin, onion, and tomato, all hugging a mound of customized rice that I placed with the order.  The lamb was properly seasoned, lightly salted and tasted quite mild of its lamb flavors.  I didn’t mind that they were not as tender as one would as expect, but that is what one can expect for meat well-done, a common trait in Middle Eastern cooking.  The pieces of onion and tomato were made sweet from the grill charring with the mild bitterness from the burnt bits that acted as a matching counterpoint to their sweetness.  An equal star on the dish was the customized rice, made with a combination of orange peel, pistachio, and almond slivers, which one can pick from a list of possible rice combinations.  The rice was supercharged with the candied orange peel, (tasting more like tangerine) that was perfumy and devoid of the bitter pith, and made nutty from the aromatic crunch pistachio and almond bits that also added some textural contrast.  For me, this was the perfect rice combo that matched well with the savory lamb pieces, making it the quintessential lamb kabob dish for me, especially on my birthday.

Joojeh/Cornish Hen with Barberry Rice

Another popular dish in the house is Joojeh or Grilled Cornish Hen.  The pieces of poultry looked like pieces of breast meat upon the plate’s arrival.  But one bite revealed their true nature.  Each piece was a different part of the bird: the thighs, the breast, the back, and the wings, each carrying a slightly different texture due to their need for different cooking times and also the cut of bird.  But what tied the disparate parts were the wonderfully perfect seasoning that was judicious with the salt and the various faint notes of je-ne-sais-qoui that brought some gestalt import to the whole mix, to which I ended up seriously gnawing every morsel of flesh from that small critter.  The side of Barberry Rice, ordered as recommended by my waiter, was the perfect accompaniment with the pieces of fruit with its bright cranberry-like tanginess without having the usual sweetness associated with its American cousin.  The rice and bird are definitely a match made in heaven, and it was definite treat for me to savor it, thanks to my waiter.

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

Reading online reviews, I was intrigued by a dessert that I had never heard of – Bastanee Nooni or Saffron Ice Cream Sandwich.  My helpful server suggested us to have it prepared the traditional way: what arrived intrigued me visually with the ice cream sandwiched by some plain wafers, reminding me of growing up with this kind of ice cream sandwich.  The icy filling was creamy and sweet enhanced by a rose-water note, exuding its mild exotic saffron floral notes that made each bite intriguing, and studded by pieces of fragrant pistachio.  My dining companions partook in the divine dessert, but we regretted having just placed only one order to end our sumptuous meal.

Faloodeh/Vermicelli Ice Cream with Cherry Syrup

After replaying the flavors of the above dessert for a few days, I knew I had to taste another sweet treat on the second trip, and this time, I ordered Fadooleh or Rice Noodle Sorbet, which intrigued me upon reading its description on the menu.  What arrived were two large scoops of sorbet that looked rather nondescript.  After pouring the sour cherry sauce and lemon juice (bottled, unfortunately), I dug into it with my probing sensors full on.  Different textures and flavors were registering on my tongue that made the dish both mind-probing yet delightful: firm rice noodles in the sorbet, almond-like notes from the sour cherry sauce, citrus notes from the lemon juice, and floral notes from the rose-water syrup pooled around the mounds.  This was an exotic trip that continued my journey down this culinary tradition and another satisfactory ending to a delectable meal.

Yekta Kabobi RestaurantYekta Kabobi Restaurant is truly a great find especially in an area where Persian cuisine is amiss, unfortunately so.  What this place offers are delicious dishes produced by a skillful kitchen with their perfectly calibrated seasoning and authentic offerings, from the intriguing and savory eggplant and olive spreads, to the mildly yet tender lamb shank special, to the perfectly seasoned and equally cooked kabob beef, chicken and Cornish hen dishes, to the alluring and exotic rice combinations, and finally, the ice-cream and sorbet dishes that just whisk you away to a distant place with their irresistible yet unique flavors.  No wonder I noticed the groups of Persian families, as well as those from other cultural backgrounds, enjoying their dinner here – diversity is an amazing thing.  I know I have found a new favorite haunt not only to relive my youthful recollections but to also enjoy the flavors of Persian food that I discovered long time ago; this place is most worthy for this gastronomic task.

Yekta Kabob House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato