Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a  stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas.  One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCI recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order.  The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer.  This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.

Shaky Beef, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles.  Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe.  The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal.  It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses.  I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me.  The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Golden Samovar

Golden Samovar, Rockvile, MD

One recent cold night, a longtime friend and I were looking for a Peruvian restaurant in Rockville, MD by the Town Center. After hunting high and low, we gave up and walked into the closest eating establishment in order to get out of the cold. We both had not savored Russian food before and the menu piqued our interest as we traversed down this gastronomic journey.

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Chicken Blintzes, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDHerring Furcoat Salad, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Golden Samovar sits on the corner of Rockville Town Center.  Walking in, you are immediately welcomed by a rather smart decor with a European touch in the chandeliers, embossed walled paper, and a framed Siberian wolf, which not only was it shocking but strikingly impressive.  After navigating the terra incognito-like menu, we decided on a couple of appetizers that I had read or heard about. The first was Chicken Blintzes. The rolls consisted of a buttery yet slightly firm pancake wrap filled with a shredded chicken filling, which we found tasting freshly-made and quite savory, especially with the house-made sour cream that was not overly tangy. The second was totally unfamiliar to us – Herring Furcoat Salad. What presented itself was quite perplexing since it didn’t look like a traditional salad but a cupbowl filled with reddish and creamy parts.  But one spoonful was quite an eye-opener.  It was a mixture of shredded fresh beets and carrots, chunks of briny pickled herring, sitting on mashed potato and liaisoned by a mayonnaise-like topping. The disparate elements spell out an unimaginable alliance, but this made an incredible combination that my friend and I couldn’t stop returning to. After the waiter told us that this dish was usually prepared for special occasions, I can see why due to its appealing flavors.

Chicken Kiev, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDUzbek Plov, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD My friend ordered Chicken Kiev which seems like standard fare. What arrived was a bit surprising.  The ball of meat was finely minced chicken meat mixed with some breading and stock to loosen it up, and seasoned mildly.  Instead of the usual stuffing with cheese, a creamy cheese sauce was napéd on the crispy breading exterior.  This was a subtle dish that I was enjoying partly due to its novelty and “authentic” take of what we know this dish to be. As for my main course, I ordered an Uzbek special, Lamb Plov, since the owner hails from the region. What arrived reminded me of Afghan Rice Pilaf, pointing towards the connections between the close countries. The fluffy basmati rice was well seasoned with stock and aromatic wood spices, sweetened by shredded carrots and raisins, and studded with fork-tender and well-seasoned pieces of lean lamb that tasted like a perfect partner with the rice.

Borscht Soup - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Cucumber Radish Salad - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

On another occasion, a couple of friends joined me for the $30 all-you-can-eat brunch menu, which was a rare treat for me. I started off the with Borscht soup which I though was a must-try.  The soup had all the usual elements of beets, cabbage, pieces of beef, and sour cream, but it somehow was quite insipid for my taste buds that was yearning for more of a stock flavor. The side of Cucumber/Radish Salad was interesting being pieces of the vegetables coated with some sour cream and fresh dill, but it needed some salt and tang to lift its flavors up.

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Dolma - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDVeal Pilmeni - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Since the owner is from the Uzbek region, stuffed grape leaf counts itself among the Russian dishes – Dolma. The small bite was attentively made with the right balance of flavors and acumen. Each bite consisted of a mild grape leaf wrapped around a light but spiced rice meat mixture, complemented by a tangy yogurt-like sauce – this bit of wonder called for a second order after its initial tasting. A recommendation for us was Pelmeni, reminding me of tortellini but here stuffed with a veal mixture. One bite into it was love-at-first-sight.  The pasta was not too thick and a bit al dente, enveloping an amazingly light meat stuffing that was savory and irresistible. We couldn’t be satisfied with just our individual orders and we eventually had to get a second huge one.

Blintzes, Smoked Salmon & Salmon Roe - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD Bratwurst - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

An order of smoked salmon, salmon roe and blintzes was next – Sakhalin Style Salad.  The fish was of pretty good quality, the salmon roe briny and fishy, and the blintzes the perfect match with the strong seafood elements. We were thoroughly enjoying our big platter and we eventually added on another serving later. We were recommended to try the Russian Bratwurst.  What arrived were sliced-up pieces that reminded me of good Viennese sausage but tasting home-made with its moist light texture.  The side of spelt was tasty and well-made, as well as the cabbage salad that provided the necessary acid to balance the rich flavors and textures. These two dishes were quite a hit for some of us at the table.

Beef Stroganoff - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDPotato Latkes - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

A couple of other small bites were among of plethora dishes that we ordered for brunch, albeit a la carte and thankfully made to order. Beef Stroganoff seemed like a no-brainer for an order in a Russian eatery.  The beef was lean and fork-tender, but I was surprised by how underwhelming this dish was, especially being a meat-chocked dish. I didn’t taste the mashed potato served alongside since I didn’t want to get stuffed with unnecessary dishes, but it looked properly made. We were ingratiated with some Potato Latkes at the end, but we could only manage a couple of forkful which turned out to be quite light and well-made.

Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

What we thought would be a crap shoot turned out to be quite a rewarding gastronomic journey in discovering what Russian cuisine is like at Golden Samovar. There were moments of revelation with the soul-stirring Herring “Salad” and Blintzes either stuffed with chicken or topped with smoked salmon. And there were some dishes that stood out due to their flavors and their skillful cooking, notably the Pilmeni dumplings that kept us hooked, the bratwurst dish, and the Uzbek offerings of stuffed grape leaves and lamb rice dish. As a foray into this European cuisine, this has been a discovery and a pleasing adventure into new-found gastronomic territory. Judging from my visits so far, I think I will be heading back soon to Golden Samovar to discover more tasty delights of this wonderful East European cuisine.

 

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