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

20160228_135232

Quesadillas

20160228_135101

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

Swahili Village

Beltsville, MD has quite recently received the accolade by the Washington Post as the area within the DMV with the most diverse offering of good eats, and deservedly so.  For a few years, I passed by one of its establishments, Swahili Village, a Kenyan eatery, on my errand rounds, and I was always tempted to savor their offerings.  But such enthusiasm was always thwarted by the sight of their small parking lot and its congestion during busy hours.  However, for over a year, I had been eyeing a larger shop lot a few blocks away that the restaurant has decided to put down its new roots.  After much delay and anticipation, it opened its new doors, and that is where I paid it a few visits.

Swahili VillageSwahili Village

Walking into the space, you immediately notice that this is not your usual African dive – money has definitely been spent here, and in a tasteful manner.  The decor and lights are both modern yet inviting, with splashes of Afrikana to remind one of this place’s roots. Taking my seat, I noticed the glass window opening to the kitchen, which added more psychological space for the eater.  I was enjoying the details of the set-up and in the glassware as well as the cutlery.  But I had to refocus my attention to the rather simple menu and figure out how to maneuver my appetite around it. Chicken Wings
Bhajia - Lentil battered Potatoes Samosas

From the appetizers, I had Chicken Wings on an occasion.  Usually one to avoid this ubiquitous offering, I was urged by the waiter to give it a try.  One bite into it revealed lots to me.  The pieces of wing tasted fresh and well-seasoned, without any distinctive spice coming through.  I marveled at the crispness despite the absence of any batter and the use of fresh oil to produce a greaseless finished product.  Each bite cascaded into another due to the above quality and the poultry being seasoned thoroughly judging by the spice coloring in every morsel.  It came with a mild Marsala Sauce which was more a detractor from the already flavorful wings.  On another occasion, the order was Bhajia.  Thin slices of potato were covered in lentil flour and fried.  Its appearance was not exactly very tempting due all the brownness, but one bite into it changed my mind.  The potato was perfectly seasoned with the batter adding more flavor and a slightly mealy crisp texture.  Judging by the batter color, perhaps turmeric powder was added, hence its faint perfume in the mix.  A side of the house-made fiery Pili Pili sauce should be taken with extreme caution but they added some more flavor to these bites.  The handling of this lowly tuber was enobling and revelatory.  Another appetizer order was of Indian origin, Samosas, pointing to Indian migration to this former African British colony. The packets were phyllo dough wrapped around a filling of ground meat that was well-seasoned and made herbaceous from a handful of cilantro.  The dough was perfectly fried with a greaseless touch and a crispy texture.  The side sweet hot sauce tasted house-made, providing the right sweet heat for these tasty bites.  The appetizers here are some savory starters that are worth the diner’s attention.

Kenyan Goat Soup Nyama Mchuzi - Beef Stew

Mbuzi Mchuzi - Goat StewOn the menu, the entrees include some stew and soup offerings.  Goat Soup is the only offering in the soup category and I gave it a try.  I enjoyed the whole mix of goat meat that was extremely tender and faintly gamey, perfectly cooked bits of carrots and potato that lent some sweetness and body, alongside tomato that added the slight acid to the mix, and leaves of collard green, all brought together by a fairly clear full-flavored broth that is the sum of the long cooking.  I thoroughly enjoyed this sip and I wished it came in a bigger bowl.  For the stews, they were either made with goat or beef.  The pieces of boneless beef and the bone-in goat were completely tender and flavored by their lengthy time in the stew. The mix tasted slightly tomato-base, making it full-flavored yet rather light for it to be eaten in the midst of summer.  The sides also garnered some attention.  The cabbage were pieces of finely julienned pieces lightly cooked with some fenugreek, which added a unique scent.  The rice pilau was basmati rice scented by cardamon and Indian cinnamon, moistened by some stock just before service.  The spinach tasted and had the consistency of creamed spinach (made from coconut milk), enough to give a reputable steakhouse a run for its money.  The plantains were not too sweet, for a change, tasting clean having been fried in fresh oil.  I must say that my dining companion and I were truly satisfied by these offerings, both the mains and the sides.

Mbuzi Choma - Grilled Goat
Group Platter - Swahili Village

The grilled meats in the entree section menu looked very tempting and we had to try them out.  One of my first visit, my friend’s order was Grilled Goat.  I had a taste of it and it immediately raised my eyebrows.  The flavors reminded me of when my Dad had office dinners in the house compound with a goat roasting over a pit fire.  Well, the meat was well seared from some charcoal fire, its gaminess suppressed, well-seasoned from a good marination, and tender at the same time.  The side of bread, Chapati (of Indian origin), tasted house-made and fresh.  The other accompaniment was boiled ground hominy or Ugali, which I thought was too plain for my taste (I prefer the Ghanaian fermented version), but I appreciated its authentic nature.  But I kept going back to the goat as its flavors and textures beckoned me to return for more.  The side of tomato salad was the perfect counterpoint to the meat with its fruity ripeness and the spot-on seasoning, as well as a slight piquant kick.  After tasting the goat, I wanted to come back for some Grilled Beef.  But this time, it was served as part of the Group Platter.  The oval dish came with the aforementioned grilled meats, as well as grilled chicken breast.  The sides were the spinach, collard greens, cabbage, tomato salad, Chapati bread, and Rice Pilau in lieu of the usual order of hominy.  The beef came in cube form and they were quite dark from a good stay on the grill which give it a charred flavor that I appreciate with this meat.  The pieces were perfectly seasoned, and as it sat on the plate, they got a bit chewy since they were fully cooked – medium rare is a Western taste sensibility, but not here.  This house knows how to handle grilled meats and I wouldn’t miss these dishes when visiting. Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

Dengu - Lentils in Coconut SauceOn a couple of occasions, we tried their lighter fare.  Samaki Wa Nazi is fish in a curry sauce.  One taste of it pointed to a certain level of care in its preparation.  The cubes of tilapia was devoid of the dark fishiness usually associated with it (removing the central nerve is the key), and it had a thin layer of batter from a light frying before it was coated by a savory, creamy and slightly tomato-tangy sauce.  I was thoroughly enjoying this concoction, as well as the sides of mashed peas and potato that reminded me of the English version but here studded with reconstituted hominy, and the finely julienned collard green that held its texture and color from a light sauté, akin to how the Brazilians prepare it as a topping for Feijoada.  The other light dish was for my vegan BFF – Ndengu or Lentils in Coconut Sauce.  The mix had a rather silky feel made creamy from the coconut milk and fragrant from the use of what I suspect Garam Masala, the ubiquitous Indian spice mix, since there was no distinctive single note in the aroma and flavor.  My friend was equally satisfied  by the sides of Chapati bread and mashed pea and potato.

Asante - Goodbye, Swahili Village

Swahili Village grabbed my attention from the moment I walked in, from its new space, to the decor, and to the array of gastronomic offerings.  What makes the experience at the new place special besides the arresting visuals, is the attention given to the dishes and the refinement in both presentation, seasoning, and flavor combinations, all elements necessary to elevate soulful dishes from the Motherland.  Rarely was there an item that I was not drawn to, even the plain hominy that was a direct tribute that I respected and I would’t try to mess with.  The owner, Kevin, was both warm and knowledgeable, and he has something good going here, judging by the large crowds of expats on the weekends and Friday nights. The service was faulted by online reviewers at the previous location, but I get a feeling that they heard the customers loud and clear as our servers were attentive and congenial.   Don’t worry about the parking – there is a lot of space.  Even less to worry about is their wonderful authentic cooking that would please just about anyone.

Swahili Village Bar and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jerusalem Restaurant

Recently I blogged about a Korean restaurant which I enjoyed their savory offerings, but only after having complained about how hard it was finding one that was worth raving about.  The same sentiment can be applied to Middle Eastern restaurants.  I guess this can be attributed to me being spoiled by my visits to the many exemplary establishments in Detroit, where my brother used to live, with a plethora of such eateries, and hence the competition for excellent fare.  The other reason could be pointed to my invitations to a Lebanese-Armenian friend’s house for his mother’s divine dishes.  But recently, I came across a newfound restaurant serving such cuisine that is worth mentioning.

Jerusalem Restaurant

Jerusalem Restaurant is located in Bailey’s Crossroads, Fairfax, VA, quite off my beaten path of restaurant hunting.  But an online coupon perked my interest in this establishment since Middle Eastern cuisine is scant on my blog site. Located off the busy Route 7, it is quite a spacious place sitting in the middle of a strip mall.  Walking into it, you sense the rather exotic decor immediately by the art and the furniture.  After greeting my dining companion, we quickly corralled a number of dishes to be savored and written about.

Trio Dippers - Hummus, Babaghanouj, Labneh

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, GarlicThe appetizers are divided into the cold and hot sections.  From the former, we honed in on a couple.  The first was Trio Platter.  The beautiful square plate arrived with Hummus, Babaghanouj, Labneh, and complementary, yet de rigueur in such establishments, olives and pickled radish.  The Hummus was smooth, creamy and tangy, all the necessary notes for it to be successful.  The Babaghanouj exuded the necessary smokiness as a counterpoint to the luxurious silky roasted eggplant, with a tinge of garlic.  The Labneh was thick and creamy, much like Greek yogurt, tasting tangy and fruity from a drizzle of olive oil.  The complementary olives and radish were tasting rather fresh and house-made, beckoning us to nibble on them throughout dinner.  The pita bread tasted fresh and which was the perfect vehicle to transport the various dips to mouth, albeit a bit thicker than the Lebanese kind, which I prefer.  The second order caught my attention immediately upon seeing it on the menu.  Makdous is dish of small green eggplants stuffed with a filling of crushed walnuts, red pepper, garlic, and marinated in olive oil.  The vegetables were cooked through without falling apart encasing a stuffing that was enticing and quite exotic, being nutty, extremely garlicky, and all brought together by a long marination in olive oil.  As starters, my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed these openers.

Chicken Couscous

My friend’s entrée order was quite standard fare for Middle Eastern cuisine – Chicken Couscous. The bowl arrived with the grain mixed with vegetables, topped by pieces from half a chicken.  The couscous was a departure from the Moroccan style that I was used to, being a bit stodgy and tangy due to the use of tomato as its stock base.  The companions of squash, carrot, chickpeas, and potato were the usual.  However, the squash and carrot were slightly undercooked (the only time I prefer my vegetables thoroughly cooked). But it was the chicken that was getting my undivided attention. The pieces were moist and thoroughly cooked encased by a smoky and crispy skin, which made them very irresistible, albeit a bit under seasoned.  The waitress explained that the chicken was slow cooked for an hour, then finished on a grill resulting in that wonderful crispy skin.  Even though the couscous didn’t make an impression, the tasty chicken was sumptuous enough to make up for the deficiencies.

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

My order was another discovery just like the eggplant appetizer.  Hannet is made with lamb and rice, and one bite into the dish got me hooked.  The lamb tasted properly seasoned and was fall-off-the-bone tender while exuding its characteristic meaty flavor without being over whelming.  Obviously it was boiled in a stock until its proper doneness.  The accompanying rice was no shy partner in this dish.  The Basmati rice was light and fluffy, tasting extremely savory from the use of stock, and wonderfully aromatic from the use of green cardamom pods (more subtle than the dark ones).  The combination of rice and lamb in each forkful was a harmonious marriage, made more tantalizing by the slivers of nutty almond and slices of pungent raw onion.  The side of sauce was fiery, pungent from garlic and onion, and lemony, all elements to elevate the dish even further.  This dish was indeed an eye opener and a success for me.

Warbat - Custard stuffed PastryEven though we were very sated from the various courses, we were tempted throughout the meal by the dessert display sitting under some bright lights a few feet from us.  It was quite difficult choosing from the rather large array of sweets, some of which I recognized and savored before.  Eventually, we chose Warbat.  It is pretty much fillo dough encasing a custard, and soaked in syrup.  I must say I wasn’t too impressed with this one for its slightly cloying sweetness which begged for an orange-blossom water note, and the custard was not rich enough to elevate it beyond pedestrian.  Maybe another choice from the many would have been more successful.

I’m glad I trekked a distance to try out this restaurant.  The meal openers were successful in my mind, with the properly made hummus, labneh, and babaghanouj dips, to the stuffed marinated eggplant that was exotic to spark some curiosity in us for the rest of the meal.  The chicken in the couscous dish really hit the spot with its smoky crispy skin and fairly moist flesh.  My lamb rice dish was an excellent choice with the tender meat and the wonderfully fragrant savory rice.  Even though the dessert was a bit of a let down, I’m curious to discover the rest of their sweet fare on future trips.  It is about time I found a Middle Eastern restaurant worth mentioning, and Jerusalem Restaurant is worth the hike.

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

Great Sage

Great Sage Restaurant

Lately I have been on a Vegan/Vegetarian kick that is surprising me, not just for the meatless fare that I have been partaking, but also the flavors and the sense of satisfaction that the meals have imparted on me. For some time, many of my acquaintances have been mentioning about a vegan restaurant in Clarksville, near Columbia, MD. Being out of my blogging area, I wouldn’t have considered writing about the place. But with so many accolades that it has garnered, I decided to pay it a couple of visits before penning about the establishment.

Red Peppercorn Beet Salad

Carrot Ginger SoupDriving to Great Sage is relatively easy since it is not too far from the Route 32 that is a major thoroughfare of that part of the boonies. Located in a strip mall, it sits at the end of the parking lot dotted by other vegan and New Age establishments. We decided to sit in its outdoor area so that I could get some good light for the photos. Looking through its rather simple menu, we picked out a couple of openers. I started with the Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad. The plate landed with a melange of colors and shapes. The bed consisted of Boston lettuce, topped with large pieces of beet (tasting mild from being boiled), pieces of colorful and crunchy watermelon radish, a ravishingly ripe avocado, all garnished by some sunflower seeds made savory by a sugar-salt mix, and drizzled with a “creamy” pink peppercorn dressing (vegan – really?). I was impressed by this fresh combination and flavors that just hit the right spots. My BFF’s Carrot Ginger soup was quite tasty from the spice root’s zing quality and slight sweetness from the carrot, with a faint background note of fenugreek, which is a departure from the usual cumin. However, I thought it lacked a bit more body and sweetness, thus left me wanting more in this dish.

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke DipOn another occasion, we went for the houses signature appetizer – Spinach Artichoke Dip. The rather big platter arrived with some toasted whole wheat baguette, which beckoned our hungry stomachs for an immediate tasting. Boy, was it good! The baby spinach were barely wilted without the bitter aftertaste, the pickled artichoke chunky and lending its vinegary quality to the whole mix, and the dressing and “parmesan” topping tasting so creamy that they fooled my taste buds that the dish was purely vegan. Now with a healthier version like this, I could eat this dish more often, or serve it at parties without anyone noticing the difference. Mushroom Bibimbap

Portabello Panini SandwichOn to the main courses. BFF ordered something usually found in Korean restaurants, but made vegan here – Bibimbap. The bowl arrived with brown rice as its base, topped with strips of Portobello mushroom sautéed with ginger, pickled red ginger, carrots, cabbage, sweet and tangy Wakame seaweed salad, young kale leaves, and white and black sesame seeds. This meal was quite hearty and very tasty according to him, but he was breaking out into sweats with the fiery Sriracha/Hoisin sauce, which could have been served on the side. My order was in the Mediterranean vein – Portobello Panini. The focaccia bread had hints of rosemary, reminding me of the ones I had in Italy. The stuffing was grilled portobello that tasting tangy from a vinaigrette marinade, fresh young spinach leaves, and sweet roasted red peppers. Its tangy note was coupled by a creamy tangy dressing. However, it was the side potato salad that got most of my attention with the textural contrast of potato and celery enveloped by a “creamy” tangy dressing that belied its vegan nature.

Pulled Squash Sandwich

Buffalo "Chicken" WrapOn another visit, we both had sandwiches or wraps. BFF went for the house special that day – Pulled Squash Sandwich. It was an attempt to replicate the barbecued pork version. His sandwich was stuffed with strands of spaghetti squash made sweet sour by a sauce with a hint of cumin, which reminded me of chili con carne. The pickled red onions added more of the sour note to the dish, which, unfortunately, could not be balanced by something meaty, I mean, substantial. Sometimes, an attempt to replicate a known meat dish can fall short as in this case. My order was Buffalo Chicken Wrap. The Chili tortilla encased a filling of “chicken” tasting spicy, lettuce, tomato, red onions, all moistened by a “blue cheese” creamy dressing. Despite the protein being a bit softer in texture, I enjoyed this mix and the different textures necessary to bring about some degree of satisfaction, the very thing that squash sandwich lacked with all its “softness.”

Sin Tres Leches Cake

Organic Coconut WaterI had to try its desserts since that is an area that can be tricky with the lack of egg and butter in vegan cooking. We ordered the Sin Tres Leches, a play of words (“sin” meaning without) on the extremely creamy and rich (and calorie-laden) original version. The plate arrived slightly messier than what I expected but all the elements looked very tempting. The pieces of strawberry were fresh and quite sweet, echoed by the rather sweet strawberry coulis that was proper. However, the cake was a bit off due to the use of unbleached flour and the lack of the non-vegan elements that would have added some more body to it; the use of some decent amount vanilla would have helped it too. The “creamy” sauce didn’t hit it for me, it being made with coconut milk, soy milk, and cashew milk, which didn’t add enough richness to the mix. The side of “whipped cream” tasted of just trapped air which perplexed me with its “nothingness”! Maybe another dessert dish would have been successful with its vegan rendition.

Great Sage RestaurantVegan cooking can be very tricky due to its effort in replicating flavors and textures found in non-vegan versions. What Great Sage falls short on are on the dishes that pretty much fall in the domain of meat and dairy desserts. But what it does best are in those that lean heavily in the vegetarian department. Such was the case in the Pink Peppercorn Salad, the Spinach Artichoke Dip, the Bibimbap, and the Portobello Panini. But, I have to admit that I was satisfied by the Buffalo “Chicken” Wrap which nearly caught all the textures and flavors associated with that dish. The cooking at Great Sage is not short on creativity and flavors, especially the ability to produce creamy dishes with no cream or egg. Now, I understand why they have garnered so many accolades, not only from their customers but also from the press. This is a place that I will be heading back often, especially with my vegan BFF.

Great Sage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Woomi Garden

Korean restaurants are hard to write about for the very fact that most are quite good and they serve basically the same array of traditional dishes.  However, my visits to various establishments were generally marred by loud and flashy restaurant environments or food that appeared mass produced without a sense of personal touch.  For these very reasons, many Korean restaurants have been visited, but only a couple have made it on my blog site.

Woomi Garden

I had passed by Woomi Garden for many years from my visits to my favorite Cantonese joint (read blog) located close by in Wheaton, MD.  Speaking to some Koreans, they always pointed to this establishment, and I had to get over my bias of the place due its rather rundown look on the exterior.  Furthermore, a great coupon offer appeared online, and that sealed the deal for me to make it through its doors.  Walking in, you immediately sense that its charm saw its heyday a few years ago with the decor looking very Old School/Old World and the place feeling that it needs a good scrub down from all the barbecue smoke from the last decade.  Counteracting my immediate reaction, the sight of expats and a fairly full house were the assurances that I needed to quell some of my trepidations.

Korean Side Dishes Miso Soup

A litmus test of Korean restaurants, in my mind, is with the side dishes placed before the arrival of any dish.  The seven small bowls were served on both occasions with only a single change on another visit.  The Kimchi tasted quite tangy and spicy, with a slightly crunch to indicate its proper breakdown from the spice marination.  The beansprouts were slightly salty with a hint of sesame oil and tasting still slightly crunchy.  The unwaxed cucumber (Kirby type found in Korean marts) were slightly wilted from a slightly sweet spicy mix.  The Chinese spinach was barely wilted and slightly salty and aromatic from sesame oil. The shredded daikon was crunchy, sweet, and tangy. The salad was deceptively tasty from a light vinaigrette.  The pressed tofu skins were savory and meaty in texture.  The potato was savory from soy sauce and slightly sweet.  All these dishes passed the litmus test well, and not a single morsel was left on both visits.  The complementary Miso soup was properly made with enough bean paste in the soup, mixed with pieces of tofu, umami-filled Wakame seaweed, and slivers of green onion.

Mandu

One appetizer that is a favorite of mine is Mandu or Fried Dumplings.  The appetizer portion here is quite sizable with six rather large pockets making it to the table.  The skin was the thick version made blistered from some good hot frying, but it was not too stodgy to fill one up quickly.  One bite into it revealed a fairly savory mixture of minced pork and beef, made a bit fragrant from a good amount of finely chopped green onion.  The side sauce was tasting salty from soy sauce, tangy from vinegar, and spicy from slices of jalapeño, making the pockets even more tempting.  Despite having eaten three of them, they didn’t fill me up nor prevented me from looking forward to the rest of the meal.  Not a bad start.

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

On one occasion, we ordered two main proteins for the mains.  The first was the obligatory Beef Bulgogi.  The plate of raw meat arrived looking bright red and very freshly prepared.  Our waitress had heated up the grill plate and thankfully the strong vents were working, a common complaint I have about many such eateries.  The grilled product was tender pieces of beef, tasting well-seasoned of slightly sweet and quite peppery from white pepper.   The lettuce leaves served as wraps for these meaty morsels, but I found the side miso-based sauce too salty with each packet.  I have had many versions of this dish, and I must admit that this is a very good rendition here.

.

.

.

Barbecue Pork Belly

The other main was Marinated Pork.  Just when I thought that the beef dish was a great hit, this meat cut did not take a secondary role. The pieces of pork were quite tender, tasting quite sweet, and made spicy and slightly smoky from the use of dried chili powder.  It was this combination of flavors that made each piece irresistible and especially interesting from that smoky note which reminded me of smoked paprika.  I must have had overdosed on meat that night due to the latter two meat dishes and their well-marinated flavors.  But with such wonderful flavors and quality meat cuts, one just can’t help himself from doing so.

.

.

Jap Chae

Jap Chae is a common dish found in most Korean places, and an order was placed here. The large plate arrived with a generous portion.  What I appreciated about what I ate was the tapioca noodles that were slightly al dente, the pieces of carrot, sweet onion, red pepper that were quite slightly crunchy to provide a textural counterpoint, pieces of green onion that added the slightly pungency, the wood fungus that added the slippery texture, all topped by egg strands.  The seasoning was perfect with its savoriness and the right amount of sesame oil as to not overwhelm the whole mix.  This is another must-order here in my books.

Barbecue Shrimp

Another visit was marked by two other proteins for the grill pan.  The first was Large Shrimp.  The order was generous with around a dozen of the butterflied large pieces.  Our waitress was so busy running around that night, being a full house on the weekend, that I had to attend to the cooking.  The pieces were well-marinated tasting slightly sweet with a bite from a good dose of black pepper, which made the seafood more interesting than the usual treatment.  Unfortunately, the pieces were slightly overcooked due to my late rescue, but the flavors made up for that flaw.  The vegetable sides were sweet red pepper, sweet onion, button mushroom, broccoli, and Shiitake mushroom, the latter being the star among the veggies with its meaty texture and boschy notes.  If weren’t for the overcooking, this would have been the perfect dish.

Barbecue Chicken Breast

To balance things out, we had to order the Chicken dish which comes in the breast form.  The fairly large pieces tasted well-marinated, as in the case of all the above proteins, quite sweet from the caramelization on the grill, and a hint of white pepper.  Yes, the poultry was a bit dry due to the lack of attention from our super busy waitress, but I managed to save it from beyond redemption. If chicken breast is your thing, I won’t hesitate ordering it here due to the flavors that each piece carried.

Sweet Rice Soup

 

To end the meal, we were served wth a traditional “dessert”.  It consisted of a slightly sweet soup made “milky” from grains of rice boiled until it is quite spongy.  The soup tasted sweet from the use of rock sugar which has a subtle distinctive taste from granular sugar.  This reminded me of my grandmother’s version, but she would let the brew ferment for a few days to produce an amazing boozy elixir.  But this meal-ender was refreshing and enough to give me the sugar fix without saturating my taste buds.

.

.

.

.

.

Woomi GardenWoomi Garden is definitely a great find for Korean fare.  Yes, its decor is screaming for a serious update and a heavy scrub down.  Putting that aside, what makes this place spectacular is the finesse and flavors in all the dishes that we ordered, starting from the proper Miso soup, to the pretty good dumplings, to the scrumptious side dishes that balanced the meal perfectly, to the proteins that were well-marinated and from good cuts, and to the Jap Chae that had a perfect balance of flavors and textures.  Again, never judge a restaurant by its faded front and decor, but by its offerings and the sight of a filled dining room.  Now, time for me to get a couple more coupons before the offer is over.

Woomi Garden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato