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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Evolve Vegan

I have been inching down the vegan/vegetarian path for some time now.  Being a Buddhist practitioner, one of the Buddhist aspirations (not a commandment) is to eat vegetarian or vegan to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.  Furthermore, more and more friends and colleagues have taken this step, including my best friend who made that big decision last week. With all these signs around me, I couldn’t help but start focusing on more eating establishments that cater to such meatless cuisine. Recently, an online coupon offer showed up on my computer, and I quickly grabbed that opportunity so that I could visit a vegan Soul food restaurant.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant

Evolve Vegan Restaurant is located in the heart of Takoma Park, NW Washington, merely a few steps from the metro station. It is located in a block of eating establishments that has garnered the recognition as the best vegan eating area in the city. Walking into Evolve, the space appears more spacious than its true real estate due to the storefront windows and the soaring ceiling that add lots of light and an airy feeling. Taking a seat by the window, I perused the one page menu, and it is rather short with only a handful of entrees, a similar amount of sandwiches and salads, followed by an interesting plethora of side dishes. The drinks section was filled with sodas and smoothies, which were not exactly what I was looking for as a thirst quencher. The waiter relayed to me that the restaurant was working on the drinks section which seriously needs more light or fruit-infused liquids. Not letting that be a hindrance, I moved on to the main courses.

Fried Chick-un

Candied Yams, Sweet Maple Kale SaladOnline reviewers made mention of the house’s Southern Fried Chick-un, and that was the first order placed on the initial visit. The dishes picked from the list of fourteen sides were Yams and Sweet Maple Kale Salad. The plate arrived with two fairly large patties encrusted with the traditional-looking batter associated with the real thing. One bite into them was completely revelatory. The texture was akin to that of chicken breast and the flavor replete with the fried chicken seasonings. The first time ordering this was a version with a formidable crust but a slightly dry “meat”, whereas the second had a crumbly crust but a moist inside. Nevertheless, the patties fooled my taste buds with the close texture and unmistakable flavors in the seasoning. The side BBQ sauce was a proper one with its smoky sweet and sour qualities that gave the diner that dipping option.  In addition to the tasty patties, the sides were wrestling my attention away from the protein. The Yams were the candied yams that one would find during a Thanksgiving meal, made with a good hit of cinnamon without overpowering the tubers and sweetened by brown sugar, all tasting good enough to slap your….. But the star for me was the kale salad with the young tender leaves made delectable by a well-balanced combination of maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, making each leaf totally irresistible. Now I can see why the online folks highly recommended this entrée, and deservedly so.

Fried Seaweed Soy Fish

Ratatouille, Ginger Kale SaladWrapped Soyfish was the next main dish. The slices of soy protein arrived battered and perfectly fried, just like the above dish, along with Ratatouille and Ginger Kale Salad as the sides. The “fish” also took me by surprise by the rather firm texture, reminding me of tuna or swordfish steaks. Additionally, the flavors were enhanced by the seaweed wrap that exuded seafood umami-ness, boosted by a hint of Old Bay seasoning in the batter – my dining companion and I were quite satisfied by these “seafood” bites. The sides were equally delectable. The Ratatouille was a melange of zucchini, yellow squash, onions, tomato, and eggplant, all looking and tasting more like stewed yellow squash served in the South due to the lack of enough tomato found in the veritable version. Notwithstanding, this mix was so savory and well cooked with each element holding its own identity and enhanced by a faint hint of dried herbs, perhaps thyme or oregano. The other companion of kale salad literally grabbed my taste buds. The mild leaves were coated by a powerful ginger pesto that had a good bite that made each leaf quite piquant, but balanced by a hint of vinegar and sugar. Needless to say, not a single leaf was left on my plate as this dish combination was also a hit for me.

Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, Beet Salad

Sesame Spinach Salad N'Orleans Macaroni SaladOn the second visit, I had to try another oft-mentioned main – Macaroni and Cheese. The main dish arrived with Beet Salad and Sesame Spinach Salad as their chosen accompaniments. The pasta casserole mix was rather interesting yet tasty at the same time. The macaroni was cooked just right, not al dente, neither too mushy. The mix was quite “creamy” rich yet rather moist, with a crust of gratineed vegan cheese . However, there was slight off note of faint bitterness not usually associated with this dish, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying it since I was not expecting this dish to taste exactly like the original version. The beet salad were julienned strips of raw beets, perhaps lightly boiled due its slightly firmness, mixed with a well-balanced mix of vinegar and sugar, making it tasty beyond its mineral goodness. The spinach salad was a bowlful of young leaves tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with some sesame seeds. I enjoyed the salad for the young tender crisp leaves but I wished the seeds were toasted to bring out more of their nuttiness to add another dimension to the combination. Again, the main and sides shone on this occasion, making them quite worthy of an order. Some sides from my friends’ orders deserve some mention: N’Orleans Macaroni Salad wowed its diner with its creamy flavors and the use of spices and seasonings evoking the Southern city, and a stark Steamed Broccoli that was steamed to perfection with its bright green crunchiness made savory with the use of Amino Liquid for that vegan umami-ness.

Vegan Carrotcake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate CheesecakeOn one occasion, our young waiter highly recommended Vegan Carrot Cake and we took on his advice. The slice arrived with speckles of carrot imbedded in the cake topped with some “icing”. The bite tasted of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, all the appropriate spices and flavors of the real thing. However it was lacking some rich bits of nuts and it was too dense for my liking. Not totally disappointing, but not really a flying success either. However, the amiable chef owner assured me that he would relay my suggestions to the pastry chef. A waitress’ recommendation on another visit was Raw Chocolate Cheesecake. One bite into it raised my eyebrows as well as those of my fellow diner. My immediate reaction was “creamy dark chocolate ice cream.” There was a lusciousness in each bite that belied its dairy-free nature, slightly bitter from a boost of cocoa with a tinge of sourness to cut through the richness. The crust mixture of crushed cashew nut and coconut flake  fooled me that it was raw and vegan. With each bite, my friend and I were “oohing” and “aahing” and we couldn’t stop until the last morsel, even though we were quite sated from the mains and side dishes. This dessert is a must order in my books.

Evolve Vegan RestaurantVegan food is usually associated with plain, bland, textureless, and perhaps pedestrian, all adjectives enough to kill the enthusiasm even before stepping into such establishment. But what my friends and I ordered here far exceeded that mindset, from the “chick-un” and soy fish that had the right textures, seasoning, and flavors that not only made them palatable but sated all my dining friends, to the Mac and Cheese that was creamy and quite “cheesy”, and to the incredible sides of leaf salads, beet salad, yams, and squash stew (ratatouille) that left us wanting more of these tongue-grabbing veggies. This effusiveness extends to the dessert section with that raw chocolate “cheesecake” that just brought out a level ecstasy in me. Sure that the service is a tad slow and sparse at times, but the congenial servers make up for it with their charming personality, helpful suggestions, and funky hair. But what is served by Evolve Vegan does not need any quotation marks or qualifiers; it is just good, tasty and downright soulful, enough to bring out a smile in both vegan and non-vegan.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Panda Gourmet

For some time, I had been reading and hearing about a Chinese restaurant in a most improbable place, inside a Days Inn motel on the busy gateway of the New York Ave. and Bladensburg Rd. intersection.  I had passed by it a number of times on my way to town, but I was quick to dismiss it due to its name (akin to a Chinese fast-food chain) and its suspect location.  But my Thai-Chinese doctor assured me, as well some online reviews, that it was the real deal serving authentic Mainland Chinese dishes that I shouldn’t overlook.  So, after getting over my reluctance and convincing my usual Friday-dinner group, we stepped into Panda Gourmet‘s doors to savor its offerings.

Panda Gourmet Restaurant Coming from the Maryland suburbs was not as tough getting there unlike the convoluted U-turn one has to maneuver from the direction of downtown DC (by the Moonie’s Washington Times).  Parking was not an issue there since it is located within a hotel which was a huge relief for this reviewer who is weary from parking battles that DC has lately become known for.  Looking at its rather confounding menu, typical of many Chinese restaurants, I managed to pick a few dishes that were based on some reviewers’ recommendations. Xian Pork Sandwich

Spicy Cumin Lamb SkewersThe first appetizer was Xian Sandwich with Pork, which was destined for my roomie who couldn’t make it to dinner.  When I got home, he was graceful enough to allow me to take a few bites of it.  I quickly fell in love with this meat package.  The bun was an interesting combination of a semi-hard crust with a rather spongy dough under it, coupling the shredded pork stuffing that reminded me of a long-smoked chopped barbecue.  The meat mixture was extremely savory with the right amount of saltiness and a hint of cumin rubbed on the exterior.  If weren’t for tasting it after my meal, I would have begged for more of this wonderful small bite.  The other was Lamb Skewers that came with many online recommendations.  The 4 skewers landed with rather generous chunks of meat attached to them.  One bite revealed fairly tender meat that was not overcooked and they lacked the gaminess usually associated with that meat.  The seasoning of crushed chili peppers and whole cumin seeds elevated these bites to something that was both savory and enticing, delicious enough for the dinner party to do a reprise of this dish close to the end of the meal. Ma Po Tofu

The establishment is known for Szechuan and Xian dishes of which I focused my eyes on from the menu.  Ma Po Tofu with Beef was an order used as a litmus test of this cuisine.  The fiery red dish arrived with nuggets of tofu studded in between with bits of minced beef hidden among the whole mix.   One mouthful was a bit overwhelming at first.  It was quite salty from the heavy use of bean sauce, and spicy from the chili oil and Szechuan peppercorn powder, evidenced by their presence on the white tofu.  The silken tofu provided some relief from the salt and spice, as well as the white rice that should be mixed with the main course, hence its over seasoning.  The minced beef was lost in the mix partially due its small pieces and the lack of its amount.  I was hoping for some textural contrast like green peas that I had savored in versions from other establishments.  Despite the above flaws, I appreciated the dish after picking through the pieces, and I was yearning for more spice heat as well as the numbing effect of the Szechuan peppercorn.  Not bad.

Chicken in Spicy Garlic SauceA spicy dish recommended by online reviewers was Chicken in Spicy Garlic Sauce. The dish was brimming with pieces of chicken breast, snow peas, celery, broccoli, mushroom, wood fungus, and bamboo shoot.  The first taste of the dish raised my eyebrows due to the sauce that was an interesting combination of chili oil and garlic, tasting sour from vinegar and sweet from sugar.   The sauce flavor was quite prominent and the sweet-sour element nearly overwhelmed the nuances of the mild chicken meat and the crunchy but perfectly cooked vegetables. But then, I was reminded of the nature of Szechuan cuisine that is bold in flavors, which this dish is up the alley, including the pool of red spicy oil which my parents complained about Mainland Chinese cooking during their travels.

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

To appease a fellow dining companion, we ordered a couple of non-spicy dishes, in addition to balancing out the whole meal without bludgeoning our palates with spice.  The first was a newly added dish on the menu – Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms.  The dish arrived with halved bright-green baby bok choy accompanied by a pool of whole Chinese mushrooms covered with a dark sauce.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and I was appreciating their fresh quality.  But it was the mushrooms that stole my attention with the woodsy notes and slippery consistency, an indication of them reconstituted and cooked properly to give a luxurious mouthfeel.  The sauce had hints of oyster sauce that is a classic match in Chinese cuisine.  As a respite from the chili heat, this was a perfect vegetarian dish.

Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables

Another fellow dinner wanted to take some reign on ordering the dishes, and he chose Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables since he is fond of that seafood and is always trying to add more vegetables to the mix.  The shrimp was accompanied by the usual Chinese mix of vegetables: broccoli, celery, carrots, baby corn, snow pea, bamboo shoot, and water chestnut.  It was a colorful and multi-textural mix despite the rather pedestrian brown sauce that coated the dish.  Even with the ingredients cooked just right, there really was not much to write home about, or in this, in this blog.  Meh, just not bad. Panda Gourmet Restaurant

Panda Gourmet is not for everyone, especially those who are not familiar with Chinese cuisine from the Mainland.  Sometimes, one has to apply some degree of cultural relativism when approaching certain ethnic cuisine, or in this case, gastronomic relativism, and with this angle, I evaluated what I ordered at this eatery.   The pork sandwich and lamb skewers were the perfect appetizers, even for the fussy or critical eater.  The Ma Po Tofu, Bok Choy and Mushroom, and the Spicy Garlic Chicken scored high in my books with their authentic approach despite the nearly overwhelming sauces and slightly oiliness, which come with the culinary territory.  Looking at their daunting menu, I realize that there are most veritable dishes to explore, offering some “funky” dishes with frog, tendon, tripe, and many dishes served on the Mainland.  This is a joint worth venturing into, and you may discover dishes not found in your usual carry-out, some to your liking, and some rather challenging.

Panda Gourmet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chez Dior

Chez Dior

A cuisine that is amiss from my blog site, unfortunately, is from the African continent. The reasons are that I am slowly discovering the few establishments serving such cuisine that sparsely populate this area, and my ignorance of what that part of world offers gastronomically. Last year, I stumbled across a Ghanaian joint serving the popular Fufu (read blog), but it was just a mere foray into the wide spectrum of what African food is.

Ginger Juice and Bissap (Hibiscus Flower)For a couple of years, I had been eyeing Chez Dior in the revitalized Hyattsville, MD neighborhood ever since I noticed its space was being renovated for the opening.  Because of my suffering from amnesia and looking for the right dining companions to join me, I didn’t pay it my first visit until last month and after only being inspired by its favorable online ratings.  Walking through its doors, the space seems more spacious than its real estate, partly due to the glass storefront and the other being its high ceilings.  One wall is stuffed with a few banquet seating, while tables fill up the rest of the space.  Settling in, I felt comfortable and welcomed right away, while anticipating a new adventure into gastronomic terra incognito.  Our drink orders of Hibiscus (Bissap) and Ginger Juice were the perfect openers to the house’s offering. The bissap had hints of a slight sour tannin zing tempered by some fruit juice while exuding an interesting flowery note.  The ginger juice was close to pure ginger root but sweetened with a touch of pineapple juice, biting enough to wake up my senses and attack the sore throat I was nursing.  I would forgo a glass of water and order these alluring thirst quenchers with my meals due to their exotic qualities.

Fattaya - Minced Beef Pastries Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

From the appetizer section of the menu,  I recognized Beignets that I had eaten at some Cameroonian homes, and oddly, Vietnamese Spring Rolls (the result of Senegalese soldiers bringing wives back from the Indochinese war) which I noticed were properly made with rice sheets, not egg roll wrapper, and served with a fish sauce mixture.  However, I honed in on a couple of more authentic offerings.  The first was Fattaya.  The fried pastries arrived beautifully pleated (as well as my grandmother’s curry puffs), and greaseless to the touch.  One bite into the flaky dough was revelatory.  It was not made with tuna as listed on the menu, but with minced beef and bits of onions.  The level of savory moisture encapsulated by the pastry pointed to the bites made a la minute, which my companion and I appreciated while we quickly devoured these small bites.  The other appetizer was equally delectable – Accra.  The small dough balls are made from black eye pea flour and served with a spicy tomato sauce.  Biting into them, they had a clean taste from being perfectly fried in fresh oil, and the inside was amazingly quite light while giving off a soft corn bread texture affected by some proper seasoning.  The zesty sauce tasted freshly made, and it added the right amount of tomato sweetness and some spice to each bite.  I would not miss these two openers with my meal as they would build up some anticipation as they did at my table.

Jollof Rice

Yassa ChickenPlaying it safe one night, I ordered an often-heard and popular dish – Jollof Rice.  The plate arrived with some baked chicken, a mound of brown-hued rice, and accompanied by a side of carrot, cabbage, and boiled cassava/yucca.  The chicken tasted well-marinated and baked just right without being dry or falling apart too easily.  The star ingredient was the rice with broken grains that had a texture of bulgur wheat (not only a Vietnamese specialty), seasoned by the chicken sauce and some savoriness from Maggi sauce (verified by the owner).  However, it could have done some chili heat that I have tasted in some versions.  The side vegetables were very satisfactory with the carrots and cabbage cooked soft and exuding their vegetal sweetness, but unfortunately, the cassava was slightly undercooked in the middle.  On another night, we ordered Yassa Chicken.  Pieces of chicken came grilled and tasted slightly tangy from the lemon-based marinate, and sweetened by some caramelized onions.  My dining companions were devouring the pieces  due to the flavors and the grilled preparation. The dishes were well-prepared and tasty, just perhaps a bit safe in my mind, as I was seeking some gustatory adventure.

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish Caldou

Based on some online reviewers’ recommendations, I decided to try Thiebou Diene, a traditional Senegalese dish.  The plate arrived filled with a stewed fish steak, the usual accompanying stewed vegetables, and a mound of red-colored rice.   Biting into the fish, I was appreciating the savoriness from the slow cooking and the slight firmness of the fish meat which exuded a richness which I was trying to ascertain – it turned out to be the rich Kingfish usually found in the Caribbean, which was not the usual house offering (no complaints here).  The rice was equally savory, having absorbed all the savory goodness from the fish and vegetable stew, which each spoonful was beckoning us for more.  I can see why this is the house’s signature dish due to the flavors and well preparation.  Caldou was the other fish order that night.  A whole tilapia fish has been marinated, grilled, and slathered with a sauce.  Usually not one for the muddy flavors of this type of fish, I didn’t mind it that much with this order due to its flavors from the marination and grilling, and the tangy onion-mustard sauce.  With these dishes, I was whisked away to the West African coast and they are definitely high on the list.

Dibi - Grilled Lamb Chops

The final main course was Dibi.  Pieces of grilled marinated lamb chops arrived with a choice of side, steamed Couscous in this case.  One bite into the meat reminded me of eating lamb chops as a child.  The flavors were spot on due to the proper marination, heightened by a stay on the grill that gave the charred notes to the rich meat.  The chops were quite thin, which made them not as moist as some would have like them to be, but I didn’t mind it at all since I grew up with these prepared this way.  The side of onion-mustard sauce not only added the moist element to the meaty bits but also notes of sweet tang.  The couscous was adequate but lacking some seasoning or the use of stock to elevate the grain to a more interesting mouthful.  But it didn’t deter me from that pieces of meat that just sang beautifully with each bite.

Finally, I have found an establishment that serves African cuisine that does justice to it.  The place may be a bit small, but it makes up with its warm sense of hospitality and the well-presented dishes that exude full flavors and proper cooking each one received, a sign of care and attention that would elevate any dish – this was evident in both appetizers, the grilled chicken, both fish dishes, and the grilled lamb chops.  All my dining companions, as well as I, were immediately impressed by this house’s offerings, and we will be coming back for more.

Chez Dior Senegalese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taqueria Los Primos

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Death of an opportunity always opens another.  Such occurrence took place in a spot in between a Motel 6 and a Thrift Store in North Laurel where a former restaurant/bar perhaps resided – my lack of recollection only points to its nondescript existence.  A couple of months ago, my BFF called me exuding about a new Taqueria in our “hood”.  It was no surprise to me that such an eating establishment would open, as this is only a mere representation of the new make-up of the burgeoning Latino population in this township.  With an anticipation for such cuisine, I paid Taqueria Los Primos a few visits to sample their offerings.

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Walking into the wide space, one is confronted by a large order counter with a expansive menu displayed above.  It can be daunting for the novice to the menu, but many visits to other authentic area Mexican restaurants prepared me in navigating this Latino cuisine.  An order that such friend was raving about was Quesadillas.  The stuffed tortillas arrived well-grilled with the right amount of char providing that smokey note.  What it encased was a generous amount of Mexican mozzarella-like stringy cheese accompanying some chunks of cooked beef, and thankfully, not ground beef like in some establishments, which my friend was really enjoying his bite on this occasion.  A similar order on another visit was a bit disappointing with the lack of char on the tortillas, and an overwhelming amount of cheese.  Our drink orders during our many visits were the perfect thirst quenchers consisting of Jarritos (Mexican sodas made with real sugar and fruit essence), house-made Rice Milk (Horchata), Tamarind Water (Tamarindo), and Hibiscus Water (Jamaica).  These non-bottled drinks were both tasting recently-made and the perfect balance of the ingredients along with the right amount of sugar without being cloyingly sweet.  A healthier choice is fresh Carrot or Orange Juice made to order and tasting naturally sweet.

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Flautas are popular in Mexican taquerias and I had to taste their version. My plate arrived with 4 stuffed crispy tacos inundated by a mound of toppings consisting of lettuce, tomato, sweet onions, all slathered with some crema (Mexican sour cream) and crumbled cheese, that hinted of both Parmesan and blue cheese. A bite into the first flauta caused me to pause.  The crispy corn tortilla encased a chicken stuffing that was dry and stringy, an indication of overcooking or over-frying.  The second roll fared much better and injected more assurance in this diner.  The dark chicken meat was fairly moist and well seasoned, making each bite enjoyable especially with the different toppings that added more moisture and flavor.  The side of refried beans was as good as it gets, tasting velvety smooth and properly seasoned, good enough to belie its true humble nature.  A side order of Nopales, grilled cactus, was revelatory to me.  The leathery paddles exuded some good char flavor along with its slightly bitter natural notes, and with a good squeeze of lime (all limes pieces were necessary), the acid made each strip quite enjoyable and palate provoking, this tasting different (and better in my mind) from the usual pickled version.

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Along with the first dish above, my BFF had also raved about the tacos offered here.  My order one day was made with Carnitas and the other Al Pastor.  One bite into the Carnitas one blew me away instantly.  The pieces of pork were perfectly seasoned and cooked while maintaining some of its moisture and porcine goodness.  The highlight to these meaty bites was the skin cooked to a crisp that gave some crunchy interest and its amazing bacon-like goodness.  The Al Pastor ones were fairly tasty with the thin slivers of seasoned meat made red with some coloring probably from the achiote seed.  However, it lacked the burnt meat flavor that the former exuded.  The topping of fresh pineapple was interesting that made these bites more intriguing.  The side green and red chile sauces were more than adequate with the green one lending some spicy fruity acid flavors and the red one some salty smoky dried chili notes, both elevating these soft tortilla bites to another level.

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A couple of stuffed sandwiches caught the eye of my companions. Burritos here come large and well-stuffed.  My companion’s order was made with chicken, paired with rice, beans, and fresh elements of lettuce and tomato, all moistened by a light creamy sauce.  He seemed content with this large bite despite the fact that he is not a fan of the starch fillers.  Another companion’s order was from the large sandwich menu.  His order was the Cubano, which is strange for a Mexican eatery.  The behemoth bite came loaded with slices of grilled meat, grilled sliced sausage, a fried egg, and lightened by some sliced lettuce, and spiced by some pickled jalapeño slices.  Not quite a traditional Cubano, but my friend had no real complaints except for its overwhelming size.

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A couple of open-face dishes were also sampled.  The first was Huarache, consisting of a crispy cornmeal cake slathered with the silky smooth refried beans (its name is attributed to its slipper-like appearance), topped with a choice protein and the usual suspects of toppings and flavors.  What I enjoyed sampling in this dish for the first time was the corn flavor in the cake with its mealy texture, and the small chunks of grilled Cecina beef which tasted well-aged from its hanging after a marination of salt and lime juice. For a first-time, this dish hit the right notes for me.   A friend’s order during one visit was Tostadas.  It pretty much was the same make-up as the latter dish, but the base consisted of crispy tacos holding the elements together, topped by some perfectly ripe avocado.  The refried bean on the crispy rounds unfortunately softened their crispiness quite quickly, which disappointed the eater.  But the choice of the awesome Carnitas with its crispy skin helped my friend overlook this slight downfall.

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My visits were made on the weekends, and I noticed that many customers ordered the Mexican perennial, Menudo.  The bowl arrived with its achiote-stained red soup submerging big pieces of the stomach floating and chucks of bone.  One taste of the soup revealed a tasty broth but there was a hit of funkiness from that part of the cow.  The toppings contributed some onion sweetness and crunch, the cilantro herbaciousness, and good amount of lime fruit acid that helped to temper with off-notes in the soup.  The pieces of offal were well cooked making them smooth and falling apart fairly easily in the mouth.  However, after half way through this bowl, I had enough of this cut of meat even though I grew up eating it, albeit with a much smaller quantity.  All in all, I appreciated this well-made bowl supposedly with its flavors strong enough to cure a severe hangover.

Everything about Taqueria Los Primos is puro mexicano, from the large Latino clientele that patronize this establishment on the weekends, to the Virgen de Guadalupe statue adorning the wall next to the jukebox pumping out loud ranchera music.  But the star of this place is the uncompromising Mexican dishes that keeps beckoning the customers to return for more, especially the tacos made with that pork-heavenly Carnitas, to the Flautas (once passed the first awfully made one), to the other open-faced Tostadas and Huarache, and finally the rich sobering Menudo soup.  Never mind the fairly large family crowds on the weekends and the sensory overload of music and sights (including the large screen showing Mexican fútbol).  Once you start settling in with the food, the dishes will hit the spots and you feel all just fine right here.

Thai Orchid Kitchen

Thai Orchid Kitchen

Thai restaurants abound in the DMV area in which such establishments can be found in most neighborhoods, particularly dotting affluent or ethnically-populated ones.  As much as they make their presence in these parts of town, they are not as visible in the eastern sections like Prince George’s County, MD and Southeast DC, for which I have griped about in previous blogs.  Since last summer, I have been noticing Thai Orchid Kitchen located in an improbable spot, at one of the busiest intersection in Anacostia, DC.  Since a friend, with whom I would meet up once in a while, lived fairly close by, we paid it a visit during lunch one afternoon, and I was quite impressed by the meal.  Subsequent meals there enticed me to drop in a number of times, hence enough dishes were sampled for this most tardy blog.

Tom Ka Soup

Tom Yum SoupFrom the outside, the windows bars can be a bit unnerving to the uninitiated, and walking in, the dining area  appears rather spacious despite the building’s shotgun-like appearance.  After perusing the rather large menu, I decided to open my meal with a couple of classic soups.  The first was Tom Ka.  The bowl arrived filled with a whitish coconut cream-based liquid stained by some chili oil covering bits of chicken and mushrooms, and made aromatic by pieces of the obligatory lemongrass and galangal root. After giving the soup a stir since the cream tends to rise to the top, I took a good sip.  Creamy and aromatic it was, but I was taken aback by a good hit of sourness and saltiness coming from both fish sauce and lime juice. Alternating sips with bites of my main dish only confirmed the overwhelming seasoning which begged for some taming.  The other soup was the recognizable Tom Yum Shrimp.  The hot liquid was perfumed by lemongrass, galangal root, and thin slivers of Kaffir lime leaf.  Pieces of shrimp were both sweet and plump and the bowl was chockfull with straw mushroom and tomatoes.  However, the disappointment lied in the seasoning, which, like the above, was replete with too much fish sauce and lime juice, this further exacerbated by too much sugar in this case.  Although both soups require bold flavor ingredients, finesse in the balancing act of their elements is the secret to their success – the owner noted that his customers love fish sauce, but this was an overkill.  In this kitchen, all the elements are there but the soups need some tweaking. However, these openers did not damper my curiosity of discovering the rest of the kitchen’s menu.

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Chicken SatayA favorite appetizer of mine from this Southeast Asian cuisine is Steamed Dumplings.  One bite into them was revelatory.  They tasted freshly made with the skins supple from the steaming, and the stuffing enticing with a savory mix of ground pork and shrimp, exuding an a la minute quality in each mouthful.  The side of dark soy sauce was the perfect accompaniment with its slightly sweet dark molasses alongside its soy umami saltiness.  The owner exclaimed that this was a big seller hence their freshly-made quality and flavor, which my dining companions raved about.  Admittedly, this is one of the best versions I have eaten in the area.  Another meat appetizer that equally impressed me was Chicken Satay.  The skewers of meat were not the plainly seasoned ones found in most establishments.  Here, the meat was properly grilled but still moist with hints of root herbs of galangal and lemongrass, colored by a hit of yellow turmeric.  But it was the peanut sauce that sealed the deal with its nutty sweet and creamy mix echoing the use of the root herbs in the bites.  Two good appetizers indeed.

Grilled Shrimp Salad

Larb Gai/Thai Chicken SaladThai cuisine is known for their salads, and I had to taste a couple of them here.  The first was Pla Goong or Grilled Shrimp Salad.  The butterflied seafood came grilled and paired with carrots, lettuce, cilantro, and lemongrass, all brought together by a rather spicy, sweet and sour dressing.  The salad was fairly tasty and each bite was made interesting by the bits of lemongrass that exuded a root citrus flavor.  However, the dish was marred by the unseasoned and dried out shrimp that was crying out for some marinade that would have added flavor and moisture to the protein.  Larb Kai was the other order.  This traditional salad consists of minced chicken seasoned with dried chili flakes, lime juice, and toasted rice powder.  The dish was still warm from the freshly cooked chicken but it tasted slightly under seasoned upon the first spoonful.  Perhaps my tastebuds were slightly numb by the heavily seasoned grilled shrimp salad, but after a while, I was beginning to appreciate the subtleties of the chicken salad.  With a bit more chili flakes and toasted rice powder, the dish would have scored highly in my books.

Fried Calamari & Fried Seafood

A couple of fried seafood dishes were also sampled.  The first was the Fried Calamari appetizer.  Rings of battered squid rings arrived with a florescent red sweet sauce.  The pieces of seafood were a bit heavily battered despite it description of “lightly battered” in the menu.  Despite this issue, the squid was quite tender, this being quite a tall feet for most kitchens.  The main order of Crispy Seafood Basil suffered the same treatment as the calamari.  The pieces of shrimp and fish were also heavy from both the batter and frying which made the dish a bit overwhelming and quickly filling.  But I appreciated the pieces of battered green beans and carrots paired with a decent spicy garlic basil sauce, albeit a bit over thickened.

Drunken Noodles

The dish that impressed me about this kitchen during my first visit was Drunken Noodles.  The version here is a good mix of fresh wide rice noodles, sweet white onion, green onion, ripe tomato, and a choice protein.  The slices of pork I chose each time were fresh and devoid of the “porky” scent usually found in that meat.  But what pulls the elements together is the sauce that moistens the dish as well as the high-heat wok searing imparting a slightly char flavor.  The sides of chili pickles and paste are the obligatory accoutrements to add more acid and spicy interest, as if the dish were not flavorful enough.  This dish is definitely a lunch favorite of mine, including the well-made version here.

Kaprow BasilAnother lunch dish I tried that caught my attention was the classic Kaprow Basil. However, during a dinner visit with a friend, his order was not quite what I had eaten for lunch.  The dinner version was made with slices of chicken breast, sweet pepper, sweet onion, and green onion, sitting on a pool of brown sauce, devoid of basil leaves, reminding one of Chinese food.  On another visit, I spoke to the cook’s sister and I asked for the traditional version.  This time, minced chicken and shrimp were paired with long beans, sweet onions, and a handful of fragrant basil, sitting on a bare pool of proper sauce made with fish sauce and some soy.  This version was more delectable although it yearned for a bit more chili heat and saltiness, which would have made the dish soar.

Salmon Pumpkin Curry
Crispy Salmon and Chili Basil Sauce

Seafood Prik PraoA trio of other seafood dishes caught the attention of me and my dinner companions during our visits.   Salmon Curry with Pumpkin arrived with the bowl filled with large chunks of salmon and pieces of Kabocha pumpkin, covered in a slightly sweet yellow curry that was spiced by its usual suspects of cinnamon and cloves, all made velvety by some rich coconut cream.  The pieces of fish were amazingly moist and fresh-tasting and the pumpkin being the kind that didn’t overwhelm the palate with its sweetness, which complemented the whole dish.  The various elements in the dish came together beautifully and my friend seemed very pleased with his order.  Another order placed by him was a similar fish dish – Crispy Salmon.   When the dish arrived, it took him by surprise.  The fillet was quite heavily battered and it was fried crispy, which was unexpected and to his dismay since he has an aversion for anything deep fried.  After much griping, he managed to scrape the top off and started to appreciate the moist salmon and the flavors of the sauce despite its over-thickened consistency.  My order one night was Seafood Prik Prao which was listed as a special on a hand-written menu.  Wow!  Everything on this dish impressed me starting with the freshness of the seafood (shrimp, tender squid, perfectly cooked sweet scallops, and mussels (not frozen)), to the red chili paste that made each bite tantalizing with its spice heat and well-balanced seasoning.  The pieces of cashew nuts added another layer of taste and textural interest along with the fresh oyster mushrooms that exuded some silky lusciousness.  It was assuring for me to know that the kitchen will cook any of the specials even if the special menu was not on display, for which I will be ordering in the future based on this offering.

Mango Sticky RiceAfter our meal one night and feeling very sated, we were recommended by our waitress to try Mango and Sticky Rice.  Reluctantly, I probed her about the ripeness of the mango, and she reassured me that they were the smaller ones that were at their prime.  Taking her word, we placed the order and the dish indeed echoed her thoughts.  One bite reminded my senses what a good ripe mango tastes like, especially after a winter of unripen tropical fruits.  But it was its accompanying sticky rice that was doing its darnest to wrestle my attention with its perfectly steamed grains (a tall feet for most kitchens), perfectly seasoned with salty coconut cream that made it the perfect foil to the sweet fruit.  The obligatory yellow lentils added the crunch to the pairing of soft elements, making each bite more irresistible.  This dessert was a definite hit and perfect sweet ending for all those present at my table, and I’m looking forward to more of its order in the upcoming summer months.

There were many highlights at Thai Orchid Restaurant, from the Chicken Satay and Steamed Dumplings appetizers, to the Larb Kai Salad, the Drunken Noodles, the traditional style of Kaprow Basil, the Salmon Pumpkin Curry and Seafood Prik Prao, and the quintessential and perfectly-made Thai ending – Mango and Sticky Rice.  There were some dishes that left us nonplussed due to either their over seasoning or a lack of traditional approach in order to cater to the locals in the area.  But once one can overlook some of these dishes, the diner can appreciate the well-seasoned and properly cooked aforementioned dishes that make this place worth recommending, especially in this part of town that has made this establishment very popular with delivery orders.  Time to head back there soon and end the next meal with that scrumptious mango dessert!

Thai Orchid's Kitchen restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato