Chi’Bal

Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MD

There is something new in my town, Laurel, MD.  This area has constantly surprised me with some pretty good eats, as well as within the township to its south, Beltsville.  So when I noticed that a new restaurant had taken over a seedy bar in the middle of the commercial center, I initially was not so convinced to enter its doors until my BFF told me about his pleasant experience there.  With my curiosity peaked, we both paid Chi’Bal a visit recently, followed by a couple of trips with a couple of friends.

Guava Margarita/Mojito

Walking into the space, one notices that the place went through some serious renovation with a fresh coat of colorful paint, comfortable furniture, and a bar with appealing lights and decor.  Taking our seat at one of the booths, I perused the menu and found it easily navigable despite the dishes’ names in Spanish.  Touted as a “Mexican Tapas and Tequila Bar”, one side was dedicated to the light bites, and the other to complete dishes.  After placing our orders, my friends decided to start their meal with a Guava Margarita and a Mojito, which these aficionados attested to their well-made quality.

Guacamole and Salsa - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ensalada de Jicama - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Guacamole and Salsa are de rigueur in any Mexican establishment, and without fail, an order was placed.  The tortilla chips were the thicker kind, nearly greaseless and lightly covered with some spice seasoning, perhaps some dried chili powder.  The salsa was the blended kind which was a bit liquid but not lacking in flavor and freshness.  But it was the guacamole that impressed me with its slight chunky consistency punctuated with some salt, lime juice, onions, tomato and cilantro – this kept me coming back to it throughout my meal.  The other opener was the Jicama Salad.  Batons of the crunchy root was paired with slices of sweet orange and crisp baby spinach leaves, all brought together by a citrusy creamy peppery vinaigrette that complemented all the different flavors, making it the perfect foil and relief with the other heartier dishes. However, an order of Avocado Ceasar Salad was devoid of the anchovy briny funk and lemon bite which resulted in something unmemorable and rather disappointing.

Chile Relleno - Chi'Bal Restaurant Crab Croquetas - Chi'Bal Restaurant

A couple of breaded items were next up.  A proper Chile Relleno is the litmus test of a good Mexican kitchen and I had to give it try.  Mine was made with Poblano Pepper, grilled until fork tender, stuffed with a creamy but mild Mexican cheese, coated in a beaten egg batter (the authentic way), placed on some smokey red chili sauce and a tangy tomatillo sauce, and topped with some Mexican parmesan-like grated cheese. The gestalt of all the flavors made this very satisfying knowing that it was authentically made and properly cooked.  The other was a twist of a popular dish – Crab Croquetas.  The balls of flaked crabmeat were properly seasoned (fortunately not Bay Spice) and coated by the light Panko breadcrumbs, fried properly without tasting oil-laden.  Even though the bites were quite small, they made it up with their flavors as well as the sauces that went with the seafood – small bites but very satisfying.

Camarones y Chorizo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Camaron - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My waitress recommended Camarones y Chorizo as high on the order list.  The pieces of shrimp were plump and cooked and seasoned perfectly, sitting on pieces of meaty spicy chorizo and sautéed fresh spinach, nappéd with a sauce that was flavorful as it added an unctuousness to the whole combination, and all these wonderful flavors confirmed its high recommendation as it got a nod from everyone at the table.  The other shrimp dish was Pinchos de Camarón.  Skewers of the seafood were well-seasoned and perfectly grilled to produce a non-rubbery bite with a smoky char flavor, which I thoroughly enjoyed when paired the creamy sauce on the side.  This kitchen really knows how to cook seafood with a masterful skill, and both these dishes exemplified talented and knowledgeable hands that produced them.Tacos de Res - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Pollo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

On to the meat tapas.  The first was Tacos de Res.  Soft tacos came with braised beef wrapped in the traditional double-tortilla fashion.  The shredded short rib was moist and tender, and it tasted well seasoned with what looked like some achiote judging from the reddish jus running out of it.  The corn tortilla had its distinctive flavor which added to its authenticity as well as the large slice of creamy avocado. The small meaty bites made for some veritable fulfilling eating that made for some quick disposal.  Pinchos de Pollo are Chicken skewers that looked a bit nondescript upon the plate’s arrival.  But one bite into it took me by surprise.  The meat was well-seasoned and not in a superficial manner, pointing to some maceration before its grilling.  The pieces of meat were still moist especially for breast meat, which is not my choice cut.  But I was enjoying these bites for all the above qualities.

Seared Salmon - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ceviche - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My BFF decided to order a main dish – Pan-seared Salmon.  I was quite surprised by its small size and I refrained from taking a bite of it.  According to him, he was satisfied by his piece of fish seasoned with some house spices (I suspect some red chili powder), and slathered with an avocado aiole.  But I did try the black beans that came with some rice as the sides, and I was impressed with the bean flavors that had a proper salting and a hint of herbs that added interest to this starch – such attention to detail in the supporting actors was also evident in the pickled chilies and pickled onions whose flavors were not overwhelming.  The other fish dish was Ceviche which peaked my interest on the second trip.  The dish was made with only fish (unfortunately), and paired with pickled onions, toasted choclo (Peruvian corn), and, in proper fashion, a piece of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the dish.  But there was a major flaw in the dish – the use of Tilapia which exuded a muddiness to the whole mix that could not be masked by all the acids and flavors.  However, the dish pointed to a rather skillful kitchen that was making a fair attempt at the dish despite this major setback.

Huarache de Pollo Bistec Asado

My final dishes were some meat ones from my last trip there.  The first was Chicken Huarache.  In true form, the dish arrived with a flat grilled cornmeal patty (huarache meaning “slipper”) slathered with some refried beans and topped with some moist shredded chicken, citrusy tomato, Mexican parmesan and a chefy touch of arugula leaves.  The initial cut into the end was a firm and dry piece of cornmeal patty, but it got softer as I progressed into the middle.  I enjoyed all the seasoned elements that had the fresh elements as a counterpoint to the cooked flavors, making this a veritable tasty Huarache.  The last dish was Bistec Asado.  The piece of flank steak was very seasoned (more a marination due to the permeated flavors) and, it came well-grilled.  It was a tad too salty and it was unfortunately well-done, which was overcooked for my taste (the waitress should have asked me my preferred meat temperature).  But I was thoroughly enjoying the unadulterated strong beef flavors in this cut, as well as the citrusy sauce on the side.  For its reasonable price, this is worth an order when in a mood for something on the lines of beef.

Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MDChi’Bal is an exciting place that shows some creative and masterful cooking while maintaining a respect for the culinary traditions.  The level of  kitchen skill can be evident in the treatment of the seafood in which the shrimp are perfectly cooked, which takes some real know-how and acute attention.  Furthermore, more evidences are found in the sides of black beans, as well as the pickled onions and chiles, which tasted house-made and were not overwhelming.  But it is the full flavors found in every bite that impressed me constantly throughout each dish (except the bland Caesar Salad) in the meats found in the taco, the huarache, the grilled flank steak, and the chicken bites.  Even the simple guacamole and jicama salad showed some skill level and thoughtfulness.  The owner told me that he has bought the building and that the business was here to stay – I’m holding his word to it especially when food is this impressive here.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Ethiopian cuisine poses a few challenges on different levels.  First, there is a plethora of restaurants serving this fare due to the influx of immigrants from that East African region resulting in a boom of restaurants beginning from the 1980’s.  With so many to choose from, it has been a challenge for me to pick a place to write on.  The other issue is that Ethiopian food, especially the spongy injera bread, creates a textural challenge for most Americans who tend to steer away from this soft or mushy feel especially when eaten customarily with the bare hand.  With this said, I have problems finding enough friends to join me to partake in this type of meal.  But last weekend, I managed to corral a couple of die-hard friends for this rare treat.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Downtown Silver Spring, MD has taken a transformation the last few years, and it has become the hub of Ethiopian gastronomic and social life judging by the high number of such establishments dotting its square blocks.  When I noticed an online offer for Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe, I knew I couldn’t bypass such a deal especially from an establishment in that area.   Walking through its doors, you notice the strong rich colors on the walls, the photo mural on the ceiling and vibrant tile work on the wall, all decorating the booths and tables in the rather narrow shotgun space.  I was tempted to sit outside on its sidewalk patio, but with a friend suffering from seasonal allergies, we chose to go inside instead.

Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac Cafe Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac CafeHaving savored Ethiopian food a number of times over the years, I have got familiar with some of their regular dishes.   Cooked vegetables stand out in this cuisine, and we ordered the Lesaac Veggie Deluxe.  What arrived was a large platter layered with the sourdough injera bread topped with nine bean and vegetable dishes.  The collard greens tasted quite savory and were not too mushy but cooked well. The red beets were a novelty for me since I never encountered them in this cuisine: they were naturally sweet, tasting slightly earthy, and enriched by some butter that took them to another level.  The Yellow split peas were well-seasoned and also well-cooked, cooked to a level of doneness without being mushy.  The same level of doneness were the red lentils that were mixed with some Berbere chili paste and tasted a bit tangy, which made them interesting.  The green beans and carrot were cooked well-done without being too soft and tasted vegetal sweet and garlicky.  The salad was really tangy and salted from a vinaigrette made of citrus juice and herbal seasoning, making it a palate cleanser in between bites.  The cabbage was soft, naturally sweet and quite garlicky.  The green beans were quite mushy, slightly under seasoned and reminded me of lentils.  The middle mound of red split peas was a puree seasoned with a smokey spicy concoction.  With such variety in offerings, flavors, textures, and seasoning, my dining friends and I were in hog heaven with this dish that tasted the best that I have ever savored, and I could have been perfectly content indulging on this vegetarian platter.

Doro Wat - Lesaac CafeAnother recognized dish from my foray into this cuisine is a popular one – Doro Wat.  The bowl arrived with a heaping amount of thick sauce covering a lone piece of chicken and boiled egg.  One taste of the sauce put everything into perspective.  The customary scant piece of chicken with the lone egg always perplexed me with its small portion of protein.  But this time, I realized what this dish was really about – the sauce.  It tasted smokey and spicy from the Berbere chili powder, rich from butter, and quite sweet from a copious amount of onions.  In addition, there was a slight burn after each bite coupled by a mild tanginess from the dried peppers, which made the sauce totally irresistible and reminding me of good Mexican molé sauce.  The side of crumbled cheese was interesting since it was devoid of salt or cheese pungency, but it played a minor role of adding more richness and making the spicy sauce milder to the palate.  The side of injera bread was the perfect vehicle to mop up all the goodness, which I would have done so if weren’t for the other dishes.  Finally, I have savored a damn good version of this famous dish which has revealed its real gastronomic truth to this diner.

Ethiopian Fish Gulash - Lesaac Cafe

For my pescatarian fellow diner, we order Fish Gulash upon the waitress’ recommendation.  The large bowl arrived with pieces of fish covered by a rather thick red sauce and studded by bits of jalapeño peppers.  The bits of fish were mild tasting and a bit crispy from some frying, covered with a slightly tangy tomato-based sauce made sweet with lots of onions and spiced by the peppers.  My fellow diners raved about this dish for its fresh tasting seafood, confirmed as fresh tilapia (surprise!), and the bright tasty sauce that married well with the fish.  The side of salad was a bright mix with a tangy vinaigrette that was the perfect companion to this dish.  This was definitely a hit with us and I’m looking forward to savoring this new dish again.

Ethiopian Meat Omelet - Lesaac CafeWith some credit left on the coupon, the waitress suggested an item from the breakfast section – Meat Omelet.  The omelet arrived with some toast to complete the meal.  The egg mixture was quite savory with pieces of slightly seasoned and tasty beef, mixed with  onions, green peppers, and tomato that lent their vegetal sweetness, tanginess, and slight crunch that made each mouthful interesting and comforting.  The egg was a bit firmer than the usual French version, but it was nearly greaseless and  something that I enjoyed after having eaten egg cooked this way growing up in Asia.  This dish would be an order when I’m in the mood for some Ethiopian breakfast.

Finally, I have found an Ethiopian restaurant that I could say really justifies what this Eastern African cuisine is all about. The Veggie platter blew us away with the variety of vegetable dishes with their freshness, flavors, and cooking. The Doro Wat dish was completely revelatory for me with the secret being the sauce, and I waited all these years to savor a version that spoke volumes to me. The Fish Gulash was definitely another hit with its mild sweet fillets covered by a savory bright sauce. For breakfast, I would not hesitate ordering their Meat Omelet that was both comforting and satisfying. With food this good and definitely authentic, judging by the nearly all Ethiopian clientele (interestingly nearly all male, but a cultural norm), this is another new-find and a favorite locale for this cuisine.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Northwest Chinese Food

NW Chinese FoodFinding veritable Chinese cuisine in the DMV is as challenging as locating an endangered species.  I attribute that to two causes: the long history of Chinese-American food that was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century, and the lack of demand for authentic Chinese cuisine until recently with the tide of immigrants from the Mainland.  In the last couple of years I have come across establishments serving fare that would satisfy the truth-seeker culinary wise.  Recently, I read that there was a small hole-in-the-wall in my old college neighborhood, College Park, MD, serving regional Chinese food.  Northwest Chinese Food (name lacks originality, but not culinary confusion) is located on the main drag sandwiched by other eating establishments that are desperately calling the hungry students’ attention to walk through their doors.  I paid it three visits for this review, and I was lucky to have a table by the window for the photo shots despite it’s busyness and the cramped space holding only 9 tables.

Black Vinegar Peanuts, NW Chinese Food

This place has garnered lots of online reviews and recommendations, and with that list in hand I placed my first appetizer/opener.  Black Vinegar Peanuts was frequently mentioned and high on my list too.  The plate of nuts arrived with skin intact swimming in a pool of black sauce.  One bite revealed the dish’s nature.   Toasted peanuts were punchy to the taste, made even more aromatic by pungent raw garlic and herbaceous cilantro, spicy by red chili flakes and finely julienned ginger, and picked up by a slightly earthy black vinegar that reminded me of good Balsamico.  These nibbles were highly addictive and we couldn’t stop serving ourselves of it despite the other ordered dishes and the dish’s copious amount.

Shredded Potato Salad, NW Chinese Food

Sesame Chili Sauce, NW Chinese FoodThe other highly raved dish is Shredded Potato.  This vegan dish sounded and looked unique at first glance.  The plate was filled with very finely shredded pieces of white potato that has been marinated in a sauce.  The matchstick slivers had a most interesting texture, tasting barely cooked, yet exuding a crunch that would suggest it being raw and reminding me of Asian radish.  But it was the seasoning that elevated this lowly tuber to an ethereal level, tasting spicy from the chili sesame seed oil (also served at the table), fragrant cilantro, raw garlic, and a hint of vinegar to counteract this starch.  I was quite blown away by this simple dish since its treatment and flavors hit all the right spots.

Sour Soup Dumplings, NW Chinese Food

Another appetizer that looked like a dish I had savored before was Sour Soup Dumplings.  The bowl arrived with these stuffed pasta floating in a bowl of broth.  However, they tasted quite different from the Shanghainese version that I was used to.  The dough was thicker than wanton skins but the stuffing was the same aromatic and moist finely minced pork mixture.  It was the broth that took it in an interesting direction with a mild savory flavor spiked by some chili sesame seed oil, made sour by pieces of pickled mustard green, and some body added by chunks of raw garlic.  There was a soulful element to this dish that did not taste stodgy or passé, and it can definitely make a complete dish by itself.

Spicy Beef & Lamb Skewers, NW Chinese CuisineSkewers seem quite popular among the reviewers and other customers during my stopovers. On my visits, I tried the ones made with beef, with lamb, and with chicken.  The sticks came filled to the brim with thin small pieces of meat.  All the meat versions (a couple of non-meat versions are offered too) were seasoned with the chili sesame seed seasoning and whole cumin seeds.  The bites were quite spicy and aromatic from the seasoning and spices, but they lacked some salt.  Their slight oiliness indicated that they were cooked in oil, but I was missing the grill char that would have made them more interesting and flavorful.  As for the cuts of meat, the lamb was a bit tough, but the rest of the meats were quite tender to the bite.  As small bites, they were not bad though.

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, NW Chinese Cuisine

Along the same line as the above skewered meat are the burgers, and I tried the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger on one occasion.  The sandwich arrived in a basket laced with sandwich paper.  The bun was a flat unleavened bread showing its in-house quality and reminding me of a thick pita bread, an indicator of the Muslim influence in that part of the world.  Its stuffing was dripping with grease, unfortunately, but one bite into it detracted me from its flaws. The meat was chopped up from whole pieces, tasting very spicy from chili flakes and very aromatic from toasted whole cumin seeds that immediately perked the senses up.  After allowing some more of the grease to drip out of the burger, I was enjoying every bite while relishing its flavors and textures.  The beef version was much less greasy, as well as spicy, coupled with some sweet vegetable elements of red onions and green peppers.  Hey, after all, “burgers” are meant to be greasy, and this is my new find of this type of handheld food.

Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles, NW Chinese FoodThis place is known for noodle dishes from that part of the world, especially hand-cut noodles.  Since it was getting rather warm from the strong Spring sun, I ordered Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles. The bowl arrived with the disparate elements arranged in their areas, reminding me of Vietnamese Bun Noodle Salad:  cucumber, bean sprouts, finely shredded carrot, cilantro, peanuts, raw garlic, all sitting on a mound of wheat noodles lathered with sesame sauce and the chili sesame seed oil.  One swirl and a chopstick full immediately perked my interest.  All the ingredients contributed their flavor element of spiciness, nuttiness, herbaceous quality, garlic pungency, cooling quality, along with different textures that made each bite quite a kaleidoscope.  The sesame sauce was the perfect liaison that added its tahini-like creaminess with a hint of vinegar that elevated the noodles that were perfectly al dente and tasted handmade, akin to Spaghetti alla Chitarra.  This vegan dish comes without protein, but I added a topping of minced pork that was moist and made fragrant from the use of Asian cinnamon (cassia) exuding a faint note of enticing licorice to the protein.  This is the perfect summer dish in the next few months, and I will be planning to order it then, vegan or not.

Spicy Beef Noodles, NW Chinese Food

One of the most mentioned dishes online is Spicy Beef Noodles, and it is one that I recognized from this region due to my addiction to food and travel programs.  The bowl arrived wafting with an enticing smell and immediate appeal.  The soup, like most noodle soup dishes, is the key to the success to any dish of this kind.  This version had a body, probably from beef bones, made aromatic with hints of star anise, spiked by the mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorn, and it carried sour and salty notes from the pickled mustard green.  The beef chunks were amazingly sumptuous with its tender and fall apart quality, tasting more seasoned than the soup due to its cooking apart from the stock, which added to its appeal.  Additionally, the rice noodles had an al dente quality that did not turn mushy throughout the meal, reminding me of well-made fresh egg pasta.  The pool of chili condiment (not the table type) added some extra zing to the whole mix but still made it quite palatable.  I could not get enough of this dish as it was exciting both flavor and texture wise.  This soup noodle has now been added to my eating repertoire of this genre.

NW Chinese FoodNorthwest Chinese Food has become one of the most exciting discoveries for me on this gastronomic journey.  Partly it is because this is newfound territory, and also because this regional food is exciting and downright delicious.  This excitement was found in the flavors in nearly all the dishes  especially the peanut dish, shredded potato salad, the lamb burger, and both beef soup and sesame sauce noodle dishes.  In addition, the wheat and the rice noodles that I savored had a texture that I have never tasted in other Chinese establishments due to their hand-made quality and perfect cooking treatment.  Yes, the place is small and quite crowded on certain days, and I was even scolded by a waitress for holding a table while I waited for my party  – typically Chinese.  But with food this exciting and quite mind-blowing, such inconveniences can be tolerated or even overlooked.  This is definitely my latest gastronomic find, and it quickly ranks high on my personal list.

Ikko Sushi

Ikko Sushi

It has been quite a while since I have blogged on a Japanese establishment.  My regular Japanese haunt folded up after there was a change of management, and consequently, the service and food quality went downhill.  Since then, it has been challenging finding a spot worth writing about, in addition to the gastronomic wanderlust that has taken my attention in many directions.  However, recently, I read reviews on Ikko Sushi located near downtown Silver Spring, MD, and I paid it a visit for lunch during a warm Saturday afternoon.

Complementary Salad, Ikko SushiSituated on the ground floor of a recently built apartment building, it holds a sushi bar and a few tables inside.  But I chose to sit in the patio facing the building courtyard in order to take advantage of the light for the photos, and to enjoy the balmy temperatures, a nice change from the frigid week before.  After taking a seat, I perused the menu which seems to cover many categories of the cuisine that I am familiar with.  With the help of online recommendations, I honed in on some of the raved dishes that this place seems to get right.  The serving of a complementary salad set the right mood, although I found it rather pedestrian and lacking in “hand flavor” or a sense of proper attention to the ingredient no matter how lowly a lettuce leaf could be.  However, the well-made ginger-miso dressing was the right element that perked the leaves into something quite palatable.

Yellow Tail Carpaccio, Ikko Sushi

Yellow Tail Carpaccio, Ikko SushiFor my first course, I ordered the Yellow Tail Carpaccio.  The beautiful plate arrived with raw slivers of the mild fish dressed up and sitting on a pool of sauce.  One bite into a piece pointed to the quality of the sushi.  The slices of seafood were cut to the perfect thickness that exuded its mild clean ocean flavors.  The accoutrements on top added more interest with the right crunch from the sweet red onion, spicy jalapeño pepper, and herbal micro green, along with some creaminess from the ripe avocado.  Each packet was perfectly liaisoned by a sauce made from citrusy yuzu juice, soy sauce, and a tinge of sesame oil, making it the perfect complement to the fish’s clean flavors.  This was a great starter indeed, and I was looking forward to the next dish.

Fire Mussel

Fire Mussel, Ikko SushiFire Mussels was high on the online recommendation list and I decided to follow the suggestion.  When it arrived, I was not too keen of the amount of stuffing on top as well as its fiery color.  But with one shell, my mind took a U-turn.  The mussel tasted fresh and was rather moist from the proper cooking and the small pool of moisture under the flesh.  The topping took me by surprise by its seasoning, replete with some spice heat, a tinge of sweetness, and creaminess in the flaked Surimi stuffing, which did not overtake the seafood despite its bright appearance.  Despite the overwhelming quantity of stuffing, which I eventually scrapped off some of it, I agreed with the online raving comments on this appetizer, and I finished off every shell with some degree of satisfaction.

Spicy Tuna/Eel Rolls, Ikko Sushi

Spicy Tuna Roll, Ikko SushiInitially, I thought of critiquing on a Ramen noodle dish.  But with the advent of Spring, I quickly changed my order to some lighter sushi rolls.  My waiter was quick to recommend the ones made with multiple of ingredients lathered with quantities of sauce, which I find such Westernized creations to be overwhelming and quite an assault to the simplicity and purity of flavors.  Getting away from the “hits list”, I went a la carte and ordered two rolls.  The first was Eel roll.   The flesh was tasting very clean in flavor, devoid of the excessive Omega oil that a less-than-fresh cut would exude.  The traditional sweet brown sauce was not too sweet or excessive without overwhelming each bite.  The other roll was Spicy Tuna.  The mashed tuna mix was spicy, had a hint of acid and a good amount of sesame oil that matched the oily seafood.  The finely julienned cucumber was the perfect cooling complement to the spicy mix, and this flavor and textural combination made each bite irresistible.  For both rolls, the sushi rice was perfectly cooked with its grain retaining its integrity and not mushy at all, properly seasoned with a hint of sugar and vinegar.  The nori weed was aromatic and slightly nutty from some toasting.  All in all, this was proper sushi and it definitely points to a skillful hand.

Complementary Fruit, Ikko SushiIkko Sushi is a wonderful find.  Despite its large menu, it seems to get it right judging by the dishes that I tasted that day.  I still recall the wonderful mild yellow tail fish that was made more flavorful by the crunchy toppings and that sippable citrus sauce, the moist large mussels topped by a fiery and creamy faux crab stuffing, and the well-executed sushi rolls with the mild tasting eel and the perfectly balanced spicy tuna mix.  Sometimes the success is in the simple details without overwhelming the senses with overly layered flavors that tend to mask the ingredients – their integrity is the canvas itself.  This attitude was even evident in the complementary fruit consisting of a single sweet slice of orange and an equally delectable piece of cantaloupe.  With such venerable approach to Japanese cooking, Nikko Sushi is definitely worth more visits on my part.

Ikko Sushi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

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

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

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Bean thread Noodle, Chinese Spinach, and Shrimp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mele Bistro

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

Spanish Olive Oil - Mele Bistro

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

Chorizo Pata Negra - Mele Bistro

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

Hapuna Seabass - Mele Bistro

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

Blackened Scallop - Mele Bistro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appioo Bar and Grill

Appigo Bar and Grill

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

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

Goat Kebab/Chinchinga

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

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

Goat Fufu in Peanut Butter Soup

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

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

Grilled Tilapia and Spinach

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

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

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