Swahili Village

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

Swahili VillageSwahili Village

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

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

Kenyan Goat Soup Nyama Mchuzi - Beef Stew

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

Mbuzi Choma - Grilled Goat
Group Platter - Swahili Village

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

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

Asante - Goodbye, Swahili Village

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

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

Jerusalem Restaurant

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

Jerusalem Restaurant

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

Trio Dippers - Hummus, Babaghanouj, Labneh

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

Chicken Couscous

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

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

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

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

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

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

Great Sage

Great Sage Restaurant

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

Red Peppercorn Beet Salad

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

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

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

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

Pulled Squash Sandwich

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

Sin Tres Leches Cake

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

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

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

Woomi Garden

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

Woomi Garden

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

Korean Side Dishes Miso Soup

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

Mandu

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

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

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

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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