Marco and Polo

Marco and Polo Restaurant, Hyattsville, MD

In my last blog, I reviewed an Uyghur restaurant in Northern Virginia where I found its cuisine alluring and rather exotic. However, it is temporarily closed due to its building is for sale while the eatery looks for a new location. Coincidently, I got wind of another Uyghur and Turkish restaurant closer to me, in Hyattsville. Marco and Polo Restaurant is located in the fairly new University Town Center, to the side of the huge library. Walking into the space, its dining room is rather spacious that leads to a colorful performance platform. As I got a good view of the open kitchen, I perused the menu with my sight on many dishes listed.

Chuchura Soup, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Lentil Soup, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDFor starters, I was curious about the Chuchura Soup that the amiable owner touted about. It was only on my third trip that I managed to get a taste of it. And my goodness – what a soup! The broth was weighty and well-seasoned with a meaty flavor that belied its nearly clear broth, yet devoid of extraneous flavors usually associated with lamb. The equal partner was the small dumplings that were characterized by a silky smooth and tender dough encapsulating a mild and tasty soft meaty filling that made me return for more. The hint of herbaciousness from the dried mint added a slight note of exotica to this already beguiling soup that pointed towards skill, love, and pride, qualities that would definitely make this a must-order. On another trip, an order of lentil soup proved to be interesting. The dried-bean soup was velvety smooth, punctuated by some chili heat, dried mint, and enriched by a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. However, for me, it lacked a lemon wedge that would have lifted the sip a bit more.

Mixed Meze Platter, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Uyghur Samsa, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDOn one visit, we ordered the Mixed Meze Platter. What arrived was an array of stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and tsatsiki.  The grape leaves were properly made and seasoned with its mild vinegary note with a fully-cooked rice filling, the hummus smooth that reminded me of what I have tasted in Istanbul (but not quite as punchy as the Lebanese version), and the tsatskiki that was creamy, tangy and filled with bits of feta-like cheese that added a brininess that made it quite exciting. The bread was the ideal canvas to these dips with its crusty outer but pillowy and warm inside, exuding hint of yeast and sweetness, making it carb-worthy. An order of Samsa was also made on that visit. The baked dough was stuffed with a lamb filling that was meaty, not too “lamby”, and fragrant from some onion. But I wished that the they were not baked so long as some parts of the dough became rather stiff – I’m sure this was a simple oversight that could be easily rectified.

Sdwuck Pide, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Borek, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDFrom the bakery section, one visit’s order was Sdwuck Pide. The boat-shaped pizza arrived with large pieces of Turkish sausage that was quite spicy, meaty, balanced with a tangy note. The dusting of oregano on top (organic according to the chef) was the perfect foil to this rich yet light bite, and the dough was perfectly baked with a crustiness over a bouncy inside, making it a perfect lunch bite with the side salad that was slightly punchy from olives and pickles. Another baked dish was Borek which consisted of crispy dough wrapped around a stuffing of a creamy cheese mixed with a stringy one, mixed with some parsley. It was quite tasty with a tangy tone in the cheese mixture.

Home Style Leghmen, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

Liang Mian, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MDUyghur cuisine is known for its noodle dishes, and I had to try a couple of them. Home Style Leghmen consisted of pieces of meat (the beef in this order was quite tender), and a plethora of Chinese long bean, celery, green onions, and red peppers that added their individual character to each bite. The sauce was quite savory with a hint of spice heat and a tinge of vinegar to balance the profile. The noodles was the hand-pulled kind (witnessed from the dining room) that were unfortunately slightly overcooked since I prefer it more al dente, but it did not deter me from liking the dish. The other noodle dish was Liang Mian.  The noodles were cooked perfectly al dente (organic gluten-free noodles, shown to me by the chef), mixed with a combination of a chilled cooked sauce and amazingly finely-chopped parsley, and red and green peppers as its topping. The flavors were a mixture of vegetable flavors, a rather strident vinegar note that was not too overpowering, and some chili heat that produced a gestalt effect that beckoned me over and over again. This is a perfect summer cold dish, even though I was thoroughly enjoying it mid-winter.

Uyghur Polo, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD Chicken Kebab, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD
Uyghur Polo was one of the meat dishes that I tasted. Pieces of lamb was cooked tender,  tasting mild, and devoid of the extraneous flavors, sitting above medium-grain rice that was perfectly cooked and tasting savory, studded with soft pieces of carrot exuding some sweetness left over after being cooked in the broth. It reminded me of the Afghan meat-rice dish, but this was more savory without the cloying carrot-sweetness in the latter version. The other meat dish was Chicken Kebab. The chunks of chicken breast were well-seasoned through and through with a little bit of spice heat, smokey from grilling over coals, but maybe a bit dry from some folks since super moist breast is an American obsession. The side rice was the basmati kind that was savory but a tad dry, accompanied by the grilled vegetables and the wonderful salad. Judging by these dishes, grilled meats are definitely a strong suit in this house.

Döner Kebab, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD Salmon Dish, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD

At the end of one of my visits, the chef ingratiated us with a serving of Döner Kebab. I was quite full from the meal, and I was not sure if I was up to it. But one bite of it was revelatory. The meat exuded some dark spices yet tasting mild for this type of gyro preparation. Each piece had a slight crispiness from the rotisserie spit roast, holding on to moist meat, which made this dish appealing enough as an order in the future. On another visit, a neighbor’s dish was so visually appealing that I couldn’t help staring at them and eventually asking them their opinion of that dish. The pieces of salmon, rice and asparagus spears were served on a piece of tree trunk that enhanced the visual. The ladies noted that the fish was crispy on the exterior yet moist inside, the vegetable perfectly cooked without being mushy, and the rice savory studded with carrots and small dark raisins. Judging from the women’s effusive reaction of the dish, I wouldn’t pass it over on future visits.

Baklava, Marco and Polo, Hyattsville, MD The array of desserts looked appealing sitting in the display counter next to the kitchen. One of the duo Baklavas was the pistachio kind.  It was quite buttery, not cloyingly sweet, exuding honey notes and hints of the pistachio nut. Its partner was the walnut kind. This bite was more buttery and crispier in the layers of phyllo, with a mild astringency from the use of roasted black walnuts that was the perfect foil to the honey-based syrup.  Although they were not as floral as the Lebanese ones that I am used to, these bites were well-made, and I appreciated its subtleties in each mouthful. I’m looking forward to trying the other desserts, including the rice pudding that was amiss on my few visits.

What I discovered at Marco and Polo Restaurant mostly impressed me with the interesting dishes that reflected skillful cooking, a caring hand, and lots of heart. These qualities were evident in many dishes, from that amazing dumpling soup, the cheesy and tangy tsatsiki, the yeasty and crusty bread, the well-baked Turkish sausage pide, the full-flavored and brow-raising noodles, the well-seasoned and quality meats in the rice dishes and grilled dishes, the impressive-looking salmon dish, and finally the understated but charming desserts. Having spoken to the chef-owner during each visit, one senses his knowledge married with his soul inbued in his proud wonderful offerings. With such cooking and care, I will certainly be making many more trips to this newfound establishment.


Cazbar, Baltimore, MD Cazbar, Baltimore, MD

In 2015, I stopped over in Istanbul on my way to and fro Southeast Asia – see photos.  I fell in love with the city and the charming people, but I was quite disappointed by the eating offerings as I pretty much stuck to the touristy areas that was limited to kebaps. When I returned back, I brought back a bunch of typical Turkish spices from the Spice Market sitting next to the Bosphorus River separating Europe from Asia. The dried herbs and peppers were bought with the intention of helping a cookbook author test some of her recipes from this region. In the process, I discovered that there was a delicious unchartered territory that was definitely worth exploring. So, when I got wind of a Turkish restaurant located on a main street in Baltimore, I visited it a few times before writing this review.

Lentil/ Pumpking Soups, Cazbar, MD Ayran, Cazbar, MD

Walking into the Cazbar, you notice the rich-colored walls illuminated by the store-front window in the front and beautiful Turkish stained-glass lamps towards the back, reminding me of seeing them in a bazaar on my trip. The menu was easy to navigate and we honed on the set lunch specials that is available everyday including weekends for $14. After placing our order, we got our soups quite quickly. The first was Lentil Soup. It was made with red lentils and it was quite thin with the lentils pureed in it. It had a hint of dried mint that added some interest but it didn’t manage to wow us.  The Pumpkin Soup was interesting as it was quite orangy in color but its sweetness was a bit too much for my dining companion. It exuded a dark spice that was later confirmed as cinnamon, but not the usual American type. Not a bad start, but no surprise that these were not impressive since they were starters for the set lunch.  A glass of Ayra, yogurt drink, was quite refreshing as it was ice-cold, quite salty, and paradoxically light and creamy at the same time, and the brass container it came in exuded an Old World charm.

Babaghanoush/Ezme, Cazbar, MD

Hummus, Cazbar, MDThe appetizers were next. There was quite a variety to choose from but we focused on the familiar and a recommendation. The Babaghanoush arrived in a beautiful metal container, and one dip into it revealed its smokey, vegetable sweet, and smooth silky nature that has been enriched by some tahini.  The recommended Ezme was a surprising discovery. It is a vegetable dip made from finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and parsley, all brought together by some spicy pul biber pepper spice and sweetened with a recent discovery of mine, pomegranate molasses, that added a sweetness and tang to the delicious mix – my friends raved about it throughout the meal. The Hummus on another visit proved to be extremely smooth, tasting rather rich from the tahini and perfumed by a hint of cumin that didn’t overwhelm the palette, an opener that pleased everyone at the table. Worth mentioning is the fantastic bread that was used to mop up all the above goodness with its freshly baked, crusty, and pillowy light inside qualities. I have heard of good Turkish bakers, and this was an epitome of such standard.

Adana Iskander, Cazbar, MD Chicken Pirzola, Cazbar, MD

Kofte Kebap Sandwich, Cazbar, MDA trip to a Turkish restaurant would be amiss if one didn’t taste the famous Döner Kebap. The version here is worth raving about: crispy bits with a softer inside (an indication of the proper rotisserie cooking), and a well-seasoned mix of lamb and beef with a faint taste of the gaminess that was appealing. The side salad that came with most dishes was well-dressed with a vinaigrette scented with dried mint leaves, served along with a buttery rice pilaf studded with toasted orzo-like pasta that was good enough to satisfy. A supped up version of the above is Adana Iskander that is the same meat placed on pieces of light bread moistened by an amazingly light and fresh tomato sauce, and topped with a tangy yogurt sauce. The gestalt effect of each bite was extremely tasty and satisfying, making each forkful irresistible. An order of Chicken Pirzola arrived looking like Chicken Tandoori with its bring orange color as a result of its marination in fresh oregano, Turkish paprika and issot red pepper spice. No one spice stood out but the overall effect was a tasty one paired with the smokiness from the grilling that kept the chicken still moist while having a slight char. The side cucumber and fresh dill yogurt sauce was completely up my ally with its tangy, creamy and herbaceous quality. A lighter bite was Köfte Kebap Sandwich that composed of minced beef that has been seasoned with some spicy pepper, well-seasoned, but it was a bit tough. The french fries were a bit limpid but that was made up by the spicy French sauce-like dip that I couldn’t get enough of.  The kitchen really knows how to operate the grill properly judging by these well-executed dishes.

Cyprus Pide, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Moussaka, Cazbar, MDThere were a couple of non-grilled meat dishes that we had to try. The first was Cyprus Pide. I had the pizza-like long bread in Istanbul, but unfortunately, it was rather greasy and unimpressive then. The version here was freshly made and far better than my first experience. The baked dough was soft and light with a yeasty scent, with fresh slices of red onion, pickled artichoke, brined olives, fresh spinach, all held down by some soft stringy cheese. The fresh slightly charred vegetal qualities were perfumed by some fresh oregano or marjoram that made each bite interesting and equally satisfying – an order of only this bread would have sufficed due to all its goodness. The other order was Lamb Moussaka. It arrived baked in a metal ware looking like regular Italian lasagna.  Breaking into it, you could taste the meat that was coarsely ground, slices of soft potato, a slightly spicy tomato sauce that tasted rather fresh, and soft melted cheese that was not overwhelming in flavor or amount.  It was not the usual moussaka that the Greeks make, but my friend was happy with his selection and he disposed of it in no time.

Combo Kebap, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Three Way, Cazbar, MDA couple of Combo Kebap dishes were savored on the last trip. My order was a combination of whole shrimp and chunks of lamb. The seafood was well-grilled and the shells managed to keep them still rather moist while tasting well-seasoned and sea sweet. The lamb was a bit tough due to either the cut or its well-done state, which is common for cuisine from this part of the world.  However, the meat was well-seasoned paired with a smoky char that added a tasty dimension to the chunks. My friends order was Lamb Three Ways: lamb chop, lamb kebap (like above dish), and ground lamb köfte. The latter was a bit spicy and had a hint of sourness in the ground meat, and the chop was still moist and had a slight scent of lamb gaminess that is to be expected, along with some good smoky char from the grill. My friend seemed completely sated from this lamb heaven indicated by his gnawing the chops down to their bare bones.

Turkish Tea and Baklava, Cazbar, MDCazbar is a great find, even though it is not in proper DC region. I really like this place for its location on the main street Baltimore where parking is free after 6 p.m. weekdays and all of Sunday. But what makes it worth visiting is its strong suits of the well-seasoned grilled seafood and meats (not too salty like many grill establishments), the amazing appetizers of babaghanoush, hummus, and that to-die-for Ezme, the thoughtful sides and sauces that balance each plate well, and the pide stuffed-bread and moussaka that are worth trying. For $2 more, you can finish your meal with a glass of Turkish chai that was both slightly bitter and aromatic (reminding me of sitting by the Bosphorus sipping many cups of it), and the flaky nutty not-too-sweet Baklava that would give the diner a truly happy ending.  To boot, the decor and service were both charming and extremely appealing, especially the congenial waiters we had on our visits. Cazbar is definitely worth many more visits with expertly cooked food like this, and it is high on my recommendation list.

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

Yia Yia’s Kitchen

My foray into Greek cuisine has not been one of a traditional route.  In addition to frequenting a popular take-out diner in the Dupont Circle area for many years as a young adult, I would scout out Greek Festivals to find cookouts hosted yearly by the myriad of Greek Orthodox churches in the Washington DC area.  It was there that I could get a true sense of what traditional Greek cuisine was about.  However, I have not come across many Greek restaurants in the area beyond the gyro counter, thus the absence of a blog on this culinary tradition uptil today.

Yia Yia's Kitchen

However, recently as I was driving up Route 1 heading to Beltsville, I noticed this new establishment tucked in a strip mall, just north of IKEA and the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.  After a couple of weeks, I decided to pay Yia Yia’s Kitchen a visit, and admittedly, with a bit of lowered expectation stemming from my experiences with similar style places.  But walking in, I was impressed by the place that looks very neat and well-kept, bright from being a corner shop lot bathed in natural light coming through the large windows facing the traffic-laden highway.  Within my first bite, I knew that this was not the usual joint serving this Mediterranean cuisine.  After a handful of visits, I decided to write this blog.

Tyropita/Ricotta Feta Pie

Spanakopita/Spinach Feta PieSome of the highlights of tasting food at Greek Festivals were new dishes that I could explore and enjoy, and savory pastries were some of my favorites.   My first order here was Tyropita.  The pies were airy and crispy from the well-baked Phylo sheets, enclosing an equally light yet rich stuffing of ricotta and feta cheeses.  The tanginess of the feta was not too pronounced, tampered by the smooth ricotta, and it was the perfect foil to the mild tasting crispy exterior that literally flaked apart between my fingers – a light and flavorful starter indeed.   Another visit’s order was Spanakopita.  The dough of these pies were quite different from the above, being equally light but softer akin to a crispy croissant, encasing a stuffing of spinach, leeks and feta cheese.  I really enjoyed these savory bites with the feta tanginess tasting creamy, perfectly matched by the sweet onion notes of the leeks which seemed to be more prominent than the spinach.  Both types of pies were made to order judging by the flaky warm dough and their fresh quality, and they were the perfect meal opener due to their savoriness and lightness.

Fried Calamari

Looking at the menu, I knew I had to sample a couple of types of appetizers.  The Fried Calamari definitely called my name on each occasion.  The plate arrived with thick rings of squid, along with a few tentacle blooms, lightly battered and served with lemon and Tastziki yoghurt sauce.  One bite into the seafood was revealing.  The batter was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, crispy but lightly coating the squid rings that were quite tender to the bite.  Being made from whole squid, this was as good as it gets, and at one visit, they literally disintegrated with a couple of chews.  The frying was nearly greaseless and the seasoning right as to not overwhelm the mild mollusks.  A squirt of the lemon wedges took me to the Mediterranean seaside with these bites.  Even though the yoghurt sauce was well-made and flavored with fresh dill, I didn’t feel that it added much to the seafood.  The portion was quite huge as an appetizer, but it is worth ordering and sharing with others.

Avgolemono/Lemon Egg SoupA visit on a cold day called for the classic Greek soup – Avgolemono.  The first mouthful brought a smile to my face.  It is basically a well-made chicken soup, full of flavor of vegetable aromatics of onions and carrots, and without artificial flavor enhancers, laced with pieces of carrot and strands of chicken, and thickened with cooked rice and egg.  But what takes this basic soup to another level is a tinge of lemon juice mixed in with the richness of the egg.  I must say that I enjoyed these sips very much with the lemon tang beckoning my tongue for more each time.  It may not be a cup of tea, or bowl of soup, for the uninitiated, but I really enjoyed this classic soup, me being one with an affinity for the sour and tangy flavors.  Even without the lemon, this is a damn good soup.




Pork GyroGreek Salad with Feta

Walking into the eatery, you immediately notice three gyro spit roasters behind the counter heating away different types of meat judging by the colors of each meat cylinder.  An order one day was made with pork, which is a popular choice on the Greek islands.  The meat pocket was a combination of pita bread wrapping together a filling of shaved roasted pork (not processed pressed meat), fries, bits of tomato, onions and lettuce, moistened by some yoghurt sauce.  The bits of meat were slightly crispy on the outside with more moist bits seasoned by a mild concoction hinting of oregano and thyme.  The pita was amazingly soft and pillowy tasting freshly made.   I found the fries stuffed into the gyro unnecessary and I removed them quickly.  A friend’s order made with beef and lamb was equally satisfying for him, and I could taste some of the unique and mild gaminess associated with these cuts.  Another day’s order of the Souvlaki was equally tasty with cubes of pork being well-marinated and well-seasoned but perhaps a bit dry due to that lean cut of meat.  A side of Greek Salad was the perfect accompaniment for its fresh quality ingredients and flavors found in the vegetables and leaves, the block of quality feta perfectly brined and sprinkled with some dry oregano, all moistened by a lemony vinaigrette made with good olive oil.  As a side salad, the quantity is a good healthy portion for most.

Moussaka Platter

Greek main dishes have always had much appeal to me due to their refineness in preparation and flavors as I have savored in those Greek festivals.  A friend’s order of Moussaka was a revelation on a visit.  The pie is made with layers of Bechamel sauce, eggplant, meat sauce and slices of potato, all cooked to form a single lasagna-like entity.  This version blew me away on many levels: the bechamel sauce was the right amount of creamy richness hinting of some nutmeg in it, the eggplant moist and thin, the meat sauce perfumed with some cinnamon and clove, and the potato still a bit firm but cooked.  The seasoning was perfect and the use of spices subtle yet present.  The pie could be cut with a fork and there was a lightness to it pointing towards to a delicate and knowledgeable hand.  The green beans side was also well-executed with the whole vegetable fully cooked (Mediterraneans prefer their veggies this way) without turning to mush, slightly acidic from the whole tomatoes, sweet from the onions, and seasoned with fresh mint (not dry mint like some do) that added a fresh bright quality to this side.  The side of potato wedges was mildly seasoned and still a bit firm from the roasting.  Another friend’s order of Pastichio was very much like the Moussaka but made with cooked macaroni added to the meat sauce and topped with the Bechamel sauce, which he found equally savory and satisfying.  I have to admit that that is the best Moussaka that I have bitten into, enough to give any Yia Yia a run for the money.

Kokkinisto/Beef Red Wine StewAfter the urging of the owner on a couple of occasions, I decided to try the Kokkinisto dish.  The plate arrived with pieces of short ribs sitting on a mound of mashed potato.  Admittedly, I was not too impressed by this rather gray looking dish, but the first forkful spoke another language.  The pieces of meat tasted full-flavored from some pan-searing and simmered in red wine and probably some rich stock.  There was a subtle back note seasoning that I could not discern, but the gestalt in flavor was tongue-tickling.  The background player was not insignificant; the mashed potato was made from scratch tasting freshly made and a bit rough in texture, enriched by some stock and a hint of garlic, and it provided the perfect companion to the beefy bits.  The portion was very generous and I could not finish but half of the serving, to which I savored it delightfully encore the next day.


I knew I couldn’t write this blog without including at least one of their desserts, and I decided to order the most recognizable sweet bite, Baklava.  This healthy serving was full of roasted nuts separated by layers of Phylo and soaked with syrup to provide the sweet and moisture to each bite.  What raised my eyebrows and brought a smile to my face was the use of cinnamon which tasted extremely fresh and zingy.  The Phylo on top was flaky but the middle layer of pastry was a bit too thick and was not thoroughly cooked.  However, the flavors were spot on and I appreciated the right amount of sweetness without being cloyingly sweet like other versions I have tasted.

Yia Yia's KitchenYia Yia’s Kitchen is a great find in the DMV area where Greek food is not common and it’s quality cooking hard to find.  The freshness in the ingredients and the cooking are consistent in this place, from the simple Greek Salad with the tasty and briny Feta, to the amazingly light and flavor-packed Spinach and Feta pies, to the well-seasoned roasted meat in the Gyros, to that oh-so-good Moussaka that can be eaten any day, to the oh-so-beefy meat-red wine stew matched with an equally tasty mashed potato.  And that corner dedicated to all the Yia Yia’s and their cooking is so endearing.  I think the superb cooking here would bring a smile to the photo of each of the grandmothers, making them proud that the name of the restaurant is in honor of these great cooks.

Yia Yia's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Taste of Tunisia

Taste of TunisiaThe cyber world of online coupons is a fleeting one, just like most personal profiles and some Facebook connections.  When I came across an offer for a Tunisian restaurant more than a year ago, I grabbed it quickly, only to be quickly disappointed by an email stating that the restaurant had closed down.  But a couple of months ago, another came up for this North African cuisine and this time, hesitation had no time to register in my mind and on my finger before tapping on “purchase” on the website.

Taste of Tunisia is located on the busy Wilson Boulevard near the Courthouse Metro, Arlington, VA, and its storefront awning can be easily missed within the blink of an eye due to its inconspicuous appearance.   Stepping in, you immediately confront a large wraparound counter shielding an open kitchen, reminiscent of the old-style diner.  On the other side of the room was a simply painted mural of a North African doorway lit by multi-colored Tunisian lamps.  Even though the décor is a bit sparse and furniture rather basic, I was reserving my assessment for the cooking and the dishes that I was going to order.

Tunisian Mint TeaUpon taking our seat, our charming waiter first served us some Sweet Mint Tea while we perused the menu, trying to decipher this unchartered culinary terrain although I was already quite familiar with another cuisine from this region – Moroccan.  Seeing that there were some similarities between these two neighbors, I detected that there were some subtle differences between the two, and I used that as a guide in making my choices.  Sipping the tea helped me to ease the mind and soul as I became more comfortable with this culinary map.  It was not too sweet, not too piping hot, and made fragrant by a spring of fresh mint that elevated this basic cuppa to its exotic level.  This was the perfect foray to the meal despite it being a sweet drink, and we could not resist asking for a refill during the meal.




Tunisian Tuna Egg Breek

Our first appetizer was unequivocably Tunisian – Breek.  It arrived as a large triangular pastry filled with potato, capers, tuna, egg, and parsley, fried until crispy and golden brown.  We were not sure what to expect from this large patty but it peaked our interest.  With a squeeze of lemon juice, this dish was both revealing and delicious.  The pastry, although listed as phyllo dough, was Breek pastry, more like a wonton skin, encasing the interesting and savory combination that was spiked by the capers, and moistened by a sunny-side-up egg that spilled its yolk with the first fork digging.  The yellow liquid provided the rich flavor and sauce to each bite which I enjoyed very much.  According to Tunisian tradition, a mother-in-law would serve this to the potential bridegroom, and if he eats it without spilling a drop of the yolk, he is worthy of marriage – my companion and I were definitely not up-to-par for such proposition that night judging by the yellow mess on the plate.

An order of salad as the next course was unfortunately uninspiring despite a mound of lettuce leaves topped by almond slivers, canned olives, sultanas, Tunisian sheep cheese (like feta), and tomatoes, served with grain mustard as the dressing (interesting!).  I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for this raw vegetable dish from this regional cuisine.

Taste of Tunisia Couscous

For our main dishes, the first was Taste of Tunisia Couscous. A beautiful painted earthenware bowl arrived brimming with some couscous grain topped with Merguez sausage, lamb chops, chickpeas, a wedge of potato, and a thick slice of zucchini and carrot.  Although I have had my share of this grain dish, there were some unique touches to this dish.  First, the couscous was an orangey yellow hue and it still had a slight bite to it, which the waiter pointed as a main difference from the Moroccan version.  The next was the spice level of the dish coming from the use of the red pepper Harissa sauce in the gravy and also in the small Merguez lamb sausages that packed a wallop in the flavor department.  The chickpeas and vegetables were perfectly cooked tender and the lamb chops, young lamb judging from the size, was literally falling of the bone when cut into.  We dug into this dish enjoying this soulful dish that spoke to us with its authenticity and well-executed cooking and flavors. This was both tasty and soul-stirring at the same time, especially for my eating companion.

Tunisian Musli Chicken

Our second entrée was Musli Chicken which was recommended by our waiter.  The chicken breast was oven baked with a mound of sweet onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and the exotic pickled lemon, ubiquitous in this North African region.  The cut of poultry was still moist, flavorful from the yellow sauce that was savory and slightly citrusy from the use of the pickled lemon that also added some brininess.  Soft thick slices of the lemon further enhanced this unique flavor profile, allowing this diner to add it with each bite of chicken, which satisfied this reviewer who enjoys pickles of all kinds.  The side of rice was a strong co-actor with its strong perfume of cardamom, and savoriness from shallots, punctuated  with bits of browned pasta looking like orzo.  This dish is akin to the Lemon Chicken Tagine which I reviewed in another Moroccan restaurant last year, but the cooking style was distinctively different.  Unfortunately, the side potato wedges were slightly undercooked, but they were at the same time savory from the tangy sauce. A single cooked green hot pepper, looking like a baby zucchini but unrecognizable to me, was an interesting touch that only confirmed to me that heat spice is an integral part of this North African cuisine, unlike its neighbor Morocco.

Tunisian Pastries

Even though we were quite sated from the appetizers and main courses, we did not finish everything on our dishes as we had been eyeing the pastries sitting on the counter from the moment we walked in.  We ordered a plateful of all the different treats displayed and we were glad for having done so.  Makrouch is made with date puree covered by a crumbly nutty dough, soaked with a not-too-sweet syrup perfumed with orange blossom water, and dotted with fragrant sesame seeds.  On the first bite, my friend remarked that this was a better exotic version of Figs Newton, and I concurred with him.  Another triangular pastry made with pistachio and walnuts was packed with a compact nut mixture, sweetened by the same syrup as above, and flakey from the outer shell of phyllo dough – this was my favorite since I’m nutty over pistachio.  The last was Baklava, which I did not expect any different from any other versions that I’ve had before.  But this one was nut-packed with barely any hint of the phyllo dough separating the layers.  What I appreciated from all the desserts was they were not too sweet, and we were told that they were house-made on site.  Each bite of these sweet delights only pointed to the hands of a skillful pastry maker and my kudos to him or her.

Taste of Tunisia is a hidden gem of a restaurant (a common comment from other online reviewers) in a sea of other eating establishments in the busy Arlington area. The dishes that are served here speak of a culinary tradition that is worth exploring and that point towards a knowledgeable kitchen steeped in this cuisine – the sight of an old man behind the stove somehow was quite reassuring for me. Do not be put off by the small space and lack of a plush setting.  But after a meal there, the wonderful food and desserts make up for such a lack. In this instance, you cannot judge the food by its cover.

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