Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a  stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas.  One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCI recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order.  The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer.  This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.

Shaky Beef, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles.  Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe.  The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal.  It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses.  I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me.  The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ambar

After a short burst of chest pains followed by days of food tasting bitter on my tongue, I had reason for concern.  A few days later, I went to see my long-time doctor who is both knowledgeable and attentive, and after a diagnosis of severe acid reflux, this gastronome was relieved to hear that the effect was only short-term (bile on the tongue would have that effect) and my palatal glands had not suffered any permanent damage.  So, after an invitation to dinner by a friend to a restaurant unbeknownst to me, I did not resist nor google the restaurant, leaving this usual control freak to the hands of another.

8th St., SE.
Ambar

Ambar is located in the Eastern Market region of DC within walking distance from Capitol Hill.  The 8th Street SE corridor has become a hotspot for new and trendy restaurants catering to those seeking some culinary adventure.  Ambar is one in that crowd, and it touts itself as serving Balkan cuisine.   Run by a bigwig restaurateur in the DC scene, Richard Sandoval, whose nationwide and local restaurants range from Asian Fusion to Modern Latino, this appears to be the odd one out both in his culinary styles and in the local culinary scene.  With a fairly warm night giving us a precursor of better weather to come, we decided to take our seat in the small outside patio, as well as for me to get some good light for my photo shots.  The theme of this locale is that of small plates, tapas like, which we ordered a series of them for this sitting.

Chili Crab with Milk Skin CheeseThe first to land on the table was from the Kajmak Bar.  The name denotes an unaged cheese from the Serbia-Croatia region and I was curious enough to try something new.  We ordered this dairy dish topped with crab mixed with Ajvar, a Serbian eggplant-red pepper sauce, crowned with pickled green chilies.  Large pieces of Lavash chips, Turkish pita, were served as the scooping utensils to this dip.  Taking my first bite, I was surprised by the clean and mild flavor of the Kajmak, tasting like light cream with the texture of chevre but without the distinctive flavor of its aged cousin.  The crab mixture on top was a bit of a mismatch with the cheese since there was no discerning flavor of its sea-sweetness nor was there any distinctive presence of the Ajvar sauce, which made the use of the luxurious seafood a bit of a waste of ingredient.  The slivers of pickled green chilies was the right match for the mild cheese, and I was relishing them much like how I loved my grandmother’s pickled chilies that she even packed in her handbag on our trip to Hong Kong in the 80’s.  Perhaps another topping instead of the crab meat would have made this more successful since I was thoroughly enjoying its other plate partners.

Mushroom Crepes with Cheese

A trio of roasted mushroom crepes, known as šumske pečurke in Serbian-Croatian, arrived like little stuffed parcels.  The first bite into them brought some excitement to this taster.  The lacy and thin French-like crepes wrapped a stuffing made with rich creamy bechamel infused with slices of roasted mushroom that lent its meat-like texture and woodsiness to these delectable squares, reinforced by the creaminess of nutty Gouda cheese gratinéed on top.  The red pepper emulsion brought a bit of sweetness to each bite and it was the right complementary partner to this vegetarian delight.  If weren’t for my sense of fairness and equity, I would not have split the last parcel with my dining partner.

Grilled Calamari with Gremolata

The next dish to arrive was Grilled Calamari with Gremolata.  A pretty and bright dish arrived with pieces of fresh calamari bearing grill marks topped by the Gremolata sauce consisting of citrus flavors, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs, and olive oil.  The pieces of mollusk were quite tender with a slight bitter note from the grilling, compensated by the sweet-sour and fresh-tasting sauce that I could not get enough of.  Pieces of chili “thread” were a curiosity for me, and I could not stop popping them into my mouth, recognizing its vegetal flavor identity with the bare hint of its spice heat.  This well-executed dish points towards a skillful and thoughtful kitchen.

Duck Breast with Crackling and Saffron OnionsGrilled Duck Breast was next on the line-up.  Pieces of the poultry arrived sitting on a bed of cooked onions with pieces of duck crackling strewn around.  The meat pieces were still quite succulent despite being cooked a bit past what we had ordered, matched by the slightly sweet onions cooked with saffron and orange juice hinting of its floral and citrus bouquet.  But those pieces of crispy duck fat – what can I say?  Even for this health nut, I couldn’t resist popping them into my mouth as I savored their crunch and salty fattiness in the mouth (I have been known to buy a bag of crackling once a year).  The allspice jus added another interesting note to each bite, albeit a rather mild one.

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Pork Tenderloin

The last savory course was Bacon and Peanut Pork Tenderloin.  A slab of tenderloin was heavily grilled, paired with some mash potato.  Not knowing what this dish really was since there was a slight mix-up in the ordering (we were expecting Pork Belly and Sour Cabbage), we were guessing at what the elements were.  The sauce tasted interesting and familiar at the same time, hinting of mustard (a bit hint), butter and tarragon, and of another familiar note not in its usual guise – Miso.  Being heavily grilled, the pork was a bit dry on the outer parts but more tender inside, not tasting of anything else particularly interesting except for its porcine mildness. But it was that interesting sauce that saved the day.  The pork served a role more like a vehicle to mop up that tantalizing sauce akin to how some French dishes are made with the sauce being the star on the plate.  The sweet and salty bacon peanut crumble on the meat was also another interesting note that brought this dish beyond the banal.

Forest Gnocchi

After the list of savory offerings we sampled, we felt quite sated and satisfied with our meal.  However, our waitress tempted us with the house dessert that has been listed as one of the 40-must-have’s in DC – Forest Gnocchi.  A chilled Korean stone bowl (a creative use of the usually heated one for Bimbap)  contained the following  ingredients listed on the menu: chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelee, tarragon gnocchi, passion fruit espuma with black tea sauce. Wow, wow, wow! Talk about gastronomic titillation at its best!  I could not stop tasting all the high-quality and well-executed disparate ingredients with their fruit, sweet, chocolate, citrus, and tannin (tea) qualities that came together to create an amazing gestalt effect.  The shoot of baby basil leaves added the refreshing and unexpected herbaceous note to the already polyphonic symphony of flavor notes.  I am glad that we decided to take the leap of faith, and I have found my latest must-have dessert as of today.

Ambar is an interesting gastronomic experiment by a seasoned restaurateur who knows what he is doing with ingredients that are uncommon but not lacking in flavor.  Despite the small misstep in the Crab and Kajma dish, I was impressed by the execution and chemistry in the pairing of elements as in the Mushroom Crepes with its woodsy goodness and rich bechamel, the tender Calamari with the lick-the-bowl citrus Gremolata, the quality Duck Breast paired with floral sweet onions punctuated with crispy fatty duck crackling, and saving the best for last, Forest Gnocchi with the myriad of flavors that came together as an epicurean summit on my tasting buds, as I felt grateful that they are now at their optimum tasting level.  Yes, Ambar is worth visiting for some culinary adventure, even more so with reasonable prices for this level of cooking.  With my worries of my tongue issues aside, I can now concentrate on my tennis elbow from a Yoga session that same day.  Oh well.

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