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.

Golden Samovar

Golden Samovar, Rockvile, MD

One recent cold night, a longtime friend and I were looking for a Peruvian restaurant in Rockville, MD by the Town Center. After hunting high and low, we gave up and walked into the closest eating establishment in order to get out of the cold. We both had not savored Russian food before and the menu piqued our interest as we traversed down this gastronomic journey.

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Chicken Blintzes, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDHerring Furcoat Salad, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Golden Samovar sits on the corner of Rockville Town Center.  Walking in, you are immediately welcomed by a rather smart decor with a European touch in the chandeliers, embossed walled paper, and a framed Siberian wolf, which not only was it shocking but strikingly impressive.  After navigating the terra incognito-like menu, we decided on a couple of appetizers that I had read or heard about. The first was Chicken Blintzes. The rolls consisted of a buttery yet slightly firm pancake wrap filled with a shredded chicken filling, which we found tasting freshly-made and quite savory, especially with the house-made sour cream that was not overly tangy. The second was totally unfamiliar to us – Herring Furcoat Salad. What presented itself was quite perplexing since it didn’t look like a traditional salad but a cupbowl filled with reddish and creamy parts.  But one spoonful was quite an eye-opener.  It was a mixture of shredded fresh beets and carrots, chunks of briny pickled herring, sitting on mashed potato and liaisoned by a mayonnaise-like topping. The disparate elements spell out an unimaginable alliance, but this made an incredible combination that my friend and I couldn’t stop returning to. After the waiter told us that this dish was usually prepared for special occasions, I can see why due to its appealing flavors.

Chicken Kiev, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDUzbek Plov, Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD My friend ordered Chicken Kiev which seems like standard fare. What arrived was a bit surprising.  The ball of meat was finely minced chicken meat mixed with some breading and stock to loosen it up, and seasoned mildly.  Instead of the usual stuffing with cheese, a creamy cheese sauce was napéd on the crispy breading exterior.  This was a subtle dish that I was enjoying partly due to its novelty and “authentic” take of what we know this dish to be. As for my main course, I ordered an Uzbek special, Lamb Plov, since the owner hails from the region. What arrived reminded me of Afghan Rice Pilaf, pointing towards the connections between the close countries. The fluffy basmati rice was well seasoned with stock and aromatic wood spices, sweetened by shredded carrots and raisins, and studded with fork-tender and well-seasoned pieces of lean lamb that tasted like a perfect partner with the rice.

Borscht Soup - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Cucumber Radish Salad - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

On another occasion, a couple of friends joined me for the $30 all-you-can-eat brunch menu, which was a rare treat for me. I started off the with Borscht soup which I though was a must-try.  The soup had all the usual elements of beets, cabbage, pieces of beef, and sour cream, but it somehow was quite insipid for my taste buds that was yearning for more of a stock flavor. The side of Cucumber/Radish Salad was interesting being pieces of the vegetables coated with some sour cream and fresh dill, but it needed some salt and tang to lift its flavors up.

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Dolma - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDVeal Pilmeni - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

Since the owner is from the Uzbek region, stuffed grape leaf counts itself among the Russian dishes – Dolma. The small bite was attentively made with the right balance of flavors and acumen. Each bite consisted of a mild grape leaf wrapped around a light but spiced rice meat mixture, complemented by a tangy yogurt-like sauce – this bit of wonder called for a second order after its initial tasting. A recommendation for us was Pelmeni, reminding me of tortellini but here stuffed with a veal mixture. One bite into it was love-at-first-sight.  The pasta was not too thick and a bit al dente, enveloping an amazingly light meat stuffing that was savory and irresistible. We couldn’t be satisfied with just our individual orders and we eventually had to get a second huge one.

Blintzes, Smoked Salmon & Salmon Roe - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD Bratwurst - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

An order of smoked salmon, salmon roe and blintzes was next – Sakhalin Style Salad.  The fish was of pretty good quality, the salmon roe briny and fishy, and the blintzes the perfect match with the strong seafood elements. We were thoroughly enjoying our big platter and we eventually added on another serving later. We were recommended to try the Russian Bratwurst.  What arrived were sliced-up pieces that reminded me of good Viennese sausage but tasting home-made with its moist light texture.  The side of spelt was tasty and well-made, as well as the cabbage salad that provided the necessary acid to balance the rich flavors and textures. These two dishes were quite a hit for some of us at the table.

Beef Stroganoff - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MDPotato Latkes - Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

A couple of other small bites were among of plethora dishes that we ordered for brunch, albeit a la carte and thankfully made to order. Beef Stroganoff seemed like a no-brainer for an order in a Russian eatery.  The beef was lean and fork-tender, but I was surprised by how underwhelming this dish was, especially being a meat-chocked dish. I didn’t taste the mashed potato served alongside since I didn’t want to get stuffed with unnecessary dishes, but it looked properly made. We were ingratiated with some Potato Latkes at the end, but we could only manage a couple of forkful which turned out to be quite light and well-made.

Golden Samovar, Rockville, MD

What we thought would be a crap shoot turned out to be quite a rewarding gastronomic journey in discovering what Russian cuisine is like at Golden Samovar. There were moments of revelation with the soul-stirring Herring “Salad” and Blintzes either stuffed with chicken or topped with smoked salmon. And there were some dishes that stood out due to their flavors and their skillful cooking, notably the Pilmeni dumplings that kept us hooked, the bratwurst dish, and the Uzbek offerings of stuffed grape leaves and lamb rice dish. As a foray into this European cuisine, this has been a discovery and a pleasing adventure into new-found gastronomic territory. Judging from my visits so far, I think I will be heading back soon to Golden Samovar to discover more tasty delights of this wonderful East European cuisine.