Café Citron

DSC_9115.jpgIn a modern hectic world that lacks enough hours, or so it appears, we seem unable to escape from a retail market that has nearly everything that caters to all our whims and wishes, from the mega-markets of Costco and Wegman’s to eating establishments that offer a fare encompassing a wide variety of cuisines, whether it is Global Fusion (I ate at such a place but it was not worth writing about), Pan-Asian (see blogs on Café Asia and Hee Been Bistro), Pan-European, or the many variations out there.  But one cuisine that has resisted such grouping has been the cuisines of Latin America.  Why?  Try calling any Latino a Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Salvadorian without first ascertaining his/her background; the usual acerbic response (“Excuse me, I AM …..) is a good indicator of the nationalistic sentiment that is proudly worn with a certain tinge of defensiveness.   With a huge Latino population in the DC area arriving from different nations and subsequent generations being born locally, this subtle yet well-demarcated border is slowly evaporating away with one group incorporating cultural traits and habits from those once viewed with suspect – look at the current popularity of Dominican Bachata music among all Latino groups.

So, when an online coupon offer popped up for a Pan-Latino restaurant, I knew I had to click BUY and explore this unique establishment.  Café Citron is located a few doors away from Kababji, a recently reviewed Lebanese restaurant, just south of the busy and pedestrian-heavy Dupont Circle, a neighborhood that has been become chic among the young professionals who have homogenized this once gay ghetto – a large Anne Klein store popping up and the demise of a much beloved gay-oriented bookstore pretty much sealed this deal.  From the outside, the restaurant is hardly conspicuous that it is easy to overlook its narrow entrance that seems to be overshadowed by nearby encroaching establishments.  But once pass its entryway, you step into a long room filled with banquets on one side and a long bar on the other.  I chose to plop myself down at a table upstairs that overlooked the main floor, hoping that I would get some sufficient decent light for this review.


Since I arrived during their Happy Hour (4:00-7:30 p.m.) and the place was already packed with young early diners, I decided to make my selections from the Starters/Tapas menu.   I placed my order of 3 meat dishes from the “Qué Rico” (How Tasty) section and an equal amount from the “El Mar” (The Sea) side.  For the first meat dish, I chose a house favorite of Venezuelan Empanadas, of which one was stuffed with beef and the other with chicken.  Taking my first bite, I marveled at the cornflour dough that was crispy on the outside but moist and slightly spongy under its exterior.   Both fillings had moist pieces of meat that were both slightly sweet and savory at the same time, with a hint of cumin to tie in the opposite flavors, much like a Bastilla dish found in Moroccan cuisine (cinnamon is used in this case).  The side of spicy and garlicky cilantro sauce added the necessary acidity and spice kick to these small morsels. No surprise that these tasty bites are a house favorite judging by how quickly I devoured them.


Bolivian Sonso with Beef came as the next meat selection. Cubes of beef have been marinated in “exotic spices” and sautéed; they were tender and had the dark spice notes, but initially seemed a bit under salted until I got accustomed to the flavors.  The patties of yucca mash and cheese were very delectable and these discs more or less stole the beef’s limelight.  The outer part was crisp from the breading and frying, but rich and fluffy in the middle, providing a certain comfort-food quality.  The use of yucca here points to the dish’s origins, most likely from the eastern lowlands bordering Brazil since this tropical root does not grow in the interior highlands.  The side of the same cilantro sauce above added the necessary notes that lightened the rather filling patties.


Another Bolivian starter was the next choice: Bolivian Potato Cake.  A thick pancake made of mashed potato was stuffed with seasoned ground beef and pan-fried, looking much like a Johnny Cake.  It was rather fluffy with bits of seasoned beef in the middle.  I felt transported to this landlocked nation with the potato cake knowing that the tuber is an indigenous staple of the Andean highlands.   Being potato, it was a little stodgy and greasy from the frying.  However, the side of spicy salsa and fresh Pico de Gallo added the necessary relief to the heaviness of the dish; an interesting dish though.


OK, enough meat for me, which seems to be staple of Latin-American cuisine.  Seafood makes the other mainstay in most Latin-American diet due to the many nations that are surrounded by large bodies of water.  My first order was Calamari a la Plancha.  This type of seafood cooking is typical at seaside resorts found in Spain and South America.  Most of the time, I’m quite leery of the way that most restaurants cook this mollusk, which results in a rubbery toughness.  But in this case, it was tender, near fork tender.  The large quantity of these seafood rings exuded smokiness from the high-heat searing on the flat griddle.  The squeeze of lemon juice was all it needed to make this simple clean tasting dish soar.  All this seafood for just $8 during Happy Hour makes it a must-order.


After having recently sampled another restaurant’s rendition of Ceviche and coming out dissatisfied, I decided to give this establishment a try.  It arrived in a beautiful scallop-shaped bowl brimming with pieces of shrimp, fish, and chunks of fresh avocado, surrounded by a pile of fresh nacho chips.  I must say that I was delighted that I ordered this dish since the shrimp and trout pieces (thank goodness it wasn’t the muddy Tilapia used in the last place) carried a clean tasting citrus flavor without being too acidic.  The use of cilantro, fresh tomatoes, sweet red onions, and jalapeño peppers added the extra notes to the seafood, while the nacho scoopers provided the textural contrast to the moist and tender morsels.  My only criticism is the slight iodine flavor in the shrimp which was the result of the use of table salt – sea salt would impart a cleaner taste.  This wonderful version brought my taste buds to the seaside villages of Peru and Chile, renowned for their renditions of this pickled seafood dish.  For $9 during Happy Hour, this would fill your mouth with some seafood joy.


The last dish originates from Mexico, namely Baja California.  Shrimp Corn Tortilla Tacos is a regional specialty that takes advantage of the abundance of seafood in the northwestern coast of that country.  I quite enjoyed this dish with the homemade corn tortillas that had a faint scent of corn and lime, the rather firm but well-seasoned pieces of grilled shrimp, and the pieces of ripe avocado that lent a richness to these wraps.  As with tradition, the tortillas were the soft kind and they came in doubles to be able to support all the bits of seafood goodness.  The cilantro leaves and red onions added some pungency, herbal fragrance, and sweetness to the shrimp, while a squeeze of lemon juice, also customary, gave the tacos the citrus hit that made them even more delectable.

DSC_9170.jpgPan-Latino is here to stay, and I am thrilled that Café Citron is the trailblazer in an over-saturated market of Latino restaurants, especially in the Washington DC area, offering a wide variety of tasty offerings from the myriad of Latin-American cuisines that reflect their unique history and their regional and topographical differences.  Looking through the menu, I am tempted to pay this establishment another visit soon to try their other dishes that are Cuban, Peruvian, Mexican, or Bolivian-inspired that seem to evoke unique flavors and combinations.  Maybe I will end up getting up and shuffling my feet during the free Salsa lessons (offered twice a week) or clapping my hands while the Brazilian Samba dancers were showing off their incredible sensual dexterity during a mid-week visit that livened up the place – as if the delicious food needed a strong supporting actor at all.  Entertainment aside, I will be returning for the great bites, the variety of dishes, and the low prices especially during Happy Hour. ¡Bienvenido Pan-Latino!

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One of my favorite things to do when I would visit my twin brother in Dearborn, near Detroit, was to pop into the many Lebanese eateries that heavily dot and pretty much revitalized the westside of Motown, abandoned after the race riots of the 60’s.  I would savour for the first time the interesting dishes that revealed a new world of spices and unique flavor profiles.   Back in Washington DC, I would be invited by a good friend who is Lebanese-Armenian, and his mother would treat me to her wonderful home-cooking – an array of dishes consisting of cheese rolls, Fatoush (vegetable salad with crispy pita), Hummus, Kebbeh (cracked wheat and beef meatballs), stewed meat-stuffed zucchini, and many more wonderful flavorful dishes.  The evening was usually capped off with a tray of imported assorted pastries (smaller portions and less sweet than the Arab-American versions) after having just spent long hours in his suitcase on the way back from a recent visit to his beloved homeland.

I must admit that I have not ventured into many Lebanese restaurants in the area since I have been spoiled by my friend’s mother’s cooking and the lack of their presence in the city.  But when the opportunity to try out a new restaurant just south of Dupont Circle came up, and while I am currently on my Middle Eastern food kick (see blogs on Mediterranean Kabob and Marrakesh P Street), I hauled along my fore mentioned friend as the connoisseur, and another companion to the eatery on a Friday night.  Upon entering Kababji Grill, you sense its modern feel from the slick-looking kabob bar near the entrance to the swanky dining area hightlighted by a uplit minimalistic mural as the focal point.   My friend immediately recognized the decor and the brand name – he quipped that he had visited their other branches in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Cairo.   Perusing the menu, we were excited to try out some familiar dishes and some I had not heard of.

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While deciding on the dishes, we received the complementary spiced baked pita bread and cured olives.  The crispy bread was brittle and greaseless from the baking, while it was spiced by Zataar (a fragrant powder with dark smokey notes) and nutty toasted sesame seeds.  The pieces were irresistible and we managed to polish them off quite quickly, partly due to the tasty seasoning.  The cured olives were quite meaty and fruity with a touch of salinity but really nothing extraordinary.

Kababji 005.jpgWe decided to order a variety of Mezzas, or small dishes, to start the meal off.  The first was the obiquitous Hummus.  However, this order came with minced beef that has been mildly seasoned with exotic spices.  The different elements had contrasting textures and flavors that were brought together by a healthy drizzle of fruity olive oil.  I enjoyed this flavor combination while a side of soft pita bread made the perfect vehicle to scoop up the chickpea puree.  However, I would have appreciated a bit more lemon juice in the hummus in order to provide more acidity to the rather mild concoction.

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The next appetizer was something that I had never tasted before – Kebbeh Latkin.  It is a baked pumpkin and cracked wheat crust sandwiching a stuffing consisting of cooked Swiss chard, chickpea, sumac and onion.  The crispy crust was slightly sweet from the bits of pumpkin, and the stuffing was very savoury with the different vegetable elements and slightly sour sumac spice.  All three diners enjoyed the different textures and flavors in this unique scrumptious bite.  The side of cucumber yogurt provided the rich cooling element to the warm pie.

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The third small-bite was an order of Arayes.  It is pocket pita that has been stuffed with ground beef, parsley, fresh tomato sauce, hot pepper paste, pine nuts, and the house seasoning.  A short stay on a charcoal grill was evident by the charred marks on the bread.  The filling was flavor-packed from the different elements, and the grill flavor on the pita added another note to the tasty profile.  We were getting quite full from the different Mezzas that made a good opener to the meal.

Kababji 012.jpgFor our entrées, we decided to try a couple of dishes.  The first was the day’s special.  The restaurant offers a daily special everyday, and that day’s was Milokeyeh.  When my Lebanese friend noticed it on the menu, he was thrilled by its presence and recommended that we ordered it.  It is a stew made with Milokeyeh leaves (akin to spinach), chicken, rice, garlic, and cilantro with a fairly robust citrus lemon hit.  I must say that this dish had a unique and exotic flavor yet I found it savory and quite irresistible, and which my friend was lapping up with gusto.  The side of buttery Rice Pilaf made with toasted vermicelli and topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon powder was the perfect accompaniment to the stew.

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For the last main course, we decided to go with the familiar – Kafta Kabob.  It is basically grilled seasoned ground beef kebab.  It was served with some grilled onions, green pepper, and eggplant, along with that aromatic cinnamon-laced Rice Pilaf.  It was well-made and decent, but not as tasty and seasoned as those we have tried in other Middle-Eastern eateries – my friend commented that Lebanese kabobs are less seasoned than other renditions.  Slices of pita bread slathered with a spicy paste made a good tasty wrap around the grilled beef.

Kababji Grill offers good and tasty authentic Lebanese cuisine, from the familiar dishes like Kabob and Hummus to the more unknown dishes like the day’s special of Milokeyeh stew and the pumpkin-cracked wheat-Swiss chard pie.  Such a wide offering is not common in most Lebanese restaurants, especially in a downtown location.  It is a pity that we had no room left for the pastry desserts that are customarily enjoyed at the end of a meal, and I could not review on their sweet offerings.   But the dishes that we tasted there were very flavorful and satisfying, good enough for me to want to pay it another visit in the future – I am sure my Lebanese friend would love to tag along the next time.

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Marrakesh P Street

Stairwell to the Blue Light. Note: The restaurant has changed management and name. Read about it – Marrakech.

A couple of weeks back, my BFF Kevin and I stepped into a new Moroccan restaurant in the Adams Morgan area to review its performance.  Simple verdict – disappointing.  The dishes were poorly cooked with barely edible stringy meat, the orders were mixed up, and the food was swimming in a pool of oil.  To make matters worse, Kevin got sick from the food for the next few days – poor bugger!

I was hoping that this visit was going to be en par with a recent visit to another Moroccan eatery in the Dupont Circle area.  Some friends and I had originally planned to have brunch in another location on the same street on a freezing Sunday afternoon.  After being told that the wait was around 40 minutes and in the state of famish that we were in, we hauled ourselves down the street and walked through the doors of Marrakesh P Street Restaurant.  It is located on the former spot of a seedy gay bar that was renowned for its campy drag shows.    However, with some dramatic cosmetic transformation (yes, pun intended), the location has taken on a new look and feel, far from its former life.

Great Moroccan Opener Walking into the foyer, you are immediately whisked away to North Africa with its terra-cotta colored and tiled walls, plush deep-red velvet cushions on a sitting area, and exotic brass ware everywhere including the perforated overhead light fixtures.   The dining rooms are divided into the lower casual eating section and the upper “blue room” reserved for dinners.  Small mosaic fountains and large urns are placed around the space evoking a sense of distant exoticism and beauty.   Perusing the menu, the dishes are divided into simple and understandable sections: Hot Tapas, Cold Tapas, Couscous, Tagines, and Brochettes.

Harira Soup

It is rare that you will come across a restaurant that is open for lunch on Sunday and offering a 3-course lunch special ($12.95) on the weekend.  The first course is a choice of Harira soup or a salad – I chose the soup, suitable for the cold weather.   This traditional soup is made with tomato, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur wheat (I suspect), saffron, cilantro and ginger.  With the first spoonful, the broth tasted rich and complex from the spices and herbs, while the grains and beans added body and heartiness to this wonderful starter – just the perfect entrance to this exotic cuisine.

Combo Salad

On another visit, I decided to try a medley of cold tapas as the starter – the Combo Salad.  It arrived with spinach that had been cooked with garlic and preserved lemon; roasted eggplant cooked with fresh tomato, garlic and cilantro; and a carrot salad prepared with garlic, cilantro, and preserved lemon.  This trio was very flavorful, and the dish points to a kitchen that takes great care in its dish preparation.  There was a level of soulfulness in these simple vegetables that matched perfectly with the crusty yet fluffy Moroccan traditional bread that provided the willing backdrop and vehicle to the savory vegetable dips.

Chicken Bastilla

For the hot tapas, I decided to go the traditional route and order one of Morocco’s most recognizable dishes – Chicken Pastry or Bastilla.  Baked Phylo dough has been stuffed with a mixture of chicken, egg, and almonds, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.    This concoction is a study of contrast between the crispy dough and the rather moist filling, the sweet and savory flavors, with the hint of cinnamon adding a certain exotic earthiness to this appetizer.   I have eaten various versions of this dish over the years and although the stuffing was a bit dry (the traditional use of pigeon would make it more moist), it was definitely well-made and worth every bite that I enjoyed.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Moroccan cooking is renowned for its Tagine dishes that have been cooked in domed clay pots.  With this in mind, I decided to order the Chicken Tagine that was part of the 3-course lunch special (the other choice was Vegetable Couscous).  The breast was cooked in a sauce that was flavored with pickled lemons, olives, and a cornucopia of exotic spices that made the sauce very flavorful and delectable, enough for me to wipe up every drop with the spongy bread.   The slices of pickled lemon rind and olives added the brininess and fruit-like notes to the already flavor-packed dish.  I have had this dish before in other restaurants and this rendition was perhaps one of the best that I have eaten.

Couscous Royal

For the Couscous section, my dining companion ordered the Couscous Royal.  Sitting on a bed of the perfectly steamed pasta grains were spicy Merguez lamb sausage, chicken, lamb, zucchini, squash, carrots, chickpeas and fava beans.  The pieces of meat cooked in a tasty broth were fork-tender, along with the well-cooked large pieces of sweet vegetables that were quite soft but not mushy.  A few forkfuls from this dish confirmed to me that the kitchen really cares about the cooking and is skilful in preparing these traditional Moroccan dishes.  This is another must-order from the menu along with the Chicken Tagine.

Fruit Cocktail

Mint Tea
The final course for the lunch special was a Fruit Cocktail.  In most places, such dessert would be a banal mix of fruits that would leave the taster rather nonplussed.   However, this restaurant’s version was a mixture of fresh cantaloupe, melon, pineapple, sweet strawberries, and plump blackberries.   It is indeed refreshing to have a fresh fruit salad that has been slightly sweetened by a light syrup perfumed by a heady orange blossom water, especially in the midst of winter.   The traditional dessert of Moroccan pastries were not available during the last visit, but I have enjoyed such dessert fare there in the past and the sweets were good.  A cup of the customary sweet mint tea was also a perfect end to this wonderful meal.

The dishes that I tasted at Marrakesh P Street Restaurant were a far cry from those that I tried at the other eatery mentioned in the opening paragraph, which will remain nameless and unreviewed.   However, here the dishes were flavor-packed, skillfully executed, and full of Moroccan tasty exoticness.   With this Northern African soul food, this restaurant managed to stir my taste buds and whole being with its traditional offerings that Moroccan cuisine is known for, very much like a belly dancer with her exotic, smooth, and alluring gyrations.  But unlike its former life as a drag show venue, this restaurant truly delivers the real McCoy, at least food wise.  I will indeed be revisiting this place in the future for more of the real stuff found in its wonderful authentic offerings.

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Sushi Taro – Kaiseki Tasting Menu

Recently, I wrote a review on Maruko Japanese Restaurant, a popular sushi restaurant located in Arlington, VA, as I am fond of good and fresh seafood prepared in the Japanese fashion.  While I receive many internet coupons for various sushi restaurants, I pretty much delete them right away since sushi is one food item that I do not take chances with or play some form of culinary Russian Roulette.  However, I snatched up an offer that appeared a few weeks back for a Kaiseki Tasting Menu, and I managed to experience it for the first time at Sushi Taro, a reputable traditional Japanese restaurant located in the Dupont Circle area of DC.

Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dinner that consists of numerous dishes that show off the cook’s refined culinary skills and the seasonality of the ingredients.  It is an art form that balances the “taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.”  Beautiful dishes and bowls are chosen to present the small servings  in order to complement and enhance the eating experience.  Even leaves and flowers are added to imbue the sense of nature and its bounty.

Each serving is self-contained in its theme and sensory evocations.  I will present each course very much in a Zen mode – simple, direct and unadulterated.

First Course - Aperitif

First Course – Aperitif:                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Sweet  sake-like “Kinkan” wine with half of a sweet and citrus Kumquat as a chaser.

Second Course - Tsukidashi

Second Course – Tsukidashi:                                                                                                                                                                                                   Gelatinous “Goma” Tofu made from Sesame seeds paired with fermented Soy Beans and briny creamy Sea Urchin, swimming in a light Dashi broth.

Third Course - Appe

Third Course – Appe:                                                                                                                                                                                                          Tender and crispy Bamboo Shoot Tempura and Lotus Root Dumpling (Agedashi) in a light soy sauce infused with a slice of Lemon.

Fourth Course - Sashimi

Fourth Course – Sashimi:                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Thin and mildly delicate slivers of Live Flounder (I assume the flounder was alive just before its filleting).

Fifth Course - Soup

Fifth Course – Soup:                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Tender and crunchy “Wakatake” Bamboo shoots, Snapper Cake, and mineral-like fresh “Wakame” Seaweed in a light broth.

Sixth Course - Hassun

Sixth Course – Hassun:                                                                                                                                                                                                               Battered Fish Cake, Grilled Fresh Anchovy, Fish Roe, Rice-stuffed Ginko Nuts, Smoked Salmon Ball, Crabmeat Jelly, braised Octopus Tentacle, Sweet Cake, Sea Snail, Tuna in Mayonnaise.  Fresh and sweet treasures of the ocean.

Seventh Course - Imobou

Seventh Course – Imobou:                                                                                                                                                                                                                Salty shards of “Boudara” Dry Cod wrapped in smooth “Yuba” Soybean Skin paired with a soft and light Yam Dumpling in a light sweet sauce.

Eighth Course - Yakimono

Eighth Course – Yakimono:                                                                                                                                                                                                          Tender well-marbled Australian “Wagyu” beef, moist and flaky “Gindara” Black Cod, with chewy and gelatinous Konnyaku Starch bites, simmered in Red Miso on Magnolia Leaf and burning coals.

Ninth Course - Sushi

Ninth Course – Sushi:                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Braised Octopus Tentacle, sweet tender raw Scallop, and soy-marinated raw Tuna.

Tenth Course - Dessert

Tenth Course – Dessert:                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Green Tea “Hoji-cha” flan-like Pudding with a sweet-burnt Caramel Sauce.

This write-up is not necessarily a review on the strengths or weakness of Sushi Taro Restaurant but more a recounting of a fantastic gourmand’s experience of a Japanese multi-course meal.  If the refinement of this Kaiseki meal and the large presence of Japanese executives with their underlings in the restaurant are used as a barometer of the authenticity and skill level of the kitchen, I will be back in the future to sample its regular fare, beyond the $80-per-person menu (before the 50% coupon – thank Buddha for it) that I savored with true delight.   Another Oishi exclamation here.

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