Cazbar

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 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

Judy’s Island Grill

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Finding good Jamaican food is a crap shoot sometimes.  Some places offer mediocre fare that seem to placate the average eater, and some of the dishes are not cooked in the proper fashion, thus making them inauthentic and characterless to the cognoscenti.  So, when I got a recommendation of a Caribbean restaurant from an expat at a birthday party not too long ago, I made a note of it and made plans to visit it not too long after.

Beef Patty - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDJudy’s Island Grill sits sandwiched in between used-car dealerships in Glen Burnie, MD. It is quite out-of-the-way, off my beaten path, but the call for good food will steer me in far-flung directions, within reasonable means, that is.  But its bright Caribbean colors sets it off from the drap establishments around it, and you know that you have arrived at your location with some extra help of the cabana-like patio set.  Walking in, the place is neatly decorated with an order counter with signs behind it advertising the day’s offerings. The dining area is quite ample and inviting with booths edged up to the windows.  After perusing the rather extensive menu, I ordered an appetizer of Beef Patty.  The stuffed pie was nothing out of the usual:  flaky greaseless pastry with its standard orange-hue tint and a tasty ground meat filling that was quite savorily beefy, with notes of chili heat and ground dry spices.  This was washed down by the perfect partner, Pineapple Ginger juice, that was very fruity and sufficiently sweet while the fresh ginger juice echoed the patty’s chili back throat burn.  This was a sign of a something promising yet to come.

Jerk Chicken, Calalloo, Plaintains - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Calalloo/ Plaintains - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDThe first order was Jerk Chicken which is the standard litmus test of any Jamaican kitchen. One fork piercing into the dark meat indicated the nature of its cooking.  It was quite firm and not watery, a sign that it was properly smoked and grill.  The skin was nearly devoid of any fat, which is another sign of the above cooking approach.  The flesh was quite tasty with strong notes of smoke and a moderate taste of the jerk seasoning marination.  But the sauce that I tasted was overwhelmingly sour and sweet, which, to my dismay, reminded me too much of BBQ sauce.  Later on, the waiter told me that the kitchen had served me the mild sauce and not the spicy one that I requested.  He later offered me the later version which tasted stronger in the allspice department and less BBQ-y. However, I like my jerk chicken with all the flavors inside the chicken like what I have tasted before in other places. The fried plantain was naturally sweet and soft, devoid of the unnecessary addition of sugar judging by the lack of over-caramelization.  The Calolloo was a definite hit for me with its natural vegetal sweetness and well-cooked stage, without any mushiness, and it made my taste buds search between spinach and Southern-style Kale while I enjoyed its comfort quality. Pretty good jerk chicken that was bolstered by the fantastic sides.

Escovitched Red Snapper - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD Rice & Peas, Cabbage Carnival - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

The other order, recommended by my amiable waiter, was Escovitched Red Snapper.  The fish came in three sizes, and since I was alone, I went for the 1-pound fish.  The whole fish arrived head intact and a sneering mouth with the teeth showing, just how I like my fish cooked (the Asian sensibility in me).  I took a bite of the fish to test its preparation, and it tasted fresh, quite firm without being dry, and the skin was quite crisp from a good frying without leaving much greasiness.  An adequate hit of salt was added that boosted the flesh flavors.  But it was the sauce that took the fish to another level with its notes of fruitiness, sourness, sweetness, and spice heat, along with the pickled carrots, sweet peppers, onions, and Scotch Bonnet peppers that made each bite a cornucopia of flavors and textures – this dish indeed kept me interested with every bite.  The side of Rice and Peas blew me away with its flavors and it was the best rendition I have ever tasted – prominent coconut milk note, salty enough (a common mistake by others) and a fragrant note brought about by a generous use of green onions, a similar technique of the use of Pandan leaves in Southeast Asian coconut rice.  The Carnival Cabbage was quite sweet and not mushy, but I would have loved a bit more fresh thyme in this simple side.  I would highly recommend this order judging by the freshness of the fish, the proper preparation, and the irresistible sauce.  For $17, I think this dish is quite a steal.

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MD

Rum Cake - Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDWalking into the space, you can’t help but pass by and notice the display case filled with cakes. Since I decided to only sample the main courses, I left enough room for their sweet offerings.  Most of them are your usual run-of-the-mill cakes, but I honed in on the Rum Cake when I heard its name called out.  What arrived looked quite dense and mysterious, which aroused my interest.  The first bite revealed its true nature of dark notes of dark molasses and dark rum, and its moistness of soaked raisins pureed into the batter, reminding me of Christmas Pudding served in former British colonies.  I was enjoying the level of raisin sweet stickiness, a la Sticky Pudding, and the dark notes of molasses coupled with the dark rum flavors that were present without overwhelming the palate.  This version is a good proper one, making me wonder how well-made the other cakes are.  Oh well, there is always next time.

Judy's Island Grill, Glen Burnie, MDJudy’s Island Grill offers some veritable Jamaican cooking to the discerning eater.  This was noted in the proper preparation of the various dishes, especially the Jerk Chicken (sans the mild BBQ sauce though) which I am quite fussy about since I have had it in different establishments.  But ultimately, it was the flavors of what I sampled that caught my tastebuds’ attention that I tasted in the Pineapple Ginger drink, the Beef Patty (wish they had a Calaloo Patty also), the delectable Escovitched Fish, and the sides dishes that took a formidable supporting role, notably the Rice and Peas, and Calalloo.  The Rum Cake must be a good indicator of the rest of the cakes as they sit proudly in the counter waiting for someone’s attention.  But you can sense the house’s pride and willingness to please the customer judging by my waiter’s attentiveness and his asking me for suggestions (a bit more whole thyme and allspice).  Based on my experience here, this place ranks quite high, and I will be back soon for some more of their Jamaican fare.  Thanks for the recommendation, friend at the party.

Judy's Island Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Indigo

Indigo, Washington DC

In my last blog, I quibbled about the logistical and parking issues that Washington D.C. poses to the suburbanite who wants to venture into town for a decent meal, hence my lack of blogs on its eating establishments as of late. After posting a photo of my meal at my favorite Indian eatery on social media, a friend of Indian descent invited me to join him for a meal at his favorite spot serving the same South Asian fare.  Having not heard about that locale and realizing that it was in a quiet neighborhood, I decided to met up my friend and his lover, as well as another couple, to sample their offerings.

Indigo, Washington DC

Taj Lager Beer and Condiments - Indigo, Washington DCIndigo is a corner townhouse that has been remodeled with a few tables on the ground floor as well as the rather cramped kitchen behind it.  But the appeal for the customer lies in the garden that is replete with brightly colored benches and tables, as well as a tikki-like bar to the side.  After perusing the slightly over-whelming board of a menu, we placed our orders and found a seat in the garden patio with a bottle of Indian lager beer and some typical condiments.  The alcoholic beverage was quite hopsy with a slight sweet aftertaste, reminding me of Southeast Asian lagers that I grew up on.  The Chutney was fruity and sweet, yet hinting of some spice notes.  The Achar pickles tasted house-made with the softened fruits and vegetables paired with some chili and seed spices, a good mix that made it quite proper.  The mint/coriander sauce was a bit sour-sweet, redolent with the herbal qualities of the leaves present in the sauce, making it irresistibly sippable.  As for our orders, here is the rundown of the different dishes that we savored:

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower.

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower - Indigo, Washington DC

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas.

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas - Indigo, Washington DC

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal.

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal - Indigo, Washington DC

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin, Flat Bread.

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin - Indigo, Washington DC

The main/meat dishes:

The Chicken Saag was a combination of tender pieces of chicken that tasted well-seasoned due to a marination, paired with a silky smooth puree of spinach that was devoid of any bitterness, spiked by a good dose of fresh ginger that brightened the mix as well as providing some spice heat.  This dish was very sumptuous and one of the best versions that I have tasted, making me return to it continuously.  The Goat and the Lamb Curries had pieces of tender meat, an indication that they were stewed long enough in a sauce similar for both meats, but without falling apart due to some skillful timing in the kitchen.  The tomato-based sauce was perfumed with the proper spice mixture that was well-balanced as not to overwhelm the natural meat flavors that managed to assert their presence without any extraneous gaminess.  As for the Chicken Tikka, I did not manage to be presumptuous enough to poke my fork into a newly-made acquaintance’s plate, but he seemed rather satisfied evidenced by the few morsels left at the end of the meal.

The sides:

All the orders came with a copious amount of Basmati rice that was light and fluffy, seasoned with salt (which some establishments omit, unfortunately), studded with whole cumin seeds, and was made healthy with ribbons of fresh spinach.

The Cauliflower came in large whole pieces that were not overcooked, seasoned with cumin, tomato and a good dose of turmeric judging by its rich yellow hue.

The Okra was still al dente and surprisingly not slimy at all, paired with some sautéed onion and fresh tomato, reminding me of the Southern-styled preparation.

The Mushrooms were quite firm and meaty, cooked in a tomato puree sauce, tasting spicy with chili heat, and fragrant from cinnamon, making it a very appealing hit for this mushroom lover.

The Pumpkin was surprising not sweet like most other preparations, but it had notes of squash along with chili heat, spiking ginger, and onion sweetness.

The Eggplant was wonderfully smokey, vegetable sweet, and silky smooth, reminding me of a properly prepared babaghanouj which made me return my fork often into my friend’s tray.

The Daal Lentils were cooked until very smooth and spiced with woodsy spices without overwhelming the legumes.

The Cabbage was cooked without any mushiness and made interesting with anise seeds, and garam marsala, with some chili heat that produced a back throat burn.

The Raita was quite thick for a yogurt sauce, tasting much creamier than the usual kind, quite salty, and having thin cucumber strands running though it, which became the perfect relieving foil for all the spices and heat in the other sides and meat courses.

The flatbread was not the usual fluffy Pratha or Naan Bread but more a wheaty textural bite that reminded me of Chapati bread or the Tamil-style Tosai.

Indigo, Washington DCMy friend was right, and thankfully so, to steer me to this place.  What Indigo offers is what superb Indian food is all about: interesting and differentiated spicing (not a monolithic seasoning approach like some inferior establishments practice), freshly cooked dishes with equally fresh ingredients (not reheated tired leftovers), and a good variety of dishes to accommodate the knowledgeable diner.  What I tasted that night exemplified the above qualities, which made the experience satisfying on many levels and pleasing to this diner who has found an Indian establishment in the city, albeit not downtown (a relief), worth mentioning and with high praises.  The place’s funkiness has a wonderful charm that makes good food the great equalizer, with the garden furniture making no distinction whoever sits on it to enjoy their meal.  Indigo is a great find indeed which deserves my many future repeat visits.

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

Shiso Tavern

Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

There has been a trend in my restaurant visits as of late – more frequent visits to the suburban ones and an avoidance for dreaded Washington D.C. with all its logistic and parking issues that tend to ward off the suburbanite for a nightout in town.  With that in mind I recently saw an online offer for an eatery in Baltimore, and I decided to give it try, giving me an excuse to ventur off the well-beaten path and hoping to find new sites.  Located near the Baltimore Harbor, Shiso Tavern sits in Canton, a rather quaint neighborhood that has a couple blocks chocked with gunshot-style row houses that have been converted into rather trendy eating establishments.  Touted as an Asian-Fusion/Japanese restaurant, I took my seat by the light-flooding window area during lunch recently.

Sushi Nacho - Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

Sushi Nacho - Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MDOnline reviewers suggested to start with the Sushi Nachos.  What arrived was a trio of small bites, consisting of fried wanton skin, seared tuna, avocado, salmon tataki, and dressed with a spicy mayo.  The wanton skin was a nice touch instead of the regular nacho chip which added a flakier and more delicate feel to the bite.  The tuna and salmon were clean tasting, perhaps a bit too clean with no distinctive seasoning added except for a bit of spiciness on the tuna sear – but I wanted more to enhance their mild flavors.  The mayo added the spiciness as written on the menu, but it overwhelmed the mild fish flavors.  Perhaps some citrusy flavors (yuzu?) would have taken these up another notch and would have made them more successful.  Overall, it was not a bad opener.

Ramen Bowl - Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

Many online suggested the Ramen Bowl and it was a photo of it in the online offer that tempted me at first.  The bowl arrived as shown: a mound of noodles covered with beansprouts, a boiled egg, shredded pork butt, slabs of pork belly, and a garnishing of red chilies and green onions.  The noodles were a bit overcooked for my taste (al dente is not just an Italian preference, but a Japanese one too), the egg beautifully boiled as it oozed out its barely cooked yolk into the soup, the pork butt moist and well seasoned with its slight fatty unctuousness, echoed by the same qualities found in the pork belly with its crispy exterior and savory inside, and the red chili added a fresh mild zing to the bowl along with its vegetal pepper note.  Ultimately, it has to be the broth that steals the prize.  The version here had a mild sweetness from the use of chicken to make the stock, and a slightly smoky sour note from the use of smoked pork.  Although it was not the usual traditional ramen bowl, I was thoroughly enjoying all the above qualities (sans slightly overcooked noodles) and I nearly sipped on the broth until its last drop.  I would say this bowl is worth coming back for.

Mochi Ice-cream - Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

Mochi Ice-cream - Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

My waitress told me that I had some credit left on the offer, and so, I ordered something sweet to end the meal.  Initially, I was honing in on the Jasmine Tea White Chocolate Tart, but, since they were out of it, I chose the Mochi Sampler.  What arrived was a dish on par with Japanese culinary aesthetic with the mochi ice-cream balls sliced and beautifully fanned on the plate.  The ice-cream flavors comprised of vanilla, which tasted like it should, strawberry, a bit fruity but artificial, and mango, which tasted totally artificial and candy-like to these well-conditioned Southeast Asian taste buds. But it was the stretchy glutinous rice dough around the frozen bites that impressed me with its smooth and gummy texture that I expect from a good mochi.  Not always one for desserts (and also on a slight diet), I passed the rest on to another diner who seemed to be transfixed by these cold bites.

Sisho Tavern, Baltimore, MD

Shiso Tavern is rather nice find.  It is a quaint place with little pretense and its food does not steer too far away as it maintains respect for culinary tradition.  The Sushi Nacho was quite tasty with the different textures and flavors coupled with the fresh seafood, the Ramen Bowl a savory and satisfactory sip that was full of flavors and porcine heavenliness, and the Mochi Sampler that was quite a treat with that elastic dough surrounding some funky ice-cream.  I think that Canton is a delightful find, away from challenging Washington D.C. or downtown Baltimore, and I know I will heading up to this area more often in the near future.

Shiso Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chi’Bal

Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MD

There is something new in my town, Laurel, MD.  This area has constantly surprised me with some pretty good eats, as well as within the township to its south, Beltsville.  So when I noticed that a new restaurant had taken over a seedy bar in the middle of the commercial center, I initially was not so convinced to enter its doors until my BFF told me about his pleasant experience there.  With my curiosity peaked, we both paid Chi’Bal a visit recently, followed by a couple of trips with a couple of friends.

Guava Margarita/Mojito

Walking into the space, one notices that the place went through some serious renovation with a fresh coat of colorful paint, comfortable furniture, and a bar with appealing lights and decor.  Taking our seat at one of the booths, I perused the menu and found it easily navigable despite the dishes’ names in Spanish.  Touted as a “Mexican Tapas and Tequila Bar”, one side was dedicated to the light bites, and the other to complete dishes.  After placing our orders, my friends decided to start their meal with a Guava Margarita and a Mojito, which these aficionados attested to their well-made quality.

Guacamole and Salsa - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ensalada de Jicama - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Guacamole and Salsa are de rigueur in any Mexican establishment, and without fail, an order was placed.  The tortilla chips were the thicker kind, nearly greaseless and lightly covered with some spice seasoning, perhaps some dried chili powder.  The salsa was the blended kind which was a bit liquid but not lacking in flavor and freshness.  But it was the guacamole that impressed me with its slight chunky consistency punctuated with some salt, lime juice, onions, tomato and cilantro – this kept me coming back to it throughout my meal.  The other opener was the Jicama Salad.  Batons of the crunchy root was paired with slices of sweet orange and crisp baby spinach leaves, all brought together by a citrusy creamy peppery vinaigrette that complemented all the different flavors, making it the perfect foil and relief with the other heartier dishes. However, an order of Avocado Ceasar Salad was devoid of the anchovy briny funk and lemon bite which resulted in something unmemorable and rather disappointing.

Chile Relleno - Chi'Bal Restaurant Crab Croquetas - Chi'Bal Restaurant

A couple of breaded items were next up.  A proper Chile Relleno is the litmus test of a good Mexican kitchen and I had to give it try.  Mine was made with Poblano Pepper, grilled until fork tender, stuffed with a creamy but mild Mexican cheese, coated in a beaten egg batter (the authentic way), placed on some smokey red chili sauce and a tangy tomatillo sauce, and topped with some Mexican parmesan-like grated cheese. The gestalt of all the flavors made this very satisfying knowing that it was authentically made and properly cooked.  The other was a twist of a popular dish – Crab Croquetas.  The balls of flaked crabmeat were properly seasoned (fortunately not Bay Spice) and coated by the light Panko breadcrumbs, fried properly without tasting oil-laden.  Even though the bites were quite small, they made it up with their flavors as well as the sauces that went with the seafood – small bites but very satisfying.

Camarones y Chorizo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Camaron - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My waitress recommended Camarones y Chorizo as high on the order list.  The pieces of shrimp were plump and cooked and seasoned perfectly, sitting on pieces of meaty spicy chorizo and sautéed fresh spinach, nappéd with a sauce that was flavorful as it added an unctuousness to the whole combination, and all these wonderful flavors confirmed its high recommendation as it got a nod from everyone at the table.  The other shrimp dish was Pinchos de Camarón.  Skewers of the seafood were well-seasoned and perfectly grilled to produce a non-rubbery bite with a smoky char flavor, which I thoroughly enjoyed when paired the creamy sauce on the side.  This kitchen really knows how to cook seafood with a masterful skill, and both these dishes exemplified talented and knowledgeable hands that produced them.Tacos de Res - Chi'Bal Restaurant

Pinchos de Pollo - Chi'Bal Restaurant

On to the meat tapas.  The first was Tacos de Res.  Soft tacos came with braised beef wrapped in the traditional double-tortilla fashion.  The shredded short rib was moist and tender, and it tasted well seasoned with what looked like some achiote judging from the reddish jus running out of it.  The corn tortilla had its distinctive flavor which added to its authenticity as well as the large slice of creamy avocado. The small meaty bites made for some veritable fulfilling eating that made for some quick disposal.  Pinchos de Pollo are Chicken skewers that looked a bit nondescript upon the plate’s arrival.  But one bite into it took me by surprise.  The meat was well-seasoned and not in a superficial manner, pointing to some maceration before its grilling.  The pieces of meat were still moist especially for breast meat, which is not my choice cut.  But I was enjoying these bites for all the above qualities.

Seared Salmon - Chi'Bal Restaurant Ceviche - Chi'Bal Restaurant

My BFF decided to order a main dish – Pan-seared Salmon.  I was quite surprised by its small size and I refrained from taking a bite of it.  According to him, he was satisfied by his piece of fish seasoned with some house spices (I suspect some red chili powder), and slathered with an avocado aiole.  But I did try the black beans that came with some rice as the sides, and I was impressed with the bean flavors that had a proper salting and a hint of herbs that added interest to this starch – such attention to detail in the supporting actors was also evident in the pickled chilies and pickled onions whose flavors were not overwhelming.  The other fish dish was Ceviche which peaked my interest on the second trip.  The dish was made with only fish (unfortunately), and paired with pickled onions, toasted choclo (Peruvian corn), and, in proper fashion, a piece of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the dish.  But there was a major flaw in the dish – the use of Tilapia which exuded a muddiness to the whole mix that could not be masked by all the acids and flavors.  However, the dish pointed to a rather skillful kitchen that was making a fair attempt at the dish despite this major setback.

Huarache de Pollo Bistec Asado

My final dishes were some meat ones from my last trip there.  The first was Chicken Huarache.  In true form, the dish arrived with a flat grilled cornmeal patty (huarache meaning “slipper”) slathered with some refried beans and topped with some moist shredded chicken, citrusy tomato, Mexican parmesan and a chefy touch of arugula leaves.  The initial cut into the end was a firm and dry piece of cornmeal patty, but it got softer as I progressed into the middle.  I enjoyed all the seasoned elements that had the fresh elements as a counterpoint to the cooked flavors, making this a veritable tasty Huarache.  The last dish was Bistec Asado.  The piece of flank steak was very seasoned (more a marination due to the permeated flavors) and, it came well-grilled.  It was a tad too salty and it was unfortunately well-done, which was overcooked for my taste (the waitress should have asked me my preferred meat temperature).  But I was thoroughly enjoying the unadulterated strong beef flavors in this cut, as well as the citrusy sauce on the side.  For its reasonable price, this is worth an order when in a mood for something on the lines of beef.

Chi'Bal Restaurant, Laurel, MDChi’Bal is an exciting place that shows some creative and masterful cooking while maintaining a respect for the culinary traditions.  The level of  kitchen skill can be evident in the treatment of the seafood in which the shrimp are perfectly cooked, which takes some real know-how and acute attention.  Furthermore, more evidences are found in the sides of black beans, as well as the pickled onions and chiles, which tasted house-made and were not overwhelming.  But it is the full flavors found in every bite that impressed me constantly throughout each dish (except the bland Caesar Salad) in the meats found in the taco, the huarache, the grilled flank steak, and the chicken bites.  Even the simple guacamole and jicama salad showed some skill level and thoughtfulness.  The owner told me that he has bought the building and that the business was here to stay – I’m holding his word to it especially when food is this impressive here.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Ethiopian cuisine poses a few challenges on different levels.  First, there is a plethora of restaurants serving this fare due to the influx of immigrants from that East African region resulting in a boom of restaurants beginning from the 1980’s.  With so many to choose from, it has been a challenge for me to pick a place to write on.  The other issue is that Ethiopian food, especially the spongy injera bread, creates a textural challenge for most Americans who tend to steer away from this soft or mushy feel especially when eaten customarily with the bare hand.  With this said, I have problems finding enough friends to join me to partake in this type of meal.  But last weekend, I managed to corral a couple of die-hard friends for this rare treat.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Downtown Silver Spring, MD has taken a transformation the last few years, and it has become the hub of Ethiopian gastronomic and social life judging by the high number of such establishments dotting its square blocks.  When I noticed an online offer for Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe, I knew I couldn’t bypass such a deal especially from an establishment in that area.   Walking through its doors, you notice the strong rich colors on the walls, the photo mural on the ceiling and vibrant tile work on the wall, all decorating the booths and tables in the rather narrow shotgun space.  I was tempted to sit outside on its sidewalk patio, but with a friend suffering from seasonal allergies, we chose to go inside instead.

Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac Cafe Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac CafeHaving savored Ethiopian food a number of times over the years, I have got familiar with some of their regular dishes.   Cooked vegetables stand out in this cuisine, and we ordered the Lesaac Veggie Deluxe.  What arrived was a large platter layered with the sourdough injera bread topped with nine bean and vegetable dishes.  The collard greens tasted quite savory and were not too mushy but cooked well. The red beets were a novelty for me since I never encountered them in this cuisine: they were naturally sweet, tasting slightly earthy, and enriched by some butter that took them to another level.  The Yellow split peas were well-seasoned and also well-cooked, cooked to a level of doneness without being mushy.  The same level of doneness were the red lentils that were mixed with some Berbere chili paste and tasted a bit tangy, which made them interesting.  The green beans and carrot were cooked well-done without being too soft and tasted vegetal sweet and garlicky.  The salad was really tangy and salted from a vinaigrette made of citrus juice and herbal seasoning, making it a palate cleanser in between bites.  The cabbage was soft, naturally sweet and quite garlicky.  The green beans were quite mushy, slightly under seasoned and reminded me of lentils.  The middle mound of red split peas was a puree seasoned with a smokey spicy concoction.  With such variety in offerings, flavors, textures, and seasoning, my dining friends and I were in hog heaven with this dish that tasted the best that I have ever savored, and I could have been perfectly content indulging on this vegetarian platter.

Doro Wat - Lesaac CafeAnother recognized dish from my foray into this cuisine is a popular one – Doro Wat.  The bowl arrived with a heaping amount of thick sauce covering a lone piece of chicken and boiled egg.  One taste of the sauce put everything into perspective.  The customary scant piece of chicken with the lone egg always perplexed me with its small portion of protein.  But this time, I realized what this dish was really about – the sauce.  It tasted smokey and spicy from the Berbere chili powder, rich from butter, and quite sweet from a copious amount of onions.  In addition, there was a slight burn after each bite coupled by a mild tanginess from the dried peppers, which made the sauce totally irresistible and reminding me of good Mexican molé sauce.  The side of crumbled cheese was interesting since it was devoid of salt or cheese pungency, but it played a minor role of adding more richness and making the spicy sauce milder to the palate.  The side of injera bread was the perfect vehicle to mop up all the goodness, which I would have done so if weren’t for the other dishes.  Finally, I have savored a damn good version of this famous dish which has revealed its real gastronomic truth to this diner.

Ethiopian Fish Gulash - Lesaac Cafe

For my pescatarian fellow diner, we order Fish Gulash upon the waitress’ recommendation.  The large bowl arrived with pieces of fish covered by a rather thick red sauce and studded by bits of jalapeño peppers.  The bits of fish were mild tasting and a bit crispy from some frying, covered with a slightly tangy tomato-based sauce made sweet with lots of onions and spiced by the peppers.  My fellow diners raved about this dish for its fresh tasting seafood, confirmed as fresh tilapia (surprise!), and the bright tasty sauce that married well with the fish.  The side of salad was a bright mix with a tangy vinaigrette that was the perfect companion to this dish.  This was definitely a hit with us and I’m looking forward to savoring this new dish again.

Ethiopian Meat Omelet - Lesaac CafeWith some credit left on the coupon, the waitress suggested an item from the breakfast section – Meat Omelet.  The omelet arrived with some toast to complete the meal.  The egg mixture was quite savory with pieces of slightly seasoned and tasty beef, mixed with  onions, green peppers, and tomato that lent their vegetal sweetness, tanginess, and slight crunch that made each mouthful interesting and comforting.  The egg was a bit firmer than the usual French version, but it was nearly greaseless and  something that I enjoyed after having eaten egg cooked this way growing up in Asia.  This dish would be an order when I’m in the mood for some Ethiopian breakfast.

Finally, I have found an Ethiopian restaurant that I could say really justifies what this Eastern African cuisine is all about. The Veggie platter blew us away with the variety of vegetable dishes with their freshness, flavors, and cooking. The Doro Wat dish was completely revelatory for me with the secret being the sauce, and I waited all these years to savor a version that spoke volumes to me. The Fish Gulash was definitely another hit with its mild sweet fillets covered by a savory bright sauce. For breakfast, I would not hesitate ordering their Meat Omelet that was both comforting and satisfying. With food this good and definitely authentic, judging by the nearly all Ethiopian clientele (interestingly nearly all male, but a cultural norm), this is another new-find and a favorite locale for this cuisine.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Northwest Chinese Food

NW Chinese FoodFinding veritable Chinese cuisine in the DMV is as challenging as locating an endangered species.  I attribute that to two causes: the long history of Chinese-American food that was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century, and the lack of demand for authentic Chinese cuisine until recently with the tide of immigrants from the Mainland.  In the last couple of years I have come across establishments serving fare that would satisfy the truth-seeker culinary wise.  Recently, I read that there was a small hole-in-the-wall in my old college neighborhood, College Park, MD, serving regional Chinese food.  Northwest Chinese Food (name lacks originality, but not culinary confusion) is located on the main drag sandwiched by other eating establishments that are desperately calling the hungry students’ attention to walk through their doors.  I paid it three visits for this review, and I was lucky to have a table by the window for the photo shots despite it’s busyness and the cramped space holding only 9 tables.

Black Vinegar Peanuts, NW Chinese Food

This place has garnered lots of online reviews and recommendations, and with that list in hand I placed my first appetizer/opener.  Black Vinegar Peanuts was frequently mentioned and high on my list too.  The plate of nuts arrived with skin intact swimming in a pool of black sauce.  One bite revealed the dish’s nature.   Toasted peanuts were punchy to the taste, made even more aromatic by pungent raw garlic and herbaceous cilantro, spicy by red chili flakes and finely julienned ginger, and picked up by a slightly earthy black vinegar that reminded me of good Balsamico.  These nibbles were highly addictive and we couldn’t stop serving ourselves of it despite the other ordered dishes and the dish’s copious amount.

Shredded Potato Salad, NW Chinese Food

Sesame Chili Sauce, NW Chinese FoodThe other highly raved dish is Shredded Potato.  This vegan dish sounded and looked unique at first glance.  The plate was filled with very finely shredded pieces of white potato that has been marinated in a sauce.  The matchstick slivers had a most interesting texture, tasting barely cooked, yet exuding a crunch that would suggest it being raw and reminding me of Asian radish.  But it was the seasoning that elevated this lowly tuber to an ethereal level, tasting spicy from the chili sesame seed oil (also served at the table), fragrant cilantro, raw garlic, and a hint of vinegar to counteract this starch.  I was quite blown away by this simple dish since its treatment and flavors hit all the right spots.

Sour Soup Dumplings, NW Chinese Food

Another appetizer that looked like a dish I had savored before was Sour Soup Dumplings.  The bowl arrived with these stuffed pasta floating in a bowl of broth.  However, they tasted quite different from the Shanghainese version that I was used to.  The dough was thicker than wanton skins but the stuffing was the same aromatic and moist finely minced pork mixture.  It was the broth that took it in an interesting direction with a mild savory flavor spiked by some chili sesame seed oil, made sour by pieces of pickled mustard green, and some body added by chunks of raw garlic.  There was a soulful element to this dish that did not taste stodgy or passé, and it can definitely make a complete dish by itself.

Spicy Beef & Lamb Skewers, NW Chinese CuisineSkewers seem quite popular among the reviewers and other customers during my stopovers. On my visits, I tried the ones made with beef, with lamb, and with chicken.  The sticks came filled to the brim with thin small pieces of meat.  All the meat versions (a couple of non-meat versions are offered too) were seasoned with the chili sesame seed seasoning and whole cumin seeds.  The bites were quite spicy and aromatic from the seasoning and spices, but they lacked some salt.  Their slight oiliness indicated that they were cooked in oil, but I was missing the grill char that would have made them more interesting and flavorful.  As for the cuts of meat, the lamb was a bit tough, but the rest of the meats were quite tender to the bite.  As small bites, they were not bad though.

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, NW Chinese Cuisine

Along the same line as the above skewered meat are the burgers, and I tried the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger on one occasion.  The sandwich arrived in a basket laced with sandwich paper.  The bun was a flat unleavened bread showing its in-house quality and reminding me of a thick pita bread, an indicator of the Muslim influence in that part of the world.  Its stuffing was dripping with grease, unfortunately, but one bite into it detracted me from its flaws. The meat was chopped up from whole pieces, tasting very spicy from chili flakes and very aromatic from toasted whole cumin seeds that immediately perked the senses up.  After allowing some more of the grease to drip out of the burger, I was enjoying every bite while relishing its flavors and textures.  The beef version was much less greasy, as well as spicy, coupled with some sweet vegetable elements of red onions and green peppers.  Hey, after all, “burgers” are meant to be greasy, and this is my new find of this type of handheld food.

Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles, NW Chinese FoodThis place is known for noodle dishes from that part of the world, especially hand-cut noodles.  Since it was getting rather warm from the strong Spring sun, I ordered Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles. The bowl arrived with the disparate elements arranged in their areas, reminding me of Vietnamese Bun Noodle Salad:  cucumber, bean sprouts, finely shredded carrot, cilantro, peanuts, raw garlic, all sitting on a mound of wheat noodles lathered with sesame sauce and the chili sesame seed oil.  One swirl and a chopstick full immediately perked my interest.  All the ingredients contributed their flavor element of spiciness, nuttiness, herbaceous quality, garlic pungency, cooling quality, along with different textures that made each bite quite a kaleidoscope.  The sesame sauce was the perfect liaison that added its tahini-like creaminess with a hint of vinegar that elevated the noodles that were perfectly al dente and tasted handmade, akin to Spaghetti alla Chitarra.  This vegan dish comes without protein, but I added a topping of minced pork that was moist and made fragrant from the use of Asian cinnamon (cassia) exuding a faint note of enticing licorice to the protein.  This is the perfect summer dish in the next few months, and I will be planning to order it then, vegan or not.

Spicy Beef Noodles, NW Chinese Food

One of the most mentioned dishes online is Spicy Beef Noodles, and it is one that I recognized from this region due to my addiction to food and travel programs.  The bowl arrived wafting with an enticing smell and immediate appeal.  The soup, like most noodle soup dishes, is the key to the success to any dish of this kind.  This version had a body, probably from beef bones, made aromatic with hints of star anise, spiked by the mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorn, and it carried sour and salty notes from the pickled mustard green.  The beef chunks were amazingly sumptuous with its tender and fall apart quality, tasting more seasoned than the soup due to its cooking apart from the stock, which added to its appeal.  Additionally, the rice noodles had an al dente quality that did not turn mushy throughout the meal, reminding me of well-made fresh egg pasta.  The pool of chili condiment (not the table type) added some extra zing to the whole mix but still made it quite palatable.  I could not get enough of this dish as it was exciting both flavor and texture wise.  This soup noodle has now been added to my eating repertoire of this genre.

NW Chinese FoodNorthwest Chinese Food has become one of the most exciting discoveries for me on this gastronomic journey.  Partly it is because this is newfound territory, and also because this regional food is exciting and downright delicious.  This excitement was found in the flavors in nearly all the dishes  especially the peanut dish, shredded potato salad, the lamb burger, and both beef soup and sesame sauce noodle dishes.  In addition, the wheat and the rice noodles that I savored had a texture that I have never tasted in other Chinese establishments due to their hand-made quality and perfect cooking treatment.  Yes, the place is small and quite crowded on certain days, and I was even scolded by a waitress for holding a table while I waited for my party  – typically Chinese.  But with food this exciting and quite mind-blowing, such inconveniences can be tolerated or even overlooked.  This is definitely my latest gastronomic find, and it quickly ranks high on my personal list.