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

Jerusalem Restaurant

Recently I blogged about a Korean restaurant which I enjoyed their savory offerings, but only after having complained about how hard it was finding one that was worth raving about.  The same sentiment can be applied to Middle Eastern restaurants.  I guess this can be attributed to me being spoiled by my visits to the many exemplary establishments in Detroit, where my brother used to live, with a plethora of such eateries, and hence the competition for excellent fare.  The other reason could be pointed to my invitations to a Lebanese-Armenian friend’s house for his mother’s divine dishes.  But recently, I came across a newfound restaurant serving such cuisine that is worth mentioning.

Jerusalem Restaurant

Jerusalem Restaurant is located in Bailey’s Crossroads, Fairfax, VA, quite off my beaten path of restaurant hunting.  But an online coupon perked my interest in this establishment since Middle Eastern cuisine is scant on my blog site. Located off the busy Route 7, it is quite a spacious place sitting in the middle of a strip mall.  Walking into it, you sense the rather exotic decor immediately by the art and the furniture.  After greeting my dining companion, we quickly corralled a number of dishes to be savored and written about.

Trio Dippers - Hummus, Babaghanouj, Labneh

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, GarlicThe appetizers are divided into the cold and hot sections.  From the former, we honed in on a couple.  The first was Trio Platter.  The beautiful square plate arrived with Hummus, Babaghanouj, Labneh, and complementary, yet de rigueur in such establishments, olives and pickled radish.  The Hummus was smooth, creamy and tangy, all the necessary notes for it to be successful.  The Babaghanouj exuded the necessary smokiness as a counterpoint to the luxurious silky roasted eggplant, with a tinge of garlic.  The Labneh was thick and creamy, much like Greek yogurt, tasting tangy and fruity from a drizzle of olive oil.  The complementary olives and radish were tasting rather fresh and house-made, beckoning us to nibble on them throughout dinner.  The pita bread tasted fresh and which was the perfect vehicle to transport the various dips to mouth, albeit a bit thicker than the Lebanese kind, which I prefer.  The second order caught my attention immediately upon seeing it on the menu.  Makdous is dish of small green eggplants stuffed with a filling of crushed walnuts, red pepper, garlic, and marinated in olive oil.  The vegetables were cooked through without falling apart encasing a stuffing that was enticing and quite exotic, being nutty, extremely garlicky, and all brought together by a long marination in olive oil.  As starters, my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed these openers.

Chicken Couscous

My friend’s entrée order was quite standard fare for Middle Eastern cuisine – Chicken Couscous. The bowl arrived with the grain mixed with vegetables, topped by pieces from half a chicken.  The couscous was a departure from the Moroccan style that I was used to, being a bit stodgy and tangy due to the use of tomato as its stock base.  The companions of squash, carrot, chickpeas, and potato were the usual.  However, the squash and carrot were slightly undercooked (the only time I prefer my vegetables thoroughly cooked). But it was the chicken that was getting my undivided attention. The pieces were moist and thoroughly cooked encased by a smoky and crispy skin, which made them very irresistible, albeit a bit under seasoned.  The waitress explained that the chicken was slow cooked for an hour, then finished on a grill resulting in that wonderful crispy skin.  Even though the couscous didn’t make an impression, the tasty chicken was sumptuous enough to make up for the deficiencies.

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

My order was another discovery just like the eggplant appetizer.  Hannet is made with lamb and rice, and one bite into the dish got me hooked.  The lamb tasted properly seasoned and was fall-off-the-bone tender while exuding its characteristic meaty flavor without being over whelming.  Obviously it was boiled in a stock until its proper doneness.  The accompanying rice was no shy partner in this dish.  The Basmati rice was light and fluffy, tasting extremely savory from the use of stock, and wonderfully aromatic from the use of green cardamom pods (more subtle than the dark ones).  The combination of rice and lamb in each forkful was a harmonious marriage, made more tantalizing by the slivers of nutty almond and slices of pungent raw onion.  The side of sauce was fiery, pungent from garlic and onion, and lemony, all elements to elevate the dish even further.  This dish was indeed an eye opener and a success for me.

Warbat - Custard stuffed PastryEven though we were very sated from the various courses, we were tempted throughout the meal by the dessert display sitting under some bright lights a few feet from us.  It was quite difficult choosing from the rather large array of sweets, some of which I recognized and savored before.  Eventually, we chose Warbat.  It is pretty much fillo dough encasing a custard, and soaked in syrup.  I must say I wasn’t too impressed with this one for its slightly cloying sweetness which begged for an orange-blossom water note, and the custard was not rich enough to elevate it beyond pedestrian.  Maybe another choice from the many would have been more successful.

I’m glad I trekked a distance to try out this restaurant.  The meal openers were successful in my mind, with the properly made hummus, labneh, and babaghanouj dips, to the stuffed marinated eggplant that was exotic to spark some curiosity in us for the rest of the meal.  The chicken in the couscous dish really hit the spot with its smoky crispy skin and fairly moist flesh.  My lamb rice dish was an excellent choice with the tender meat and the wonderfully fragrant savory rice.  Even though the dessert was a bit of a let down, I’m curious to discover the rest of their sweet fare on future trips.  It is about time I found a Middle Eastern restaurant worth mentioning, and Jerusalem Restaurant is worth the hike.

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

Souk

H Street NE, Washington DC - Blue Moon

On a late-summer Friday night lit by a radiant blue moon (it literally was), we decided to venture to the H street NE neighborhood to savor the cooking of a new restaurant. It had been many moons (pun intended) since I ventured to this part of town ever since an old friend lived there in the early 90’s. Strolling down its main drag with the full moon getting everyone’s attention and spurring us to enjoy a warm night during the lingering remnants of summer, I was quite taken aback by the area’s development and growth including the influx of diversity in a historically black neighborhood that was enjoying the burgeoning businesses on the strip. One such place is Souk Moroccan Restaurant.

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When we arrived at our destination, the restaurant was undergoing some renovations in the main dining room, making its foyer cramped with filled tables. We were invited by the waiters to spend our waiting time at a Hookah Bar a couple of doors away. When the table became available, we squeezed into our table and quickly perused the menu. The offerings are the familiar and traditional Moroccan dishes that I have encountered in other eateries. The menu is divided into Cold Tapas, Hot Tapas, Signature Moroccan Specialties, Salads, and Entrées.

Moroccan Vegetable Platter

Our first choice to start the meal off was a combination of cold tapas listed under the Entrée section – Vegetarian Platter. The dish arrived filled with a combination of Zaalouk, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, traditional Moroccan spinach, and carrot salad. The Zaalouk consisted of roasted eggplant, garlic and tomatoes that enticed us with its savoriness, well-balanced flavors, and silky smooth texture along with a good hit of smokiness, and the accompanying pita slices made the perfect scooping vehicle for the dip. The carrots slices were still sweet and perfectly cooked with a tinge of lemon acidity. I could not get enough of the stuffed grape leaves that tasted fresh and not too acidic like in other places. The hummus was not too dense, smooth, and rich with a hint of garlic and tahini sauce. The center of the plate was occupied by a large chickpea falafel that was well-seasoned, light, and crispy from the frying. And the spinach was really tasty with a slight hint of fragrant dried spices, perhaps cumin. I would suggest to order this dish as the perfect starter even though it is listed under the entrée section. As a vegetarian offering, it makes a perfect meatless dish as well.

Chicken with Preserved Lemon

A favorite among the traditional Moroccan dishes is Chicken with Preserved Lemons, and we decided to order this restaurant’s rendition. The dish arrived with a thigh and drumstick that has been cooked with caramelized onions, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and preserved lemons. The sauce was very tasty but it lacked the preserved lemon flavor that I was looking forward to in this dish. The chicken could have done with longer time on the stove/tagine for it was not quite fall-off-the-bone yet. However, the side of saffron rice blew us away. It was light, very savory, and heady from the saffron threads that added a beautiful yellow tinge as well as its slight flowery fragrance. This side indeed transported us to the sunny fields of North Africa with its wonderful flavors and perfume.

Apricot Lamb Tagine

Our next choice was Apricot Lamb Tagine. A lamb shank was marinated overnight with a saffron, ginger and cinnamon sauce, and slow-cooked with a few dried apricots. When it arrived at our table, the meat was moist and literally fork tender, indicating its lengthy cooking on a low heat in a tagine earthen pot. The sauce was complex and very tasty, with a hint of sweetness from the softened apricots. While I was tasting the dish, I detected a certain je ne se quoi as the backnote in the sauce. After some mulling over it, I honed on Orange Blossom Water that I have tasted in Middle Eastern pastry. Upon checking this with the kitchen, my guesswork was confirmed – what a brilliant addition to this flavor profile! This dish was not only tasty but it also evoked a exoticness that woke up a sense of culinary wanderlust. Truly memorable.

Grilled Beef Kafta

We wanted to try the place’s version of a traditional favorite – Chicken Bastilla. However, the kitchen was out of it and we resorted to the Grilled Kafta. Two kebabs arrived on our table which were made from ground beef. It was well-seasoned with a strong hint of chili and other dry fragrant spices. The pool of light tomato sauce provided a slightly sweet and acidic flavor to these pieces of grilled beef – I felt that the other Tzatziki sauce did not contribute much to the dish which remained mostly untouched. The slices of grilled vegetables had the same smoky notes as the Kaftas themselves after having spent the same amount of time as its meat partner on the hot grill. A mound of that saffron rice rounded off the dish which we continuously could not get enough of.

DSC_0765.jpgSouk has a fairly short menu filled with traditional Moroccan dishes and a smattering of other Mediterranean dishes. The dishes that we savored were cooked with care and a deft hand that understands flavors of this North African cuisine. The highlights worth tasting are the cold dishes in the Vegetarian Platter, that wonderful tender and savory lamb shank, the spicy and smoky grilled beef kafta, and the fluffy saffron rice that titillated the senses. With such wonderful cooking, you may be tempted to complete this meal with a visit to Sahra Lounge a couple of doors down to smoke a hookah as dessert since both locales are run by the same owner. Morocco meets H Street NE – who would have thought of that!

Souk on Urbanspoon

Kababji

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.

Kababji Grill on Urbanspoon