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 be 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

Afghan Restaurant

My former roommate is an avid traveller mainly due to the exigencies of his job and a sense of wanderlust to see the world.  One of the perks for him is having the opportunity to visit a myriad of restaurants in various parts of the world.  One year, back from a trip to San Francisco, he was exuding with delight about having a wonderful meal in an Afghan restaurant.  Back then I was quite a connoisseur of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, but Afghan food was terra incognito within the realm of this palate.  One for gastronomic adventure, I knew I had to delve into this cuisine and find a restaurant serving such offerings after hearing my friend speak about his meal.

DSC_1119.jpg

Being the kind and considerate roommie that I was, I would pick my mate up from the airport back from his frequent trips.  For many years, we had driven by a nondescript building off the main road, with a large drap-looking sign that barely made an effort to entice passersby into its dining room.   After hearing my friend’s exuberant remarks about this exotic cuisine, we decided to pay a visit to Afghan Restaurant in Crystal City, VA, a stone throw away from Reagan National Airport (No, it is NOT “Reagan Airport” as some folks seem to truncate the name to – that irks me!). It took a bit of suspension of first impression judgement to enter its doors, and since then, we have not stopped returning to this establishment for over 15 years.

DSC_1088.jpgAlways up for something unique and out of the common, the adventure for me starts with the first bite, or in this case, the first sip.  Dogh is a fermented yogurt drink that has been lightened with some soda water and slightly brined by a touch of salt.  It has the slight creamy taste of whole-milk yogurt but this richness is cut by the mild sourness from the fermentation.  In addition, flecks of dried mint add the bite and slight herbaciouness to compensate the dairy flavor.  This drink is not for the novice and it is an acquired taste, of which my friends would wince and remark that it tastes like toothpaste.  Not for me – it is uniquely delish!

.

.

.

.

.

DSC_1079.jpg

DSC_1085.jpgAs for an appetizer, a favorite order is Mantu.  These are steamed dumplings that are filled with scallions and bits of minced beef.  The silky dough makes the perfect purse for the stuffing without being too thick or too delicate, providing support to the bits of not overly cooked scallion and morsels of tasty beef.  The slathering of  yogurt sauce along with a meat sauce made with a tasty tomato sauce and bits of vegetables makes this opener a tasty treat.  What amazes me is the resemblance of this dish to the Mandu dumplings popular in Korean eateries.  According to Wikipedia, the Mongols brought these meat purses from the Middle East to the Far East along the Silk Road in the 14th century – tasty bites with an interesting history.  Along with the steamed dumplings, a baked version, Boolawnee, proved to be equally tasty during past visits.

DSC_1106.jpgDSC_1097.jpg

The mainstay in Afghan cuisine are the meat dishes, especially the Kebabs that dominate a large portion of the menu.  The menu offers a variety to choose from: Chicken, Beef, Lamb, and Fish, in either whole pieces or in ground meat form.  Over the years we have zoned in on a couple of them in part due to their savouriness and in other part due to personal tastes of the other sharers: Boneless Chicken Thigh Kebab and Shami Kebab.  The chicken thigh version comes with pieces of chicken that have been marinated in a seasoning and perhaps in some yogurt to helps to tenderize these bits of dark meat.  The chunks come slightly charred and with a light smoky taste from having been grilled over charcoal while the meat remains moist and savory from the seasoning.   The Chicken Breast version is equally tasty and moist, but my dining mates prefer the stronger tasting dark meat.  The Shami Kebab is made from ground beef with some seasoning, grated sweet onions, and a bit of garlic.  These pieces of beef make a tasty bite due to the seasonings and it will even entice the not-so-beef eater.  But one can’t forget the humongous piece of freshly baked naan bread that makes the obligatory partner to this meal.  Pieces of dough have been cooked in the tandoor oven, providing a crispy outer shell with a moist stretchy fluffy inside.  The customary way of eating the pieces of chicken and beef is wrapping them with Naan bread and slathering the sandwiches with the accompanying spicy cilantro yogurt sauce.  This is a perfect combo that has you coming back  and wanting more with each bite.  A skewer of grilled onions, green peppers and tomatoes can be added to round off these meat dishes.

DSC_1100.jpgDSC_1113.jpg

Meat dishes definitely abound in this establishment.  However, we have discovered that Afghan cuisine is not all about meat like in many Middle Eastern dishes.  A section in the menu is dedicated to vegetarian dishes and they are worth discovering.  The Vegetarian Rice Platter is the perfect partner to balance out the above meat dishes and it is a must order.  This quartet comprises of sautéed spinach, roasted eggplant, stewed pumpkin, and Rice Palau.  The chopped spinach is well-seasoned with a tinge of sourness to counterbalance any bitter taste (none btw), the soft eggplant still in chunks and amazingly slightly sweet, the pumpkin soft and naturally sweet sitting in a small pool of rich ghee, and the grains of basmati rice fluffy, a bit oily and heavily scented by large cardamom pods that add some exotica to the lean looking grain.  The topping of caramelized carrot shreds and plump raisins brings more interest to this starch and it attempts to steal the highlight.  For my friends and me, our kebab dishes would not be complete without an order of this divine combination of vegetables and rice.  This easily would satisfy the most finicky vegetarian/vegan customer who would not think finding something worth ordering in a meat-laden menu.

DSC_1092.jpg

As for my former roommie, he seems to order only one dish: Super Combo.  It is definitely a combo that comes with a skewer each of chicken, lamb, and shami kebab, Rice Palau, along with a Qurma, a well-seasoned lamb stew.  This is truly a meat delight for the die-hard carnivore to which my friend has taken his vows.  The Qurma is very tasty with only a slight hint of the lamb gaminess that makes it palatable for the sensitive eater.  It is a dish worth ordering to get a sampling of the different meat offerings in this restaurant and for the famished diner.

The desserts are limited in the offerings.  However, apart from the predictable Baqlawa (Baklava), there is Ferni.  It is made with milk and cornstarch, and it is served chilled and topped with a dusting of pistachio bits.  It is akin to the usual rice pudding except the texture is a bit funky, much like an over-starched sauce that has congealed up.  Aside from this textural issue, it is a tasty dessert with a slight hint of Orange Blossom essence in the pudding.  Definitely a favorite of my mega-canivore friend.

In the best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, in which the author chronicles life during pre-Taliban Afghanistan, we see a frequently appearing character, Ali, who is the family’s long-time servant.  He was faithful, constant, unassuming, and ever-pleasing.  In more than the 15 years that we have been visiting Afghan Restaurant, it has demonstrated the very same qualities in the food that we relish in during our meals, never dipping in food quality or warmth in service.  Just like the Ali character’s demure personality, or display sign in the restaurant’s case, one cannot discern beyond the looks, or in this case, how wonderful and enticing Afghan cuisine is unless he or she walks through those double doors.  Or you may be invited to the wedding dinner in the banquet hall if you accidentally enter the adjoining room.  Either way, the experience is never disappointing.

Afghan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mediterranean Kabob

Note: The restaurant is currently under new management with a new menu.

My introduction to Persian cuisine came by in a most unlikely and circuitous way. My twin brother and I were college students in Memphis, TN, and we were active members of the International Student Union. Its president was a charming and feisty young Persian lady that my brother had started to date and spend a lot of time with. On the weekends, we would go over to her mother’s house in Midtown, and walking in, you were immediately enveloped by the most wonderful waft of exotic food that awaited us. One of my favorite dishes was a chicken rice dish that was delicately perfumed by a handful of fresh dill, and it was usually brought out with the golden-brown bottom crust nestled on the top as its crown, which was considered the most prized part. After dinner, we would sit around on the plush carpet and pillows while we cracked nuts and peeled fresh pomegranates as dessert, while sensual Persian music played in the background as we tested our limberness with some rhythmic hip gyrations aided along by some youthful imbibing. My college days in the 80’s were filled with excitement and cultural adventure, despite being in the Mid-South and the “quiet uneasiness” that saturated its air.

A few years ago, having already relocated to the DC metro area, I moved from the middle part of the county to the most northern part, Laurel, MD. It was a big change for me especially culinary-wise. In my new area, I have at my doorstep a wide variety of restaurants, especially ethnic ones, that my old stomping ground was severely lacking. Just off the city’s main thoroughfare is Mediterranean Kabob that sits in the corner of the courtyard of a fairly new set of condominiums. When I first stepped into its doors, I was glad to find a place where decent Middle Eastern food was served and close to me. It has the usual fare that we would usually associate with this cuisine: Kabobs, Pita Bread, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Basmati Rice, Falafels (real good, btw), Gyro sandwiches, and Baklavas for dessert. But since last year, a $10 lunch buffet has been added during the work week, and here we see the restaurant offering the customer some really exciting and unique Persian dishes that have made me sit-up with attention.

Mediterranean Kabob 037.jpg

Available on the buffet line are the usual cold dishes of a simple Salad, Tabouleh, Flatbreads, and Cucumber Yogurt Sauce. The salad was nothing out of the ordinary except for the accompanying spicy cilantro sauce that added a kick to the mild greens. The Tabouleh was decent but I would prefer more lemon juice that would make my mouth pucker the way I like this bulgur wheat and parsley salad. When I was visiting the last time, a young Persian, Siamak, and his brother were making and baking different Persian breads from scratch. I was presented a most interesting flatbread that had a scattering of black and white sesame seeds, along with some dried herbs and exotic Nigella black seeds (akin to poppy seeds but more fragrant) on top of its surface. The toasted seeds made the bread very irresistible with their nuttiness, coupled with the fragrance from the dried herbs. A good started indeed.

Mediterranean Kabob 003.jpg

Usually, there is a wonderful hearty soup on the buffet line which is far from the usual buffet offering. On one visit, the opener for my meal was a most interesting soup – Ashe Tomato. Nila, the main cook, explained to me that it was a soup that is cooked by Turkish immigrants in Iran. It was a light and slightly spicy tomato broth that was made with bulgur wheat, couscous, cilantro, fresh chilis, and marble-size beef-and-onion meatballs, which were surprisingly light and added the necessary meatiness to the soup. It definitely piqued my curiosity, and I had to refrain from filling up on it after a couple bowls of this deliciousness.

Mediterranean Kabob 012.jpgWith a few visits, I have fallen in love with Khoresht-e Fesenjoon, an exotic concoction of chicken in a pomegranate concentrate and ground walnut sauce. The first time I tasted it, I was transported to another world by the interesting and slightly sweet-and-sour flavors that had permeated the meat completely, judging by the amber-colored interior. According to the manager, Manoocher, it takes 3 hours of patient stirring to produce this ancient recipe, that at times he is up late making it. Such care in cooking this dish produces a thin layer of light green walnut oil that makes this dish prized by older Persians for its heart-curative qualities, according to Nila, along with the antioxidants in the pomegranate. I must admit that it is a rather rich dish with a thick sauce that clings to the moist and flavorful pieces of meat. But the interesting flavor profile makes one wanting more of this exotic dish. It used to be offered on the line only once a week, but due its popularity, it makes a daily appearance, which I am glad to see.

Mediterranean Kabob 027.jpg

The Chicken Kebab is good here. Chunks of chicken breast have been marinated and quickly cooked in the tandoor. The meat is still moist with the edges barely singed by the high heat. Usually there is freshly baked naan bread served along with it, but in my last visit, I was offered some wholesome whole-wheat flatbread. The yogurt-cucumber sauce provided the perfect moist accompaniment to this tasty bite.

Mediterranean Kabob 035.jpg

A dish often served on the buffet line is a tomato stew consisting of chunks of beef, wide slices of sautéed eggplant and tomato, onions and turmeric. The meat has been stewed long enough to have absorbed the flavorful liquid and be fork tender, along with the wide slices of vegetables that hold on to their integrity after a short stay (15 minutes) in the pot. The soft vegetables provide the necessary textures and flavors that act as the perfect foil while adding contrast to the bolder meat. All these elements make this dish very delectable and complex, with a certain homely simplicity at the same time. The fluffy basmati rice is the perfect backdrop to this wonderful saucy dish.

Gheymeh Beef Stew and Fava Bean Dill Rice

On another visit, I tasted a unique Persian dish for the first time – Gheymeh Beef Stew. It was an interesting thick stew of beef chunks, lentils, and potato. This dish is lightened by the addition of dried limes that add the citrus sour note to the dish that would otherwise be quite flat and heavy tasting. Savoring it for the first time was an eye-opener as I was trying to discern the interesting flavors that were quite foreign to me. A side of Fava Bean Rice perfumed by fresh dill and saffron (the real stuff) was the perfect accompaniment to the dish. This pair is not a daily offering on the buffet line, but it is worth catching when available.

Mediterranean Kabob 043.jpg

Vegetarians are not forsaken here. Besides the salads, rice, and breads, there is usually a vegetable offering. A light potato, green pepper, and carrot stew on the last visit was tasty and quite fulfilling. The potatoes were cut into large portions, enough to give one the feeling that the tuber was not going to allow itself to be overshadowed by the other bolder meat dishes. Another vegetarian offering on a previous visit consisted of a potato stew seasoned with ginger, cumin, coriander seeds, and a little cinnamon. On this day I almost became vegetarian by this wonder of a dish, which made me nearly forget the day’s other offerings – few can make vegetables this exciting as the kitchen did with this dish.

If you happen to be in Laurel during the weekday during lunch time, it would be amiss not to stop by Mediterranean Kabob for the lunch buffet that offers exotic and unique Persian dishes that sing about a glorious history of a wonderful cuisine. The small crowd of Persian customers savoring the dishes and the sound of Farsi in the air are a good testament to the level of cooking here. Under the hands of Nila, the cook, these perfectly seasoned dishes are tempting for one to go back for repeats even when conventional wisdom says to go light on the midday meal. However, after a few fork and spoonfuls, you will not regret having over-eaten, and maybe start planning the next time you would pay visit to this modest yet wonderful eatery.

Mediterranean Kabob on Urbanspoon