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.

Taqueria Los Primos

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Death of an opportunity always opens another.  Such occurrence took place in a spot in between a Motel 6 and a Thrift Store in North Laurel where a former restaurant/bar perhaps resided – my lack of recollection only points to its nondescript existence.  A couple of months ago, my BFF called me exuding about a new Taqueria in our “hood”.  It was no surprise to me that such an eating establishment would open, as this is only a mere representation of the new make-up of the burgeoning Latino population in this township.  With an anticipation for such cuisine, I paid Taqueria Los Primos a few visits to sample their offerings.

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Walking into the wide space, one is confronted by a large order counter with a expansive menu displayed above.  It can be daunting for the novice to the menu, but many visits to other authentic area Mexican restaurants prepared me in navigating this Latino cuisine.  An order that such friend was raving about was Quesadillas.  The stuffed tortillas arrived well-grilled with the right amount of char providing that smokey note.  What it encased was a generous amount of Mexican mozzarella-like stringy cheese accompanying some chunks of cooked beef, and thankfully, not ground beef like in some establishments, which my friend was really enjoying his bite on this occasion.  A similar order on another visit was a bit disappointing with the lack of char on the tortillas, and an overwhelming amount of cheese.  Our drink orders during our many visits were the perfect thirst quenchers consisting of Jarritos (Mexican sodas made with real sugar and fruit essence), house-made Rice Milk (Horchata), Tamarind Water (Tamarindo), and Hibiscus Water (Jamaica).  These non-bottled drinks were both tasting recently-made and the perfect balance of the ingredients along with the right amount of sugar without being cloyingly sweet.  A healthier choice is fresh Carrot or Orange Juice made to order and tasting naturally sweet.

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Flautas are popular in Mexican taquerias and I had to taste their version. My plate arrived with 4 stuffed crispy tacos inundated by a mound of toppings consisting of lettuce, tomato, sweet onions, all slathered with some crema (Mexican sour cream) and crumbled cheese, that hinted of both Parmesan and blue cheese. A bite into the first flauta caused me to pause.  The crispy corn tortilla encased a chicken stuffing that was dry and stringy, an indication of overcooking or over-frying.  The second roll fared much better and injected more assurance in this diner.  The dark chicken meat was fairly moist and well seasoned, making each bite enjoyable especially with the different toppings that added more moisture and flavor.  The side of refried beans was as good as it gets, tasting velvety smooth and properly seasoned, good enough to belie its true humble nature.  A side order of Nopales, grilled cactus, was revelatory to me.  The leathery paddles exuded some good char flavor along with its slightly bitter natural notes, and with a good squeeze of lime (all limes pieces were necessary), the acid made each strip quite enjoyable and palate provoking, this tasting different (and better in my mind) from the usual pickled version.

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Along with the first dish above, my BFF had also raved about the tacos offered here.  My order one day was made with Carnitas and the other Al Pastor.  One bite into the Carnitas one blew me away instantly.  The pieces of pork were perfectly seasoned and cooked while maintaining some of its moisture and porcine goodness.  The highlight to these meaty bites was the skin cooked to a crisp that gave some crunchy interest and its amazing bacon-like goodness.  The Al Pastor ones were fairly tasty with the thin slivers of seasoned meat made red with some coloring probably from the achiote seed.  However, it lacked the burnt meat flavor that the former exuded.  The topping of fresh pineapple was interesting that made these bites more intriguing.  The side green and red chile sauces were more than adequate with the green one lending some spicy fruity acid flavors and the red one some salty smoky dried chili notes, both elevating these soft tortilla bites to another level.

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A couple of stuffed sandwiches caught the eye of my companions. Burritos here come large and well-stuffed.  My companion’s order was made with chicken, paired with rice, beans, and fresh elements of lettuce and tomato, all moistened by a light creamy sauce.  He seemed content with this large bite despite the fact that he is not a fan of the starch fillers.  Another companion’s order was from the large sandwich menu.  His order was the Cubano, which is strange for a Mexican eatery.  The behemoth bite came loaded with slices of grilled meat, grilled sliced sausage, a fried egg, and lightened by some sliced lettuce, and spiced by some pickled jalapeño slices.  Not quite a traditional Cubano, but my friend had no real complaints except for its overwhelming size.

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A couple of open-face dishes were also sampled.  The first was Huarache, consisting of a crispy cornmeal cake slathered with the silky smooth refried beans (its name is attributed to its slipper-like appearance), topped with a choice protein and the usual suspects of toppings and flavors.  What I enjoyed sampling in this dish for the first time was the corn flavor in the cake with its mealy texture, and the small chunks of grilled Cecina beef which tasted well-aged from its hanging after a marination of salt and lime juice. For a first-time, this dish hit the right notes for me.   A friend’s order during one visit was Tostadas.  It pretty much was the same make-up as the latter dish, but the base consisted of crispy tacos holding the elements together, topped by some perfectly ripe avocado.  The refried bean on the crispy rounds unfortunately softened their crispiness quite quickly, which disappointed the eater.  But the choice of the awesome Carnitas with its crispy skin helped my friend overlook this slight downfall.

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My visits were made on the weekends, and I noticed that many customers ordered the Mexican perennial, Menudo.  The bowl arrived with its achiote-stained red soup submerging big pieces of the stomach floating and chucks of bone.  One taste of the soup revealed a tasty broth but there was a hit of funkiness from that part of the cow.  The toppings contributed some onion sweetness and crunch, the cilantro herbaciousness, and good amount of lime fruit acid that helped to temper with off-notes in the soup.  The pieces of offal were well cooked making them smooth and falling apart fairly easily in the mouth.  However, after half way through this bowl, I had enough of this cut of meat even though I grew up eating it, albeit with a much smaller quantity.  All in all, I appreciated this well-made bowl supposedly with its flavors strong enough to cure a severe hangover.

Everything about Taqueria Los Primos is puro mexicano, from the large Latino clientele that patronize this establishment on the weekends, to the Virgen de Guadalupe statue adorning the wall next to the jukebox pumping out loud ranchera music.  But the star of this place is the uncompromising Mexican dishes that keeps beckoning the customers to return for more, especially the tacos made with that pork-heavenly Carnitas, to the Flautas (once passed the first awfully made one), to the other open-faced Tostadas and Huarache, and finally the rich sobering Menudo soup.  Never mind the fairly large family crowds on the weekends and the sensory overload of music and sights (including the large screen showing Mexican fútbol).  Once you start settling in with the food, the dishes will hit the spots and you feel all just fine right here.

I Love Pho

In all the three years of this food blogging business, the cuisine whose restaurants I have reviewed and have closed the most is Vietnamese, numbering 3, not counting those I didn’t write about.  Furthermore, recently, one of favorite places located near me folded up suddenly, which left a significant hole in my gastronomic palette. Consequently, a mission was set in me to find a worthy replacement, and a worthwhile place appeared unexpectedly in a most improbable place. I Love Pho is located at the back of an International grocery store in the heart of Laurel, MD. The space has seen one eatery after another come and go, and the opening of this food establishment piqued my curiosity. Initially, I was a bit nonplussed by their offering in their early days. However, there was a change of chef a few weeks later, and their dishes were starting to raise my eyebrows. After paying it a number of visits to sample the various dishes, I felt that I Love Pho was worth a write-up.

Spring Rolls

This eatery offers only two appetizers, and both are the usual Vietnamese standards. Cha Gio are Vietnamese spring rolls that I love from this cuisine. Their rendition here captured my attention from the first bite. The rolls were perfectly deep-fried, nearly greaseless to the touch. One bite into the roll revealed a very savory stuffing of minced pork, carrot, and shrimp, well-seasoned with spices and white pepper, and a slight touch of bounce from the bean noodle and wood fungus. But it is this same mixture that takes these rolls to another level as if having gone through a process of transubstantiation, tasting savory and beckoning the eater for more bites. The dipping sauce was also revelatory with its decent fish sauce, a good hit of lime juice, a hint of garlic, some crushed chili for some heat, and enough sugar to “round off” the strong flavors, making it worthy to sip like an elixir.

Summer Roll

The other standard opener is Goi Cuon or Summer Roll. During my visits, they were made a la minute which made them stand out from other establishments. The rice paper was supple and not chalky at all (due to refrigeration), wrapping the usual suspects of shrimp, pork, basil, and rice stick noodles. I also appreciated the shrimp that was not overcooked and the pieces of pork that were seasoned with enough salt, unlike the bland meat found in other places. The dipping sauce, tasting house-made, was not just only sweet from the  Hoisin, but salty enough to balance out the latter flavor, making it stand apart from other versions which tend to be lacking in the salt department. Again, another sauce that is finger-licking-good here. Unfortunately, my last order was refrigerated, resulting in the brittle and chalky qualities in these bites.

Banh Mi

One thing that I appreciate in this place is the serving of a Vietnamese favorite, Banh Mi, which can be hard to come by. The sandwich comes with an opened French baguette that was crusty and fairly spongy inside, stuffed with ham, Vietnamese salami, some daikon and carrot pickles, crunchy cucumber, crispy jalapeño, and fragrant cilantro. What adds some interest in these stuffed rolls is the salami that is studded with piquant peppercorns and made fragrant with some five-spice powder. Furthermore, the bread has been slathered with some rich paté on one side and the other garlic butter – yes, you read that right. The result is a bite that is completely irresistible, the sum of all the disparate elements that seem to fit in just right in that crusty bun. At $5 each, this is a damn good sandwich.

Pork Bun Salad

Another room temperature dish is Pork Bun Salad. The deconstructed bowl arrived with the various ingredients hugging their separate territories: Grilled Pork, pickles, basil leaves, cucumber, and crushed peanuts, all sitting on a mound of bouncy rice stick noodles.   The meat was perfectly cooked and tasting equally well seasoned with notes of fish sauce saltiness and some sugar sweet.  That amazing fish sauce dipping sauce is served to be poured on the mixture that binds all the bowl partners together.  This is another perfect summer dish in my books.

Pho Noodle

The ultimate litmus test in a Vietnamese place is its Beef Pho Noodles. Having said that I was not too wowed by the previous chef’s cooking, I was immediately impressed by this bowl with the change of guard. The secret to a good bowl of noddle is always in the broth, and this version grabbed my attention with the first sip. The fairly clear soup tasted complex from beef bones, interesting from the use of wood spices without shouting out their individual characteristics, and slightly dark and sweet from burnt whole onions. The co-stars in the bowl were equally impressive with the meat balls, thinly sliced beef, the bouncy Pho noodles, and the different garnishing which included the rarely served long leaf called Culantro in the Caribbean. After ingesting this revised recipe for the first time, I knew something was up in the back kitchen, and I did return indeed to try the other dishes.

Bo Bun Hue

The second litmus, in my mind, is another noodle soup, Bun Bo Hue, if it is offered at all in a Vietnamese joint. This is a spicy fragrant beef noodle soup with which the secret also lies in the broth like the above. The first sip of it again raised my eyebrows; it was complex with the lemongrass citrus fragrant hit, spicy with a slight throat-burning chili heat, and savory from the use of bones and the slightly funky shrimp paste in the making of its broth. Furthermore, some of the edible ingredients pointed towards a level of authenticity, notably blood cake and slices of tendon and pig’s feet. Not only I cannot get enough of this wonderful bowl, but also a friend who refuses to drink water as to not dilute the soup that he would devour until its last drop. I guess that is a testament to its oh-so-goodness.

Crispy Noodle

Not all noodle dishes served here are the soup form. Tucked in the menu, and not on the display board, is Seafood Crispy Noodle. The first time I ordered this, they had forgotten the order, and after reminding them, the result that landed on my table was a sub par rushed job. However, I gave it another try. The second time around, it met my expectations. The noodles were perfectly crispy and cooked in-house, judging by the loud WHOOSH in the kitchen. The topping was a very tasty and savory mixture of seafood and vegetables: fish ball, perfectly cooked shrimp, squid (a bit overcooked the second time), faux crab (didn’t care for that) and a melange of slightly crispy but cooked vegetables.  It was the sauce that not only tasted perfectly seasoned and savory, but it was more than enough liquid to soften the noodles with its flavors. I’m glad I give this dish another chance, making it high on my order list.

Grilled Chicken

There are a couple of grilled meat dishes worth mentioning. The first is Grilled Chicken. Pieces of well-marinated chicken thigh (not breast, whew) have been grilled until the tips are slightly charred and crispy.  What makes each bite sing in the mouth is the long marination that exuded fragrant lemongrass, salty fish sauce, a hint of garlic, and some sweetness.  The salad with pickles and some rice were the perfect foil to these rich tasting bites.  Usually not part of the meal, I always request a bowl of that so-good Pho soup to go with the meal, which they are happy to oblige me.  With all these well done components, this is truly a satisfactory dinner worth ordering repeatedly.

Grilled Pork

The other grilled meat dish is Grilled Pork Chop. Again, pieces of pork chop have been marinated and pan-fried. The meat was slightly salty from fish sauce and sweet at the same time, while a dose of softened green onions added slight sweet pungency to these bites. However, the plate partners were equal heavy weights on the plate. The slice of meat loaf was very savory with a slight bounce from the use of wood fungus, as well as the pig skin salad that belied its nature with its slight smokiness and tasty allure. What makes this dish successful is the equal attention given to all the elements on the plate.

Bo Kho

A couple of stews round-up this review. Bo Kho is a beef stew with pieces of carrot. Again, one sip of the broth pointed towards a set of knowledgeable and expert hands. It was perfumed with some lemongrass, sweetened with some tomato and the carrot pieces, spiced with some star-anise, and made savory by the pieces of quality beef that just fell apart in the mouth. A side of crusty baguette was the perfect vehicle to sop up every drop of this wonderful sauce. An alternative serving is with noodles, but I prefer the bread with these tasty meaty bites.

Goat Curry

The other stew, and final dish, is Cari De, Goat Curry. This dish was not what I expected at all. Pieces of goat meat with the skin intact were coated in a thick curry sauce, more viscous than the usual Vietnamese curry. Furthermore, it was slightly sweet and it had a hint of acid (confirmed by the chef) with more spice fragrance than the usual renditions, tasting a step above Japanese curry but not the Madras kind. I started to appreciate the rather complex curry sauce as well as the meat whose mild-tasting skin I eventually got used to. Again, the baguette bread was the perfect accompaniment for the dish, instead of the noodles.

The low customer presence in this eatery made me wonder if I was off my game by raving about this small unassuming place, like some kind of crazy lonewolf. Checking online reviews of it, my praises for it were echoed by both novices and cognoscentis of the cuisine. I don’t know how long this establishment will last in this spot, but I hope more people will discover it and start to patronize this hidden treasure, albeit in the back of a supermarket. No doubt, all this was said for my own selfish benefit and hungry stomach.

Pho Kevin

In past blogs, I have posted and quibbled that finding a decent Vietnamese restaurant outside of their established communities has been like searching for the Holy Grail.   Complicating matters and my hunt, the few that I have blogged about have folded up to much of my dismay.  I had pretty much resorted to trekking to Northern Virginia (read blog) to savor some of my favorite dishes when the mood hits me to endure the 35-mile drive.

Pho Kevin

Recently, my BFF and I were driving around Laurel, MD, to find fabric to replace the upholstery of his dining room set, he having just become a new home owner just like I have.  On our way out, we spotted a new establishment that had taken over a defunct Chinese take-out.  Looking at the new restaurant sign, we couldn’t help but remark that its name was an eye-catcher, one being that most Pho places are never named after a particular person, the other that it was my bestie’s name; he posted a photo of it on Facebook and many fell for the joke thinking that he had opened it himself.  A few days later, BFF and I decided to pay Pho Kevin a visit during one of our rendezvous around the area.  After that visit, I knew that it was going to be featured as my next blog.

Cha Gio/Fried Spring Rolls

Some of my favorite appetizers are the Vietnamese kind, especially their rolls.  On one visit, I ordered the Cha Gio, or Fried Spring Roll.  The two thin rolls arrived piping hot with a fish sauce concoction and some pickled carrots and daikon on the side.  The rolls were decent with a rather compact stuffing of minced shrimp and pork, tasting very savory and more peppery that what I was used to.  The outer shell was the Chinese spring roll skin rather than the rice paper used in more traditional places, encasing the stuffing that was a bit too dense for my taste – the traditional use of taro root would lighten it up.  Most Vietnamese places have gotten away from serving these rolls with some fresh herbs and lettuce, and unfortunately, this place was no exception.  However, the side of Nuoc Cham was the right mixture of quality briny fish sauce, acidic vinegar, sweet sugar, and some chili heat.  Anywhere that serves quality fish sauce that is smooth and not overly pungent indicates a house that cares and pays attention to the small details.

Fresh Summer RollThe other type of roll is the Fresh Spring Roll, or Goi Cuon.  The rolls arrived just like what I expected.  Rice paper is used to wrap a filling of rice vermicelli, lettuce, slices of pork, and slices of boiled shrimp, served with a Hoisin-based sauce sprinkled with some crushed peanuts.  What made these rolls good were subtle.  The rice paper skin was slightly moist and tasted recently made, not prepared in advance and refrigerated which would turn the starch slightly chalky to the bite.  But here, it was all fresh and supple to the bite, with the shrimp tasting sweet and the pork slices exuding its porcine beauty.  Despite the lack of salt in the rolls, it was the sauce that was the compensatory note with its sweet and salty fragrant Hoisin sauce cooked with some creamy rich nutty coconut cream, while the bits of peanuts added its nuttiness to the dip.  Unfortunately, an extra note of mint and basil leaves would have completed the whole package.  Nevertheless, this was quite good and it did not take me long to finish these two rolls off.

Pho Beef NoodleBun Bo Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle

A friend’s order one day was Pho Tai, or Rare Eye Round Steak Noodle Soup.  The bowl was filled with a slightly murky soup surrounding a mound of rice noodles and topped with slices of raw lean beef, thin enough to be gently cooked by the piping hot broth.  Having a sip of the liquid, I could taste the use of cinnamon and star-anise in the broth, as well as the use of beef bones causing the pieces to lend its marrow goodness and depth of flavor.  My Vietnamese friend gave his approval with this bowlful as he thought that it was up to scratch.  My order on that day was Bun Bo Hue.  It is a Spicy Beef Noodle with various “pieces” of uhm, meat and etc.  The noodle was the proper kind, being the round thicker version not found with the regular noodle soup, moistened by a beefy soup made spicy with whole dried red chilis.  What makes this dish unique is the use of “off-cuts” in the dish: skin, tendon, knuckle, and other unrecognizable pieces.  Unfortunately, the traditional use of congealed blood was not served which was a bit of a disappointment for this diner who doesn’t mind that funky bite.  The customary serving of the slightly fishy shrimp paste and a dollop of dried chili paste added to the unique experience, along with a plateful of chopped cabbage, fragrant Vietnamese mint (Rau Ran), and a slice of lime that added some crunch and citrus kick.  I have not found many Pho places serving this unique spicy bowl, and I’m glad that this is close to my house.

Grilled Pork, Shredded Pork, and Meat LoafGrilled Beef and Fried Egg

One thing that sets this Pho house apart from other noodle houses is the serving of rice dishes and grilled meats.  When I set foot here for the first time, I ordered the Grilled Beef Rice dish, and was I impressed.  The dish arrived with the grilled beef, meat loaf, shredded pork, and a mound of steamed rice.  What got my attention immediately were the pieces of well-marinated and moist pieces of meat, tasting both salty and slightly sweet, with a hint of caramelization, and brought to another level with the fragrant lemongrass that left its mark in the aftertaste without overwhelming the subtle flavors – I bite into each morsel intrigued by all the different notes that sang harmoniously.  The shredded  pork compromised of  finely sliced pork skin that belied its nature by the flavor hinting of smoky ground rice powder, but betrayed by its bouncy texture (a friend finished it with no idea what it was).  The meat loaf was a light concoction of minced meat pressed together with a beaten egg topping, tasting savory and akin to French paté but a la Vietnam.  The side broth was so good with a rich tasting body made more enticing with drops of shallot oil swimming on top, which made it the perfect accompaniment and palate cleanser to the meaty morsels.  A friend’s order of Grilled Pork was equally tantalizing with the similar treatment in seasoning and cooking.  Indeed, the rice dishes here are definitely worth one’s attention when perusing the menu.

Shrimp Bun Salad

During my last visit, I was in the mood for the Grilled Shrimp Bun Salad since it was sunny and in the 60’s, which felt like a heat wave after weeks of Polar frigid weather.  The bowl arrived filled with springy (and slightly al dente) rice vermicelli, finely chopped lettuce, julienned cucumber, bean sprouts, pickles, fresh mint, and 5 pieces of large shrimp, sprinkled with some crushed peanuts and green onions.  But what sets this version apart from the others is the shrimp that had a beautiful caramelization from its stay on the grill and the slightly sweet marinate with bits of slightly charred lemongrass that added more interest to the seafood.  And the pieces were perfectly cooked with no bouncy texture in each bite, which astounded me.  The quality fish sauce was the icing on the cake in this salad, and I was spooning up whatever was left in the bowl once the noodles were gone.  I’m looking forward to savoring this noodle salad in the warmer months to come.

Che 3 Mau/Three Bean DessertOn one visit, I was inspired to try out one of their desserts, which is a combo of a few of their offerings – Che 3 Mau or Three Color Dessert.  The milkshake glass contained some red beans, cooked yellow lentils, and green jelly – such starches are commonly found in Southeast Asian desserts.  But turning these ingredients into a sweet bite was the use of sugar syrup and a good douse of some coconut cream, topped by a mound of ice shavings.  Even though my dining companions were quite sated from their main dishes, they could not help but dip their long spoons into the tall glass for the sweet beans and a spoonful of the chilled sweet coconut cream – definitely worth trying if there is room, or no room, for a sweet end.

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Ca Phe Sua/Coffee and Condensed MilkAh, Pho Kevin is worthy of a write-up for its wonderful offerings.  Its Pho dishes are well-made, but what sets it apart from other places is the spicy beef noodle (Bun Bo Hue), to the tasty and fragrant grilled meat dishes, to the wonderfully grilled shrimp in the Bun Salad with that quality fish sauce, to the sweet bean dessert.  I am thrilled that I can visit an establishment close to my home that serves such variety of dishes beyond the beef noodle soup Pho dish that can be found nearly strip mal in the region.  After nearly 5 months in business, seeing a steady stream coming through its doors is a good indicator of the savory dishes that people are beginning to recognize and enjoy.  I’m just hoping that this place is here to stay, and judging by what I have enjoyed there, it stands a great chance of doing so.

Pho Kevin on Urbanspoon

Curry Leaf

I currently find myself in the throes of change, a period filled with stress, doubts, hope, excitement, and ultimately a need for relief.  Yes, I am in the process of purchasing a new home that is just 6 miles down the road from my current abode.  I have chosen to stay in Laurel, MD, as I find this township quaint with historic homes and accessible to both Washington DC and Baltimore.  Furthermore, I have been mildly surprised by some real good eats located in this part of the suburbs which some may not expect to find in this rather quiet area.  Recently, I have stumbled across one such Indian delight around the corner from me.

Curry Leaf

Curry Leaf has only been opened since the beginning of summer.  It is located on busy Route 1, in a space once occupied by an all-you-can-eat Korean/Japanese restaurant that had a long stint in the area – I was getting slightly leery of its sushi offerings during its last few weeks.  Not much has changed in the furniture setup but the space is warmer with some nature and spice colors along with some exotic prints on the wall, as well as the sushi bar that has taken on a transformation into a drink bar. Initially, I was quite leery of another Indian eatery in the neighborhood that has seen the demise of a couple of them.  But a few visits to this new establishment has proven that it has injected an infusion of South Asia to the local eating scene. My visits were made during the lunch buffet and during dinner service.

Vegetable Samosas, Tamarind and Coriander Sauces

For dinner, my BFF insisted that we tried the Vegetable Samosa which I was not keen on, having tried many versions of these greasy dough balls that have proven to be lackluster on most occasions.  But this version did pique my interest.  The pastry here was crispy, thin and light, speckled with whole cumin seeds that added interest to the outer shell, perhaps baked judging by no trace of oil on the finger or the serving plate.  The stuffing was a tasty mixture of mash potato and whole peas, made fragrant with whole curry leaves, bits of cumin and coriander, and spiked with a tinge of spice heat.  The accompanying sauces were the obligatory partners to these tasty bites: the tamarind sauce was tangy and slightly sweet with a faint hint of its clove-like aftertaste, and the coriander sauce was bright green, spicy and packed with the herbaceous coriander/cilantro, both tasting home-made and fresh.  A fragrant and spicy start.

Indian Appetizers

For my buffet visit, I sampled the Vegetable Pakoras.  Pieces of zucchini, green pepper, and eggplant have been dipped in a yeasty dahl lentil batter and deep-fried, providing a more mealy dough made quite light with pockets of air from the fermentation, a far cry from the uninspired flour-water combination used by most establishments.  But what really grabbed my attention were the delicate pieces of vegetable made puree-like by the frying and tasting vegetal sweet.  The sides of lemon peel pickles and coconut chutney were well-made and worth sampling, tasting fresh and house-made.

Sambar/Rasam

Another starter served on the buffet line were some traditional soups.  Rasam was a light soup, tasting a bit sour from tamarind, and spiced with whole mustard seeds and curry leaves with a nice backthroat bite from the chili.  However, it tasted a little bit insipid compared to other versions that I have sipped before.  In contrast, the Sambar was more satisfying for me, a soup that carried a similar flavor profile as the above soup, but made more substantial by the addition of bits of squash, and made creamy by lentils pureed into the soup.  If weren’t for the main courses coming up, I would have gulped down a couple more steel cups full of this hot liquid.

Vegetarian Plate

On to the main courses.  For my buffet visit, I decided to make a vegetarian/vegan plate.  Spinach Kofta:  The vegetable-ball consisted of slightly crunchy bits of carrots mixed with semolina-like starch coated with a creamy non-bitter spinach sauce that wowed me with its subtlety and a high level of satisfaction.  Egg Curry:  What I enjoyed about the dish was the light handedness in the spicing of the curry sauce that matched the mild egg whites yet creamy enough to pair with the yolk.  Rajma Masala: Again, I appreciated the under spicing of this green bean and potato dish aided by a fairly subtle use of mustard seeds and cumin, enough to allow the green bean’s natural flavor shine through. Vegetable Korma: a medley of very tender peas, cauliflower, carrots and peas, brought together by cream and turmeric, with a hint of chili heat and fragrant spices. Aloo Beans:  I marvelled at this simple yet savory dish with red beans cooked with the skin intact and starch cooked through with a hint of cinnamon wafting through each bite – who knew cinnamon worked with beans!  Throughout my tasting of this plate, I kept going back to the spinach sauce which I couldn’t get enough of.  The above dishes only reaffirmed my affinity for Indian vegetarian/vegan dishes that when prepared well, they are exciting and satisfying to the omnivore.

Meat Plate

On to the meat dishes.  Goat Curry: the gamey pieces of goat were moist and tender coated by a delectable slightly sweet sauce hinting of dark spices and rich without the use of cream.  Tandoori Chicken: the piece of red-stained meat was slightly firm on the outside encasing a moist and tender interior, made tasty from some proper marination with yogurt and spices, and it was far flung from my expectation of a flavorless piece of dried out meat which I usually encounter on some buffet lines.  Butter Chicken (mislabeled Chicken Tikka Masala): The pieces were moist and tender, paired with a creamy buttery sauce that was slightly tangy and sweet that give me an impression that the dish was prepared with care rather than throwing the elements together.  Vegetable Biryani (ok, I had to balance the meat pieces out): What I truly enjoyed about this “simple” dish is that the pieces of peas and green beans felt integrated with the rice spiced with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and bay leaves, further brought together by a faint hint of butteriness from the use of ghee (clarified butter).  This reminded of my BFF’s order of Shrimp Biryani one night that had a similar profile but richer with more sinfully good buttery rice coating the tender plump shrimp – I was amazed by this seafood dish tasting like a unified dish without any element feeling out-of-place.  No wonder it is BFF’s favorite.

Lamb Vindaloo/Basmati Rice

Lamb Vindaloo was my dish on one night’s visit.  Pieces of lamb were properly cooked to a very tender stage without falling apart and partnered with wedges of potato.  But what brought the pieces of meat to another level is the sauce made fiery by dried chili evidenced by the chili seeds throughout the sauce.  The chili heat was tempered with the use of fresh tomato cooked through leaving behind some of its skin.  What was noticeable with this dish is that a skilful hand was behind the production of the balanced sauce, being not too salty, and the bare hint of oil.  The accompanying Basmati rice was cooked to its perfect fluffy state with the random aroma-popping cumin seed running through the mound of grain. This dish, along with BFF’s Shrimp Biryani and Vegetable Samosa, made it an eventful night.

Suji HalwaFor my sweet craving, I helped myself to some Suji Halwa which was the only dessert offering on the buffet line. Initially, I thought that the pudding was too stiff when I cut into it along with the impression that there was too much of the pungent cardamom with the first spoonful.  With subsequent mouthfuls, all the elements came together with the cream of wheat tasting slightly buttery, spicy from the cardamom, and sweet enough without being cloying.  The pieces of ghee-soaked raisins (wow), pistachios and shards of almond slivers added interest to the sugar-laced starch.  Somehow I made room for this sweet finale despite having ingested the above dishes.

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Curry LeafIn a short period of time, Curry Leaf has already made its presence known in the Laurel area, judging by the filled tables (a noticeable South Asian crowd) during the lunch and dinner services, even despite a torrential rain one night. In my estimation, what stands out in their offerings are dishes that taste freshly made, a judicious hand with the spices and seasoning, and a skilful and knowledgeable kitchen staff that cares about the final product. Yes, Indian cuisine can be tired-tasting and predictable. But I think I can count on this new establishment for something beyond the norm that is exciting and worth looking forward to.

P.S.  I just read that the chef comes from the defunct yet successful vegetarian restaurant, Udupi, which was my favorite for a long time.  Now this explains the exceptional quality in the food.

Curry Leaf on Urbanspoon

RG’s BBQ Café

With summer fast approaching, the anticipation for certain seasonal events seems to grow day by day along with the temperature as it inches its way up the thermometer: a trip to the beach, wearing shorts and sandals, indulging in heaps of ice-cream, and finally eating outdoor cooked food especially the American summer classic, barbeque.  With this fore-mentioned cooking style missing from my blog site, I have been quite lost in finding a suitable place to write about, given the large number of places that serve such offerings.

_6000991.jpgWell,  Social Media to the rescue.  I was checking in on one of the food review sites when I noticed a short write-up on a barbeque place in my neck of the neighborhood.  In the quick posting, the reviewer mentioned that an old barbeque house had been taken over by a culinary chef whose CV (link) reads like pedigree background.  He was raving about the different offerings, some traditional and some definitely out of the proverbial box.   Having read this, I knew there was no room for hesitation, doubt, or vacillation to step into this establishment located only a few miles down the road from my front door.

Located on the southbound side of the busy Route 1 (it’s tricky crossing the wide road with dashing traffic) in Laurel, MD, just across PG into Howard county, RG’s Barbeque Café is a small shack dwarfed by some larger business sandwiching this establishment.  I must admit that I had passed by this barbeque house many a times, but not much about its exterior was appealing enough to draw me through its doors.  But it now has a new owner who knows something about the restaurant business (including having competed on Iron Chef), and it has gone through a renovation with a new large sign, bright walls, and flowers beautifying its front.  Well, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, so here we go.

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Stepping into the place, you notice a few tables encircled by large windows on three sides, with the order counter on the other end.  The menu is the old style push letter board with all the offerings advertised, while the specials are posted on a board in the dining area.  The first set of listings are Sandwiches which comes with the various barbequed meats: Pit Beef, BBQ Beef, Pulled Pork, Pit Ham, Pit Turkey, and Grilled Chicken – I decided to get the perennial favorite, Pulled Pork.  The sandwich arrived with toasted buns filled with a heaping of shredded pork topped by the house-made sauce.  This version does not disappoint those who are fond of this popular sandwich: the meat was tender and moist with a faint hint of smoke, while the vinegar-based sauce added the bold balance of acid, sweet, salt and quite a hit of spice heat to each bite, delectable enough for me to finish off the mound of meat in one siting.  A side of Baked Beans was the perfect strong partner in this combo – sweet, smoky, soft beans, and spicy from the use of chili heat. Definitely, the sandwich measures up to the high expectations of this classic.

_6001621.jpgThe other sandwich which is not typically a barbeque offering is the New Orleans classic, Fried Fish Po’boy.  The long sandwiched arrived packed with all its goodness – fried whiting, lettuce, tomato, house-made pickle, all slathered with the equally freshly-made remoulade sauce.  The fish had a mild clean flavor, moist yet crispy from its light outer white cornmeal batter.  The lettuce was a combination of mixed greens and the  ripe-red tomato exuding its sweet moisture. The pickles added some of its sweet and sour touch along with a slight crunch.  But what ties all the elements together are the quality bun that is light and soft yet strong enough to hold this heap together, and the “fantabulous” sauce that is rich, tangy, sweet, and packed with bits of pickles that takes each bite to its heavenly stratosphere.  This is Nawlin’s foodgasm!

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_6001077.jpgThe house offers more than just the usual smoked offerings – Hamburgers and Hot Dogs.  A dining companion decided to order the Snoop Dog consisting of a half-smoked hot dog, crispy lettuce, ripe tomato, collard greens, pickles, onions and mustard ketchup.  According to the diner, it was quite a tasty bite but it was a bit too much for him to wrap his brain around.  It is definitely a supped up version of your regular hotdog, with its smoked sausage, slightly tangy collard greens, and a topping of the sweet tangy sauce, alongside the usual accouterments.  For my friend, this order had a bit of soul and funk(y) at the same time.  Maybe it is the perfect order for the more adventurous or those with a case of the munchies (Snoop Dog?).

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Well, now to the main smoked meats.  On another visit, another dining companion ordered the Half Rack Ribs.  I couldn’t help but take a few bites from his plate.  The meat’s exterior was slightly crispy and well caramelized from the long stay on the oven rack, fragrant from the use of wood smoke, moist in the inside and literally possessing a fall-off-the-bone tenderness.  I enjoyed this classic barbeque prepared the correct way with all the various elements coming together to give you the perfect barbeque.  The topping is the North Carolina-styled vinegar based sauce with its molasses sweet, assertive acidity, and hot pepper piquancy that wakes up the diner an insatiable appetite for this scrumptious perfectly-cooked ribs. Some usual sides of Potato Salad and Coleslaw proved to be adequately good but nothing out of the ordinary.

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For those not into red meat, there is the Barbeque Chicken.  The half chicken came smoked and slightly grilled judging from the burn marks on the skin. The flesh was flavorful from being cooked in the smoker, faintly aromatic from the use of fresh rosemary (aha, I found a tiny piece), and tender yet moist (including the breast meat) from the proper treatment.  The sauce topping was a redder and lighter color than the above version with its sweetness, less-assertive vinegar-base, and some chili heat zinging through it.  A couple of sides completed the meal.  The Dirty Rice is not your usual Southern version; this was flavored from mirepoix (fine dices of celery, onion, and peppers) and colored from probably burned sugar (a common Caribbean practice, which the chef’s parents hail from) and a good pinch of cumin that added the initial je-nais-sais-qoui moment which turned into a gentle smile on this reviewer’s face.  The Texas Street Corn is a mélange of slightly crunchy sweet fresh corn, mixed with some vegetal tasting crunchy bell peppers, freshly-cooked black beans, biting jalapeño peppers, fragrant cilantro, a hit of tangy feta cheese, all tied together by a touch of cream.  I enjoyed this bowl full of its fresh quality and the various textural and taste elements that each bite had.  It was more like Texas Chef Corn rather than a street version for me, which is a good thing here.

Bacon Wrapped Barbeque Quail, Collard Greens & Mac & Cheese

From the menu of specials, I chose the Bacon Wrapped BBQ Quail  for lunch.  Pieces of the poultry are filled with a bread stuffing, wrapped with a piece of bacon and slathered with the similar sauce as the chicken.  Wow! The quail was fairly firm but still quite moist, complemented by a bold stuffing packed with flavor from some sausage (the cook didn’t want to divulge the type) and mirepoix.  The outer layer of bacon was slightly crispy adding its porcine smoky flavor to each bite.  The sauce was the perfect complement being the lighter version than the one served with the beef ribs.  A side of collard greens was a good pairing with the meal with its tender leaves made tasty from the use of flavored stock (a minute sliver of smoked meat was the giveaway) and tangy from a good hit of spicy vinegar which is a North Carolinian and Mid-Southern tradition. But what stole the show here was the Mac & Cheese.  The bowl of creamed pasta was not your typical Momma’s.  This came with spiral pasta, white from the sauce that packed a tangy punch with the use of either Gorgonzola or Bleu Cheese which took this pedestrian side dish to another direction with gastronomic interest.  If weren’t for its caloric health warning, another bowl of this rich noodle would have made its way to my table.

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_6001087.jpgSitting on the order counter is a display of desserts tempting the diner to save space for these sweet treats. A friend’s order of the Sweet Potato Pie was a homerun for him.  This miniature pie had a firm yet buttery and flaky crust, filled with a not-too-sweet and moist filling spiced up by the usual cinnamon-clove-nutmeg combo that was distinctive but not overpowering.  This sweet bite reminded my friend of a good home-made sweet concoction served on celebrations and holidays.  On another visit, Bread Pudding was my choice for the finale.  The sweet square was denser that what I expected, not too sweet, fragrant from baking spices, and sweetened with soaked raisins.  The topping sauce was literally the icing on the cake.  It was rich from the use of cream, sweet and dark from caramelized sugar, and heady from some vanilla and probably a touch of booze, reminding me of butter scotch sauce.  This dessert was worth following my personal motto that desserts should only be eaten when the calories are worthwhile, and indeed this was the case.  An order of the Glazed Lemon Pound Cake was quite good with the noticeable lemon essence and the rich buttery cake.  However, it was a tad dry for me and its butteriness was too much of a good thing for this reviewer who is trying to shed a few pounds for the summer.

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After only a few months under new management, the dining room of RG’s BBQ Café has been filled without a lick of advertisement, relying solely on the word of mouth and online reviews, and deservingly so.  While respecting traditions and injecting some culinary experience and acumen, the offerings in this smoke house cater to those who want the expected (and receiving an excellent product) and those who are willing to go beyond the traditional. With food this good and exciting, I could see myself sitting in their new outdoor patio during the warm months, and with such delectable temptations offered here, such visits will definitely extend beyond the short lazy summer months.

RG's BBQ Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pasta Plus

Volterra over Villa IreneRecently I received an e-mail from my cousin, who resides in London, teasing me with her account of a trip to Sienna, Italy, filled with a touch of giddiness since she was visiting during the middle of the coveted truffle season. This correspondence brought back memories of two summers ago when my family and I spent time with her in her expansive villa in the middle of the Tuscan countryside overlooked by the walled Etruscan city of Volterra. On this trip, I learned three things: that time moved slower and less-rushed which made all of us take our experiences in at a leisurely pace, that life still goes on without having to stay in touch with all the world’s goings-on’s (this is attributed to the absence of cellphones, internet, and media), and there was sheer beauty everywhere, whether in the arts, the weathered buildings, the breath-taking vistas, or in the delicious food, which captivated me with its taste, freshness, simplicity, and creativity. The cuisine that I savored across waters opened my eyes to a new-found appreciation for Italian food, beyond the usual Italian-American fare that has become rather average and uninspiring to my palate.

Upon returning back to this side of the world, I was determined to find good restaurants that could replicate that same level of quality that I grew fond of, and I have written on a few Italian restaurants on my blog. Here is an addition to that list.

Pasta Plus lies in the middle of a dead mini strip mall in the heart of traffic-busy Laurel, MD, a suburb off a major highway connecting Washington DC and Baltimore. Located in the middle island dividing the north and south bound lanes of busy Route 1, it is hard to imagine that there is any commercial life there besides an Arby’s and a muffler shop. Walking past its plain-looking glass door, you immediately encounter quite a vibrant life within its four walls, a rather bustling dinner crowd and a brick oven within your line of sight that is exuding the smell of baked yeasty dough and tempting you with crusty pizzas topped with colorful ingredients. Crates of wines hanging above in the walls and the woven rope seats in the dining area immediately transport you to a good Trattoria that is inviting, and it builds up a sense of anticipation for something worth tasting. For this review, I made a several trips to get a good sampling of their offerings.

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In addition to a standard menu, Pasta Plus offers daily and seasonal specials that change according to what is available. For the starter, I ordered the seasonal specials of Sautéed Mushrooms and on another visit, Fresh Mozzarella and Marinated Artichokes. Thick slivers of Portabello mushroom have been cooked with lots of garlic, which makes it the natural seasoning partner to this fungi. Pungent pieces of toasted garlic enhanced the woodsiness of the mushroom which made them very tasty. The thick pieces had a rather firm texture and robust flavor that made the dish satisfying, especially paired with pieces of the house-baked sourdough bread. The second appetizer arrived in a beautiful arrangement, all replicating the colors of the Italian flag. Wedges of mozzarella tasted very mild and smooth with its slight creamy freshness teasing the tongue. The artichoke halves were marinated in tangy red wine vinegar (judging by its red tint) and they equally exuded freshness while lacking any tin-flavor found in pre-packaged versions. I marvelled at how the tangy vegetable enhanced the mild cheese, and they made good complementary partners in this dish. Good starters indeed.

DSC_2312.jpgOn one occasion, a dining companion decided to order the seasonal special of Zuppa di Zucca, or Butternut Soup. When I saw it on the menu, it was not a dish that was exactly screaming for my attention since I’ve tried many versions of this recipe. When his bowl arrived at the table, I was curious by the yellow-tinged soup. With the first spoonful, my friend was marvelling how good the sips were, and I knew I had to partake in his bowl. After a taste, I was amazed by the flavors and the first thing came to mind was “butternut chowder”. The hot liquid had the distinctive squash flavor without overwhelming the tongue with its natural sweetness. But what makes the soup delectable is a level of savoriness brought by the use of a good stock that is aromatic and has body, and the use of a touch of cream that brought some smoothness and unctuousness to the humble ingredient. I couldn’t stop at just a few spoonfuls, and I must have drunk at least a third of that bowl.
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DSC_2733.jpgEvery entrée at this eatery comes with a complementary salad that is proper and made with a variety of enticing lettuce leafs and slices of vegetables. To break the mould, I decided to order two types of salads. The first is Arugula, Radicchio, Mushroom and Parmigiano Salad. A plate of crispy arugula leaves arrived with slivers of mushroom and Parmigiano ribbons strewn on top. The bitterness of the arugula, a flavor that I enjoy in vegetables like many Italians do, was balanced by the mild button mushrooms and the creamy saltiness of the fresh Parmigiano that tempered the other flavors. As its dressing, the Creamy Italian had the right amount of acidity and sweetness to tie the disparate elements together in a forkful. Another salad on the menu is a favorite appetizer of mine as well as my friends – Seafood Salad. Pieces of whole shrimp, calamari rings, and scallops sit on a mound of red and green oak leaves, surrounded by a ring of mussels in shell. What is truly amazing is the kitchen’s skilfulness in cooking the seafood perfectly – the sweet shrimp not rubbery, the calamari fork tender, the scallops moist and flaky, and the mussels still plump and juicy. What brings these elements together is a marinate of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil that adds some fresh fruitiness to the salad along with a good hit of fresh Italian parsley. This dish brings back wonderful memories of all the wonderful seafood dishes during my Italian trip, and it definitely ranks up there with those dishes. For an appetizer, it is packed with fresh seafood and it is worth the order – Buonissimo!

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DSC_2747.jpgNo reputable Italian restaurant will have its breads and pizza missing from its menu, and the restaurant’s strength can be found in the Pizzas and Paninis that they make. A friend’s Vegetarian Pizza arrived with the dough cooked just right with some singed marks from having spent only a short time in the searing wood-burning brick oven. The thin crust had lots of flavor from the yeast fermentation, a tinge of salt, and a faint aroma of the wood, while the tomato sauce tasted fresh and not paste-like commonly found in other versions. The slices of eggplant, zucchini, mushroom and pieces of broccoli still had their textural integrity but without the raw flavors due to the high heat cooking. In true Italian fashion, cheese was absent from the pizza, which I found to be the case in all the pizzas on the Continent, to which a bowl of shaved Parmigiano was left for the diner’s discretion. On another occasion for lunch, I ordered Grilled Panini with Prosciutinni and Mozzarella. Pieces of house-made Foccacia bread sandwiched thin slices of fresh Prosciutinni and fresh Mozzarella, moistened by a red-pepper coulis spread. The spongy bread was yeasty and faintly herbal from some rosemary and oregano, the spread naturally sweet, encompassing the mildly salty Italian ham and the mild-tasting fresh cheese. The grilling under a weighted press compressed the elements together while heating the sandwich up and giving it an outer crispness. Amazingly, the compressed sandwich still felt light to the bite, and the flavors were rather mild with all the elements holding their distinctive characteristics.

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DSC_2742.jpgThe true litmus test for an Italian restaurant is its Risotto and Pasta dishes. For the seasonal special, I honed on Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto. This dish was a true delight with the medium-grain rice cooked slightly creamy while holding its integrity and tasting very savory from the use of a good seafood stock and some Parmigiano cheese. The pieces of shrimp were moist and tender, devoid of any rubberiness, and the pieces of asparagus cooked well without being mushy. All the elements were in perfect harmony, and this dish is a true Italian classic combination of ingredients which sang beautifully in my mouth. For lunch, a friend ordered Linguine Frutti di Mare. A nest of dried egg pasta cooked al dente (Continental al dente, which is a bit too firm for most Americans) sat under a heaping mound of calamari rings, scallops, clams, and shrimp, surrounded by opened mussels. The sauce was full-bodied and savory made from garlic, white wine, seafood stock, spiked by a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, and finished with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. Again, we see the kitchen’s skilful treatment of every ingredient especially the seafood elements that were perfectly cooked and tender. The good quality dried pasta and its al dente cooking are what I really appreciated as it added the necessary satisfactory body to the dish. This dish is quite pricey for dinner but worth a splurge; the lunch order is a better deal though. As with all the other meat and seafood entrees, a side dish of fresh egg pasta is served with the light tomato sauce, which again points to the restaurant’s high standards.

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After a few visits to Pasta Plus, my friends and I have become fond of a specific dish served in this eatery: Lasagna. Now, you may cringe and wince at the thought of a stodgy and heavy layered pie that most of us have grown up eating in this country. But this version is quite the opposite of what we are accustomed to. Layers of light fresh egg pasta are interspersed by a thin coating of ricotta along with layers of minced beef Bolognese sauce, topped with a coating of fresh tomato sauce. What makes this slice different is the lack of mozzarella and Parmigiano cheese that would weigh the dish down. Furthermore, the use of fresh pasta brings a delicate and light touch to the dish, and you can literally cut it like an airy layered cake; no knife is needed here, just the fork and a hungry mouth. On another visit, I decided to order its vegetarian counterpart – Lasagne Verde or Spinach Lasagna. Sheets of egg spinach pasta alternate in between thin layers of ricotta, with bits of fresh peas studded in between that provided some textural interest. The ricotta had a slight sponginess due to some egg mixed into it, thus there was some structural integrity that was devoid of mushiness. The pasta sheets were slightly green from the use of spinach leaves but it was a bit too thin and soft in certain parts. The fresh tomato sauce was just as good as the meat version, and it added the acidic tanginess to cut through the rich cheese – this is a worthy meatless dish indeed. In addition to this offering, there is a handful of other vegetarian dishes worth ordering.

Torta di ZabaglioneTartufo Gelato

No decent Italian meal is complete without a sampling of the Dolci, or desserts. During most visits, I was rather stuffed from the wonderfully delectable dishes, but on the rare occasion, I ordered a taste of their sweet offerings. For a special, I was curious when Torta Zabaglione was listed on the menu. The cake arrived with layers of sponge cake that has been layered with some Zabaglione sauce made from egg yolks and Marsala wine. The slice was fragrant and quite light, enriched by the rich yet light sauce carrying some sweet oakey notes from the spiced wine. This was an awesome combination, and my friends and I wished we had ordered another slice – a truly inspiring cake, albeit made for the adult. Another occasion called for Tartufo Gelato as the sweet ending. A dark chocolate and vanilla ice-cream ball is studded with a maraschino cherry and shards of slivered almonds, encased by a thin layer of dark chocolate. I enjoyed the good quality ice-cream especially its chocolate intensity, complemented by the crunchy fragrant almond pieces and the sweet cherry center. The thick outer coating echoed the ice-cream’s chocolatiness with its slight bitter tannine like qualities that cut through the rich creaminess, which I appreciated since I’m a chocoholic. What amazed me was the delicate and not over-powering sweetness, which reminded me of the gelatos and desserts in Italy that we inhaled daily. For my friend who was celebrating his birthday, this ice-cream “truffle” was truly a happy ending for him even in the middle of winter!

Pasta Plus is truly a hidden treasure offering an amazing variety of authentic Italian dishes that you may not find in most Italian restaurants, serving up dishes that are refined and tasty due to a skilful and well-seasoned kitchen. What I most appreciate about this establishment is its honoring of what good authentic Italian cooking is about: fresh and top-quality ingredients, creative and seasonal dishes, and a true understanding of its culinary tradition to produce time-tested top quality authentic dishes. The service is congenial and efficient, the rope-woven seats a bit passé and not always comfortable, and the space a bit cramped when the place is packed full. In addition, the restaurant does not take any reservations. But it is worthwhile putting up with a few inconveniences because a meal here will erase the wait for a table, and it will make you dream of the gastronomic delights for the next few days, course by course, and in my case, also bring back wonderful memories of sun-filled Tuscany. Now, that’s worth dreaming about, day and night.

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