Cazbar

Cazbar, Baltimore, MD Cazbar, Baltimore, MD

In 2015, I stopped over in Istanbul on my way to and fro Southeast Asia – see photos.  I fell in love with the city and the charming people, but I was quite disappointed by the eating offerings as I pretty much stuck to the touristy areas that was limited to kebaps. When I returned back, I brought back a bunch of typical Turkish spices from the Spice Market sitting next to the Bosphorus River separating Europe from Asia. The dried herbs and peppers were bought with the intention of helping a cookbook author test some of her recipes from this region. In the process, I discovered that there was a delicious unchartered territory that was definitely worth exploring. So, when I got wind of a Turkish restaurant located on a main street in Baltimore, I visited it a few times before writing this review.

Lentil/ Pumpking Soups, Cazbar, MD Ayran, Cazbar, MD

Walking into the Cazbar, you notice the rich-colored walls illuminated by the store-front window in the front and beautiful Turkish stained-glass lamps towards the back, reminding me of seeing them in a bazaar on my trip. The menu was easy to navigate and we honed on the set lunch specials that is available everyday including weekends for $14. After placing our order, we got our soups quite quickly. The first was Lentil Soup. It was made with red lentils and it was quite thin with the lentils pureed in it. It had a hint of dried mint that added some interest but it didn’t manage to wow us.  The Pumpkin Soup was interesting as it was quite orangy in color but its sweetness was a bit too much for my dining companion. It exuded a dark spice that was later confirmed as cinnamon, but not the usual American type. Not a bad start, but no surprise that these were not impressive since they were starters for the set lunch.  A glass of Ayra, yogurt drink, was quite refreshing as it was ice-cold, quite salty, and paradoxically light and creamy at the same time, and the brass container it came in exuded an Old World charm.

Babaghanoush/Ezme, Cazbar, MD

Hummus, Cazbar, MDThe appetizers were next. There was quite a variety to choose from but we focused on the familiar and a recommendation. The Babaghanoush arrived in a beautiful metal container, and one dip into it revealed its smokey, vegetable sweet, and smooth silky nature that has been enriched by some tahini.  The recommended Ezme was a surprising discovery. It is a vegetable dip made from finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and parsley, all brought together by some spicy pul biber pepper spice and sweetened with a recent discovery of mine, pomegranate molasses, that added a sweetness and tang to the delicious mix – my friends raved about it throughout the meal. The Hummus on another visit proved to be extremely smooth, tasting rather rich from the tahini and perfumed by a hint of cumin that didn’t overwhelm the palette, an opener that pleased everyone at the table. Worth mentioning is the fantastic bread that was used to mop up all the above goodness with its freshly baked, crusty, and pillowy light inside qualities. I have heard of good Turkish bakers, and this was an epitome of such standard.

Adana Iskander, Cazbar, MD Chicken Pirzola, Cazbar, MD

Kofte Kebap Sandwich, Cazbar, MDA trip to a Turkish restaurant would be amiss if one didn’t taste the famous Döner Kebap. The version here is worth raving about: crispy bits with a softer inside (an indication of the proper rotisserie cooking), and a well-seasoned mix of lamb and beef with a faint taste of the gaminess that was appealing. The side salad that came with most dishes was well-dressed with a vinaigrette scented with dried mint leaves, served along with a buttery rice pilaf studded with toasted orzo-like pasta that was good enough to satisfy. A supped up version of the above is Adana Iskander that is the same meat placed on pieces of light bread moistened by an amazingly light and fresh tomato sauce, and topped with a tangy yogurt sauce. The gestalt effect of each bite was extremely tasty and satisfying, making each forkful irresistible. An order of Chicken Pirzola arrived looking like Chicken Tandoori with its bring orange color as a result of its marination in fresh oregano, Turkish paprika and issot red pepper spice. No one spice stood out but the overall effect was a tasty one paired with the smokiness from the grilling that kept the chicken still moist while having a slight char. The side cucumber and fresh dill yogurt sauce was completely up my ally with its tangy, creamy and herbaceous quality. A lighter bite was Köfte Kebap Sandwich that composed of minced beef that has been seasoned with some spicy pepper, well-seasoned, but it was a bit tough. The french fries were a bit limpid but that was made up by the spicy French sauce-like dip that I couldn’t get enough of.  The kitchen really knows how to operate the grill properly judging by these well-executed dishes.

Cyprus Pide, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Moussaka, Cazbar, MDThere were a couple of non-grilled meat dishes that we had to try. The first was Cyprus Pide. I had the pizza-like long bread in Istanbul, but unfortunately, it was rather greasy and unimpressive then. The version here was freshly made and far better than my first experience. The baked dough was soft and light with a yeasty scent, with fresh slices of red onion, pickled artichoke, brined olives, fresh spinach, all held down by some soft stringy cheese. The fresh slightly charred vegetal qualities were perfumed by some fresh oregano or marjoram that made each bite interesting and equally satisfying – an order of only this bread would have sufficed due to all its goodness. The other order was Lamb Moussaka. It arrived baked in a metal ware looking like regular Italian lasagna.  Breaking into it, you could taste the meat that was coarsely ground, slices of soft potato, a slightly spicy tomato sauce that tasted rather fresh, and soft melted cheese that was not overwhelming in flavor or amount.  It was not the usual moussaka that the Greeks make, but my friend was happy with his selection and he disposed of it in no time.

Combo Kebap, Cazbar, MD

Lamb Three Way, Cazbar, MDA couple of Combo Kebap dishes were savored on the last trip. My order was a combination of whole shrimp and chunks of lamb. The seafood was well-grilled and the shells managed to keep them still rather moist while tasting well-seasoned and sea sweet. The lamb was a bit tough due to either the cut or its well-done state, which is common for cuisine from this part of the world.  However, the meat was well-seasoned paired with a smoky char that added a tasty dimension to the chunks. My friends order was Lamb Three Ways: lamb chop, lamb kebap (like above dish), and ground lamb köfte. The latter was a bit spicy and had a hint of sourness in the ground meat, and the chop was still moist and had a slight scent of lamb gaminess that is to expected, along with some good smoky char from the grill. My friend seemed completely sated from this lamb heaven indicated by his gnawing the chops down to their bare bones.

Turkish Tea and Baklava, Cazbar, MDCazbar is a great find, even though it is not in proper DC region. I really like this place for its location on the main street Baltimore where parking is free after 6 p.m. weekdays and all of Sunday. But what makes it worth visiting is its strong suits of the well-seasoned grilled seafood and meats (not too salty like many grill establishments), the amazing appetizers of babaghanoush, hummus, and that to-die-for Ezme, the thoughtful sides and sauces that balance each plate well, and the pide stuffed-bread and moussaka that are worth trying. For $2 more, you can finish your meal with a glass of Turkish chai that was both slightly bitter and aromatic (reminding me of sitting by the Bosphorus sipping many cups of it), and the flaky nutty not-too-sweet Baklava that would give the diner a truly happy ending.  To boot, the decor and service were both charming and extremely appealing, especially the congenial waiters we had on our visits. Cazbar is definitely worth many more visits with expertly cooked food like this, and it is high on my recommendation list.

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

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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