Mele Bistro

Mele Bistro One of the dinner friends in my weekly Friday dinner group is travel-challenged since he would not venture past a certain point in the DMV, hence we tend to accommodate to his limitations when he is included in our gastronomic soirees. So, recently, when he made a new recommendation for the group, I did not question his suggestion and I quickly set up a reservation for the group’s meet-up that very evening.

Spanish Olive Oil - Mele Bistro

Mele Bistro is located in a short strip mall in Rosslyn, VA, replacing a run-down Bistro that my partners and I eyed over the years without stepping through its doors.  After the demise of its previous existence, the place took a name change and its decor updated.  Walking into its colorful, yet very dimmed, space, we took our seats towards the back of the room.  The menu is quite daunting to read with its wide offerings, and some dishes were divided into small or entrée sizes, which made for a lot of flipping back and forth the pages.  Compounding this was the lack of light which made it nearly impossible to read the listing.  After placing our orders, we attacked the basket of french bread that wowed us with its right-out-the-oven quality of a crispy exterior, its warm pillowy inside, and the tinge of sourness that belied its carbohydrate nature. The bottle of Spanish olive oil made it a good companion with its fruity and grassy notes, leaving behind a slight back throat afterburn.  Rarely have we ordered more bread for us mid-centurions who really can’t afford indulging on bread.

Chorizo Pata Negra - Mele Bistro

Caprese Salad - Mele BistroOur appetizers arrived rather promptly.  Mine was a plate of Pata Negra Chorizo from Spain.  One bite into it confirmed its exceptional quality that one should expect from this pork appetizer.  The meat, although still crudo, had a mild quality without any trace of porcine funkiness found in commercial meat, while its flecks of fat imparted an unctuous quality much like thin strips of lardo melting in the mouth.  Such flavors brought me back to days of living in Spain and having its Jamon Serrano for my lunches.  My friend’s Caprese Salad came with colorful slices of yellow and red tomatoes supporting shards of mozzarella.  The cheese was its expected creamy and slightly elastic quality but it yearned for some salt and pepper to highlight its flavor.  Unfortunately, the tomato slices was a total let down due it being out of season, and its hydroponic quality tasted of winter’s grey sky – seasonality has a great point after tasting this common restaurant faux pas.  The rest of the group had the French Onion Soup and the Soup of the Day, but both were lackluster and didn’t impress any of us.

Hapuna Seabass - Mele Bistro

Trout Almandine - Mele BistroA friend’s main course was supposed to be Suzuki Sea bass, but the kitchen ran out of it, and it was substituted with the highly prized Hawaiian Hapuka Sea bass.  One taste of it exuded a clean mild ocean-like quality that pointed to its deep-sea environment with the fillet perfectly cooked with a slightly crispy texture and flaky yet moist interior.  I was not sure what were the black pieces on top of it, but I did not detect its essence on the fish.  Another friend’s order was his perennial favorite – Trout Almandine.  My  first visual impression concerned me. The butterflied fillet was studded with almond slices that appeared blackened from the sautéing.  But a taste of it proved me wrong.  The trout was fresh-tasting and moist, with the almond imparting its gentle nuttiness with a bare hint of bitterness.  In both dishes, the mushroom risotto was not bad, but it could have been better with a stronger stock, more cooking (evidence: slightly chalky kernels), and a bit of richness from butter.  Overall, they were pretty good dishes that satisfied both diners.

Blackened Scallop - Mele Bistro

Wild Salmon - Mele BistroMy main course was a small plate version of Blackened Scallops.  The plump pieces of seafood were well seasoned, and cooked to perfection with a slightly crispy exterior and a melt in the mouth interior quality.  What I noted was the pieces were very fresh with no hint of ammonia that  made each bite quite perfect.  However, the same risotto was its companion with its flawed preparation, which only slightly detracted me from the main star.  My other companion’s order of Seafood Linguine was lost in the service confusion, which was prevalent throughout the night. After constant notification to the kitchen, what he got was something totally unexpected.  It was a fillet of Wild Salmon sitting on some sautéed vegetables and mashed potato.  One taste of the fish hinted of a mild-tasting fresh piece of wild salmon that was not overwhelming in Omega oils usually found in farmed fish. The vegetables looked freshly cooked and the mash was proper with slight chunks in the mix, tasting of olive oil instead of the ubiquitous butter-cream version.  My friend was not just happy to have received his meal but its quick disposal was an indicator of his satisfaction with it.

Dulce de leche, Pear Tart, Torta di Nona - Mele Bistro

Even though the small plates of entrée were a decent portion, we were tempted by the dessert offerings.  We managed to focus on three and we shared them among each other.  Dulce de Leche was definitely the rich one made richer with its caramel tones from cooked condensed milk, additionally feeling quite dense with each forkful.  Torta di Nona was a lemon curd pie that was quite good with a note of lemon juice and butter sweetened just right.  However, I needed more lemon acid note to balance the tart out, but my friend found it perfectly balanced.  As for me, I went for the Pear Tart.  The topping was a layer of the sweet fruit sitting on a rather thick crust made with crushed almonds with its almond essence wafting through each bite.  If the fruit-to-crust ratio were the inverse, it would have been exceptional.  But we all seemed satisfied with this sweet ending.

Usually not one to write about the service, I’m breaking with custom here because the tasty food was overshadowed by how things ran that night.  First, it was way too dark to read our menus, even for some millennials who had to resort to bright cellphone flashlights in order to read.  We never could figure out whether the helpers were the Maitre D’, the runner, the waiter, or….  Our main courses arrived without the appetizer plates cleared and we had to hold them as we were being served.  My friend’s order was not only forgotten, but another dish, although well-executed, arrived instead.  We barely got a check-in from the staff since they were frantically scrambling around keeping the ship afloat.  I must say that this is one of the few occasions in which the service was glaringly dysfunctional.

Mele BistroMele Bistro has many elements going for it: a beautiful well-decored space with parking located in a dense area, and pretty good cooking coming from its kitchen especially the fresh seafood paired with locally sourced ingredients. I am recommending this establishment, with some reservation, based on the above qualities that are a hit when the right choices are made. I would recommend you to go during the slower nights, or when you are in the right frame of mind to put up with the inconsistent service. But I’m quite sure you will find gastronomic delights like in the cold cuts, seafood, and the sweet offerings. Give it a try and you may come out quite satisfied.

Mele Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Evolve Vegan

I have been inching down the vegan/vegetarian path for some time now.  Being a Buddhist practitioner, one of the Buddhist aspirations (not a commandment) is to eat vegetarian or vegan to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.  Furthermore, more and more friends and colleagues have taken this step, including my best friend who made that big decision last week. With all these signs around me, I couldn’t help but start focusing on more eating establishments that cater to such meatless cuisine. Recently, an online coupon offer showed up on my computer, and I quickly grabbed that opportunity so that I could visit a vegan Soul food restaurant.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant

Evolve Vegan Restaurant is located in the heart of Takoma Park, NW Washington, merely a few steps from the metro station. It is located in a block of eating establishments that has garnered the recognition as the best vegan eating area in the city. Walking into Evolve, the space appears more spacious than its true real estate due to the storefront windows and the soaring ceiling that add lots of light and an airy feeling. Taking a seat by the window, I perused the one page menu, and it is rather short with only a handful of entrees, a similar amount of sandwiches and salads, followed by an interesting plethora of side dishes. The drinks section was filled with sodas and smoothies, which were not exactly what I was looking for as a thirst quencher. The waiter relayed to me that the restaurant was working on the drinks section which seriously needs more light or fruit-infused liquids. Not letting that be a hindrance, I moved on to the main courses.

Fried Chick-un

Candied Yams, Sweet Maple Kale SaladOnline reviewers made mention of the house’s Southern Fried Chick-un, and that was the first order placed on the initial visit. The dishes picked from the list of fourteen sides were Yams and Sweet Maple Kale Salad. The plate arrived with two fairly large patties encrusted with the traditional-looking batter associated with the real thing. One bite into them was completely revelatory. The texture was akin to that of chicken breast and the flavor replete with the fried chicken seasonings. The first time ordering this was a version with a formidable crust but a slightly dry “meat”, whereas the second had a crumbly crust but a moist inside. Nevertheless, the patties fooled my taste buds with the close texture and unmistakable flavors in the seasoning. The side BBQ sauce was a proper one with its smoky sweet and sour qualities that gave the diner that dipping option.  In addition to the tasty patties, the sides were wrestling my attention away from the protein. The Yams were the candied yams that one would find during a Thanksgiving meal, made with a good hit of cinnamon without overpowering the tubers and sweetened by brown sugar, all tasting good enough to slap your….. But the star for me was the kale salad with the young tender leaves made delectable by a well-balanced combination of maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, making each leaf totally irresistible. Now I can see why the online folks highly recommended this entrée, and deservedly so.

Fried Seaweed Soy Fish

Ratatouille, Ginger Kale SaladWrapped Soyfish was the next main dish. The slices of soy protein arrived battered and perfectly fried, just like the above dish, along with Ratatouille and Ginger Kale Salad as the sides. The “fish” also took me by surprise by the rather firm texture, reminding me of tuna or swordfish steaks. Additionally, the flavors were enhanced by the seaweed wrap that exuded seafood umami-ness, boosted by a hint of Old Bay seasoning in the batter – my dining companion and I were quite satisfied by these “seafood” bites. The sides were equally delectable. The Ratatouille was a melange of zucchini, yellow squash, onions, tomato, and eggplant, all looking and tasting more like stewed yellow squash served in the South due to the lack of enough tomato found in the veritable version. Notwithstanding, this mix was so savory and well cooked with each element holding its own identity and enhanced by a faint hint of dried herbs, perhaps thyme or oregano. The other companion of kale salad literally grabbed my taste buds. The mild leaves were coated by a powerful ginger pesto that had a good bite that made each leaf quite piquant, but balanced by a hint of vinegar and sugar. Needless to say, not a single leaf was left on my plate as this dish combination was also a hit for me.

Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, Beet Salad

Sesame Spinach Salad N'Orleans Macaroni SaladOn the second visit, I had to try another oft-mentioned main – Macaroni and Cheese. The main dish arrived with Beet Salad and Sesame Spinach Salad as their chosen accompaniments. The pasta casserole mix was rather interesting yet tasty at the same time. The macaroni was cooked just right, not al dente, neither too mushy. The mix was quite “creamy” rich yet rather moist, with a crust of gratineed vegan cheese . However, there was slight off note of faint bitterness not usually associated with this dish, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying it since I was not expecting this dish to taste exactly like the original version. The beet salad were julienned strips of raw beets, perhaps lightly boiled due its slightly firmness, mixed with a well-balanced mix of vinegar and sugar, making it tasty beyond its mineral goodness. The spinach salad was a bowlful of young leaves tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with some sesame seeds. I enjoyed the salad for the young tender crisp leaves but I wished the seeds were toasted to bring out more of their nuttiness to add another dimension to the combination. Again, the main and sides shone on this occasion, making them quite worthy of an order. Some sides from my friends’ orders deserve some mention: N’Orleans Macaroni Salad wowed its diner with its creamy flavors and the use of spices and seasonings evoking the Southern city, and a stark Steamed Broccoli that was steamed to perfection with its bright green crunchiness made savory with the use of Amino Liquid for that vegan umami-ness.

Vegan Carrotcake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate CheesecakeOn one occasion, our young waiter highly recommended Vegan Carrot Cake and we took on his advice. The slice arrived with speckles of carrot imbedded in the cake topped with some “icing”. The bite tasted of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, all the appropriate spices and flavors of the real thing. However it was lacking some rich bits of nuts and it was too dense for my liking. Not totally disappointing, but not really a flying success either. However, the amiable chef owner assured me that he would relay my suggestions to the pastry chef. A waitress’ recommendation on another visit was Raw Chocolate Cheesecake. One bite into it raised my eyebrows as well as those of my fellow diner. My immediate reaction was “creamy dark chocolate ice cream.” There was a lusciousness in each bite that belied its dairy-free nature, slightly bitter from a boost of cocoa with a tinge of sourness to cut through the richness. The crust mixture of crushed cashew nut and coconut flake  fooled me that it was raw and vegan. With each bite, my friend and I were “oohing” and “aahing” and we couldn’t stop until the last morsel, even though we were quite sated from the mains and side dishes. This dessert is a must order in my books.

Evolve Vegan RestaurantVegan food is usually associated with plain, bland, textureless, and perhaps pedestrian, all adjectives enough to kill the enthusiasm even before stepping into such establishment. But what my friends and I ordered here far exceeded that mindset, from the “chick-un” and soy fish that had the right textures, seasoning, and flavors that not only made them palatable but sated all my dining friends, to the Mac and Cheese that was creamy and quite “cheesy”, and to the incredible sides of leaf salads, beet salad, yams, and squash stew (ratatouille) that left us wanting more of these tongue-grabbing veggies. This effusiveness extends to the dessert section with that raw chocolate “cheesecake” that just brought out a level ecstasy in me. Sure that the service is a tad slow and sparse at times, but the congenial servers make up for it with their charming personality, helpful suggestions, and funky hair. But what is served by Evolve Vegan does not need any quotation marks or qualifiers; it is just good, tasty and downright soulful, enough to bring out a smile in both vegan and non-vegan.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thip Kao

Thip Kao Restaurant

I have not posted in the last few months due to the exigencies of work (the real one) and me trying to sell off my factory replaced camera body in order to upgrade it to the next level.  Without much success with the camera sale and upgrade, I decided to keep it and shoot the food again.  After reading some online recommendations of a relatively new Laotian restaurant in Columbia Heights, DC, and another from Bon Appetit, I trudged to this new find a number of times with my faithful camera bag encasing a new lens to give me an excuse to get back on the photography and foodie track.

Laotian Chili Paste

Lao Lager BeerThip Kao is located on the ground floor of an expansive apartment building on the ever-evolving 14th street corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the place with natural light, thus allowing this photographer to take advantage of its lunch time hours for the food shots.  The space is rather sleek and modern with touches of SE Asia in the arts and crafts that fill up the relatively stark space.  After perusing the rather menu with its novel listings for this diner, a basket of chili paste and raw vegetables appeared.  One bite into this spread piqued my curiosity.  The mixture was quite spicy with notes of both raw and dried chilies, a bit garlicky and it was quite sweet, which made it even more irresistible.  The raw snakebeans and cucumber slices were the perfect canvas to the biting relish with their mild flavors, yet providing the cooling foil to the piquancy.  On another visit, a friend decided to try the Laotian beer.  I couldn’t help but to take a few sips of his drink, which immediately transported to my childhood in that part of the world.  The lager was quite hop-like in flavor, with a sweet after-note that I particularly enjoy from this Pilsner-style of brew.  Interestingly enough, rice is listed as one of its ingredients, perhaps adding to the sweetness.  Whatever it is, it seems to be the perfect quencher to imbibe with the bold flavors and spicy dishes of this cuisine.

Naem Khao/Crispy Coconut Rice SaladTam Muk Huong/Laotian Papaya Salad

Laab E'kae/Minced Alligator SaladTo start off the meal on the many visits, I decided to try their Laab dishes, or minced meat salads.  The first one was highly recommended by online reviews, and it was a complete oddity to me – Naem Khao.  The bowl arrived with crispy brown bits which looked like pork rind.  One spoonful of it revealed its true nature: bits of cooked rice were cooked crispy and made unctuous by the use of coconut milk in the process, making it equally sinful as its porcine look-alike.  Its tempting qualities were matched and balanced by the other ingredients: sweet pungent onions, herbaceous cilantro, biting green onions, rich peanuts, and sour Lao pork sausage which lent some rich meat notes.  The green lettuce leaves provided the DYI wrap element to the dish as well as more fresh element to the “salad” – this dish was a definite hit in my books.  A salad dish on another occasion was Tam Muk Huong.  This green papaya salad revealed the closeness of Laotian cuisine to its Thai cousin, which both cultures share similarities not only in the food but also their language.  But my friend and I were overwhelmed by the balance in the dish for it was too spicy (even for me), too sour, and it lacked the balance from sugar and peanuts found in the Thai version.  On another occasion, I had to try the Alligator version – Laab E’Kae.  I must say that I enjoyed this dish very much even though its spice heat was still quite uncompromising but made bearable this time by the balanced sour sauce, and the raw vegetables and the steamed purple glutinous rice that took the edge of the bite when eaten alternately. The alligator meat was interesting with its flank steak texture, a mild chicken-like meat flavor, and a faint after-note of dried shrimp.  The green mango added some slight sour crunch, the mint and cilantro some herbal qualities, the onions and green onions some sweet pungency, and the toasted rice powder a faint smokiness.  Despite it’s rather steep price, I would order it again both for its balanced flavors and novelty.

Khao Poon/Curry Noddles

Tomp Som/Laotian Sour SoupA couple of dishes were ordered from the Soup and Stews section of the menu.  The first was a lunch noodle soup dish called Khao Poon.  The bowl arrived with a pool of red curry-like broth submerging a mound of rice vermicelli noodles and a heap of garnishes.  One spoonful of it and I was reminded of the Malaysian version, Laksa, which I grew up on and am very fond of.  I must say that broth was nearly as good as I would have wanted it with its right amount of spice heat, its herbal root qualities, a slight sea funkiness from the shrimp paste, a light acidity from the use of tomatoes, and its coconut milk richness.  The accouterments of raw cabbage, raw beansprouts, radish, mint, cilantro, and a slice of Kabocha pumpkin added some fresh counterpoint to the rich broth and soft noodles.  I can see why this dish was very popular during the lunch time, and I would just order this dish when in the mood for a spicy noodle soup dish despite the meager slices of chicken in the bowl – meat in Asia is treated like garnishing, unlike in this country.    On another occasion, a soup was ordered – Tomp Som.  The bowl that arrived betrayed my expectation; I was not expecting a clear soup since I was used to Thai soups covered with red chili oil or made opaque from coconut milk.  The clear broth, made from coconut water, was flavored with tamarind for sour notes, fresh basil for mintiness, dried chili for heat, with a faint hint of lemongrass, filled with bits of chicken, Shimeji mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes.  After a few sips and getting accustomed to the unexpected, I started to appreciate this rather understated soup for SE Asian cuisine standards, even though a part of me was still hoping for more spice and aromatics.

Thom Kem/Braised Pork Belly and EarAs a main course, I  asked the waiter for a recommendation, but his harriedness did not afford me much attention on a few occasions (they seemed understaffed during my visits).  What I ordered was Thom Kem.  A bowl of braised pork and pig ears stewed in a dark sauce, and paired with a boiled egg.  The pieces of meat were quite tender, having absorbed the flavors of the stewing liquid, with bits of attached fat and skin attached, characteristic of that cut of meat. However, the nearly cloying sweet soy-base liquid and its five-spice and cinnamon notes, along with some fresh ginger, could not mask the strong porcine flavor, typical of pork served in this country (I don’t find the same problem in Asia).  The pig ears fared a bit better with a gelatinous quality coating a slightly crunchy middle.  I quite enjoyed the dish initially, but soon I was slightly overwhelmed by the porky scent and the sugar in the sauce.  With the right meat source and taming down the sugar (palm sugar, I suspect), this dish would be go beyond a one-hit/taste-wonder stage.

Paa Kaw Tod/Snakehead Fish

Steamed Purple Glutinous RiceA couple of fish dishes were sampled during the visits.  The first was Paa Ka Tod from the “Invasive Species” section of the menu.  The colorful dish arrived with bits of avocado and mango on top of the fillets of Snakehead fish.  I wanted to really like this dish, but eating it was like brokering mediation between estranged family members.  The different elements seemed out-of-place and they were pulling me in different directions, this compounded by the not-so-ripe fruits that left me nonplussed or filled with sourness, coated by a sour sauce – the above sour soup and sour green papaya salad made this diner and my companion (already grumpy from traffic issues getting there) further aggravated with this overwhelming note during a given visit.  Even an order of purple glutinous rice didn’t help to link the disparate flavors together, with me feeling further frustrated by having to send it back for being undercooked (few places get the cooking right).  Despite all the marring in that day’s meal, there was a redeeming quality in the fish filet which played quizzically on my tongue.  The Snakehead flesh was very firm with a mild tasting quality and a hint of fish oiliness that I had never tasted before.  I would make it a point to order another dish with this type of fish on the next trip.

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon WrapsI have to admit that I tried the next dish twice in different forms – Knap Paa.  A salmon fillet has been coated by a spice paste and topped with herbs and aromatics, wrapped in banana leaf, and grilled on fire.  I enjoyed this preparation from the first bite, with the fish kept moist by the wrapping, the spice paste tasting complex and giving the fish interesting notes, and the garnishing of red peppers, onions, green onions, ginger and fresh dill (a new one for me as for SE Asian cooking) imparting their subtle aromas while providing textural interest.  The restaurant also offers this similar preparation for sea bass, cod, blue catfish, chicken, and tofu, but I prefer the firm salmon based on my order.  On another trip, I noticed a couple of ladies enjoying the same dish, but in another form, and I knew I had to give it a try.  The wooden board arrived with its elements of lettuce leaves, grilled salmon, rice vermicelli, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peanuts, and sliced lemongrass.  Assembling the leaf packages was definitely fun, and it elevated the dish to another level, and I especially enjoyed the pungent aroma from the lemongrass, and the spicy and sour elements in the sauce.  This dish is a must order in my books.

Pumpkin Sticky Rice

Avocado Sticky RiceUsually not one for desserts, a couple of sweet offerings detracted me away from my narrow path.  The first was Pumpkin Sticky Rice.  The bright orange topping definitely screamed Pumpkin and I was expecting to be overwhelmed by it.  Fortunately, it was more subdued than what I expected, with the pumpkin tasting more like butternut squash that has been tempered with some coconut milk.  The glutinous rice was properly cooked with no chalkiness left, that I would find in some places.  The splash of coconut cream infused with the Pandanus leaf flavor was totally up my alley, hitting the comfort food hot spot as I grew up on these flavors, while lending its creaminess to the whole mix.  Bits of toasted pumpkin seeds, black sesame seeds, yellow mung bean seeds and crispy green pre-mature rice added the necessary counterpoint to the sea of orange as well as the textural contrast to keep each mouthful interesting.  A similar version made with avocado was akin to the aforementioned dish.  However, the green sauce was mellower in flavor while exuding a slight vegetal quality to the whole mix.  I must say I did enjoy these two sweet endings, albeit they were quite filling, hence half of the servings became dessert for another time at home.

Thip Kao RestaurantThip Kao definitely serves veritable Laotian food in a fairly modern setting, and it is the only such restaurant in the District itself.  There were some highs and mediocre dishes.  What I enjoyed most is the crispy rice salad that grabbed my attention from the first bite, the curry noodles that reminded me of my childhood, the grilled salmon that was a part of the constructed leaf package, and finishing with either sticky rice desserts.  Yes, there are issues with the under-staffing and a couple of dishes that were not balanced or seemed to be missing an extra element.  Putting these flaws aside, I feel that there are more dishes worth exploring, and I am up for such gastronomic adventure, and doing my part of getting rid of tasty “invasive species” prepared well by this establishment.

Belgian/American – Marvin Restaurant

Marvin RestaurantIn my last posting, I mentioned exchanging a conversion with two couples in the same restaurant.  During the conversation, one of them mentioned Marvin, a restaurant with a Belgian/American mix in its menu, located in the busy U St. corridor – the restaurant is named after Marvin Gaye who lived for 2 years in Belgium in search for much needed solace and personal discovery.  Although my pals and I made plans to visit a Malaysian-style restaurant for lunch, only to find it closed for lunch (they were supposed to be open), I remembered the lady’s recommendation. So, here is a short blurp about what our brunch was like, not quite a full-fledged blog.

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French Press CoffeeFrench Press Coffee:  This hot cup was not too bitter like American roast, but it had enough body with a mild hint of chicory which I love in my cup of java.

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Belgian-American Breakfast Sandwich

Belgian-American Breakfast Sandwich:  Bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheese came sandwiched by Belgian waffles, accompanied by a mesclun salad.   The bacon was exceptional with its tasty clean flavors, the egg moist with a touch of cream, but the ho-hum waffle was salvaged by the pure Vermont maple syrup exuding its coffee-like (yes) notes. The basic salad was elevated by the limey/lemony vinaigrette.  However, both my dining partners (they had the same order) were not impressed by the dish.

Shrimp and Cheddar Grits

Shrimp and Cheddar Grits: This dish was recommended by the lady in the first paragraph, and I must say it did live up to its reputation.  The shrimp was plump and fresh, tasting properly seasoned, and the shell exuded notes of being grilled without grill marks, obviously from high-heat pan searing.  The stone-ground grits (the uneven texture was the giveaway) tasted rich from butter and the cheese, as well as being seasoned just right.  The pool of shrimp jus was the rich sauce that took this simple dish to the next level with the enriched stock packed with flavor steeped from shrimp shells.  The only thing that marred the near-perfect dish was the chalky quality from the larger bits of grits that were not fully cooked through.   Good grits take some time.

Marvin is a place for the hip and young that tries to create a juke-joint feel, especially with the loud music which encourages the crowd to indulge in the bottomless Mimosas. However, it is not a place to really focus on the food and to have a decent conversation without shouting across the table.

Marvin on Urbanspoon

La Canela

La Canela RestaurantA couple of years back, a college friend invited me to dinner at the newly opened Rockville Town Center in Maryland at a new Thai restaurant (read blog). On my way out, we stumbled across another new establishment serving Peruvian cuisine that peaked my curiosity since I knew of only one locale serving such fare located in DC which has been a regular haunt of mine and my dinner group (read blog). After perusing its menu displayed by its door, I have been meaning to stop by to try out its appealing menu. Well, more than two years has passed by and last Sunday was the opportunity for me to stop by with an online coupon in hand.

CevicheEntering the doors of La Canela, you are enveloped by a space that exudes an ambience of Spanish Colonial with wrought iron in its windows and banisters, further weighted down by heavy and chunky wood furniture. I chose a table by the window in order to get some good light for the food photos. Perusing the menu, a half-portion of Fish Ceviche stood out due to the smaller plate size and its must-order aura due to its reputation within this South American cuisine. The bowl arrived neatly dressed with the various elements showing a rather careful hand putting the dish together. One bite into the dish spoke its language: the star ingredient here was the pieces of mild-tasting and very fresh mahi-mahi that was slightly milky from being “cooked” from the tart lemon juice while still retaining the slightly raw sashimi-like texture and flavor, as if it were a form of Peruvian Sushi. The other notes in the sea-sweet fish pieces were some slight heat from fresh red aji (chilies) and fragrance from cilantro. To balance out the acid, a piece of boiled sweet potato and some imported Peruvian corn kernels (choclo) provided the necessary sweet relief. But I was blown away by the super-size of the corn and its thick skin that reminded me of hominy, which immediately whisked me away to the Motherland of corn in the Andes. The pickled red onions added a note of more acid and some pungency that dressed these mild flavors. This was an excellent rendition and great-tasting Ceviche, making it the perfect opener from this cuisine.

Yuquitas de Cangrejo/Crabmeat CroquettesWith lots of value on the deal, I decided to try another appetizer that caught my attention due to its unique description – Yuquitas de Cangrejo. Two plump croquettes arrived with a bowl of pinkish side sauce. Breaking into them, the stuffing of crab meat in a reddish sauce revealed itself. One bite into it, I was perplexed by the flavors and textures. The outer casing was soft and quite sweet, reminding me of sweet potato rather than the more mealy and bland Yuca root listed in the menu – my waiter confirmed that the later was the tuber used, which I beg to differ. The stuffing was quite generous with the crab meat, listed as “jumbo lump” on the menu, mixed with a “Sarza Criolla” sauce that tasted a bit spicy and tomato-based. However, due to the sweetness of the “yuca” and the slightly sweet and spicy stuffing sauce, the mild seafood was nearly lost in the whole mix, and pretty much did not stand a chance with the other flavors, this being a common flaw found in many restaurants dealing with this delicate ingredient. The side spicy mayo-based sauce, “Recoto Emulsion”, was tasty but yet another foe to the poor pieces of crab.

Arroz con Pato/Duck with Rice

Arroz con Pato was the first dish listed in the Entree section, which sounded very appealing to me. The impeccably dressed plate arrived with the different elements carefully arranged – photos never lie. But the proof is in the pudding, or in the tasting. The main star, listed as Mallard duck on the menu, had its skin cooked crispy but the fat underneath was not completely rendered as I would have liked it, but that was easily solved with some gentle scraping to salvage the luscious crackling. The meat underneath was rich, well-seasoned, still quite moist, and falling off the bone, a la confit, which I was enjoying every morsel despite being a bit greasy. The side of rice was interesting and quite tasty, listed as cooked with green aji, cilantro and dark beer, which lent some fragrant vegetal, a mild chili bite, and slightly bitter hop flavors to each grain, studded with sweet red peppers, green peas, and that-so-intriguing Andean corn – my only quibble was that the rice could have been cooked with a bit more moisture. The side sauces were intriguing and matched formidably with the strong dark meat: the yellow one was made with mustard, cream and parmigiano; the green was a combination of mustard, green aji, and olive oil that exuded some of its fruity notes. The side “salad” of pickled onions and tomato bits seems de rigeur with each dish served here, providing some acidic pungency to clear the palate from the rich duck flavor. Despite some minor flaws, this is a very tasty duck dish and it was worth ordering.

Torta Tres LechesWith a bit of value left on the online deal, I decided to order some dessert, and I chose a Latin American favorite – Torta Tres Leches, since the Pastry Chef was on vacation and my initial choice, Chirimoya Panna Cotta, was not available. The cake arrived looking pretty with a Creme Anglaise and Raspberry Coulis pattern sitting on top, accompanied by some fresh blackberries and some whipped cream. One bite into it revealed a rich light cake made moist by a soaking of the “three milks”, a mixture of regular, condensed, and evaporated milk. It was a relief that this dessert was not too sweet, but the cake was a bit too rich for me, since the raspberry coulis was not fruity enough to maintain my interest, and the lack of some vanilla notes in the cake mix was no help either. This dessert was not bad (I’ve had better) but I think that Panna Cotta amiss from the days’ offering would have been the ideal finale. The Peruvian Doughnuts sounded very appealing with its unique description, but alas, I’m on a diet, supposedly.

La Canela RestaurantLa Canela takes Peruvian cuisine to a higher refined level judging by the well-prepared and beautifully presented dishes.  The opening half-portion Ceviche was the perfect appetizer with the so-fresh fish barely cooked by the acidic lemon juice, and matched by the intriguing Andean super-corn and sweet potato.  The Crab Croquette was a mismatch of ingredients in my mind, but the cooking was nearly flawless.  The Duck with Rice dish was quite a masterpiece with the piece of leg and the interesting rice cooked to near perfection; fortunately their minor flaws were compensated by their satisfying flavors.   Although the Tres Leches cake was not bad and didn’t keep my interest for long, I sense that the other desserts listed would have gone well with me if only they were available if the Dessert Chef were not playing hooky.  Yes, waiting two years was a bit too long to come back to pay this restaurant my first visit, but better late than never.

La Canela on Urbanspoon

Aroy Thai

 

Aroy ThaiWith quite a few blogs on Thai cuisine on my site, it is hard to justify writing another one on this Southeast Asian cuisine.  However, when I heard that there was a new restaurant not far from my neighborhood serving this Asian cuisine, I knew I had to check it out after getting over my initial surprise  (“What? In Prince George’s county?”)  Reading my previous blog on another Thai establishment (see blog), you sense my frustration that my county is not as “blessed” as the neighboring ones when it comes to international cuisine, especially Thai.  Furthermore, it is located in the heart of College Park, MD  (aka Party Town) which is known for mediocre cheap eats,  drinking holes, and rambunctious fraternities – I graduated from there more than 20 years ago, so I know.  With these thoughts in mind, I knew I had to check this new place out and see whether the positive online reviews (100% on one site) were written by reviewers in a sober state.

Located just off the main drag Route 1,  Aroy is squeezed into a narrow building in a short block lined with metered parking on both sides of the street. The window is displayed with plastic rendition of their dishes that brings to mind Japanese sushi models popular in the 90’s.  Walking into the narrow building, you notice that it is a small 7-table establishment with a counter separating the dining room from the kitchen.  The bright orange walls and the long wood banquette makes the place welcoming and warm.  Having a lifetime experience with this cuisine since I was a child, I recognized many dishes on the menu and I decided to check-out their offerings by ordering some standard dishes.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls
Tom Yum GaiAs part of their lunch menu, the main dishes come with Thai Spring Rolls or Tom Yum Chicken Soup.  I must say I did not expect much from these appetizers since they were part of the lunch deal, but I was proven wrong.  The spring rolls were crispy and nearly greaseless, light from the thin wrapper, and delicious from a filling made with bean thread noodle, fine cabbage, and a surprisingly flavorful ingredient, oaky shiitake mushrooms, which elevated these bites to another level beyond its pedestrian flavor.  The soup was unexpected for me also.  Instead of an insipid sip, it was flavor packed with aromatics like lemongrass, and balanced with enough chili heat, lime tartness, fish sauce saltiness, and sweet from a pinch of sugar.  The bowl had a fair amount of mushrooms, tomatoes, and slivers of chicken breast to make it quite satisfying.  A good start to the meal, indeed.

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Larb Gai/Spicy Chicken Salad

Green Papaya Salad/Som TumOn a couple of occasions, I decided to try out their traditional salads.  The first was Larb Gai.  Pieces of minced chicken are paired with sweet onions, roasted chili powder, toasted rice powder, and moistened with lime juice, fish sauce, and a hint of sugar.  This was a delicious spicy salad with the chili powder and rice powder adding a level of smokiness and heat to the sour, salty and sweet flavors of this warm bite.  If it weren’t for a couple of sinewy pieces of chicken, this would have been flawless.  The other salad was Som Tum, or Green Papaya Salad.  Thin julienned strands of the young fruit are paired with carrot, tomato, and green beans, flavored by a sauce made of fish sauce, lime juice, and fresh chilies.  What I enjoyed about the dish is the freshness of the ingredients and the balance of the bold flavors as well as the assertive spice heat – the kitchen is not holding back here.  The whole peanuts in the dish added a rich nuttiness that balanced out some of the acidity in the dish.  This was refreshing for me despite the fieriness of the chili heat – definitely, very close to Ped (Thai chili hot).

Sate Chicken

Another appetizer that is a good litmus test of a Thai kitchen is its rendition of Sate Chicken.  This restaurant’s version was out of the ordinary and it definitely wowed me.  Unlike many versions that I have eaten before, here the pieces of chicken were well marinated in turmeric and root aromatics like galangal making each moist piece full of flavor and aromatic, enough to stand by itself.  The accompanying sauce was also revelatory.  Most restaurants serve a bland version made with peanut butter but here, I tasted a version made with crushed peanuts, root aromatics, palm sugar as the sweetener, and tamarind juice as the sour element, an authentic sauce that I have tasted on the other side of the world.  The toasted pieces of bread were the perfect vehicle to mop up the sauce to its last drop.  The bowl of sweet pickles was probably a bit too fresh and they could have done with a longer pickling.  But that was very minor compared to the main players of this opening dish.  Yummm!

Pad See YuPad Kee Mao/Drunken Noodles

Noodle dishes seem to be calling my name every time I visit a Thai restaurant and I had to sample their offerings.  A friend’s order of Pad See Euw was his lunch on one occasion.  The wide pieces of rice noodles were slightly bouncy fresh and adequately sauced without being drowned by it, tasting savory from Thai soy and quite sweet that made each bite irresistible.  The crunchy broccoli, moist chicken slices, and wispy clouds of egg added the necessary tasty elements to the dish, which made this version pleasurable for my friend.  My order of Pad Kee Mao, or Drunken Noodle, was totally up my alley.  The wide noodles were fresh and not oily, adequately covered by a savory sauce (which remains a secret enigma to me to this day), mixed with slightly crunchy sweet peppers and onion strips, fragrant fresh purple basil, biting fresh bird chilies, moist meat, and pieces of sweet tomato.  This was an damn good version of my favorite Thai noodle dish, and it hit the right spots for me.

Thai Shrimp Fried Rice

Very few fried rice dishes impress me these days but my friend’s order here was something else.  The fresh tasting rice was cooked with bits of slightly crunchy carrot bits, sweet white onions, juicy tomato, topped with perfectly cooked shrimp, pungent green onions, bits of scrambled eggs, and served with fresh cucumber slices.  But what ties these disparate elements together is the flavoring added to the mixture, made from Thai soy sauce, containing a je-ne-sai-quoi added to regular soy, and a hint of fish sauce.  Despite being engrossed in my delicious noodle dish I couldn’t help but spoon from his rice place and enjoy the flavor profile of this dish.  When it is done right, this dish sings in the mouth, and it did in this case.

Green CurryRed Curry

No meal in a Thai restaurant would be complete without ordering a curry dish, or a couple of them.  On one visit, I ordered the Green Curry.  My bowl arrived with lean pork, Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, sweet peppers, and purple basil.  Being a curry dish, the main player is the curry sauce, and this version was outstanding for me.  It had a slight peppery quality with a vegetal green chili fragrance, made more aromatic with root herbs and the basil.  But the cooking of the curry paste with fresh tasting coconut milk resulted in a well amalgamated mixture that stands out from other versions.  It was slightly sweet which points to the Thai sensibility for this seasoning as integral to the authentic palate.  Another visit’s order of the Red Curry was equally superb with the same ingredients as the above dish with exception of the curry paste.  The sauce was a bit more fiery with the use of red chilies in the paste with a darker leaf aroma from the use of Kaffir lime leaf – the evidence of a soften leaf points to adequate cooking to render all its flavor into the sauce.  I was again impressed by the skillful cooking that gave the curry a magical quality that I have not experienced often with this dish.

Mango and Sticky Rice

Fried Bananas with HoneyAlthough the sweet offerings here are sparse, I had to give them a try since they were some of my favorites.  The Fried Bananas came as mini spring rolls stuffed with pieces of banana, and topped with some honey and toasted sesame seeds.  The dough was fried crispy and nearly greaseless, encasing a filling of soft sweet banana, made even sweeter by the honey and fragrant from the sesame seeds.  An order of Mango and Sticky Rice was a special on another visit.  After getting a confirmation from the cook that the mangoes were prime and sweet, I received a plate with pieces in such heavenly state.  The side of sticky glutinous rice topped with coconut cream was an equal partner to the ripe fruit.  It had enough saltiness to match the sweet fruit and rich from some quality coconut crème made nutty from a topping of fried mung beans, an addition that wavers from the usual sesame seeds.  What impressed me the most of this dish was the rice, which was perfectly cooked and matched in seasoning and creaminess.  I know how tricky it is to cook this grain well, and that is why most restaurants can’t get it right.  However, this is the best rendition (yes!) of this dessert I have ever tasted, and its delicious ghost aftertaste still haunts my taste buds.

Something good is going on here, especially in that small kitchen: woodsy shiitake mushrooms in perfectly wrapped spring rolls, well-seasoned Tom Yum soup, fiery and smoky chicken salad, spicy and nutty papaya salad, the well-marinated Sate chicken and irresistible sauce, perfectly seasoned noodles with barely a trace of oil,  savory fried rice that puts all others to shame, curries with an aromatic sauce perfectly balanced with quality coconut milk and paired with fragrant jasmine rice, the best sticky rice ever tasted along with sweet ripe mangoes, and sweet soft bananas encased in sticky crispy dough.  Looking at the photos that I took, you see an undivided attention given to each dish even in the simple garnishes on the plate.  In Korean, this is called “hand flavor” which is indescribable but only can be felt or tasted.  Well, this place sure has it, and when I am this inspired, I want to get a glimpse of Mrs. Chef in the kitchen.  One day I hope to personally thank her for such skillful cooking.  This place is most definitely Aroy! (Tasty!)

Aroy on Urbanspoon

Mannequin Pis

Mannequin PisIt has been a year since I paid a visit to a Belgian eatery in the Palisades neighborhood that served decent food, but, however, it left me uninspired to write a blog about their offerings. As I was about to scratch this cuisine off my to-eat-list, someone mentioned to me about another restaurant in the Maryland suburbs way up north of town which he raved about for its dishes and he insisted that I paid it a visit.

Mannequin Pis is located in the northern suburb of Olney, about 30 minutes north in Montgomery County, in a short nondescript strip mall that does not quite inspire much hope for fine dining. Located behind a larger strip mall and sandwiched other establishments serving fast and cheap eats, the establishment stands out with its patio furniture and the heavily decorated window front plastered with numerous dining awards. However, it is easily missed from the main road, but GPS is one’s best friend in this circumstance.

French Baguette and ButterWith an online coupon in hand that spurred me to make a spontaneous visit, I walked in on a rather late hour on a quiet Monday night, hoping to avoid a large crowd (no walk-ins on the weekends) and to get a choice seat to take some decent photos for the blog. The place was only filled with a handful of people with French/Belgian music piping in the background. The dining room exudes some character with neatly set white paper and clothed tables filling the room without being packed like sardines. Upon taking my seat, I was served some fresh slices of baguette and butter. The quality of bread signaled what was to come for the rest of the evening. It was crusty and crunchy on the outside while spongy and light on the inside, exuding a homely baked aroma and tasting slightly sour from proper fermentation. This simple gesture was indicative of the attentiveness of this establishment, and anticipation was already stirring up in me.

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Mussels Saffron Soup

Perusing the menu, I was not sure where to start for an appetizer. Fortunately with the knowledgeable assistance of my Francophone waiter, he suggested that I order the Mussel Saffron Soup. When it arrived, I marveled at the bowl and its ingredients. A pool of deep yellow soup arrived brimming with whole mussels topped with some chopped tomato, chives, leeks, and the unmistakable strands of saffron. But it was the flavor profile of the soup that really impressed me the most: the soup was slightly floral from the saffron threads, savory from a good seafood stock, made rich from the use of crème fraiche, and slightly tangy from a hint of cider vinegar (my suspicion was confirmed by my waiter). The mussels were plump and slightly briny, cooked to perfection while maintaining its fresh quality and plumpness without any granular texture (a telltale sign of inferior quality or overcooking). With this delicious soup being surprisingly light and so flavorful, I could not put my spoon down until every drop had been ingested and all the mussels consumed. It did not matter that summer has already arrived and this was a creamy soup – this could be a year-round order in my books.

Wild Boar Sausage with White Wine Sauerkraut

Recalling my previous experience in the other Belgian restaurant, it appears that one of the strong suits of this European cuisine is the sausages, and this restaurant offers a wide variety of these meaty morsels. Although my waiter recommended the Merguez sausage (made with spicy Moroccan lamb), I elected for something closer to its home and flavor – Wild Boar. The encased pressed meat arrived grilled, judging by the burnt marks, perched on a bed of White Wine braised Sauerkraut. Biting in the meat, I detected its mild gaminess paired with a tinge of sweetness and clove aroma, studded with pieces of moist sweet raisins. What I liked about this bite was the freshness of the meat, the unique flavors of wild boar, and the gentle seasonings that elevated the meat mixture beyond its humble state. The pickled cabbage under was the perfect foil for the slightly rich meat flavors with its sour elements made complex with the slightly fruity wine notes and some salty smoked bacon goodness imparted into the pickle. This was definitely a good pairing for this tasty sausage.

Moules FritesIt would be amiss to take a trip to a Belgian restaurant without ordering what this Continental cuisine is known for – Mussels. I chose my mollusks paired with a weird sounding sauce – Snob. A mini cauldron pot arrived with a kilo load (more than 2 pounds) of the seafood, piping hot with the sauce made with celery, onions, leeks, lobster bisque, garlic and brandy. The liquid was rather rich and packed with flavor, made aromatic from the use of fresh thyme and fresh bay leaves (milder than the dry version) imparting their slight mint-woodsy and faint eucalyptus-like oils. The mussels were as fresh they come – plump, briny, juicy, and not granular which is indicative of their freshness and proper cooking. The side of Frites was decent and proper, served the continental way with a tangy mayonnaise as the dip. For the seafood lover, especially mussels, this is a must-order with a wide choice of 17 tasty sauces to delight each bite and the individual’s taste.

Chocolate Terrine with Raspberry Coulis

Just when I thought I was sated from the delectable offerings, I was tempted by my waiter to look at the dessert menu. He suggested that I order Chocolate Terrine and I took it up on his advice. My plate arrived beautifully decorated with two thick slices of the terrine sitting on a zigzag pool of raspberry coulis. The chocolate wedges hit the right spot for this chocoholic – it was made with good quality Belgian dark chocolate (I was shown the 20-pound bar) that exuded its bitter-sour qualities of its high cocoa content. Beyond this flavor profile, hints of a slight Amaretto booziness came through along with crunchy shards of toasted almonds that added a counter texture to the smooth rich terrine. The sweet fruity raspberry sauce was the classic complement to the rich dessert providing more sweetness and fruity acidity to balance the chocolate. Again, we see the skillful cooking/preparation of the kitchen in this simple yet well-constructed dessert. It was definitely difficult putting my fork down with this decadent delight, but I managed to save the other half for another occasion.

Mannequin PisThree things come to mind: never write a cuisine off just because of one lackluster experience; do not judge the book by its cover, or a restaurant by its location or storefront; and listen to what people say and recommend for the word of mouth is a powerful tool. With these pointers in mind, I am glad that I have stumbled across this unassuming delightful restaurant that offers wonderful veritable Belgian cooking that can impress the skeptic. On my next trip, I will probably imbibe in the various Belgian beer offerings especially the raspberry one that my charming waiter recommended to go with my dessert. The good thing is that I won’t have to write a blog, hence I can put my brain cells on vacation for the next visit and let the alcohol do its giddy work on them!

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