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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Joe’s Noodle House

It’s has been nearly a year since my visit to a Chinese restaurant and writing my first blog on this Asian cuisine. I had resisted for some time since starting my blog due to the fact that I was raised on top quality Chinese food in Southeast Asia, and most of my experiences in the DC area with such Far Eastern offerings have been sub par and rather disappointing. But I must admit that I quite enjoyed my experience at Bob’s Noodle 66 (read blog), and enough time has passed by for me to recover from one of the most challenging culinary concoction that has ever traversed across these taste buds – Stinky Tofu.

_6001805.jpgA few weeks ago, I headed up to Rockville, MD, an area that I usually avoid due to the traffic congestion and the equally packed streets with businesses that vie for one’s attention. But the area has a high Asian population, and there are many eating establishments that cater to their gastronomic cravings. So when I picked up a friend for dinner, I suddenly remembered about a place that had rave reviews for their authentic Chinese fare especially their Szechuan dishes. Being a man of travels, my friend agreed to this culinary adventure with me, and we trotted into Joe’s Noodle House.

_6001808.jpgUpon walking into the restaurant, you sense its immediate funkiness indicating a level of authenticity that spells food-for-the-recent-immigrant. After being shown to our table, we had to place our order at the front cashier counter. Next to it is a refrigerated display case filled with various side dishes that peak the curiosity of the diner staring at the not-so-familiar dishes. I immediately recognized an offering that I had not eaten in a long time – Jellyfish Salad. One can easily mistaken the semi-translucent strands as some noodle dish, but knowing what it was, I immediately grabbed it. The long strands were a bit bouncy, slightly crunchy, and at the same time silky smooth. It had quite a bit of salt that this seafood calls for with a good hit of sesame oil that brought some rich nuttiness to each sliver. The bits of green onion added a hint of pungency to this mild dish. I really enjoyed this rare opportunity to savor this small side dish, and it was a delicious opener to the meal.
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_6001812.jpg_6001813.jpgMy dining companion and I could not resist ordering a couple more side dishes. My friend’s order was Spicy Chicken Gizzard. Cold pieces of cooked chicken gizzard were cooked in some chili oil exuding its piquancy to each bite. A level of dark spices, most likely Szechuan peppercorn, left its woodsy trail after each bite, along with a slight mineral-like quality that this organ meat possesses. However, he was not used to a gizzard dish served cold, but I was intrigued by its flavors especially the unique Szechuan spice. Another order was Spicy Sweet and Sour Cabbage. Pieces of pickled cabbage were both sweet and slightly sour with each crunchy cold bite. It was definitely more sweet than sour without being cloying. Hints of fresh ginger punctuated these bites which made it more interesting that its simple appearance –  a delicious hit for both of us.

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For the main course, my order was String Beans Szechuan Style with Pork. Judging by the wrinkly exterior, whole string beans have been flash fried in searing oil that cooked them through while maintaining their slight natural crunch. The savory and garlicky sauce was a salty complementary foil to the natural sweetness of the vegetable which made this flavor combo completely irresistible. The small bits of pork were well seasoned and spiced with some Szechuan peppercorn that turned them into a tasty flavoring element, which meat serves as in most Chinese dishes on the mainland. I enjoyed my leftovers the next day and I still marveled with each mouthful of the string beans with its salty-sweet combination.  A vegetarian version is also available and I’m quite sure that it is equally tasty.

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The other main dish was a house specialty – Dan Dan Noodles. A bowl of ramen-like egg noodles arrived topped with bits of spiced pork and some green onions. As we started to pick at the noodles, our waitress quickly advised us to give it a good mix and warned us that it would be too salty if we didn’t heed her advice. So, we gave it a good mix, and underneath that unassuming mound was a pool of chili oil that tainted the whole bowl like bloody murder. The noodles were spiced by the red oil made interesting by the pork bits that have been made fragrant by the Szechuan peppercorn that seem to transubstantiate into something that belied its porcine nature. We both enjoyed this dish a lot, and now we know why this dish was highly recommended by the Washington Post food critic – good call, Mr. Critic.

_6002147.jpg_6002150.jpgOn another visit with a longtime friend, we choose a couple of different side dish starters. Shredded Radish with Hot Sauce was our first order. Thinly julienned Daikon radish have been pickled in a sweet and sour solution made red by a pool of chili oil. This was a bit funky for me since I was slightly put off by the amount of chili oil used in the dish, which I kept draining off each chopstick full of the vegetable – I have heard a fair deal of complaints of oily dishes in mainland China and there is no exception in this establishment. The other side dish was Beef Tendon in Hot Sauce. This was also a funky cold dish that I warmed up to after a few bites. Pieces of cooked beef tendon were slightly chewy yet quite flavorful made by the Szechuan peppercorn and chili oil. What I liked about this dish was its off-the-beaten-path character that transported me to rural China where tendon is a major source of protein, alongside its slightly funky texture and interesting flavors.

_6002157.jpgMy friend’s main course was from its vegetarian menu – Eggplant with Basil in Garlic Sauce. Pieces of Asian eggplant have been flash fried and paired with basil leaves cooked in a brown garlic sauce. This was quite tasty with the vegetable made soft from the frying and fragrant from whole pieces of basil leaves. The brown sauce was very savory made tastier by a good hit of garlic. However, being an eggplant dish, it was quite oily for my taste but I was quick to overlook the downside of this dish after a few bites.

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Chicken Sesame Noodle unmixedChicken Sesame Noodle mixed

My lunch order was another noodle dish that caught my attention on the previous trip – Spicy Cold Pasta with Sesame Sauce and Chicken. Cold egg Lo Mein noodles came topped with julienne of carrot, beansprouts, and strips of boiled chicken. Having learnt from my last trip with the other noodle dish, I give the dish a good mix to reveal the sesame sauce under the pile of pasta. The thick strands of pasta were enriched by the rich nutty sesame sauce mixed with chili oil and made less stodgy by the fresh vegetables and the cold chicken. This was a quickly filling dish due to the thick pasta and rich sauce, which could have done with a hint of acidity to lighten the mouth feel and flavor (my Southeast Asian gastronomic conditioning kicking in here). However, I found it quite enjoyable and authentic, and I was soon happily slurping the noodles away.

The offerings that I savored at Joe’s Noodle House speak of a level of authenticity that is not found in most Chinese restaurants in the DMV area, offering delicious dishes and some interesting bites to the more adventurous (there’s the pig ear salad!).  The regular and vegetarian menus are extensive, and there is at least a dish that anyone can enjoy.  Never mind the funky-looking place and the pool of oil in some of the dishes – that’s another level of authenticity that comes with the culinary experience.  With this kind of food, I’m looking forward to trying more of their dishes, the familiar and not-so-familiar.  Thank God/Buddha that Stinky Tofu is not on the menu! LOL

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Bonchon

Bonchon RestaurantIn my estimation, all Korean restaurants must have good food, or at least every one that I have visited and savored their offerings. Who can resist the marinated meats that are grilled in front of you that exude sweet savory or spicy hot flavors, accompanied by the myriad of cold side dishes that could make a vegetarian’s eyes roll back and make anyone feel sated by the variety in their flavors and cooking techniques, alongside the ubiquitous Kimchi that titillated the taste buds. I guess the Koreans are equally gastronomically obsessed much like the other Asian groups that surround the native peninsula: the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean. But which restaurant can I pick and do a write-up on when there is a plethora of good Korean establishments in the DMV?

So when a fellow gourmand suggested a Korean eatery that has been written up by Esquire Magazine, GQ Magazine, and the New York Times for their famous fried chicken, I had to venture into this establishment and find out what the hype was all about. My fore mentioned friend and I decided to meet up at Bonchon Restaurant for lunch a couple of times before my writing of this review. Bonchon has two locations, one in Ellicot City, MD, and the other in the heart of Koreatown, Annandale, VA. We decided to meet in the Ellicot City branch, south of Baltimore city, located off the Baltimore National Pike (Route 40), a busy strip replete with other Korean eateries, indicative of the high Korean population in that area. Finding it is a little bit tricky since it is behind a strip mall facing the main street – Google Maps and GPS are life-savers in these situations.

Spicy Potstickers

For starters, one of my friend’s company ordered the popular Potstickers, or Mandu in the vernacular. Usually, it comes in a steamer soft from the hot vapors and with a nearly translucent dough. However, here we find this dumplings deep-fried and glowing orange with a quick dip in some hot sauce. These bits were irresistible with the crispy greaseless thin dough enveloping the fresh tasting savory filling – a perfect study of contrast between the crispy outer and the soft moist filling. The thin layer of spicy coating elevated these bites beyond their usual guise and I was perplexed by how the skin remained crispy despite the coating of sauce. The perfect starter indeed, one to amuse the bouche.

Takoyaki

TakoyakiThe other starter is a Japanese classic, Takoyaki.  These are dough balls made with a rice flour mixture with bits of octopus and cooked in a specially made iron-caste pan. These round bites are interesting with a cooked skin as the exterior enveloping a filling that is quite “gooey” punctuated by bits of cooked octopus. The pieces of seafood were tender but the gooey dough could be a textural issue for some. Shavings of bonito flakes added more savoriness to this starter along with some slathering of Japanese mayonnaise and a sweet-and-sour sauce that put me in a je-ne-sais-quoi mind probe. The slivers of raw cabbage added the necessary textural and sweet flavor contrast to these moist bites. Another party-in-the-mouth meal opener.

Kimchi Coleslaw & Pickled Radish

No Korean meal is complete without the myriad of cold side dishes that complement the main dishes. Here at Bonchon, these sides are not complementary of the house like in most places, which is unfortunate in my mind. But I decided to order a couple of them to try them out. Here, they offer the traditional Kimchi and also an updated version of it called the Kimchi Coleslaw. As you can figure it out, it is a combination of the traditional pickled vegetables with typical ingredients found in Coleslaw. In this dish, you can savor the bits of pickled Kimchi and the freshness of the raw slaw ingredients, all married together by a dash of creamy mayonnaise and a good hit of garlic. I must say I quite enjoyed this melange of flavors and ingredients. An order of the omnipresent Pickled Radish was not quite as successful. It lacked more time sitting in the pickling solution since the bits of Daikon still tasted a bit raw, and the flavor profile was calling for more saccharine – the only time that I would be wanting for more of this much maligned sugar substitute.

BibimbopFor lunch, this eatery offers a few lunch dishes at a very reasonable price. The first I tasted was Bibimbob. A beautiful stoneware bowl arrived on my table with an equally delightful assemblage of various ingredients that covered a mound of sticky rice: Beef Bulgogi, cooked watercress, marinated shiitake mushrooms, raw carrots, squash, with a raw egg yolk nestled in the middle with bits of nori seaweed, all topped by a sprinkling of nutty sesame seeds – basically, a Korean deconstructed meal. The idea is to add the side of sweet spicy sauce and to mix it all up as the heated stoneware cooks the egg yolk and heats the dish up. The prominent star among the many ingredients is the marinated beef that tasted deep and complex in flavor with its very savory marinade. I thoroughly enjoyed this “interactive” dish and finishing the dish savoring the bits of slightly crispy rice at the bottom of the bowl.

Salmon Rice "Bowl"

On another occasion, I ordered the Salmon Rice Bowl. My dish came in a rectangular plate, which prompted me to ask the waitress if they had got the order wrong – yes, it was the Rice “Bowl”, but “updated” to a modern dish. I must say I was rather disappointed at first since the traditional Rice Bowl comes with many ingredients like the above Bibimbob, but the difference being that it is not cooked in an earthenware. Accompanying the slab of salmon were a mound of rice and some unseasoned huge carrot sticks along with equally unseasoned broccoli florets. The salmon was perfectly pan grilled on the outside but the inside was stone cold and nearly completely raw. If this were seared sushi, it would have been completely acceptable. Unfortunately, it was not so and I just ate it as such. Yeah, rather disappointing for a Rice “Bowl.”

Korean Fried Chicken.

Korean Fried ChickenOK, the main reason why we are here for is that much raved about Fried Chicken. On our second trip, my friend had brought some company and so we decided to order an X-tra large combination plate with one half flavored Soy Garlic and the other Hot Spicy, the only two flavors offered. After quite a wait for our order (I had been warned about the wait), we dug in immediately. “Ummm”, “Wow”, “uhuh”, (guttural noises), (noise of biting sounds), (silence), (licking fingers) ….. This experience brought to mind Madonna’s Bedtime Story, “Today is the last day that I’m using words. They’ve gone out, lost their meaning.” Well, bringing words back, I will try to describe these tasty morsels. I was totally amazed by how the chicken pieces were cooked, with a lightly battered and very crispy skin with all fat rendered away, this covering perfectly moist and tender chicken meat that was not bland nor over-seasoned, and the light coating of sauce was the perfect amount and flavoring the whole bite, adding the right punch of salty, sweet, garlic, or chili spice. The pieces were completely irresistible and they did not last too long on the large white platter. If going solo, it is possible to order a lunch plate with a serving of between four to eight pieces. Wow, can I take a breath now after this orgiastic feasting?

Bonchon sets itself apart from traditional Korean eating establishments by upgrading its style to a more modern approach. There are some downfalls to that from the non-complementary side dishes (limited offerings) to the disappointing Rice “Bowl”. But what they do well, the dishes are worth mentioning, from the spicy Potstickers, to the tasty and funky Takoyaki, to the interactive Bibimbob cooked in a stoneware bowl, and most notably, the house special of that divine Fried Chicken. This dish is worth making the hike to either Annandale or Ellicot City for these tasty morsels that speaks for itself, and this KFC (Korean FC) will put the Colonel Sander’s version to shame any day.

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