La Limeña

La Limeña

Plantain Chips, Fried Corn, Aji SaucesRecently, I paid a visit to a Peruvian restaurant (read blog) in the Rockville Town Center which left me quite satisfied with their offerings.  Perusing online, I came across many glowing reviews for another locale nearby serving the same South American cuisine – even a couple of co-workers had mentioned about their positive experiences at this establishment.  And so, with some enthusiasm and such affirmations in mind, I made a couple of trips to this newly discovered restaurant for this review.

La Limeña is tucked in a maze of strip malls, located just off the main thoroughfare, Route 355, in Rockville, MD, a suburban town that is growing in population as well as some good eats.  Walking in, you immediately notice the charcoal fueled grills and rotisserie with skewered chickens being turned as that day’s offering.  Past a display counter of glowingly seductive desserts, the dining room is actually smaller that what I imagined, perhaps due to the above-mentioned space-takers past the entrance.  But the dining room is welcoming with their granite tables filled with a line of smart-looking wait staff appearing eager to please the clientele.

Anticucho/Beef Heart

EmpanadaWhile munching on some complementary plantain chips and fried corn kernels (tasted like crunchy popcorn), I perused the menu and recognized some dishes from my recent blog and from past experiences with another eatery, as well as, interestingly, some Cuban dishes.  But I chose to stick with the South American cuisine.  A co-worker had mentioned to me to try Anticucho, which is grilled beef heart.  Two large skewers with large pieces of the offal arrived with a roasted potato and some pickled onions.   The pieces of heart were an interesting texture and flavor; the meaty morsels had a steak texture but with a firmer bounce much like skirt steak, and the flavor was much like beef but with a faint bitter note to remind you that this was not a regular cut of meat.  The salt level was sufficient to counteract the bitter note, paired with a faint smoke scent from the grilling, and a mild paprika-like flavor from the marination.  I was returning to these bites as I was trying to wrap my taste buds around these new flavors and textures.  Even though this dish was a novelty for me, eventually the skewers were a bit on a one-note level, and my interest was weaning off.  Another appetizer I had to savor was Empañada de Carne which is famous from this part of the world.  The pastry arrived with some powder sugar dusted on top, reminding me of the Moroccan sweet savory pastry, Bastilla, that I recently wrote about.  Breaking into it, the pastry was quite tender and flaky.  However, going through the filling, I was a bit nonplussed by the use of ground beef (instead of meat pieces), an insufficient amount of seasoning and moisture, and the lack of and the uneven distribution of raisins and olives (a single piece).  I must say that this was quite a let-down for a pastry that I am fond of, and surprisingly, in this restaurant.

Ceviche Mixto

A trip to a Peruvian eatery usually is not without an order of their famous appetizer – Ceviche. Here, I went for the whole package, Ceviche Mixto, which arrived with pieces of shrimp, squid, and fish, accompanied by some fresh corn, fried corn kernels, and pieces of sweet potato.  This rendition of the semi-cooked seafood was quite different from the version I wrote about a few blogs ago.  The pieces of shrimp were parboiled judging by their firm quality, the squid rings and tentacles similarly cooked but pliable and non-rubbery, and the pieces of fish were acid-cooked and had a bit firmer bounce than the other place, partly due to the thinner slices compared to the thick cubes in the aforementioned place.  Aside from the textural differences, the marinade was a creamier looking liquid with its strong lime juice and a good chili hit that added the necessary acidic and spice to the whole mix that made the whole dish delectable and completely irresistible.  The side accompaniments adequately provided the sweet and crunch as a foil to the soft tart seafood.  I could see why many customers were ordering this large appetizer as their main course as I satisfyingly finished my dish off.

Parihuela/Seafood Stew

Trucha Frita/Fried TroutContinuing with the sea theme, a couple of these dishes were ordered by my dining partners.  Parihuela is a coastal seafood soup from Peru (as listed on the menu), and the bowl arrived brimming with sea creatures crawling out of the sea, I mean soup.  A taste of the broth indicated the use of a good dosage of garlic, some tomato sauce and white wine for some slight fruitiness, and a good seafood stock for some body.  I did not get to taste the pieces of crab, mussels, clams, squid and scallops that looked very fresh and quite large in size.  But the orderer left nothing behind, an indication with his level of satisfaction with this bowlful, which he expressed later; the side of perfectly cooked white rice provided the starch to make this dish a meal.  The other companion’s order was Trucha Frita al Ajo.  A whole boneless trout was lightly floured and pan-fried, partnered with some of that well-cooked rice, fried batons of yucca, and the ubiquitous onion salad.  The fish was still moist and tasted fresh with some good proper seasoning that made each bite delightful – a light slathering of butter and some toasted garlic chips added some more flavor and texture to the soft sweet flesh. The side of fried yucca was “meh” according to the diner, but what more can you do with fried root starch.

Aji de Gallina/Chicken Stew

Pollo a la BrasaAji de Gallina is a renown Peruvian dish that I had seen on menus, and I decided to order it this time.  Pieces of stripped chicken (dark meat, my preference), arrived coated by a yellowish sauce.  According to the menu description, the chicken has been cooked in a concoction of milk, yellow aji (mild Peruvian pepper), and spices to produce this rather thick stew.  The first forkful reminded me of some good Chicken Pot Pie filling, and I kept going back to it for its savoriness and sense of comfort-food that the rich stew spoke to my tongue. Yes, it is a simple dish with uncomplicated flavors, but I could imagine this as a go-to dish when one is under the weather or longing for some TLC.  The single olive (sigh, but so tasty), boiled egg, boiled potato, and rice made up the rest of the meal to round off the experience.  An order on another day was Pollo a la Brasa, or Rotisserie Chicken.  The first mouthful pointed towards a moist and smoky chicken, albeit a bit oversalted for my taste.  After getting past the skin, the seasoning was adequate for the meat.  The side of black beans was very appetizing, with their not-so-overly softness (obviously freshly made), their slight oregano scent, and a level of smokiness from liquid smoke since I didn’t taste any meat flavor in the bowl.  Interestingly, beans do not automatically come with rice here; hence, I had to get some from the seafood soup diner.

Picarones/Peruvian Doughnuts

Lucama Ice CreamUsually not one for sweets after a meal, I knew I had to try a couple of interesting sounding desserts.  The first was Picarones. Basically, they are doughnuts made from sweet potato and pumpkin flours, served with a caramel-like honey.  The beautiful dish arrived with this thin and light fried rings that were slightly crispy on the outside but spongy inside.  There was a faint sweet overtone in the dough that reminded of its nature, tasting different from the usual bland wheat flour version.  But what took these bites to the “I’m addicted” level was the Chancaca honey that exuded its molasses character along with some bitter orange-like notes which competed for my gastronomic attention as well as the fried bites.  Another order was Lucuma ice cream that was recommended by my waitress and is known as the most popular dessert in house.  The carotene-orange scoops arrived in a beautiful cup along with an alfajor, a caramel-filled flaky cookie sandwich.  The first mouthful was revealing: there was a level of creaminess, a moderate vanilla-note, and a texture that pointed towards that exotic subtropical Andean fruit.  The mouth feel of these scoops was slightly akin to smooth sweet potato that was an indication of the fruit’s exotic presence in this frozen custard, along with a faint maple syrup-like flavor.  This unique cold bite got my tongue’s attention, even in the midst of late fall, and I was done with the whole bowl before I knew it.

AlfajoresLa Limeña offers some truly wonderful authentic dishes from the motherland.  Yes, I was not very impressed with the Empanada and a bit underwhelmed by the beef hearts, but I warmed up to the rest of the menu quickly.  The Ceviche was as good as it gets, the seafood soup brimmed with incredibly fresh shellfish and crab in a well-made soup, the fried trout was moist and complemented by the fried garlic chips, the charcoal-cooked chicken was smoky and savory even with its slight heavy-handed saltiness, and the Aji de Gallina spoke of Peruvian comfort food.  But, it was the desserts that impressed me the most with the Picarones moistened by that incredibly tongue-haunting honey, as well as the subtly exotic Lucuma ice-cream that kept me digging into the bowl.  No wonder this place is full all the time with families, couples, and many ex-pats who seem to savor a piece of their nostalgia from this establishment.  The ending complementary of Alfajor was the sweet gesture to seal this gastronomic experience for anyone, reviewer or not.

La Limena on Urbanspoon

Bertha’s Restaurant

Bertha's Restaurant

After a couple of weeks of frigid Artic weather (read “Polar Vortex”), balmy weather made its way into the area, warm enough for one to think it was some kind of heat wave, albeit only in the 50’s – so much for the law of relativity. My regular dinner mates decided to invite me as well as a Chinese friend visiting from Germany to Fell’s Point, Baltimore to have a quick lunch at a much talked about place, Bertha’s. I was looking forward to it for a bowlful of mussels fueled by hype created by its propaganda seen on some bumper stickers.

Maryland Crab SoupWalking into the establishment, one notices that the place is divided into two, a bar and a restaurant. The dark wood-paneled walls exude a character that bespeaks of history, stories, and many nights of sorrow drowning. The dining room is dimly lit and I was lucky to be seated by a recently vacated table near the window. To start the meal off, I decided to have a bowl of Maryland Crab Soup, perhaps trying to defrost from the week’s subzero temperatures. However, what arrived was a bowl of creamy soup with chunks of fish fillet. I notified the waitress the mistake and my friend decided to pick up that bowl instead. When the correct soup arrived, it was quite a disappointment. I was fishing (no pun intended) for pieces of crabmeat that were miniscule and overcooked, overtaken by large pieces of cabbage and vegetables, that turned this bowlful pretty much into a tomato-based veggie soup. Watching my friend enjoying his Fish Chowder stirred a bit of envy in this dissatisfied customer, and I wished I had not changed the bowl. But I still had some hope for what was to come.

Broiled Shrimp in Garlic Butter

The visiting guest decided to order Broiled Shrimp in Garlic Butter. A plate filled with pieces of shrimp arrived on top of a bed of rice, covered by a douse of garlic butter. The pieces of shellfish were quite large, butterflied, and cooked a bit tough, tasting slightly pungent from the slightly raw tasting garlic. The bed of plain white rice was not exactly the most enhancing  accompaniment to this dish, for more seasoning would have balanced out the dish better.

Chicken BartholomewAnother friend’s order was Chicken Bartholomew since he was put on a strict diet by doctor’s order. Pieces of poached chicken were paired with peach slices and spinach leaves, sitting on a bed of white rice. But what really tied these disparate elements together was a chilled creamy lemon-garlic sauce that lent a tangy, creamy, and garlic pungency to the healthy mix. My friend seemed very satisfied by this dish despite the drastic measures that he was taking with his meal choices.

Mussel Dip Sauces

A bowl of MusselsOK, Mussels is what this place is known for.  Since the place offers a myriad of dipping sauces to go along with them, I could not make up my mind, and I decided to go with Mussels with Assorted Sauces. The bivalves came as a mound sitting on a wide bowl accompanied with a variety of these sauces: Garlic, Butter and Capers; Spinach, Tarragon, and Garlic Butter; Spanish Sauce; Anchovy, Tomato and Garlic; and Lancaster Creamy Mustard Sauce. The mussels were not too big, and they tasted fresh and rather plump, without being overcooked or stringy. My favorite dips were the one with capers with its buttery brininess, the Spanish with its fresh tomato flavor, the Anchovy with its slight ocean saltiness, and the mustard sauce with its rich and tangy qualities. This is the dish that place is known for and deservedly so.

.

.

Bertha's RestaurantWhen heading to the Baltimore area, you should stop by Bertha’s at Fell’s Point area, serving a myriad of seafood dishes. The crab soup may not be a hit, but go for the fish chowder which was the day’s special. The Broiled Shrimp and Chicken Bartholomew were fairly good dishes despite being a bit pricey. But the Mussels are a must order in this house, especially with the different sauces offered along with it.  When in Baltimore, eat Bertha’s Mussels, as their green bumper sticker incessantly reminds you on the highway.

Bertha's on Urbanspoon

Brunch – Grillfish

Grill FishI received a call from one of my regular dining companions exclaiming that his date had cancelled their brunch date, and he asked if I was available to take her vacant spot – no brainer here, and I agreed without hesitation.  Our brunch took place at Grillfish, Washington, DC, a seafood restaurant located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood packed with million-dollar houses and quite a number of hotels catering to the hordes of tourist visiting the city.  I had not been to this location for nearly a year since my last visit on a date, but I recalled having a more than decent meal there with its variety of fishes and preparation styles that a customer can customize according to his or her wants.  This blog is not going to be the usual, a critique, but more a photo gastronomic journey on a Winter’s day since I was taking advantage of the even daylight (usually I’m reviewing in the night) that streamed in by our table.

.
Brut, Pineapple and Passion Fruit Juices

Freixenet Brut Blanc de Blancs with Pineapple and Passion Fruit Juices.

Local Oysters

A dozen Local Oysters.

Crabcake Eggs Benedict and Swisschard

Crabcake and Egg Hollandaise with Garlic Sautéed Swiss chard.

Fish Tacos and Eggs

Fish Tacos and Eggs with Creamy Marinara Sauce.

Caramel Cheescake Brulée

Caramel Cheesecake Brulée.

Simple verdict: well-executed dishes with balanced flavors with the fresh ingredients.  This was worth the coupon that my friend had, which would have been $90 for two. Thanks, buddy!

Grillfish on Urbanspoon

El Chalan

Sweet Bread and Aji SauceIn my last blog (see Full Key), I lamented on how I had deserted a Cantonese restaurant that I patronized for many years, but was re-inspired by a recent visit through its doors. Well, El Chalan fits in this category too (I guess I must on a type of memory/nostalgia lane this last week). It is so tempting to go the route of the food blogger chasing the latest food fad, most hyped restaurant, or the swankiest looking dining room. But instinctively, I prefer to stay on the path of the true-and-tested and those establishments who have been around long enough to have survived due to good cooking and their respect for culinary tradition.

For this write-up, it took longer than usual to drive to downtown DC to reacquaint myself with this Peruvian establishment, perhaps due to an accident on the Beltway and the fact that I moved 30 miles away from this locale. Once there, I recognized the familiar unassuming front on a relatively quiet road (must be due to the holidays). Walking in, I was pleasantly surprised that the basement restaurant was packed with diners and buzzing with a festive mood. I quickly found my friends and settled in for dinner in the dimly lit space (Photographers: ISO 5000!).

Chupe de Camarones

Bucking my usual, I decided to order Chupe de Camarones. The bowl arrived filled with a creamy soup covering pieces of shrimp, corn, rice, potato, a boiled egg (Birdcage?), and topped with a sprinkling of cilantro. The sip was akin to clam chowder but different in its thickness since it was lacking the consistency made from a thickener. The spoonfuls tasted light and the starch and corn bits added textural and taste interest to the broth. The pieces of shrimp were sweet but a little tough for my liking. The addition of pieces of boiled egg white and whole egg yolk was an oddity here, but somehow it worked in a strange way.

Choros a la Chalaca

Staying within the realm of seafood as the appetizer, my dining companion ordered Choros a la Chalaca. A ring of opened steamed mussels arrived topped by a salsa-like combination of sweet onions, tomato, corn, bits of jalapeño pepper, and cilantro, all doused with a good hit of lime juice. The mussel was fresh, plump, and mineral sweet, the salsa pungent, sweet, vegetal cruchy, and spicy, and the lime juice provided the strong citrus bite that made the seafood borderline cured by its acidity. Not quite the famous Ceviche, but a similar version.

Papa Rellena

The other dining companion’s appetizer was from the land – Papa Rellena. The dish arrived with a couple of croquette-looking pieces along with some pickled red onions. A bite into these fried balls revealed an outer layer of lightly-packed mashed potato with a stuffing of well-seasoned minced beef that was made exotic by a light touch of cumin. The coat of crunchy outerskin made them even more irresistible. The menu listed olives as part of the stuffing, and even though that was amiss in my bite, it was not missed due to the tasty meaty morsels.

Lomo Saltado EspecialIt seems that the same diner was in a beefy mood – for his main course, he ordered Lomo Saltado. The dish arrived with a waft of its tempting beefiness, displaying a melange of cubes of stripped beef, slices of white onion, tomato, and peas, studded with pieces of fried potato. A taste of my friend’s meal revealed the tasty, tender, and well-seasoned beef, sweet strips of onion and tomato, and the potato tasting home-made and cooked to perfection. But what brought the quality elements together was a thin coating of savory sauce that hinted of a touch of soy, adding a Umami mouth-feel. This dish is listed as the house special, and judging by the number of orders in the dining room, I understand why.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

Ceviche Mixto

From land to sea, at least for me. Continuing my mood for seafood, I decided to order an appetizer of Ceviche Mixto as my main course. The beautiful dish was brimming with pieces of shrimp, squid, scallop, and a mussel, accompanied by a large chunk of sweet potato and a heap of corn kernels, topped with rings of red onion. One bite into the dish and I knew this was the veritable thing. The squid was a bit tough, as well as the scallop, which was an indication of its lengthy “cooking” by the lime juice. Pieces of mild-tasting fish (red snapper?) were still slightly opaque but “cooked” enough to give it some fairly firm texture. A hint of chili pepper hit permeated each acidic bite along with some fragrant cilantro bits. To balance out the acidic element that could have overwhelmed one’s palate, the sweet potato and corn kernels were necessary in adding the sweet element. This is definitely a good rendition of Peru’s national dish and it brought me to the seaside villages dotting its coastline.

Pollo al VinoWe all are creatures of habit, and so is the other fellow diner at my table. His order without fail is Pollo al Vino. A piece of chicken breast has been slow cooked with some red wine and raisins, arriving with rounds of carrot and a boiled potato. From my tasting bite, the chicken was quite moist, the sauce tasty and hinted of a tinge of cumin, and slightly sweet from the raisins in it. This used to be my usual order and it was a nostalgic reminder of yesteryear. I must say that I can’t fault my friend for not being adventurous beyond this dish since it is still quite good and tasty after all these years.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

El ChalanEl Chalan has been around for 32 years in a prime downtown spot, and its survival all these years especially during the last economic meltdown is a testament to its reputation. The filled dining room during my last visit was a good indicator that diners still love this place, not for any novelty but for the very same dishes that they have been serving all these years. The kitchen has maintained its standards with its tasty traditional dishes executed well. Instead of chasing epicurian novelty, a sabbatical from very familiar dishes can inject a level of excitement back into the system and re-inspire the taster. El Chalan is definitely back on my list for more visits and reacquainting with its delectable menu.

El Chalan on Urbanspoon

San Francisco

After a chilling winter in the East Coast (it snowed in DC on the second day of my SF trip) and a two-year hiatus, I decided to spend my Spring Break holiday in one of my favorite cities, San Francisco.  It is definitely a big change of locale for me as its energy is totally different and refreshing from the East Coast vibe, who tends to get suffocating after a while. Besides the nicer weather and change of scenery, one thing I enjoy and look forward to is a wide variety of restaurants that can be attributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the city and the different culinary influences stemming from the various immigration groups that have landed in the Bay Area.  Without much further ado, here is a quick run down of places that I visited in one week.

_6001144.jpg_6001150.jpg

Since I was visiting my college buddy dating back to the first day of Graduate school in Maryland 24 years ago, he chose our first meal to celebrate his birthday at Cha Cha Cha in the Haight neighborhood.  This local chain has a few branches in the area and it serves up a menu that represents various Latino culinary traditions, or Pan Latino.  Our opener was the popular pickled seafood, Ceviche, that was brimming with small shrimp, bay scallops (the smaller ones), and squid.  The seafood morsels were sweet and tender, well pickled by the lime juice, and fragrant with some jalapeño pepper and cilantro.  A side of sweet plantains were as good as they get, accompanied by a smooth paste of refried black beans.  The seafood paella was rather decent with pieces of shrimp, tender pieces of fish and some mussels, embedded in some aromatic rice made yellow sans the pricey saffron threads.  However the Jerk Chicken was not close to any authentic version that I have savored – it was tasty but the name was a total misnomer.  Despite the last dish, this meal was a pretty good start to my gastronomic week.

_6001190.jpg

For his birthday dinner, my buddy chose Cafe Ethiopia in the Mission District.   Our orders arrived on a large enameled platter covered with the sourdough injera bread, topped by the various protein and vegetables.  I was quite impressed by the dishes since each was very tasty and held its distinctive flavor and character while setting themselves apart from each other.  The orders that impressed me most were the collard greens, the lentils, and the salmon dish that had moist chunks of the seafood covered by a tasty but not overpowering sauce.  An order of goat was a bit unfortunate as a bit more cooking would have made them less tough.  The extra pieces of injera bread were the perfect vehicle to scoop up the food and the accompanying sauces.  One of the guests exclaimed that this was the best Ethiopian food he has tasted in the Bay Area. and I must agree that it was as good as the ones found in the DC area replete with restaurants of this East African cuisine.

_6001308.jpg

Staying at the Haight district, I stumbled across this little dive serving Thai food – The Best of Thai Noodle.  I must say that such name tends to conjure up some suspicion, but I decided to give them a try for lunch.  I ordered the Combination Of Sliced Rare Beef, Beef Stew, And Beef Meatballs Noodle Soup since I was in the mood for such a noodle soup dish on a cool day.  The bowl arrived with strands of wide rice noodles swimming in a very rich fragrant soup filled with pieces of stewed beef pieces and beef meatballs.  With my first bite, I recognized the dish that I have had recently – Boat Market Noodle Soup.  Upon enquiring, the waitress confirmed my observation.  This bowl was as good as the one I had a few months back in Thai Square with the heady cassia and star-anise laced soup, the tender pieces of beef and meatballs, and the fresh noodles.  Looking at the menu, this small joint offers an amazing array of authentic dishes from this Southeast Asian tradition.  This establishment is definitely worth checking out despite its rather dingy appearance.

The Slanted Door

The Slanted DoorFor lunch the next day, I decided to go Vietnamese, and I stopped by the most reputed Vietnamese restaurant in the area located in the Embarcadero Ferry Terminal – The Slanted Door.  I had eaten at this establishment a few years back and I was looking forward to it again after the absence.  For the starter, I ordered some Chilled Wild Louisiana Gulf Shrimp.  Large pieces of shrimp came with sides of chili spiced cocktail sauce and a Thai basil aioli.  The shellfish were perfectly cooked and their sweetness in each bite was indicative of the freshness and quality, complemented by the irresistible sauces.  For the main course, I ordered the Grilled Pork Belly and Meatball Rice Vermicelli Noodles.  Basically this is the supped up version of the Bun Noodle Salad enhanced by large pieces of moist savory grilled meatballs, tender pieces of tasty pork belly, and pieces of the house Imperial Roll made with chunks of shrimp and ground pork- this was a hearty, satisfactory and flavor-packed bowl.

The Slanted DoorFor dessert, I couldn’t help but hone in on something whimsical listed on the menu despite feeling rather full after the above dishes – Lemongrass Cotton Candy.  A big cloud of this spun sugar arrived at my table that left me bug-eyed by the unexpected size – I guess I have not been to the local fair in a number of years.  When the dessert arrived, I slowly tore pieces away from it, with a bigger amount each time.  It is basically your typical cotton candy with a citrusy and slightly grassy lemongrass flavor that made this childhood favorite as irresistible to the now adult.  I literally had to stop myself from finishing the whole mass and I got the rest packed for home.  The meal at this Modern Vietnamese restaurant was worth every dollar spent with the high level of cooking, the artful presentation, and the authentic flavors that left me satisfied and dreaming of this gastronomic experience.  Btw, don’t forget the Lychee Ice Tea that made the perfect thirst quencher with the above dishes – exotic and refreshing at the same time.

Spicy Eggplant and Mushrooms.Golden Era Lemongrass "Chicken"

No where is better to try Vegan/Vegetarian cuisine than in the West Coast, and I returned to my and BFF’s favorite establishment- Golden Era Vegan Restaurant.  A vegetable dish that we have enjoyed and always ordered is Spicy Eggplant Mushroom.  Pieces of purple skinned Asian eggplant are paired with fresh button mushrooms, crunchy carrots, slivers of onion, and large pieces of green onions, all coated in a slightly sweet spicy sauce that brings all the different elements together harmoniously.  A must order is the house’s most popular dish, and rightfully so – Lemongrass Deluxe.  Pieces of mock chicken have been spiced up by a heady amount of shaved lemongrass and a dry spicy sauce, ringed by crispy bright green broccoli florets that make the perfect mild foil to the herbacious spicy “chicken” bits.  The platter comes with a generous amount of the protein, and this dish always delivers.  I have spent days dreaming before coming to the West to savor this vegan delight.  Word of warning: it is located in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood but walking distance from downtown, hence the importance of having a dining companion with you for the walk.

_6001798.jpg

Suzu Japanese Noodle HouseWith a large population of Japanese descent, it would be amiss to not savor authentic Japanese cuisine in Japantown, located in the Fillmore neighborhood.  That is where I headed to for lunch one day to savor some Japanese Ramen noodles in Suzu Japanese Noodle House recommended by my college buddy.  Agedashi was the first order, consisting of tofu chunks that have been fried in a light batter, sitting on a pool of dashi sauce and topped with a piece of eggplant tempura, grated daikon and fresh ginger, and slivers of bonito flakes and dried seaweed.  This was a bowl of clean pure flavors that just left a serene contentment within.  For the main course, I ordered Spicy Pork and Egg in Spicy Broth Ramen. The bowl came with a mound of al dente egg Ramen noodles topped by a single sliver of roast pork (meat as a garnish, not main course), half a boiled egg, pieces of bamboo shoot pickle, raw spinach leaves, and topped by a mound of white leek strips.  The soup was a fairly rich meat stock spiced up by some slightly smoky chili paste.  The bamboo spoon to help slurp the soup added a level of authenticity in addition to the small diner that whisked me away to a cramped eatery in the Far East.  Be prepared to be patient for a table in this small establishment, but it is worth the wait.

_6002284.jpg

_6002278.jpgOne of my favorite parts of the city is North Beach where many Italian eateries can be found.  Caffe Greco is a spacious deli that serves Paninis, and my order made with Prosciutto ham, Mozzarella cheese, and Red Pepper was the perfect afternoon bite with the salty meat, mild and slightly creamy cheese, and the pickled red pepper slivers that added the acid touch and herbal oregano flavors to the airy pieces of pressed Foccacia bread that held the fillings together.  My companion’s sandwich made with turkey and large ribbons of zucchini was equally successful, albeit milder in flavor.  The accompanying side salad was well-made with the right amount of balsamic vinaigrette coating the healthy mix of a variety of lettuces, making the lunch complete. To chase the bites down, we ordered the house special, Grecco Sunrise.  A tall glass of Orangina is spiked with a shot of cherry syrup which turned it orangey red at the lower half, hence its name.  It was the perfect sip with our sandwiches in this part of town that evokes the Mediterranean.

_6002362.jpg

_6002353.jpgFor dinner, my college mate invited me for some raw seafood at Sushi Time in the Castro area.  Located in a small mall, this cramped space has only a few tables along with the sushi bar, and when we got there, a line was waiting for a table.  An opener of a Seaweed Salad and a Cooked Spinach Salad were simple but tasty appetizers.  The Avocado Tuna Tartar was delectable with pieces of spicy tune paired with creamy avocado punctuated by pieces of fresh asparagus.  The pieces of sushi tasted clean and fresh, as good as most good sushi joints, and there was a good variety for the diner.  What stood out for us was a serving of Butterfish sashimi which exuded clean yet a rich unctuous texture and flavor.  The set menus are reasonable and priced competitively. Like the ramen eatery, it is worth the wait and the cramp space has that Japanese urban feel.
.
.
.

_6002382.jpg

I was the honored guest of a brunch hosted by a Facebook social group that I am a member of, and we met at Catch in the Castro neighborhood.  This spacious space serves American fare with a heavy emphasis on seafood.  What caught my attention was the Salmon BLT which came with an option of a simple salad, Ceaser salad, or french fries – where else can you find a seafood BLT but in Cali!  My sandwich came with perfect sautéed salmon fillets with a crispy exterior but moist inside, topped by crispy bacon and spicy arugula leaves, moistened by a citrus aioli, enclosed by pieces of crispy french baguette.  I really enjoyed this sandwich with the well cooked and well matched ingredients.  The side Caesar salad was creamy with the rich tangy dressing and shards of Parmesan cheese.  Everyone in the group seemed to enjoy their pasta or seafood dishes.  If only I could have tasted someone’s seafood soup that looked very temptingly rich and brimming with pieces of the sea.

600_2555.jpg

For my last meal before heading to the airport, we walked up to Cole Valley to La Boulange (not Le Boulanger).  This is a local chain that has branches in many parts of town, serving up French pastries, meals, and drinks. My mini sandwich of Smoked Salmon was excellent with the quality fish paired with a slathering of cream cheese and bits of red onion and green chives sandwiched by the well-made roll.  An order of Almond Croissant hit the right spot with the short flakiness of its dough (not stretchy elastic) sweetened by the rich almond paste filling and accentuated by a plethora of toasted almond slivers on top – it is one of the best almond croissants I have tasted in a long time.  My friend’s French Toast was decadent, consisting of a round sponge cake dipped in an eggy custard (real eggs) and cooked gently to produce a light ethereal version of this breakfast staple, washed down by a decent “bol” of roasted Cafe au Lait.  For my flight home, I took out a Walnut Baguette with Prosciutto and Figs, which was an interesting tasty combination.  A dessert of Lemon Custard Turnover was the perfect flaky pastry with the rich sweet lemony filling that made me wish I had another order – it definitely sweetened the long-haul home.  Now, I see why reviewers give this chain an overwhelming thumbs-up, and deserving so.

Ah, San Francisco – The city of Beauty and Great Eats! Here is my photo essay of the city: San Francisco

El Nopalito Grill

One cuisine that has received its fair share of bad rap in this country is the one south of our border – Mexican.  Most of it can be attributed to the mediocre and uninspiring fare served in Tex-Mex restaurant that most of us have eaten as a foray to our experience with this cuisine.  However, my introduction to its true authenticity began when I was teaching in a Catholic girls school in Bladensburg, MD.  At the bottom of the hill was a fast-growing pocket of Mexican immigrants.  Not being too shy to find a good eat anywhere, I asked the locals and they pointed me to a small hole-in-a-wall.  It was in this dive that I discovered true Mexican dishes – Mole Poblano, Shrimp Cocktail, Mexican Ceviche, Quesadillas, Enchiladas, Tamales, and exotic drinks like Horchata, Tamarindo, Fruit Shakes and Mexican Sodas (made with real sugar).  This experience provided me the opening door to a rich culinary tradition, and I knew that this was a vast territory that I had to explore.

Having received an online offer to El Nopalito Grill, I was excited to try another Modern Mexican restaurant after having discovered Casa Oaxaca (see blog) a couple of months back.  It is located at the corner of a rather busy intersection, nestled between several businesses in a strip mall located in the upper reaches of Silver Spring  – this MD suburb city is so extensive hence it is easily confused with neighboring cities at the same time.  Looking at the restaurant’s online site, I was impressed by the owner/chef’s resumé which reads as a pedigreed culinary training: stints at Le Pavilion, Red Sage, Coyote Cafe, Bistro Provence, Four Seasons Hotel and Filomena, all restaurants that ring a familiar bell to the DC cognoscenti.  With a new Spanish teacher colleague in tow, I stepped into El Nopalito Grill with some anticipation and a hungry stomach.

DSC_8873.jpg

A good indicator of the quality of cooking in an establishment is usually found in the simple things, like chips and salsa.  The Nacho Chips were light and almost greaseless, and my dining partner remarked that the Salsa was freshly made judging by the lack of a canned metallic taste or high acidity.  It was indeed fresh and filled with small chopped tomato pieces swimming in a slightly sweet tomato sauce spiked with some pungent onions, fragrant cilantro, and searing chiles.  Another simple yet telling dip is the Fresh Guacamole.  It came prepared a la minute with large chunks of ripe and creamy smooth avocado with bits of sweet onion and seasoned with just salt, very much like how guacamole is simply made in Mexico (the US version tends to come with tomato, cilantro, and lime juice).  These dips were very tasty and refreshing, good enough to build up more anticipation for what was to come.

DSC_8899.jpg

DSC_8885.jpgWe decided to try out a couple of salads.  The first was the Mango and Jicama Salad.  Slices of  julienned mango and jicama along with thin slices of red onions were sitting on a bed of fresh greens.  I enjoyed the combination of the sweet soft ripe mango paired with the rather bland crunchy pieces of Jicama, akin to the texture of pear sans the sweetness.  The red onions slices added some sweet pungency to the dish, and the avocado salad dressing was good but not discernible in any special way; perhaps it was overwhelmed by the onion and mango.  But it was refreshing indeed and not your typical salad fare.  An order of Palmito Salad came with heart of palm rings along with slices of orange on a bed of salad.  The elements on the salad felt disparate and even the cilantro dressing could not serve as the liaison between the non-binding ingredients.  It was not bad, just ho-hum.

DSC_8881.jpg

As for our main courses, we made our selections from the Tapas menu.  Since my new colleague is a pescatarian, we zoned in on the Ceviche.  It came with pieces of marinated fish and shrimp sitting on a bed of lettuce and pickled onions, and topped with thin fried tortilla strips.  Although the menu states that the dish comes with jalapeño peppers, I could not see any or taste the spice heat.  This flavor profile would have made a difference since the dish carried a one-note acidity which did not elevate the seafood pieces.  Furthermore, the use of fish, I suspect Tilapia, was unfortunate as it had a muddy flavor that overwhelmed the whole dish.  The pieces of shrimp were plump and sweet and they were pretty much the saving grace in the dish.  Realizing that these small missteps in the Ceviche could be overlooked, I knew there were some dishes on the menu that would definitely get my attention.

DSC_8888.jpg

Another dish suitable for any pescatarian is the Chile Relleno.   Traditionally, this dish is filled with a meat or cheese stuffing.  However, this restaurant’s rendition takes this humble concoction to another level.  The roasted poblano pepper was stuffed with a melange of shredded crabmeat, bits of shrimp and a mild cheese, sitting on a pool of tomato and tomatillo sauce.  The slightly piquant and smoky pepper made the perfect partner to the mild, seafood-sweet and rich stuffing that made the dish irresistible to this diner.  The well-made sauces provided a slightly sweet and acidic element to each bite, which brought more interesting notes to the whole dish.  A definite order in my books.

DSC_8897.jpg

I ordered the Duck Tamale which is a novel dish for me and an interesting spin on this regular Mexican fare.  However, I was later told that the kitchen had run out of it, and I settled for the Chicken version with a certain sense of disappointment.  However, the first bite proved to be quite the opposite of a let-down.  The steamed white cornmeal was light and fluffy, packed with flavor and studded with bits of crushed fresh corn which brought a slight sweetness and earthiness to the simple dough.  The chicken stuffing was shredded pieces that were still moist and well-seasoned.  The banana leaf that wrapped the tamale during its steaming had imparted a fragrant vegetal note to the whole dish, and it provided a beautiful design element to the plate.  Here, we see another example of the Chef’s ability to take a simple humble dish to a sophisticated level.  If this is the Chicken Tamale, I cannot wait to taste the duck version on my next visit.

DSC_8892.jpg

One dish that called my attention while perusing the menu, and to also satisfy the meat-lover reader, was Beef Carnitas.  A thin piece of flank steak came grilled and paired with a trio of yellow, green and poblano mole sauces.  The steak was tender, smoky from proper grilling, and rich tasting from some ageing before its visit on the hot grill.  The different mole sauces added notes of acidity, salty, sweet, and smoke (dried chile exudes this note) to the already rich-tasting dish.  What I appreciate about this dish was the level of care in the cooking of the meat and the delicacy of the different sauces that did not overwhelm the beef.  This dish will definitely satisfy the beef lover, despite the small portion which was enough for me, for its wonderful cooking and flavors.

El Nopalito Grill serves authentic Mexican fare that reflects a rich culinary tradition that does not resemble what most Americans are used to or familiar with.  Despite a few small missteps in a couple of dishes that we savored, the successful ones point towards a knowledgeable and skillful kitchen that delivers delectable dishes that are well-made and quite sophisticated at times.  Here, one senses this ethnic cuisine heading in a new direction that would entice the novice.   This restaurant may tempt you to hike up into the suburbs to savor the Mango and Jicama Salad, Tamale, Chile Relleno or the Beef Carnitas.  I see another visit for me soon to sample the rest of the menu in the near future.

El Nopalito Grill on Urbanspoon

Tuscana West

Ever since my last summer’s trip to the Tuscan region of Italy, I have been on a gourmand’s mission to find veritable Italian cuisine similar to the dishes that I delightfully savored on “the trip worth a thousand bites” (a play on words from the expression “a painting worth a thousand words”).  A couple of weeks back, I posted a write-up on I Ricchi (see review) that was a delightful culinary experience but at the same time quite damaging to my pocketbook.   Some of my friends asked me how could they get the coupons that I used to visit these restaurants (easy, sign-up online), or whether I would write-up on an authentic Italian eatery that was more accessible and affordable.

I think the answer to the latter request lies in this review of Tuscana West.  I had heard of this Italian restaurant for a number of years now, but it did not make it on my culinary radar due to its location in the financial district of downtown DC, which makes getting there and parking a logistic nightmare most of the time.  However, a couple of coupons (yes, those again) popped up on my computer screen, and I decided to give it an opportunity.   A number of federal holidays falling on a Monday the last couple of months made it possible for me to drive downtown, park for free (after circling the block a number of times), and pop into their doors on two occasions.

The restaurant is located across from a grassy sloped park and on the ground floor of a nondescript office building.  Once stepping into the foyer, you sense the restaurant’s efforts to change the ambience of a utilitarian space into one of casual opulence consisting of a large wooden bar area, draping curtains to separate the dining areas,  a white stucco pizza oven, large painted frescoes on the walls, comfortable banquettes, and mood lighting to settle the customer into his or her chair.  The menu is quite extensive with the dishes listed in the usual separate courses, much like in the Continent.  I decided to focus on a variety of meat and seafood choices, some recognizable and others new to me.

Crabmeat Portabella Gratinata
For the antipasto, I ordered Portabello Gratinate, a large portabello mushroom cap that has been stuffed with a heaping amount of fresh crabmeat mixed with breadcrumbs, and topped by a savory mushroom sauce.   This is a creative take on the usual stuffed mushrooms that can be quite pedestrian in most places.  Its initial impression on me was not too favorable as it looked like a brown hockey puck that landed on the white tablecloth.  But once I cut into it and saw the flakes of sweet moist crabmeat, I knew I was in for a treat.  And it sure was.  Great start with this seafood appetizer, and especially for around $8.

Fennel, Apple & Walnut Salad

On my second trip, I decided to order the starter from a different angle.  While in Volterra, I paid a few visits to the cooperativo (regional supermarket) to get our ingredients for our meals, and I was impressed by the variety and freshness of the fruits and vegetables which Tuscany is renowned for.   With this reminisce in mind, I ordered the Insalata di Finocchio, Mela, e Noci on the second visit.  It is a salad made up of finely sliced fresh fennel bulb, cubed crisply apples, and whole walnuts.  The fennel slices were slightly crunchy with a hint of anise (could have been sliced a bit thinner), along with the sweet cubes of crisp apple, and the crunchy walnuts pieces (a few too many) that exuded a slight bitter note.  All the disparate elements were liasoned by a light and tangy salad cream – exciting, flavorful, and refreshing.

Four-Cheese Risotto

Four-Cheese Risotto
The day’s special of Risotto ai Quattro Formaggi was my second course on one of the visits.  Fat grains of starchy rice have been slow cooked with broth and enrichened with a handful of creamy Fontina, pungent and tangy Gorgonzola, and both nutty Parmigiano and Grano Padano (the younger Parmigiano) cheeses.   This was indeed refined comfort Italian food, and I have not tasted risotto this good in a long time as I did with this bowl.  The rice was cooked just right, slightly al dente without its chalkiness, smooth and all’onda (“wavy” looseness) from releasing its starches as a result of proper stirring and sufficient stock, and finally enriched by the rich and flavorful cheeses.  I literally had to force my hand to put the fork down halfway through the portion as I had to save room for the next course.  Buonisimo.

Beef braised in Red Wine & Couscous

Beef Stewed in Red Wine and Vidalia Onions on Cous-Cous, Carbonade di Osso all’Aostano, was my selection from the day’s specials on the first sitting.  The tender and slightly sweet winey pieces of beef were paired with the grits-like pasta grains.  Here we see the combination of Northern Italian influence in the wine-stewed beef and the Southern in the use of cous-cous due to its proximity to Northern Africa.   The beef tips were fork-tender while the bed of pasta soaked up the meaty sauce, thus making quite a flavorful pair.   The creativity in this dish points to the kitchen’s knowledgable hand in the daily specials, and they are worth paying attention to.

Scallop & Fish Pizza

My BFF, Kevin, had his eye on another daily special, Pizza Rustica di Mare, or Seafood Rustic Pizza on the first trip.  It is a hand-made pizza, slathered with red sweet pepper sauce, and topped with scallops and fish chunks.  The dough had a nice yeasty flavor, enhanced by the slightly sweet sauce (not as sweet as tomato, which can be a good thing for a change), and dotted by moist and sea-sweet pieces of seafood.   Most of us would find this pizza rather odd, beyond our perception of the nature of pizza.  However, my trip to Italy opened my eyes of the possibilities of this dough concoction, and this restaurant’s version is completely up the alley of creative modern Italian cuisine.  My friend ate it with some gusto to which I could not resist a couple of slices myself.

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta
Tagliolini Sepia was high on my list when I perused the menu during one of my meals.  The plate arrived with black hand-made pasta (colored by squid ink), coated with a fiery fresh tomato sauce with pieces of grilled young squid nestled on top.    The pasta had a slight sea-breeze scent from the ink, along with a lip-singing kick from the well-made and light sauce, which only added flavor to the tender mild pieces of squid.  This dish definitely pays tribute to the Southern Italian treatment of its seafood, and my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it as a contrast to the milder and richer fore mentioned Northern-style dishes.

Panna Cotta

Walking into the dining room, one cannot help but pass by the dessert tray sitting on a server, working its charm like a scantily clad person winking from an Amsterdam display window.   My waiter recommended that  I order the Tiramisu or the Limoncello (lemon liquor) layer cake.  However, I have a slight weakness for the Italian version of flan, Panna Cotta; it is basically cream cooked with gelatine.  This restaurant’s version had a topping of orange marmalade and blueberry compote, which added their fruitiness to the white canvas.  The side of Zabaglione custard-like sauce was made with enough booze, most likely sweet Marsala, to make me lick every drop of it.  However,  it overshadowed the cream timbale, which proved to be just fine but overstiffened by too much gelatine.    I think my waiter had every good reason to make his recommendations and I should have listened to him, at least for this final course – Limoncello cake for me on the next visit!

Tuscana West offers true authentic cuisine with touches of the Northern and Southern Italian styles in the well-prepared dishes.  The dishes that I enjoyed on my visits have convinced me that I must muster some courage to brave the traffic and parking issues to make it to this wonderful restaurant.   More importantly, the prices are just right, especially during lunch when I managed to order four courses for around $50 (the price of blogging for you guys!).   Even without coupons, I will be coming back with my friends to savor its tasty authentic dishes with some frequency.   This place warrants more visits as it has now become a large red spot on my radar beeping away loud and clear.

Tuscana West on Urbanspoon