Souk

H Street NE, Washington DC - Blue Moon

On a late-summer Friday night lit by a radiant blue moon (it literally was), we decided to venture to the H street NE neighborhood to savor the cooking of a new restaurant. It had been many moons (pun intended) since I ventured to this part of town ever since an old friend lived there in the early 90’s. Strolling down its main drag with the full moon getting everyone’s attention and spurring us to enjoy a warm night during the lingering remnants of summer, I was quite taken aback by the area’s development and growth including the influx of diversity in a historically black neighborhood that was enjoying the burgeoning businesses on the strip. One such place is Souk Moroccan Restaurant.

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When we arrived at our destination, the restaurant was undergoing some renovations in the main dining room, making its foyer cramped with filled tables. We were invited by the waiters to spend our waiting time at a Hookah Bar a couple of doors away. When the table became available, we squeezed into our table and quickly perused the menu. The offerings are the familiar and traditional Moroccan dishes that I have encountered in other eateries. The menu is divided into Cold Tapas, Hot Tapas, Signature Moroccan Specialties, Salads, and Entrées.

Moroccan Vegetable Platter

Our first choice to start the meal off was a combination of cold tapas listed under the Entrée section – Vegetarian Platter. The dish arrived filled with a combination of Zaalouk, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, traditional Moroccan spinach, and carrot salad. The Zaalouk consisted of roasted eggplant, garlic and tomatoes that enticed us with its savoriness, well-balanced flavors, and silky smooth texture along with a good hit of smokiness, and the accompanying pita slices made the perfect scooping vehicle for the dip. The carrots slices were still sweet and perfectly cooked with a tinge of lemon acidity. I could not get enough of the stuffed grape leaves that tasted fresh and not too acidic like in other places. The hummus was not too dense, smooth, and rich with a hint of garlic and tahini sauce. The center of the plate was occupied by a large chickpea falafel that was well-seasoned, light, and crispy from the frying. And the spinach was really tasty with a slight hint of fragrant dried spices, perhaps cumin. I would suggest to order this dish as the perfect starter even though it is listed under the entrée section. As a vegetarian offering, it makes a perfect meatless dish as well.

Chicken with Preserved Lemon

A favorite among the traditional Moroccan dishes is Chicken with Preserved Lemons, and we decided to order this restaurant’s rendition. The dish arrived with a thigh and drumstick that has been cooked with caramelized onions, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and preserved lemons. The sauce was very tasty but it lacked the preserved lemon flavor that I was looking forward to in this dish. The chicken could have done with longer time on the stove/tagine for it was not quite fall-off-the-bone yet. However, the side of saffron rice blew us away. It was light, very savory, and heady from the saffron threads that added a beautiful yellow tinge as well as its slight flowery fragrance. This side indeed transported us to the sunny fields of North Africa with its wonderful flavors and perfume.

Apricot Lamb Tagine

Our next choice was Apricot Lamb Tagine. A lamb shank was marinated overnight with a saffron, ginger and cinnamon sauce, and slow-cooked with a few dried apricots. When it arrived at our table, the meat was moist and literally fork tender, indicating its lengthy cooking on a low heat in a tagine earthen pot. The sauce was complex and very tasty, with a hint of sweetness from the softened apricots. While I was tasting the dish, I detected a certain je ne se quoi as the backnote in the sauce. After some mulling over it, I honed on Orange Blossom Water that I have tasted in Middle Eastern pastry. Upon checking this with the kitchen, my guesswork was confirmed – what a brilliant addition to this flavor profile! This dish was not only tasty but it also evoked a exoticness that woke up a sense of culinary wanderlust. Truly memorable.

Grilled Beef Kafta

We wanted to try the place’s version of a traditional favorite – Chicken Bastilla. However, the kitchen was out of it and we resorted to the Grilled Kafta. Two kebabs arrived on our table which were made from ground beef. It was well-seasoned with a strong hint of chili and other dry fragrant spices. The pool of light tomato sauce provided a slightly sweet and acidic flavor to these pieces of grilled beef – I felt that the other Tzatziki sauce did not contribute much to the dish which remained mostly untouched. The slices of grilled vegetables had the same smoky notes as the Kaftas themselves after having spent the same amount of time as its meat partner on the hot grill. A mound of that saffron rice rounded off the dish which we continuously could not get enough of.

DSC_0765.jpgSouk has a fairly short menu filled with traditional Moroccan dishes and a smattering of other Mediterranean dishes. The dishes that we savored were cooked with care and a deft hand that understands flavors of this North African cuisine. The highlights worth tasting are the cold dishes in the Vegetarian Platter, that wonderful tender and savory lamb shank, the spicy and smoky grilled beef kafta, and the fluffy saffron rice that titillated the senses. With such wonderful cooking, you may be tempted to complete this meal with a visit to Sahra Lounge a couple of doors down to smoke a hookah as dessert since both locales are run by the same owner. Morocco meets H Street NE – who would have thought of that!

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Elevation Burger

As I approach the mid-century mark in less fingers than I can count on one hand (Ay, Dios Mio!), the questions that have been haunting me the last few years are ringing louder in my head by each day: Should I eat less meat? Should I touch factory farmed meat and poultry or buy more organic?  Should I go vegetarian or perhaps vegan?  How about dairy products and egg?  And fried foods?  Sugar? Wow, can I eat anything at all besides raw organic vegetables?  Are my gastronomic adventures going to be haunted by the ghost of guilt?  How long can I continue blogging before making this a vegetarian site?

001.jpgThese questions are picking up momentum and soon turning into a vortex in my conscience as we approach summer, a time when I cannot resist one of my seasonal vices (oops, the ugly head of guilt again) – the hamburger.  There is something irresistible about a grilled beef patty sandwiched by two pieces of fluffy buns filled with the various not-so-subtle accoutrements that satisfy the indulgent craving for sweet, salty, sour, and savory (hmmm, all begin with S’s like Sins).  Slices of crisp lettuce and juicy ripe tomatoes are the saving grace and penance that delude us to think that the beef patty ain’t that thick nor so bad after all.  Like a Catholic trying to overcome Sunday guilt, I visit my Amish butcher to purchase antibiotic and hormone-free ground beef to make the patties for my cookouts.  But what do you do when the craving strikes while out in public?  McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic, Five Guys – when Hell freezes over!!

Then appears Elevation Burger (imagine the clouds part at this point ☼ and the heavenly choirs sing ♫).  I discovered this burger-serving joint from one of my online coupon sites. When I read the company philosophy and perused the menu to check out their offerings, I knew that this place was worth visiting and writing about, and I paid it a couple of visits.  A burger chain, you ask?  Yes, a different type of burger chain.  Here are my confessions:

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DSC_7512.jpgBurgers: The beef patties are made from 100% organic, grass-fed and free-range meat.  They are smaller than your usual patty, perhaps around 1/4 pound, and they tasted not overly “beefy” due to the lower fat content, a purer taste than the usual burger.  The slice of cheese had a slightly granular texture for being aged cheddar cut from the block, and not the insipid processed version.  The burgers come in double-patties, single patty with cheese, one patty hamburger, and one patty plus one veggie (“Half The Guilt Burger” – penance?).  The toppings are the usual that one would find anywhere, but specials are offered on any given day, like sautéed mushrooms and bacon (no lesser guilt here) on one visit.  I found the pickles to be brightly and less metallic, perhaps due to local sourcing and not being factory produced.  The Hot Pepper Relish packed some heat, and although I love piquancy, it did overwhelm the subtleties in the burger (a subtle burger, you ask?).  The burgers may not be as humongous and “meaty” as other places but they make up in quality and in taste. Less meat – check.  Organic grass-fed free range meat – check.

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010.jpgVegetarian offerings: There are two vegetarian burgers that are offered here.  Veggie Burger #1 is a patty that is made with pureed vegetables and cheese.  For me it was OK, since the patty did not have any specific taste from the processing that made it a bit nondescript – maybe it is more palatable for those who are not the usual vegetarians.  Veggie Burger #2 comes with a savory vegan patty.  You can see and taste the individual bits of corn, carrots, peas, and rice.  This was more to my liking and it tasted more substantial and flavorful.  Yummy!   Grilled Cheese Sandwich is offered here with that 6-month aged Cheddar for those looking for an alternative to meat or vegetable.  Side and Main Salads are also offered but they looked rather pedestrian to me – at least, these are good substitutes for fries.  Vegetarian and Vegan offerings – check, check.

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French Fries:  The shoes string fries are cut from whole potatoes judging from the skin left on.  However, they are more limp than the fries found in other burger places.  Reason why?  They are cooked in 100% olive oil, and since it has a lower smoking point, they cannot be made very crisp due to the lower cooking temperature.  However, I don’t mind not-so-crisp fries in lieu of whole unprocessed potato bits cooked in healthier oil.  On one visit, I thought they were slightly oversalted, but it was perfectly fine the next visit.  Fried foods, if only in healthy oil – check.

014.jpgDesserts:  We tried the Small Cookies which consisted of 3 chocolate chip, pecan, and oatmeal treats made with organic butter and milk.  They were pretty small (photo – “objects are smaller than they appear in macro shots”) but they were sinfully good with a rich buttery taste.  Like all items on the menu, there is a calorie count with these – nearly 300 calories for all three.  These cookies also come in a larger version. If the amount of calories is a bit intimidating, there are also Mandarin Oranges as a sweet alternative.  Sugar – occasional check; sweet fruit – check.

004.jpgDrinks:  The milk shakes are made with organic milk, organic ice-cream, and “real berries and strawberries” (as listed on the menu).  Bits of fruit are speckled on the cup which confirms the use of “real” fruit, which distinguishes it from the use of fruit syrups found in other places.  However, the over 700 caloric count is pretty daunting and a reminder that this should not be a frequent treat.  The eatery also offers bottled drinks that are low in sugar, no High Fructose Corn Syrup, and are made with healthy green tea and real lemonade.  Milk shake – infrequent check. Healthy bottled drinks – check.

Ambience:  The philosophy of this new direction is not confined to just the food and drinks only.  The napkins are made from 100% recycled paper, the light bulbs are highly efficient, the floor are made from sustainable bamboo, the tabletops are compressed sorghum, and the urinal is waterless (too much information here?).  The used olive oil is also recycled to make biofuel.   All these elements add to the feel-good energy when you step into this place.  Even the cook staff step out from behind the counter to bring your order to the table (using names and not numbers) and to check on the customer.  Low polluting sustainable caring environment – check.

Elevation Burger is offering something quite unique and revolutionary in the fast-food world.  But it is about time that we are challenged beyond our old habits and energies in order to be elevated with a new consciousness and direction, much like our President today announcing his support for equal marriage rights.  Putting philosophy and ethics aside, its offerings are nearly as good, or even better (mos def ethically), as the usual versions that we are accustomed and conditioned to.  Currently, they are available in only 10 states including the MVA area.  But judging by the crowd on my last visit, I’m sure this chain will take off in other states soon, and rightfully so.  With many branches in the area, my future visits to Elevation Burger might bring me closer to Burger Heaven/Nirvana.

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