Bamian Restaurant

IMG127Buying numerous online coupon offers to make my food blog pursuits more economical has a down side – forgetting to use them before their expiration date.  This has happened to me a few times now due to my forgetfulness or getting busy with the million and one things that life demands out of us, not to mention trying to get enough rest from being a hamster on the wheel.  Fortunately, some of these coupon companies allow the full value on the offer way past the special cut-off date.  Last weekend, after a Buddhist meeting, I remembered such coupon in my glove compartment to an Afghani restaurant close to the meeting point, and I plugged in the address.  After the long-winded instructions (GPS always takes you on the most crowded roads), I arrived at Bamian Afghanistan Restaurant in Falls Church, VA, on the busy Route 7.  Having patronized another restaurant of this Middle Eastern cuisine for many years, I was familiar with the cuisine, and I walked into the place with much anticipation.

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I opened my meal with a favorite Afghani appetizer – Mantu.  A quartet of these dumplings arrived covered with a lentil sauce, slathered with some yogurt sauce and a sprinkling of dry mint.  The dough skin was perfectly cooked, being not too thick or thin, strong enough to hold in a filling of ground beef and slivers of leek.  The meat pieces were mild in flavor and pieces of leek soft but still with a slight bite, complemented by the lentil sauce that boosted the dumpling flavor especially with the occasional burst of coriander seed found in the top sauce.  The yogurt sauce added a zing while the dried mint a clearing fresh flavor to all below it.  The side of house hot sauce was very intriguing, and it tasted like a pureed form of spicy Italian Giardiniera pickles which I kept dipping my spoon into.  I went through these pockets with no hesitation and with lots of gastronomic appreciation.  Great start.

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For my main courses, I ordered a couple of my favorites.  The first was the Vegetarian Platter.  The plate arrived with pools of sautéed pumpkin (Kadu), stir-fried eggplant (Baunjan), and stir-fried spinach (Subzi).   Each element on this plate was a different cast member (yeah, I’m watching the Oscars while I’m writing this).  The pumpkin was naturally sweet and bright orange without any sugar or coloring enhancement, tasting slightly rich from a tinge of clarified butter.  The eggplant was slightly sweet and tangy with hints of smoke wafting through this silky mixture.  The spinach was a shade of dark green with a dose of bitter notes, some from the leaves, but mostly from a Middle Eastern herb that I have tasted in Lebanese dishes, compensated by a good deliberate and necessary hit of salt calculated by an expert hand.  The basket of Nan bread had slices that were fresh, slightly yeasty and pillowy inside, making them the perfect vehicle to mop up all these vegetarian delights.

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The second main course was Kabob Murgh – Chicken Breast Kabob.  A mound of oiled Basmati rice was surrounded by a ring of chicken breast pieces.  The beauty in the presentation was echoed by my reaction within the first bite.  The pieces of poultry were perfectly executed both in the seasoning as well as in the marination of yogurt and spices, both subtle and present at the same time, hinting of cumin and other seed spices, producing moist morsels with a slightly charred exterior.  The rice was a slight assault on the taste buds initially with a big hit of cardamon and cumin within the first mouthful.  But once I got accustomed to the flavor, I started to appreciate the flavor along with the hay-like aroma of this mountain rice.  Despite being oilier than what I was used to, there was barely a hint of oil on the plate, and each grain was perfectly cooked.

IMG118I had not planned to write a blog on this establishment (excuse the smartphone photos).  But after savoring their wonderful offerings, it would be remiss not to mention this hidden treasure.  Starting from the delicately made yet flavor packed Mantu, to the Vegetarian Platter that would satisfy both the vegetarian eater and not-so, to the Chicken Kabob that was skilfully made with the flavorful and moist pieces of poultry  accompanied by a side of spice-packed oiled rice.   I had a clear view of the kitchen during the whole meal, and I was constantly eyeing the elderly cook plying his masterful trade.  “Hand Flavor” is rarely found in many eating places, but the cook in this place does impart that extra je-ne-sais-qoui to these Afghan staples.  If it weren’t for the long distance from my residence, I would be at this joint more often to enjoy the wonderful cooking.

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Woodlands

IMG048.jpgThe Lunar New Year has arrived already and as an annual custom, I would put up a fairly much-to-do about this occasion, especially given the fact that it is The Year of the Snake, my zodiac year.  Such cause for celebration has propelled me to recreate some dishes that reflect my background and the customs that I grew up with during this festivity.  In pursuit for some difficult-to-find ingredients for the Nyonya dishes that I’m about to cook this weekend, I had to visit some Indian stores in the heart of immigrant city, Langley Park, MD, in search of fresh curry leaves and dried red chilies.

Stepping out of the hallway of a strip mall that exuded a combination whaft of heady incense, exotic dried spices, and fragrant fresh strange herbs, I was about to head to my car when I suddenly recalled that a responder to my blog of a close-by Indian restaurant, Tiffin, recommended another establishment in that plaza that was pure vegetarian.  I looked around and walked past it in the rather busy run-down strip mall before stumbling across it on my way back.  Woodlands has been around for a number of years, back when I first visited it one night in the early 90’s.  I recall that my experience that night was quite memorable but unfortunately I never went back to pay it another visit until this serendipitous encounter, hence the cellphone photos unlike those from the Nikon.  Standing at the door, the restaurant had just opened its door for customers, and after a quick perusal of the lunch buffet line, I quickly took a seat in the half empty space.

When a buffet line is being served, there is no time for waiting and I went straight to it.  The starter was the Rasam Sambar which is a soup consisting of chunks of squash swimming in a light sour broth made spicy with dried chili and fragrant from curry leaves.  The buffet line offers two version, one with whole yellow lentils, and the other with pureed lentils that gives it a thicker consistency.  I enjoyed the biting spiciness along with the tasty bits of vegetable along with the lentils, which I preferred whole since this version’s broth was lighter for me – this hot sip always sets the right tone for me.

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When approaching the buffet line, you are assaulted by a humongous circular flat cast-iron pan serving the dish called Pav Baiji .  In the middle of the flatpan is a mound of potato curry surrounded by a ring of bits of raw cabbage and onion, followed by an outer ring of slices of baked bread loaf. I was not sure how to eat this dish since it was very novel to me, but upon research online, it is a typical lunch fare in Mumbai that has been made lighter for the back-breaking worker who has to return to menial labor after lunch.  I appreciated the authenticity of this dish and found the combination of the raw bites of vegetable complementary to the mild potato curry.  I did not touch the bread since I wanted to make room for the other good stuff.

IMG040.jpgA typical South Indian vegetarian fare is Masala Dosa which is rice flour pancake with a stuffing in the middle.  This restaurant’s version is as crispy as in others but it is not overstuffed with a heavy potato mixture.  Instead it is rather light with a thin layer in the middle.  The customary accompaniment of Coconut chutney made it more irresistible with its nuttiness punctuated with some fragrant curry leaves and spicy dried chilies.

There were many highlights from the buffet line.  Beetroot Poriyal is a combination of fine cubes of red beets cooked with fragrant cumin seeds that produced a dish devoid of the earthiness associated with this root vegetable.  Pala Paneer is a dish combining fresh firm cheese with a spinach puree.  What sets it apart from the more known Saag Paneer is that this version is not mixed with mustard green and it is not enriched with cream like the latter.  I enjoyed the smooth green puree that did not taste too bitter from the pure spinach and the cheese was mild but rather firm.  One dish that I could not get enough of was Avial, which consisted of tendli, which tasted like a chayote squash, “drumstick vegetable”, and potato that is thickened with some yogurt that provided a mild sourness which I enjoyed thoroughly.  Chickpeas are prominently featured in Indian vegetarian cuisine and one version offered here is Chana Chaat.  It is a melange of chickpeas and mashed potato seasoned with tamarind sauce, cilantro sauce, and tomato ketchup, elevating this dish beyond pure starch.  The bits of puffed vermicelli on top provided the necessary crispy texture to the mushy consistency.  It was one of my favorite dishes.

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The first serving was not enough since another plateful revealed more wonders.  Another common Indian appetizer was the first bite from this plate – Medu Wada.  These small savory lentil doughnuts were lighter than the ones I have savored, packed with some spice fragrance and a slight sourness that was complimented by the typical sauces.  The tamarind sauce was thick and dark, an indication of it being house-made with its sourness well tamed, and the cilantro sauce was flourescent creamy green replete with its herbaciousness – here we see the restaurant paying close details to the background players.  A couple of bites of the Fried Noodles dispelled any doubts of the dish’s appearance and I quite enjoyed the sweet and sour tomato-based sauce coating the delicate strands of noodles.  The Veggie Biryani was a heady rice dish spiked with whole pieces of cinnamon, cloves, and whole curry leaves.  The bits of pumpkin added the sweet element to this savory dish along with bits of rich cashew nut, which added a bit of unctousness to the mouthful.  Veggie Manchu are bits of whole vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried and lightly coated with a slightly sweet dark sauce, paying homage to its meat version, General Tso Chicken, which left me sated as if having eaten its original meat version.  A couple of servings of Chana Bandar sealed the deal for me about this restaurant’s authenticity and quality cooking.  Puffed dough shells are available for the customer to be stuffed with cooked chickpeas, further topped with fresh tomato and onion, puffed rice crispy, and moistened by a gravy or the tamarind or cilantro sauces.  I had only seen this dish on travel and culinary channels, and I was excited to finally savor this multi-flavored and textured dish – Yumm!

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Despite the level of satedness I was feeling, I could not resist having a few bites of dessert.  The first offering was Vermicelli Kheer made with  strands of fine vermicelli and tapioca pearls swimming in a pool of sweetened cooked milk.  I enjoyed a few spoonfuls of it before deciding that it was a bit too sweet for me.  Just when I thought I was eating some Halwa, a sweet carrot puree, it turned out to be Rava Kesari, a thick sweet cream of wheat orange mixture, filled with surprising chunks of sweet pineapple and almond slivers that made it difficult to put the spoon down.  Note to the diner – leave some room for these sweet dishes.

I walked out of Woodlands feeling both gastronomically satisfied and pleased that I had a chance encounter with this wonderful establishment, especially one serving authentic Southern Indian vegetarian fare.  An hour after my entrance, I passed by a long line of customers waiting for a table for Sunday lunch, hungrily anticipating the delicious offerings on the buffet line.  I walked past them noting to myself, “Why have I not been back all these years?” Now I know what I have been missing all these years.  Neither should you.

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Bistro D’oc

Bistro D'ocOn New Year’s Day, while walking down 10th St. NW near the heart of the financial district, I came across a quaint looking building, beaming like a sore thumb amidst an ocean of modern glass and steel structures.  When I noticed the large “Bistro” sign in the window, it thrilled me to know that there was a French eatery in the heart of town.  After having reviewed other French establishments in the MD suburbs (See K Town Bistro) and in the VA neighborhood of Alexandria (See Yves Bistro), I was eager to add a downtown locale to the list of restaurants of one of my favorite cuisines.

Located across the street from the infamous Ford’s Theater in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Bistro D’oc sits in a wooden and brick structure dating back to the 1830’s.  Walking through its doors you are immediately assaulted by the rich orange walls and deep ocean blue trimmings that evoke the colors of the Mediterranean.  This establishment celebrates the traditions and regional cuisine of Languedoc, hence the restaurant’s name, serving dishes commonly found in that southwest French province that borders Spain and the Mediterranean.  In addition to the bright color scheme, you are immediately transported to a different ambience that is a prelude of what to expect from a dining experience enhanced by the surrounding wooden structure, the old wall sconces, and the side furniture that evoke a yesteryear.

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DSC_1720.jpgOn my first visit, I invited my BFF to join me for dinner to celebrate my birthday.  From the moment of taking a seat, the attention to details are noticeable by the diner.  A complementary serving of bread and butter sets itself apart from the usual humdrum.  Here we have a large slab of fresh butter that is a far cry from the chintzy prepackaged little aluminium foil squares.  The French bread is truly veritable in quality with the hard outer crust covering an airy yet hearty flavorful inside.  On another visit, the glass of Burgundy that came as part of the $25 Pre/Post-Theater dinner was decent for a house wine that was low in tannin and rather full in body.  It is the attention to these minor details that sets the right mood for the rest of the meal.

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DSC_1305.jpgFor the appetizer on this occasion, I honed in on a vegetarian dish listed as a special, Eggplant Paté.  It arrived in a beautiful Le Creuset mini pot (I looked at its bottom) along with a few home-made croutons.  Digging into the pot, I was incredulous at the dish that consisted of  just roasted eggplant due to the rich flavors that permeated each mouthful.  Smooth bits of roasted eggplant are held in suspension by a rich puree that has been scented by some woodsy-minty thyme that added the note of interest.  Bits of cooked tomato contributed some slight sweetness to the whole dish.  The croutons were thin enough yet crusty to support a mound of this deliciousness but they quickly ran out before I reached the bottom of the pot – thank goodness for the slices of that tasty baguette.  This was truly a wonderfully delicious vegetarian paté, if there were one.

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Since my BFF was on his drastic diet for his upcoming Caribbean cruise, he opted for the Salad Languedoc.  The plate arrived with a mound of mixed greens piled on, topped with confit chicken gizzard, surrounded by a couple of paper-thin slices of Bayonne ham, with a truffle of peppered chicken liver pate, and finished with a light dressing of a decent tangy vinaigrette.  BFF and I were amazed at the tender bits of gizzard whose flavor was intensified by the confit (cooked in fat), the liver paté truffle smooth, rich, and pungent from the pepper, and the paper-thin ham tasted aged and musty from the barn that it was cured in, which is a good thing in this instance.  Here, we see in this dish the roots of Modern French cuisine stemming from country fare that are well done and sensitive to quality ingredients – hearty yet sublime.

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DSC_1319.jpgFor my main course (let’s not confuse it with the American misuse of the word entrée) I decided to order something that I rarely come across in the menu of most French establishments – Cassoulet Languedoc.  This hearty stew consists of French white haricot beans that have been stewed in a rich sauce and enriched by healthy chunks of duck confit (cooked in duck fat), lamb, pork, and Toulouse sausage.  This is a hearty gut-sticking food that speaks of the humble origins of this unfussy dish.  The beans were cooked just right, being not too soft and maintaining its integrity without being chalky firm, while the sauce it swam in was flavored by some aromatics and a good dose of woodsy thyme.  The various pieces of meat lent their own distinctive flavors to this dish from the rich duck confit, to the slightly gamey lamb, the pieces of porcine delight, and the flavorful and slightly fatty sausage.  The earthen bowl that the dish was served in added to the character of the dish that took this diner to a remote French farm where this stew would often be cooked.   In addition to my fawning over the unctousness of this bean dish, I admired the restaurant’s offering this time-consuming dish that many places would avoid serving.  This is classic Languedoc fare from the Southwest France, and with this dish this restaurant delivers.

DSC_1321.jpgAs a treat for my birthday on my first visit, I decided to indulge in the dessert special for that day.  It was offering an array of macaroons, and my order consisted of a couple made from coffee.  These were two perfectly round crispy yet crumbly discs made from merengue flavored with some coffee essence, stuffed with a creamy filling again flavored with the same heady coffee essence and with some nutty crushed hazelnut bits mixed in.  They were the perfect sweet bites to end the meal after having sated myself with the above rich dishes.  Small, sweet, and satisfying.

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As part of the Pre/Post-theater $25 three-course deal, I decided to start my meal with a Duck Rillette Paté.  A small bowl of this rich meat paste came served with a couple of the house-made croutons.  Pieces of shredded duck confit meat have been congealed with duck fat and heavily seasoned with black pepper.  The pate was smooth and quite meaty with a good dose of pepper bite in each bite.  The croutons were not enough to cover the amount of paté but the day was saved by the French bread slices.  However, I got a bit bored by the rich dish as the amount was rather generous, and the addition of some herbs or the heady truffle would have made it more interesting to my palate.  But I appreciated the rusticity in this version of pate which is the hallmark of this regional French cuisine.

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For my second course, I order Salmon in a Butter Red Pepper Sauce.  The moderate-size piece of salmon arrived napéd with a butter sauce studded with bits of sweet red and green peppers.  The piece of fish was moist, flaky, and perfectly cooked from having some time in the oven, complemented by a surprisingly light buerre blanc that added a richness to the salmon.  The chiffonade of fresh basil added a surprising anise flavor to the sauce and interesting touch to the dish.  The accompanying white basmati rice was well cooked with a tinge of salt to elevate it beyond pure starch.  A few capers thrown in to the sauce would have made the flavors perfect, but I was very satisfied with this dish and its skilful preparation.

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To round off this set of trio, I chose the Rasberry Mousse Bavaroise as my last course.  A glass arrived filled with the egg-cream-gelatine mixture at the bottom topped by a fairly thick layer of rasberry-blueberry compote.   The creamy bottom was filled with the raspberry flavor while its airy lightness somehow managed to defy the richness of the custard.   The topping was packed with soft chunks of cooked fruit providing the sweet fruitiness that paired perfectly with its bottom counterpart.  This was the perfect finale to the three-act meal that was satisfying with the flavors, made with moderate sized portions, and they were a demonstration of the kitchen’s knowledgeable skilful cooking.   This $25 deal is worth driving early to the city or visiting after a night out for a play.

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Bistro D’oc is a downtown location that offers unfussy, tasty, and skillfully cooked food that pays tribute to the Southwest region of France, the region from which the owner’s patriarch claims his roots in his homeland.  The dishes possess a level of humble earthiness while exuding a level of sophistication that is expected from French cuisine, a fare that can rarely be found in other places like the hearty Cassoulet, the rich Duck Rillette Paté, and the gizzard studded Salad Languedoc.  This place is replete with a warm and welcoming ambience that makes the diner most welcome without feeling the stuffiness that can be found in some establishments.  With their interesting and enticing offerings,the dinner specials, and the $25 deal, Bistro D’oc will see this diner popping in through their doors quite frequently in the future to savor this delicious French fare that speaks to the soul.

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Afghan Restaurant

My former roommate is an avid traveller mainly due to the exigencies of his job and a sense of wanderlust to see the world.  One of the perks for him is having the opportunity to visit a myriad of restaurants in various parts of the world.  One year, back from a trip to San Francisco, he was exuding with delight about having a wonderful meal in an Afghan restaurant.  Back then I was quite a connoisseur of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, but Afghan food was terra incognito within the realm of this palate.  One for gastronomic adventure, I knew I had to delve into this cuisine and find a restaurant serving such offerings after hearing my friend speak about his meal.

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Being the kind and considerate roommie that I was, I would pick my mate up from the airport back from his frequent trips.  For many years, we had driven by a nondescript building off the main road, with a large drap-looking sign that barely made an effort to entice passersby into its dining room.   After hearing my friend’s exuberant remarks about this exotic cuisine, we decided to pay a visit to Afghan Restaurant in Crystal City, VA, a stone throw away from Reagan National Airport (No, it is NOT “Reagan Airport” as some folks seem to truncate the name to – that irks me!). It took a bit of suspension of first impression judgement to enter its doors, and since then, we have not stopped returning to this establishment for over 15 years.

DSC_1088.jpgAlways up for something unique and out of the common, the adventure for me starts with the first bite, or in this case, the first sip.  Dogh is a fermented yogurt drink that has been lightened with some soda water and slightly brined by a touch of salt.  It has the slight creamy taste of whole-milk yogurt but this richness is cut by the mild sourness from the fermentation.  In addition, flecks of dried mint add the bite and slight herbaciouness to compensate the dairy flavor.  This drink is not for the novice and it is an acquired taste, of which my friends would wince and remark that it tastes like toothpaste.  Not for me – it is uniquely delish!

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DSC_1085.jpgAs for an appetizer, a favorite order is Mantu.  These are steamed dumplings that are filled with scallions and bits of minced beef.  The silky dough makes the perfect purse for the stuffing without being too thick or too delicate, providing support to the bits of not overly cooked scallion and morsels of tasty beef.  The slathering of  yogurt sauce along with a meat sauce made with a tasty tomato sauce and bits of vegetables makes this opener a tasty treat.  What amazes me is the resemblance of this dish to the Mandu dumplings popular in Korean eateries.  According to Wikipedia, the Mongols brought these meat purses from the Middle East to the Far East along the Silk Road in the 14th century – tasty bites with an interesting history.  Along with the steamed dumplings, a baked version, Boolawnee, proved to be equally tasty during past visits.

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The mainstay in Afghan cuisine are the meat dishes, especially the Kebabs that dominate a large portion of the menu.  The menu offers a variety to choose from: Chicken, Beef, Lamb, and Fish, in either whole pieces or in ground meat form.  Over the years we have zoned in on a couple of them in part due to their savouriness and in other part due to personal tastes of the other sharers: Boneless Chicken Thigh Kebab and Shami Kebab.  The chicken thigh version comes with pieces of chicken that have been marinated in a seasoning and perhaps in some yogurt to helps to tenderize these bits of dark meat.  The chunks come slightly charred and with a light smoky taste from having been grilled over charcoal while the meat remains moist and savory from the seasoning.   The Chicken Breast version is equally tasty and moist, but my dining mates prefer the stronger tasting dark meat.  The Shami Kebab is made from ground beef with some seasoning, grated sweet onions, and a bit of garlic.  These pieces of beef make a tasty bite due to the seasonings and it will even entice the not-so-beef eater.  But one can’t forget the humongous piece of freshly baked naan bread that makes the obligatory partner to this meal.  Pieces of dough have been cooked in the tandoor oven, providing a crispy outer shell with a moist stretchy fluffy inside.  The customary way of eating the pieces of chicken and beef is wrapping them with Naan bread and slathering the sandwiches with the accompanying spicy cilantro yogurt sauce.  This is a perfect combo that has you coming back  and wanting more with each bite.  A skewer of grilled onions, green peppers and tomatoes can be added to round off these meat dishes.

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Meat dishes definitely abound in this establishment.  However, we have discovered that Afghan cuisine is not all about meat like in many Middle Eastern dishes.  A section in the menu is dedicated to vegetarian dishes and they are worth discovering.  The Vegetarian Rice Platter is the perfect partner to balance out the above meat dishes and it is a must order.  This quartet comprises of sautéed spinach, roasted eggplant, stewed pumpkin, and Rice Palau.  The chopped spinach is well-seasoned with a tinge of sourness to counterbalance any bitter taste (none btw), the soft eggplant still in chunks and amazingly slightly sweet, the pumpkin soft and naturally sweet sitting in a small pool of rich ghee, and the grains of basmati rice fluffy, a bit oily and heavily scented by large cardamom pods that add some exotica to the lean looking grain.  The topping of caramelized carrot shreds and plump raisins brings more interest to this starch and it attempts to steal the highlight.  For my friends and me, our kebab dishes would not be complete without an order of this divine combination of vegetables and rice.  This easily would satisfy the most finicky vegetarian/vegan customer who would not think finding something worth ordering in a meat-laden menu.

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As for my former roommie, he seems to order only one dish: Super Combo.  It is definitely a combo that comes with a skewer each of chicken, lamb, and shami kebab, Rice Palau, along with a Qurma, a well-seasoned lamb stew.  This is truly a meat delight for the die-hard carnivore to which my friend has taken his vows.  The Qurma is very tasty with only a slight hint of the lamb gaminess that makes it palatable for the sensitive eater.  It is a dish worth ordering to get a sampling of the different meat offerings in this restaurant and for the famished diner.

The desserts are limited in the offerings.  However, apart from the predictable Baqlawa (Baklava), there is Ferni.  It is made with milk and cornstarch, and it is served chilled and topped with a dusting of pistachio bits.  It is akin to the usual rice pudding except the texture is a bit funky, much like an over-starched sauce that has congealed up.  Aside from this textural issue, it is a tasty dessert with a slight hint of Orange Blossom essence in the pudding.  Definitely a favorite of my mega-canivore friend.

In the best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, in which the author chronicles life during pre-Taliban Afghanistan, we see a frequently appearing character, Ali, who is the family’s long-time servant.  He was faithful, constant, unassuming, and ever-pleasing.  In more than the 15 years that we have been visiting Afghan Restaurant, it has demonstrated the very same qualities in the food that we relish in during our meals, never dipping in food quality or warmth in service.  Just like the Ali character’s demure personality, or display sign in the restaurant’s case, one cannot discern beyond the looks, or in this case, how wonderful and enticing Afghan cuisine is unless he or she walks through those double doors.  Or you may be invited to the wedding dinner in the banquet hall if you accidentally enter the adjoining room.  Either way, the experience is never disappointing.

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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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Just Jerk

OK, you have read my quibble about local DC folks dismissing the county that I live in, Prince George’s, as a culinary wasteland.  But such disrespect has only spurred me to increase my efforts in finding decent eateries to disprove that, such as my blogs on Asian Wings Cafe (see blog) and Tiffin (see blog).  The DMV area is a magnet for attracting different immigrant groups to the area, and PG is no exception.  With this migration, groups of newcomers have formed pockets in the various suburbs, and along with this, there has been a burgeoning of various ethnic cuisine eateries, especially those that cater to folks of African descent from the Caribbean and Africa.  The county may not boast as many high-end restaurants as in the wealthier counties or downtown DC, but this fact does not dampen the discerning palates of the local folks, and this is evident in some of the eateries that I have encountered recently.

Conversing with a gentleman who hails from Guyana in a house party, I was querying him about some of his favorite local eats.  He mentioned of a Jamaican jerk shack in PG that many from the Caribbean have raved about, which I became quite excited about.  I have had my fair share of Caribbean eats around my area, especially from Mom-and-Pop eateries and a local Caribbean food chain.  However, many of my visits have been marred by uninspired cooking that has been watered down to cater to the American palate, or the food has been lacking in authentic seasoning or even cooked improperly (and unfortunately) in the oven.  With this new recommendation in mind, I was looking forward to checking this new eatery out.

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Just Jerk is tucked away in the corner of the parking lot of a sad-looking strip mall, opposite from an equally nearly lifeless Red Roof Inn in Lanham.  My first trip to it was very frustrating as I had a hard time locating it and maneuvering in the area whose roads made turnarounds close to impossible.  Walking into the deep-green and bright yellow wooden shack which immediately livens up its drap surroundings, you will notice a large order counter across from a long eating counter, along with a donation box requesting contributions of crayons and “composition” books (haven’t seen that word since my English school days) for Jamaican school children.  The air is filled with sounds of Jamaican radio, either the pulsating Reggae beats or the local crime report (“suspect had dark complection” – that wouldn’t fly here at all).  A large poster hung next to the order counter spelled out the simple menu with its short list of offerings.  This joint exudes Jamaica without even trying.

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As an appetizer, Jamaican patties make the perfect small bite, and this place offers their versions made with beef, chicken, or spinach.  The Beef Patty had a crust that flaked easily under the fork, exposing the beef stuffing that had a strong flavor very much like oxtail.  It was perfectly seasoned, and the “beefiness” was not off-putting but very savory and tempting to any beef lover.  For the vegetarians, the Spinach Patty had an equally flaky pastry even though it was a bit milder than the meat version.  The spinach stuffing was perfectly seasoned without the bitterness of the spinach leaf, tasting much like the Caribbean leaf, Callaloo.  There was a certain unctiousness and smoothness in this bite that I did not expect from a vegetarian offering.  Both the patties tasted fresh and well-made, having a subtle quality that put them above those I have tasted in other establishments.

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DSC_7796.jpgTouting itself as a Jerk House, the house’s special of Jerk Chicken was the first main course that I ordered.  I was looking forward with great anticipation to this dish, and each bite was a revelation in savouring proper Jerk cooking after having tasted less-satisfactory versions elsewhere.  This place really gets this food preparation right.  The meat had the flavorings and seasonings well-penetrated into every morsel while remaining moist and succulent.  The skin was crispy and smoky from the charcoal grilling, with the fat completely rendered, which is the only way Jerk should be cooked, unlike the baked versions.  But it is the jerk spice flavorings on top that make this dish truly successful and spectacular, tasting of the fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers, the dark sweet notes of allspice, the woodsy and minty Caribbean thyme,  and the depth of flavor brought by vegetable aromatics.  On another visit, an order of the Jerk Kingfish had similar treatment but I found the fish a bit too dry for my taste, which is common in seafood cooking outside of North America.  The accompanying sides were equally well-cooked and well-seasoned, attempting to steal the show from the main star: the rice and peas filled with flavor with al dente and not mushy pigeon peas (obviously house cooked and not tinned), the fried sweet plantains cooked at the right stage of sweet ripeness which should be called dessert, and the stewed cabbage made fragrant from fresh thyme and still slightly crunchy from the light cooking.  The portions were big and I could make two meals out of each order.  As I write this blog those fantastic jerk flavors are still haunting my taste buds.

DSC_7780.jpgJamaican cuisine has a long history of vegetarian/vegan  cuisine as many eating establishments try to cater to the Rastafarian community who follow such a diet.  It was interesting to see on the menu a Jerk Portabello mushroom sandwich named after the Jamaican Black Nationalist, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, and I had to try it.  The huge caps of mushroom were properly grilled with a slathering of the jerk which tended to overwhelm the subtle mushroom caps with its strong seasoning.  However, I enjoyed the “meaty” texture sandwiched by the pieces of fluffy Coco bread that had a slightly sweet and rich quality.  The Cassava/Yucca fries that accompanied the sandwich blew me away with the crispy exterior and soft mash-potato texture inside – obviously, the roots have been boiled and pureed, before being extruded into the deep fryer.  This brought back memories of the Churros I ate for my first blog, La Churreria de Madrid (see blog).  What a wonderful Caribbean version of fries!

DSC_7837.jpgNo decent Caribbean eatery would have Curry Chicken amiss from its menu, and Just Jerk is no exception.  Its version was quite tasty and decent, but a bit dry for me.  It could have done with a bit more sauce and more heat in the curry spices.  I have to remind myself often that Caribbean Curry is not quite as fragrant and spicy as South Indian curry dishes that I grew up tasting from Indian restaurants in Southeast Asia.  It always amazes me to see this Indian-influenced dish cooked in Caribbean establishments, pointing to the history of British colonization and the importing of East Indians to the region.   As for another dish, Brown Stew, a friend’s verdict on this Jamaican staple was thumbs-up with the chicken well-seasoned and falling off the bone -it is definitely high on the next order list.

DSC_7856.jpgThere is only one choice for dessert in this small eatery – Sweet Potato Cake.  I could not resist ordering a slice of this during one of my visits since the offering of a single dessert by any establishment only spells  “Must be good.”  And it sure was!  The cake was moist and light, with subtle but discernible notes of molasses, cinnamon, cloves, and dry ginger.  The white frosting coating was light, not too sweet, and slightly tangy.  I  could have this for snack any day, which would transport me to taking High Tea on a Caribbean plantation.

Just Jerk truly delivers on the expectations based on its name.  Finally, I have found a Jerk place that is veritable with its delectable offerings, pointing to how this dish is truly savored on the Caribbean island.  Yes, the orders can be a bit slow, the jerk may run out before closing (they cook just enough in small batches), and the offerings are limited.  But what they do and offer, they get it just right.

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Mediterranean Kabob

Note: The restaurant is currently under new management with a new menu.

My introduction to Persian cuisine came by in a most unlikely and circuitous way. My twin brother and I were college students in Memphis, TN, and we were active members of the International Student Union. Its president was a charming and feisty young Persian lady that my brother had started to date and spend a lot of time with. On the weekends, we would go over to her mother’s house in Midtown, and walking in, you were immediately enveloped by the most wonderful waft of exotic food that awaited us. One of my favorite dishes was a chicken rice dish that was delicately perfumed by a handful of fresh dill, and it was usually brought out with the golden-brown bottom crust nestled on the top as its crown, which was considered the most prized part. After dinner, we would sit around on the plush carpet and pillows while we cracked nuts and peeled fresh pomegranates as dessert, while sensual Persian music played in the background as we tested our limberness with some rhythmic hip gyrations aided along by some youthful imbibing. My college days in the 80’s were filled with excitement and cultural adventure, despite being in the Mid-South and the “quiet uneasiness” that saturated its air.

A few years ago, having already relocated to the DC metro area, I moved from the middle part of the county to the most northern part, Laurel, MD. It was a big change for me especially culinary-wise. In my new area, I have at my doorstep a wide variety of restaurants, especially ethnic ones, that my old stomping ground was severely lacking. Just off the city’s main thoroughfare is Mediterranean Kabob that sits in the corner of the courtyard of a fairly new set of condominiums. When I first stepped into its doors, I was glad to find a place where decent Middle Eastern food was served and close to me. It has the usual fare that we would usually associate with this cuisine: Kabobs, Pita Bread, Stuffed Grape Leaves, Basmati Rice, Falafels (real good, btw), Gyro sandwiches, and Baklavas for dessert. But since last year, a $10 lunch buffet has been added during the work week, and here we see the restaurant offering the customer some really exciting and unique Persian dishes that have made me sit-up with attention.

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Available on the buffet line are the usual cold dishes of a simple Salad, Tabouleh, Flatbreads, and Cucumber Yogurt Sauce. The salad was nothing out of the ordinary except for the accompanying spicy cilantro sauce that added a kick to the mild greens. The Tabouleh was decent but I would prefer more lemon juice that would make my mouth pucker the way I like this bulgur wheat and parsley salad. When I was visiting the last time, a young Persian, Siamak, and his brother were making and baking different Persian breads from scratch. I was presented a most interesting flatbread that had a scattering of black and white sesame seeds, along with some dried herbs and exotic Nigella black seeds (akin to poppy seeds but more fragrant) on top of its surface. The toasted seeds made the bread very irresistible with their nuttiness, coupled with the fragrance from the dried herbs. A good started indeed.

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Usually, there is a wonderful hearty soup on the buffet line which is far from the usual buffet offering. On one visit, the opener for my meal was a most interesting soup – Ashe Tomato. Nila, the main cook, explained to me that it was a soup that is cooked by Turkish immigrants in Iran. It was a light and slightly spicy tomato broth that was made with bulgur wheat, couscous, cilantro, fresh chilis, and marble-size beef-and-onion meatballs, which were surprisingly light and added the necessary meatiness to the soup. It definitely piqued my curiosity, and I had to refrain from filling up on it after a couple bowls of this deliciousness.

Mediterranean Kabob 012.jpgWith a few visits, I have fallen in love with Khoresht-e Fesenjoon, an exotic concoction of chicken in a pomegranate concentrate and ground walnut sauce. The first time I tasted it, I was transported to another world by the interesting and slightly sweet-and-sour flavors that had permeated the meat completely, judging by the amber-colored interior. According to the manager, Manoocher, it takes 3 hours of patient stirring to produce this ancient recipe, that at times he is up late making it. Such care in cooking this dish produces a thin layer of light green walnut oil that makes this dish prized by older Persians for its heart-curative qualities, according to Nila, along with the antioxidants in the pomegranate. I must admit that it is a rather rich dish with a thick sauce that clings to the moist and flavorful pieces of meat. But the interesting flavor profile makes one wanting more of this exotic dish. It used to be offered on the line only once a week, but due its popularity, it makes a daily appearance, which I am glad to see.

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The Chicken Kebab is good here. Chunks of chicken breast have been marinated and quickly cooked in the tandoor. The meat is still moist with the edges barely singed by the high heat. Usually there is freshly baked naan bread served along with it, but in my last visit, I was offered some wholesome whole-wheat flatbread. The yogurt-cucumber sauce provided the perfect moist accompaniment to this tasty bite.

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A dish often served on the buffet line is a tomato stew consisting of chunks of beef, wide slices of sautéed eggplant and tomato, onions and turmeric. The meat has been stewed long enough to have absorbed the flavorful liquid and be fork tender, along with the wide slices of vegetables that hold on to their integrity after a short stay (15 minutes) in the pot. The soft vegetables provide the necessary textures and flavors that act as the perfect foil while adding contrast to the bolder meat. All these elements make this dish very delectable and complex, with a certain homely simplicity at the same time. The fluffy basmati rice is the perfect backdrop to this wonderful saucy dish.

Gheymeh Beef Stew and Fava Bean Dill Rice

On another visit, I tasted a unique Persian dish for the first time – Gheymeh Beef Stew. It was an interesting thick stew of beef chunks, lentils, and potato. This dish is lightened by the addition of dried limes that add the citrus sour note to the dish that would otherwise be quite flat and heavy tasting. Savoring it for the first time was an eye-opener as I was trying to discern the interesting flavors that were quite foreign to me. A side of Fava Bean Rice perfumed by fresh dill and saffron (the real stuff) was the perfect accompaniment to the dish. This pair is not a daily offering on the buffet line, but it is worth catching when available.

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Vegetarians are not forsaken here. Besides the salads, rice, and breads, there is usually a vegetable offering. A light potato, green pepper, and carrot stew on the last visit was tasty and quite fulfilling. The potatoes were cut into large portions, enough to give one the feeling that the tuber was not going to allow itself to be overshadowed by the other bolder meat dishes. Another vegetarian offering on a previous visit consisted of a potato stew seasoned with ginger, cumin, coriander seeds, and a little cinnamon. On this day I almost became vegetarian by this wonder of a dish, which made me nearly forget the day’s other offerings – few can make vegetables this exciting as the kitchen did with this dish.

If you happen to be in Laurel during the weekday during lunch time, it would be amiss not to stop by Mediterranean Kabob for the lunch buffet that offers exotic and unique Persian dishes that sing about a glorious history of a wonderful cuisine. The small crowd of Persian customers savoring the dishes and the sound of Farsi in the air are a good testament to the level of cooking here. Under the hands of Nila, the cook, these perfectly seasoned dishes are tempting for one to go back for repeats even when conventional wisdom says to go light on the midday meal. However, after a few fork and spoonfuls, you will not regret having over-eaten, and maybe start planning the next time you would pay visit to this modest yet wonderful eatery.

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