Mandalay

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I’ve known Mandalay Restaurant for many years, even before its formal existence. After my college days, I discovered that the owners of a doughnut shop in College Park served some Burmese fare on Sundays as the result of some customers’ demand. After a few years of popularity, it closed its carry-out joint and opened a formal space in downtown Silver Spring, MD. I must admit that I have forgotten to pay them a visit to write this blog even though I have been meaning to for the longest while. So, here it is.

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I remember a couple of appetizers from my visits years ago. The first was Squash Fritters. Pieces of zucchini-like vegetable have been battered and deep-fried, served with a spicy sauce. The vegetable exuded a mild flavor while the batter was both uniquely crispy and slightly elastic by the use of rice flour; unfortunately, the batter was a bit oil-logged. The chili sauce, tasting house-made, was sweet, spicy, sour, and salty, being the necessary condiment to add a good punch to the mild bites.  The comrade to this appetizer is the eggplant version. Here, instead of the firmer squash, the bites had a creamy smooth interior, and this time the frying was expertly done with less of a greasy feel.

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An appetizer that sounds unique and exotic is the Green Tealeaf Salad. The plate arrived with a cornucopia of ingredients and textures: crunch cabbage leaves, crispy fried lentils, slices of tomato, caramelized garlic slivers, all brought together with crushed tea leaves and a splash of fish sauce (an option provided by the server). The first bite can be disarming for the uninitiated with the rather strong tannin from the green tea leaves.  But after a few mouthfuls, the palate picks up the other elements and the fish sauce that balance out the stringency. This is definitely up my alley as something gastronomically adventurous that spells uniquely Burmese.

20180617_132255Another small bite that caught my attention was Gram Fritters. One bite into them took my by surprise as it was beyond what I expected. Instead of a stodgy dough, what I tasted was crispy on the outside and fluffy light and savory in the middle, with an airy sponginess to the mix that made them very appealing. The lentil flour mix was well-seasoned and made aromatic and interesting by the use of curry leaves. Here, we have a dish that clearly points to Burma’s location as neighbor to the South Indian continent with this Indian-influenced dish. With textures and flavors like these, I wouldn’t hesitate to make this a regular order on my visits.

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Another well-known Burmese dish is a soup called Mohingar. I tried it years ago at this place, and I give the dish a revisit. The first sip this time was a bit of a shock: the soup was very fishy and there was an interesting funk to it that somehow reminded me of chitterlings, if that is possible. The slices of onion added some sweetness, and the cilantro added some herbaciousness while the lime juice the necessary brightness that cut through the strong fishiness. Despite the overwhelming flavor, I quite enjoyed the noodle soup. Perhaps, this batch was cooked and reheated for a bit too often since my online research pointed towards freshly made recipes with chunks of fish, instead of being pureed in this version.

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My order on one visit was Pork and Pickled Mango Hin.  I have had this dish a couple of times before, and this time it didn’t fail on its promise.  The chunks of meat were not too porky but fork tender without being overcooked. The sauce was a unique combination of chili heat, a bit of sourness from the pickled mango made tender from the stewing, and a unique brininess from the mango pickling that added more allure to the dish. A note of fennel seed added some punch to this mix that kept my interest with each bite.  My companion’s order was Catfish ChoyChin Gway. Pieces of fresh catfish has been fried slightly crisp and then stir-fried with some sweet onions and green peppers. The sauce was the binding element that brought everything together with its slight sweetness, a good heat of chili heat (perhaps dried chili paste) and a fruitiness from perhaps crushed tomatoes.  This flavor combination was subtlely unique without over challenging the taste buds, and I kept going back to that wonderful sauce.

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20180617_133452DanPauk was a dish I remembered as the establishment’s signature dish that was first served in its early days as the donut shop. Here we have pieces of chicken thigh cooked tender and tasting well-marinated with a sauce made sweet with a chockfull of caramelized onions. But its rice companion pretty much steals the show with its heady perfume of cardamom, cumin, and saffron, along with bits of peas and plump raisins that made each forkful very foodgasmic. A beef dish called Ame Thar Hnut was a friend’s order. The beef was a quality cut cooked until fork tender, slathered in a sauce reminding me of Malay rendang with its root and spice herbs. Although it lacked in spice heat (my friend’s request), this dish was another winner.

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A dessert harking to Indian cuisine is Shweji much alike the Indian Sooji. Instead of the milk and butter version semolina pudding of its neighbor, what we have here is a version made with coconut milk. Pieces of raisin echo the appropriate sweetness that is not cloying at all. The topping of poppy seeds add a slight crunch to this warm sweet goodness – make sure to save some room for this happy ending.

20180615_194548Mandalay is one of the handful of Burmese establishments in the DMV area, and it does a wonderful job with its offerings which were well-prepared, tasting unique to that part of the world, and exciting to the palette. The appetizers of the fritters were a good start with fresh vegetal qualities paired with that awesome chili sauce, as well as the one made with lentils that blew me away. Yes, the Mohingar soup here was a bit of a challenge, but a fresh pot of it would probably win anyone over. As for the entrees, the ones we ordered checked the right boxes, including the Sunday special and the signature dish, DanPauk, which would make anyone make a special trip just to savor it. And don’t foget to always leave room for that warm Shweji.

Mandalay Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a  stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas.  One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DC
I recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order.  The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer.  This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.

Shaky Beef, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles.  Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe.  The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal.  It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses.  I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me.  The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Fourth Estate

Istanbul and Beyond

Early this week, I was invited by Robyn Eckhardt for the the book signing/dinner at the launching of her newly published cookbook “Istanbul and Beyond” (link) made visually alive by the wonderful photographs taken by her husband David Hagerman. Having been friends online with the food journalist couple and having tested a few of the recipes when the book was in the writing stage, I was more than eager in meeting them and partaking in this special dinner. The event took place at The Fourth Estate restaurant located at the top floor of the National Press Club at downtown Washington DC. For dinner, the various courses were taken from the pages of the cookbook, and we savored the myriad of Turkish flavors while the author and her husband regaled us with storied from their personal journey in the making of the cookbook. Here is a rundown of the whole meal:

Rice-stuffed Mussels - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Appetizer: Ari’s Rice-stuffed Mussels with All-Spice, Raisins, and Pinenuts.

Zucchini Dolma/Chile Cheesebread - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Appetizer: Zucchini Beef Dolma and Soft Cumin Pepper Paste Cheese Flatbread

Purple Basil Cooler - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Cocktail: Purple Basil Cooler

Lemony Okra Tomato Soup - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

1st Course: Lemony Okra Tomato Soup with Garlic Toast

Herbed Mackerel Cakes - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

2nd Course: Herbed (Anise/Cinnamon) Bluefish Cakes with Hot Pink Pickled Cabbage and Dill Garlicky Yogurt.

Apple Sorbet and Pomegranate Seeds - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Intermezzo: Locally-made Apple Sorbet and Pomegranate Seeds

Butter Lamb Onion Stew - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Entrée Course: Butter Lamb Onion Stew and Spinach Peas Rice

Creamy Fig Pudding - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC.
Dessert: Creamy Fig Pudding

Fragrant Orange Cookies - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Dessert: Fragrant Orange Cookies

Cinnamon Tea - The Fourth Estate, Washington DC

Digestif: Warming Cinnamon Tea

Throughout the meal, I was constantly impressed by the exotic yet alluring flavors of the various dishes that spoke of food beyond the usual Turkish fare that most of us are familiar with. The mussels were a surprise due to the sweet and allspice notes that one would never consider pairing with the seafood. The okra was devoid of slime due to a secret technique in the cookbook in handling this prickly vegetable, making the citrusy lamb-based soup even more appealing with its vegetal crunch. The fish cakes were another surprise with its pairing with anise and cinnamon which was an odd for fish, but somehow it worked. The lamb stew was buttery rich but completely delicious with the diners at my table wanting more. The fig pudding was deceptively simple in description, but it left us with a level satisfaction that any complicated French dessert would. Ultimately, it is the skill level of this kitchen that made each dish deliver the proper flavors with a level of refinement that kept the diner impressed and feeling properly bestowed upon throughout each course. Judging by the dishes we savored that night, I am definitely tempted to return to this restaurant for their regular fare which I can assume will live up to my expectation. It was a wonderful evening indeed, as I nightly leaf through Robin Eckhardt’s amazing opus to continue discovering this unchartered cuisine and to revisit that night’s gastronomic reveries.

Fourth Estate Restaurant at the National Press Club Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Indigo

Indigo, Washington DC

In my last blog, I quibbled about the logistical and parking issues that Washington D.C. poses to the suburbanite who wants to venture into town for a decent meal, hence my lack of blogs on its eating establishments as of late. After posting a photo of my meal at my favorite Indian eatery on social media, a friend of Indian descent invited me to join him for a meal at his favorite spot serving the same South Asian fare.  Having not heard about that locale and realizing that it was in a quiet neighborhood, I decided to met up my friend and his lover, as well as another couple, to sample their offerings.

Indigo, Washington DC

Taj Lager Beer and Condiments - Indigo, Washington DCIndigo is a corner townhouse that has been remodeled with a few tables on the ground floor as well as the rather cramped kitchen behind it.  But the appeal for the customer lies in the garden that is replete with brightly colored benches and tables, as well as a tikki-like bar to the side.  After perusing the slightly over-whelming board of a menu, we placed our orders and found a seat in the garden patio with a bottle of Indian lager beer and some typical condiments.  The alcoholic beverage was quite hopsy with a slight sweet aftertaste, reminding me of Southeast Asian lagers that I grew up on.  The Chutney was fruity and sweet, yet hinting of some spice notes.  The Achar pickles tasted house-made with the softened fruits and vegetables paired with some chili and seed spices, a good mix that made it quite proper.  The mint/coriander sauce was a bit sour-sweet, redolent with the herbal qualities of the leaves present in the sauce, making it irresistibly sippable.  As for our orders, here is the rundown of the different dishes that we savored:

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower.

Chicken Saag, Pumpkin, Mushroom, Okra, Cauliflower - Indigo, Washington DC

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas.

Chicken Tikka, Cabbage, Chickpeas - Indigo, Washington DC

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal.

Lamb Curry, Gobhi, Eggplant, Saag, Daal - Indigo, Washington DC

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin, Flat Bread.

Goat Curry, Cauliflower, Okra, Eggplant, Pumpkin - Indigo, Washington DC

The main/meat dishes:

The Chicken Saag was a combination of tender pieces of chicken that tasted well-seasoned due to a marination, paired with a silky smooth puree of spinach that was devoid of any bitterness, spiked by a good dose of fresh ginger that brightened the mix as well as providing some spice heat.  This dish was very sumptuous and one of the best versions that I have tasted, making me return to it continuously.  The Goat and the Lamb Curries had pieces of tender meat, an indication that they were stewed long enough in a sauce similar for both meats, but without falling apart due to some skillful timing in the kitchen.  The tomato-based sauce was perfumed with the proper spice mixture that was well-balanced as not to overwhelm the natural meat flavors that managed to assert their presence without any extraneous gaminess.  As for the Chicken Tikka, I did not manage to be presumptuous enough to poke my fork into a newly-made acquaintance’s plate, but he seemed rather satisfied evidenced by the few morsels left at the end of the meal.

The sides:

All the orders came with a copious amount of Basmati rice that was light and fluffy, seasoned with salt (which some establishments omit, unfortunately), studded with whole cumin seeds, and was made healthy with ribbons of fresh spinach.

The Cauliflower came in large whole pieces that were not overcooked, seasoned with cumin, tomato and a good dose of turmeric judging by its rich yellow hue.

The Okra was still al dente and surprisingly not slimy at all, paired with some sautéed onion and fresh tomato, reminding me of the Southern-styled preparation.

The Mushrooms were quite firm and meaty, cooked in a tomato puree sauce, tasting spicy with chili heat, and fragrant from cinnamon, making it a very appealing hit for this mushroom lover.

The Pumpkin was surprising not sweet like most other preparations, but it had notes of squash along with chili heat, spiking ginger, and onion sweetness.

The Eggplant was wonderfully smokey, vegetable sweet, and silky smooth, reminding me of a properly prepared babaghanouj which made me return my fork often into my friend’s tray.

The Daal Lentils were cooked until very smooth and spiced with woodsy spices without overwhelming the legumes.

The Cabbage was cooked without any mushiness and made interesting with anise seeds, and garam marsala, with some chili heat that produced a back throat burn.

The Raita was quite thick for a yogurt sauce, tasting much creamier than the usual kind, quite salty, and having thin cucumber strands running though it, which became the perfect relieving foil for all the spices and heat in the other sides and meat courses.

The flatbread was not the usual fluffy Pratha or Naan Bread but more a wheaty textural bite that reminded me of Chapati bread or the Tamil-style Tosai.

Indigo, Washington DCMy friend was right, and thankfully so, to steer me to this place.  What Indigo offers is what superb Indian food is all about: interesting and differentiated spicing (not a monolithic seasoning approach like some inferior establishments practice), freshly cooked dishes with equally fresh ingredients (not reheated tired leftovers), and a good variety of dishes to accommodate the knowledgeable diner.  What I tasted that night exemplified the above qualities, which made the experience satisfying on many levels and pleasing to this diner who has found an Indian establishment in the city, albeit not downtown (a relief), worth mentioning and with high praises.  The place’s funkiness has a wonderful charm that makes good food the great equalizer, with the garden furniture making no distinction whoever sits on it to enjoy their meal.  Indigo is a great find indeed which deserves my many future repeat visits.

Indigo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Ethiopian cuisine poses a few challenges on different levels.  First, there is a plethora of restaurants serving this fare due to the influx of immigrants from that East African region resulting in a boom of restaurants beginning from the 1980’s.  With so many to choose from, it has been a challenge for me to pick a place to write on.  The other issue is that Ethiopian food, especially the spongy injera bread, creates a textural challenge for most Americans who tend to steer away from this soft or mushy feel especially when eaten customarily with the bare hand.  With this said, I have problems finding enough friends to join me to partake in this type of meal.  But last weekend, I managed to corral a couple of die-hard friends for this rare treat.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe - Silver Spring, MD

Downtown Silver Spring, MD has taken a transformation the last few years, and it has become the hub of Ethiopian gastronomic and social life judging by the high number of such establishments dotting its square blocks.  When I noticed an online offer for Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe, I knew I couldn’t bypass such a deal especially from an establishment in that area.   Walking through its doors, you notice the strong rich colors on the walls, the photo mural on the ceiling and vibrant tile work on the wall, all decorating the booths and tables in the rather narrow shotgun space.  I was tempted to sit outside on its sidewalk patio, but with a friend suffering from seasonal allergies, we chose to go inside instead.

Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac Cafe Lesaac Veggie Deluxe - Lesaac CafeHaving savored Ethiopian food a number of times over the years, I have got familiar with some of their regular dishes.   Cooked vegetables stand out in this cuisine, and we ordered the Lesaac Veggie Deluxe.  What arrived was a large platter layered with the sourdough injera bread topped with nine bean and vegetable dishes.  The collard greens tasted quite savory and were not too mushy but cooked well. The red beets were a novelty for me since I never encountered them in this cuisine: they were naturally sweet, tasting slightly earthy, and enriched by some butter that took them to another level.  The Yellow split peas were well-seasoned and also well-cooked, cooked to a level of doneness without being mushy.  The same level of doneness were the red lentils that were mixed with some Berbere chili paste and tasted a bit tangy, which made them interesting.  The green beans and carrot were cooked well-done without being too soft and tasted vegetal sweet and garlicky.  The salad was really tangy and salted from a vinaigrette made of citrus juice and herbal seasoning, making it a palate cleanser in between bites.  The cabbage was soft, naturally sweet and quite garlicky.  The green beans were quite mushy, slightly under seasoned and reminded me of lentils.  The middle mound of red split peas was a puree seasoned with a smokey spicy concoction.  With such variety in offerings, flavors, textures, and seasoning, my dining friends and I were in hog heaven with this dish that tasted the best that I have ever savored, and I could have been perfectly content indulging on this vegetarian platter.

Doro Wat - Lesaac CafeAnother recognized dish from my foray into this cuisine is a popular one – Doro Wat.  The bowl arrived with a heaping amount of thick sauce covering a lone piece of chicken and boiled egg.  One taste of the sauce put everything into perspective.  The customary scant piece of chicken with the lone egg always perplexed me with its small portion of protein.  But this time, I realized what this dish was really about – the sauce.  It tasted smokey and spicy from the Berbere chili powder, rich from butter, and quite sweet from a copious amount of onions.  In addition, there was a slight burn after each bite coupled by a mild tanginess from the dried peppers, which made the sauce totally irresistible and reminding me of good Mexican molé sauce.  The side of crumbled cheese was interesting since it was devoid of salt or cheese pungency, but it played a minor role of adding more richness and making the spicy sauce milder to the palate.  The side of injera bread was the perfect vehicle to mop up all the goodness, which I would have done so if weren’t for the other dishes.  Finally, I have savored a damn good version of this famous dish which has revealed its real gastronomic truth to this diner.

Ethiopian Fish Gulash - Lesaac Cafe

For my pescatarian fellow diner, we order Fish Gulash upon the waitress’ recommendation.  The large bowl arrived with pieces of fish covered by a rather thick red sauce and studded by bits of jalapeño peppers.  The bits of fish were mild tasting and a bit crispy from some frying, covered with a slightly tangy tomato-based sauce made sweet with lots of onions and spiced by the peppers.  My fellow diners raved about this dish for its fresh tasting seafood, confirmed as fresh tilapia (surprise!), and the bright tasty sauce that married well with the fish.  The side of salad was a bright mix with a tangy vinaigrette that was the perfect companion to this dish.  This was definitely a hit with us and I’m looking forward to savoring this new dish again.

Ethiopian Meat Omelet - Lesaac CafeWith some credit left on the coupon, the waitress suggested an item from the breakfast section – Meat Omelet.  The omelet arrived with some toast to complete the meal.  The egg mixture was quite savory with pieces of slightly seasoned and tasty beef, mixed with  onions, green peppers, and tomato that lent their vegetal sweetness, tanginess, and slight crunch that made each mouthful interesting and comforting.  The egg was a bit firmer than the usual French version, but it was nearly greaseless and  something that I enjoyed after having eaten egg cooked this way growing up in Asia.  This dish would be an order when I’m in the mood for some Ethiopian breakfast.

Finally, I have found an Ethiopian restaurant that I could say really justifies what this Eastern African cuisine is all about. The Veggie platter blew us away with the variety of vegetable dishes with their freshness, flavors, and cooking. The Doro Wat dish was completely revelatory for me with the secret being the sauce, and I waited all these years to savor a version that spoke volumes to me. The Fish Gulash was definitely another hit with its mild sweet fillets covered by a savory bright sauce. For breakfast, I would not hesitate ordering their Meat Omelet that was both comforting and satisfying. With food this good and definitely authentic, judging by the nearly all Ethiopian clientele (interestingly nearly all male, but a cultural norm), this is another new-find and a favorite locale for this cuisine.

Lesaac Ethiopian Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Northwest Chinese Food

NW Chinese FoodFinding veritable Chinese cuisine in the DMV is as challenging as locating an endangered species.  I attribute that to two causes: the long history of Chinese-American food that was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the West Coast at the turn of the 20th century, and the lack of demand for authentic Chinese cuisine until recently with the tide of immigrants from the Mainland.  In the last couple of years I have come across establishments serving fare that would satisfy the truth-seeker culinary wise.  Recently, I read that there was a small hole-in-the-wall in my old college neighborhood, College Park, MD, serving regional Chinese food.  Northwest Chinese Food (name lacks originality, but not culinary confusion) is located on the main drag sandwiched by other eating establishments that are desperately calling the hungry students’ attention to walk through their doors.  I paid it three visits for this review, and I was lucky to have a table by the window for the photo shots despite it’s busyness and the cramped space holding only 9 tables.

Black Vinegar Peanuts, NW Chinese Food

This place has garnered lots of online reviews and recommendations, and with that list in hand I placed my first appetizer/opener.  Black Vinegar Peanuts was frequently mentioned and high on my list too.  The plate of nuts arrived with skin intact swimming in a pool of black sauce.  One bite revealed the dish’s nature.   Toasted peanuts were punchy to the taste, made even more aromatic by pungent raw garlic and herbaceous cilantro, spicy by red chili flakes and finely julienned ginger, and picked up by a slightly earthy black vinegar that reminded me of good Balsamico.  These nibbles were highly addictive and we couldn’t stop serving ourselves of it despite the other ordered dishes and the dish’s copious amount.

Shredded Potato Salad, NW Chinese Food

Sesame Chili Sauce, NW Chinese FoodThe other highly raved dish is Shredded Potato.  This vegan dish sounded and looked unique at first glance.  The plate was filled with very finely shredded pieces of white potato that has been marinated in a sauce.  The matchstick slivers had a most interesting texture, tasting barely cooked, yet exuding a crunch that would suggest it being raw and reminding me of Asian radish.  But it was the seasoning that elevated this lowly tuber to an ethereal level, tasting spicy from the chili sesame seed oil (also served at the table), fragrant cilantro, raw garlic, and a hint of vinegar to counteract this starch.  I was quite blown away by this simple dish since its treatment and flavors hit all the right spots.

Sour Soup Dumplings, NW Chinese Food

Another appetizer that looked like a dish I had savored before was Sour Soup Dumplings.  The bowl arrived with these stuffed pasta floating in a bowl of broth.  However, they tasted quite different from the Shanghainese version that I was used to.  The dough was thicker than wanton skins but the stuffing was the same aromatic and moist finely minced pork mixture.  It was the broth that took it in an interesting direction with a mild savory flavor spiked by some chili sesame seed oil, made sour by pieces of pickled mustard green, and some body added by chunks of raw garlic.  There was a soulful element to this dish that did not taste stodgy or passé, and it can definitely make a complete dish by itself.

Spicy Beef & Lamb Skewers, NW Chinese CuisineSkewers seem quite popular among the reviewers and other customers during my stopovers. On my visits, I tried the ones made with beef, with lamb, and with chicken.  The sticks came filled to the brim with thin small pieces of meat.  All the meat versions (a couple of non-meat versions are offered too) were seasoned with the chili sesame seed seasoning and whole cumin seeds.  The bites were quite spicy and aromatic from the seasoning and spices, but they lacked some salt.  Their slight oiliness indicated that they were cooked in oil, but I was missing the grill char that would have made them more interesting and flavorful.  As for the cuts of meat, the lamb was a bit tough, but the rest of the meats were quite tender to the bite.  As small bites, they were not bad though.

Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger, NW Chinese Cuisine

Along the same line as the above skewered meat are the burgers, and I tried the Spicy Cumin Lamb Burger on one occasion.  The sandwich arrived in a basket laced with sandwich paper.  The bun was a flat unleavened bread showing its in-house quality and reminding me of a thick pita bread, an indicator of the Muslim influence in that part of the world.  Its stuffing was dripping with grease, unfortunately, but one bite into it detracted me from its flaws. The meat was chopped up from whole pieces, tasting very spicy from chili flakes and very aromatic from toasted whole cumin seeds that immediately perked the senses up.  After allowing some more of the grease to drip out of the burger, I was enjoying every bite while relishing its flavors and textures.  The beef version was much less greasy, as well as spicy, coupled with some sweet vegetable elements of red onions and green peppers.  Hey, after all, “burgers” are meant to be greasy, and this is my new find of this type of handheld food.

Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles, NW Chinese FoodThis place is known for noodle dishes from that part of the world, especially hand-cut noodles.  Since it was getting rather warm from the strong Spring sun, I ordered Sesame Sauce Rolled Noodles. The bowl arrived with the disparate elements arranged in their areas, reminding me of Vietnamese Bun Noodle Salad:  cucumber, bean sprouts, finely shredded carrot, cilantro, peanuts, raw garlic, all sitting on a mound of wheat noodles lathered with sesame sauce and the chili sesame seed oil.  One swirl and a chopstick full immediately perked my interest.  All the ingredients contributed their flavor element of spiciness, nuttiness, herbaceous quality, garlic pungency, cooling quality, along with different textures that made each bite quite a kaleidoscope.  The sesame sauce was the perfect liaison that added its tahini-like creaminess with a hint of vinegar that elevated the noodles that were perfectly al dente and tasted handmade, akin to Spaghetti alla Chitarra.  This vegan dish comes without protein, but I added a topping of minced pork that was moist and made fragrant from the use of Asian cinnamon (cassia) exuding a faint note of enticing licorice to the protein.  This is the perfect summer dish in the next few months, and I will be planning to order it then, vegan or not.

Spicy Beef Noodles, NW Chinese Food

One of the most mentioned dishes online is Spicy Beef Noodles, and it is one that I recognized from this region due to my addiction to food and travel programs.  The bowl arrived wafting with an enticing smell and immediate appeal.  The soup, like most noodle soup dishes, is the key to the success to any dish of this kind.  This version had a body, probably from beef bones, made aromatic with hints of star anise, spiked by the mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorn, and it carried sour and salty notes from the pickled mustard green.  The beef chunks were amazingly sumptuous with its tender and fall apart quality, tasting more seasoned than the soup due to its cooking apart from the stock, which added to its appeal.  Additionally, the rice noodles had an al dente quality that did not turn mushy throughout the meal, reminding me of well-made fresh egg pasta.  The pool of chili condiment (not the table type) added some extra zing to the whole mix but still made it quite palatable.  I could not get enough of this dish as it was exciting both flavor and texture wise.  This soup noodle has now been added to my eating repertoire of this genre.

NW Chinese FoodNorthwest Chinese Food has become one of the most exciting discoveries for me on this gastronomic journey.  Partly it is because this is newfound territory, and also because this regional food is exciting and downright delicious.  This excitement was found in the flavors in nearly all the dishes  especially the peanut dish, shredded potato salad, the lamb burger, and both beef soup and sesame sauce noodle dishes.  In addition, the wheat and the rice noodles that I savored had a texture that I have never tasted in other Chinese establishments due to their hand-made quality and perfect cooking treatment.  Yes, the place is small and quite crowded on certain days, and I was even scolded by a waitress for holding a table while I waited for my party  – typically Chinese.  But with food this exciting and quite mind-blowing, such inconveniences can be tolerated or even overlooked.  This is definitely my latest gastronomic find, and it quickly ranks high on my personal list.

Appioo Bar and Grill

Appigo Bar and Grill

A couple of years ago, I visited a Ghanaian restaurant in my neighborhood that was known for serving authentic fare especially the well-known Fufu dish. However, I was not quite satisfied by the cooking in addition to the long wait for the aforementioned soup dish.  Recently, I came across an online offer to Appioo Bar and Grill located in the U St./Cardozo neighborhood, and judging by what I read on online reviews, I quickly snapped up the offer, and I made a trip to pay it a gastronomic visit last weekend.

Ghanaian Palm DrinkLocated on the basement level of a row house on busy 9th street NW, close to the U St. junction, I walked in with a couple whose husband hails from Togo to get some guidance from him on this little-chartered culinary territory.  The shotgun space is decorated with a beautiful mural exuding some West African charm with its bright colors and design.  Having made a reservation, we took our table next to the long bar that seems to attract quite a local crowd.  After we placed our orders, my Togolese friend ordered Palm Drink, a typical libation from the Motherland.  One sip of it reminded me of the liquor toddy that I had tasted years ago as a child in Southeast Asia.  This bowlful, yes, a bowl perhaps made from wood or a gourd, had a unique flavor of sweet with a tinge of sourness from a slight fermentation but devoid of the booze that I remembered this drink is usually associated with.  Alcohol or not, it was a good starting thirst-quencher to this visit.

Goat Kebab/Chinchinga

For our first bite, we ordered Goat Kebab or Chinchinga.  The sticks came filled to the brim with slices of meat, dark from its cooking, and slightly reddish from a sprinkling of seasoning powder.  One bite into it revealed what it was.  The goat was slightly tough with a bare hint of gaminess, nothing that belies its true nature.  What made it rise above it was the savoriness in the morsels due to a peanut sauce marinade and the spicy powder (called “kebab powder” according to my friend) that created a slightly masochistic tinge that beckoned for more bites.  Their tasty nature made for a quick disposal by the diners which created more anticipation at our table.

Croaker Pepper SoupThe next appetizer came in soup form.  Delicious Pepper Soup is well-known in this culinary tradition and I knew I had to give it a try.  A sip from the bowl pointed to a well-cooked broth that hinted of dried fish that I am familiar with, giving the soup some body and flavor interest.  The pieces of croaker were very fresh and moist, an indication that the fish was freshly cooked to order.  Unfortunately, it was that fresh that it could have jumped into the soup without being scaled.  However, I got around it by just removing the skin.  There was some good spice bite to the earthy broth, but I was hoping for something that was eye-popping like my grandmother’s pepper soup.  All in all, this was still good.

Goat Fufu in Peanut Butter Soup

My friend’s order was Goat Fufu in Peanut Butter Soup.  It came served in an earthen traditional bowl with a ball of the pounded plantain starch in the middle, sitting in a pool of peanut butter soup studded with pieces of goat meat.  The fufu was the powder form, judging by the lack of starch-stretchiness normally found in the fresh version.  But it didn’t detract from the wonderful soup that had a light touch of peanut butter goodness without being overwhelming.  The pieces of meat were tender, for goat that is, an indication of a good stewing in the sauce, which made the dish even more appealing.  My friend originally didn’t want to order this ubiquitous dish, but at the end of his inhaling it, he was more than satisfied as it hit home for him, and he was about to go into a food coma.

Goat and Rice JollofHis wife’s order was something lighter and is as equally well-known as the above dish – Jollof Rice with Goat.  A stab at the pieces of goat pointed to the meat that was initially fried to a slightly crispy exterior then stewed in a tomato-based sauce. I enjoyed the meat texture that was complemented by the sweet-tangy sauce that was aromatic and tasting mild spice-wise.  Equally competing for my attention was the rice that was well-seasoned, tasting slightly sweet from the tomato sauce and onions, exuding vegetal notes of sweet peppers, and a note that was root or wood-like.  Upon talking to the chef, I found out that he added ginger to the mix.  Even though it was still mild, its savoriness made me return repeatedly to the rice elevated from the melange of flavors and cooked to a perfectly light fluffiness.

Grilled Tilapia and Spinach

My order of Grilled Tilapia was nixed somewhere down the line.  It was forgotten amidst some confusion, and it was quite a wait as the kitchen was trying to make amends.  Finally, it arrived whole and grilled, along with a tomato salsa and some spinach as my choice side order.  One bite into the fish brought a smile to my face.  The skin was crispy and had a slight waft of ginger, perhaps from a rub of ginger juice, and the flesh was incredibly moist and sea-sweet, pointing to its incredible freshness as if just caught from the sea.  The belly was filled with a savory grated ginger stuffing that added more perfume to the whole mix.  Usually one that is not particularly fond of Tilapia, I was instantaneously attracted to the mild-tasting flesh, devoid of most of its inherent muddiness, and its alluring seasoning. A good partner was the tomato salsa that was really piquant, making it a ying-yang complement to the mild sweet flesh.  The spinach mix blew me away with its fresh flavors from the mild-tasting spinach leaves paired with sweet onions, a healthy dose of garlic, sweet peppers, and biting pieces of fresh ginger.  There was a note of an unfamiliar spice that confounded me, but the tasty mix constantly beckoned me to go back for more.  Undoubtedly, this fish dish was so good that it washed away any trace of my impatient wait, and I couldn’t stop exuding about it.  I stopped the chef, as he sheepishly passed by me, to personally thank him for such a wonderfully prepared dish, as he apologized for the dish’s tardiness.  All was well here after this scrumptious meal.

Appioo Bar and GrillThe dishes at Appioo Bar and Grill have given me a fresh perspective on what this Western African cuisine is all about. What impressed me about this visit was the completeness in the seasoning and the savoriness that each morsel or sip possessed, making one unable to resist having more of each dish. Additionally, what impressed me about the kitchen, despite the slight hitch in my order, was a deftly skillful hand that knows proper seasoning, the sourcing fresh ingredients, and that understands balance and ingredient pairing to produce wonderful authentic dishes that would not only satiate those with home-sickness but equally impress all including the novice like me. Yes, the reggae band was overwhelming in this small space (note: eat before 9 p.m. on Saturdays), but ultimately, such impressive cooking spoke volumes above the music. I will be back for more.

Appioo African Restaurant & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato