Highlights 2016

Despite a rather tumultuous year, personally, professionally, and politically, I managed to squeeze in some great restaurant finds during my moments of respite.  Here is a quick rundown of the top dishes that I sampled throughout the year. Happy New Year 2017!

1. Thai Orchid (read Blog)

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Thai Steamed Dumplings

Seafood Prik Prao

Seafood Prik Prao

2.Taqueria Los Primos (read Blog)

Tacos Al Pastor/Carnitas

20160228_135232

Quesadillas

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3. Chez Dior (read Blog)

Thiebou Diene

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish

Accra/Black Eye Pea Fritters

Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

4. Panda Gourmet (read Blog)

Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers

5. Evolve Vegan (read Blog)

Southern Fried Chick-un/Yams/Sweet Maple Kale Salad

Fried Chick-un

Raw Chocolate Cheesecake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate Cheesecake

6. Woomi Garden (read Blog)

Jap Chae

Jap Chae

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

7. Great Sage (read Blog)

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Pink Peppercorn Beet Salad

Spinach Artichoke Dip

Vegan Spinach Artichoke Dip

8. Jerusalem Restaurant (read Blog)

Hannet – Stewed Lamb

Hannet - Stewed Lamb

Makdous/Stuffed Eggplant

Makdous - Eggplant stuffed with Walnuts, Red Pepper, Garlic

9. Swahili Village (read Blog)

Grilled Goat, Beef, Chicken, Chapati Bread, Collard Greens, Spinach, and Rice Pilaf.

Group Platter - Swahili Village

Samaki Wa Nazi/Fish in Coconut Sauce Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

10. Yekta Kabobi (read Blog)

Chicken Soltani Combination Kabob

Chicken Soltani Beef Kabobs

Bastanee Nooni/Saffron Ice-cream Wafer

Bastanee/Saffron Ice Cream

11.Baan Thai (read Blog)

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites

Northern Thai Pork Curry

Northern Thai Pork Curry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for reading my blogs throughout 2016. Happy Eating in the New Year!

Baan Thai

Baan ThaiThe time was right to write another restaurant blog. My cousin was visiting from the other side of the world, literally, with his family and father-in-law in tow. I was tempted to invite them back to my place for some home-cooked food, which I’m sure they would have appreciated, but they couldn’t have fitted into my jalopy with 200,000 miles accrued. So, I decided on meeting them at a Thai restaurant near their hotel that I had heard about. Located on the busy and tourist-laden 14th St. NW corridor, Baan Thai sits on top of another Thai restaurant. But perusing through its online menu, the dishes hinted of a different direction that most Thai restaurants take with their dishes, a more notably Northern Thai one. So with this in mind, I was looking forward to my taste buds being challenged from their offerings. Thai Pineapple Chicken Bites
Thai Money Bags

Walking into the shotgun-style former row house, I was escorted to the floor above the restaurant level, to the bar/lounge area, perhaps used to serve to accommodate the overflow (glad I made a reservation). We quickly honed on a couple of appetizers. The first was an unfamiliar one to this diner – Pineapple Chicken Bites. The pretty dish arrived with pieces of beautifully carved fruit dressed with cilantro, a curious-looking ball, and a slice of red chili. One bite into it raised my eyebrows. The ball consisted of battered chicken pieces mixed with chopped peanuts and tasting sweet and savory at the same time. The fresh fruitiness of the pineapple echoed the sweetness of the nutty chicken ball and simultaneously added the counterfoil to it. This was an exciting bite to start off the meal. The next small bite was Golden Fried Pockets, also called Money Bags in other Thai joints. The dumplings were well fried and nearly greaseless to the touch. However, the mix, although quite savory, was a nothing out of the ordinary and the filling a tad beyond its prime, especially the minced shrimp in the mix exuding a slight off-note. Anyway, it was just ok.

Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin and Shrimp

Since my folks were in the mood for food to remind them of home, the first main course was Stir-fried Asian Pumpkin with Shrimp. The dish arrived on a plate, rather than a bowl, with pieces of pumpkin, shrimp, and Thai basil, all sitting on a bare pool of sauce. The pumpkin was not too sweet, more a squash kind, cooked perfectly and tasting savory from having absorbed the sauce flavors, and the shrimp was cooked firm, all brought together by the flavorful and slightly sweet light chili garlic sauce. Things were made more interesting by the fragrant Thai basil and the use of slices of red and green chilies, adding more heat and their vegetal notes. My folks and I quite enjoyed this dish, and its quite fiery heat was warming us up in this cold weather.

Northern Thai Pork Curry

The other main course was a nod to the Northern Thai Eesan region that this restaurant takes its inspiration from – Northern Thai Pork Curry. The first spoonful commanded my attention. The large meat pieces were fork tender, tasting moist and replete with an unusual “curry” flavors of fragrant root herbs and chili heat. There was no specific spice or herb flavor that stood out, but the sum of it all produced an inviting je-ne-sais-qoui along with its tempting spice heat. I kept digging at the dish as I could not get enough of its unctuousness. To top it off, the pickled garlic and julienne of young ginger added some more bite and complimentary spikes to this dish. A beautiful Eesan dish indeed.

Norther Thai Pork Tomato Chili Dip

My cousin’s father-in-law honed in on another Eesan offering. Northern Thailand Pork and Chili Dip was a trio consisting of a mini mortar of minced pork dip, large batons of fried pork, and a traditional Thai basket of steamed sticky rice. The fried pork was quite savory from some seasoning but it was quite dry being it was pieces of loin, I suspect, that was lacking the touch of fat to bring back some moisture to the rather dry bits. This would probably be more appropriate for the North American but not for this Asian who loves a cut like pork belly. The basket of sticky rice was perfectly cooked, albeit lacking any seasoning, but it was the perfect vehicle for the pieces of pork. But it was the pork chili dip that grabbed my attention. It was moist and made alluring by  a tinge of sweetness, a blazing heat, and an interesting note that I could only attribute to the dried chili powder used to spice it up. The leaves of lettuce and tomato pieces were the necessary canvas to bring some freshness and relief to this fiery dip, which I kept coming back to. If weren’t for the lean cut of pork in the fried bits, this would have been a home run.

Glass Noodle Chicken

Not all dishes consist of curry or meat, and with this in mind, we had a tough time finding a purely vegetable offering on the menu; perhaps this is a trait of Northern Thai cuisine. Eventually we settled on Stir Fried Glass Noodle with Chicken and Shrimp. The plate came with a melange of bean noodles cooked with Napa cabbage, green onions, Chinese greens, eggs, chicken and shrimp. Although the ingredients were well-cooked with a fermented red bean curd sauce, it was a bit too sweet for all diners at the table. But it provided the necessary relief from the above spicy dishes that were doing a masochistic number on our mouths.

Baan Thai is  a breath of fresh air from your usual run-of-the-mill Thai establishment that offers mostly a Bangkok style menu with the usual well-known offerings.  What I appreciated here was the unapologetic spiciness and seasoning that whisked the diner to the Northern part of the Southeast Asian country with the authentic offerings like the Pineapple Chicken Bites, the Pumpkin Shrimp, the Pork Curry, and the Northern Thai Pork Chili Dip.  The dishes maybe a bit too overwhelming for the average diner, but if you are looking for something challenging yet tasty, beyond the usual Thai offerings, here is the place for your adventurous taste buds.

Baan Thai Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Swahili Village

Beltsville, MD has quite recently received the accolade by the Washington Post as the area within the DMV with the most diverse offering of good eats, and deservedly so.  For a few years, I passed by one of its establishments, Swahili Village, a Kenyan eatery, on my errand rounds, and I was always tempted to savor their offerings.  But such enthusiasm was always thwarted by the sight of their small parking lot and its congestion during busy hours.  However, for over a year, I had been eyeing a larger shop lot a few blocks away that the restaurant has decided to put down its new roots.  After much delay and anticipation, it opened its new doors, and that is where I paid it a few visits.

Swahili VillageSwahili Village

Walking into the space, you immediately notice that this is not your usual African dive – money has definitely been spent here, and in a tasteful manner.  The decor and lights are both modern yet inviting, with splashes of Afrikana to remind one of this place’s roots. Taking my seat, I noticed the glass window opening to the kitchen, which added more psychological space for the eater.  I was enjoying the details of the set-up and in the glassware as well as the cutlery.  But I had to refocus my attention to the rather simple menu and figure out how to maneuver my appetite around it. Chicken Wings
Bhajia - Lentil battered Potatoes Samosas

From the appetizers, I had Chicken Wings on an occasion.  Usually one to avoid this ubiquitous offering, I was urged by the waiter to give it a try.  One bite into it revealed lots to me.  The pieces of wing tasted fresh and well-seasoned, without any distinctive spice coming through.  I marveled at the crispness despite the absence of any batter and the use of fresh oil to produce a greaseless finished product.  Each bite cascaded into another due to the above quality and the poultry being seasoned thoroughly judging by the spice coloring in every morsel.  It came with a mild Marsala Sauce which was more a detractor from the already flavorful wings.  On another occasion, the order was Bhajia.  Thin slices of potato were covered in lentil flour and fried.  Its appearance was not exactly very tempting due all the brownness, but one bite into it changed my mind.  The potato was perfectly seasoned with the batter adding more flavor and a slightly mealy crisp texture.  Judging by the batter color, perhaps turmeric powder was added, hence its faint perfume in the mix.  A side of the house-made fiery Pili Pili sauce should be taken with extreme caution but they added some more flavor to these bites.  The handling of this lowly tuber was enobling and revelatory.  Another appetizer order was of Indian origin, Samosas, pointing to Indian migration to this former African British colony. The packets were phyllo dough wrapped around a filling of ground meat that was well-seasoned and made herbaceous from a handful of cilantro.  The dough was perfectly fried with a greaseless touch and a crispy texture.  The side sweet hot sauce tasted house-made, providing the right sweet heat for these tasty bites.  The appetizers here are some savory starters that are worth the diner’s attention.

Kenyan Goat Soup Nyama Mchuzi - Beef Stew

Mbuzi Mchuzi - Goat StewOn the menu, the entrees include some stew and soup offerings.  Goat Soup is the only offering in the soup category and I gave it a try.  I enjoyed the whole mix of goat meat that was extremely tender and faintly gamey, perfectly cooked bits of carrots and potato that lent some sweetness and body, alongside tomato that added the slight acid to the mix, and leaves of collard green, all brought together by a fairly clear full-flavored broth that is the sum of the long cooking.  I thoroughly enjoyed this sip and I wished it came in a bigger bowl.  For the stews, they were either made with goat or beef.  The pieces of boneless beef and the bone-in goat were completely tender and flavored by their lengthy time in the stew. The mix tasted slightly tomato-base, making it full-flavored yet rather light for it to be eaten in the midst of summer.  The sides also garnered some attention.  The cabbage were pieces of finely julienned pieces lightly cooked with some fenugreek, which added a unique scent.  The rice pilau was basmati rice scented by cardamon and Indian cinnamon, moistened by some stock just before service.  The spinach tasted and had the consistency of creamed spinach (made from coconut milk), enough to give a reputable steakhouse a run for its money.  The plantains were not too sweet, for a change, tasting clean having been fried in fresh oil.  I must say that my dining companion and I were truly satisfied by these offerings, both the mains and the sides.

Mbuzi Choma - Grilled Goat
Group Platter - Swahili Village

The grilled meats in the entree section menu looked very tempting and we had to try them out.  One of my first visit, my friend’s order was Grilled Goat.  I had a taste of it and it immediately raised my eyebrows.  The flavors reminded me of when my Dad had office dinners in the house compound with a goat roasting over a pit fire.  Well, the meat was well seared from some charcoal fire, its gaminess suppressed, well-seasoned from a good marination, and tender at the same time.  The side of bread, Chapati (of Indian origin), tasted house-made and fresh.  The other accompaniment was boiled ground hominy or Ugali, which I thought was too plain for my taste (I prefer the Ghanaian fermented version), but I appreciated its authentic nature.  But I kept going back to the goat as its flavors and textures beckoned me to return for more.  The side of tomato salad was the perfect counterpoint to the meat with its fruity ripeness and the spot-on seasoning, as well as a slight piquant kick.  After tasting the goat, I wanted to come back for some Grilled Beef.  But this time, it was served as part of the Group Platter.  The oval dish came with the aforementioned grilled meats, as well as grilled chicken breast.  The sides were the spinach, collard greens, cabbage, tomato salad, Chapati bread, and Rice Pilau in lieu of the usual order of hominy.  The beef came in cube form and they were quite dark from a good stay on the grill which give it a charred flavor that I appreciate with this meat.  The pieces were perfectly seasoned, and as it sat on the plate, they got a bit chewy since they were fully cooked – medium rare is a Western taste sensibility, but not here.  This house knows how to handle grilled meats and I wouldn’t miss these dishes when visiting. Samaki Wa Nazi - Fish in Coconut Curry

Dengu - Lentils in Coconut SauceOn a couple of occasions, we tried their lighter fare.  Samaki Wa Nazi is fish in a curry sauce.  One taste of it pointed to a certain level of care in its preparation.  The cubes of tilapia was devoid of the dark fishiness usually associated with it (removing the central nerve is the key), and it had a thin layer of batter from a light frying before it was coated by a savory, creamy and slightly tomato-tangy sauce.  I was thoroughly enjoying this concoction, as well as the sides of mashed peas and potato that reminded me of the English version but here studded with reconstituted hominy, and the finely julienned collard green that held its texture and color from a light sauté, akin to how the Brazilians prepare it as a topping for Feijoada.  The other light dish was for my vegan BFF – Ndengu or Lentils in Coconut Sauce.  The mix had a rather silky feel made creamy from the coconut milk and fragrant from the use of what I suspect Garam Masala, the ubiquitous Indian spice mix, since there was no distinctive single note in the aroma and flavor.  My friend was equally satisfied  by the sides of Chapati bread and mashed pea and potato.

Asante - Goodbye, Swahili Village

Swahili Village grabbed my attention from the moment I walked in, from its new space, to the decor, and to the array of gastronomic offerings.  What makes the experience at the new place special besides the arresting visuals, is the attention given to the dishes and the refinement in both presentation, seasoning, and flavor combinations, all elements necessary to elevate soulful dishes from the Motherland.  Rarely was there an item that I was not drawn to, even the plain hominy that was a direct tribute that I respected and I would’t try to mess with.  The owner, Kevin, was both warm and knowledgeable, and he has something good going here, judging by the large crowds of expats on the weekends and Friday nights. The service was faulted by online reviewers at the previous location, but I get a feeling that they heard the customers loud and clear as our servers were attentive and congenial.   Don’t worry about the parking – there is a lot of space.  Even less to worry about is their wonderful authentic cooking that would please just about anyone.

Swahili Village Bar and Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Evolve Vegan

I have been inching down the vegan/vegetarian path for some time now.  Being a Buddhist practitioner, one of the Buddhist aspirations (not a commandment) is to eat vegetarian or vegan to minimize the suffering of sentient beings.  Furthermore, more and more friends and colleagues have taken this step, including my best friend who made that big decision last week. With all these signs around me, I couldn’t help but start focusing on more eating establishments that cater to such meatless cuisine. Recently, an online coupon offer showed up on my computer, and I quickly grabbed that opportunity so that I could visit a vegan Soul food restaurant.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant

Evolve Vegan Restaurant is located in the heart of Takoma Park, NW Washington, merely a few steps from the metro station. It is located in a block of eating establishments that has garnered the recognition as the best vegan eating area in the city. Walking into Evolve, the space appears more spacious than its true real estate due to the storefront windows and the soaring ceiling that add lots of light and an airy feeling. Taking a seat by the window, I perused the one page menu, and it is rather short with only a handful of entrees, a similar amount of sandwiches and salads, followed by an interesting plethora of side dishes. The drinks section was filled with sodas and smoothies, which were not exactly what I was looking for as a thirst quencher. The waiter relayed to me that the restaurant was working on the drinks section which seriously needs more light or fruit-infused liquids. Not letting that be a hindrance, I moved on to the main courses.

Fried Chick-un

Candied Yams, Sweet Maple Kale SaladOnline reviewers made mention of the house’s Southern Fried Chick-un, and that was the first order placed on the initial visit. The dishes picked from the list of fourteen sides were Yams and Sweet Maple Kale Salad. The plate arrived with two fairly large patties encrusted with the traditional-looking batter associated with the real thing. One bite into them was completely revelatory. The texture was akin to that of chicken breast and the flavor replete with the fried chicken seasonings. The first time ordering this was a version with a formidable crust but a slightly dry “meat”, whereas the second had a crumbly crust but a moist inside. Nevertheless, the patties fooled my taste buds with the close texture and unmistakable flavors in the seasoning. The side BBQ sauce was a proper one with its smoky sweet and sour qualities that gave the diner that dipping option.  In addition to the tasty patties, the sides were wrestling my attention away from the protein. The Yams were the candied yams that one would find during a Thanksgiving meal, made with a good hit of cinnamon without overpowering the tubers and sweetened by brown sugar, all tasting good enough to slap your….. But the star for me was the kale salad with the young tender leaves made delectable by a well-balanced combination of maple syrup and toasted sesame oil, making each leaf totally irresistible. Now I can see why the online folks highly recommended this entrée, and deservedly so.

Fried Seaweed Soy Fish

Ratatouille, Ginger Kale SaladWrapped Soyfish was the next main dish. The slices of soy protein arrived battered and perfectly fried, just like the above dish, along with Ratatouille and Ginger Kale Salad as the sides. The “fish” also took me by surprise by the rather firm texture, reminding me of tuna or swordfish steaks. Additionally, the flavors were enhanced by the seaweed wrap that exuded seafood umami-ness, boosted by a hint of Old Bay seasoning in the batter – my dining companion and I were quite satisfied by these “seafood” bites. The sides were equally delectable. The Ratatouille was a melange of zucchini, yellow squash, onions, tomato, and eggplant, all looking and tasting more like stewed yellow squash served in the South due to the lack of enough tomato found in the veritable version. Notwithstanding, this mix was so savory and well cooked with each element holding its own identity and enhanced by a faint hint of dried herbs, perhaps thyme or oregano. The other companion of kale salad literally grabbed my taste buds. The mild leaves were coated by a powerful ginger pesto that had a good bite that made each leaf quite piquant, but balanced by a hint of vinegar and sugar. Needless to say, not a single leaf was left on my plate as this dish combination was also a hit for me.

Vegan Macaroni and Cheese, Beet Salad

Sesame Spinach Salad N'Orleans Macaroni SaladOn the second visit, I had to try another oft-mentioned main – Macaroni and Cheese. The main dish arrived with Beet Salad and Sesame Spinach Salad as their chosen accompaniments. The pasta casserole mix was rather interesting yet tasty at the same time. The macaroni was cooked just right, not al dente, neither too mushy. The mix was quite “creamy” rich yet rather moist, with a crust of gratineed vegan cheese . However, there was slight off note of faint bitterness not usually associated with this dish, but that didn’t deter me from enjoying it since I was not expecting this dish to taste exactly like the original version. The beet salad were julienned strips of raw beets, perhaps lightly boiled due its slightly firmness, mixed with a well-balanced mix of vinegar and sugar, making it tasty beyond its mineral goodness. The spinach salad was a bowlful of young leaves tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and topped with some sesame seeds. I enjoyed the salad for the young tender crisp leaves but I wished the seeds were toasted to bring out more of their nuttiness to add another dimension to the combination. Again, the main and sides shone on this occasion, making them quite worthy of an order. Some sides from my friends’ orders deserve some mention: N’Orleans Macaroni Salad wowed its diner with its creamy flavors and the use of spices and seasonings evoking the Southern city, and a stark Steamed Broccoli that was steamed to perfection with its bright green crunchiness made savory with the use of Amino Liquid for that vegan umami-ness.

Vegan Carrotcake

Bakeless Vegan Chocolate CheesecakeOn one occasion, our young waiter highly recommended Vegan Carrot Cake and we took on his advice. The slice arrived with speckles of carrot imbedded in the cake topped with some “icing”. The bite tasted of vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, all the appropriate spices and flavors of the real thing. However it was lacking some rich bits of nuts and it was too dense for my liking. Not totally disappointing, but not really a flying success either. However, the amiable chef owner assured me that he would relay my suggestions to the pastry chef. A waitress’ recommendation on another visit was Raw Chocolate Cheesecake. One bite into it raised my eyebrows as well as those of my fellow diner. My immediate reaction was “creamy dark chocolate ice cream.” There was a lusciousness in each bite that belied its dairy-free nature, slightly bitter from a boost of cocoa with a tinge of sourness to cut through the richness. The crust mixture of crushed cashew nut and coconut flake  fooled me that it was raw and vegan. With each bite, my friend and I were “oohing” and “aahing” and we couldn’t stop until the last morsel, even though we were quite sated from the mains and side dishes. This dessert is a must order in my books.

Evolve Vegan RestaurantVegan food is usually associated with plain, bland, textureless, and perhaps pedestrian, all adjectives enough to kill the enthusiasm even before stepping into such establishment. But what my friends and I ordered here far exceeded that mindset, from the “chick-un” and soy fish that had the right textures, seasoning, and flavors that not only made them palatable but sated all my dining friends, to the Mac and Cheese that was creamy and quite “cheesy”, and to the incredible sides of leaf salads, beet salad, yams, and squash stew (ratatouille) that left us wanting more of these tongue-grabbing veggies. This effusiveness extends to the dessert section with that raw chocolate “cheesecake” that just brought out a level ecstasy in me. Sure that the service is a tad slow and sparse at times, but the congenial servers make up for it with their charming personality, helpful suggestions, and funky hair. But what is served by Evolve Vegan does not need any quotation marks or qualifiers; it is just good, tasty and downright soulful, enough to bring out a smile in both vegan and non-vegan.

Evolve Vegan Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Panda Gourmet

For some time, I had been reading and hearing about a Chinese restaurant in a most improbable place, inside a Days Inn motel on the busy gateway of the New York Ave. and Bladensburg Rd. intersection.  I had passed by it a number of times on my way to town, but I was quick to dismiss it due to its name (akin to a Chinese fast-food chain) and its suspect location.  But my Thai-Chinese doctor assured me, as well some online reviews, that it was the real deal serving authentic Mainland Chinese dishes that I shouldn’t overlook.  So, after getting over my reluctance and convincing my usual Friday-dinner group, we stepped into Panda Gourmet‘s doors to savor its offerings.

Panda Gourmet Restaurant Coming from the Maryland suburbs was not as tough getting there unlike the convoluted U-turn one has to maneuver from the direction of downtown DC (by the Moonie’s Washington Times).  Parking was not an issue there since it is located within a hotel which was a huge relief for this reviewer who is weary from parking battles that DC has lately become known for.  Looking at its rather confounding menu, typical of many Chinese restaurants, I managed to pick a few dishes that were based on some reviewers’ recommendations. Xian Pork Sandwich

Spicy Cumin Lamb SkewersThe first appetizer was Xian Sandwich with Pork, which was destined for my roomie who couldn’t make it to dinner.  When I got home, he was graceful enough to allow me to take a few bites of it.  I quickly fell in love with this meat package.  The bun was an interesting combination of a semi-hard crust with a rather spongy dough under it, coupling the shredded pork stuffing that reminded me of a long-smoked chopped barbecue.  The meat mixture was extremely savory with the right amount of saltiness and a hint of cumin rubbed on the exterior.  If weren’t for tasting it after my meal, I would have begged for more of this wonderful small bite.  The other was Lamb Skewers that came with many online recommendations.  The 4 skewers landed with rather generous chunks of meat attached to them.  One bite revealed fairly tender meat that was not overcooked and they lacked the gaminess usually associated with that meat.  The seasoning of crushed chili peppers and whole cumin seeds elevated these bites to something that was both savory and enticing, delicious enough for the dinner party to do a reprise of this dish close to the end of the meal. Ma Po Tofu

The establishment is known for Szechuan and Xian dishes of which I focused my eyes on from the menu.  Ma Po Tofu with Beef was an order used as a litmus test of this cuisine.  The fiery red dish arrived with nuggets of tofu studded in between with bits of minced beef hidden among the whole mix.   One mouthful was a bit overwhelming at first.  It was quite salty from the heavy use of bean sauce, and spicy from the chili oil and Szechuan peppercorn powder, evidenced by their presence on the white tofu.  The silken tofu provided some relief from the salt and spice, as well as the white rice that should be mixed with the main course, hence its over seasoning.  The minced beef was lost in the mix partially due its small pieces and the lack of its amount.  I was hoping for some textural contrast like green peas that I had savored in versions from other establishments.  Despite the above flaws, I appreciated the dish after picking through the pieces, and I was yearning for more spice heat as well as the numbing effect of the Szechuan peppercorn.  Not bad.

Chicken in Spicy Garlic SauceA spicy dish recommended by online reviewers was Chicken in Spicy Garlic Sauce. The dish was brimming with pieces of chicken breast, snow peas, celery, broccoli, mushroom, wood fungus, and bamboo shoot.  The first taste of the dish raised my eyebrows due to the sauce that was an interesting combination of chili oil and garlic, tasting sour from vinegar and sweet from sugar.   The sauce flavor was quite prominent and the sweet-sour element nearly overwhelmed the nuances of the mild chicken meat and the crunchy but perfectly cooked vegetables. But then, I was reminded of the nature of Szechuan cuisine that is bold in flavors, which this dish is up the alley, including the pool of red spicy oil which my parents complained about Mainland Chinese cooking during their travels.

Shanghai Bok Choy and Braised Mushroom

To appease a fellow dining companion, we ordered a couple of non-spicy dishes, in addition to balancing out the whole meal without bludgeoning our palates with spice.  The first was a newly added dish on the menu – Shanghai Bok Choy and Winter Mushrooms.  The dish arrived with halved bright-green baby bok choy accompanied by a pool of whole Chinese mushrooms covered with a dark sauce.  The vegetables were perfectly cooked and I was appreciating their fresh quality.  But it was the mushrooms that stole my attention with the woodsy notes and slippery consistency, an indication of them reconstituted and cooked properly to give a luxurious mouthfeel.  The sauce had hints of oyster sauce that is a classic match in Chinese cuisine.  As a respite from the chili heat, this was a perfect vegetarian dish.

Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables

Another fellow dinner wanted to take some reign on ordering the dishes, and he chose Shrimp with Mixed Vegetables since he is fond of that seafood and is always trying to add more vegetables to the mix.  The shrimp was accompanied by the usual Chinese mix of vegetables: broccoli, celery, carrots, baby corn, snow pea, bamboo shoot, and water chestnut.  It was a colorful and multi-textural mix despite the rather pedestrian brown sauce that coated the dish.  Even with the ingredients cooked just right, there really was not much to write home about, or in this, in this blog.  Meh, just not bad. Panda Gourmet Restaurant

Panda Gourmet is not for everyone, especially those who are not familiar with Chinese cuisine from the Mainland.  Sometimes, one has to apply some degree of cultural relativism when approaching certain ethnic cuisine, or in this case, gastronomic relativism, and with this angle, I evaluated what I ordered at this eatery.   The pork sandwich and lamb skewers were the perfect appetizers, even for the fussy or critical eater.  The Ma Po Tofu, Bok Choy and Mushroom, and the Spicy Garlic Chicken scored high in my books with their authentic approach despite the nearly overwhelming sauces and slightly oiliness, which come with the culinary territory.  Looking at their daunting menu, I realize that there are most veritable dishes to explore, offering some “funky” dishes with frog, tendon, tripe, and many dishes served on the Mainland.  This is a joint worth venturing into, and you may discover dishes not found in your usual carry-out, some to your liking, and some rather challenging.

Panda Gourmet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chez Dior

Chez Dior

A cuisine that is amiss from my blog site, unfortunately, is from the African continent. The reasons are that I am slowly discovering the few establishments serving such cuisine that sparsely populate this area, and my ignorance of what that part of world offers gastronomically. Last year, I stumbled across a Ghanaian joint serving the popular Fufu (read blog), but it was just a mere foray into the wide spectrum of what African food is.

Ginger Juice and Bissap (Hibiscus Flower)For a couple of years, I had been eyeing Chez Dior in the revitalized Hyattsville, MD neighborhood ever since I noticed its space was being renovated for the opening.  Because of my suffering from amnesia and looking for the right dining companions to join me, I didn’t pay it my first visit until last month and after only being inspired by its favorable online ratings.  Walking through its doors, the space seems more spacious than its real estate, partly due to the glass storefront and the other being its high ceilings.  One wall is stuffed with a few banquet seating, while tables fill up the rest of the space.  Settling in, I felt comfortable and welcomed right away, while anticipating a new adventure into gastronomic terra incognito.  Our drink orders of Hibiscus (Bissap) and Ginger Juice were the perfect openers to the house’s offering. The bissap had hints of a slight sour tannin zing tempered by some fruit juice while exuding an interesting flowery note.  The ginger juice was close to pure ginger root but sweetened with a touch of pineapple juice, biting enough to wake up my senses and attack the sore throat I was nursing.  I would forgo a glass of water and order these alluring thirst quenchers with my meals due to their exotic qualities.

Fattaya - Minced Beef Pastries Accra - Black Eye Pea Fritters

From the appetizer section of the menu,  I recognized Beignets that I had eaten at some Cameroonian homes, and oddly, Vietnamese Spring Rolls (the result of Senegalese soldiers bringing wives back from the Indochinese war) which I noticed were properly made with rice sheets, not egg roll wrapper, and served with a fish sauce mixture.  However, I honed in on a couple of more authentic offerings.  The first was Fattaya.  The fried pastries arrived beautifully pleated (as well as my grandmother’s curry puffs), and greaseless to the touch.  One bite into the flaky dough was revelatory.  It was not made with tuna as listed on the menu, but with minced beef and bits of onions.  The level of savory moisture encapsulated by the pastry pointed to the bites made a la minute, which my companion and I appreciated while we quickly devoured these small bites.  The other appetizer was equally delectable – Accra.  The small dough balls are made from black eye pea flour and served with a spicy tomato sauce.  Biting into them, they had a clean taste from being perfectly fried in fresh oil, and the inside was amazingly quite light while giving off a soft corn bread texture affected by some proper seasoning.  The zesty sauce tasted freshly made, and it added the right amount of tomato sweetness and some spice to each bite.  I would not miss these two openers with my meal as they would build up some anticipation as they did at my table.

Jollof Rice

Yassa ChickenPlaying it safe one night, I ordered an often-heard and popular dish – Jollof Rice.  The plate arrived with some baked chicken, a mound of brown-hued rice, and accompanied by a side of carrot, cabbage, and boiled cassava/yucca.  The chicken tasted well-marinated and baked just right without being dry or falling apart too easily.  The star ingredient was the rice with broken grains that had a texture of bulgur wheat (not only a Vietnamese specialty), seasoned by the chicken sauce and some savoriness from Maggi sauce (verified by the owner).  However, it could have done some chili heat that I have tasted in some versions.  The side vegetables were very satisfactory with the carrots and cabbage cooked soft and exuding their vegetal sweetness, but unfortunately, the cassava was slightly undercooked in the middle.  On another night, we ordered Yassa Chicken.  Pieces of chicken came grilled and tasted slightly tangy from the lemon-based marinate, and sweetened by some caramelized onions.  My dining companions were devouring the pieces  due to the flavors and the grilled preparation. The dishes were well-prepared and tasty, just perhaps a bit safe in my mind, as I was seeking some gustatory adventure.

Thiebou Diene - Senegalese Stewed Fish Caldou

Based on some online reviewers’ recommendations, I decided to try Thiebou Diene, a traditional Senegalese dish.  The plate arrived filled with a stewed fish steak, the usual accompanying stewed vegetables, and a mound of red-colored rice.   Biting into the fish, I was appreciating the savoriness from the slow cooking and the slight firmness of the fish meat which exuded a richness which I was trying to ascertain – it turned out to be the rich Kingfish usually found in the Caribbean, which was not the usual house offering (no complaints here).  The rice was equally savory, having absorbed all the savory goodness from the fish and vegetable stew, which each spoonful was beckoning us for more.  I can see why this is the house’s signature dish due to the flavors and well preparation.  Caldou was the other fish order that night.  A whole tilapia fish has been marinated, grilled, and slathered with a sauce.  Usually not one for the muddy flavors of this type of fish, I didn’t mind it that much with this order due to its flavors from the marination and grilling, and the tangy onion-mustard sauce.  With these dishes, I was whisked away to the West African coast and they are definitely high on the list.

Dibi - Grilled Lamb Chops

The final main course was Dibi.  Pieces of grilled marinated lamb chops arrived with a choice of side, steamed Couscous in this case.  One bite into the meat reminded me of eating lamb chops as a child.  The flavors were spot on due to the proper marination, heightened by a stay on the grill that gave the charred notes to the rich meat.  The chops were quite thin, which made them not as moist as some would have like them to be, but I didn’t mind it at all since I grew up with these prepared this way.  The side of onion-mustard sauce not only added the moist element to the meaty bits but also notes of sweet tang.  The couscous was adequate but lacking some seasoning or the use of stock to elevate the grain to a more interesting mouthful.  But it didn’t deter me from that pieces of meat that just sang beautifully with each bite.

Finally, I have found an establishment that serves African cuisine that does justice to it.  The place may be a bit small, but it makes up with its warm sense of hospitality and the well-presented dishes that exude full flavors and proper cooking each one received, a sign of care and attention that would elevate any dish – this was evident in both appetizers, the grilled chicken, both fish dishes, and the grilled lamb chops.  All my dining companions, as well as I, were immediately impressed by this house’s offerings, and we will be coming back for more.

Chez Dior Senegalese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thip Kao

Thip Kao Restaurant

I have not posted in the last few months due to the exigencies of work (the real one) and me trying to sell off my factory replaced camera body in order to upgrade it to the next level.  Without much success with the camera sale and upgrade, I decided to keep it and shoot the food again.  After reading some online recommendations of a relatively new Laotian restaurant in Columbia Heights, DC, and another from Bon Appetit, I trudged to this new find a number of times with my faithful camera bag encasing a new lens to give me an excuse to get back on the photography and foodie track.

Laotian Chili Paste

Lao Lager BeerThip Kao is located on the ground floor of an expansive apartment building on the ever-evolving 14th street corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the place with natural light, thus allowing this photographer to take advantage of its lunch time hours for the food shots.  The space is rather sleek and modern with touches of SE Asia in the arts and crafts that fill up the relatively stark space.  After perusing the rather menu with its novel listings for this diner, a basket of chili paste and raw vegetables appeared.  One bite into this spread piqued my curiosity.  The mixture was quite spicy with notes of both raw and dried chilies, a bit garlicky and it was quite sweet, which made it even more irresistible.  The raw snakebeans and cucumber slices were the perfect canvas to the biting relish with their mild flavors, yet providing the cooling foil to the piquancy.  On another visit, a friend decided to try the Laotian beer.  I couldn’t help but to take a few sips of his drink, which immediately transported to my childhood in that part of the world.  The lager was quite hop-like in flavor, with a sweet after-note that I particularly enjoy from this Pilsner-style of brew.  Interestingly enough, rice is listed as one of its ingredients, perhaps adding to the sweetness.  Whatever it is, it seems to be the perfect quencher to imbibe with the bold flavors and spicy dishes of this cuisine.

Naem Khao/Crispy Coconut Rice SaladTam Muk Huong/Laotian Papaya Salad

Laab E'kae/Minced Alligator SaladTo start off the meal on the many visits, I decided to try their Laab dishes, or minced meat salads.  The first one was highly recommended by online reviews, and it was a complete oddity to me – Naem Khao.  The bowl arrived with crispy brown bits which looked like pork rind.  One spoonful of it revealed its true nature: bits of cooked rice were cooked crispy and made unctuous by the use of coconut milk in the process, making it equally sinful as its porcine look-alike.  Its tempting qualities were matched and balanced by the other ingredients: sweet pungent onions, herbaceous cilantro, biting green onions, rich peanuts, and sour Lao pork sausage which lent some rich meat notes.  The green lettuce leaves provided the DYI wrap element to the dish as well as more fresh element to the “salad” – this dish was a definite hit in my books.  A salad dish on another occasion was Tam Muk Huong.  This green papaya salad revealed the closeness of Laotian cuisine to its Thai cousin, which both cultures share similarities not only in the food but also their language.  But my friend and I were overwhelmed by the balance in the dish for it was too spicy (even for me), too sour, and it lacked the balance from sugar and peanuts found in the Thai version.  On another occasion, I had to try the Alligator version – Laab E’Kae.  I must say that I enjoyed this dish very much even though its spice heat was still quite uncompromising but made bearable this time by the balanced sour sauce, and the raw vegetables and the steamed purple glutinous rice that took the edge of the bite when eaten alternately. The alligator meat was interesting with its flank steak texture, a mild chicken-like meat flavor, and a faint after-note of dried shrimp.  The green mango added some slight sour crunch, the mint and cilantro some herbal qualities, the onions and green onions some sweet pungency, and the toasted rice powder a faint smokiness.  Despite it’s rather steep price, I would order it again both for its balanced flavors and novelty.

Khao Poon/Curry Noddles

Tomp Som/Laotian Sour SoupA couple of dishes were ordered from the Soup and Stews section of the menu.  The first was a lunch noodle soup dish called Khao Poon.  The bowl arrived with a pool of red curry-like broth submerging a mound of rice vermicelli noodles and a heap of garnishes.  One spoonful of it and I was reminded of the Malaysian version, Laksa, which I grew up on and am very fond of.  I must say that broth was nearly as good as I would have wanted it with its right amount of spice heat, its herbal root qualities, a slight sea funkiness from the shrimp paste, a light acidity from the use of tomatoes, and its coconut milk richness.  The accouterments of raw cabbage, raw beansprouts, radish, mint, cilantro, and a slice of Kabocha pumpkin added some fresh counterpoint to the rich broth and soft noodles.  I can see why this dish was very popular during the lunch time, and I would just order this dish when in the mood for a spicy noodle soup dish despite the meager slices of chicken in the bowl – meat in Asia is treated like garnishing, unlike in this country.    On another occasion, a soup was ordered – Tomp Som.  The bowl that arrived betrayed my expectation; I was not expecting a clear soup since I was used to Thai soups covered with red chili oil or made opaque from coconut milk.  The clear broth, made from coconut water, was flavored with tamarind for sour notes, fresh basil for mintiness, dried chili for heat, with a faint hint of lemongrass, filled with bits of chicken, Shimeji mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes.  After a few sips and getting accustomed to the unexpected, I started to appreciate this rather understated soup for SE Asian cuisine standards, even though a part of me was still hoping for more spice and aromatics.

Thom Kem/Braised Pork Belly and EarAs a main course, I  asked the waiter for a recommendation, but his harriedness did not afford me much attention on a few occasions (they seemed understaffed during my visits).  What I ordered was Thom Kem.  A bowl of braised pork and pig ears stewed in a dark sauce, and paired with a boiled egg.  The pieces of meat were quite tender, having absorbed the flavors of the stewing liquid, with bits of attached fat and skin attached, characteristic of that cut of meat. However, the nearly cloying sweet soy-base liquid and its five-spice and cinnamon notes, along with some fresh ginger, could not mask the strong porcine flavor, typical of pork served in this country (I don’t find the same problem in Asia).  The pig ears fared a bit better with a gelatinous quality coating a slightly crunchy middle.  I quite enjoyed the dish initially, but soon I was slightly overwhelmed by the porky scent and the sugar in the sauce.  With the right meat source and taming down the sugar (palm sugar, I suspect), this dish would be go beyond a one-hit/taste-wonder stage.

Paa Kaw Tod/Snakehead Fish

Steamed Purple Glutinous RiceA couple of fish dishes were sampled during the visits.  The first was Paa Ka Tod from the “Invasive Species” section of the menu.  The colorful dish arrived with bits of avocado and mango on top of the fillets of Snakehead fish.  I wanted to really like this dish, but eating it was like brokering mediation between estranged family members.  The different elements seemed out-of-place and they were pulling me in different directions, this compounded by the not-so-ripe fruits that left me nonplussed or filled with sourness, coated by a sour sauce – the above sour soup and sour green papaya salad made this diner and my companion (already grumpy from traffic issues getting there) further aggravated with this overwhelming note during a given visit.  Even an order of purple glutinous rice didn’t help to link the disparate flavors together, with me feeling further frustrated by having to send it back for being undercooked (few places get the cooking right).  Despite all the marring in that day’s meal, there was a redeeming quality in the fish filet which played quizzically on my tongue.  The Snakehead flesh was very firm with a mild tasting quality and a hint of fish oiliness that I had never tasted before.  I would make it a point to order another dish with this type of fish on the next trip.

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon Wraps

Knap Paa/Grilled Salmon WrapsI have to admit that I tried the next dish twice in different forms – Knap Paa.  A salmon fillet has been coated by a spice paste and topped with herbs and aromatics, wrapped in banana leaf, and grilled on fire.  I enjoyed this preparation from the first bite, with the fish kept moist by the wrapping, the spice paste tasting complex and giving the fish interesting notes, and the garnishing of red peppers, onions, green onions, ginger and fresh dill (a new one for me as for SE Asian cooking) imparting their subtle aromas while providing textural interest.  The restaurant also offers this similar preparation for sea bass, cod, blue catfish, chicken, and tofu, but I prefer the firm salmon based on my order.  On another trip, I noticed a couple of ladies enjoying the same dish, but in another form, and I knew I had to give it a try.  The wooden board arrived with its elements of lettuce leaves, grilled salmon, rice vermicelli, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peanuts, and sliced lemongrass.  Assembling the leaf packages was definitely fun, and it elevated the dish to another level, and I especially enjoyed the pungent aroma from the lemongrass, and the spicy and sour elements in the sauce.  This dish is a must order in my books.

Pumpkin Sticky Rice

Avocado Sticky RiceUsually not one for desserts, a couple of sweet offerings detracted me away from my narrow path.  The first was Pumpkin Sticky Rice.  The bright orange topping definitely screamed Pumpkin and I was expecting to be overwhelmed by it.  Fortunately, it was more subdued than what I expected, with the pumpkin tasting more like butternut squash that has been tempered with some coconut milk.  The glutinous rice was properly cooked with no chalkiness left, that I would find in some places.  The splash of coconut cream infused with the Pandanus leaf flavor was totally up my alley, hitting the comfort food hot spot as I grew up on these flavors, while lending its creaminess to the whole mix.  Bits of toasted pumpkin seeds, black sesame seeds, yellow mung bean seeds and crispy green pre-mature rice added the necessary counterpoint to the sea of orange as well as the textural contrast to keep each mouthful interesting.  A similar version made with avocado was akin to the aforementioned dish.  However, the green sauce was mellower in flavor while exuding a slight vegetal quality to the whole mix.  I must say I did enjoy these two sweet endings, albeit they were quite filling, hence half of the servings became dessert for another time at home.

Thip Kao RestaurantThip Kao definitely serves veritable Laotian food in a fairly modern setting, and it is the only such restaurant in the District itself.  There were some highs and mediocre dishes.  What I enjoyed most is the crispy rice salad that grabbed my attention from the first bite, the curry noodles that reminded me of my childhood, the grilled salmon that was a part of the constructed leaf package, and finishing with either sticky rice desserts.  Yes, there are issues with the under-staffing and a couple of dishes that were not balanced or seemed to be missing an extra element.  Putting these flaws aside, I feel that there are more dishes worth exploring, and I am up for such gastronomic adventure, and doing my part of getting rid of tasty “invasive species” prepared well by this establishment.