Toki Underground

Toki Underground

Toki UndergroundA couple of years ago, nearly to this day, I had my first unpleasant encounter of this blogging business in a Ramen noodle eatery. After taking a seat in the empty space, I pulled out my camera to take a test shot. I was interrupted by the chef who brusquely asked me what I was doing. After explaining the purpose of my visit, he barked, “No photo!” My mind responded, “No photo, no blog.” I walked out of there immediately and I wrote on the Thai establishment next door.

Well, another Ramen opportunity popped its head up recently. I reconnected with a friend that I met some time ago, and I suggested that we meet at a noodle joint that people have been raving about. Toki Underground is a Taiwanese-Japanese noodle shop located in the recently gentrified H St. NE neighborhood, alive and bustling with new restaurants, bars, and night entertainment, along with near impossible night parking due to the lack of parking garages and new street parking restrictions. For this blog, I met up with above friend for lunch, hence avoiding the parking issue, but not the traffic issues that I encountered with the main corridor shut down for a street festival (seriously?). Walking down the car-empty H St., a rare sight, I was hunting for the address. Stumbling upon the place, I noticed that there was no signage at all except for the number. A steady stream of people entering was another hint that we were at the right place, and we walked upstairs only to be placed on a rather lengthy wait.

Pork Dumplings

After negotiating a seat by the window (prized seat for the photographer) in that loud dark tight space whose former life was a living room, we placed our order. The first to arrive was Pork Dumplings. These parcels were cooked the proper way with one side pan-fried and the rest of it steamed. One bite into it revealed a mildly seasoned and savory filling that exuded a faint porcine note, encased by a soft dough that made these bites delicate and sumptuous. The accompanying sauce was the proper Chinese-style sauce with the right combination of vinegar, soy, and chili oil. The presentation itself bespoke of an establishment that treats itself dishes with care and executes them well. A good start indeed.

Fried Chicken Steamed Buns

Fried Chicken Steamed BunsThe other appetizer to arrive was Fried Chicken Steamed Buns. Arrived was a filled plate that was quite a sight for the eyes and was yelling “assemble and eat me.” After making myself a filled bun, the first bite brought about a raised eyebrow. The soft and pillowy bun encased the perfectly cooked crispy and moist chicken bits, sauced in a rather fiery sweet chili sauce, and enhanced by good bits like ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and green onions. The other accouterments consisted of house-made pickles, fresh basil, green onions, dill, and a mixture of mayonnaise and Togarashi, a Japanese chili mix. Every bite was a titillation of flavors and textures that made these successful and totally irresistible for both my dining companion and me.  If weren’t for the mains, we could have ordered another plate of these wonderful sandwiches.

Toki Classic RamenMy friend’s main dish was what this place is re-known for – Toki Classic Ramen Soup.  The pretty bowl arrived with the mound of noodles drowned by a sea of steamy broth and erupting with a garnishing of green onions, young kale, salted ginger, and a sheet of Nori.  After stealing a few bites from his bowl, I could ascertain its nature.  The noodles were properly cooked, enriched by the slightly fatty (where lots of flavor lie) rich and full-bodied broth that spoke of not just the pork flavors but of “age” or time spent brewing the stock.  I read that there is a Master Stock that is cooking at all times, and the sips were pointing in that direction.  Pieces of pulled pork were evident but not the star of the show, as is in the case of most Asian noodle dishes. The toppings added some more textures and flavors with the pungent green onions, the fresh young kale, and salty and biting ginger, the nutty sesame seeds, and the sea-iodine-tasting Nori.  A perfectly poached egg gave its lusciousness to the already rich bowl.  Now, I know why this is called the Toki Classic, and it is worth the order on your visit.

Abura TsukemenFor some variety, I went for a dry noodle dish – Abura Tsukemen.  The bowl of sauced noodles arrived topped with green onion strands, salted red ginger, and a sprinkling of toasted white and black sesame seeds.  The noodles tasted properly seasoned by light soy and dark sauces, and it was made more appetizing by a generous amount of fried garlic slivers, lending its slightly pungent and toasty notes to the whole mix, along with the nutty notes from the sesame seeds.  Bits of mild pork brought a level of satisfaction to each chopstickful with its mild tasting yet well-seasoned flavors.  The side sauce tasted much like the broth from the Ramen soup dish with its slight fattiness and full-bodied flavor, but a swirl of dark soy sauce in it did not make its presence known, which made it unnecessary.  Instead of dipping my noodles into the sauce as suggested by the waiter, I prefer pouring it on the noodles in small amounts to control the flavors and moisture level.  This is another dish worth ordering in my books.

Toki UndergroundFinally I made it to Toki Underground and what a delightful culinary adventure my visit was. Now, I understand what the buzz is all about. Starting with the dumplings that were so delicate and tasty, to the Fried Chicken Steamed Buns that not only grabbed our attention but tempted us to place another order, the Ramen Soup that spoke of full flavors and the realm of Slow Cooking that beats packet or other versions any day, and the dry Ramen dish with the clean-tasting pork enhanced by the rich dip sauce. No wonder there was a 45-minute wait 30 minutes after the restaurant opened and a constant stream of people. Just look out for the street number, and get there early to enjoy what this wonderful noodle joint has to offer!

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Zaytinya

Zaytinya, D.C.

A call from a long-time friend for dinner was immediately returned with an affirmative answer, especially when it was an invitation to Zaytinya in Washington DC.  I had known about this buzz-filled establishment recommended by many foodies and friends.  However, I dared not make a visit to its location in the very busy and restaurant-filled 9th street corridor due to the logistical obstacles set-up by the DMV, that is the DC Motor Vehicles – speed cameras, limited street parking, expensive garage parking, and metered street parking until midnight, if you can find one.  Well, I could not forgo this opportunity of visiting this Mezze-style eatery, owned by José Andrés, who owns the veteran tapas Spanish restaurant, Jaleo.  After finding free parking a few blocks, I knew I was in for a good experience.

Fresh Pita and Olive Oil/Balsamic Dip - Zaytinya, D.C.Zaytinya’s menu is filled with small sharing dishes from the lower Mediterranean, notably Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon. Perusing the menu can be quite daunting with the dishes labeled in the original names.  But reading the descriptions gives the diner a general idea of what to expect and a picture of the flavors and dish itself, perhaps jolting a memory of the dish from the recesses of the mind. I recognized a few that I have eaten over the years and was adventurous enough to try a few new ones, mulling over them as I munched on the complementary pita bread which was light and well-baked, but lacking a sense of character, like yeast and wheat bran notes that I would expect from a good Mediterranean bakery.  But I was quick to overlook it since I was anticipating the dishes that would make up our dinner.

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Fattoush - Zaytinya, D.C.The first to arrive was Fattoush.  It is a Lebanese salad that usually consists of lettuce, cucumber, red onions, green peppers and topped with baked pita croutons.  The version here had in addition pretty slices of red radish and mouth-popping pomegranate that added its sweet and fruity notes along with some toothsome texture.  The pomegranate vinegar dressing was a departure from the usual lemon and olive oil dressing; however, the use of the sour Sumac powder didn’t venture far from the traditional.  This salad was a fresh meal opener with the very fresh ingredients and the various flavors and textures waking the mouth up with these appealing elements.

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Batijan Bin Laban - Zaytinya, D.C.The next to be served was Batinjan Bil Laban. Three rings of deep-fried battered eggplant arrived sitting on a pool of roasted garlic yogurt sauce and a piece of mint leaf.  One bite into them revealed a skillful kitchen with the perfectly fried and nearly grease-free pieces.  The batter was light and crispy at the same time, revealing an ethereally light and melting eggplant inside sans any bitterness.  The yogurt sauce was the necessary companion that added some creaminess, acidity, mild garlic notes, and a depth in flavor.  I could not get enough of these crispy/melting bites with their perfect pairing of textures and flavors.

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Mushroom Lebanese Couscous with Brussels SproutsContinuing in the vegetable department, the next to arrive was both vegetable and mushroom inspired – Mushroom Couscous.  The evocative brass bowl arrived with a mound of large Lebanese couscous, studded with large pieces of mushroom, leaves of Brussels sprouts, and topped with garlic tourn, a type of sour cream.  Wow, this dish kept my spoon returning back to this bowl.  The pearl grains were perfectly cooked without being too firm or mushy, tasting savory having been cooked in some stock.  The mushroom pieces added its boschiness that elevated this dish beyond boring starch, along with the creamy sour cream that added the necessary lusciousness to the whole mix.  The pieces of Brussels sprout did nothing to this dish since its mild flavor barely made its presence known.  But, I was quick to overlook it since everything else was “on point.”

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Fried Squid - Zaytinya, D.C.To round off the meal, we chose a couple of non-vegetable dishes.  One order was Fried Squid.  Pieces of the seafood arrived with some garlic-yogurt sauce on the side.  I was expecting the usual from these morsels, perhaps due to me having my fair share of this.  Each piece was not only perfectly battered and fried, but the squid was tender and fresh tasting.  The fresh dill on top provided the fresh herbaceous note to the seafood that added more interest, as well as the pungent garlic-yogurt sauce that lent more flavor and creaminess to each bite.  My eye was zoning in on the last few scrumptious pieces, to which I made my move before my dining companion could – checkmate.

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Pork Belly Special - Zaytinya, D.C.

The other savory dish was a special – Seared Ossabaw Pork Belly.  The beautiful alabaster plate arrived with two pieces of pork belly, potato confit, grain mustard sauce, and orange gliko.  One bite into the belly pointed towards a quality ingredient that has been prepared well, with the mild tasting pork fat and meat exuding a its rich porcine flavor.  Equally strong were the pieces of potato, perhaps Yukon Gold, that were full of flavor and character, and they were competing for this diner’s attention.  The mustard sauce was the right match for the fatty meat, as well as the orange gliko, a type of Greek marmalade, that was peaking my gastronomic curiosity with its faint bitter orange and sweet notes that also matched the fatty pieces well.  But this was a rich dish which I enjoyed more than my friend, who took only a small bite.

Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake & Matisha Ice Cream - Zaytinya, D.C.Just as we thought we were done with the meal, we decided to look at the dessert menu, and we ended up ordering the Turkish Coffee Chocolate Cake.  The plate arrived with a molten chocolate cake (fondant) with some sea salt grains on top, dressed with some caramel, pistachio nuts, and ice cream.  One break into the cake revealed its hot gooey interior, tasting of the slight bitter notes from the rich coffee and dark chocolate, and complemented by the salty element. The caramel sauce was called for to add the sweet balance to each bite.  But it was the ice cream that got my attention most.  There was a unique flavor that I had never come across, and my mind was racing through mental archives to find its origin.  After making a query to the waiter, I was told that it was pistachio sap used in the ice cream, which was quickly filed in my mental notes.  What a interesting ingredient that reminded me of maple syrup, and I was tempted to lick every melted drop from the plate.  My friend’s cup of cappuccino was more than adequate with its bold flavor without the bitterness usually found in American blend.

Zaytinya, D.C.Well, that was a visit well over due.  What I appreciated about this establishment besides its swanky space is the variety of flavors found in this Mediterranean-inspired menu which not only showcased quality in the cooking but also the ingredients themselves.   Yes, you sense the respect for the traditional dishes, but a bit of creativity has been infused into the usual to give them some new interests.  Furthermore, I was titillated by the new flavors found in the use of certain ingredients, as in orange gliko with the pork belly, and mastiha in the ice cream.   Even with only 5 savory small plates and dessert between two, my friend and I were more than satisfied with our orders.  To top it off, the bill only came up to $55 for the both of us, which, in my estimation, is very reasonable for this calibre of cooking and for the DC restaurant scene.  Now, that is Good Eats!
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Zaytinya on Urbanspoon

 

Himalayan Heritage

Himalayan Heritage

Himalayan HeritageI have had my fair share of Indian food, either during my youth growing up in Southeast Asia, or the Indian food establishments that I’m always seeking out to find good authentic Indian fare.  So, when a coupon for Nepalese cuisine popped up on my computer screen, there was no hesitation pressing “enter” to purchase this deal, having in mind that this South Asian cuisine could be fairly similar and at the same distinct from the aforementioned cuisine.  I showed up at Himalayan Heritage in Adams Morgan, D.C., with coupon in hand, to later find out that it had just passed the expiration date for such deal.  Walking through its door, I entered a familiar space that held a former life and cuisine (that restaurant and its type of food escape me), and I was immediately impressed by the rich and exotic decor that whisked me to the Himalayan highlands, with a bright autumn light flooding and illuminating the rich painted walls within.  Since the paid value for the deal was still valid, I sat down and looked at the menu with a certain degree of enthusiasm and culinary curiosity, having not ventured in this gastronomic field before.

Spicy Soybeans and Puffed Rice

Immediately after taking my seat by one of the well-dressed windows, a waiter put down in front of me a plate of soybeans and puffed rice.  After perusing the menu and placing my order, I took my first bite of this opening dish.  The soybeans were a bit firm, an indication of being freshly cooked, tasting slightly salty, spicy from some chili heat, slightly sweet from the onions and red pepper, and yellow from some turmeric.  This was an indication of what I could predict what Nepalese food was about – rather simple and not overspiced.  The puffed rice was a playful counterpoint to the green beans, being flavorless but slightly nutty.  An order of Mango Lassi as my drink was a pleasant surprise from the usual expectation, it being not too thick, not too sweet, and the mango puree fruity and not metallic (the result of canning), exuding some slight floral notes.  A good start.

Coconut Tomato SoupI decided to go for the five-course special in order to sample as many dishes as I could in this one sitting – the mango lassi, glass of wine, or beer made up the first element.  The next course was a choice of soup or salad, and I went for the Coconut Tomato Soup – unfortunately, I could not substitute this course with the famous Nepali Momo, akin to Chinese dumpling.  The large bowl arrived with a waft of coconut essence emanating from the orange hot liquid, forecasting what to expect with each spoonful.  It was an interesting combination of Indian Sambal soup with its sour fragrant notes, slightly fruity from the pureed tomato, and rich from the coconut cream and toasted coconut bits in it.  Each spoonful was a layer of my gastronomic research as my curious tongue probed each mouthful.  I eventually had to place my utensil down as I was started to feel quite full from this hot soup, and I had to leave room for the rest of the meal. It was tasty and interesting, but I would have preferred as smaller bowl of this rich sip.

Stuffed Chatamari

Stuffed ChatamariI was taken aback when my next course arrived.  The Stuffed Chatamarin looked like a huge pizza with a topping of different colorful ingredients. One mouthful revealed its true nature.  The dough was a spongy rice flour base that was completely mild and lightly seasoned, sans the gluten pull, and made yellow with the use of turmeric. Studded through it (not toppings, but cooked as part of the dough mix) were pieces of green onion, red peppers, white onion, bits of ground chicken and a whole egg cooked as its center.  The disparate elements came together in each bite, with the rice dough providing the mild backdrop, the vegetable bits fragrance, the chicken its meatiness and some good seasoning, and the over-easy egg its rich yolk creaminess.  Just like the above soup, each bite was whetting my curiosity, but I had to stop my probing venture into this dish when nearly half had already been consumed.

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Nepali Style Shrimp TarkariAs for the next two courses of the super meal, the choices were served as half orders, and understandably so. The first medi-portion was Nepali Style Tarkari.  My order came with 3 large shrimp, butterflied and cooked perfectly, just done without any bounce in each bite, and tasting fresh and seafood sweet.  The sauce was quite salty (which I didn’t mind once mixed with rice) but slightly sweet from the tomato base,  fragrant from onions, ginger, cumin, and a little spicy from some chili.  Obviously, someone in the kitchen knows what he (I did see Mr. Chef) is doing with such skilful handling of the elements especially the star protein in this dish. The side of Basmati rice was properly cooked, being light and fluffy, slightly oiled, and studded with some flavor-exploding whole cumin seeds.

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Asparagus Bhutuwa

The other half portion was Asparagus Bhutuwa.  A bowl was filled with cauliflower, asparagus, and chunks of potato, covered by a orangy sauce containing some fragrant cumin seeds.  But what impressed me the most was the cooking of all the different vegetables: the cauliflower completely cooked without being mushy, the asparagus tasting fresh with a slight crunch, and the potato completely cooked and disintegrating in the mouth with ease – such cooking needs perfect timing.  The sauce was slightly sweet with a hint of sufficient spice heat, and a tinge of sourness to complement and add some more interest to the whole mix.  This was a most satisfying and worthy vegetarian/vegan dish.

Sikarni - Spiced Sweet Yogurt PistachioDessert was the final course, and while perusing the menu, I shied away from the usual Indian suspects and honed in on a Nepali sweet dish: Sikarni – Spiced Sweet Yogurt Pistachio.  The bowl arrived with thick full-cream yogurt studded with bits of nuts and sultanas.   The first mouthful woke this diner up with its use of cinnamon that not only provided some zing but also a bark-like fragrance from the fresh-tasting spice.  The nut-fruit element did not come across as an afterthought in this dessert since they were quite soft from a long sitting in the mix, having absorbed the slight tanginess from the fermented milk.  The sugar level in it also pointed to a judicious hand that was skilful in providing the perfect balance.  My only complaint was the lack of fragrant pistachio as listed in the menu, but this dessert was already chockful with nutty slivers of almond.  Even though I was quite stuffed from the previous courses, I found this sweet ending very tantalizing and completely irresistible, and despite its richness, I simply could not get enough of this cold sweet fragrant yogurt.

Himalayan HeritageDespite not being able to capitalize on the coupon deal on time, I was most impressed by my trip to this restaurant serving a little-known cuisine in this area. I did walk in with some preconceived notions of how the food was going to taste. But what I came out with far outweighed those ideas as the dishes left me with a big smile from a sated stomach and my pleased gastronomic senses; the interesting rich coconut soup, the tasty and intriguing rice dough “pizza”, the perfectly cooked shrimp curry, the equally stellar and perfectly cooked vegetables in a spicy sauce, and the mild yet no-less-satisfying yogurt dessert. Yes, it did take some effort finding these Nepali offerings amidst the sea of Indian fare, but the effort paid off handsomely. Never mind I did not get to order the Nepali Momo dumpling. What made up for it was the well-executed dishes that whisked me away to another place, aided by the lush décor around me, and the next table of Nepalese enjoying the dumplings themselves. From this dining experience, I think I have found a new cuisine that I have quickly fallen for.

Himalayan Heritage on Urbanspoon

Etete

Living in Washington DC area has a great perk – an incredible variety of ethnic restaurants from far-flung regions of the world within reach of any resident.  One cuisine that has thrived in this metropolis is Ethiopian which first made its presence known in the Adams Morgan restaurant row in the late 80’s not long after its community had grown to a rather sizable number.  Since then, many eateries have burgeoned in areas where previously were neglected and dilapidated.  Such area was the U St. NW where in the 90’s crack houses were abound interspersed by bordered-up store fronts and the occasional liquor store.  But where there is disaster, there is opportunity.   Many Ethiopian restaurants have popped-up around the intersection of 9th and U St. NW, and walking down this rather quiet neighborhood, one notices North Africans hanging out on the street and hears the exotic tones from their tongues.  This is where I encountered Etete, one of the several Ethiopian eateries on the same block. Etete

Eating EthiopianEntering in the establishment, the eating area looked rather cramped with a bar and a few tables on the first floor.  There were only a few customers seated which surprised me for a Saturday night.  However, my BFF and I were asked to go upstairs which was filled with diners and the din produced by the hungry mouths.  We were placed next to the stairs in a rather tight area since every table on this level was already taken.  Having had quite a few experiences with this type of food, I knew what to expect.  The basis of the whole meal is a common large platter covered with the exotic tasting sourdough bulgur wheat pancake, Enjera, and topped with different dishes.  Pieces of the bread are torn off and used as the eating utensil to scoop up the different dishes dotting this plain canvas.   For many Americans, eating this delicate pancake dough with the soft textured food poses a textural issue to most uninitiated to it, but my bestie was up to such challenge and is a fan of the cuisine.

.Vegetarian Plate Enjera BreadThe first layer to go on the platter was the Special Vegetarian Combination.  The large plate arrived with a myriad of vegetable dishes on the periphery of the sourdough pancake.  Gomen is collard greens cooked with onion, green pepper, garlic and ginger; Tekil Gomen is cabbage and carrot cooked with onion, garlic and jalapeño pepper; Yekik Alicha is a delicately spiced cooked split pea dip served cold; Yemisir Kik Wat is red split lentils cooked with onions and herbs, spiced with the fiery Ethiopian red pepper Berbere sauce; Yeataklit Wat is carrot, potato, and onion sauteed with garlic, ginger, and tomato sauce; and a salad consisting of raw tomato, onion, and jalapeño pepper.  I enjoyed the different flavors, textures, and temperatures in each vegetable dish, all exuding their unique flavors from the simple yet tasteful to the more complex tasting ones.  The fresh tasting Enjera was light and spongy with a slight sour hint as a result of the dough fermentation before being cooked, and it was the perfect blank canvas to absorb all the different flavors from the various sauces and dips.  The only ho-hum moment was the raw tomato salad with its not-so-ripe/-sweet chunks that was indicative of the unseasonality of this fruit vegetable.  A slight up-charge is added for the similar combination but with the addition of a fried fish on the side, which seems to be a popular order looking around the dining room.

Doro WatI would have been satisfied with the vegetable dishes, but this review would be incomplete without mentioning the meat dishes.  The most recognizable and mentioned dish is Doro Wat.  Chicken legs have been cooked in onion, garlic, ginger, ground hot pepper (berbere) , and spiced butter sauce, served along with hard-boiled eggs.  The chicken leg was cooked tender, tasting of all the spices from the long stewing process.  The sauce tasted complex with a slight sweetness to compensate for the spicy berbere in the sauce that had a slight smokey note much like smoked paprika.  The heat was more complex and had more personality than just a hot pepper, which made the dish appealing and making one want more.  The boiled egg was obligatory but a bit perfunctory in my opinion.   Despite the tasty quality of the dish, I was disappointed that all that was served was just a drumstick and an egg, all for $16.  A bit more generous portion would have made this order very satisfactory.

.Yeawaz Tibs The next meat order was definitely not short in quantity, which made up for the above dish’s shortcoming.  Yeawaz Tibs consisted of beef tibs cooked in a  ground hot pepper sauce (Awaze sauce) with onion, fresh tomato, fresh garlic, and chili.  The pieces of beef were falling apart in the mouth with their quality cuts, devoid of gristle, tasting rich from all the seasoning and spices, spicy, slightly sweet from the tomato, and slightly smokey from the spicy Awaze sauce.   Each bite exuded the perfect amalgamation in the cooking process that pointed to slow long cooking of the meat in that rich sauce.  The pieces were right size making it easy to handle in each parcel created by the Enjera that was moistened and flavored by a sauce thicker than the above chicken dish.  The portion of this order was very generous, and along with its savoriness, I began to pay attention to each beefy bite rather than the meager chicken portion.   I highly recommend this dish as a must order.

EteteEtete serves quality Ethiopian food cooked in the traditional and uncompromising way, and served in a rather contemporaneous environment.  Such cooking was evident in all the various dishes especially in the vegetable combination platter and in the beef tibs dish with the proper seasoning perfect cooking in the vegetables to the deliciously spicy and tender meat pieces of the Yeawaz Tibs.   I would recommend this experience to anyone, especially the novice, to try this cuisine in this uncompromising way.  With such friendly and helpful service, I’m quite sure you will walk away impressed and satisfied from the wonderful dishes. Etete on Urbanspoon

Ambar

After a short burst of chest pains followed by days of food tasting bitter on my tongue, I had reason for concern.  A few days later, I went to see my long-time doctor who is both knowledgeable and attentive, and after a diagnosis of severe acid reflux, this gastronome was relieved to hear that the effect was only short-term (bile on the tongue would have that effect) and my palatal glands had not suffered any permanent damage.  So, after an invitation to dinner by a friend to a restaurant unbeknownst to me, I did not resist nor google the restaurant, leaving this usual control freak to the hands of another.

8th St., SE.
Ambar

Ambar is located in the Eastern Market region of DC within walking distance from Capitol Hill.  The 8th Street SE corridor has become a hotspot for new and trendy restaurants catering to those seeking some culinary adventure.  Ambar is one in that crowd, and it touts itself as serving Balkan cuisine.   Run by a bigwig restaurateur in the DC scene, Richard Sandoval, whose nationwide and local restaurants range from Asian Fusion to Modern Latino, this appears to be the odd one out both in his culinary styles and in the local culinary scene.  With a fairly warm night giving us a precursor of better weather to come, we decided to take our seat in the small outside patio, as well as for me to get some good light for my photo shots.  The theme of this locale is that of small plates, tapas like, which we ordered a series of them for this sitting.

Chili Crab with Milk Skin CheeseThe first to land on the table was from the Kajmak Bar.  The name denotes an unaged cheese from the Serbia-Croatia region and I was curious enough to try something new.  We ordered this dairy dish topped with crab mixed with Ajvar, a Serbian eggplant-red pepper sauce, crowned with pickled green chilies.  Large pieces of Lavash chips, Turkish pita, were served as the scooping utensils to this dip.  Taking my first bite, I was surprised by the clean and mild flavor of the Kajmak, tasting like light cream with the texture of chevre but without the distinctive flavor of its aged cousin.  The crab mixture on top was a bit of a mismatch with the cheese since there was no discerning flavor of its sea-sweetness nor was there any distinctive presence of the Ajvar sauce, which made the use of the luxurious seafood a bit of a waste of ingredient.  The slivers of pickled green chilies was the right match for the mild cheese, and I was relishing them much like how I loved my grandmother’s pickled chilies that she even packed in her handbag on our trip to Hong Kong in the 80’s.  Perhaps another topping instead of the crab meat would have made this more successful since I was thoroughly enjoying its other plate partners.

Mushroom Crepes with Cheese

A trio of roasted mushroom crepes, known as šumske pečurke in Serbian-Croatian, arrived like little stuffed parcels.  The first bite into them brought some excitement to this taster.  The lacy and thin French-like crepes wrapped a stuffing made with rich creamy bechamel infused with slices of roasted mushroom that lent its meat-like texture and woodsiness to these delectable squares, reinforced by the creaminess of nutty Gouda cheese gratinéed on top.  The red pepper emulsion brought a bit of sweetness to each bite and it was the right complementary partner to this vegetarian delight.  If weren’t for my sense of fairness and equity, I would not have split the last parcel with my dining partner.

Grilled Calamari with Gremolata

The next dish to arrive was Grilled Calamari with Gremolata.  A pretty and bright dish arrived with pieces of fresh calamari bearing grill marks topped by the Gremolata sauce consisting of citrus flavors, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs, and olive oil.  The pieces of mollusk were quite tender with a slight bitter note from the grilling, compensated by the sweet-sour and fresh-tasting sauce that I could not get enough of.  Pieces of chili “thread” were a curiosity for me, and I could not stop popping them into my mouth, recognizing its vegetal flavor identity with the bare hint of its spice heat.  This well-executed dish points towards a skillful and thoughtful kitchen.

Duck Breast with Crackling and Saffron OnionsGrilled Duck Breast was next on the line-up.  Pieces of the poultry arrived sitting on a bed of cooked onions with pieces of duck crackling strewn around.  The meat pieces were still quite succulent despite being cooked a bit past what we had ordered, matched by the slightly sweet onions cooked with saffron and orange juice hinting of its floral and citrus bouquet.  But those pieces of crispy duck fat – what can I say?  Even for this health nut, I couldn’t resist popping them into my mouth as I savored their crunch and salty fattiness in the mouth (I have been known to buy a bag of crackling once a year).  The allspice jus added another interesting note to each bite, albeit a rather mild one.

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Pork Tenderloin

The last savory course was Bacon and Peanut Pork Tenderloin.  A slab of tenderloin was heavily grilled, paired with some mash potato.  Not knowing what this dish really was since there was a slight mix-up in the ordering (we were expecting Pork Belly and Sour Cabbage), we were guessing at what the elements were.  The sauce tasted interesting and familiar at the same time, hinting of mustard (a bit hint), butter and tarragon, and of another familiar note not in its usual guise – Miso.  Being heavily grilled, the pork was a bit dry on the outer parts but more tender inside, not tasting of anything else particularly interesting except for its porcine mildness. But it was that interesting sauce that saved the day.  The pork served a role more like a vehicle to mop up that tantalizing sauce akin to how some French dishes are made with the sauce being the star on the plate.  The sweet and salty bacon peanut crumble on the meat was also another interesting note that brought this dish beyond the banal.

Forest Gnocchi

After the list of savory offerings we sampled, we felt quite sated and satisfied with our meal.  However, our waitress tempted us with the house dessert that has been listed as one of the 40-must-have’s in DC – Forest Gnocchi.  A chilled Korean stone bowl (a creative use of the usually heated one for Bimbap)  contained the following  ingredients listed on the menu: chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelee, tarragon gnocchi, passion fruit espuma with black tea sauce. Wow, wow, wow! Talk about gastronomic titillation at its best!  I could not stop tasting all the high-quality and well-executed disparate ingredients with their fruit, sweet, chocolate, citrus, and tannin (tea) qualities that came together to create an amazing gestalt effect.  The shoot of baby basil leaves added the refreshing and unexpected herbaceous note to the already polyphonic symphony of flavor notes.  I am glad that we decided to take the leap of faith, and I have found my latest must-have dessert as of today.

Ambar is an interesting gastronomic experiment by a seasoned restaurateur who knows what he is doing with ingredients that are uncommon but not lacking in flavor.  Despite the small misstep in the Crab and Kajma dish, I was impressed by the execution and chemistry in the pairing of elements as in the Mushroom Crepes with its woodsy goodness and rich bechamel, the tender Calamari with the lick-the-bowl citrus Gremolata, the quality Duck Breast paired with floral sweet onions punctuated with crispy fatty duck crackling, and saving the best for last, Forest Gnocchi with the myriad of flavors that came together as an epicurean summit on my tasting buds, as I felt grateful that they are now at their optimum tasting level.  Yes, Ambar is worth visiting for some culinary adventure, even more so with reasonable prices for this level of cooking.  With my worries of my tongue issues aside, I can now concentrate on my tennis elbow from a Yoga session that same day.  Oh well.

Ambar on Urbanspoon

Brunch – Grillfish

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

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Brut, Pineapple and Passion Fruit Juices

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

Local Oysters

A dozen Local Oysters.

Crabcake Eggs Benedict and Swisschard

Crabcake and Egg Hollandaise with Garlic Sautéed Swiss chard.

Fish Tacos and Eggs

Fish Tacos and Eggs with Creamy Marinara Sauce.

Caramel Cheescake Brulée

Caramel Cheesecake Brulée.

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

Grillfish on Urbanspoon

El Chalan

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

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

Chupe de Camarones

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

Choros a la Chalaca

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

Papa Rellena

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

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

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

Pollo al VinoWe all are creatures of habit, and so is the other fellow diner at my table. His order without fail is Pollo al Vino. A piece of chicken breast has been slow cooked with some red wine and raisins, arriving with rounds of carrot and a boiled potato. From my tasting bite, the chicken was quite moist, the sauce tasty and hinted of a tinge of cumin, and slightly sweet from the raisins in it. This used to be my usual order and it was a nostalgic reminder of yesteryear. I must say that I can’t fault my friend for not being adventurous beyond this dish since it is still quite good and tasty after all these years.
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El ChalanEl Chalan has been around for 32 years in a prime downtown spot, and its survival all these years especially during the last economic meltdown is a testament to its reputation. The filled dining room during my last visit was a good indicator that diners still love this place, not for any novelty but for the very same dishes that they have been serving all these years. The kitchen has maintained its standards with its tasty traditional dishes executed well. Instead of chasing epicurian novelty, a sabbatical from very familiar dishes can inject a level of excitement back into the system and re-inspire the taster. El Chalan is definitely back on my list for more visits and reacquainting with its delectable menu.

El Chalan on Urbanspoon

Taste of Tunisia

Taste of TunisiaThe cyber world of online coupons is a fleeting one, just like most personal profiles and some Facebook connections.  When I came across an offer for a Tunisian restaurant more than a year ago, I grabbed it quickly, only to be quickly disappointed by an email stating that the restaurant had closed down.  But a couple of months ago, another came up for this North African cuisine and this time, hesitation had no time to register in my mind and on my finger before tapping on “purchase” on the website.

Taste of Tunisia is located on the busy Wilson Boulevard near the Courthouse Metro, Arlington, VA, and its storefront awning can be easily missed within the blink of an eye due to its inconspicuous appearance.   Stepping in, you immediately confront a large wraparound counter shielding an open kitchen, reminiscent of the old-style diner.  On the other side of the room was a simply painted mural of a North African doorway lit by multi-colored Tunisian lamps.  Even though the décor is a bit sparse and furniture rather basic, I was reserving my assessment for the cooking and the dishes that I was going to order.

Tunisian Mint TeaUpon taking our seat, our charming waiter first served us some Sweet Mint Tea while we perused the menu, trying to decipher this unchartered culinary terrain although I was already quite familiar with another cuisine from this region – Moroccan.  Seeing that there were some similarities between these two neighbors, I detected that there were some subtle differences between the two, and I used that as a guide in making my choices.  Sipping the tea helped me to ease the mind and soul as I became more comfortable with this culinary map.  It was not too sweet, not too piping hot, and made fragrant by a spring of fresh mint that elevated this basic cuppa to its exotic level.  This was the perfect foray to the meal despite it being a sweet drink, and we could not resist asking for a refill during the meal.

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Tunisian Tuna Egg Breek

Our first appetizer was unequivocably Tunisian – Breek.  It arrived as a large triangular pastry filled with potato, capers, tuna, egg, and parsley, fried until crispy and golden brown.  We were not sure what to expect from this large patty but it peaked our interest.  With a squeeze of lemon juice, this dish was both revealing and delicious.  The pastry, although listed as phyllo dough, was Breek pastry, more like a wonton skin, encasing the interesting and savory combination that was spiked by the capers, and moistened by a sunny-side-up egg that spilled its yolk with the first fork digging.  The yellow liquid provided the rich flavor and sauce to each bite which I enjoyed very much.  According to Tunisian tradition, a mother-in-law would serve this to the potential bridegroom, and if he eats it without spilling a drop of the yolk, he is worthy of marriage – my companion and I were definitely not up-to-par for such proposition that night judging by the yellow mess on the plate.

An order of salad as the next course was unfortunately uninspiring despite a mound of lettuce leaves topped by almond slivers, canned olives, sultanas, Tunisian sheep cheese (like feta), and tomatoes, served with grain mustard as the dressing (interesting!).  I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for this raw vegetable dish from this regional cuisine.

Taste of Tunisia Couscous

For our main dishes, the first was Taste of Tunisia Couscous. A beautiful painted earthenware bowl arrived brimming with some couscous grain topped with Merguez sausage, lamb chops, chickpeas, a wedge of potato, and a thick slice of zucchini and carrot.  Although I have had my share of this grain dish, there were some unique touches to this dish.  First, the couscous was an orangey yellow hue and it still had a slight bite to it, which the waiter pointed as a main difference from the Moroccan version.  The next was the spice level of the dish coming from the use of the red pepper Harissa sauce in the gravy and also in the small Merguez lamb sausages that packed a wallop in the flavor department.  The chickpeas and vegetables were perfectly cooked tender and the lamb chops, young lamb judging from the size, was literally falling of the bone when cut into.  We dug into this dish enjoying this soulful dish that spoke to us with its authenticity and well-executed cooking and flavors. This was both tasty and soul-stirring at the same time, especially for my eating companion.

Tunisian Musli Chicken

Our second entrée was Musli Chicken which was recommended by our waiter.  The chicken breast was oven baked with a mound of sweet onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and the exotic pickled lemon, ubiquitous in this North African region.  The cut of poultry was still moist, flavorful from the yellow sauce that was savory and slightly citrusy from the use of the pickled lemon that also added some brininess.  Soft thick slices of the lemon further enhanced this unique flavor profile, allowing this diner to add it with each bite of chicken, which satisfied this reviewer who enjoys pickles of all kinds.  The side of rice was a strong co-actor with its strong perfume of cardamom, and savoriness from shallots, punctuated  with bits of browned pasta looking like orzo.  This dish is akin to the Lemon Chicken Tagine which I reviewed in another Moroccan restaurant last year, but the cooking style was distinctively different.  Unfortunately, the side potato wedges were slightly undercooked, but they were at the same time savory from the tangy sauce. A single cooked green hot pepper, looking like a baby zucchini but unrecognizable to me, was an interesting touch that only confirmed to me that heat spice is an integral part of this North African cuisine, unlike its neighbor Morocco.

Tunisian Pastries

Even though we were quite sated from the appetizers and main courses, we did not finish everything on our dishes as we had been eyeing the pastries sitting on the counter from the moment we walked in.  We ordered a plateful of all the different treats displayed and we were glad for having done so.  Makrouch is made with date puree covered by a crumbly nutty dough, soaked with a not-too-sweet syrup perfumed with orange blossom water, and dotted with fragrant sesame seeds.  On the first bite, my friend remarked that this was a better exotic version of Figs Newton, and I concurred with him.  Another triangular pastry made with pistachio and walnuts was packed with a compact nut mixture, sweetened by the same syrup as above, and flakey from the outer shell of phyllo dough – this was my favorite since I’m nutty over pistachio.  The last was Baklava, which I did not expect any different from any other versions that I’ve had before.  But this one was nut-packed with barely any hint of the phyllo dough separating the layers.  What I appreciated from all the desserts was they were not too sweet, and we were told that they were house-made on site.  Each bite of these sweet delights only pointed to the hands of a skillful pastry maker and my kudos to him or her.

Taste of Tunisia is a hidden gem of a restaurant (a common comment from other online reviewers) in a sea of other eating establishments in the busy Arlington area. The dishes that are served here speak of a culinary tradition that is worth exploring and that point towards a knowledgeable kitchen steeped in this cuisine – the sight of an old man behind the stove somehow was quite reassuring for me. Do not be put off by the small space and lack of a plush setting.  But after a meal there, the wonderful food and desserts make up for such a lack. In this instance, you cannot judge the food by its cover.

Taste of Tunisia on Urbanspoon

Kushi

DSC_2370.jpgA bit more than a year ago, a close friend invited me to partake in a coupon deal at a Japanese restaurant in an up-and-coming part of town that has recently gone through some urban development.   I found the offerings delicious and authentic, but we were rather put off by the overall value of the dishes, and we did walk out a tad hungry, partly due to the lack of a single grain of rice served with our meal.  When another coupon offer surfaced again, I quickly bought the deal and decided to pay this establishment another visit for a second look at the food.

Located in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood near Chinatown, it sits in a newly built building that hosts other new and trendy restaurants which has become the center of social life in this part of town.  Kushi toutes itself as a Izakaya and Sushi restaurant.  The word Izakaya is rather novel in the local culinary scene, borrowed from Tokyo and Osaka meaning a place that is neither a bar or restaurant, but more like a neighborhood place that caters to everyone from all walks of life, from the working professional to the local resident.  With this type of clientele in mind, Kushi offers a wide variety in their offerings and this is reflected in the cooking styles.  The menu is divided into these traditional culinary techniques: Sushi, Kushiyaki Charcoal Grill, and Robata Wood Grill.  For this review, my visit during lunch time was however limited since the menu only offered only the first two categories during the day time.

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DSC_2348.jpgThe sashimi and non-sushi dishes are categorized under the Raw Bar section in the menu.  I decided to order everything from here to get a sampling of their raw offerings. The raw oysters hail from Bedec Bay, Canada, and these medium size shells came with milky white oysters swimming in a shallow pool of briny liquor.  The oysters tasted very clean and rather mild in flavor, which is a good indication of the freshness and purity of the waters that it came from.  One not to risk any chances with raw oysters (I’ve heard enough scary stories from others), this did not feel like playing with seafood Russian Roulette and there was a sense of confidence worthy of bestowing one’s favorite hairdresser.
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DSC_2350.jpgThe next raw dish was Tuna Tataki.  A piece of tuna has been quickly seared then marinated in vinegar for a while to impart some flavor into the fish.  The dish came with slices that revealed the opaque outer ring around the raw interior, sitting on a pool of soy sauce that was imbued with some dashi sauce made from bonito flakes.  The slices tasted slightly sour from the marination, and pieces of mild-tasting garlic chips along with some spicy grated daikon turnip added the interesting textural as well as flavor components.  Soft sheets of Wakame seaweed added further interest in the dish.  This small plate was definitely a hit for me on many levels.
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DSC_2352.jpgThe other small bite was a bowl of Peel n Eat Shichimi Garlic Blue Shrimp.  The Blue Shrimp were transformed into fiery red from both the cooking and sprinkling of the red-hued Japanese Shichimi spices.  This crimson mix comprises of coarsely ground red chili pepper, Sichuan peppercorn, roasted orange peel, black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ground ginger, and dry seaweed.  The cool-temperature shrimp were rather large, cooked perfectly with the flesh still moist and plump with the spices adding a distinctive slightly smokey flavor to the dish.  It is not quite as salty or heady like the typical Old Bay boiled shrimp, and I appreciated the natural sweetness coming through in these bites.

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For the last cold dish, I ordered the Sashimi Trio.  This beautiful dish arrived with small plates of maguro tuna, hamachi yellowtail, and salmon.  The pieces of nearly translucent yellowtail tasted very clean with a faint hint of its mild flavor, with a topping of spicy shaved daikon radish with bits of crispy rice pebble.  The salmon was quite fatty which imparted a certain level of lusciousness to the tongue along with the distinctive salmon omega 3 richness.  But the star of this trio was the tuna whose large pieces of ruby-like meat tasted pristine in both freshness and in the unique lean tuna flavor which peaked my interest and I could not get enough of it – if pieces of ruby stones could be eaten, this is what I would imagine what they would taste like.  For $13, I feel that this dish is worth every penny – a must order in my books.

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From cold to hot, and raw to cooked.  For the other half of my meal, I went for the Kushiyaki charcoal grilled items.  It was a pity that the wood grilled items were not available for lunch, but I was quite happy to settle for the charcoal version.  Visually, I will start describing from the right of the picture to the left.  The first item was the Chicken Breast with Shiso and Wasabi.  The pieces of poultry were mildly seasoned, enhanced by the slightly bitter minty Shiso leaves and the biting grated Wasabi. Next was the Chicken Breast with Shiso Leaves and Plum sauce.  It tasted similar to the previous skewer except in this case the plum sauce added a nearly cloying sweet tanginess to the bites.  Following it is Negima/Chicken and Scallion.  The pieces of chicken breast were well grilled punctuated by the smokiness and slight sweetness of the charred scallion pieces that added the necessary interest to the plain protein.  Next to it is the Kamonegi/Duck Breast and Scallion.  This stick proved to the most tasty among the poultry items due to the moist and dark flavors of the meat while the grilled scallion imparted the same sweet charred qualities as in the previous bite, while lacking the usual gaminess that duck may carry.

DSC_2369.jpgMoving away from poultry, I ordered the Pork Belly which had cubes of equally proportioned fat to lean meat on the stick.  The pieces of Berkshire Pork (considered one the best) were very savory with a slight sweetness and saltiness flavor in the moist and tender pieces which made the fatty parts delectable and even enjoyable and beyond sinful.  For the final skewer, I could not resist ordering the Wild Boar Sausage.  This delicately made sausage was moist and not firm with a mild tasting meat well seasoned with hints of herbs (rosemary and sage?) and a hint of sugar to round the flavors off.  All the skewered meat carried the distinctive smokey flavor imparted from having spent some time on the charcoal grill, boosted by dippings into the sides of sea salt, English mustard, and Shichimi spices.  These tasty bites took me to the city alley ways of Japan where these delights would be served for the hungry professional after a long day’s work.  For the dinner menu, the sausage is replaced by the popular chicken thigh skewer, commonly known as Yakitori.  The best deal for these grilled meats is the lunch set which serves four of your choices with rice, soup, and salad for $15 – definitely top of my list for lunch here.

DSC_2362.jpgKushi is definitely not the traditional Japanese eating establishment that most of us are used to.  It offers an amazing variety of traditional styled dishes in the cold and hot dishes, either raw or grilled on charcoal or wood.  It is one of the few places in the DMV that showcases traditional Japanese grilled dishes, which brings a breath of fresh air to the run-of-the-mill Japanese menu.  But the stars in this place are the quality ingredients and their attentive and knowledgeable treatment by the skilful kitchen, from the fresh Canadian oysters, the extremely fresh sashimi items, and to the tasty hot skewers of chicken, duck, pork, and the sausage bites.   However, here is a note to the post-carb diner: do yourself a great favor and order a bowl of rice to make the meal complete and for you to walk out satisfied.

Kushi Izakaya & Sushi on Urbanspoon

Bistro D’oc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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