Sunday, June 22, 2014

From Russia without much love

We are used to restaurant chains these days (it seems there is a BLT-something in every town, no?), but one doesn't expect Moscow to be the originator. Mari Vanna, however, is a (relatively high-end) chain from Moscow and St. Petersburg (there are also branches in New York and L.A.). Despite a recent positive review in the Washington Post, my expectations were not set all that high (it is a chain and I'm not a huge Tom Sietsema fan). I have to say, though, that everything we ordered was solidly good. Most Russian food doesn't feature complex spicing or many tricky techniques, but that doesn't mean it can't be done badly and this was good food. We shared the cold eggplant rolls (a Georgian cousin of Italy's eggplant rolatini, with a garlicky walnut-cheese filling), mushroom blini, and potato vareniki (think: ravioli). Everything was good and filling - three appetizers plus the generous bread plate (which includes radishes, green onions, and salt and sunflower oil for dipping (not as good as olive oil, but when in Rome....)) left two diners very full. On the night we visited, Mari Vanna was having a beer festival (I don't quite see how cheap beer is a festival) - my German enjoyed his Russian beer, but I wasn't so thrilled with my Georgian wine (generally the case with Georgian wine in my experience, but I thought maybe in a more upscale place???). Overall, the food was good enough to make me willing to go back, especially in colder weather as the food is rather hearty.

What I didn't love about Mari Vanna was the ambiance. I found the place a little heavy on the country kitch, which doesn't come across as remotely authentic. Also, does anybody like Russian pop music? Mostly though, the staff was a little too authentic for me. I'm sure if I were on anybody's radar, I'd get flak for this (deservedly, I guess), but I am not a fan of the infamous surly Russian attitude. Our waitress was sporting this with a thin veneer of American manners, and I would personally prefer not to experience this element of Russian culture ever. The waitresses also sport these short calico numbers, which are just awful. Despite the solid food, I would probably walk a block or so to any number of equally good restaurants where my waitress is not an ice princess in a slutty Little House on the Prairie costume. A matter of opinion, I suppose (and not all that slutty by Russian standards, I know....), but this is my blog, so there you go. Maybe in winter, the uniforms are longer?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Puerto Rico is also not a country

If I had my way and if the Puerto Ricans wanted full statehood, Maryland and Deleware would be joined to make one state (Maryware (randomly the name of a bunch of my ancestors) or Deleland???) so that we could stay at a nice even fifty. But until the Puerto Ricans make up their's not quite a state and definitely not a country. I've spent several weeks in Puerto Rico and lived in New York, where there is plenty of Puerto Rican food if you go looking, and I can report that Puerto Rican food is fine. I don't love it (especially not all the fritters and lack of green vegetables), but it's not inedible or anything. Given my lack of enthusiasm for the cuisine, I actually really liked the Boriquen Lunch Box, a DC food truck. We tracked them down one Friday evening at Port City Brewing, an Alexandria brewery with a bar-of-sorts. The brewery doesn't serve food, but they do host different food trucks on different nights. I had envisioned a Biergarten where the little one could frolick and we could sit, but alas ... the tasting room is equipped only with standing tables. We got Cuban sandwiches (they really do eat these in Puerto Rico) and tostones to go, along with a six-pack from the brewery. If you aren't ridiculous enough to bring a baby to a brewery, it looks like a lot of fun. Of course an outdoor area would be good for all ages, but...

BLB's food, while not life-changing, is good. They don't have a ton of options (it's a food truck after all), but our sandwiches were up to par. I get a craving for a Cuban sandwich every now and again and I would happily accept one from BLB when next the craving strikes. Puerto Rican will never be my favorite cuisine, but who even knows what Delawarean food is???

Friday, April 11, 2014

Portugal: Não, obrigada

Having spent a few days in Portugal and loving everything I tasted - the cheese, the fish, the bread ... nothing was fancy or complicated and everything exploded with flavor - Sweet Diablo was a real letdown. First of all, diablo is the Spanish word. The word for devil in Portuguese is diabo. One might argue that Sweet Diablo isn't officially a Portuguese cafe, but the website exlaims "bemvindo!" or "welcome!" and references "childhood experiences in Portugal." Still, I'm confident I wouldn't have noticed this if the food had been more than fine. We shared two sandwiches (a Porto and an Evora), which tasted oddly similar and were pretty small for the price. My biggest issue was that the sandwiches were warm and the arugula in the Evora was cooked, i.e. stringy and flavorless. We also had a soup of the day (beef and bean), which was wan beyond belief. My soup-fiend of a one year old wouldn't touch the stuff. And this kid eats unsalted rice cakes and sugar-free cheerios. To be fair, we didn't try any of the desserts and they do claim to make the world's best chocolate cake. Sadly, this is another example of a restaurant trying to serve food they think people want because they are eating it other places. But DC doesn't need another fancy sandwich shop (especially mediocre fancy sandwiches). A cafe serving the food that office workers in Lisbon enjoy might really be something.

Sweet Diablo 1200 19th Street, NW, DC

Poland: Don't Go Back to Rockville

That REM song doesn't actually have anything to do with anything, but it's a real song about Rockville, Maryland (maybe it's because I hail from the other side and am uninformed (I can think of two songs about Arlington), but there can't be too many songs about Maryland and maybe no other songs about Rockville?). Rockville happens to be the home of The Kielbasa Factory, the closest thing I could find to a Polish restaurant in the DC area. There are a couple places around that claim to be Polish, but were more generally Eastern European with leanings in other directions, such as Hungary or oddly, Scandinavia. So on a snowy Sunday we set out in pre-Christmas traffic for The Kielbasa Factory, which as you might expect, is a haven for Polish expats. They sell all kinds of Polish treats, from a wide variety of kielbasa (not surprisingly), dried mushrooms, jams, dairy products, even Polish toiletries and magazines. We escaped with a pound of the classic kielbasa, some Polish bacon, a pack of buckwheat groats, two cartons of potato and cheese pierogis, and four Paczki or doughnuts (when I asked the surly check-out woman what kind of doughnuts they were, meaning what type of filling, she said "they are Polish." In addition to being Polish they were also filled with plum jam.) The kielbasa and bacon made for a very tasty stuffed cabbage and the pierogis were deliciously doughy, but the Paczkis were a real disappointment. They look really, really good in the picture on the Kielbasa Factory website, but they were not fresh and the jam was not good quality. I'm not really a doughnut person, but I do have fond memories of rose jam-filled doughnuts in Warsaw. Alas..... I don't know that I'd drive all the way to Rockville just for The Kielbasa Factory, but if I found myself nearby, I might very well pop in for a package of pierogis or other Polish delight.

The Kielbasa Factory
1073 Rockville Pike, Rockville

The Philippines: Meh again

There are a multitude of boring mostly baby-related reasons that it took me so long to make it to the Philippine Oriental Market (aka POM). Also, they closed for a month or so over the winter...I will spare you the boring nap-related details and also encourage you to spare yourself a trip to POM. As the name suggests, this is a little market selling Filipino products, but there is also a hot bar of-sorts. As they do not have a website, finding their opening hours, etc. is a little tricky. Google did let me know that they close at 4:30 pm, but it was only after I showed up at 2:45 hoping to get something I could heat up for dinner, that I learned that "lunch is from 12-2!" The couple that runs the place is really sweet, though, and they gave me what was left for cheap or free (a strange sweet bun with flavorless yellow cheese in it and a random little chicken leg). I also came away with some glass noodles and adobo rice, both of which I really wanted to like, but they tasted like generic Asian food that you might find in a shopping mall food court. I had such high hopes for this place and it doesn't feel good being negative when the owners are so nice. It's possible that I missed something great by being 45 minutes too late, but the food I did get to try suggested otherwise.

Philippine Oriental Market
3610 Lee Hwy, Arlington