Thursday, December 10, 2015

(die) Ukraine: immer mit Wodka

I went to Ukraine on my first honeymoon (one marriage, two honeymoons) and I will say that it was one of my least favorite destinations. I think I liked it more than Scotland because the food and weather were better and I didn't have a massive case of morning sickness, but.....the people are not warm. That's the nicest way I can say it. Anyway, I wasn't really looking forward to a Ukrainian meal because of the bad association I have with it. But, duty called and so off I set for Ukraine because it seemed the only real Ukrainian (as opposed to Russian or Eastern European) restaurant in town. This seems no longer to be the case because when I arrived it had become Restaurant Graf, which clearly proclaims it self to be a "Russian restaurant." And it was completely empty. But we were there already and it was cold and dark and it wasn't like there were any other solid Ukrainian options to be found in Berlin (that I know of) so in we went. Graf is clearly on a different wavelength than most of the Brooklyn wannabe restaurants in Berlin (for starters, it isn't a hamburger joint). It has table cloths and a fake fireplace and tacky chandeliers and fake marble columns, fake silver candelabras, and a disco ball with Russian (I guess?) pop music videos playing behind it. It feels very Russian (or Ukrainian for that matter). I asked the waitress if the old restaurant had been Ukrainian, but she maintained that it has always been Russian. This seems not exactly true, but I decided not to get political.

In any case, we ordered the Ukrainian Appetizer to start, which is not something I would ever order, but, again, duty called. It was basically slices of raw meaty pork fat, pickles, and fresh dill with a shot of vodka. While shots of vodka are not really my thing and I was never sure how this dish was meant to be eaten (on bread? in bites?), somehow this all really worked for me and was my favorite thing we ordered. The low point was a green borscht that was missing a whole lot of flavor. I filled up on pork fat, so didn't leave hungry, but this was most definitely not worth ordering. I managed to eat more than my share of the cherry pelmeni with sour cream, though. All in all, I was really surprised by this place. I will freely admit that walking into an ueber tacky empty restaurant specializing in what is not one of the world's great cuisines had me convinced that this meal was going to be nothing but awful. Glad to have been proven wrong.

Restaurant Graf
Martin-Luther-Strasse 8

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Uganda: Wer hatte es gedacht?

Somethings have changed in Berlin since I last left: there is more of a food scene. It's too early to say whether or not it's a good one, whether it has developed in an authentic way or does it still just feel like people who have only read about Brooklyn are trying to recreate it here, is it packaging that matters or are people paying attention to the food itself? Many questions....and no real answers yet. But I can tell you today that you can get Ugandan food in Berlin and I don't think that was the case two years ago.

Martkthalle IX opened right before I left Berlin and they had just started holding Street Food Thursdays. It seems that this has spurred other regular food events, such as Street Food of Achse at the Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg. In my search for Ugandan food in Berlin, I stumbled upon the Rolleggs stand, selling rolleggs aka rollex, a Ugandan snack consisting of a flat omelet with vegetables, such as cabbage and carrot, rolled in a chapati. The seemingly (I didn't ask....sorry) German guys spent some time in Uganda and are now introducing them to the German public -- with a few modifications. They claim that a traditional rollegg with vegetables doesn't sell in Germany, so they offer a ham and cheese omelet and one with zucchini and feta. They also serve theirs with a choice of homemade ketchup (mild, spicy, or zesty (wuerzig)). I can attest to the German love of condiments and they ketchup (I went for wuerzig was quite good). All in all, it's basically a breakfast burrito by another name. It was pretty tasty, but also pretty far from life-changing and I personally would have rather had the more typical Ugandan veggie version. I think I'd also like to see the Rolleggs guys branch out into other Ugandan dishes (this also seems vital in their ability to compete with the other fare on offer - wild boar burgers and gnocchi and empanadas and pelmeni, etc.). For now, though, I'm still feeling pretty pleased that anyone is making (and selling) Ugandan food in Berlin.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Turkey with a white table cloth

One of the things that bugged me while I lived in Berlin the first time was how Turkish food was rarely served anywhere except Imbisse (snack bars) or holes-in-the-wall (and in homes, of course), but rarely in sit-down establishments where you might go on a date or take your out-of-town parents. Most days, I'd rather eat Turkish food than German food, but I know this isn't how everyone feels. Older Germans I am acquainted with would never eat Turkish food unless there was no other choice and then they would probably grumble about garlic or spices or grease. It was also my impression that most Germans, though they were more than willing to eat Turkish food, found that it was acceptable for a quick meal or snack, particularly after a night on the town, but would never center an evening around a Turkish establishment.

So, it's a little strange that I went to a Turkish restaurant in the States right before moving back to Berlin, where entire neighborhoods seem to be powered by Turkish food, but .... what can I say... the alphabet made me do it. I will say that although Yayla Bistro was not bad, better Turkish food abounds in Berlin. Out of the four things we ordered, two were really good and two were OK. Our waiter recommended a glass of Turkish wine, which was really excellent - much better than I had expected. We also shared an appetizer of baby squid with honey vinegar. The squid was perfectly cooked and the honey vinegar added a really interesting component. Very few, if any, Turkish restaurants in Berlin serve such a dish. On the other hand, we also had a totally average spinach pie and really blah moussaka. Both seem to have been microwaved - the pastry in the spinach pie was really soggy and this totally ruined the dish. You could easily get microwaved food from a Turkish place here, but it would have cost a few Euros at most. What was notable about Yayla, was not how extremely friendly the owner and staff were (the owner was in front of the restaurant while we were looking for parking and went out of his way to tell us about free parking in the neighboring garage), rather the white table cloths, soft lighting, and older white clientele mixed with young white families. In my almost seven years in Berlin, the nicest Turkish place I ate was Hasir in Kreuzberg (I know the one is Mitte is a bit fancier) and it wasn't all that nice. I don't recall seeing any old white guys in loafers. While I was gone, there have been some developments in the Turkish food scene and I've read about the opening of two more traditional (real tables, waiters, etc.) Turkish restaurants: Defne and Osmans Toechter. The weather is basically unbearable and a jet-lagged toddler doesn't necessarily make for the best sidekick, but I think there may be room for a little optimism here. 

Yayla Bistro
2201 North Westmoreland Street, Arlington

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Tunisia: No Brik Anywhere

I looked for a Tunisian restaurant and was really surprised not to find one (RIP Taste of Tunisia in Arlington). After much googling, I stumbled across the Friends of Tunisia Yahoo Groups page where Peace Corps volunteers were trading information on where to get Tunisian olive oil in the States. Trader Joe's was mentioned as a source, so lacking a Tunisian restaurant I went to pick up some at my local TJ's (ironically mere blocks from where Taste of Tunisia once stood). It's really good, flavorful olive oil and, in case it matters, the can it comes in is supposedly just like the ones you see in Tunisia. We had it with the really good Greek bread that everyone should be buying from Bread & Water at the Ballston farmers market on Thursdays with the last tomatoes of the summer and a bit of feta. It was one of the best lunches I've had a long time, so maybe it's a good thing that I couldn't find anywhere Tunisian to eat.

Trinidad & Tobago: Once more up Georgia Avenue

We were the only people brunching in Teddy's Roti Shop on Sunday morning, but that's ok because the food was really pretty good. It's also pretty refreshing to brunch where the parking is easy and the bottomless brunching twenty-somethings few. This is another restaurant where I would have liked to visit with more people so we could try more things -- the menu is pretty big and as T&T has such interesting influences on their culture and cuisine (African, French, Amerindian, Chinese, British, and Indian primarily) different dishes reflect different and mixed cultural influences. As it was, we split a potato and spinach roti and buss up shut with goat curry. Both dishes were huge, easily enough for two - we had leftovers for days and both were good, if not life-changing. My main complaint was that the spinach was clearly frozen spinach, which is passable in some contexts, but here the frozen flavor was the dominant flavor and really not great. Maybe this is what they would use in T&T, I don't know, but it wasn't great. On the other hand, the bread in both dishes was freshly made and absolutely delicious. We also sampled the ginger pine juice (like ginger beer cut with pineapple juice) and a peanut punch (like a peanut butter smoothie) -- both were really good, the peanut punch was obviously a lot heavier and thus, not really good for an already heavy meal. Teddy's has a great selection of house-made drinks: sorrel, passion fruit, sea moss, and mauby. All in all, Teddy's isn't the best meal you can get in all of DC, but it was good, particularly considering that there isn't much Caribbean food in DC. I might not all the way up Georgia Avenue just for Teddy's, but having sampled a good handful of restaurants in the area, this is probably the one I'd pick if I found myself hungry in this corner of the city.

Teddy's Roti Shop

7304 Georgia Avenue, NW DC

Friday, October 2, 2015

Togo: It wasn't yucky

"It wasn't yucky" is how my toddler described our lunch at Roger Miller, a self-described West African restaurant (a hole-in-the-wall, really) with a Togolese chef. And I guess that's how the grown-ups felt, too. The food was similar to the other West African meals I've had in the course of this here project, but not the best (RIP Royal Aereostar). The Ivory Coast waitress was not thrilled to be asked for help in deciphering the menu, but she finally conceded that the okra stew was a good Togolese choice. I don't usually mind the sliminess of okra, but this time the stew seemed more slime than anything else. And the fufu had less flavor, which I know is a crazy thing to say, but somehow this stuff was blander and less fluffy than elsewhere. The best dish on the table was probably the eguisi, but again the rice was not great and the goat lacked meat. The toddler liked the groundnut stew with chicken a whole lot and demanded we take the rice to go, but as much as I'd like to label him a culinary prodigy, he can't really be trusted. In sum, the food at Roger Miller is in no way worth driving to Maryland in bad mid-day traffic for. I wish I could say otherwise, but it's just not. Also, the place was clean, but smelled like an airplane bathroom.

Roger Miller
941 Bonifant Street, Silver Spring

Thailand: Spice Before a Return to the Bland

Having done this here little project in Berlin and DC, I can tell you that, if nothing else, it is easier to find spicy food in DC. Little Serow is a perfect example of this and I am pretty sure that there is nothing like it in all of Berlin where the Thai food is probably served by a Vietnamese person and dulled with coconut milk to the point where it's unrecognizable as Thai food. Did I mention I'm moving back to Berlin? Not for the Thai food, I assure you. 

That said, Little Serow is also not your typical US-based Thai restaurant. This is largely because it serves the food of northern Thailand, which (from what I understand) uses less coconut milk and tends to be a lot spicier than food from central Thailand like most Thai food you can find in the States. Little Serow, while not a fancy place, serves a prixe fixe menu for $45, doesn't take reservations (meaning that you'll have to stand in line if you want to dine there), and won't make any substitutions for vegetarians or shellfish allergies or spice phobias, etc. For $45 you get something like seven dishes, which left us more than satisfied, but not feeling near death. My favorite dish was a spread or dip made from finger chilies to be eaten with fried pork rinds. I am not the fried pork rind sort, but this dish had a really complex flavor with a seriously flavorful heat that wasn't entirely mouth-numbing. Actually, the food was less insanely spicy than I had expected, which may have something to do with the fact that everyone who learns you are planning to eat at Little Serow tells you how insanely spicy it is. It was very, very spicy and was happy to have ordered the sweet rice milk, which is not usually my style and was kind of like a rice pudding smoothie, but helped mitigate the heat a lot. In the end we liked all the dishes a lot - a pomelo salad with rock shrimp, a pork sausage with lime leaf, a catfish larb-type dish (my least favorite of the night), fried tofu with peanuts and ginger, oyster and cremini mushrooms with basil and a fried egg, and melt-in-your-mouth pork ribs that had been marinated in mekong whiskey (a close second to the chili spread). The only disappointing bit was the dessert bite they give you with the check: a tiny square of sticky rice with coconut cream, which was fine and admittedly free, but really average and in my opinion, a lazy thing to leave as your guests final taste memory.

Overall, Little Serow is was a really satisfying experience. The food is interesting and almost entirely delicious and I think the price is really reasonable for what you get. We also thought the service was excellent - the waitstaff was all really warm without being over the top (we didn't learn any of their names, for example) and extremely knowledgable. There were a few minor issues - the sticky rice dessert bite, the music is a little too loud, my stool wobbled terribly until I got down on the ground and evened things out with my napkin - no one came to my assistance or even replaced my napkin, but this is, for the most part, nitpicking. I'd go back tomorrow and I don't say that about most places I eat. 

Little Serow
1511 17th Street NW, DC

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tanzania is in Africa

We were the only diners at Safari DC on Sunday, which meant that three toddlers were able to wreak a small amount of havoc in the dining room without disturbing anyone. While this worked to our advantage, I can't say why as the food was quite good. There are several African (mostly Ethiopian) restaurants in the area, so that may explain it. Or maybe Sunday lunch isn't when most Petworth residents crave ugali or injera? In any case, the menu does have a lot of Ethiopian options (which most of my party ordered -- very good) and both the waitress and cook were Ethiopian on Sunday (although the waitress initially told us that while she is Ethiopian, she wasn't sure where the cook was from - Africa? Maybe Kenya. Not sure if she considers Ethiopia not African or what to make of this.) There are also plenty of Tanzanian options (possibly Kenyan??? though some dishes specifically mentioned Tanzanian spices). I stuck to the program and ordered what I hope is something that might be served in Tanzania: sautéed goat with ugali and cooked greens. The goat, while a little fatty, was really tender and flavorful. The greens were also quite good, though the ugali was pretty unremarkable. Ugali is basically African polenta, but it's quite refined and there's not a lot going on in terms of flavor (the toddler loved it). My goat wasn't very saucy and the ugali was plentiful. I wasn't really expecting to love it -- I ordered it because I'd read it's one of Tanzania's national dishes -- and I didn't. There might be better Ethiopian food in the DC area (though Safari's was very good), but I don't think you'll find better (or worse for that matter) Tanzanian dishes anywhere around here.

4306 Georgia Avenue, NW (Petworth)

Tajikistan: Who Knew? or Suburban Intrigue

I will admit that not much came to mind when I initially thought of Tajik cuisine. Hunks of meat? Russian mayonnaisey salads? The food they serve at the Uzbek place I like? I was excited to find two Tajik options in the DC area. For better or worse, Samovar a Russian-seeming restaurant with Tajik owners was scheduled to open in Rockville in July, but doesn't seem to have actually managed to open yet. Luckily, Tajik-Tartar Food was able to fulfill our Tajik dreams. I was hesitant at first because nothing really jumped out at me on the menu, which seemed very Russian (for a good reason, I know) and too wintery for July. A little google research peaked my interest in Tajikistan's national dish, qurotub - a dish of stale bread, a yogurt-type sauce, sautéed onions, and vegetables and/or lamb. I am a sucker for all things involving stale bread and yogurt, so I emailed to ask if they might be able to make qurotub even though it isn't listed on their menu (it should be!). "Of course," they replied. A few emails back and forth and off I went to Vienna (the one in Virginia) to pick up a qurotub dinner (note: they will deliver for a fee).

The transaction was quite mysterious (in a totally safe, suburban kind of way) -- I waited in front of an apartment building, texting with a nameless Tajik someone who said that Svetlana would be down soon with my qurotub, but she didn't speak much English so I was just to hand over the cash (Tajik-Tartar Foods has a $50 minimun). Svetlana, a grandmotherly type appeared a few minutes later with a little girl and a shopping bag containing my dinner. We made the transaction, exchanged a few simple pleasantries, and I was off. My nameless Tajik contact texted me instructions on how to assemble the dish (less it get too soggy in transit): I heated the bread (or fatir, a flatbread layered (traditionally) with lamb fat giving it a very nice, flaky quality (rustic croissant is a stretch, but...  which was clearly homemade) and the yogurt sauce (traditionally made from qurut, a dried salted yogurt, but here I think the sauce was made from fresh yogurt (a decent substitute from what I understand)). I followed the instructions on my phone, tearing the warm bread with my hands, not cutting it with a knife! Then, layered the bread with sautéed onions, sauce, and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, and dill. Qurotub is traditionally served in a communal bowl (Tajik-Tartar Foods wanted to plate mine on "national wooden Tajik plate," which would have surely added to the experience, but I didn't really want to drive back to Vienna to return it) and eaten with one's hands (we are heathens and used forks). Despite our improper serving vessel and utensils, this was a seriously delicious dish that managed to scoot Tajikistan onto the long list of countries I'd like to visit. The fatir has real heft and flavor (lamb fat!?), that made a dish built around stale bread feel like a celebratory meal. (It was also delicious (and not at all soggy the way pita would be) in my lunch the next day. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Taiwan: a lobster named mama

I have long had a thing against Maryland. I guess it's because I hail from the Virginia side of the DC area and I'm supposed to? I suppose holding illogical grudges isn't something to be proud of, but I am! I will say, there does seem to be some really good and interesting "ethnic" food in Rockville (remember the Polish market?). I toyed with the idea of eating at Toki Underground, which serves "Taiwanese ramen" in DC's Atlas District, but ultimately decided that Fusion Supper Club (formerly Bob's Noodle 66 -- neither name makes any sense to me???) appealed more even if it's on a boring ugly street in Rockville. I don't think there are that many places from this blog that I would return to, but Fusion is a definite exception. Or at least I would go back if it weren't all the way in Rockville. But if I was in Rockville and hungry, I would head straight for Fusion. It's not that food we had was exactly life-changing, but it was all really good and I feel like we only scratched the surface of the menu: three-cup chicken, oyster pancake, a pork and cuttlefish dish, and Chinese broccoli for good measure. I have to say, the pancake (an omelet really) was maybe the kind of thing you have to grow up eating to really enjoy. I did like it, but it is a very gluey omelet (cornstarch!) and it took a few bites to accept that. I can't say why we didn't order any noodles, except that we were mainly going on the waiter's recommendations for good Taiwanese dishes (there are other regional Chinese dishes available, though Taiwanese is the dominant thing. It's just a matter of knowing which dishes are considered Taiwanese). After we had finished and I was hanging out with the toddler by the lobster tank (the real highlight for him, though he was pretty fascinated by chopsticks (feed me with sticks mama!) and he does love white rice with a passion), I noticed the chef/a cook pulling noodles and tossing them into a boiling wok. So you see, Maryland isn't all bad (the drivers...another story)!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Syria: Sad Times

I knew better than to eat at Layalina. This place is walking distance from our house and when it first opened, was truly revelatory. The lamb was tender, the flavors were explosive, pomegranate seeds burst in every bite, and the attention from the owners (she's Syrian, he's Lebanese) was so warm and familiar, it was like having instant Syrian-Lebanese grandparents. In the last few years, something happened, though and Layalina is no longer magical. The food is greasy and the flavors less intense, the portions are small, my kibbeh were frozen in the middle, the decor is starting to fray (literally), it feels like someone is paying my grandparents to dote on me, and the place is empty (the Salvadoran place across the street was PACKED on the same Friday night). With the exception of the kibbeh (ice cold-frozen in the center), nothing was terrible and maybe if I hadn't know it when, I might have been happy with it, but the current state of affairs just makes me sad, sad sad.

5216 Wilson Blvd., Arlington

Sweden with better furnishings

There are surprisingly few Swedish options in the DC area - an Ikea cafeteria or Domku in DC's Petworth neighborhood. I've had plenty of meatballs at Ikea in my day and they are fine, but this here project is an opportunity to explore, so ... off to Petworth. The area is slowly gentrifying as a restaurant serving Slavic and Scandinavian fare in a previously African American area might suggest (as do the independent bookstore, fashion boutique, Asian fusion restaurant, and antique shop all on Domku's block) suggest. I will say, that we arrived promptly at 5 pm, toddler in tow (we decided to make it a Petworth afternoon and toured the nearby Lincoln Cottage (overrated if you're wondering). We were told that only the bar opens at 5. Surely we can get some bread for the little one? Nope. Not a crumb and this is not at all clear on the restaurant's website. No matter - we solved this near crisis with a Richard Scary book from the independent bookstore and a box of off-brand Wheat Thins from the liquor store with a bulletproof glassed-in cashier -- gentrification clearly still in the works! I would never had ordered a cocktail if we could have gone straight to meatballs, but the drink (which I can't reference because the website isn't working properly now) was the best part of our meal. We shared Swedish meatballs, which were good, better than Ikea's, (that's not saying all that much is it?) and beet gnocchi, which were fine in terms of flavorful but also the epitome of gumminess. It was nice to have an excuse to visit Petworth and we are more grateful that you can imagine to have more variety in our Richard Scary library, but ... I probably wouldn't go back to Domku.

821 Upshur St., NW, DC

Monday, April 27, 2015

Spain: To be or not to be

First of all, I think SER is one of the worst restaurant names in recent history. To a Spanish-speaker, it seems like a word that non-Spanish-speakers should know, but plenty of people will have no clue that it means "to be." And even for those of us that do know, to be? What's the connection to food? Food is necessary for survival (being)? Even worse is the subtitle/expansion of SER: "simple. easy. real." This has total Rachael Ray, Martha Stewart, etc. connotations for me (google "simple easy real" and Martha Stewart's Real Simple magazine is the first finding. I don't have a major problem with Martha or Rachael (so long as I don't have to spend eternity on a desert island with them), but what do 10 Minute Meals/Eat Waffles for Any Meal of the Day have to do with restaurant-style Spanish cooking? On paper, SER can't quite decide whether it is homey abuela-style cooking or polished dining that merits $30 entrees. In practice, SER is a stylish restaurant that is striving to produce polished Spanish classics.

They were still working on the polish, but our experience indicated that, with some work, they might end up as a very decent restaurant. In their defense, we ate at SER mere weeks after they opened and I expect/hope that many glitches have been ironed out. We split a meat paella (one of our diners is allergic to shellfish....), suckling pig, and an order of grilled vegetables. If you have made paella at home, you will probably like SER's well enough, but will think: I can do this at home for a lot less than $48 (the dish is intended for two). Also, there wasn't quite enough meat to justify the price. I know they're not using Uncle Ben's and saffron is relatively costly, but .... come now, rice is not an expensive ingredient. The suckling pig was flavorful, but some bites were quite dry. For $64 (2-3 portions), I will pass on dry meat, thank you very much. Also, the pig only comes with potatoes. Now, they were very good potatoes, but for this kind of money, I HATE having to buy a side of vegetables. This isn't unique to SER, but it's my least favorite restaurant trend of all time. Be a chef, plan a composed dish with balanced flavors. A child can pair pork with french fries. This is why we ordered the grilled vegetables, which I found to be a little on the small side. This all sounds pretty whiney for food that was actually pretty good. If the prices were lower, I'd wouldn't mind a that some of the pork was dry, etc. High prices (even in very new restaurants) necessitate a better product. Period.

While the service was quite friendly, it was seriously amateurish. This in no way prevented us from having a good time and these are the kinds of kinks I imagine are gone by now, but even new waiters should know to bring (or offer) water and bread. Most every step of our meal seemed like a small struggle for the staff with the manager/owner having to step in - they didn't have a high chair for my toddler, didn't know how to carve the pork, how to pour the wine, etc. Again, we don't care about this kind of thing so long as we are being fed well, but ... a bit ridiculous in my opinion, for a restaurant charging this kind of money. There will always be issues in the beginning of a restaurant's life, but much of this revealed pour training, I think.

SER is in a bit of an odd spot on the edge of Ballston. There is very little free parking nearby. And I think it might be a little pricey for the area, especially at lunchtime. I'd probably go back for their happy hour special and I'd probably ride my bike to avoid paying for parking. Also of note, SER won the Ballston Business Improvement District's 2014 Restaurant Challenge, which means they have a year of free rent and a large interest-free loan. I don't know that they'd make it without such a large cushion. We'll see what happens....

1110 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sri Lanka: Number 2

While I did discover that the "ethnic" food situation in Berlin was not as bad as I had believed, or at least was more interesting, the Indian food situation really was quite grim. In almost seven years, I found a single really good Indian place and the majority were not just OK, but really very, very bad. This remembrance of terrible Indian food is a somewhat unfair to tell you how beyond thrilled we were to discover an amazing Sri Lankan restaurant at the end of our street, when we moved from Mitte to Schoenberg (the food improved overall, I think). I actually miss Raamson now -- and there is very little about the food situation in Berlin that is better than here in my not-so-humble opinion.

All of this is to say, that if I hadn't once had life-changingly good Sri Lankan food almost at my doorstep, I might have loved Shakthi. It was very good, and if we could have dined from the buffet -- set up in the dining room for a private party -- I might have a different opinion (it smelled amazing and made the longish wait for our food, torturous). No buffet for us; we split string hoppers and kith roti. They were both really good and really spicy, but they just weren't as good a the food we ate at Raamson. Almost but not quite. Dinner in Berlin isn't a regular option for most and I would recommend Shakthi, but would be more likely to return when the restaurant has the buffet open for all diners (weekend lunches?).

Sunday, February 8, 2015

South Africa: I'd rather have peaches

Apartheid came to an end while I was in high school. I can't find anything to back up this story, but I remember being told that in years past, students had discovered that the cafeteria sold canned peaches from South Africa. This alternative school was governed by a town meeting and the town meeting voted to put an end to the South African peaches. This must have been before the US embargo? In any case, when Apartheid ended in 1994, a letter was drafted informing South Africa that we were once again willing to buy their peaches. I was never much for school cafeteria food and by high school was solidly in the bring-your-lunch camp, so I don't know if there were peaches post-1994 or if they were South African, let alone what kind of peaches, if any are available today. I can report, that, at least off-campus there is very little South African food to be found in this area. By chance, I discovered that Let's Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray sells Boerewors, the traditional South African sausage. I hurried over to get some for dinner.

I wish I hadn't. In the shop, they told me that they had just perfected the recipe. Sigh. We really, really didn't like them. Boerewors are typically grilled in South Africa as I understand it. It's February here, so we cooked ours in the fireplace. But still, they were just not great. I mean, nobody died, but...they were awfully livery (and I like liver) and the spices seemed off. I also have to take a few points for forming them in a standard sausage shape (like a bratwurst or Italian sausage link) rather than the coil that I have read is typical. Moreover, the casings weren't sufficiently stuffed, making them unappetizingly floppy. I would have let this go if they'd been delicious, but sitting here with this greasy, livery situation in my stomach ... they could have at least made them look right. Let's Meat on the Avenue (which is one of my least favorite shop names around) also sells Biltong or South African jerky and I wish I'd gotten that instead (LMOTA sells it, but don't make it themselves). I want to like this shop. Del Ray is adorable and they are all about humanely raised meat....but the couple of times I've been in there, I haven't been all that impressed (take that meat out of the plastic wrap for starters!).

Let's Meat on the Avenue
2403 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria

Sierra Leone: All you ever wanted to learn about the measles, colonoscopies, and how to catch a serial killer

The television in the hole-in-the-wall that is Sumah's West African Restaurant and Carryout was blaring CNN. I was going to ask the waiter (who turned out to be Sumah himself) if he wouldn't mind turning it down a wee bit, but his friendly welcome made me bite my tongue. Samah asked if we'd eaten in his restaurant before and as we had not, brought us a plate with a spoonful of each dish from the menu. Everything was delicious, but after much deliberation (to the noisy tune of CNN's report on the killing of a Japanese hostage by ISIS, the ongoing measles outbreak and the death of Whitney Houston's daughter), we settled on eguisi (a stew made from leafy greens and ground pumpkin or melon seeds), peanut stew, and okra stew. I have to mention that the service at Sumah's is maybe the slowest I've ever had. As it happened, my friends and I were in no hurry and happy to have the chance to catch up, but we might have had tickets to the Howard Theater around the corner or plans later in the evening and I did not really get the feeling that it is possible to hurry things along at Sumah's. We waited a very long time for Sumah to take our order and a very, very, very long time for the food to come (this seemed particularly odd because we had already tasted the stews we ordered, so they must have been ready in the kitchen. Is there only one pot? one microwave?) and then a good long while to pay. All the while, CNN's measles story turned to Morgan Spurlock (who I once saw on the street in New York) getting a colonoscopy in Thailand, and then after we had finished eating and were trying very hard to pay, we got to watch almost all of How to Catch a Serial Killer. All at a pretty high decibel level.

In any case, after a long CNN-fueled wait, we were brought  a giant ball of fufu (this gluey cassava-based starch is a staple in Sierra Leone and other West African countries - I like it, but a little goes a long way). Our fufu sat there looking cold and lonely for several minutes and then we got a dish of rice. I'm don't personally need a lot of finery, but it did strike me as odd that all the food came in a tupperware or to-go containers. No matter, we finally got two of the three stews we'd ordered and were definitely ready to eat (our third stew came a while later). Under other circumstances, the loud tv, slow service, and lack of actual plates might have put me off this place, but the food is not only interesting, but very, very good and Sumah is a charmer (I'm sure he would have been happy to turn down the TV volume if I had asked). Somehow, West African food seems more different from the various cuisines that have been incorporated into mainstream American food. I can't quite say why Ethiopian or Thai food feels more "western" to me, but it does. I might not bring a picky friend to Sumah's, but it's a treat to remember how a single meal can offer you a window into another place.

1727 7th St., NW, DC

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Serbia: Ambarf

Wow. It's hard to express how underwhelmed we were by Ambar. After all, the Washington Post's review is more than decent (I should have known better, as I find Tom Sietsema to be pretty consistently wrong). You know you've had a bad meal when the best part is the friendly busboy who tries to make friends with our toddler. I want to eat at his restaurant. Things started badly when we arrived at the admittedly off hour of 3:30ish and were told brunch was almost over so we could order in 4 minutes or come back at 5. Ummmmm ok. We were shown to a table with 2 seats (I assure you my toddler is visible and has been known to sit at restaurants and order food that we pay for with money). We weren't offered a high chair and there wasn't room for one either. He's a toddler, without a designated place to sit, he will stand on your pillows with his muddy sneakers. So there.

OK fine, people with small children should just stay home. The waiter was unhelpful and unfriendly and the food was downright bad. I wanted cevapcici because it pops up on so many Balkan menus. Remember our voyage to the Albanian Imbiss at the start of all this? And when we finally made it to the Islamic Cultural Center of the Bosnians of Berlin? I'd take either of those holes-in-the-wall over the dressed up hay hut full of Bottomless-Brunching Hill staffers. If this is how DC dining has improved since I lived on the Hill - no thank you. The dinner menu doesn't look terrible. The brunch menu just plain sucks. Waffles with nutella and strawberry have nothing to do with Serbia and doesn't belong on any menu in November. BLTs? Prosciutto omelets and sandwiches? A smear of ajar does not a Serbian dish make. None of this would matter if they served delicious food. My meat pie tasted like it had been sitting in the oven since brunch started. I don't know what it was supposed to be, but I do not exaggerate when I say that it seemed like something that one might find at a lame potluck brunch. It was a dried out strata with cheap sausage. It was greasy and dry and salty and not much else. My husband's Balkan Burger took ridiculously long to come out, but was a very little bit better only because the concept of using cevapcici to make a burger makes sense in this sort of restaurant. Made with good quality meat, garnished with ripe tomatoes and non-sad lettuce, with more than a whisper of sauce/cheese...the dish would be really good, if not really a burger. In reality, the meat was tough and more salty than flavorful. The lettuce and tomato were flavorless/purposeless and the sauce and cheese insufficient. Any remotely serious restaurant should not be serving oven fries that have been in a warming tray for hours. Also the website has been down a bunch. This is a Richard Sandoval restaurant, not some mom-and-pop place that can't figure out how to make a website. Amber was awful. Really, really awful. 

Senegal is on Fire

My husband jokes that my blog has killed most of the restaurants that I've visited. Not true: I can't be held accountable for the challenges of the restaurant industry, but it is the case that a few places I've visited have closed and a lot of places I've wanted to visit closed before I had the chance. Still, what happened when we visited Chez Dior took the cake. It took a long while for us to get around to going to Chez Dior, mostly because it's in Hyattsville, which is a bit of a hike from Chez Us, but last Sunday we decided to make the trek.  All was well - the toddler napped on the way there, we had no trouble finding the restaurant, and at first glance, Hyattsville seemed nicer/more interesting than I had expected. So we entered the restaurant and sat down. Literally minutes later - we hadn't even gotten menus or water or a hello from the establishment - several people came running out of the kitchen yelling "fire, call 911!" None of the other (Senegalese?) customers looked remotely troubled, but as responsible parents ... we grabbed our stuff and went back out to the street. One of the diners did mention that it was probably just an oven fire and would be out in no time. However, minutes later, ten - no exaggeration - fire trucks rolled up, sirens blazing. With the belief that once the fire department has been called, a restaurant can't reopen until the health department declares it safe, and our excited-by-all-the-woowoos-but-on-the-verge-of-fussiness/starvation toddler in tow, we decided that a Senegalese lunch was not in the cards and ate at Franklin's, which I am very sorry to report was not only not at all Senegalese, but also really ordinary and not very good. My husband had The Day After Thanksgiving sandwich, which can be a thing of beauty, but depends heavily on good gravy (at least if you are going to douse it in gravy, it does) and this gravy was pretty gluey and not very turkey-ey. I hate huge menus and I hate them even more when I am trying to choose something while wrangling a wriggly toddler. I ordered a sandwich with the ridiculous name of Open-Faced Mediterranean Vegetarian Flatbread Thing (I also hate ridiculously named menu items), which was oily and because my toddler's idea of cooking is literally dumping things (i.e., he gets to dump a cup of flour in the mixing bowl when we make bread), he could have made this because all they did was warm up an industrial piece of pita bread and dump some oily packages of cheap marinated artichokes, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, etc. on it. I will say that Franklin's is also a general store and we had a lot of fun poking around the store, especially the toy section.

So, while it pains me greatly, Hyattsville is just not a corner of the world I make it to very often. Maybe I'll find myself up there again and can update this review...but in case I don't, I'll be moving along to Serbia in the interest of keeping the ball rolling ....