Friday, April 29, 2011

What Makes a Good Falafel?

I really like falafel sandwiches.  Done correctly, they're a satisfying vegetarian meal with flavor and textures.  I like freshly fried falafel with a crunchy outside and soft interior.  Israeli falafel is a mixture of ground chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley or cilantro, spices and bulgur.  Egyptian falafel can be made with fava beans.  Other Middle Eastern recipes combine chickpeas and fava beans. 
A key ingredient to a good falafel sandwich is soft, fresh pita bread.  (George's King of Falafel is Lebanese and has a thin pita bread I don't like.) The hot falafel are added to the pita pocket and then topped at the salad bar with a variety of fresh and pickled vegetables, hummus, baba ganoush and tahina sauce. 
My main complaint with DC-area falafel places has been the salad bar.  Maoz has good pita and their falafel have the requisite crunch.  Where they fail is the underseasoning of some of the topping options.  Amsterdam Falafel has probably the best tasting falafel, pita and salad bar options, but their location is not convenient for workday lunches.  After discovering that vFalafel opened on P Street, I gave it a whirl.
 Salad bar.  Standard toppings, a few more pickles would be nice, or a tabbouleh salad.  Tomatoes are out of season, and the ones here were not even a nice red.  Good hummus.
 $5.95 plus tax for a fresh falafel sandwich.
I topped mine with hummus, beets, red cabbage and cucumbers, some mysterious green sauce and tahina.  An interesting difference was the non-round falafel.  The shape made it easier to stuff in the toppings.
The falafel were very flavorful, crunchy outside and soft on the inside.  There may have been a touch too much salt in the mix, but otherwise it was good. 
The only downside was the pita.  I think there are better options available. vFalafel is open until 4 am, which makes a solid alternative to Alberto's massive pizza slices after the bars close in Dupont.

Too Humid for Cooking: Takeout from Valentino's

Our new apartment does not fare well on humid days.  It sucks the energy out of you the moment you walk in the door.  We could leave the air conditioner on all day to have a climate-controlled environment, but really...without pets or someone in the apartment that's wasteful.  We'll figure it out in the sweltering months ahead.  Turning the oven or stove on was not an option, so I sent my boyfriend out on a mission while I worked on a research project.
Here's what he returned with.
 Valentino's Salad ($8.95).
Fresh mozzarella slices with tomato, roasted tomato, yellow pepper and basil.  This would be so much better if tomatoes were in season.
 Hercules Salad ($8.95).
Romaine lettuce, roasted tomato, fresh tomato, feta cheese.  Mixing the two salads together made them better.
Valentino's Special Large ($22.95).
It's massive.  Topped with pepperoni, meatballs and sausage with peppers, onions and olives.  Feels more like an eating challenge.  It's so large, we had enough for two people for two meals.

International Square Food Court: Sichuan Express

Walking back to my office from a conference at the World Bank, I decided to try something new for lunch.  I stopped in the International Square food court at Farragut West to try the mapo tofu noodles that my boyfriend loves.  Sichuan Express is owned by the same people who run Sichuan Pavilion on K Street.  The menu is not as extensive, but the dishes tend to be spicier than your average Chinese food court joint.
You can order special items from the menu or grab a plate and select from the buffet. 
 Their special noodle soups are listed on the wall next to the cash registers.  You can order the soups for takeout or to eat at one of the tables.
 Egg noodles on the bottom with broth, topped with spicy mapo tofu.  The serving size is pretty large.  I should have only eaten half, but I lack that kind of self-discipline.
Cubes of tofu, Szechuan peppers add a ma-la twist of slightly sour and spicy.  Enjoyable but a little oily.
Apparently I was not supposed to take photos of Sichuan's counter, and was told to stop by some random man in a suit.  I should have asked why, but I was too obedient and put away my phone.  Unless there's a sign indicating no cameras, I feel like I should be able to take a photo of the sign.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Falafel Place in Dupont

Walking around Dupont today, I discovered the divey Greek place, Legend Restaurant, has been updated and transformed into a very bright green late-night falafel spot called vFalafel.
Amsterdam Falafel's too far of a walk from my office but this could be an alternative to Maoz.

Adventures in CSA Farm Shares

I've finally done it.  After years of contemplating the merits of CSA farm shares and farmers' markets, I'm testing the waters with a 7-week share through DCJCC's Farm Share this June and July. I really like Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD but their shares sold out back in February (and schlepping to MD every weekend does not fit my ideal weekend activities' list).  CSA or Community-Supported Agriculture is an interesting system that shares the risks and benefits of food production through pre-paid sales for the farmers.  The CSAs tend to focus on cultivating higher quality foods through organic, sustainable or biodynamic farming methods.
DCJCC has teamed with Licking Creek Bend Farm.  The farm began as a "diaspora kibbutz"* in 1972 and has been participating in farmers' markets and CSA programs around the area. The farm is located in Pennsylvania about 2 hours from DC.  They are "Certified Naturally Grown", using organic farming methods, and their mission is to provide "delicious and nutritious food at an affordable price".
 There is a price premium involved with CSAs and farmers' markets.  The share also varies in variety of produce week-to-week depending on the harvest.  The imposed variety will have us eating a greater array of vegetables this summer, encouraging me to be more creative.  I believe the benefit of supporting locally (relatively) grown produce outweighs the downsides, and look forward to my first share pickup in June. (^.^)!

*A Kibbutz is a collective community in Israel traditionally based upon agriculture.  Diaspora refers to Jewish people living outside of Israel.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Brunch

We had some friends over for Easter brunch and a baking project this weekend.  It was the first time to show off our new apartment and a chance to finally use the plates my parents gave me for Christmas.  The brunch ended up a bit cheese-heavy but one friend brought over some wonderful fresh fruit.  With pitchers of Mimosas and Say Yes to the Dress, we spent the afternoon grazing and hanging out.
 Deviled eggs, sausages, smoked salmon, buttermilk biscuits and tomato onion tart.
 I love vegetable tarts made with puff pastry. 
Asparagus with Gruyere cheese.  Fresh feta would have been lovely too.
 Zucchini and cremini mushroom with Gruyere.
Carmelized onion, mushroom and Gruyere quiche.

Tomato Onion Tart

I like menu planning a lot.  For Easter we had some people over for brunch.  Since many of my friends have different dietary preferences, it's a challenge to find a nice variety of dishes that everyone can enjoy.  I saw this recipe and decided to try it.  I think it would be even better once tomatoes are in season.  It's a great customizable dish, and I even added summer squash instead of the yellow tomatoes.
 To me, it looked prettier before baking.
Best served warm, it's a nice mixture of gooey cheese, tomato, carmelized onions and olives.

Honey Pig: Japanese versus Korean BBQ

Thursday was my Friday last week (yay for randomly observing American holidays!) and after subjecting my boyfriend to Easter grocery shopping the carless way*, we regrouped and headed to Annandale.
Seafood pancake (hamul pajeon).  I like the version at Lighthouse better.
Panfried meat dumplings (Mandu).
These are ok, but I like pleated dumplings better.
Spicy pork belly with grilled kimchee.
We haven't had this in ages.  Usually I have a bowl of soon doubu but was feeling like ordering something different.  This threw a wrench into my boyfriend's beef consumption plans.  While Korean bbq includes a variety of meats, including pork, Japanese bbq is different.  The pieces of meat are already cut, and the items tend to heavily favor beef.  It may be time to head to Bethesda and Satsuma.

*I am used to picking up groceries and hauling them back home via walking, metro, bus or taxi.  Sometimes I forget that I have access to a car and driver now and do not need to lug heavy bags of groceries on the metro.  My poor boyfriend carried the heavy bags thinking "this is the dumbest idea", and he was right.

Chop't 19th Street

I like salad, I do.  But enough to wait in this line?  Maybe office workers in the area are just accustomed to waiting patiently in line for lunch.
19th Street NW 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dear BGR, It's Not You, It's Me.

I am not invincible.  Felled by food poisoning over the weekend, I've had to curtail my intake of solids and rest.  Considering I ate out at a variety of places between Friday and the onslaught of symptoms I'd rather not remember, it's too difficult and unnecessary to trace the offending items.  All I know is my digestive system had declared war. 
After a few days of liquids, soup and fruit, I got restless.  I managed to consume a banana and applesauce without dire consequences, so I barreled into lunchtime yesterday with one thought:  time for comfort food.  I met my former roommate for an overdue catchup and went to BGR in Dupont Circle to test the waters. 
 Veggie Burger with Pepperjack Cheese ($7.99+0.99) with side of onion rings ($4.49). 
BGR has a lobster burger and a tuna burger, which I probably would have tried if I wasn't a little gun-shy.  While I appreciate BGR's effort to make their own veggie patty, this was a convoluted mess of oats, black beans and molasses trying to be a burger.  It was too sweet and I wouldn't do that to myself again.   The touted "fresh toasted brioche bun", fell apart into a mess quickly and was a tad on the going-stale-side. Now the onion rings...these were beer-battered thick-cut Vidalia onion rings of golden, crunchy delight.  Overpriced, but delicious.
My former roommate ordered the Cuban ($8.99).
Burger cooked to order topped with a slice of Serrano ham, roasted pork, sweet pickles, Swiss Cheese and mustard, this greasy, gooey concoction was definitely more satisfying.
The space is small and tables are first-come, first-serve.  I hate seat-pouncing.  Fortunately one emptied after a brief, awkward wait near the crazily modern beverage dispenser.  The staff does not circulate enough to wipe down the tables or tidy up.  The burgers are cooked to order and you're given a buzzer to signal when to come pick up your meal.  If they're aiming for fast casual, it's definitely casual but no where near fast, and quite pricey.  In an area inundated with burger options, there are better ones up the street and across the river. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Return to Bangkok Golden Falls Church

My friends like food adventures too.  When I heard of the Laotian menu at Bangkok Golden, I asked around and no one else had tried this cuisine before.  My boyfriend and I checked it out a few weeks ago, and we gathered with some friends for a group meal this weekend.
 Green Papaya Salad with peanuts. 
Tum Marg Huong ($7.95)
The fish sauce in the seasoning was a little strong.
Vegetarian Crispy Rice Salad
Nam Khao ($8.95).
Wrapped in lettuce leaves, this is probably my favorite dish.  The textures are varied and the fresh herbs add a brightness.
 Koi Pah ($10.95).
This resembles ceviche, with the tilapia cooked medium rare. 
The fish is mixed with a spicy sauce, Kaffir lime leaves, toasted rice powder, shallots, garlic, green onion, cilantro, mint.
Grilled Tilapia with lemongrass and ginger. 
Ping Pah ($10.95).
This was light and good flavor.  It's served with little baskets of sticky rice. 
Mango with sticky rice and coconut.
The mango was nicely ripe, and paired well with the sticky rice topped with a coconut cream.
Shared amongst five people, this lunch was under $15 per person including tax and tip.  Very reasonable.  The restaurant was noticeably empty during our meal.  The waiter mentioned it is Songkran, the Thai Festival of Water and New Year celebration where water is thrown at people.  Considering this is one of the hottest times of the year inThailand, the water makes sense.  
Texturally, this was more of the slimy persuasion and not my favorite item.  I liked the larb with chicken better.

Gluttony Redux: Peking Gourmet Inn Edition

I arrived home after a morning of volunteering in the rain with a few missions: hot bath, laundry, activate Netflix and become one with the sofa.  With the boy off enjoying his day of solitude, I found a hidden reserve of do-gooding energy and vacuumed the apartment and cleaned the bathroom. 
As the rain fell and motivation to do more than press buttons left me, we mulled over dinner choices.  I left the decision up to him.  He set off to pick up some Chinese and I caught up with the first season of Lie to Me.  After an indeterminate amount of time, the door opened and my boyfriend had returned.  He sheepishly said, "I was naughty," and proffered a heavy bag of Peking Gourmet Inn takeout.  Oh magical bag of deliciousness...
 This could, and should, have fed a group of 6.
 Jeo-Yan Shrimp ($26.95).
Jumbo shrimp are battered, fried and topped with a mixture of spices.  They considerately pack this dish by poking vents in the metal top so the shrimp retain their delicious crunchy covering. 
Drunk with gustatory happiness, I proclaimed,
"If I could, I would have these at my wedding reception."
 Yang Chow Fried Rice ($10.95).
This lighter version elevates the idea of fried rice from the soy sauce-laden rendition commonly found at Chinese restaurants in the US.  Bits of chicken, bbq pork, beef and shrimp pepper this dish.
 Fried Chinese Leek Dumplings ($7.50).
Garlic Sprouts with Pork ($17.75) and Peking Duck ($39).
Commence food coma. 

Servathon Saturday

Saturday morning, bright and early, our small group gathered at Teddy Roosevelt Island to participate in a clean-up at the historical National Park Service land and adjacent Mount Vernon Trail for Servathon 2011.  The island is an 88.5-acre wilderness preserve with trails and connects to the Mount Vernon bike trail, a popular multi-use trail next to the Potomac River's shoreline that leads to George Washington's Estate at Mount Vernon.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate during our project, with periods of rainfall varying between heavy and heavier.  We clambered over and under the wooden area of the trail, filled five large trash bags with river flotsam and trash left by trail users, and cleaned up a hobo nest.  After our hard work, we headed to Clarendon for brunch at Whitlows.
 Spinach and Mushroom Omelette with bacon.
Spinach and Mushroom Omelette with fruit.
I've learned that the Bloody Mary Bar at Whitlows is both a wonderful and confusing spectacle.  Through trial and error, I've discovered that a dill pickle spear spear is better than a stick of celery, Worchestershire sauce is a tongue twister but a few drops should be added anyways, and never more than a few dashes of hot sauce.  The omelettes are ok.  One of our party asked once and discovered they use an omelette machine, which explains why the insides are not always as hot as I'd like them to be.  Generally Whitlows is reliable and can handle groups.  Unfortunately the dreary weather seemed to cast a pall on the employees, from the surly bartender to the distracted and inattentive waitress.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lighthouse Tofu Restaurant

My boyfriend knows allergies have left me a lethargic zombie lately.  He is supportive of my food-related whims, whether it means cooking at home or heading out somewhere.  Last night we decided to indulge a soon doobu craving at Lighthouse Tofu (Vit Goel) in Annandale.  It's a small restaurant, and their menu is not as extensive as other Korean places in Annandale.  There are items like seafood noodles and bulgogi, but we always gravitate towards the bubbling stone bowls of soon doobu.  I like how they offer so many varieties as well as a customizable spice level. 
I think I like Cass the best of the Korean beers. 
It's very light and goes well with bbq or spicy dishes.  I'm not sure what "Sound of Vitality" means. Maybe's it's branding along the lines of Asahi's KARAKUCHI "Super Dry" to indicate crisp and dry taste that doesn't interfere with the taste of the food (their words, not mine.)
 I like the panchan here.
They have water kimchee, kimchee with oysters, seasoned bean sprouts, seasoned cucumbers, and a marinated item that escapes my mind. 
 We ordered pan-fried mandu and a small seafood pancake (hamul pajeon). 
Usually the pajeon is teeming with seafood and nicely crisp. This time it was a little soggy in places with more scallions than usual.  Still good and satisfying Korean comfort food.
Bubbling soon doobu.
The options for soon doobu (soft tofu stew) include mushroom; combination #1 clam, oyster, shrimp, beef; combination #2 clam, shrimp, oyster; oyster; kimchi beef; beef; beef and pork; and vegetable.   The mushroom version is fantastic.  My boyfriend prefers the combination #1 with clam, oyster, shrimp (with head on) and beef.  We've learned that spicy level is good, and spicy-spicy will leave him sweating rivers.  They also serve barley tea and rice out of a hot stone that is filled with the barley tea.  You can scoop some out at the end of the meal, and my boyfriend says it resembles ochazuke.  I am always overstuffed by the end and have yet to try some.

Springtime Rambling

Springtime and I are no longer friends.  I used to eagerly anticipate the season's arrival after the dreary, cold months of winter.  The sound of birds singing, the glimpse of sunshine, the warmer temperatures...  No more.  Now spring welcomes me with a one-two punch of seasonal allergies that feels like a neverending cold and energy drain.  When the sneezing fits end, the itchy eyes, alternately running and congested nose and the lethargy take over.  In short, friendship over. 
A downside of allergies, is losing my senses of smell and taste.  This makes cooking a little like walking blindfolded.  Fortunately, my boyfriend will eat anything.  I've been a little off with flavoring and overcooked a few things lately.  He just smiles and tells me it's wonderful, and so is he.  Knowing he likes Greek flavors, I tried to bring a bit of springtime into our dinner.  A little brighter in flavor, a little lighter in cooking style. 
 I cheated and bought spanakopita from Trader Joe's. 
I think he's renamed these spankies. 
Whatever you call them, they're little pockets of spinach and feta goodness.
 I like skewers. 
Kalamata olive, mozzarella, tomato, salami, chorizo with a basil-oregano oil
I marinated pork loin and chicken legs in lemon, garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil.  If I had a grill, they would have been much better.  Instead I roasted everything in the oven with some baby yukon potatoes.  With bell pepper, zucchini and a tzatziki sauce, we had a little bit of spring for dinner..  Sadly my pork was overcooked, I think it is better on the medium-rare side with more pink, but the leftover meat was nice thinly sliced for sandwiches. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dixie Bones BBQ in Woodbridge, VA

We had a doozy of a Saturday night, with an unexpected bar crawl through H Street NE.  Granville Moores wasn't working for his friends, so we looked around for someplace else.  Rock and Roll Hotel was a crush of bodies bouncing around to nostalgic and current dance hits.  We left to find someplace quieter to talk, and Biergarten Haus fit the bill with a relaxed atmosphere a good beer menu.  Recovering from our late night out, we spent part of the day watching movies.  We finally ventured forth from our apartment to try a new place.  My boyfriend had bbq on the mind after talking with his friends about Hill Country BBQ.  Preferring to stay in VA, we went to a local bbq place he had heard good things about in Woodbridge, VA called Dixie Bones
We decided to go with the combo 3 meat platters with 2 sides for $21.40 so we could try the largest variety of choices from the menu.  I cannot remember the last time I had good bbq.  I'm a Northerner, so all I'm really looking for is a good smoke flavor and tender meat.  My boyfriends from the South, so he's more knowledgeable about the merits of good bbq.  He's been quietly craving barbecued sausage, and finally he was able to satisfy that craving.  After a relatively short Sunday afternoon drive, we reached Woodbridge and began to see signs for Dixie Bones.
 1/2 chicken, pork ribs, sausage with pinto beans and rice and potato salad.
"The chicken was really good," according to my boyfriend.  He liked how the meat "fell off the bone".
 Fried catfish, ribs, pulled chicken with macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
Our waitress recommended the fish, and it was an excellent recommendation.  The "pulled" chicken was really just diced breast meat, which I wouldn't choose again.  The ribs were well-done, both smokey-flavored and tender.  The mac and cheese were great, and the collard greens had a nice vinegar bite.
Dixie Bones has four sauces on the table for experimentation. 
I preferred the traditional tomato bbq sauce for its familiar and slightly spicy taste.  I saw a giant stuffed potato pass by, topped with pulled pork, and it looked delicious.  The pinto beans and rice are good, but need an added kick from the hot sauce.  Dixie Bones also has a two-tiered pricing system for cash and credit card payments. They're very upfront about their reasons for the different pricing, and considering how much the credit card systems gouge small business owners, I cannot blame them.  DB is decidedly better tasting to me than Rocklands, Red Hot & Blue, Famous Dave's and Old Glory. 

Ardeo+Bardeo in Cleveland Park

We went to dinner with my boyfriend's high school friend and her friend who recently relocated to DC.  Since she's from Atlanta, she was interested in good food, red meat and something indigenous to DC.  Her friend is discovering the highs and lows of dining in DC, and missing the food scene from NYC.  When she asked about recommendations for Mexican joints, I shook my head.  DC has many wonderful things, but good Mexican is not one of them.  With many restaurants fully booked, and Rays the Steaks only accepting walk-ins with an unknown wait, we decided to try the newly renovated Ardeo+Bardeo in Cleveland Park.  I have been a fan of the intimate wine bar for years, enjoyed brunch at Ardeo before, and was interested in seeing the changes. 
The restaurant removed the wall between the two establishments, added a pizza oven and created a sleek, modern dining room.  I like the exposed brick and earth tones on the wall, and the new layout was much more open.  The view of the stairs in the back of the room reminds diners they have a rooftop dining space perfect for the warmer months. Like most restaurants, the limited waiting area leads to patrons congregating around the bar area and creating a bottleneck for the busy servers.  The menu has changed to small bites, charcuterie, cheese, soups and salads, vegetable sides, savory snacks, pizzas, pastas, meats and seafood.  It's a vibrant dining space with a great menu for grazing and sharing plates.  There were some misses in our selections, and I'd prefer trying more from the first two columns next time.
It feels like Cleveland Park has re-emerged as a dining destination with the renovation of neighborhood gems Palena and Ardeo+Bardeo, and the addition of Ripple and Medium Rare.  I hope Indique, Dino and Vace continue to thrive as well.  I would love to see a real ethnic revival in the neighborhood as well, but won't hold my breath since the rental prices are so high in the District. 
 Housemade burrata, farm egg, white asparagus ($8)
The cheese was delightfully creamy, the egg was runny, and the flavors worked well together.
 Steak, horseradish creme fraiche on roasted fingerling potato ($7).
Delicious bite that replicated a steak dinner.  This was the table's favorite item.
 PEI Mussels with orange, chili, basil and garlic ($9).
I love mussels but would have preferred a little more broth.
 Seven Hour Braised Leg of Suckling Pig ($22).
Served with cheese grits, blackeyed peas, redeye gravy, peanuts and pork skin, it was clearly Southern-inspired.  My boyfriend liked the pork skin the best.
 Fried Chicken ($18).
Served with sawmill gravy, biscuit and braised collard greens. 
 Steak and Eggs ($24).
Ribeye with yukon gold puree, roasted royal trumpet mushrooms, and one-eyed susan egg.
Rock Shrimp, Lemon, Garlic and Creme Fraiche Pizza ($16).
Slices of ricotta salata rounded out the toppings.  The salty, citrus and savory combination was good, and the pizza is thin-crust.  The pizzas would be good for sharing.
The bread is excellent and the wine bar vibe would appeal to many of my friends.  My boyfriend wanted to try more of the small bites too, but he was underwhelmed by the entrees.  Perhaps our late pho had curbed his appetite.  Ashok Bajaj owns Ardeo+Bardeo, Bombay Club, Rasika, Oval Room, 701, Bibiana and another Rasika outpost will open in the West End.  It's nice to see local restaurant groups emerging and delivering high quality concepts like Bajaj and Jose Andres.  Both are elevating the DC restaurant scene.