Thursday, January 22, 2015

New Year's Resolution

One of two New Year's resolutions that I made for myself is to actually write up all the exciting new/special meals that I have this year.  So I'm posting it here in an attempt to bind myself to the mast a bit.  Check back in a year and we'll evaluate.

Peruvian Numero Dos

China Chilcano still seems to be in a soft opening-ish stage; I was informed when I called to ask about walk-ins that they were limiting capacity for table seating but that we would be welcome to try for bar seats.  Luckily we snagged two about five minutes after arriving at the half-empty restaurant at around 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday last week.  The space is larger than I'd expected, similar in vibe to the remodeled, cooler Jaleo, with a slightly nautical air thanks to heavy coils of rope hanging from various ceiling fixtures.  (I wasn't a fan of the rope; it weighed down an otherwise pretty airy space.)

We started well with the Papas a la Huancaina y Ocopa (Potato, ají amarillo sauce, huacatay sauce, fresh cheese).  A very plated version of what I understand to be a classic Peruvian dish: two rows of tiny, perfect halved potatoes,one dressed with yellow pepper sauce (a bit mayonnaise-y for my taste, but just a personal preference) and cheese, the other with a green huacatay sauce (black mint, an interesting herb that I'd first tried at Ocopa) and garnished with chopped nuts (walnuts?  pecans?).  Boiled quail egg halves also dotted the plate.  Excellent overall, and I particularly liked the vibrant huacatay sauce and crunchy nuts. 

Next arrived the Chupe de Camarón (Shrimp, fresh cheese, Peruvian corn, potato, poached egg, rice).  In Andres restaurant tradition, the broth was poured tableside -- or, in our case (for understandable space reasons), barside while still on the waiter's tray, which deprived us of a view of what was in the bowl before it was submerged.  Much less stew-like than I'd anticipated, I couldn't really distinguish any of the listed ingredients except the head-on shrimp and rice.  The thin broth was tasty but needed more salt and acid to really make it pop, and the rice bed at the bottom of the bowl tasted underseasoned. 

We were thoroughly disappointed by the Jaladito Norteño (Hamachi tiradito-style, ají amarillo leche de tigre, Peruvian corn, huacatay).  The hamachi was so fishy that we sent it back, and the leche de tigre on the one bite that I tried was surprisingly bland and needed acid.  (We are generally loathe to send a dish back unless there's something truly objectionable about it, but we both realized that we had no interest in eating more than our first bite each.)  Maybe just an off night/batch of fish, but not good. 

The Tiradito de Concha Abanico con Kumquats (Live scallop in half-shell, kumquat leche de tigre, masago pearls, tobiko) was much better.  The scallops tasted very fresh (as you'd expect from the "live" description), and I liked the sour-sweet of the kumquat. The pile of scallop slices was thickly ringed in jewel-red tobiko, which added salt when combined, but I found the scallop slices to be undersalted if not balanced with enough roe.  We were told to dredge the scallops in a tiny dish of masago rice pearls (presumably for texture?), which I found weird because then the first thing to hit my tongue was their unseasoned, bland rice flavor.  I liked but didn't love this dish; dishes with disparate components that require me to combine the elements just right to get proper seasoning and flavor are a pet peeve of mine.

Another high point of dinner was the Uni (Nigiri-style potato causa, fresh sea urchin, wasabi, masago pearls, yuzu).  Little rectangles of potato (with a pleasant surprise of jicama in the middle) were rolled in rice pearls (better here than in with the scallops) and topped with uni.  The uni flavor was more of an ensemble member than the star that I'd expected, but the overall combination was delicious. 

We really liked the Raspadilla de Chicha Morada (Shaved purple corn ice, lemongrass menjar blanco, pineapple), which prompted our neighbors at the bar to ask what we'd ordered when they saw the mound of vivid purple-red shaved ice.  Tasty in a fruity sort of way that wasn't noticeably corn flavored; if you'd told me it was hibiscus, I also would have believed that.  (Upon writing this, I think this purple corn might be the same thing that's used in the limeade-y drink that starts meals at Ocopa.)  The menjar blanco tasted like dulce de leche custard, which I love (although I didn't pick up on lemongrass).  A refreshing sweet end to dinner. 

The drink list isn't as extensive (or enticing, to me) as Ocopa's, but I enjoyed my Déjame Quererte (Quebranta Pisco, persimmon, cinnamon, lemon).  It was nicely acidic, not too sweet, and the cinnamon made it feel seasonally appropriate despite its otherwise light fruitiness.  The bf wasn't drinking so went with the Agua de Loco (Crazy man’s water flavored with apple and cinnamon), which tasted pretty much as you'd guess from the description.  I liked it more than he did. 

As the second Peruvian restaurant to open in DC in five months, it's impossible for me to write about China Chilcano without comparing it to Ocopa (as this post reflects throughout). Maybe that's unfair, given that Ocopa has had more time to establish itself (and I've eaten there three times to CC's one), but fair or not, I cut such a seasoned chef and restaurateur as Chef Andres less slack than I would give to someone opening a first restaurant.  I'm always happy to go to Zaytinya, think barmini is fantastic, have had many excellent meals at minibar, Jaleo, and Oyamel over the years (and still miss Cafe Atlantico for brunch) -- all of which contribute to my expectations for any new addition to the empire.  While I found a number of things to like about CC -- and I liked it well enough that I'll go back in a few months -- it's currently clearly the inferior of the two Peruvian options in town on food and drinks.  (In contrast, my first meal at Ocopa back in September left me excited to return, and our recent third was the best yet.)  I'll definitely keep an eye on others' reports in the months to come.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Lao Hot

On our one visit to Bangkok Golden months ago, we learned just how spicy Lao food can be when, after ordering everything medium-level "Thai hot" and receiving our first round of dishes, we were sheepishly forced to request that the heat be toned down on the rest of our meal.  (Our beers also proved insufficient to quell the fire, so Joanne's Thai iced tea became communal until we could all get our own!)  But the food was delicious, so I was very excited to try Thip Khao (especially as the excellent reviews started rolling in).  After Josh suggested Bob's Shanghai 66 or "whatever the best Chinese or Thai place in the burbs is," I was happy that he jumped on my counter-suggestion of staying in the district (if slightly out of our normal radius) for Laotian food.  Josh apparently had no problem getting an 8:00 p.m. reservation for last Friday with a few days' notice.  So far, so good.

When I arrived, the place was absolutely mobbed.  (Charming space; the decor clearly flags that Chef Seng has moved from a suburb hole-in-the-wall to an urban hot spot.)  It was 5+ minutes before I was even able to get up to the hostess, who then had no reservation for a "Josh," which she heard as "George."  Turns out she'd heard the same when the reservation was made; "George's" reservation matched Josh's phone number.  I overheard her apologetically tell multiple diners who had been waiting for thirty minutes to an hour that it would be another thirty to forty-five minutes, because tables weren't moving as quickly as they'd anticipated (for reasons that I would later understand), I'd worried that our reservation wasn't going to mean much.  Luckily, we were seated by about 8:15, almost immediately after Adam arrived.  That was the only smooth service interaction of the night.

The food, like at Bangkok Golden, was excellent, but the service was comically bad.  We were seated for twenty-five minutes before we finally just flagged down a passing waiter to request water and order drinks and appetizers.  He didn't write anything down, and made a mistake in reciting back our order while still standing there, so we were skeptical that we'd get everything.  Another ten minutes or so passed (it was nearing 9:00 p.m. by this time).  Jessica, frustrated with our empty water glasses, simply got up from our table, walked to the bar area, took one of the assembled water pitchers, filled our glasses, and returned the pitcher.  No one on staff seemed to notice.

Like at Little Serow, the meal began with pork rinds (cucumber slices for Adam and me), sticky rice, and a spicy sauce -- sort of like a spicy Asian BBQ sauce (not like LS's funky fish spreads).  It didn't hurt that I was pretty famished at this point, but I thought it was delicious.  I particularly liked the purple-tinted, black-rice-flecked sticky rice with it.  Unlike at Little Serow, no one seemed to notice when we'd run out of cucumber slices or sticky rice.

The vegetarian naem khao (crispy rice, coconut, lime, green onion, peanut, cilantro, lettuce wraps) was outstanding -- probably my favorite dish of the night.  Better than I remembered the crispy rice salad's being at BG.  Different sorts of crunch from the rice, peanuts, and lettuce, bright with acid and herbs.  Just fantastic.  The shrimp yor khao (summer roll with peanut sauce) were good, standard-seeming summer rolls, but the least interesting dish of the meal.  (The peanut sauce isn't the thick peanutty puree that I'd have expected, but rather a sweet clear sauce filled with peanut chunks.  A preferable pairing for the light rolls.)  Our tam muk hoong (green papaya, cherry tomato, lime, chilies, shrimp paste) was MIA.

The wait between rounds was so long that the melting ice in my (delicious) Thai iced tea and Adam's pandan soy milk (a bright mint green color!) -- both ordered as a preemptive hedge to combat the spiciness -- created a visible watery layer on the surface of our drinks.  The waiter came by at some point (after 9:30) to ask if we needed anything in a manner that suggested that he thought we'd already received everything that we'd ordered.  We said we'd like the rest of our food, including the papaya salad, and Josh ordered a second beer.  The waiter seemed surprised, was apologetic (as he was multiple times throughout the meal), and returned quickly to say that the kitchen was "just working on our order."  (Code for "I just put it in with a rush because a ticket got lost"?)  When it finally arrived, the salad was very good -- spicy without being overwhelming -- although I could have done without picking the squeezed lime wedges out of the salad.  (Dishes had a fair bit of heat, but nothing like what we'd experienced at BG (or LS, which I think has gotten less spicy than it was originally); our back-and-forth with the waiter on spice levels (and how it compared to BG) resulted in an appropriate translation of "medium, but, like, white-people medium.")  The waiter again apologized and said that it had been taken off the bill.  (Josh's second beer didn't show up until after the rest of our food, but it also didn't appear on the bill.)

Recalling a DR member's recommendation, I ordered the moak pah (steamed flounder wrapped in banana leaves, curry paste, dill); heavy on the dill, it was deliciously different from dishes Lao (or Thai) fish dishes that I've previously had.  Although we'd ordered the koi pla dib (Lao ceviche, rockfish, toasted rice powder, chili powder, scallion, cilantro, mint), a shrimp ceviche arrived.  (Given the service snafus, we didn't bother to ask what happened with our rockfish and just dug in.)  No matter, as it was excellent -- the spiciest dish of the meal, but so fresh with apple matchsticks and lots of acid that I (irrationally) kept picking off the platter long after I was full, expecting it to be less spicy than it was.  The tofu laab (minced salad, toasted rice, garlic, scallion, cilantro, mint) was another favorite.  Josh and Jessica liked the seafood orm (curry stew, Thai eggplant, dill) more than I did; I couldn't detect any eggplant, and while good, it wasn't as outstanding for me as other dishes.  (In another funny service moment, the bowls that we had requested to facilitate eating the soup finally arrived about two minutes after we all declared ourselves too stuffed to eat any more.)  We could have probably done with one fewer entree quantity-wise, but our ordering left just enough for Josh to take home a leftovers lunch.  (Josh had to pick up a previously request plastic bag to hold his containers at the bar on our way out the door.)

Desserts looked interesting enough that I would definitely try them on another visit, but given how long the meal lasted (and how full we were -- the (dis?)advantage of waiting so long between courses was that our stomachs had time to let us know that we weren't hungry long before I might otherwise have stopped eating!), we skipped them this time.  It was 10:45 by the time we'd paid the (refreshingly small -- under $30/person pre-tip for a lot of food) bill.  The silver lining to the service issues is that they were the sort of bad (and the staff seemed so overwhelmed) that I'm willing to chalk it up to opening kinks.  The food was so good that we'll definitely be back . . . but probably not until they've had some more time to find their groove.
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