Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Houng Viet: the mussels that rocked my world

I'm a suggestible person. Not long after I moved to DC, someone in my fellowship program remarked (with pride) that they never left the District -- meaning that they never ventured into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. It only took a couple of times getting lost in the Arlington sprawl for me to begin shunning the trip across the bridge as well. I happily took up the mantle of my fellow urbanites and became as smug as everyone else. No suburbs of Northern Virginia for me, no way, no thanks.

In theory, I knew that the best ethnic food was across that bridge, and cheaper too. The foodie in me wanted to be lured by the Asian supermarket with its lush produce and stunning seafood selection; the anthropologist within tried to get interested in the cultural geography. Nothing worked. I remained tethered to DC.

But finally, 10 years later, a fraying of the rope. Huong Viet Restaurant in the Eden Center has rocked my world. It's not as if I had never been to the Eden Center (aka Little Saigon) before. I had -- once. But somehow, back then, it seemed like just another strip mall to me. Huong Viet is another story. First dish out was lemongrass mussels with their deep, satisfying flavor; I live for dishes like this one. As I began to eat like a person starved, I had to force myself to remember that this was a shared dish and not hog the entire bowl. So I savored the molluscs slowly, relishing each one so that the others might get their share (well, I tried). Lychee bubble tea hit another sweet spot. I grew up eating cold fresh lychees on hot summer days, and this drink evoked those childhood flavors so well, a concentrate of memory. Besides, it complemented the mussels perfectly. While I was being swept away by the lemongrass and the lychees, more plates arrived. They blurred together as something inside me gave way. I resolved to master the featureless byways of NoVa, and remake the bridge into a gateway to foodie paradise, rather than a barrier. It's about time.

Dishes To Die For: lemongrass mussels; lychee bubble tea

Huong Viet on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tackle Box

I'm joining the swell of voices rising in praise of Tackle Box. Their wood grilled fish is the archetype of the way I like to eat fish: simple, sustainable, a little bit smoky. It's reassuring to know exactly where to go for that now. I also loved the option of a warm grilled lemon instead of sauce, and delicious grilled veggies as sides. The food is top notch, for sure.

What I am more ambivalent about is the concept. Tackle Box is supposed to be a laid back, beachy place, but squeezed between store fronts in the Cleveland Park strip, I'm not sure it quite pulls it off. Most of the seating is at one long picnic table running almost the length of the restaurant, and it can be hard to relax crammed in between the other diners. At the height of the dinner hour it feels more mess hall than beach shack.

But as the peak ebbed and the place emptied out, we were able to sprawl out a little, take in some of those summer vacation tunes, and allow the effects of the Crackle Cocktail to take hold. Mmmm...I will be back for sure, but only at low-tide.

Wood grilled blue fish, with grilled lemon, squash and corn

Wood grilled catfish, with grilled lemon, carrots and corn

When lobster eyes are know your order is ready

Dishes To Die For: wood grilled fish; portobello mushrooms

Tackle Box on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Antoinette Id's Two Cents on Turkey

Antoinette Ego has a lot of nice things to say about the food in Turkey, doesn't she? Yadda, yadda, yadda. Whatever. But did you notice she didn't mention anything about the coffee?

Click here to read more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mezze to Die For (Bodrum Peninsula, Turkey)

In my head, I am speaking in hushed tones. Part reverence for this jewel of  a spot on the Bodrum Peninsula, and part "I don't know if I really want to tell about this." The town of Gumusluk is in a protected historical site, allowing it to escape the development in progress all around it. It is naturally protected as well, a sheltered cove that is perpetually serene.

There, at the far right end, slightly set apart from the other restaurants, we found the Gumus Cafe on the water's edge. The view from our table looked like this.

But it's not just the setting. It's the food. We had been eating mezze almost every night for the past 10 days -- at first by choice, and then at the insistence of Turkish friends. It's not really possible to skip this array of spreads and smoked dishes when dining out in Turkey. After the mezze come the salads and appetizers. Only then are you permitted to order the main course. By the time we got to Gumusluk, I was eager to skip over this procession and get right to the fish. After all, this was a fishing village, and fish is what the restaurants were known for.

It was not to be. As I was relaxing at our table at the water's edge, others in our party were off to view the mezze on offer. They came back having exuberant array of mezze and appetizers. Right then, I knew we would never get to the fish course. As it turned out, I was not sorry. Not one bit. The Gumus Cafe has a seriously refreshing approach to these first courses, and even in my mezzed-out condition, I dove right in to that rapturous state that is the quest of all foodies. To top it off, the restaurant also carries an excellent Turkish white wine, Yucel Vineyards' Mayya '10, made from the Narince grape. Thanks to Tali for passing on this knowledge. 

Here is a pic of the label, plus two of my favorite dishes: grilled octopus salad and kelp salad

For my Istanbul post, click here
For my Cappadocia post, click here

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Goreme for Gourmands (Cappadocia, Turkey)

If you are researching Cappadocia, you already know about its unique geological formations. That is what draws most travelers to the region. But for foodies, there is another earthworks of interest: testi kebab -- lamb stewed in clay jars. We were first alerted to this dish by the broken clay jars displayed in restaurant windows in the town of Goreme.

Intrigued and wanting to know more, we found ourselves at Kale Terasse restaurant -- not the fanciest in town, but a place of happy informality that seemed to be favored more by Turkish than western tourists. This is how the testi kebab was served:

The jar is cracked open at the table, just like the top of a boiled egg being removed. Our dish of lamb and red peppers was outstanding -- a local preparation much better than the more standard shish kebab (linguistic note: testi means jar in Turkish; shish means skewer). We washed it down with the very decent local Turasan wine as well as the ubiquitous Efes beer.

Other gastronomic points of interest: The Kelebek Hotel has an impressive breakfast spread, including turkish breads with toasted sesame seeds, cheeses, olives, and red pepper paste; dried fruits (figs, several types of apricots, raisins, sultanas and currants), and western favorites like french toast served with local sour cherry preserves. While I homed in on the savory, Chris favored the sweet. I was too busy enjoying feta cheese and red pepper paste to take a picture of it, but here is a shot of the preserves:

On our hike in the Rose Valley, a gentle walk among soaring rock formations and small farmers' plots, we encountered another treat: freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. The vendor's stand is modestly integrated into the landscape:

If you look closely, you can see more clay pots piled up at the foot of the stand, and yet more forming the boundary of the garden plot.


The Kelebek Hotel in Goreme offers reasonably priced rooms which include breakfast, arranges transport from and back to Kayseri airport, and can arrange a variety of tours, including a hike in the Rose Valley.

The Kalle Terasse is at Roma Kalesi Yani, Muze Cad, Goreme, but is most easily found by wandering around (Goreme is very small!). You can also email the manager at

You can learn more about pottery making in the region in the town of Avanos, about 5 miles from Goreme. It is located on the banks of the Red River (Kizirlirmak), which supplies the red clay for the pots. This photo at the Guray workshop demonstrates the working of the traditional, foot-operated potter's wheel.

For my post on Istanbul, click here
For my post on the Bodrum Peninsula, click here

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Istanbul Delights, with notes

Artichoke hearts big as a big man's palm; strawberries for breakfast; apricots steeped overnight, swollen and stuffed with clotted cream, their split side pressed into stuffed pistachios; swordfish shish, moist fish pressed up against grilled lemons on a spit; onion shish: onions stuffed with grilled beef and marinated in pomegranite juice, then baked (my favorite); liver and onions in a trendy alley in the Galata neighborhood, a crevice of glamor tucked between stone walls. This is our secret, said Elif. 


1. Artichokes and strawberries are in season in May; they show up everywhere so you become aware of this very quickly. Peeled artichoke hearts are sold in markets, stored in lemon juice to prevent discoloring, ready for cooking. In the second photo in the middle, you can see the artichokes, with shelled fava beans (left) and shelled garbanzo beans (right) in bags on top of the jars.

2. Apricots and clotted cream; artichokes and fava beans: these were among dishes we prepared in a cooking class taught by Selin Rozanes, who opens her home in the Nasantasi neighborhood. Afterward, Selin led a tour of the spice market, where many of the ingredients were purchased. See the full range of classes and foodie tours on offer at Delicious Istanbul blog also has a useful guide to shopping in the Istanbul Spice Market.

3. Swordfish shish at the Seven Hills restaurant in the Sultan Ahmed neighborhood was one of the best meals I had in Istanbul. Their mezze platter also has the best smoked eggplant I had in the entire two weeks in Turkey (similar to babaghanoush, but called patlijaan in Turkey).  The restaurant is touristy and expensive, but the excellent food and the views of the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara are worth it.

4. Onion shish at the Kiva restaurant that serves Anatolian food, right by Galata Tower. A special dish. We had to order a second plate.

5. The secret alley. I will keep the secret.

For my post on Cappadocia, click here
For my post on the Bodrum Peninsula, click here

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda