Welcome to the Northern Virginia Restaurant Blog.

Restaurant reviews in Tyson's and surrounding area... mostly

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merkamo Ethiopian Restaurant - Springfield, VA

7020 Commerce Street
Springfield, VA 22150

If it wasn't for a Groupon, I would not have tried this restaurant, and am I glad I did! A little out of the way for me - all the way in Springfield - Merkamo was definitely worth the drive.

Located in a small strip mall in an area overrun with strip malls of all sizes, Merkamo is a cozy low-key restaurant with about 15 tables in all, and a full bar and a large flat screen TV (tuned to CNN), which is particularly convenient to keep company for those dining alone.  At lunchtime on a weekday in December, about 6 of the tables were full.  This seemed to be a restaurant enjoyed not only by Americans, but also by Ethiopians living in this area, which is a great sign of really authentic food. 

The restaurant itself was open and sunny.  Even the bathroom was pleasant!

The two ladies that explained the menu and served the food could not have been more hospitable and attentive.  They are also, apparently, part-owners in this family restaurant, which according to a review in the Washington Post means "beautiful" in Ethiopian.  This makes sense because my experience was nothing short of beautiful.

I over-ordered with the hopes to be able to take some food home with me, which worked out well.  I got the house special Merkamo Vegetarian Combo that included five vegetarian samplings, four of which were pretty standard, but the fifth was a dish with cold beets, which was absolutely amazing - and unique.  I don't think I ever had beets at an Ethiopian restaurant before, what a wonderful combination of flavors and textures and temperatures. 

I am not typically a big meat eater, but when at an Ethiopian restaurant, meat is a must.  The tibs were probably one of the best I ever had.  Importantly, ventilation at this restaurant was pretty good, so the sizzling tibs smell did not absorb into my clothes or hair.  I also had a house specialty Merkamo Kitfo (I ordered mine well done, not in the more traditional tartar) that came with two sides - cheese and spinach.  They were all delicious.
Most amazing was the awaze sauce, which the restaurant offers on the side to spoon out to one's individual taste.  This red flavorful spicy sauce was so delicious that I asked them to sell me some to-go, which they did.  Wow, what a treat.

I don't think there is much more to say about this restaurant other than - if you like Ethiopian food, go here.

Lincoln Restaurant, Washington, DC

1110 Vermont Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20005

This is probably our first blog on a restaurant in DC, not in VA, and unfortunately this was not a positive experience.  Not that there is a shortage of excellent restaurants in the District.  Lincoln is just not one of them.

To begin with, the main room was so noisy during lunch time on a Thursday that we had to request to be seated in the back room, where we could have a conversation without having to scream over the noise and strain to hear each other.  Reservations are highly recommended because for some strange reason, probably a relative shortage of decent business lunch locales in this particular area, many tables, at least in the main hall, were filled. 

When we sat down, a staff person silently poured what seemed to be filtered tap water into empty jelly jars, yes -those that are sold in grocery stores filled with marinated or otherwise prepared preserves, and also sometimes used for storage of food, or nails in a garage. These empty jelly jars were also suspended from the ceiling at varying height for what passes as decoration in this establishment.  The water was room temperature, but there was no ice in our jelly jars - ice had to be requested separately and seemed to have taken some time to obtain.

The menu offers an upscale American cuisine (yes, there is such a thing - funnel cake and all).  No bread or anything of that sort was placed on the table.  In fact, the service, or rather the hospitality, was rather scarce, but I will get to that shortly.  Our appetizers included a butternut squash soup in a noticeably oversized white dish and macaroni and cheese in what seemed like a miniature skillet in which it was baked.  They were nothing short of, well.....  average. People, really, it's macaroni and cheese.     

For entrees we both had chicken pot pies.  My first reaction was that - hey, this is not a pie!  The baked dry chicken-vegetable mixture was topped with a overly crispy puff pastry that shattered all over the table when poked with a fork.  It looked as if someone dropped the rock-hard empty puff on top of the baked meal.  As my friend noted, they served us the airplane-size version of a meal, where not only was the dish tiny, the bread was stacked on top of it to save space.  Where is the golden crust baked around a savory juicy mixture that IS the chicken pot pie?  Not here!  It tasted...well, again, average, but the presentation lacked appeal and if you've ever had a great chicken pot pie, this was a major disappointment.

On to the dessert.  We shared a funnel cake, which again.... average and overpriced.  The tiny portion came with strange unsweet, tasteless sauces on the side.  Sauce with funnel cake?  Seriously?  How pretentious can you make a funnel cake??? It too, was consistent with the rest of the meal - blah.

The service was as disappointing as the taste and the presentation of the food.  Several waiters came up to us to take our order, tried to give us the wrong food, and the wait staff in general seemed disorganized and confused.  Maybe there was confusion over who takes care of the customers seated in the back room.  Besides us there were several other tables with people, and perhaps the problem was that this was during a busy period - lunchtime. 

I would like to say one last thing about this restaurant named after President Lincoln, okay maybe two more things.  One: without getting too much into it, I would like to point out that the floor, and I think several walls or something like that, were lined with pennies.  Now, I understand that pennies don't present much value anymore and there is talk about the Treasury Department discontinuing minting pennies.  But nonetheless, pennies are money. Come on people, lining the floor with MONEY?  Yes, yes, I realize that Lincoln is on the penny.  I am thinking the way the devaluation of the U.S. Dollar is moving, the trend is toward renaming this restaurant Washington within say, a few years, and wallpapering it with dollar bills?  Just a thought.

Two: In third world countries, in fact in most of the world, including the United States of America, jars are used for storing food, not for serving it.  Glasses are an accepted vessel to deliver drinks.  If we have extra jars in our midst, it would be best to either re-use them for food storage or recycled into other glass items that may be in higher demand than storage vessels.  But even in third world countries, it would be an insult to serve someone any drink in a jar.  There are drinking glasses for that.

Lincoln disappointed from every aspect.  The jars added insult to injury.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joe’s Pizza and Pasta, Vienna, VA

435 Maple Avenue,  
Vienna, VA 

 Joe's Pizza and Pasta came highly recommended by a neighbor, so it was worth a visit. On a Sunday at lunchtime, the restaurant seemed relatively empty, despite its $9 all-you-can-eat option, which seemed like a sensible deal. The all-you-can-eat deal included a relatively limited salad bar selection, a soup, and a choice of several (three or four) kinds of pizza. Most patrons seemed to have been attracted by this deal and were going up for seconds and thirds, but the variety that was offered was not terribly appealing to me, so I decided to select from the menu.

Let me just say, that the first thing that I noticed about the restaurant was that it was big and run-down. The bathroom probably has not been updated since its establishment in 1978. There is not much investment in renovation, which keeps the overhead costs low – read: and prices reasonable. The staff hustled – well, primarily the wait and bus staff hustled. The manager, Franco, seemed to be relatively clueless and idle, but still pleasant.

The hostess first seated me in a dark corner of the restaurant between a wall and the salad bar, even though the huge hall was pretty empty. I asked to be seated in the sunlight on the other side of the restaurant, which she accommodated. As I followed her to the table, another noticeable factor was the clientele – there were not many people there, but the ones that were there were primarily over 60. There were also two tables with families and very young children.

While I was waiting for my food to arrive, I was surrounded by empty tables, in fact there was not another person eating anywhere in my sight-range. The only sounds I heard were a crying baby from somewhere behind me and music alternating between Italian opera and Latino pop. Not much of an Italian ambiance, what with my (very sweet) waitress from rural Russia, brown counter tabletops, and the Latino pop alternating every other song. OK, so much for the ambiance. Now for the food.

The appetizer of cheesy garlic bread consisted of four slices of bread that were garlicky and pretty tasty, but nothing special. I had to ask for a bowl of marinara sauce, for which the waitress afterwards told me she did not charge me the extra $2. The bread and the sauce were fine, but not great. My entrée was linguine with white clam sauce. They were unable to accommodate my usual request for angelhair / cappellini pasta or puttanesca sauce, which were not on the menu, but most other Italian restaurants can easily whip up a version of this. The entrée was just so-so, not bad, but not great, either. I requested additional marinara sauce for my bread, but the waitress told me that she would have to start charging me for it, per store rules. Fair enough, that’s the rule.

Overall, for my money and time, this would not be a place for me to return, although my neighbor loves it. If I want good Italian, I would repeat my two dining experiences at Rocco’s in McLean. Rocco’s prices are very comparable to Joe’s (see footnote*) with no the nickel-and-diming, the ambience better since Rocco’s is smaller and cozier, and the quality of the food certainly puts it ahead of Joe’s. Sorry, Joe!

* For example, garlic cheese bread is the same price in both restaurants and Rocco’s comes with plentiful super delicious marinara; the linguine with white clam sauce was lunch price $13 at Joe’s and dinner price $18.95 at Rocco’s

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Is it really the water?

Having just returned from a short week in northern NJ, I did my best to return to the dining staples that characterized my youth growing up in Bergen County. If there is one constant to why I think food just tastes better in the tri-state area it is the water. This theory is evident in the breads produced in and around the Garden State.  Let’s examine a few:

Bagels.   My mother Fay is the consummate expert on a good bagel and I rely on her to ensure my bagel experience is the best that NJ can offer.  Indeed, my bagel experiences with my mother are rarely short of excellent.  She prefers Paul’s Emerson Bagels in Emerson, NJ (although I lean towards Ronnie’s in Hillsdale).   According to Fay, a good bagel is still warm in the bag, has a slight crisp when you delicately poke into its outer shell and an inside that is moist, airy, and a bit chewy.  The ONLY way to achieve this is to boil the bagel in water before baking it.  I believe the rest of the country either does not get this step or the water that the bagels are boiled in is just different.  This is why bagels outside of the tri-state area must be toasted before consuming and becomes more rolls than bagels.  IMHO, a toasted bagel is a ruined bagel.  

Pizza.  Pizza aficionados argue about the sauce, the cheese, and  the toppings.  Nope—none of the above—it’s the crust.  No need for further argument here (you can leave a comment though).   Is it the water that makes the crust good?  Perhaps.  Since the Lisanti Corp. carries the majority of tri-state boxed pizza supplies, cheeses, oils, sauces, carry-out boxes, etc., the one thing that differs from one strip mall pizza shop to the next is the locally-made dough.   I am convinced that if Lisanti also supplied the dough from say, Pittsburgh, the pizza would not stand up to what makes NY/NJ pizza great.  The pizza crust is what makes a pizza great.  Pizza crust should be thin, able to wilt a bit on the end when you pick up a slice (YES, PIZZA MUST BE CONSUMED WITH THE HANDS, folding the slice from the crust.  Save the knife and fork for the next time you’re in Chicago eating a pizza casserole).  I think the mark of a good slice of ‘zah is the first bite and the last bite.  Everything in between is spent thinking about the first bite and the anticipation of getting to the thicker crust (or as my kids used to call them “pizza bones” since they would leave a few on the plate after finishing a slice). 

Other water-based thoughts.  I’ve always thought the food just tasted better in NJ.  Chinese food, corned beef sandwiches, hot dogs (see the Rutt’s Hut post) all deserve a nod.  Jersey diners serve just about the best home cooking you can get.  Even the simple “buttered roll and coffee” duo tastes better in the tri-state area.  Is it the water?  Is it the nostalgia?  Is it simply that the tri-state palate demands quality foods and tastes?  Perhaps all play a part; however, with all things being equal, the water must have something to do with it.