Izakaya Seki

One year ago today, I decided to start blogging my food adventures, so happy blogaversary to me! Not coincidentally, this was also my special birthday dinner.

You wouldn’t recognize the 1100 block of V Street NW as being just a block north of U Street. At 5:30 on a Saturday, U Street was already bustling, but this place feels like a neighborhood. Izakaya Seki is almost disguised here, sandwiched between Tacos El Chilango (shoutout to that place!) and a bunch of soulless condo buildings. They don’t even have a sign, opting instead for a single round paper lamp. It’s only because of my naturally curious/hungry nature and my love for tacos that I even knew it existed. They don’t take reservations, so I was concerned about the prospect of getting seated (hence getting there even before the senior citizens), but there were still plenty of seats available, both upstairs at the tables and downstairs at the bar. It’s actually kind of criminal that they don’t have a line down the block like Little Serow and Bad Saint do every single night.

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Look at this specials menu. Have you ever seen a cuter menu? Sanrio is missing out big time producing Hello Kitty instead of Hello Eggplant. Big ups to our server, who patiently translated all of the many sashimi options and then went through them again when we promptly forgot everything she said.

To drink, we ended up ordering a Toki Highball and a Japanese sake-barrel-aged beer. I’ll be honest that I had no idea what I was getting with the highball and let’s just say that if you like the slightly smokey taste of Japanese whiskey, you might enjoy this, which tastes like drinking lemon-lime LaCroix out of an ashtray. I’m sure it was fabulous if you’re into that sort of thing. The beer, which was not your typical light Asian lager but instead was stronger and lightly barreled, was actually much better. We also put in an order for four dishes. “For now,” said our server. We were nervous that $100 worth of food still wouldn’t be enough.

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Our Chu Toro (fatty tuna) sashimi arrived in record time. I feel like we could have done worse for $27, but it’s not exactly a bargain. On the bright side, there were six thick cuts of fish and they had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency and a flavor that was mild but distinctly ocean-y. You know all those people who say things like “I like fish but I don’t like it to taste fishy.” Yeah, those people would HATE this. Also, you should probably stop being friends with those people. Who doesn’t want their food to taste like what it is?

P.S. Another fun fact: it turns out that real wasabi is actually not offensive, but instead offers a granular texture and a light hint of peppery spice!

Next, the vegetable platter arrived. We ordered three vegetables: the kinpiri (aka burdock, aka a plant that looks like a garden weed), the hijiki (black seaweed), and the gomae (spinach with sesame seeds).

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Okay, furreal: this is one of the most delicious things I have eaten. Ever. I was a vegetarian. I cook a lot of vegetables. I understand vegetables. I feel like my life’s work has been defending vegetables from broccoli-steamers and brussels-sprout-boilers everywhere. And yet, I didn’t know vegetables could taste like this. The burdock and lotus root (bottom left) was earthy with a light chewiness like delicious mushrooms, the seaweed (top left) was ridiculously umami with a good crunch, and the spinach gomae (right) was cold, salty-sweet, and nutty all at once. Zero complaints, so much happiness.

We ordered the short rib off of the specials menu and ended up with this huge pile o’ meat:

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They were caramelized with a delicious, sweet glaze. I think the most hurr-durr but also best flavor descriptor here is that this beef tasted BEEFY. Although there were a few really choice pieces here, in general it was a little chewy and hard to get off the bone despite being cut super-thin. I don’t blame it, though. Those veggies were a tough act to follow.

We finished the meal with the soba noodles in hot dashi. I would have preferred to try the traditional cold noodles, but the soup was the only way we could add on the pork belly and soft-boiled egg and I was not not going to do that.mvimg_20180915_181336.jpg

This bowl was huge and easily splittable between two (or three, or four) people. The broth was seriously savory and oniony, made better only by the chili seasoning they brought to the table. The noodles were a beautiful al dente and the pork belly was soft and melty. We were left sucking the broth out of the bottom of the bowl.

So it turned out that four dishes between two people was extremely reasonable

Price: $50 per person.

Bottom line: You might think, “Vegetables? What are these even doing here? Nah.” But you’d be wrong. Prepare yourself for great service, interesting flavors, and happy tummies. Don’t miss the noodles either. It’s been a while since I had a meal this good.

Dak! Chicken

Rainy days call for takeout and binging Ozark on Netflix, and I was on my way home from NoVa when I thought it prudent to stop and bring home something delicious. I ordered online but ended up sitting at the bar at Dak! in Shirlington while I waited for them to put my food together. It took a little longer than expected, but I appreciate the idea of having nice, warm food when I leave the restaurant.

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I didn’t look at it until I got home. I’ll start with my husband’s bulgogi wrap:

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It’s just a regular tortilla filled with meat, meat, and more meat. He ate half of this for dinner and was perfectly content. The beef had an excellent texture and wasn’t chewy at all. The predominant flavor came from a sweet sauce rather than spicy kimchi, although I could taste the spice when I munched on the kimchi individually. They didn’t skimp on the bulgogi meat in any way.

I thought I was going to be all healthy with the spicy grilled chicken salad and OH SWEET JESUS WHAT IS THIS?

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Under all that chicken is a very larger amount of salad: crisp lettuce, juicy slices of tomato, the occasional crunchy piece of kimchi, and fried rice noodles, topped with approximately 1.5 chickens worth of sweet-hot meat. I ate like a third of this. A third of a salad. Think about that for a second.

I am forever grateful that I followed my gut feeling and deleted the dumplings I originally added to my online cart. I suspect I wouldn’t have even made a noticeable dent in the salad if I hadn’t. I might regret that I didn’t get their specialty Korean double-fried chicken, but life is too short for that, and they gave me too much food.

Price: $15 per person, $30 to feed an entire village.

Bottom line: Come hungry?

Thip Khao

The time has come for me to return to face my demons at Thip Khao. Full disclosure: I’ve been here before, though not in years, and it is the only place that has created anything that was so spicy I couldn’t finish it. I had an axe to grind.

Accompanying us tonight was my friend, coworker, and good food enthusiast, Jody. While we waited for her to arrive, we ordered some beer from Thip Khao’s uncharacteristically wild/sour-heavy selection. My husband got the Burley Oak sour and I had the Scaldis Pêche Mel, a Belgian beer that takes me back…way, way back to February when I drank my heart out in Brussels. It was light and fruity, slightly sour without being too sugary. Perfect to accompany a bunch of spicy food. Jody arrived and ordered the Green Mango cocktail without even needing to look at the menu, and let me tell you, if you like spicy vodka, I have some good news for you.

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Ordering was an epic battle unto itself. Thip Khao has shortened and re-organized its menu since I was last here, plus everything looks like something you’ve never even heard of before. We eventually settled on three dishes, and later added another. In order, they were:

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Muu Som (rice cured pork belly). I’m not usually the biggest fan of fatty cuts of pork like this but actually…I’m not sure I’ve eaten many things better than this. It was so rich and mouth-melty, with a subtle tartness. The tomatoes and woodear mushrooms blended so well too.

Siin Haeng (beef jerky) and Oob Bae (goat red curry).

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did have this beef dish on one prior visit. It was years ago, just after I had started eating meat and it was life-changing. The best way to describe it would be “meat candy,” but even that description doesn’t do it justice. It’s dry but not tough, candied but not heinously sweet, spiced but not spicy. It’s served with a plain sriracha but honestly, it doesn’t need anything. The goat curry was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The curry sauce was like a thin, brothy version of a standard Thai red curry. It doesn’t have coconut milk and it was also disappointingly lacking in heat (the metaphorical kind of heat). Additionally, I somehow ended up with a giant chunk of meat on my plate that was so tough that I ended up gnawing on it like some kind of awkward hyena. I had to floss immediately when I got home because so much of it was still stuck in my teeth and retainer (and I never even succeeded at chewing it!) Fortunately, the rest of the meat in the bowl was pleasantly tender but come on, Thip Khao.

Still slightly hungry and brimming with hubris, we ordered the Tam Muk Houng Phet Phet. Tam Muk Houng is spicy papaya salad and, by all accounts, Phet Phet translates roughly to “spicy as fuck.” It’s like Thip Khao refused to put any chilies in anything else because they had to save them all for this.

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It might not look like much, but two bites of this will destroy your mouth for at least an hour. I love green papaya, but this thing is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it painfully hot, it also reeks of artisanal fish sauce so, I hope you like the overpowering flavor of rotten seafood while you set fire to your tongue. Don’t get me wrong; I still packed up these leftovers to take home, and they will get eaten if it’s the last thing I do (it probably will be).

I would be remiss not to mention my trip to the bathroom. Jody, ever the solid mom-type figure, reminded me of how much water I had drank after that salad and told me to pee before we left. It was in the bathroom that I discovered a huge dead cockroach on the floor. A better person than I might have cared, but what amazed me was that this place was packed, so it’s likely that double-digits of women had witnessed the six-legged offender and NONE OF THEM CARED EITHER. The food is actually THAT good.

Price: $30 per person.

Bottom line: The food is unlike anything else you’ve tried. It may or may not destroy your insides.

Cork

Sometimes I get really excited about a restaurant while completely forgetting how I even heard of it. Typically I don’t make reservations for places I haven’t at least seen for myself because life is short, and also my “places to eat” list somehow only gets longer. I think the staff at Cork might have inceptioned me and placed this reservation.

Well, whether by inception or some other means (sleepwalking? Multiple personality? Clone?), Cork was on the calendar and as it drew near I grew increasingly excited about it. Not to mention that it’s the perfect Friday Family Funday location, what with wine and cheese and more cheese and whatnot. When we sat down, we received a super thick booklet of wines. In my youth, I always imagined that I would be a fancy wine snob and hold tasting parties at my well-appointed suburban house with my bilingual French/English speaking children (I’m not even joking about this; that is what 11 year-old me thought my adult life would be like. I blame a combination of growing up in Orange County and watching too much Frasier). In my actual adulthood, I will drink wine but don’t give even the slightest rat’s ass about learning about it. So, with that in mind: rosé. Fortunately for the others at the table, our server was knowledgeable about everything and brought my in-laws a bottle of riesling, and my husband ordered a glass of the only style he really cares about: pinot noir (an order I constantly follow up with Titus’s song from Kimmy Schmidt, much to his chagrin).

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We ordered three cheeses, naturally. Our server recommended one of the other cheeses over something I had ordered: Delice. I trusted him. His charcuterie recommendations were also the exact things I wanted: duck prosciutto and chorizo. Best friends forever!

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He was NOT lying about that Delice cheese (right side of cheese plate). It was creamy, with a texture somewhere between brie and chevre. The sheep cheese in the middle of the plate was nutty but not overpowering. The chorizo (left meat on meat plate) was warm, spicy, and just fantastic. I have to say, though, that I was really excited about this duck prosciutto and it was not…quite…good. Very ducky, but in a bad way, and very oily. The burrata (bottom left) was also fantastically creamy and was mitigated well with the smokey eggplant sauce under the tomatoes.

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Here we have the scallops in bacon broth. The scallops themselves were cooked to perfection, and we all know that nothing makes you feel more special than when the waiters pour liquid onto your plate directly in front of you, but the portion size was kind of disappointing: two medium-large scallops.

At least the duck confit was slightly bigger. For me, this was the absolute star. The skin was so crispy, the meat was so rich and flavored with anise. I thought I was biased towards this because it’s everything I want in a food, but even my anise-loathing, duck-indifferent spouse thought it was delicious.

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We were still quite hungry afterwards and so ordered the chicken:

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Again, it was bigger but still not really sizeable. The fried green tomato was good, and it was served in a sauce that was sweet and hinted at horseradish. It was tasty too, but that duck was a hard act to follow.

My husband and I decided to split a dessert wine and instead of port, our server recommended a sparkling moscato, and promptly brought back a half-pour of it for us to taste (is that guy great or what?) He was also not lying about the wine. It was white moscato which I didn’t even know existed, and was perfumey without being overly sweet.

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My mother-in-law ordered the fruit crumble for dessert, which tonight featured peaches and blueberries. It was served piping hot in a cute lil’ cast iron skillet, but honestly, it was just way too sweet and the crumble topping had the grittiness of semolina or rice flour, which wasn’t super pleasant:

Price: $60 per person.

Bottom line: Cork is really good but maybe a hair overpriced. It’s worth a trip for a special occasion and the service was top-notch, but prepare yourself for some sticker shock. Listen to your waiter and don’t miss the duck confit.

Baan Thai

After a recently-streamed episode of Parts Unknown, my husband and I became, frankly, obsessed with finding a restaurant that served Northern Thai cuisine. It turns out that what most of us think of as Thai is Southern Thai (and extremely bastardized Southern Thai to boot). Google was super useless, suggesting Little Serow (legit and fantastic, but not a good pick for a regular Saturday night) and Thip Khao (where I’ve been and will go again next weekend, but which is Lao, not Thai, so….kinda racist?) Somehow, my husband, the master of Google, found Baan Thai on 14th. I never would have come here, mostly because I didn’t realize that it was separate from Thai Tanic downstairs. Baan Thai doesn’t specialize in any particular regional cuisine; they specialize in telling you which region your food is from.

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Note: When you come here, use the green door on the right. This is critical. I don’t know how two Thai restaurants manage to peacefully coexist on top of one another, especially considering that after my experience at Baan, I have to believe that it is far superior. Don’t be the asshole who reminds Thai Tanic how inferior they are.

Baan Thai has happy hour on Saturday and Sunday, so I was pretty much forced to order the house Diamond cocktail, which featured lychee liqueur and aloe. It was fabulous and refreshing, though quite sweet. I tried hard to ration it for the whole meal.

mvimg_20180901_180205.jpgWe had to ask our server to help us narrow down the appetizer options and she made an excellent recommendation: the chicken wrapped in tapioca. I’ve never had this before and it was so good I could have made an entire meal out of just this. It was meaty, but also heavy on roasted garlic and peanut, with an unplaceable sweet element too. The tapioca wrapper was like a stickier version of a posticker wrapper. They were hard to handle with chopsticks, but I’ll just blame my whiteness for that.

It took a lot of discussion about contrasting flavors and regional specialties before we landed on two entrees: the Northern Thai pork curry and the–according to them–Central Thai green papaya curry with chicken. The pork was rated three chili peppers and the chicken claimed to be four.

mvimg_20180901_181256.jpgI’ll start with the chicken curry. So much tart, crunchy papaya. The sauce was broth-based (I think) and had a gorgeous salty/savory flavor but…four chilis? Nah.

But for real, that pork was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It’s like…

#1. My wedding day.

#2. Every time I’ve been to Komi.

#2.5. Nan Ji Thoke from Mandalay maybe.

#3. This pork.

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Oh, it doesn’t look like much, you say? Well, how do you feel about melty pork belly cooked with whole cloves of garlic and long chunks of galangal, all slathered in this cumin-y, greasy chili sauce? It was beyond amazing. But again…three chili peppers? Nah.

We asked for the tray of peppers and were delivered two containers of pickled hot peppers, dried chili powder, and sriracha. A few heaping teaspoons of chili and both of our dishes popped all the more. But for real, pork. If all you’ve done is go to your neighborhood Thai spot for panang chicken (I mean…who does that? Definitely not this chick!), you need to try this STAT. Southern Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines don’t make good use of pork the way Chinese cuisine does, so this thing is everything you love about bacon in curry form.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: In case you somehow missed it, order the Northern Thai pork. I have to imagine that everything is good, but whatever you do, don’t get some boring green curry.

Homestead

The how and the why of how I chose Homestead is not important (read: I don’t even remember). My in-laws showed up at our house a little early this evening and even though our reservation wasn’t until 6:30, I called the restaurant to ask if we could bump it up.

“Hi, I have a reservation tonight and I’m wondering if I could come in a little earlier instead?”

“Oh yes, Ms. Wardfive? You can definitely come earlier!”

So. I was the only person with a reservation here the whole night. The. Whole. Night. I don’t know why; even if you didn’t know anything about the place and were just walking by, you would notice how gorgeous it is. Maybe one of the top 10 most well-decorated restaurants I’ve been in. Maybe one of the most well-decorated places I’ve been in. And I’ve visited a number of European castles so I should know.

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I want to drink hot cocoa by the fire in here and it’s like 10,000 degrees outside. But do you see how empty it is? Why? What are they hiding?

Homestead has a lot of good beers on tap but their cocktail list really shines and isn’t overly pricey either. I got the What-a-melon, others ordered the Few More Summer Days and the Summer Vacation. We left our appetizer decision in my mother-in-law’s capable appetizer-picking hands. She wanted deviled eggs.

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A server showed up with a surprise amuse-bouche of catfish nuggets with remoulade served in individual little spoons. This is not the kind of fancy place that typically sends out a freebie compliments of the chef. They must have known a super famous restaurant critic was in the house. I was, on the whole, impressed by the drinks. The What-a-melon (left) was kind of watery, but what did I expect from watermelon? The light flavor grew on me throughout its consumption. The other two cocktails were very sweet but light and refreshing. The deviled eggs were normal and I don’t have a lot more to say about them. They were served on a bed of micro-greens that was so weirdly excessive that I thought we were consuming healthfood freak’s Easter basket.

I had the beet and burrata salad with additional chicken. The beets: roasted to sweet perfection, served cold. The mozzarella: so creamy and luxurious. The chicken was cooked really well too. Overall, though, it was a small dish despite the additional protein, but very tasty.

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My husband also had a salad with chicken, but his was the panzanella. I hesitate to call something salad that is 90% bread, but this wasn’t a traditional panzanella. It was mostly a giant bowl of arugula with an intense citrus dressing and some croutons. I’m glad it wasn’t all bread but also sad that it was so mislabeled. It also advertised chickpeas and I think I counted, like, four of them.

My mother-in-law shocked nobody when she ordered the fried chicken. The menu claims it’s hot. It’s not. But the chicken was sooooooo moist on the inside with a crispy exterior that reminded me of what fried chicken could be. The collards were standard and the mashed potatoes, always her favorite, didn’t seem particularly special to me.

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My father-in-law got the recommended catfish:

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OH SWEET JESUS WHAT IS THIS? I didn’t know it was possible to make fish this unhealthy. I regret every time I condescended about dipping lobster in plain melted butter because the sauce on this plate had to have more calories than the dense shakes that third-world doctors feed to starving children. This is what winning at dinner looks like, people. The fish was as tender as you would expect when something is basically boiled in heavy cream. It was creamy, salty, spiced, and savory. The grits melted in your mouth. This was just yum.

We passed up dessert, which was for the best. We brought home some leftover chicken and half a bowl of arugula that I’m sure I will have to eat.

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: Homestead had highs and lows (butter fish and plain arugula, respectively). I left satisfied but not raving. I’m not sure I’d initiate another visit myself but I wouldn’t be mad if my work had a free Christmas party here.

Hikari Sushi

I love our little neighborhood sushi place but I was recently struck with a fear that I think is totally rational: What if this sushi is total trash and I don’t even know it? I’ve only been to a few places in the DC area and they all seemed pretty much the same. But I also know that my taste in sushi usually starts with the words “eel sauce” and ends with a one-digit price tag. I’m a cheap date, what can I say?

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To ease my fears, I picked out Hikari on H Street. A 4.1 on Google reviews, what looked like a varied menu, the price was right, and I could bike there. Even though I started craving sushi around, like, 2 p.m., I held out for actual dinner time at 6 and so it was strange that when we arrived, we were literally the only people in the entire restaurant (unless you count the guy at the bar who was already drunk at 6 p.m.) We sat upstairs on the back patio and a server arrived to give us menus and clean up the table which had been used for a “big party last night” but was somehow inexplicably still dirty at dinnertime with nobody else in the restaurant.

We were given two different menus. When I pointed this out to our server, she told us they were basically the same…except they weren’t. What I believed would be a long list of rolls didn’t seem quite so long on the paper menu, and it was cut down even further by the seeming omnipresence of rolls containing “white tuna.” (For those too lazy to click the link, white tuna is not a thing and what a restaurant calls white tuna is often escolar aka ex-lax fish). I hate being lied to almost as much as I hate diarrhea. So in the end we ordered a safe garden salad, the veggie roll, spicy tuna, and the alligator roll.

Here’s the salad:

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Damn, I love that carrot-ginger dressing. And iceberg lettuce is refreshing after a hot bike ride. But while I know that the unexpected addition of imitation crab is not exactly a lie, the very fact that it exists makes my brain hurt. It also pains me that they lazily threw it onto this salad. It’s like I ordered a pair of running shoes on Zappos and they threw in a shitty Kate Middleton-style lace fascinator for free and then acted like they were doing me a favor. It wasn’t asked for, it wasn’t necessary, and I don’t have any idea what to do with it, but uh, thanks, I guess?

The rolls arrived shortly. The plate looked gorgeous. I poured a little soy sauce into a dipping tray and remarked on the light color. I dipped in a chopstick and remarked on the light flavor. I dipped in a finger and still couldn’t taste it. It is not usually a subtle flavor. I know this a bold claim to make so I hesitate to say this but I am fairly certain that Hikari is watering down their soy sauce. But back to the sushi:

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All three rolls were passable. I regret that I ordered the veggie but at least it had avocado. The spicy tuna had a decent zing. The alligator roll, which should have been 100% delicious, was 50% overcooked shrimp, 50% dry eel with only a little sweet eel sauce to moisten the whole thing.

But then came the real injustice: our server came to collect our credit card and walked away with my empty wine glass, but also my husband’s not-yet-empty bottle of beer. What kind of psychopath not only does this, but doesn’t bring it back when they realize their error? I guess I can’t blame her; she needed to turn that table fast. Jk, the restaurant was still empty when we left.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: If you’re a fan of dirt cheap sushi, please just eat anywhere else.

And here’s a map to my local place, Aroi. It may be cheapo trash sushi but at least it tastes good: