Dorjee Momo

We arrived at Dorjee Momo at 5:05 and didn’t see a line, so we assumed we were ahead of the game. They don’t take reservations except for a 4-person, $45-per-head hot pot meal and we weren’t doing that for a regular Friday night. We found out from yelling to the server setting tables on the deck above us that they didn’t open until 5:30 but we should definitely stick around to hold on to our spot. “Ten more minutes until we change your life!” taunted another employee who was setting up downstairs. Change my life? Challenge accepted! That’s when the porch started to fill up with other potential diners. Don’t worry, I was very forthcoming in passive-aggressively letting the other people in line know exactly who had arrived first. I intended to be the first to walk in that door and I probably would have trampled anyone who tried to stop me.

Then I found out that the fancy hot pot people get priority seating and they were all there: three whole groups of them! I was getting nervous. I’d been warned that there was very limited space inside and besides, I really wanted to sit on the deck, like, really bad. But friends–never fear! There are only three reserved hot pot tables and a reasonable amount of seating to go around. And in case you’re wondering…

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…yes, we did snag the four seats on the balcony and yes, it was just as incredible as it sounds. Besides a fantastic view in beautiful April weather, the beverage pictured here is the #girlboss (their hashtag, not mine), a tart vodka-basil-yuzu concoction that tasted like drinking a flower, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.

We ended up ordering six dishes from the menu–two veggie and four that were meat-based.

 

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First up: chive momo. These were fantastic and not at all bitter from the chives like we expected them to be. The signature sauce that Dorjee Momo uses is spicy rather than flat-out hot. It has some of the numbing qualities of the Sichuan peppercorns, but it’s a balanced flavor instead of that uncomfortable mouthful-of-novocaine sensation that I’ve had elsewhere. We also had the lamb momo, which had a similar profile from the spices but had a good partnership with the lamb, which was moist and meatball-esque.

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The sunflower buns (left) were heavenly. The bun part was so soft but it was covered in crunchy fried garlic and filled with tender spinach. The sauce was pesto-like, which was unexpected. The pickle plate on the right might look sad to you. It did to me too, at first. But when you take into consideration that I literally have no idea what half of the things are on this plate, that’s probably pretty good, right? Each vegetable is also marinated in its own special pickle brine to complement the individual flavors. The stick-like thing on the bottom right is not celery, but it was tangy and salty. Pickled garlic is always a solid choice. There was cauliflower, bitter melon, lotus, an egg, and a really unique citrus rind.

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The Beef Shapta pulled us in with promises of 48-hour marinated beef. It also didn’t disappoint. Once again just mildly spicy, the beef was tender, and the softness was offset by crispy fried yuca.

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I saved the best for last! The coconut beef curry was highly recommended by our waitress and we almost didn’t get it. That would have been an actual crime against flavor. It looks bad, mostly because its appearance is highly reminiscent of my recent experience eating special Salvadoran spleen stew (I didn’t know that it was spleen when it was served to me and now the horrible smell haunts me). Where was I? Oh yeah…so this beef curry, although beautiful, was not the most appetizing thing to me due to my personal emotional trauma, but it was quick to make up for that. This was like beef therapy. It was rich and coconutty, spicy in a way that would not be unbearable to your ordinary layperson, and had a texture somewhere between ground beef and short rib. This was a don’t-miss dish, as were the sunflower buns.

We passed up on dessert, vegan ice cream, because it was vegan ice cream. This is my main suggestion for improvement for Dorjee Momo.

Side note: we spied on the hot pot tables inside, which looked AMAZING. I’m saving up that idea so that I can peer pressure my bestie into coming here for my next birthday.

Price: $45 per person.

Bottom line: Dorjee Momo promised to change my life. They did. They will change yours too. Just make sure you get there at 5:00 and bring your brass knuckles on the very real chance that you have to fight for your seat. I would do jail time for this place.

Chiko

In what may be the perfect storm of a Friday night, my husband and I ended up with a private date night, a workout we desperately needed, and an ACC Championship basketball game we absolutely had to watch. So rather than check out Chiko for ourselves in person as we had intended, we got it delivered. Same-same, right?

I’m a little confused by Chiko, and even more so because I didn’t see it with my own eyes. Is it fine dining? Their menu seems like they’re trying. Is it fast-casual? Delivery service says yes. To complicate matters further, their take-out food comes in cheapo cardboard containers, yet they offer a $50 per person tasting menu at their chef’s table, which I think would be totally reasonable and cool, if only Chiko weren’t the restaurant equivalent of one child standing on another child’s shoulders wearing a trench coat and a fake mustache.

However, as previously stated, the menu has some interesting options, so we actually had trouble narrowing it down, especially without the sage guidance of staff members. We settled on the chopped brisket, the kimchi stew with pork belly, wok blistered Chinese broccoli, and Sichuan spicy cucumbers (aka pickles). Caviar delivered our food right in the middle of the window they gave us, so plus one for them!

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Descriptions clockwise from top left:

The kimchi stew was my favorite. It was slightly lacking in pork belly, but what it had was soft and flavorful. I particularly enjoyed the “rice cake,” which reminded me of plain mochi, just a gummy sponge for the spicy sauce. The broth was not terribly spicy, but it got the job done.

Here is some rice. It’s white. It’s cooked. Okay fine, I didn’t even eat any of this. We’ve all eaten rice and I challenge anyone to describe it better than I just did. Why does rice even exist? For people who have taken vows of poverty and aren’t allowed to take pleasure in food? Rice makes me sad and I resent when restaurants include it for free with my meal, like they’re doing me some favor instead of just creating more tupperware trash and ten cents worth of the cheapest staple carbohydrate in existence.

Sichuan spicy pickles: Tangy vinegar, pickling herbs, what’s not to love? Again, not “spicy” in the truest sense of the word, but a nice addition to the meal.

The Chinese broccoli was perfect. The dish made good use of the finely-sliced stems without being too bitter. It had a wonderfully umami flavor, and the veggies were plentiful.

Finally, the chopped brisket. It was smoky with a slight kick from hot peppers. It was served over yet more rice, but at least this rice had soaked up some of the sauce and juices. The meat was cut small enough to be quite tender. The soft-boiled egg didn’t translate well to delivery food but that’s not Chiko’s fault.

To go with this meal, I ordered some beer from my fridge:

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My husband and I both drank lime gose beers and the Dogfish was the clear winner. Sorry Avery, this beer was flavorless. Dogfish had a little tang and good citrus flavor. I would drink it while vegging on my couch again.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: Now that I write that price out, it’s pretty steep for what may or may not be a slightly upscale take-out joint. But maybe it’s actually cheap for a fancy restaurant? Unclear. I was happy but not super-impressed overall. It’s worth a visit for something new.

Barrel

My in-laws constantly wax poetic about their regular place, Barrel. Not a week passes without hearing “So the other night at Barrel…” Finally, we had to try it.

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Barrel is known for–pretty obviously–their whiskey. Something that should be known about my father-in-law is this: he is fantastic at finding great cocktail bars. He is also great at presuming that they have good food, and we have been burned by this assumption enough times to not let him choose restaurants based on drinks alone anymore. Remember a few weeks ago when we ate at Kith and Kin and then went savage on a Bacio pizza because it wasn’t enough food? Regrettably, that wasn’t our first time doing this. I will take the blame for Kith and Kin but let’s just establish the fact that no, you can’t eat dinner at Denson. And as soon as we sat down at Barrel, which has a great vibe, by the way, my FIL said, “Okay, so the food here isn’t the greatest…” I had kind of already set some low expectations for the food, but I probably made a face when he said that.

We ordered drinks–two solid craft beers on draft, a wine, and I had the A Henway cocktail. It was made with gin and blackberries; it tasted like gin and not a lot else. I immediately regretted this decision, but it’s my fault and my fault alone. It sure was pretty though.

Barrel’s menu is organized horribly. You will see why later. It has three sections that don’t make a whole lot of sense: starters, grub and sammys (?), and pasta. Why is pasta not also classified as grub? It’s also not terribly cohesive. Tacos? Pasta? Crab rangoon? Jerk ribs? Barrel has no idea what it wants to be when it grows up. Barrel is, like, three years into college and still a freshman because it has changed its major so many times.

We ordered the brussels sprouts for the table. They are made with Asian flavors (I rest my case), tons of fish sauce, chili, and peanuts. They were salty, savory, and delectable. I could eat this all day.

My in-laws warned us about Barrel’s spicy spicy buffalo chicken sandwich, so naturally we had to get that. We also decided that maybe it wouldn’t quite feed two people and we should also get another small dish. Having no direction whatsoever in terms of choosing an appropriately-sized dish, we settled on the lamb nachos, which were served over sweet potato chips. We thought that would be the right amount of food. We chose poorly.

The chicken sandwich was nothing to sneeze at. I like the soft ciabatta roll and the pickles and the red onions. The flavors melded nicely. The chicken was tender with a good crust. It was not spicy. The lamb nachos were ENORMOUS and only nachos in the loosest sense of the word. That is, it was something on top of chips. Again, I like ground lamb. I like subtle curry spice. I like sweet potato chips. But how are these nachos without cheese?

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Meanwhile, my father-in-law ordered TWO orders of the carnitas tacos because, being a regular, he knew that this plate was tiny and he would need two plates of it to even come close to representing a full meal. The tacos were pretty basic: weirdly bland carnitas, cilantro, and cheese. All three of the aforementioned dishes were located in the “grub and sammys” section of the menu. How could one possibly know what size of food one is ordering?

So as it turned out, it wasn’t Barrel’s quality of food that diminished them in my mind. The quality was good, the food was tasty, the brussels sprouts were a stand-out. It was the fact that they don’t quite have a handle on basic existential questions such as Who am I? and What am I doing here? and What kind of food is this? Barrel needs to take a gap year and backpack across Europe or something.

Price: $40 per person.

Bottom line: Barrel is a great joint for happy hour and trying new whiskey, or drinking one of their famous barrels of Old Fashioneds. Although I didn’t try the Mac and Cheese (since I thought it would be too much food but it turns out that would have actually been an appropriate amount), I saw and smelled it and I can recommend it based on this alone. Bring some friends and get some diverse bar food.