Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Toki Underground

Despite the dreadful humidity that overtakes the DC area all summer I have been on a soup binge of epic proportions. Whether it's my never-ending quest to find the best pho in the area, eating French onion soup, or a spicy Thai soup my life has been inundated with this liquid meal.

My current bender has taken me and a newly formed group of culinary explorers to Toki Underground, the newest addition to the H St. neighborhood. Located snugly above The Pug this 20-seat restaurant/bar is home to Ramen, a traditional eastern soup. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang opened shop on my birthday with the premise of serving a spin-off on this traditional Japanese dish. A native of Taiwan Chef Bruner-Yang has taken his experience working in Ramen shops and added his own take with this restaurant.

For those who do not know Ramen originated in China and in no way resembles the bland styrofoam covered concoction that got us through college. Despite it's origin Japan has been credited with most of it's evolution so much so that it's origin is commonly confused among many people. Before dining here my only other experience with Ramen was when I was in LA so to say I did not know what to expect is an understatement.

My first visit came after a botched effort to bring a party of ten to eat at a restaurant with no tables. I came with two other friends on a Sunday afternoon, despite the day, time and weather we still had to wait around 45 minutes. Once we got the go ahead we entered the glass door and walked upstairs.

The decor was a funky fusion which can best be characterized as a traditional noodle shop with a skater/punk rock backdrop. The walls traveling up the stairs were covered in graffiti while the borders were decorated with broken up skateboards. The walls along one side of were decorated with little Japanese toys while the back had two large windows which gave a grand view of H St..

The cozy design is very intimate, there are no individual tables, only a bar whose counters hug the walls around it. We all took our seats and were given our menus which were fairly simple and to the point.

After briefly scanning the drink menu I decided to order the Toki Monster which consists of bourbon, honey liqueur, and scotch with is adorned with a skewer of kushiyaki porkbelly. My reasoning was based solely on the premise of ordering any drink that has a meat garnish (e.g. my bacon martini) regardless of the flavors.

Unlike the drink that preceded it the Toki Monster was fairly tasty. The honey and scotch are a classic flavor combination and the bourbon blended in well especially with the salty skewer which I dipped in and ate at the end.

Next we decided to order the steamed pork dumplings which were very delicious. We followed our appetizer by each ordering a different bowl of Ramen. I decided to play it safe and ordered the Toki Hakata Classic while my friends ordered the Curry Chicken Hakata and the Kimchi Hakata. Hakata Ramen for those who are interested originated in the city of Hakata. It's main characteristic is that the broth is made from pork bones and is served with thin, firm noodles.

(Toki Monster)

Once our soups arrived we began to devour the contents inside our large bowls. My soup, which consisted of pork loin, seasonal vegetables, boiled egg, pickled ginger, scallions an nori was fairly tasty. The broth delicately blended all the ingredients rendering a tasty dish. The pork was savory and the vegetables absorbed all of the broth.

Halfway into our meal we each sampled each others soups. While I am not a big fan of curry chicken the broth was my favorite of the three. We left the place stuffed, barely able to walk to the car but did leave with the promise of visiting again.

(Pan Fried Seafood Dumplings)

My next and most recent visit came this past week when we took a large party to dine on a Thursday night. Our second attempt was met with success as we were able to make it on time. The only caveat is that we were forced to split into two groups of five.

After being seated we all took our orders. I decided this time to sample the Seafood dumplings which I decided to get pan-fried because I prefer the flavor and texture more with this method of cooking. While I enjoyed them I think the pork dumplings I had during my previous visit were better.

This time I ordered the Kimchi Hakata. I decided on this after sampling my friends which I found to be a bit better than the Toki Hakata Classic. The Kimchi is essentially the same as the Toki Hakata except that it is topped with locally made Kimchi which offers a little more spice to the broth.

I decided to let loose this time and add a little heat to my dish. On my initial visit I decided to forgo this option because my stomach was a bit uneasy. I did however notice that there were no sauces that were offered on the bar. I asked the server why that was so and if I could add some more heat to the dish. She informed me that I could order a side of the Toki Endorphin Sauce which is a homemade Sriracha sauce. Despite my insistence on the lack of spice that comes from Sriracha (I can literally take shots of it) I was informed that their sauce was spicy.

(Kimchi Hakata)

The sauce came in a small dish which I dipped my finger in and sampled. I was let down by the lack of spice but couldn't really get up and complain. I dipped it all in and mixed it together. The soup was fantastic, the flavors were all there and the spice level was slightly above average . I will have to admit that over time I began to sweat because of the heat but was in no way dying for milk to relieve the burn.

All in all my two experiences here were great. The food was spot on and the price was average. The service is good and the chef goes to great lengths to ensure the food he serves is up to standard. I read that he even tries a small spoonful of each broth that comes out to ensure that it meets his standards of excellence. I intend to dine here again and sample some of their saki and try their desserts that come in adorable bento box's (which you can't keep unfortunately).

Because of it's size, or lack their of and the fact that they don't really take reservations ahead of time I would recommend this place for a 2-3 people at the max because it's virtually impossible to get more seats in a row than that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

El Centro DF

Our tour of 14th St. continues with one of the newest and most chic restaurants on the block. El Centro DF opened it's doors this summer under the ownership of Chef Richard Sandoval who also owns the popular Masa 14 two doors down.

Chef Sandoval opened this establishment with the premise of serving classic Mexican food and drinks with a contemporary backdrop. Ever since it's opening night El Centro has been one of the hot spots in the neighborhood with long lines for both dining and drinking.

My first experience came on a Sunday afternoon about a week after they had opened. I decided to choose this location for a small family dinner on a nice summer afternoon. Upon entering I adored the chic interior which is coated with the classic decor of a traditional Mexican taqueria.

The first thing you see upon entering is a small area where you can order take out or eat your food in a relatively quick manner. Behind this area is the dining area which is connected to an open kitchen which emanates with the rich flavors of Mexican cuisine. Once seated we were introduced to the philosophy of this restaurant which is to serve traditional food using fresh, sustainable ingredients.

Since they had just opened we were offered a free order of guacamole which usually runs for the steep price of $9.95. Within five minutes a gentleman came out with our guacamole which was made in front of us using a traditional Mexican spice grinder called a Molcajete. We were given a quick show in which our server grinned the fresh avocado, tomato, onions and cilantro that yielded some of the tastiest and freshest guacamole I have had in the US.


Our meal continued with the Cozumel Ceviche which was ordered as an appetizer. The ceviche was served with fresh avocado, corn, cilantro and tomato's which were piled on small crispy tortillas. The ceviche was spot on, the fish was fresh and flavorful and the presentation was as elegant as the overall flavor.

Our entrees quickly followed. My father order the Carne Asada which was beautifully executed. My sister ordered the Chicken Zarape which was equally as good. Since this was a taqueria I decided to order the El Pastor tacos which consist of pork belly, grilled pineapple, cilantro, onions and salsa verde which are served with rice and black beans.

(Cozumel Ceviche)

The tacos were pristine, the saltiness of the pork belly countered well with the sweetness of the grilled pineapple. The salsa verde added another dimension of flavor that produced a masterful dish. The black beans were served how I love them, mashed with a hint of grated cheese. Overall I enjoyed my dish as well as the overall meal.

This great experience made this a must go spot which I have frequented in the past month. Since then I have had the opportunity to sample their fish and steak tacos which were equally as good as the pork belly tacos. I have also nibbled on Jalisco Shrimp and Crab Enchilada which was also rather tasty.

(Al Pastor Taco's)

Despite the magnificent food a majority of my time here has been spent on their rooftop for their drinks which includes a very extensive Tequila list with over 200 brands to choose from. I am glad to say that El Centro offers some of the best cocktails I have had in the city including one of my new favorite drinks and which brought tom my attention after a long conversation with one the bartenders. This individual introduced me to the tequila mojito which offers a new spin to this classic cocktail.

Their late hours and basement dining area just add to the mystique and further entice me to continue to dine here. Everyone I have taken here has fallen in love with the cocktails, service and late night dining options.

All in all El Centro DF offers all the qualities that make this a great place for both food and drinks. The rooftop bar is a hot spot all summer which I will visit many times. The restaurant serves great food that is a little on the pricy side but well worth it for the flavor and execution that is the norm for any restaurant owned by Richard Sandoval. I highly recommend trying this place both to eat and drink. Their late night carry out menu is also an added boost to one of the better restaurants in the highly competitive 14th St. area.