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Afghan Grill’s Mantoo (Meat-Filled Dumplings)

A few years ago I produced a TV food segment about manti — tiny, meat-filled Turkish dumplings.  As the chef herself said, “It is not easy making the manti. This is occasional food.”

She wasn’t kidding.  After making the dough, she rolled it out and cut out squares the size of a postage stamp. Each square was dabbed with the meat filling, and the four corners of the dough were pinched together to form a star shape. The process was laborious, to say the least; she had to crimp dozens of manti just to make enough for a few servings.

It was right then that I realized I would never, ever, under any circumstance, be making manti at home.

(They were a marvel, incidentally.  We ate a full meal after shooting, and I’ll always remember those delicate, little dumplings.)

I hadn’t eaten manti since that day, until a recent dinner at Woodley Park’s Afghan Grill.

In Afghan cuisine, the dumplings are called mantoo. They’re basically the same idea, only larger, the size of ravioli.

Afghan Grill knocks them out of the park.

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Everything is working here; the lightness of the meat filling, and the red sauce with a drizzle of garlicky yogurt sauce. But it’s really all about the bite of that dough — soft and pillowy, yet 100% al dente. You can taste the care that goes into making each one.

I imagine mantoo are slightly easier to make than manti, since they’re about five times bigger. Nevertheless, I’m leaving these dumplings to the professionals. When a chef says they are “occasional food,” I’m taking her word for it.

One last thing: when you’re at Afghan Grill, try the dessert of vanilla ice cream with cardamom, almonds and rose water. Trust me.

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Afghan Grill
2309 Calvert St. NW
Washington, DC
202-234-5095

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The Mixed Bag That is Union Market

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Union Market is no Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Let’s get that out of the way up front.  I don’t know that it’s even trying to be like Reading Terminal. The expectation was my own — that Union Market was a scaled-down version of the legendary Philly market. It’s not.

I’m not quite sure what Union Market is, really.  It appears to have helped revitalize an up-and-coming area of DC.  The collection of food merchants and vendors have created nice niches for themselves, catering to primarily upper middle class clientele (from what I could tell). I’m not sure that the general neighborhood population would be able to shop or dine regularly there — and that’s not a good thing.

My friend Leah and I paid a visit to Union Market on a recent weekend. We’ve shared several food experiences together, the best being dinner at Little Serow.

We walked in and took a lap around the place. There was a nice energy inside, although it was quickly apparent that the crowd was rather homogenous. Well-heeled yuppies and hipsters in funky eyeglasses abounded.

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I saw people enjoying brunch at what looked like an old-style soda fountain; there were fish, meat, wine, and cheese vendors, dried herbs and spices, pricey boutiques, dessert stops, and a host of food stalls. Didn’t see a single produce vendor, but I’ve been told one exists.

We wandered around pondering our first move until Leah spotted this lady selling steamed pork buns.

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Sold! Pork buns sounded perfect for our first sampling of the day.

We placed our order and waited. It was a lot of work for this poor woman. She was cooking solo, making each bun by hand, then placing them into the steamers.

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After 5-10 minutes, they were ready. Leah and I took our two buns apiece and found a table.

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These were very good. Denser than the steamed buns you’ll find at dim sum, and the pork was shredded, rather than chopped. There were also some chiles in there, because these had a kick to them!

We were off to a good start.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there.

The sandwich line was long at Red Apron Butchery. A good sign, right?

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And what could sound better than a “Porkstrami” sandwich?  Thin slices of pastrami-style pork, mustard, and sauerkraut on Red Apron’s own bread.

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I hate to be so harsh, but… the sandwich was kind of terrible. Leah knew she didn’t like it after the first bite. It took me several bites to realize that things were going wrong. Mushy, lifeless bread (begging to be toasted) formed a sandwich around sliced pork that was half meat, and half fat. You can see it in the picture. Half the meat was inedible, and I ended up picking it out and forming a mound of fat on the tin foil.

The sauerkraut was the best component of the sandwich, but even that couldn’t save it. Really disappointing.

We took another lap around, looking for a dessert to make up for the porkstrami.

We stopped at the Harvey’s Market stall and admired the great looking meat. Leah asked the young guy working the counter, “Where is this lamb from?”

He paused, sort of shrugged, and with a confused look, said, “I’m not sure. New Zealand?”

He ambled off to go check.

I looked closely at the label on the lamb. It read, ‘Shenandoah.’

Then I read the signs placed on the display case: ‘Local.’ ‘Maryland.’ ‘Local.’ ‘Virginia.’

I’m venturing a guess that the young guy was a hair off base with his New Zealand answer. Unless New Zealand is considered local, and there’s a Shenandoah, New Zealand.

Leah and I walked some more, finally settling at the cupcake stand. I’m not much of a cupcake person, but splitting one between the two of us sounded about right. We picked out a cookies ‘n cream cupcake.

Leah tried to cut the cupcake in half, but the thing was chilled solid. She could barely work her way through it.

And it tasted bad. Not the texture of a cupcake at all; more like cold cookie dough with a mound of frosting.  A couple of bites were all I could handle.

As food success goes, we went 1 out of 3.  That’s good for a baseball batting average; it’s not so good for sampling food.  It’s possible we made the wrong choices, or the particular vendors we stopped at were having a bad day. I’d like to think what we ate isn’t representative of the market as a whole. That’d be a real shame.

I’d like to return to Union Market again, because my first impression was … iffy. What does it want to be? Reading Terminal Market has something for everyone, and seems to function as both a tourist destination and a stop for Philly regulars of all types. Union Market exudes a more exclusive sheen. Rather than being exclusive, isn’t there some room for inclusive?

Union Market
1309 5th St. NE
Washington, DC

 

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Wagshal’s Brisket Sandwich is Like Biting Into a Cloud

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The mark of a superlative sandwich is one that you buy, start eating on the way to your car, and finish before you’ve even turned the key in the ignition.

My plan was to take the Wagshal’s brisket sandwich home, but I didn’t even start the car!

So yeah, I would say that was a good sandwich.

Deceptively simple, too, with three components: rye bread, mustard, and thin slices of dreamily moist brisket that I liken to biting into a cloud. The layers of flavor in the cured, smoked meat are front and center, and the brisket’s so tender that it practically melts in your mouth. Out of this world.

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I jammed this beauty down my gullet in about ten bites, and if the sandwich line hadn’t been so long, I would have gone back for another.

Last summer I took my parents to Wagshal’s and had the turkey reuben, a perfectly respectable choice.

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I know better now, though. The brisket sandwich is top dog.

Get two of them. You’ll need a second one by the time you reach the car.

Wagshal’s
4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC
202-363-5698

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RIP White Chocolate

I’m still in shock that Philip Seymour Hoffman died.  He was a colossally talented chameleon of an actor, probably among the two or three best actors working today. I took a quick look at his IMDB page and just shook my head; he was great in everything.

The guy could be freaking hilarious, too. Along Came Polly is a mediocre movie, but it has its memorable moments, thanks mostly to Hoffman. He plays Ben Stiller’s off-kilter friend Sandy. Two things about Sandy: he introduces a new word into the pop culture lexicon (“sharted”), and he’s quite possibly the world’s worst basketball player (though he doesn’t know it).

Here, he gives Stiller weird sex advice while managing to make pizza look gross.

No food in this next clip, but it does feature Hoffman, who despite a profound lack of basketball skills, dubs himself as “White Chocolate.”

I loved this scene, and damn, I’m gonna miss seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in more movies.

RIP White Chocolate.

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Killer Tofu

This may be my favorite name ever for a rock band:

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We saw this billboard at the National Theater in Richmond.

I have so many questions: Did a band member become acutely ill from eating botulism-tainted tofu?  Or is that “killer” as in “awesome”? And why couldn’t Killer Tofu have been the nickname of our Asian-American club in college?

In the meantime, I eagerly await the arrival of their sister band, Killer Quinoa.