Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Eaten: Dragon Fruit

Tonight I had a hot date with dragon fruit. I got it at H-Mart, a Korean grocery in Gaithersburg, MD, and I paid a $6.50 for it. For an individual piece of fruit it was pricey, yes. But for an eater who has, in a moment of weakness, paid $4-plus for one fresh passion fruit, the decision was not subject to budgetary consideration or rationale.

Besides, look at it. It's one of the freakiest looking fruits that you can eat. And you should eat it.

Dragon fruit is a variety of pitaya so it grows on cacti. It grows in arid places like Mexico, central, and south America - where it originated - Israel, Australia and all over southeast Asia. It is known to offer health benefits, too, such as vitamins A, B1, 2, and 3 along with come C for good measure. Anti-oxidants, too!

But that wasn't the point. The point was the flavor and the adventure. I grabbed my big knife and made one cut from top to bottom, unveiling seed-speckled, creamy-looking flesh. Some dragon fruit has red flesh. Mine was white and the satiny appearance was just a show. As I ran a big spoon between the flesh and the skin - the way you would an avocado - there was a nice crispness and plenty of juice.

This dragon fruit's texture had the crispness of an Asian pear or fresh watermelon with the added pop of tiny, crispy seeds - like a kiwi's. The flavor was light with a bright, clean citrus tone. One could argue that, flavor-wise, it is a cucumber's sweet and tropical analog. It was nice and sweet with just a bit of tang. I think it tasted like a pear-kiwi hybrid which is cool because I love those fruits individually, too.

Dragon fruit is easy to prepare and great fun to eat. You can probably find it at a nearby Asian or Latin grocery. It might be pricey, but the flavor and the experience are well worth it. Find someone to share it with and enjoy.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Russia in Rockville - Blichniki and Beer

Bistro Nostalgie, in Kingfarm across Rockville Pike from the Shady Grove Metro stop, is one of a very few Russian restaurants in the Metro DC area. The restaurant's food is an interesting mix of proper Russian favorites as well as some other more Mediterranean/Ottoman dishes. The menu acts as a road map of the chef's career - from Russia, through Eastern Europe, to Italy then to us here, in Rockville- without sacrificing the authenticity, quality or traditional value of the food he serves.

At 7:30pm on a Thursday all of the restaurant's 15-to-20 tables sat empty as we approached, looking through the big glass windows into the sparse and contemporary dining room. Seeing an empty restaurant is usually a turn off but we were going for the adventure and the flavor...not for the popularity. Those who were there (staff and patrons) were honest-to-goodness Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc. This immediately canceled any remaining trepidation.

Our waitress, a Ukrainian, was friendly and attentive. She told us that she was a skilled home cook and that we were in for a treat..."the food here is just like home. Mine is good too!" We ordered beers – maybe Baltika - and some honey pepper vodka which was the Happy Hour Special at $4 a shot down from the normal $9. The beer was nice and hoppy and the vodka was strange, even startlingly so. The first shot was smooth and fragrant with a strong pepper spice. As the night wore on, I found the following shots to be cloying and overly pungent, but by then I was drunk so that opinion may not be as valid as others.

The menu had apps ranging from $6 for potatoes fried with mushrooms and onions to $99 for Osetra Caviar on blini or toast points "as you wish." The entrees ranged from $18 to $30 and featured healthy portions and interesting accompaniments.

There were three of us and we treated the apps like tapas, starting with those delectable fried potatoes which were silky-soft with wonderfully crisp and caramelized bits which were still sizzling hot with oil. The mushrooms in the dish were a Trumpet-variety and they lent a wonderful earthy flavor to the dish.

Veal tongue with mustard and horseradish had exceptionally deep flavor. The texture was soft with almost new resistance to the tooth and after some proper chewing it became like butter - molten, viscous, and sensuous. It was the most complex and challenging flavor of the night...surely not for those who aren't fans of intense meaty flavors.

Showing a touch of his experience in the Aegean, the next dish to hit the table was grilled octopus. It tasted exceptionally fresh and was served topped with a lemon herb vinaigrette. The flesh was tender, easily cut with a fork, and the dressing was piquant and bright.

Next came the lamb chops. They were grilled to medium-rare perfection and seasoned with salt, pepper and what tasted like a standard spice mix with oregano and thyme as well as other usual suspects. While the meat took center stage, the plethora of pickles that resided on the plate with the meat really made the dish unique and memorable. There was pickled cabbage, beets, and tomatoes; each with its own unique zing. With the pickles there was a tomato, red onion and cucumber salad with cilantro which was refreshing and light. My favorite part of the plate was the little pita bread that was hiding under the grilled lamb. It was soaked in the fat from the meat but still quite crisp and toasty. All together it was one of the best-thought-out plates I've ever had.

With the last shot of vodka, we ordered blinchniki, or blintzes, or stuffed crepes, or whatever - they're delicious! We had two varieties of blinchniki at Bistro Nostalgie: meat and mushroom. Both are served with sour cream and both are absolutely splendid. The crepe wrapping was tender and sweet and the fillings were intense in flavor without being offensive.

Deserts were a Napoleon Cake which was sweet and tender and a crème brulee, which was a crème brulee.

For the three of us - with 4 apps, the lamb entree, 2 deserts, 5 big beers and 12 shots - the bill came to $150, which isn't too terrible considering that we got stuffed to bursting and very, very drunk.

While I don't have much experience with Russian food in the DC area I do know what tastes good. With that in mind I'm excited to go back to Bistro Nostalgie for more...and I suggest you try it out too!