Vietnamese Feast at a Pleasing Price

ns_no16pho.jpg

Pho–a popular Vietnamese dish

Casual, inexpensive, tasty and classic are the words that best describe one of the most overlooked restaurants in West Hartford.  

Chock-a-block with dining facilities, West Hartford can overwhelm with eating options, from the great to those best avoided. But despite its location on the thriving and bustling streets of West Hartford, Pho Boston is not one of the most recognized or highly regarded restaurants in the area, though it should be.

Pho Boston is an authentic Vietnamese restaurant that offers some of the best Asian eats in Connecticut. The restaurant isn’t big on décor, but customers crave its quality food and reasonable prices.

But unless you’re Vietnamese or know someone that is, teasing out the best dishes for a diverse meal at Pho Boston can be discouraging. This is simply because the menu’s options are endless. My guess is that amateur Vietnamese cuisine diners will probably look past the truly authentic Vietnamese fare and go for the more familiar.  

So to prepare you for your excursion to Pho Boston, I think that now would be the perfect time for some private lessons on a few cultural recommendations and facts about Vietnamese cuisine that are practiced at the restaurant.

Vietnamese cuisine is known for its common use of fish sauce—a staple ingredient in not only Vietnamese cuisine but also Thai, Philippine and other Southeast Asian cooking–soy sauce and hoison sauce. All are popular condiments and dipping sauces that are provided with nearly every meal at Pho Boston. The soy and hoison sauces are actually kept at every table for easy access.

The use of vegetables is also very prominent in Vietnamese cuisine. Much of Vietnam is lush and fertile due to an extensive river system, which makes it ideal for growing a wide range of vegetables that are eaten in abundance. The menu holds true to this by offering vegetables in soups, stir-fries and curries, in a rice paper wrapping with the egg or spring rolls, served as a side dish or salad or as a vegetarian plate.

A traditional Vietnamese meal consists of Pho (soup), a stir-fried dish and comes to a close with something a little salty.

Pho bo, which has been around for nearly 100 years, is the national dish of Vietnam and is served at almost every local Vietnamese restaurant. In Vietnam, Pho can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The dish is a bowl of long rice noodles that swim in a savory and delicious beef broth, is topped with thin slices of rare steak and garnished with scallion rounds, onions and cilantro. On a separate plate comes Thai basil, lime, jalapeno and bean sprouts for an additional kick of flavor. The broth is intensely meaty but balanced and not too sweet.

Beef pho isn’t your only choice at Pho Boston, though. There are many varieties of pho with different selections of meat—chicken being one of them.

For a stir-fried choice, I highly recommend the watercress and fermented bean curd. Most people would expect a pungent, funky flavor from the bean curd, but it’s actually quite mild and provides a subtle saltiness and creamy sauce, a great contrast to the bright green and vegetal flavor of the watercress.

Some “safer” stir-fry choices include the sautéed broccoli and shrimp dish (tom xao cai ro) and the chicken curry and vegetable duo (ga xao ca ry). All entrées are accompanied by a plate of steamed white rice.

One of the most intriguing salty choices on the menu is the Yang Chou fried rice (com chien duong chau) with a combination of shrimp, cubed pork, egg, Chinese sausage and cubed carrots.

By the way, the little bowl provided with your meal isn’t just there for soup. To eat like a real Vietnamese, scoop or ladle out a portion of food from the larger dishes into the bowl and eat out of that.

One of the best appetizers is the egg rolls, which are stuffed with ground pork, carrots, onions, rice, vermicelli and dried mushrooms and are wrapped in a super thin, crispy and golden brown rice paper. The contrasting temperatures and textures of the crisp, hot egg rolls wrapped in cold lettuce is what are most pleasing. After you wrap the rolls in a leaf of lettuce, add a few sprigs of mint and cilantro, dip the leafy bundle into the fish sauce (nuoc mam) to get the full effect.

Pho Boston typically retains the cultural practice of not delivering the bill to the table because in Vietnamese culture, this is considered rude. It is seen as a way of rushing the customer out of the door.

So far, Pho Boston’s eclecticism hasn’t drawn crowds, but I think that the place is a real gem and a neighborhood restaurant that is far too good to keep a secret.

Vietnamese Food and Recipes

More about Pho Boston

Cruise the Mediterranean at Mediza

Never once has a single restaurant represented flavors from all over the Mediterranean better than Mediza, a small yet up-scale restaurant located on 35B LaSalle Rd. in the West Hartford Center.

 

The intimate and inviting restaurant allows patrons to sample some of the most diverse tastes of the Mediterranean without ever having to fly to the South of France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Morocco or the Middle East. It is one of the West Hartford Center’s most colorful culinary playgrounds where creativity is infused in everything from the presentation to the servers’ attire.

 

Mediza is a long and narrow dining chamber where elbow-rubbing is inevitable. Dimly lit and hung with dark green velvet curtains, the décor creates a relaxed atmosphere that makes you feel comfortable and at home. The servers are downright friendly and boast black t-shirts that read obsession on the back and chocolate on the front in white letters.  

I first became interested in visiting Mediza when dining at a restaurant directly across the street. Mediza’s sign alone was enough to lure me in whereas the medieval-like font of the electric blue lettering and the glowing moon set above a white palace featured in the design reminded me of a serene Arabian night in Aladdin’s cave.

It was a stormy June evening when a friend and I were searching for an exotic bite to eat and immediately thought of Mediza.

At first, the place struck me as Middle Eastern, but later, I came to find out that the food was more eclectic than that.  We browsed the menu of a host of small plate, salad, grilled flatbread, shish kebab, large plate, sides and Mediterranean a la carte grill offerings and found it difficult to decide which country we wanted to visit first.

But of course, to keep things in our realm of comfort, we decided to begin our journey into the Mediterranean with an all too familiar Middle Eastern appetizer called the Mediza Sampler.

The sampler is a plate of babaganoush—eggplant hummus sprinkled with olive oil and colored with sun-dried tomatoes; Hoomoos, which is actually chickpea hummus but spelled as it is in Israel; tahini—a ground sesame seed dip made of hulled, lightly roasted seeds that is commonly offered in Arab and Israeli restaurants; and falafel—a small fried, crispy ball of spiced chick peas. Falafel is another very popular food in the Arab East as well as Israel, where it is regarded as a national food. The Mediza Sampler is accompanied by a plate full of warm, puffy house-made pita rounds. This is a highly recommended starter for those looking to be immediately introduced into the enchanting Mediterranean world.

Our next destination was Morocco. Morocco, the culinary star of North Africa, is the doorway between Europe and Africa. The food of Morocco is a perfect combination of European and Arab influences, so we began our trip into Morocco with the Moroccan cigars. Like most Moroccan food, the Moroccan cigars are aromatic with subtle spices and include ground beef and lamb rolled in a thin phyllo pastry that is served with tahini. This was our first time sampling Moroccan food, but it certainly would not be our last.

We were also lucky enough to enjoy the pleasing mix of textures and flavors in the artfully arranged portabella tower.

Some of the most tangy and tasty entrees included the Mediza paella and the chicken tangine with preserved lemons. Paella is one of the most famous Spanish dishes and is a compilation of shrimp, clams, Price Edward Island mussels, calamari and chorizo with saffron rice.

Instead of being the classic stew, Mediza’s version of the chicken tangine was a small, roasted half-chicken served on a bed of Israeli couscous with stewed vegetables, lemons and lots of green olives in the traditional, Moroccan earthenware dish with a cone-shaped cover. Mediza is the first place I have encountered that serves couscous—coarsely ground semolina pasta that hails from many North African countries. The dish was definitely a savory and satisfying plate of contemporary flavors worth trying.

 Mediza offers some of the most varied dishes which have evolved over centuries to perfection. Each dish is precisely and skillfully prepared to create a distinct and individual flavor. The restaurant yields proof that each flavor of the Mediterranean is unique and diverse. What better way to travel to your most desired Mediterranean country than to visit Mediza?  

More about Mediza including pictures

The Basics 

Contact: 860-233-3370

 

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner

            Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m.- 4:00 p.m.

            Dinner begins at 4:00 p.m.- 10:00 p.m. (bar open late)

            Now open on Sunday for dinner from 4:00 – 9:00 p.m.

 

Prices: Small plates $5-$14

             Salads $6-$9

             Grilled Flatbreads $12

             Shish Kebabs $17-$19

             Large plates $16-$28

             Average drink price $8

Features 

Carryout: Yes

 

Atmosphere and Personality: Romantic, cozy and family friendly

 

Entertainment: Catering and live performances

                           Wednesday – live jazz from 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.

 

Outdoor seating: Yes

 

The Bar: Full bar with terrifically priced wine list.

Foods Featured in my Blog

Turkish Cuisine



Doner Kebab


Afghani Cuisine


Samosas

Peruvian Cuisine


Jalea


Inca Kola


Japanese Cuisine


Eel on Rice


Chicken Yakitori

Destination Tokyo

flag.gif

 

With the amount of sushi restaurants that nearly dominate the streets of Connecticut nowadays, it’s no wonder that one of my most recent food-related missions has been to find an original Asian-oriented restaurant that does more than just serve sushi and noodles. Instead, what I have been searching for is an Asian restaurant that not only serves-up creative dishes but that generates an innovative creative energy as well.

And so, I took it upon myself one day to peruse the area and begin my quest to uncover this long-searched for Asian jewel.

As I made my way from town to town, I ran into some very good Japanese restaurants that offered great food and service, such as Sapporo in Wethersfield and Kudeta in New Haven. Although the food at these restaurants was tasty and the servers were attentive, they still lacked the powerful atmospheric vibe that I was looking for.

I almost gave up until I stumbled upon Koji, a fairly new Pan-Asian restaurant and bar that offers a rainbow of sushi and sake, a popular type of Japanese alcoholic beverage made from rice, as well as a dash of in-house specials that concentrate on western stylings. The restaurant is located on 17 Asylum St. in downtown Hartford and strikes a cross between the brightly lit, bustling city feel of Tokyo and the sensual and seductive energy of Europe.

Whether you are a sushi connoisseur or a first time sushi eater, Koji provides sushi lovers and even non-sushi lovers with an amazing dining experience from its friendly service to its edgy and trendy character and high-quality cuisine. Upscale and artsy in décor, the restaurant is a place where food, drinks and electronic dance music beats flow all night long — literally until 1 a.m. on the weekdays and 2 a.m. on the weekends.

The restaurant is the both lavishly contemporary and yet warm, comfortable and inviting. Koji pulls of the near impossible with its interior aesthetics. A 10-foot black booth against a wall that glows with psychedelic red and green lights helps to create a modern ambiance. Bruce Lee movies play on the flat screen televisions throughout the night, and the dim lighting as well as the tea lights set on each granite table top only adds to the sublime feel of the restaurant.

Aside from offering customers an up-tempo experience, Koji also offers plenty of meal choices that range from the stereotypically safe Japanese offerings to the daring.

One of its specialties is yakitori — a Japanese dish that consists of pieces of seasoned and marinated meat, fish and vegetables that are roasted and grilled on bamboo skewers. Of the 30 yakitori choices some include shrimp, chicken, Japanese pepper and eel yakitori. Traditionally, yakitori is served without dipping sauce, but Koji pairs its yakitori with a specially made dipping concoction. This is a fine choice for those who are unsure of an appetizer or want to see what Koji has to offer.

Gyoza and saku saku are other delicious appetizers that I would recommend. Gyoza are dumplings that are stuffed with pan-fried pork and vegetables and served with a soy vinegar sauce, and saku saku consists of two large seafood rolls that are fried, then cut in half and served steaming hot with a sweet sauce.

 

Beyond the appetizers, Koji provides main course choices that accommodate almost anyone. All entrees are served with miso soup—a fine broth that contains fresh pieces of seaweed and small cubes of tofu that melt in your mouth, house salad, rice and vegetables.

 

For the less adventurous eaters, the grilled beef teriyaki is a good meal choice. Beef teriyaki is browned beef sirloin strips that are simmered in a soy and brown sugar sauce. The homemade teriyaki sauce, which is the highlight of the dish, is extremely rich and blankets every part of the beef and vegetables without becoming too overpowering.

Beef teriyaki isn’t the only choice one who is sampling this particular meal has, though. Other options include chicken, shrimp, salmon and lobster teriyaki and even a seafood combination and surf and turf option as well.

If one is feeling a bit more adventurous, the sushi and sashimi platter is an ideal mouth-watering combination. The dish is made of up the chef’s daily selections, so the meal varies depending on the types of fish available that day. Fortunately for me, I was lucky enough to have chunks of tuna, salmon and flounder in my assortment that day. Both the sushi and the assortments of fish were incredibly fresh and had a velvety melt-in-your mouth consistency.

The eel on rice is also superb. Eel, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is a type of fish. In this dish, the two strips of eel are perfectly placed on a bed of steamed white rice with a side of vegetables. The eel is tender and is simmered and glazed with soy sauce. A combination of pure perfection for the taste buds. 

Because the name of the restaurant was inspired by one of the most crucial ingredients for sake brewing, one should assume that the sake choices at the restaurant are endless—and they are. Koji has one of the area’s best selections of high-end sake that starts from a full-flight of saketinis to a multitude of other types of sake.

If you are looking for a great substitution for a night out at a dance club or just looking to go somewhere lively, Koji is the place to go. The restaurant is a powerhouse where the atmosphere captivates your senses and takes over downtown Hartford by offering a dining experience like no other.

Popular Japanese dishes

Coming soon…….

A review of one of downtown Hartford’s hippest and trendiest Japanese restaurants is coming this week……stay tuned!

Franklin Avenue’s Best Kept Food Secret

peru-flag.gif

I know. You have all probably been wondering when I was going to finally deviate from kebabs, pilafs, spices, and well, the Middle East in general. So, this is the week I decided to leave Asia, hop over Africa, cross the Atlantic Ocean and see what South America had to offer. Here is what I found…   

~~~Esta critica es para servir a todos los Hispanos, Americanos y gente de otras culturas que les gusta la comida Peruana~~~  

When most people think of Hartford’s Franklin Avenue, an image of a boot-like figure that is unique to the Mediterranean and the colors green, white and red usually come to mind. Now, some of you that aren’t familiar with the area may be thinking, what is she talking about? What I’m talking about is Italy.  

Franklin Avenue, better known as “Little Italy,” is the South End of Hartford’s epicenter for Italian cuisine and European culture. It boasts fine Italian dining and is studded with various pastry shops, bakeries, elegant cafés, small Italian, Albanian, and Bosnian family owned food markets, and even a host of Italian social clubs, male-oriented gathering places for those who love soccer, coffee, and a little bit of foosball.  

But because the area is saturated with such Italian richness and classic trend-setting restaurants, one might tend to overlook the food from other countries that is offered.  

Yes. As hard as it is to believe, it is true that amidst all of the bread making, cake icing, canoli filling, cappuccino drinking, and pasta eating, life from another country actually exists on Franklin Ave.   

Tucked between the popular Casa Mia and Martial Arts & Fitness is Goal International Sports Restaurant, one of the few small Hispanic restaurants on the strip that focuses on Peruvian cuisine. The restaurant may seem a little less than appealing to some, but to me, it is a bold pronouncement that is fighting to be noticed in a land of difference.  

As the name of the restaurant suggests, the main motivation behind the Peruvian community, mainly men, visiting Goal International Sports Restaurant is to sit at the bar, drink some Inca Kola and watch international soccer games with their family and friends. The place is as much of a bar as it is a restaurant, but aside from all of the soccer craze, the cozy dining area, even though small, offers a rather extensive selection of popular Peruvian dishes. 

 Given that Peru is a major fishing nation, it is notorious throughout South America for its colorful and scrumptious seafood cuisine. This fact is made clear on the menu where over 20 popular Peruvian seafood (mariscos) plates are featured, not to mention the selection of appetizers (entradas), soups (sopas) and house specials (especiales de la casa) that also feature seafood prominently.  

The seafood choices range from succulent shrimp to red snapper to trout and squid. One of the best seafood dishes, I think, is the arroz con mariscos, Peruvian style seafood paella that is garnished with jumbo shrimp and mussels, crab meat, calamari, squid, conch and vegetables such as peas, diced carrots, lima beans, green peppers and string beans that are mixed with saffron. 

 Another fine choice is the camarones al ajo, shrimp sautéed in a fresh garlic and wine cream sauce that is served with a mound of white rice. For fried food lovers, the jalea is ideal. The jalea is an exquisite array of breaded and seasoned seafood that is served with a special onion, tomato, and fresh cut cilantro sauce. Wedges of fried yucca are also served with this dish and are always accompanied with salsa verde, an extremely spicy green sauce that enhances the flavor of the yucca and is made up of blended tomatillos, chile peppers, green onions, garlic and fresh cilantro.    

The menu’s offerings don’t stop at seafood, though. A host of chicken (pollo), beef (carne) and rice (arroz) courses also contribute to the dynamic menu.  

Some of the best being the lomo saltado, sautéed strips of beef stir-fried with onions and tomatoes served over french fries and intermixed with white rice; chicharron de pollo, juicy and crispy yet tender chunks of deep-fried chicken that also served with a side french fries and white rice; and the arroz chaufa mixto, another tasty combination of chicken and beef strips that are tossed with eggs, scallions and rice and seasoned in an oriental-style sauce. 

 Among the most appetizing side orders are the porcion de maduros, fried sweet plantains and the canchita, a mound of corn “puffed” in olive oil and spices. It is kind of like a cross between corn nuts and half popped corn and is great to snack on while awaiting the arrival of the night’s entrees.  

Inca Kola is something you can’t leave without sampling, don’t worry, it isn’t too daring, but it complements the food very well and is great tasting for that matter. This cultural icon is a popular Peruvian soft drink that is sweet in taste and golden in color and to some, is reminiscent of bubble gum or pineapple.  

The interior of the restaurant itself may not be aesthetically appealing and the atmosphere may also not be upbeat and trendy, but the artistic presentation of the food compensates for the lack of variety in décor.  

Goal International Sports Restaurant offers delicious flavors in combinations most have probably never had before. This is cutting-edge traditional cuisine that deserves to be tasted and appreciated.  

Hasta Luego…… 

 More:

Una otra critica del mismo restaurante 

(Another review of the restaurant)

La comida Peruana

(Peruvian Food)

Kebabs, Spices & a Sneak Peak into India

afghanistan-flag.gif

 

For me, experimental eating has always uplifted my spirits and there is no doubt that sampling food that most people (at least the ones I’ve talked to) find to be repulsive has always been one of my most unique characteristics.

 

So when I toured the West Harford Center on a humid summer night with a good friend of mine, it was almost no surprise to her that she was in for an evening of experimentation herself.

 

As we walked the perimeter of the Center, I scanned the area for a restaurant that exuded ethnicity and authenticity, and almost immediately looked past the typically visited restaurants such as Max’s Oyster Bar and Cosi’s, which offer food that can be found at any chain restaurant in town.

 

Instantly, my eyes stopped scanning when my taste buds began to salivate and my nose became sensitive to the aroma of familiar Middle Eastern and Indian spices.

My watering mouth, my delighted nose, and my adventurous eating habit led me straight to the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan, a family owned restaurant that focuses on Afghan and Middle Eastern cuisine.

The restaurant first sparked my interest many years ago when it was located in the hub of Hartford’s “Little Italy” on Franklin Avenue. Now, the restaurant is located on LaSalle Rd. in the West Hartford Center, and is really the only Afghan restaurant in the area and in the state for that matter.  

Upon entering the restaurant, I was struck by the lustrous bar located to the far left and the small market of Afghan rugs on the lower level. One of the best feautures, though, were the golden paintings of the homeland displayed on the yellow colored walls that placed me directly into the country.

The upper level is comprised of the dining area, which is quiet, low lit and cozy, so the most pronounced emotions that stirred up in the both of us as we sat down and began our venture into Afghanistan were excitement and fascnination.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country in Central Asia that sits amidst China, India and the Middle East. Thus, the food of the restaurant is not only dressed and infused with spices, herbs and seasonings that are a staple of Afghan cuisine, but reveals the influences of its neighboring countries as well. 

The menu offers an eclectic mix of choices that are well-suited for vegetarians as well as meat lovers. But what the offerings at Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan really do is provide a gateway to the introduction of Indian cuisine to the unfamiliar.

So when, you may ask, does India makes its way into the food? India makes a sublte appearance with vegetables, pilaf, which is a fine long-grain rice that originates from the south of Afghanistan, and quite a few of the appetizers, the samosas in particular. Samosas are crisp, deep-fried triangles comprised of potatoes and partnered with a spicy dipping sauce made of cilantro.

Some of the most intriguing mix of appetizers that I found at the restaurant included mantoo, relatively small dumplings that are stuffed with coriander-seasoned meat and onion, wrapped in a very fine dough,  and topped with cubes of tomato, yellow split peas, homemade yogurt and dried mint; and ashak, which are a slightly different version of the mantoo and are filled with spinach and scallion, smothered in a tangy yogurt and a spicy tomato sauce, and sprinkled with ground beef, yellow split peas and dried mint. 

The greatest advice I can offer to someone who is looking to explore the true essence of Afghan cuisine, I think, is to bypass the pakawra, long slices of  lightly seasoned deep-fried potatoes. Although tasty, they did not scream Afghan and were not as unique to the culture as other appetizers such as the bowlani, a trio of flat noodles, vegetables and potatoes that is given an additional kick with coriander, black pepper and cayenne.

The basis of the menu are the kebabs, which are accompanied by a generous portion of either spinach or brown rice pilaf, and a vegetable of your choice. We especially enjoyed the beef shammi kebab, which is made up of ground lamb and a blend of traditional Afghan spices and is almost identical to the Turkish version, kofte. A chicken shammi kebab is also offered.

The food was indeed exceptional, but I can’t say that I would say the same about the service. The servers didn’t go out of their way to be extra friendly and seemed slow moving and confused at times. Most were rather quiet and didn’t attempt to strike an enthusiastic interaction with the guests either.

But don’t let this keep you from sampling the goodness of Afghan food because overall, the atmosphere of the restaurant in addition to the rare food dominates the above.  

 Related Information:A Hartford Advocate review of the restaurant  

Food in Afghanistan