Tony Cheng’s Mongolian Grill – Tradition Amongst The Change

A few weeks ago, while in Washington DC on business, I had the opportunity to have dinner at an old favorite. Actually, my choice was pretty much made for me since the only restaurants located within walking distance of my hotel were located in the Gallery Place/ Chinatown area of DC and the area was teeming with Caps fans converging on the nearby Verizon Center for the evening’s game.

I had just finished visiting the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and was starving. This area of DC has changed significantly over the last 12 years and has a lot of restaurant choices but most were packed to the gills, with lines going outside the door in some cases. And, when I checked Open Table for a place to get a reservation I was out of luck until much later in the evening.

Then I remembered Tony Cheng’s Restaurant right around the corner from all the hustle and bustle and near to the Chinatown gate. The restaurant upstairs is a standard “sit down” place but downstairs has the “grill,” a buffet that hasn’t really changed since I last dined there, more than 12 years ago. The dining room was a sea of red Caps’ jerseys but I was seated immediately.

I always loved this place and this visit re-cemented that adoration. The waiter took my drink order and asked if I was familiar with the routine. Since I was, no explanation was necessary but he did issue a reminder, vegetables and noodles in the bottom of the bowl, meat on top.

The grill is centered in the middle of the dining room and there are two access points to the food. You, essentially, move around in a semi-circle around the buffet and fill your bowl with the items you want cooked on the grill. The food generally “cooks down” so filling up the bowl is a requirement unless you want to make lots of trips back and forth to your table. The vegetables include cilantro (an herb but who cares), carrots, peppers, onions, bean sprouts, snow peas and more. There are also noodles and scallions – cooked white rice is automatically placed on your table. The choice of meats are thinly sliced frozen versions of beef, chicken, pork and lamb. Shrimp costs extra.

After you’ve filled your bowl you end up in front of the tiered array of sauces and oils that are used to cook the items. You can pick your own sauces or just hand the bowl over to the cook and have them select the sauces appropriate to the meat you’ve selected. Over time I’ve realized that the cooks are a better judge of what will taste good than I am so I just handed them my bowl and watched them cook my beef and vegetables loaded with cilantro. This whole exercise took less than 5 minutes from the time I was seated.

When I returned to my table the bowl of white rice, a dish of marinated cabbage, and a basket of sesame bread were waiting for me. The bread is ideal for sopping up the sauce at the bottom of the bowl. I went back a couple more times for chicken and lamb and I was done. The meal is topped off with a small dollop of the ice cream selection(s) for the day and a fortune cookie.

And, of course, the check. The buffet costs $16.95 plus drink, tax and tip. For this neighborhood and the quality of food this is still one of the best deals in town. The neighborhood may have changed a great deal over the last several years and most people will say that is a change for the better but it’s nice to know that Tony Cheng’s still offers its traditional fare at reasonable prices.



Foursquare: More Than Just Checking In

I’ve been using Foursquare for about a year now and although it’s nice to see where friends are eating and traveling, I’m finding the “specials” more fulfilling.  During our recent trip to San Francisco we were able to score a special of $10 off each night’s stay at the Hotel Donatello.  In our case, that was a savings of $60 – not too shabby. 

I’ve also managed to save $5 on a meal at Victor’s Cafe in New York City, score free fries at Houlihan’s in Orlando, and get a buy one – get one free deal on drinks at the the Lobby Bar at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.  We also opened up the free chips and salsa deal at Chili’s but didn’t use it because we got a better deal that day.  These aren’t necessarily big rewards but they add up and it’s like using a coupon to get a few bucks off a meal.  Instead, all you have to do is show the server or receptionist the special on your phone.

There are values in those check-ins.

Eating Our Way Through San Francisco

I was attending a conference last week in San Francisco and Art decided to join me on the trip since it is one of our favorite cities.  I would attend the conference and we would spend a couple of days exploring some places we hadn’t been to before.  Art had never really stayed around the Union Square area so this was a new territory for him and as fate would have it my son was in the same area on business too – so we had some opportunities to get together during our stay.

We arrived in the early evening on a Monday and were starved but didn’t want to go too far from where we were staying.  Our first room at the Hotel Donatello was less than stellar but we were promised a new room the next day so didn’t really unpack.  Instead we headed downstairs to the Zingari Lounge where jazz is played every evening and Happy Hour bar appetizers are half price from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm daily and from Sun – Thurs from 9 pm till closing.  Art and I shared crab cakes with paprika aioli, Prince Edward Island Mussels sautéed with Roma Tomatoes, Garlic White Wine & Grilled Country Bread, and we each had a plate of Fried CalamariDuring Happy Hours there are also $5 wines, beers and cocktails.  My son joined us a little later for a beer and we enjoyed the sounds of the jazz bass and piano in an intimate yet friendly atmosphere. Not a bad way to start the trip.

The next day was a busy work day for me but Art had the opportunity to join an old High School friend for lunch at Cafe de La Presse.  This turned out to be a great place and we went back there together later on during the week.  In the meantime I joined a business associate of mine for a fantastic lunch at the Waterbar on the Embarcadero.  This place really has a great view of the Bay Bridge and the food was excellent.  Not cheap by any means, the restaurant featured professional yet friendly service and a reasonable variety of lunch entrées.  We decided to sit in the bar area for the view but the menu is the same no matter where you sit.  The quote on the top of the menu caught my attention, ” We are indeed much more than what we eat, but what we eat can nevertheless help us to be much more than what we are,” ~ Adelle Davis.  It helped to set the tone for a memorable meal.

As it happens we both ordered the same entrée, Grilled Bavette Steak with fingerling potato hash, grilled asparagus, and truffle aioli.  The presentation and the dish were magnificent.  For dessert I had the Meyer Lemon Soufflé Cake with crème chantilly and candied thyme shortbread.  It was light and fluffy with the just the right balance of sweet and tart to end the meal. My dining companion had the Chocolate Oatmeal Walnut Ice Cream Sandwich with vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs.  A little messier to eat but just as enjoyable.

It was back to the conference which ended with a reception, where I got to down a couple of white wines before meeting Art back at the Zingari Lounge where he was having a martini.  After a lot of texting and phone calls we got back together for dinner with business associates of mine.  My son joined us at a place called Scala’s Bistro.  There were 7 of us at the table (including the person I had lunch with earlier in the day) and with a quick reservation made by the concierge at the Grand Hyatt we were able to get in.   The others with us picked the place because it was within easy walking distance for those of us staying in the Union Square area and it came highly recommended by the concierge.  The place was packed and we were not disappointed with the choice.

Not long after we were seated our waitress took a sidelong glance at Art and said “Didn’t I serve you at lunch?”  She apparently works at Cafe de La Presse during breakfast and lunch and at Scala’s for dinner.  We all teased Art about that since he was being seen with two different women on the same day.  Here we were greeted with another quote at the top of the menu, “One Cannot Think Well, Love Well, Sleep Well, If One Has Not Dined Well” ~ Virgina Woolf.  I was beginning to think this would become a regular tradition at local restaurants.

Bread with olive oil was set on the table and we all enjoyed what we ordered.  Some people ordered appetizers and salad.  I shared an order of Mussels with Art and my son ordered Bruschetta with a fennel pureè, poached prawns, squid ink aioli, and fennel pollen.  One word about squid ink – black.  My son’s mouth was black and black ink could be found on the table and on the napkin.  He had to exchange it for a new one.  Be careful when you eat that dish. 

The special for the night was a Lamb Shank with Risotto and Art, along with a few others, ordered it.  It was a huge portion of food.  I ordered the  Linguine & Clams consisting of small manila clams, garlic, roasted tomato, white wine, and Calabrian chilies.  The dish was also fairly large and somewhat spicy.  The linguine was a perfect al dente.  I decided to skip dessert since I had one earlier in the day but Art ordered the Bergamot Orange Granita / Tangerine Sorbet.  Expecting a small scoop in a small bowl, it was a real surprise to be presented with a large vertical oblong bowl with a significant amount of tangerine sorbet.  That was more dessert than expected.  We all left the restaurant full and happy.

So far, we’d only been in San Francisco for 24 hours and we already had some memorable meals and had the chance to meet with friends and family in one of our favorite places.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Or, does it?


Valentine’s day at IKEA

IKEA may not sound like the most romantic place to celebrate Valentine’s Day but we get plenty of opportunities to be romantic every other day of the year, so we decided that a $9.99 Swedish buffet dinner was a pretty good deal and worth a try.

We bought our tickets a few weeks ago because some of these IKEA events get sold out well ahead of time. As it turns out IKEA may not be as popular for a Valentine’s date night because there were still some tickets left for people to purchase at the entrance. However, the long line to get in and the length of the buffet line proved that this was definitely a pretty popular option. And the broad appeal wasn’t just with the over-60 set (used to going for those early bird specials). There were tables with young couples, parents with children, girls only groups of all ages, and every other demographic group you could imagine.

So what do you get for $9.99? Well, if you’re willing to wait in line for a few minutes for a few rounds over the course of two hours, quite a bit. However, I’m not that patient so if I can’t fit it on enough plates to carry in one pass that’s it. As it turns out, that was enough.

There were plenty of both hot and cold Swedish specialities. The advertised menu included roast beef, Swedish meatballs, glazed pork loin, Prinskorv (like a Vienna sausage), assorted herrings, green salad, shrimp cocktail, deviled eggs with shrimp, an assortment of cheeses, red beet salad and cucumber salad. But there was more including several kinds of potatoes (I picked the dill potatoes and they were delicious), and crab spread canapés and assorted breads. Desserts included a fairly dense chocolate truffle cake, Princess cake with strawberries, strawberries and whipped cream and an almond torte – all delicious.

The atmospherics are pretty bares bones – a red napkin at each seating area. You pick up your utensils with everything else on the buffet line. But, this is IKEA. Minimalism is an expectation. They did have someone busing tables so that was a slight upgrade from the typical dining experience at IKEA.

But added bonus was upon leaving we were given a large bar of chocolate and three different frequent purchaser cards that each had been stamped or punched to reflect purchases made. In one case that amounted to $50 of prepunched value. Not too bad a bonus for a person who loves to shop at IKEA.




Victor’s Cafe: a New York City Classic

I had to take quick trip to New York City this week and had the opportunity to have dinner at Victor’s Cafe in the Theatre District of the city – not too far from Times Square. I got really lucky because this is Restaurant Week here in the Big Apple. During Restaurant Week participating restaurants offer specially priced prix fixe menus for lunch or dinner or both. Some restaurants have very restrictive policies with respect to how they will participate while others offer real choice and value. Victor’s Cafe falls within the latter category. In general, Restaurant Week is a weekday only affair.

Lunch and dinner menus for Restaurant Week are posted on the web and there was enough choice for each course to make the $35 per person investment for dinner worth taking the trip to the restaurant. If you are an Open Table member it’s worth 100 points to make a reservation and on some days this can be necessary. And, if you update your location on foursquare, to let your friends know where you are dining, there is a special promotion offered by American Express that takes $5.00 off your American Express bill if you spend at least $24 – not tough to do in this place.

I’ve been told by some people that some of the restaurants that offer Restaurant Week menus treat those that order off them somewhat shabbily – like interlopers who don’t deserve to eat at the restaurant. That was not the case at Victor’s Cafe. I was greeted warmly as a single diner and was seated promptly. There were other single diners there as well so this place felt comfortable immediately.

It was a very cold evening outside but the warmth of the decor and the traditional Cuban music made me comfortable both on the inside and the outside. The place was well heated as well which made me more willing to give up my coat to the coat check lady.

The wait staff pointed out the Restaurant Week menu in addition to the standard choices and I was served quickly and warmly, always being asked if I enjoyed my meal and making sure I was happy. And, boy was I – the dinner did not disappoint. The bread roll was warm and fresh and served right after I ordered.

I ordered the Shrimp Ceviche, the Ropa Vieja and Flan. The shrimp ceviche was served in a martini glass with a nice amount of shrimp. The flavor was spicy and piquant with fresh ingredients. Loved the cilantro, pieces of tomato and onions. Delicious!

The ropa vieja, which translated means ” old clothes” is a traditional dish of shredded meat in a spicy tomato-based sauce. This version was served in a plantain basket resting on mashed sweet plantains and white rice and black beans on the side. All were delicious, including the plantain basket.

The flan was served with a raspberry drizzle and this was a small but dense flan. Not too sweet yet very creamy and although I’ve never had flan with raspberry before, the flavor combination worked.

Even when finished I was not rushed off but when I requested the check it was quickly presented. This was definitely worth the trip and, although this place won’t qualify in the “cheap eats” department it definitely fit the bill for ambience, quality and service.

China Trip Day Six: Shanghai and the Bund

It was a Tuesday and the plan was to visit the Bund area of Shanghai. There would be 5 of us on this outing, myself, Art, Art’s sister and brother-in-law, Susan and Larry and Susan’s assistant, Alice, a student at the college. Alice, was the person who met us at the airport a couple of days before and she would be helping us navigate the Shanghai public transportation system into the heart of Shanghai’s bustling shopping and tourist areas. This is no small feat since she isn’t originally from Shanghai. It’s like asking someone who just moved from a small town in Virginia to guide people through the New York City subway system. What she did have was the ability to read and write Chinese and at least ask for directions easily and her help proved to be invaluable to us.

But first, we would all stop for breakfast at the college cafeteria. We really needed Alice’s help here since all the cooking stations listed offerings in Chinese. There were eggs in several different varieties but I’m not really an egg eater so my choices were a little limited. I also stayed away from congee (a sort of porridge) mainly because I don’t like creamy cereals either. I ended up with meat dumplings. Not the normal breakfast fare from my standpoint but very tasty and satisfying.

Then it was off to The Bund via bus and then the subway leaving from the South Shanghai Railway Station. We emerged at East Nanking Road in what is a very busy pedestrian shopping area. This is where you will be beset upon by everyone who thinks you want to buy a knockoff Rolex or other “designer” item.  Designer isn’t really in my vocabulary from a shopping standpoint so it’s really easy for me to ignore this stuff. And, as I’ve mentioned before, when responding in Spanish most hawkers turn the other way.

We met up with another friend, “Tina,” who happened to be back in China visiting her parents. We had met Tina over the previous Christmas holidays while she was visiting Florida with another Chinese student and already had a dinner invitation from her parents for later in the week. It was wonderful to see a familiar face. We all walked the 2 blocks to the Huangpu River and knew this was the place to be on a beautiful sunny day.

Art and myself on the Bund

The Huangpu River cuts through Shanghai and we were on the Bund, the older historic side of the river with old stately buildings and a wide riverside promenade for admiring the new modern high rise buildings across the river. After walking up and down the promenade and using our Frommer’s Guide book to help us identify the buildings on the Bund we stopped at a local restaurant.

This place was definitely geared to tourists but the place was inviting and the food was quite good. The group then split up and it was just Tina, Art and myself who set out via subway to find Yuyuan Gardens in the old section of downtown Shanghai. We got a little turned around when we got off the subway and so it took us a lot more time than we expected to get to our destination. Since the line was long and the area was very crowded we decided to try to see the gardens another time and instead again followed our Frommer’s guide to take a walking tour of old City Shanghai.

Shanghai Pudong District at Night

The walking tour in the book helped to guide us through the very busy Yuyuan Bazaar  market area and then on to some interesting local streets. We ended our personal tour at the old city wall near a temple. Even Tina was impressed by how detailed and accurate the tour book was and even though she’s from the area we went through places she had never been to before.

By this time we were all tired and hungry so we took a quick cab ride back to East Nanking Road and walked to a restaurant in the area that Tina was familiar with.  I can’t remember the name of the place but it was located across the street from the Nanking Hotel on Shanxi South Road and you had to step down to get to the entrance.  This turned out to be at real find. We had a wonderful dinner of fish, shrimp, and different vegetable dishes.  Art fell in love with the unique tea that was served and the service was excellent in a relatively casual atmosphere.

Then we walked back to the waterfront to see the Bund at night. The Shanghainese’ creative use of new lighting techniques to make all their buildings attractive at night was breathtaking. Lots of people on the Promenade made this the place to hang out and not just take in the vibrant light show but the people watching is just great.  We found it amusing that many of the young women literally pose for pictures.  Candid shots were not the order of the day for many young women. 

Our overall first impression of Shanghai was that it is a more cosmopolitan city then the more rigid Beijing (being a more government-oriented city versus Shanghai’s business emphasis) and it was reflected in the dress styles of the local young people – more hip and edgy than in Beijing.  We ended the evening by seeing Tina off to the subway (she insisted she would be safe) and us taking a cab back to our dorm (with instructions for the cab driver written by Alice earlier in the day).  We had a great day touring Shanghai but, alas, we had to get to bed early because we were heading for another out-of-town trip early the next morning.