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Athens Grill

9124 Rothbury Drive
Gaithersburg, MD 20879

Pros: a lot of food for your money, Zorba Platter, neighborhood atmosphere

Cons: not many options for vegetarians

How much do we love Athens Grill? Enough that each time we run an errand in Gaithersburg, we make it a point to stop in for a bite. And for the last 3 weeks, we have been making excuses to come into Gaithersburg each week. Be warned…if you are a vegetarian, then this is not the place for you; although they do have a few vegetarian options, they are rather skimpy compared to the rest of the menu. But for everyone else, this is a Mediterranean meat-lover’s paradise.

You get a real bang for the buck, when you order off the Platter section of the menu. Not only do you get some exquisitely cooked meat, but it also comes with some pita bread, a greek salad, and your choice of french fries or rice. We always go for the rice, as it is cooked in some sort of mystery mixture of spices and butter that really hits the spot. And of course the meat is prepared to perfection. Our favorite platter is the Zorba Platter, which is a combination kabob platter with a mix of chicken, beef, and lamb, along with some gyros. Each platter is usually enough to feed the both of us.

This restaurant also has an amazing neighborhood atmosphere. As you dine here, you will likely see a bunch of people come in and out and chat with the restaurant owner as if they have known each other for ages. Seriously, tough, eating here just once made me want to move into the neighborhood so that we would not have to drive an hour to enjoy Athens Grill.


Founding Farmers

1924 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20006
Pros: Fresh and local, healthy, lots of vegetarian and vegan options
Cons: Long waits
If you are a student at George Washington University, this place needs to be on your list of local restaurants to frequent. So far we have only had the breakfast, but if that is any indication, the lunch and dinner options should be amazing!
This is located not too far from GW campus, and the location is perfect also for the local government and office workers. You can tell that this is likely a place where a lot of schmoozing happens, and with good reason! They offer a huge range of drink and dessert options for the casual eater. Likely because of this, be ready for long wait times. But don’t be too shy, because the wait time is definitely worth it.
If you are a fan of healthy and locally grown/harvested food, you will not be disappointed with this restaurant. They actually pride themselves on their green attitude and their mission towards local sustainability. You can taste the freshness in each dish too. If you come here from breakfast, one dish that absolutely MUST be on your order is one of their New Orleans-style Stuffed French Toast dishes. The brandy-creme that lies inside each french toast is painfully addictive. Fresh strawberries on top provide an excellent complement to the french toast. If you want to become delightfully overwhelmed with sweetness, try covering your french toast with bananas foster, and you will drift off into a blissful heaven. If you decide not to indulge in the french toast, another recommendation is the Fried Chicken, Eggs, & Waffles. This is a southern dish at heart. You’d be amazed how well fried chicken tenders, waffles, fresh maple syrup, and gravy go together!
We cannot wait to come back here to try lunch and dinner dishes. With the promise of freshly baked bread everyday and handmade pasta, it won’t be long before we get these into our mouths.

Red Pearl

10215 Wincopin Circle
Suite 100
Columbia, MD 21044

Pros: excellent service, the food, amazing view

Cons: spicy, bit pricy

We have to admit that we have an invested interest in Red Pearl, in that we are hoping to have our wedding reception here, so we definitely we want to make sure that this relatively new Chinese restaurant stays in business at least through Spring 2011. There’s good reason we want this place for our wedding banquet. First, this sits on the lakefront of Lake Kittamaqundi, so the entrance of the restaurants overlooks a gorgeous view. The service staff is incredibly friendly, probably moreso than what we find at most Chinese restaurants. The interior has a very warm and classy decor that gives a very comfortable atmosphere. Prices may be a bit pricey, but you’re really paying for great ambiance and a wonderful lakeside view.

And of course, how can you miss the food? The cuisine has a bit of a Schezuan bent, so if your stomach can’t handle spicy, this is not the place for you. Usually, the wait staff will ask you what level of spiciness you want, so you can at least customize the spice to your taste. The manager boasted that she has at least 2 renown chefs working the kitchen. Regardless of who is working in the kitchen, you cannot ignore that the food simply tastes amazing! Our Szechuan String Beans not only had some kick, but also a hint of bean sauce that added to our enjoyment. The Filet Fish with Soft Tofu tastes wonderfully both in the restaurant, but even the next day for leftovers. Some restaurants have a habit of over-crisping or under-crisping noodles, thus ruining the intended texture. Red Pearl doesn’t make either of these mistakes and their Crisply Noodles with Seafood was prepared just perfectly.

Really, it’s hard for us to think of anything negative about this restaurant. They also advertise that starting August 2010, they will start serving Dim-Sum, which should be another big draw. This is a relatively new restaurant, but with everything that this restaurant offers, we genuinely hope that this one stays for a long time.

UPDATE (11/5/2010):  Since our original review of this place, we have made repeat visits, and we can genuinely say that this restaurant continues to impress us. The dim-sum rivals that of the longstanding local favorites like Oriental East in Silver Spring, MD. At our most recent visit, the manager also announced that the menu will soon expand to include some Cantonese dishes. We have also fallen in love with a Szechuan lamb dish that is on their off-menu. So addictive, but once again, watch for the spice.

UPDATE (11/1/2012): We are very sad to report that our beloved Red Pearl has closed its doors. This was one of our favorite (if not our absolute favorite) Chinese restaurant in the Columbia area, and one of our favorite Dim-Sum places. Over its short tenure, we brought several friends over for dinners/dim-sum. We even held our wedding reception here and thought that we would have an annual tradition of coming back on our wedding anniversary for an intimate anniversary meal. Sadly, this will not happen, and we wish the owners our very best and hope that they soon open a new restaurant nearby.

Blue Moon Cafe

1621 Aliceanna St
Baltimore, MD 21231

Pros: Food Network approved, breakfast dishes

Cons: Long wait

Who are we to argue with the Food Network? Guy Fieri reviewed this place on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives (DDD), and with good reason. The food is absolutely unbelievable! Not only does this restaurant get the Guy Fieri stamp of approval, but during our visit, Duff Goldman (of Food Network’s Ace of Cakes) stopped by. On DDD, Guy raved about the Captain Crunch French Toast, which is heavily featured on the front of the menu. We were craving protein during our visit, so we decided to save the Captain Crunch French Toast for our next visit. Instead, we ordered a Crab, Tomato, and Cheddar Eggs Benedict and a Country Breakfast Burrito. Both dishes were simply amazing. The benedict was absolutely perfect! For the breakfast burrito, think about everything you love about breakfast stuffed in to a tortilla shell. You had eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns dripping out of a burrito topped with sausage gravy. Simply breakfast heaven!

Given that this place has gotten quite a bit of exposure from the Food Network, business is not-so-surprisingly booming. Expect long wait times. And on the weekends, expect LOOONG wait times. Even in the morning just barely after it has opened, people are often already lined up. But if you can get in, be prepared for breakfast paradise!

Noodles Corner

8865 Stanford Blvd, #103
Columbia, MD 21045

Pros: Unexpected and authentic Chinese menu, speedy service, and of course, the noodles

Cons: Artificial crab meat

We have to admit that we weren’t expecting much the first time we walked into this restaurant. I was recommended this restaurant by a former co-worker, who admittedly does not have the most adventurous palate. Plus, based on the restaurant’s name, we expected something along the lines of of the Noodles & Co. franchise. Boy, were we mistaken. We had no idea that what awaited us was more of a pan-Asian menu with a bit of a Chinese emphasis. Plus, the menu offers more than just noodles.

When you walk in, you are met with a more modern and hip Asian decor. Presumably because we are an Asian couple, the restaurant managers also slipped us their “secret” Asian menu, a tactic common among Chinese restaurants, so as not to intimidate more Western customers who may have a weak stomach for items such as “Stewed Pork Intestine & Duck Blood.” This was the first thing that surprised us. All in all, the quality of the food impressed us so much that the very next day, when some friends were asking where we might all go to eat, we had the perfect suggestion!

I have my own recipe for Ja-Jain Mein (Beijing-style spaghetti), and I have to say that Noodles’ Corner recipe is just as good. (My fiancee claims that my recipe is better, but I think she may have been saying that due to impending marital obligations.) The following day, I had the Indonesian Noodles, a dish with noodles and a medley of seafood. My only complaint comes from this dish, as the crab meat supplied in this dish was obviously artificial, something considered heresy in the crab-loving state of Maryland. Other than this, the dish was superb, with the perfect blend of other seafood and vegetables in a sauce with the perfect amount of taste and kick.

Interestingly, despite the name, my fiancee has yet to order an actual noodle dish. With our visits, she usually elects to order off the (not so) secret menu. She has ordered (not so intimidating) dishes such as Fish Fillet with Spicy Black Pepper Sauce on Hot Plate, Black Mushrooms with Bok Choy, and their myriad of tofu dishes. She and I were virtually fighting over the fish dish, trying to see who would eat the last bite, as it was prepared so perfectly. The vegetables were also magnificent, so much so that you truly want to savor each bite.

Perhaps because the restaurant was very sparsely populated – likely due to us going their at such an odd hour, and because it suffers from the Columbia curse of being rather hidden from the casual-driving public – the service was top notch, bringing us food in a very speedy manner. Seriously, though, we wouldn’t mind seeing this restaurant a little fuller, even if it does mean we have to wait a little longer. The food is THAT good!

UPDATE 19-Jul-2012: We have since become regular customers at Noodles Corner, and the owners seem to have taken a liking to us, as they tend to recognize us when we come in. From what we’ve seen, business looks have increased, and the restaurant continues to do well. We have eaten through most, if not the entire menu at this point. If you like the more authentic Chinese cuisine, see if you can get a whole fish (yes, the head included) drenched in a magical tofu sauce. Seriously, we don’t know what’s in the sauce, but it’s addictive! Another one of our favorites is their fried tofu. My mother-in-law, who came from Fuzhou, China, and spent some time in the restaurant business herself, actually enjoys this restaurant…and that’s a REAL endorsement! In all honesty, it’s hard to go wrong with any of their menu choices.
Noodles Corner on Urbanspoon

Bon Fresco

6945 Oakland Mills Rd
Columbia, MD 21045

Pros: Amazing bread, great prices!

Cons: Slightly hidden location

Yes, it has been a while since we’ve added anything to our list. We took a break and wanted to return with a place truly deserving to be on a best of list.

Who doesn’t love a good sandwich? And what you will find here are some phenomenal sandwiches! The bread alone is worth the price admission! The bread is made fresh daily, and you can taste the freshness. We’ve made a few different visits here to try a breadth of different sandwiches and bread types. Even with flatbread, which I normally don’t expect much from is just amazing. Your sandwich will be packed with different ingredients, and feel free to ask to customize your sandwich a bit. Given how good the bread is, we really need to go back to try some of their baked desserts. They usually offer some sides along the lines of chips, lentil salad, and potato salad. The potato salad’s ingredients are very subtle, to the point that you would swear that you are simply eating freshly made mashed potatoes (which I actually loved).

Truthfully, in trying to come up with some cons for this little restaurant, I was hard pressed to find anything wrong with them. Their location is a little out of the way and hidden, but honestly, what isn’t hidden in Columbia? On a good spring day, Bon Fresco is the perfect place to pick up a couple sandwiches to take for a picnic.

Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant

1114 – 1118 U Street (12th Street NW)
Washington DC 20009

Pros: Combination platters, Live music & dancing

Cons: Noisy; service can be shoddy during the busy periods

We are definitely fortunate to have friends who make some wonderful restaurant recommendations. This restaurant was recommended to us by a friend who has lived in Washington DC for quite a while. (There is also apparently a Baltimore location, but so far we have only visited the DC location.) As with most of the Ethiopian restaurants we have visited in the past, the biggest bang for the buck is the combination platter. The injera tastes wonderful with all the different sauces and spices. Honestly, with the different sauces and meats, you can’t go wrong with these platters. A lot of times, we have visited Ethiopian restaurants that seemed to be fairly stingy with the injera, but this was not the case here.

My only complaint would be that this is not a place to for an intimate romantic meal, as this was quite a noisy restaurant. This is, of course, a side effect of the benefit of having live music and dancing. The service can be a little stretched during the busy periods, so be sure to be assertive with the staff.